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It’s hard to imagine that three years have already gone by since I left the corporate world to become an independent consultant. It has been one of the most transformative personal learning journeys for me in my life that’s seen me ride the peaks and troughs of consulting work.
There have been ups (and laughs) when meeting new people and finding points for co-operation in our work.
There have been inspiration and excitement when I devised ideas for potential new clients .(I see opportunities for lifelong learning EVERYWHERE – Associations, Not-For-Profits, Graduates, University Students, Career Transition Services, Job Find Services and not afraid to cold call people and these organisations to pitch them my services with varying – mainly little, okay no success – to crack into new industries. That’s a story for another day)…
But there have also been days where I have been frustrated, angry and shed tears trying to understand why it felt like I was going backwards.
- Why weren’t people in corporate Learning and Development seeing what I was seeing when it came to breaking new ground in lifelong learning and creating modern learning experiences in the workplace?
- Why did I have to explain that there’s no ‘one size fits all’ or ‘one product’, ‘one workshop’ or ‘one infographic’ when it comes to learning?
- Why did business people think that their employees learning was a waste of time when they should have been using that time to sell?
- Why did managers baulk at the idea of their people using social networks for learning because of their own personal prejudices against using social media?
Make no doubt about it, going your own way is a lot of hard work so I thought I’d share some lessons I’ve learned from independent consulting. Take from these what you will…
(1) Have Adequate Savings Before Quitting Your Job
If you have financial commitments to make and you are in work that is bearable (that is, it does not stress you or affect your mental health and well-being), think twice about leaving a secure, possibly well-paying job to go out on your own.
If you rely on your pay packet to feed your family, you will need to be doubly (even triply) sure that you can cover expenses for the periods of downtime. If you don’t have these, stay in your job or find another part-time or casual employment (even stocking supermarket shelves in the evenings to have some consistent income coming in while you build your business).
Make sure that you have adequate savings to tide you over through periods where you will not have income to ensure that those bills can be paid….and there will be days like this. Get used to it.
Personally, I gave myself a sum of money in a separate – and unlinked – bank account (I worked two jobs in the recent past to use the income from one of these to support myself to trial out this consulting adventure). This sum of money was used to set up the systems in my business without touching our main savings at all – nor borrowing any money at all. My aim was to keep the same amount static. I had income and expenditures that varied over time but I gave myself a few years to make sure that I was, at all times, “above the line”.
That is, the simple formula: Income > Expenses
There were times where I dipped below the line which served as a wake-up call for me to start marketing again to get it over the line again.
My advice is to do a budget and save up some money (then add 50% preferably, double it) as a buffer. You’ll also have to be comfortable with also losing this money too.
If you’re not comfortable with losing this money entirely, consider an ‘exit point’ where you still have a buffer but now in a position to search for alternative job strategies, budget strategies or casual employment to get that sum above the line again.
(2) Consider Where You’re Spending Money
You’ll be surprised at how creative you become when you consider where it is that you’re spending your money. If you have a partner who works and is able to provide you with the support to build your consulting practice then you’re one of the lucky ones.
Create a budget and cut back on any unnecessary expenses in your household budget. There are so many ways you can reuse and recycle items as well as borrow what you may need without spending a cent.
Personally, I stopped buying magazine subscriptions, breakfast, lunches, coffees, new clothes, shoes, accessories – anything new really. I stopped going to beauty salons and hairdressers (only in dire circumstances). I gave myself a budget of $20 per week and if I didn’t spend it one week, it would accrue over the next to be able to spend on my two loves: yarn and books when I needed to.
If I did need anything, I’d ask friends and neigbours on Facebook or my family to borrow these items or at a stretch, buy second hand for heavily reduced prices. I got used to re-customising old clothes I already had in my cupboard; using the yarn from old jumpers I would unravel, re-use and knit; unpick clothes and reuse material (I’d ask my mum to sew anything I needed); reuse buttons and zips. Everything was recycled.
I visited the libary often to borrow books rather than buy or download them. You’d be surprised at how flexible libraries are to bring in the books that you want if they don’t have them on the shelves. That way, I got to read many of the current business books simply by asking them to buy and stock it on their shelves (and you get to be the first person to borrow the book). Similarly, I love my garden and I was able to plant more by asking neighbours for cuttings rather than buying any plants or seeds from stores.
Also look at ways to make money on the side as well for some passive income. I sold some unused items such as DVDs, CDs and clothes (not much really) on eBay, GumTree, created an Etsy store to sell my knitted products, even sold items at the local Sunday Trash and Treasure Market. I also considered renting out a room in our house as an AirBnB until my husband drew the line there.
Ultimately, there are many different ways to bring in additional income as well as cut out on unnecessary expenses and that’s when you realise that surprisingly, we need very little to get by in our life as long as our major financial commitments are taken care of.
One of the biggest lessons I learned as an independent consultant is how resilient and resourceful I had become and the high sense of personal satisfaction by making, reusing and recycling. It also started conversations in my local community with neighbours, shopkeepers and librarians. I was amazed at how people are open to helping each other out.
(3) Make Sure You Have Clients Booked Before You Quit Your Work
Before you leave your salaried work to start your own consulting adventure, make sure that you have scheduled and booked from clients so that you can immediately start work. This will give you something to work and focus on soon after and give you a confidence boost that you’re actually working on something that helps out your client (and you’re getting paid for it).
However, don’t become complacent either because the danger is that this work will dry up. You will need to actively promote and market your services continually so that you have a pipeline of leads and referrals that you can move through to prospects and finally become your clients.
Two books that helped me understand this process was Dianna Booher’s From Contact to Contract: 496 Proven Sales Tips to Generate More Leads, Close More Deals, Exceed Your Goals and Make More Money and the excellent Get Clients Now by C.J. Hayden which provides strategies such as attracting prospects, making contacts, gathering leads, collecting referrals, making sales conversations and closing sales to ensure that you are continually filling the pipeline.
However, one of the biggest lessons for me in my independent consulting work was to make sure your clients have either money and/or influence in their business to employ you. If not, none of the strategies will work above.
(4) Automate Your Business Process Systems
I learned as an independent consultant was to work on the stuff that I love to do and outsource the rest because you should be working on the business and not in the business.
However, what happens when what I love to do is TO LEARN?
That is, I have an insane desire to learn how it all works and how I could customise tools, apps, networks and platforms to suit my own needs. I also figure that as someone who espouses lifelong learning, I need to learn all this stuff too. To me, if you’re in the business of learning, you need to be continually learning yourself. You need to walk the talk.
It’s a catch-22 because it means that I ended up spending time learning new tools, networks and platforms. Even though this helped me out greatly, the downside is that it took me away from focussing on my main service – even confused it somewhat. All of a sudden I could do so many different things!
For example, I could have paid for someone to build my website but I chose to do that myself. All bookkeeping, invoice generation, plugin research, download and testing, cloud hosting, newsletter distribution, databases – I did them all myself. All social media and networks I created; all presentations, graphics and video creation – they were all mine too.
There was very little I outsourced except for some editing services of a white paper and YouTube art on Fiverr.
The only professionals I used in my business was a Lawyer (specialist in IP and copyright), an accountant (specialising in small business and owner operators) and a Technical Support person (specialising in WordPress). That’s it. The rest I did myself.
Look at the business processes that are frustrating for you and consider ways to automate these. For example, I hated writing proposals (but would quite happily spend a day on the back end of WordPress). I used to spend up to a day writing custom proposals and many of these were rejected anyway. I reconsidered my approach and instead created one standard consulting proposal for all. This drastically reduced the time it took me to write this up so that I could spend that time doing something valuable to me.
My biggest lesson for me that spending time on these additional tasks was a double-edged sword.
Even though I’m now confident of helping organisations know what tool/social media/social network to use when and how, and how to use it, even how to build their social media and networking sites and communities, as well as shoot, edit and publish their videos and other content, it has taken me away from focussing on my niche of Social and Personal Learning.
So this is one lesson where you don’t have to follow what I did – unless you like to learn how to do this yourself. In my experience, many people don’t as they get frustrated because they may have a lack of time or motivation to learn. That’s totally okay. Let others who are experts in their fields help you out so that you can focus on the jobs that is your core business.
(5) Don’t Take Rejection Personally
Rejection is something that you need to get used to. I don’t believe I was prepared for it.
Having one proposal or pitch is hard enough but what happens when they’re continually rejected – and they could have kept you in work for the next couple of years? It’s soul destroying and rocks your confidence.
One way to deal with rejection is to have someone who you can talk to such as a supportive partner who can be your voice of reason.
Another negative aspect of rejection is that you continually go over in your mind the reasons why your prospective clients may have rejected your proposal. Don’t take rejection personally. (Easier said than done).
The lesson I learned as an independent consultant is that you’re your own worst enemy. Go back to every prospective client and organise a meeting or phone call to have them explain how they viewed your proposal, the reasons they did not approve the work and what you can do to improve the proposal, relationship or work in order for it to be approved.
In my experience, when I did this, I learned what was happening behind-the-scenes that I was unaware of and in all the cases, it wasn’t my work – it was to do with budgets and stakeholder supports, organisational restructures and other disruptions which meant that business priorities had changed.
It’s not you, it’s them.
(6) Share Your Work Within Reason – Showing Vulnerability in Business Is Not Good For Business…Yet
It’s a dog eat dog world out there.
My biggest lesson is that authenticity and vulnerability in the open social networks mean that you may become a target for some unscrupulous or underhanded manipulations of people behind the scenes who may undermine you and your work without your knowledge. As someone who openly and actively works out loud and shares personal stories and reflections on this blog, there have been many times I know that this has worked against me.
People who use social media and networks to share their work (sometimes at great personal cost to them) should be admired that they are using these platforms to build better connections and communities. They are people who inspire trust and through their actions, role model and inspire others. They are also people who have strong personal networks of people who can vouch for them, support them and cheerlead for them. These are the people you should be following.
Beware of the ones who don’t walk the talk when it comes to social in business.
While working out loud within organisations help support a shared vision and team learning across departments, working out loud in your own consulting practice can be a double-edged sword as long as you know the risks.
Continue to make sense of what you’re learning and sharing these to your network but at times, to share generalities and not the specifics of your work.
Make sure that you have your frameworks, ideas, graphics and your work covered by Creative Commons.
Ensure that you meet all your non-disclosure agreements with your clients because in a majority of cases, clients do not want you sharing any lessons learned or other information publicly on your website. Be on the safe side, don’t mention this work at all.
So these are my six major lessons working as an independent consultant. Do these resonate with you? Do you have others? Let me know!