Should I become an Independent Communication Consultant?
So I began this blog series on Navigating your Communication Career in February to help me create more discipline with blogging. It is now April and I am on my fourth part of this series in about two months, so a little slower folks but bear with me.
Today we’re going to give you some insight on becoming an independent communication consultant.
If you haven’t read our first few posts in this series, here they are:
Since I was introduced to communication consultants like Angela Sinickas and Shel Holtz early in my corporate communication career, I've always dreamed of consulting. They travelled the world working with a variety of organizations and focused on their areas of passion.
For most of my career, it seemed like the dream job, but one I would never pursue. I enjoyed moving my way up the corporate ladder and working for large corporations. In my 40s, I started realizing that I’d love to try consulting one day, but my growth personally and professionally meant I continued to take what I considered the safe and stable route.
That being said, I kept having this nagging feeling that I wasn’t doing what I was meant to do. On the surface my roles were perfect. My organizations valued me and treated me well, but I knew something was missing. I felt that even if independence didn’t work out, I could at least say I gave it a shot. What’s the saying? “It’s better to have tried and failed, than failing to try.”
Organizations choose independent consultants for the following reasons:
- A great way to get extra hands-on support on work that ebbs and flows.
- Limited headcount available in their teams but plenty of work. Sometimes it’s easier to get dollars versus headcount.
- Support on a project that is deemed “special,” and requires specific skills not available in-house, and has a limited-time run versus a maintenance-type role.
- Sometimes bringing in an independent to do the strategic work allows the internal team to manage day-to-day delivery. This can be more cost-effective than having a strategic resource working 20% on strategy and spending 80% of their time on tactics, especially if you’re a smaller organization.
- They want an outside, third-party perspective for audits, measurement, and experience.
Communication Professionals also have reasons to choose to be an independent consultant:
- Some crave the independence and flexible work.
- Some like a finite defined time for work and enjoy taking breaks in between projects.
- If you’re a parent, you can arrange your schedule so that you’re able to do more with your kids.
- If you found you were part of a work-force reduction, taking some project work may help fill in the gap between full-time roles.
- Being a consultant means you could focus on your expertise and passion. As long as there is a market for it, being able to showcase your deep expertise in an area means you do more of what you love and less of the other stuff.
- Some simply like the variety of experiences, working with a variety of clients over their career.
- Many love the idea of working and answering to themselves versus a big organization.
- Lately…probably because I’m in my 50s, I’m amazed at how many colleagues and friends, surprised by an unexpected layoff, struggle with finding full-time roles due to perceived ageism. They often feel like consulting or taking project work is the only way to promote their expertise.
Being a strategic communication professional who is passionate about the role of great internal communication, employee engagement and change management in helping organizations and leaders succeed, I struggled with bosses telling me that the only way I could move to the next level was by becoming a Communication generalist.
The VP roles in the organizations I worked with were for Marketing and Corporate Affairs where I would have to take on more direct reports and do less of the work I loved….but I’m great at what I do. Consulting would help me work with a variety of organizations showing them how to build Inner Strength through powerful internal communication.
What I love
- Ownership. Although scary, I love that I’m in charge of where I take this business.
- The ability to work with a variety of organizations and really cool projects. I get to work in a variety of sectors and types of organizations to deliver solutions.
- Flexibility. I decide how busy I want to be. Which sometimes is busier than I Time with my kids. With two teenagers in the house, I can be home more often and try to have dinner with them most nights.
- Being an expert providing advice that people actually listen to. It used to frustrate me when external consultants came in and told our leaders what we already knew. Sometimes an outside perspective is needed and my role is capturing employee truths to reinforce those messages on behalf of the employees and communicators in the organization.
- Selling. At first this was scary and new, but now that I’ve got my groove, I’m enjoying it. What is also great is that lately, most of my business has been through referrals.
- Being able to share my opinion freely. Although I keep client projects confidential, I can blog and present about Internal Communication and my philosophies.
What I struggle with
- Everyone says it’s feast or famine. There are months that you are very busy and other times you have nothing. It can be disconcerting.
- Investing in the business the first few years. When you’re branding, setting up websites, presenting, marketing, paying for office space, equipment, software, and business cards, it feels like there is more money going out than coming in. You really have to stay on top of Cash Flow.
- Being paid 30 to 60 days after you have completed work. I now charge 50% of a project up front and on long-term projects arrange for monthly or regular invoicing. I’ve been lucky. Every client has been dependable with payments, but I’ve heard nightmare stories from other consultants.
- No benefits. For me, having a husband who has a good benefits plan through his company really helps.
- No vacation pay, or sick pay. You have to plan accordingly for busy times and enjoy the slow times to get the rest and recover.
- Having a team. I loved managing people and coaching staff to be their best. Being an independent and working from home often can get lonely.
- Realizing that when your job was done, you had to say goodbye (until the next time they need you). My model is about helping organizations take the best practices and eventually be able to maintain solutions themselves. I have to admit that I’m a bit of chameleon and feel like I’m truly part of the organizations I work with so the ends of projects can be a little sad.
- Since I incorporated my business, I do get small business tax incentives and have the ability write off expenses.
A few pieces of advice:
- Prepare financially. If you live paycheck to paycheck, it makes it very difficult to manage your financial commitments. This means you have to save money during busy times to get through the slow times.
- What everyone says is true. Success takes time. The first few years, you will struggle to break even. Eventually you will get back to the salary you had as a full-time employee. It’s quite a few years before your business takes off. You have to be patient and confident.
- You have to be prepared to pound the pavement to sell your business and your services. If you don’t like to sell, you will struggle with this.
- Identify your area of expertise. Some people are willing to take on any project to pay the bills, but there are real advantages to hone in on your superpower.
- A former consultant I had hired when I was in corporate explained setting your rates this way: In Canada, there are 220 working days per year if you don’t count weekends and statutory holidays and want four weeks off per year. Figure out how many days you want to work, how much you want/need to earn and calculate your day rate.
- Work on yourself. It’s one thing when you are known for the titles you’ve had and the organizations you’ve worked with. When it’s just you, by yourself, you have to believe in your value in order to convince others to buy your services. I eventually invested in a life coach who was there to talk to when I needed a boost.
- Don’t underestimate the power of your network. The IABC/Toronto Professional Independent Communicators Group gave me access to a network of other professionals. It was great to build relationships and share stories. My IABC network, built over 20+ years, gave me advice, listened to my challenges, gave me referrals and just kept me sane. These friends want to see you win.
- Know what you are good at and invest in professionals for the rest. I knew what I could realistically do on my own and when I needed an accountant or lawyer. I’m actually just a little excited that I will be bringing on a part-time executive assistant later this year.
I really could go on and on, but I think I need to end this article here. This is my experience, but I’d love for others to share their stories. Have you ever dreamed of being a consultant? If you are a communication consultant, do you share my experience or have you experienced something completely different? Would you ever go back to a full-time role? At this point in my life right now, I couldn't imagine it...but have had several friends make that decision.
Stay tuned for our next blog post in this series on being a Coach, Facilitator or Trainer.