Using the Downturn to Launch Your Consulting Career

The last six weeks or so I have encountered a number of folks who have decided to use the downturn to launch their consulting career. Typically they have been encouraged in this by their former employer who has given them a large check a lot of free time. But some have chafed at cubicle life and left without monetary encouragement.

Most are “consulting until they find a full time job.” Or consulting to make a little money until they get their next job. Or they wanted to take it easy for a while because they have been working hard and just consult.

My approach is to be helpful but not encouraging until they have shed a few key but crippling illusions.

  • It’s easy to move between consulting and a full time job
  • It’s easy to establish a practice
  • It’s quickly lucrative

Unless a job is “temp to perm” it’s normally not a useful interview strategy to inquire if you can become full time if you do a good job. If you want a full time job you are better served to focus on finding a job and associating with other job seekers, who have a fundamentally mindset from consulting associations.
It’s a lot of work to establish a new practice. Some consultants are lured into believing that it’s easier than it really is because a friend or former co-worker gives them an opportunity very quickly. This ultimately causes them several problems. They stop prospecting and marketing their services because they are approaching their consulting career in the same way that they approached regular employment. When their assignment ends, unless they convert to perm–and let’s face it if your friend was going to hire you full time they would do that initially instead of hiring you as a consultant, they are back at ground zero.
If you’ve been laid off and believe that you want to consult here are six things you can do that will stand you in good stead.

  1. Cut your personal spending to the bare minimum right away. The vagaries of private practice are such that you will always want a cushion for lean times and you will need to invest in marketing and other practice building activities.
  2. Assume it will take between two and five years to get established. If you are not entrepreneurial (and at least a little crazy) then look for full time work. In a downturn take a job that’s “beneath you” and continue to look for a full time job that you want.
  3. If you do get hired as a consultant don’t the assignment full time unless it’s just two to three weeks and requires full time. Always take a least fours hours a week to look for more clients and continue to observe rule #1 (keep personal spending to a bare minimum). Work assignments at one third or half time so you can find another client and work both in parallel.
  4. Whenever you ask someone else for help, be clear on how you can help them. Go beyond quid pro quo to help folks when you can, even if the immediate payback to you is not clear. But never just take.
  5. Don’t confuse a professional consulting organization with a job search group. Folks in a job search group expect to be a member for perhaps three to six months. Professional consultants expect to be at it for a long time.
  6. Put your free time to good use. Too many folks think because they aren’t getting paid they shouldn’t work at something. Volunteer or offer to help someone else at little or no cost. Make commitments and honor them even if you get busy. Idleness and a loss of structure are extremely corrosive to work habits and a sense of self-worth.

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5 thoughts on “Using the Downturn to Launch Your Consulting Career”

  1. Great advice. I’d add another one that I’d put as #0 … cultivate your network.

    I found myself in a similar position almost 2 years ago to the day. Big check, time off, chance to be an independent consultant. I was fortunate and was able to find a client with challenging and interesting work and a good fit pretty quickly.

    Before finding this client I struggled trying to reach out to my network. Although I knew quite a few people, I had not really kept in touch and had not payed-it-forward ala Keith Ferrazzi. So the network was not that much help. That’s why I say this rule should be #0, because you need to do this WAY BEFORE you start a practice.

    I also agree with #3. I’m fortunate to be able to take most Friday’s off altogether. This allows me to keep up with my network, work on other opportunities, and look for other clients. Not everyone can afford this, but if you can, you feel a lot more in control.

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