As an independent consultant, the way I feel every morning is a little bit scared and excited. I think that’s the emotional description of properly balanced risk. It hasn’t always been this way—there were times, particularly in the early years of my practice, CenterBrain Partners, that my fear was pretty strong, mostly when I encountered things for which my MBA and corporate experience hadn’t prepared me. For example, I didn’t expect to need an intimate understanding of the accounts payable system of every single company I worked with.
If you are considering leaving your corporate job, I’ll say that I fully believe the grass is greener on my side of the fence—but there are some bald spots you need to recognize. Here are a few of what I consider myths about the world I work in.
1. You are going to make a lot of money.
I always started a New Venture Creation course I taught at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga by saying something like this: “Welcome to America, where you can make as much money as you can.” Pay attention to the words in that statement. It is not so much one of encouragement as it is one of caution. Some people can’t make much money—I hope you’re not one of them.
2. You’ll get to focus your work only on things you enjoy.
I hope you really enjoy selling, because selling accounts for 90% of the work you’ll do in the first five years, 75% of the work in the next five years, and at least 60% of the work in the five years after that. If you can’t sell you’ll be among the 80% of consultants who fail in their first year in business.
If you can’t sell, find a partner who can. And split your profits equally because no matter how talented you are, your partner’s selling talent is at least as valuable as yours.
3. Your life will be more balanced.
Yes and no. In the first few years you will need to work incredible hours. I used to tell people that my consulting job “gave me lots of flexibility, the flexibility to work all the time!” If you are passionate about going out on your own the long hours won’t bother you—but they will bother your loved ones. Prepare them ahead of time. I wish I had.
4. You’ll get to choose the people you work with.
Again, yes and no. In the first years of business I took any assignment I could find, which helped me formulate two hard and fast rules:
- Only work with nice and ethical people, life is too short.
- Don’t accept catfish accounts.
The first rule was one I started applying after I encountered businesspeople so insecure they made an art of torturing “suppliers and vendors,” a couple of really denigrating terms. “Vendor” is one I particularly abhor. It puts my services on par with the guy who manages the contract for the corporate cafeteria. If you aren’t considered and called a partner on a project, move on. It’s a simple matter of respect.
The second rule, “Don’t accept catfish accounts,” applies to times when business is slow. A catfish is a bottom feeder—in business, catfish are level C, D, and F clients you might be tempted to take work from in slack periods. You’ll be eager to help, maybe discount your services, and overpromise. I know, I did all those things. Catfish clients are easy to spot. They have unclear or no objectives, their business issues go far deeper than what they want you to do, and they’re slow-pay. Or no-pay. Plus, at the end of a project, because they have a weak business model and weak project objectives, they’ll always be disappointed. Their disappointment, in my experience, will often be partly the consultant’s fault, because you overpromised to get the business you thought you needed. What has frequently happened to me is that I take on a catfish and a whale shows up at my door. I end up resenting the catfish because he is taking time away from my money-making accounts.
5. The people who encourage you to follow your dream will be your first clients.
Some of my friends and colleagues were so encouraging during the time I was considering going out on my own that I felt I couldn’t let them down, so I took the leap. Since many of them were decision makers who could easily throw me a project or two, I thought I’d instantly have the business I needed. That isn’t exactly what happened.
There’s a big difference between friendly support and the willingness to risk a career by dealing with an untried new business. Over time, however, the people who encouraged me did become my clients, and not just because they liked me. It was because by then I had a track record of success—something you can only build if you get out and sell, sell, sell!
Some parting thoughts
Yes, the economy has been in a very bad downturn and many clients, especially the young ones, have adopted a “deer in the headlights” look. My experience is that fear, especially in business, is not a productive emotion. A lot of those “deer in the headlights” get hit by trucks.
Tough times may not seem like the best time to launch your own consulting practice—but for some of you, it will become the only option you have. I encourage you to give it a try. Position yourself, perhaps using some of the methods in my book, CenterBrain Thinking©, (http://www.amazon.com/CenterBrain-Thinking-practical-positioning-ebook/dp/B003RWS5BY ) and get passionate about your success. I have never regretted the decision I made 20 years ago.