If you are an experienced professional who is stuck in a career rut, or who likes the idea of working independently, a career as a consultant may be right for you.
Consulting is an attractive small business option because of its low start-up costs and its flexibility. It can be especially appealing to people age 50 and up who are ready to leave the traditional workforce for new challenges.
Although many people think in terms of IT professionals when it comes to independent consultants, today’s consultants run the gamut through a wide variety of industries from HR professionals, to restaurant experts, to artists.
The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines a consultant as “someone who gives professional advice or services” or “an expert in a particular field who works as an advisor either to a company or to another individual.” Consultants offer their clients experience and expertise in order to solve problems or to move ahead in a certain industry or marketplace.
However, becoming a consultant is not as simple as just hanging out a shingle that says you are open for business. There are some specific steps in order to launch a successful career as an independent consultant.
Find Your Niche
When it comes to consulting, less is more. While you may have experience in many areas, it is best to narrow down your fields of specialization. Let’s say you have 15 years of marketing experience for a large retail company, and you want to be an independent marketing consultant. You could narrow down your specialty to social media marketing. If you want to be a restaurant consultant, you could stress your expertise in fine dining or in menu design.
By identifying your specific areas of expertise, you enhance your reputation.
Research Your Niche
What is your competition as a consultant in that area? What do you have to do to stand out? Check your local and state legal requirements for consulting in your area. In some cases, you may need to obtain a license or a certification before beginning work.
If your local laws permit you to do so, consider starting your business with a home office. You’ll save on commuting costs and on rent and utilities.
Create a Business Plan
Next, determine a name for your consulting business and discuss with your attorney and/or accountant whether you need to create a company (using a tax ID) or whether you will operate your business as an individual (using your own Social Security number).
Set some realistic short-term and long-term goals. Keep in mind your budget and realize that every business requires some time to take root and to grow.
Use your social network and your professional contacts to get the word out that you are in business as a consultant. This is not the time to be hesitant about your self-promotion. Use social media sites to highlight your new business. Create a professional-looking business website.
Develop relationships with professionals in your industry. Look to join trade and professional organizations and community-based groups to build your network and contact base. Attend seminars and workshops in your area of expertise, so that you can keep growing and learning, as well as meeting new people.
Set Your Fees
Research what other consultants are paid in your industry and in your geographic area. Keep in mind your experience level and your credentials in setting your own fees. Many consultants prefer to charge on a per-project basis rather than on an hourly basis.
Don’t Always Say Yes
When you are starting out as an independent consultant, it can be tempting to take on any business offers. However, you can defeat your purpose of building your reputation by taking on jobs that are not in your area of expertise or that do not fit your standards in terms of pay or quality.
Learning to say “no” to jobs that don’t fit your criteria is an important part of building your business. Similarly, find ways to effectively use your time to seek new business. For example, depending on your industry, you may want to spend the bulk of your time initially pursuing local face-to-face business rather than responding to ads for remote workers.
Know When to Get Help
As a beginning independent consultant, you may find it easy to handle all your assignments yourself. However, as your business grows, you may need help. Be sure to talk with your accountant and/or your attorney for legal and tax ramifications of hiring employees. You must do this even if you are hiring freelance help.
Working as an independent consultant can be a great way to be your own boss and have the freedom to set your own schedule. With proper planning, it can be a lucrative, satisfying career as well.