We’ve all heard the stories. Consultants who make hundreds, even thousands of dollars an hour. They work for celebrities, CEOs or politicians. They are the fixers, the gurus, the go-to experts. When people think about consultants, this is often the image that pops into their minds.
If you’ve dreamed of ditching your day job for the life of a consultant, you probably already know that these famous folks are the exception, not the rule. But with that in mind, getting out of corporate and becoming a consultant is a popular path, and one that can (if you play your cards right) lead to a rewarding, successful, and satisfying career.
So here’s the question: What does it mean to be a consultant?
At the most basic level, consultants are people that organizations hire because they have expertise and/or capabilities that the company needs for a period of time.
Consulting gigs may be short-term or long-term, may have regular hours or be more ad-hoc, may be full-time or part-time, but they all have one thing in common: Consultants are hired because they know something or can produce something in an efficient way.
As you think about your own path to consulting, the first task is to identify your unique expertise. What is it that you know, or can do, that a company needs?
It’s tempting to be general here, but that would be a mistake. Marketing consultants are a dime a dozen, as are management consultants and strategy consultants.
If you want to be successful as an independent expert, you need to focus on what makes you specifically and uniquely qualified to help a certain type of organization with a certain type of problem.
That might mean that instead of being a marketing consultant, you are a startup social media consultant for health care technology companies. Or, instead of being a management consultant, you are an executive communications coach for biotech companies.
Once you’ve spent some time on personal branding, and have identified what you do, you need to go out and find some work. In most cases, the first gig you land will come from someone who knows you. Maybe it’s a former employer, maybe it’s a friend. However you make that connection, the easiest way to landing work is through the network of people that know you.
However, getting your first client is only the beginning.
In order to be successful long-term as a consultant, you’ll need to find more clients. This is the reason why many consultants have such high hourly rates. A typical freelance consultant who is not part of a larger firm will spend at least half of their time (sometimes more) on business development. Whether it’s speaking at conferences, attending networking events, delivering webinars, or writing articles, the best way to get business is to be visible in the marketplace, and that takes both time and effort.
Typically, it takes about two years to build up a steady book of business as a consultant. So, if you’re thinking about making the leap, it’s a good idea to have a nest egg, and maybe even to figure out your brand and find your first client before you take the leap.
One of the great things about consulting is that you can often define your own hours, which makes it one of the most flexible professions.
It can also be a very lucrative way to make a living, since many companies are willing to pay top dollar when they need specialized services.
The challenge is that it’s a competitive marketplace, and the work does not always come in a steady stream. If you’re looking to take the leap, be sure you have a solid safety net, and that you set your rates high enough that you can make a living.