by Randall S. Hansen, Ph.D.
We use different words to describe them -- free agents, consultants, freelancers, independent contractors, e-lancers, gurus -- those professionals who have left the safe confines of corporate life to venture out on their own in search of more professional and personal satisfaction.
And whether it is the impact of the Web, a new series of rightsizing, a desire for increased flexibility, or a growing sense of wanting to work for oneself, there is no denying that consulting is a hot career path. The U.S. Department of Labor estimates that 10.3 million people identify themselves as consultants or freelance workers -- and other sources have that number as high as 30 million, and growing. And corporations have embraced this trend because it allows them to hire experts on a temporary basis, avoiding all the costs associated with recruiting and hiring full-time employees.
Is consulting right for you? You're the only one who can answer that question. We hope this article, along with our other consulting resources -- including our new Free Agent Quiz, will help you make an informed decision. And don't forget that your decision does not have to be all or nothing; you can choose to stay in your regular job while starting a consulting business on the side -- some call this choice "fence sitting."
This article will address the following questions: What can you expect to do as a consultant? What are the skills and abilities necessary to succeed as a consultant? How does one get started as a consultant? Where does one find clients?
Types of Free Agent Work
Regardless of your field of expertise, the number one thing a free agent does for a client is solve a problem. You are a problem-solver who can perform a job faster, better, and more efficiently than the employer. What are some of the specific types of work performed by consultants?
- identify and solve problems;
- supply technical assistance (writing, programming, graphic design, Web development, etc.);
- provide expert knowledge and opinions;
- generate new ideas and processes;
- identify growth areas and strategic opportunities;
- teach new methods and procedures;
- provide short-term assistance during peak loads;
- perform outsourcing functions.
Skills Necessary to Succeed as Consultant
Regardless of whether you are fence sitting or diving headfirst into consulting as a full-time job, key skills and traits that all successful consultants share, include:
- expertise or a skill in high demand;
- a proven record of success and several years of experience;
- a self-starter who enjoys working independently;
- a self-marketer, who enjoys promoting and selling his or her services, and who has a strong marketing vision and strategy;
- ability to wear multiple hats, including handling clerical, billing, and accounting procedures;
- able to handle high risk -- including the lack of job security, no company provided benefits, and no steady paycheck;
- a strong network of personal and professional contacts;
- excellent written and oral communications skills;
- creative, innovative problem-solver.
How to Get Started as a Freelancer
It's a lot easier to get started as a free agent today than in years past -- mainly because of the Web and the growing number of Web sites whose sole purpose is connecting freelancers with clients who need their services -- but you'll still need solid marketing and business planning to provide the opportunity for you to succeed as a consultant, including:
- a business plan that sets specific goals for yourself in terms of clients, projects, fees, revenues, expenses, etc.;
- a marketing and sales plan that centers around the marketing of yourself and your skills and expertise -- and the sales pitch for your services;
- a marketing promotion plan that details the types of promotional materials you plan to use, including the potential use of brochures, flyers, resumes/CVs, business cards, and a Website;
- any certifications or licenses you need to conduct business, especially if you are using a home-office as the base for your business.
Where to Get Clients
Just as with job-hunting, the best method of finding clients is to use as many streams of sources as possible, including:
- Your current professional and personal network. The people in your network hold a dual role as potential clients as well as possible referrers for other potential clients. These people know you and your work -- so utilize them, especially as you begin your business.
- Past employers. Assuming you left your previous jobs on good terms, now is the time to let your former employers and supervisors know that you are a free agent and available on a per project basis.
- Professional associations. Just about all industries have one or more professional organizations. Use your contacts within these groups to get clients. Showcase your expertise by getting on the programs of a few meetings. Consider using the membership lists of one or more groups for a direct mail campaign.
- Civic and community organizations. Another good place to build your network by showing your professionalism through various activities -- possibly even volunteering some of your time for a good cause to build a positive image.
- The Web. Because being a free agent is such a fast-growing trend, numerous Websites that specialize as meeting places for clients and consultants.
Final Thoughts on Freelancing/Consulting
There's no guarantee you'll find greater personal satisfaction and security by becoming a free agent, but you'll certainly be more in control of your personal and professional goals.
Find the best business and strategy guides for counsulting in our Consulting & Freelancing Books
Questions about some of the terminology used in this article? Get more information (definitions and links) on key college, career, and job-search terms by going to our Job-Seeker's Glossary of Job-Hunting Terms.