As an independent consultant, I love the fact that I don't need to depend on anyone else to do my work. Oh sure, sometimes clients put obstacles in their own way, or they rely on a third-party to provide some key ingredient. But as far as what they expect me to produce, it's all up to me. I don't have to pay salaries and benefits or deal with employees' excuses or personal problems, government-imposed employment rules, or hiring and firing. But this freedom comes at a potentially enormous cost.
Since the whole business rests on me alone, it would literally cease to exist if something tragic happened to yours truly. If I experienced an extended illness or disability that prevented me from working, I have nobody who could keep things going until I returned. My clients would just have to wait, or find somebody else, and there's no guarantee that they would welcome my return by bringing their business back to me.
So how can we independents mitigate the consequences of a work-stopping emergency? Here are some things to consider when you're creating your contingency plan.
Note: These tips are based on an entry in our IT Consultant blog.
1: Mentor a protégé or train some of the client's employees
Nobody lives forever, so you want to groom someone to take your place eventually. That person can also fill in for you when you're out of commission. But how do you retain such a person? If you hire someone, you have all the hassle and expense of being an employer. You could subcontract some work to them, but either you might not have enough to keep them busy or you might go crazy with the project management aspects of the arrangement. I've opted instead to try to bring people in my clients' offices up to speed enough to cover for me until I get back. But your client has to agree to that use of their resources, and the possibility that you could make their employee worth more than the salary your client can pay them.
2: Ask a colleague to cover for you
Some kinds of consulting work can be handed off fairly easily. So if you know someone else in the business who could cover for you for a bit, that can work. If they're your friend, they won't try to steal the customer permanently, and you can reciprocate in a converse situation.
3: Keep funds in reserve
For most of my tenure as a consultant, my finances have been right on the edge of insolvency. Month to month, I'd collect the checks and hand them over to my creditors. That strategy is doomed to failure. Besides feeling like you're getting nowhere, one hiccup in the cash flow could torpedo your whole operation. While I still have nowhere near enough set aside to be able to take a year off (the ideal), I have managed to create enough cushion to get through a short-term disaster. It wasn't easy, though. My good friend and mentor Ken Lidster once told me, "It doesn't matter how much money you have, it's never enough." He was right. You can save for a rainy day only by exercising discipline and going without some of the things that you "need" to have until later.
I resisted buying any insurance for a long time, because it's obviously a racket. You will likely pay much more over the long term by having insurance than by going without. But insurance eliminates the sudden, devastating expenses from which you might not be able to recover. Health insurance is a must. If you're down and you can't generate any revenue, you certainly can't afford to pay thousands in medical costs. Disability insurance is also worth considering, if a disability could prevent you from working. For me, that would be eyes, hands, and brain — though my wife might argue that some or all of those are already compromised.
Most important, if something does interfere with your work, make sure you let your clients know about it. Give them an honest estimate of how long you'll be unavailable and work with them to form a plan for how they'll get along without you. Taking care of their needs when you're in trouble is the best recipe for getting their business to snap back when you do.
Chip Camden has been programming since 1978, and he's still not done. An independent consultant since 1991, Chip specializes in software development tools, languages, and migration to new technology. Besides writing for TechRepublic's IT Consultant blog, he also contributes to [Geeks Are Sexy] Technology News and his two personal blogs, Chip's Quips and Chip's Tips for Developers.