I get a lot of questions about how to become a consultant. Most people who ask these questions express uncertainty about how to get started or how to make the transition from full-time employment to full-time consulting. A couple of related thoughts materialize in my mind.
First of all, why do they want to become a consultant? I think there's often a "grass is greener" mentality involved, which is probably the result of a focusing effect: They're concentrating on one or two aspects of their current job that they dislike, and they think that becoming independent would solve all that. Some common examples include:
- I'm tired of taking orders from the boss. If I could run my own business, then I could do things my way (cue The Chairman).
- My salary is growing too slowly. I'll never make a lot of money until I go into business for myself.
- I'm under-appreciated here. If I start taking my own clients, then I'll really shine!
Focusing on the negatives of their current situation leads people to ignore initially all the things about consulting that are harder:
- Finding new work: Your employer makes sure you have plenty to do, and if they don't, you get paid anyway.
- Running a business: accounting and taxes, purchasing equipment, business insurance, etc.
- Paying for your own benefits, if you can even afford them: vacations, health insurance, sick leave, and personal time.
Even the things that you think will be better aren't unmixed blessings:
- Congratulations—you traded one boss for one or more per client. They don't have to agree with each other on your priorities, and it's a lot easier for them to fire you.
- You'd better make sure to charge enough, because you won't be able to bill anywhere close to full-time. A lot of consultants end up netting less money than they made as employees.
- You may get some respect from the title "consultant," but just see how that holds up if you fall short of your clients' expectations.
When someone finally decides to put their dream plan into effect, then their soaring expectations suddenly meet the brick wall of reality. "How do I even begin?" is not an uncommon thought. At this point, fear of the unknown can make all the new things you have to do seem more daunting than they really are. If you break them down into smaller tasks, you'll find that you can be just as good a consultant as the next person. It's pretty simple, really: To succeed, you need to provide a service that people are willing to pay you to perform; everything else is ancillary to that. While certain personality types may be more comfortable with the independence and responsibility of consulting than others, there's nothing about it that you can't learn if you have the desire and patience to stick with it.
In summary, becoming a consultant is not as hard as you think—but it also won't be as rewarding as you might expect. It's a good idea to try to align your expectations with reality before you dive into consulting. On balance, I still prefer the independence consulting provides. Your mileage may vary.
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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.