The folks from Inc. posted this question on TechRepublic’s Facebook wall:

What’s the most challenging part of working as an independent consultant? We feel it’s the lack of benefits….thoughts?

Certainly the lack of benefits is a big challenge. At least in the United States, independents must pay exorbitant fees for health insurance, if they can afford it at all. We’re also on our own for worker’s comp, and nobody else is paying for our vacation/sick/personal leave.

But I’m not so sure that those challenges are the hardest issues we face as independents. Here are a few others that may provide just as much or more of a challenge:

Managing uncertain income. Independents have to keep one eye on their business pipeline at all times, and we have to spend a lot of time developing new business. Nevertheless, even the most savvy consultant will have to deal with the feast or famine syndrome. It takes discipline to manage your funds so that you can get through the lean times. During the fat times, when you have more work than you can do, you still need to dedicate attention to the pipeline so it doesn’t suddenly run dry.
Balancing multiple clients. When you work for only one company, conflicting priorities can often be resolved by appeal to a higher authority within the company. Whatever’s most important for your employer will win. When you have multiple clients, each one of them may have a #1 priority for which you’re expected to drop everything. Perhaps even more challenging is when they don’t — then you’re tempted to ignore that client to deal with all the squeaky wheels, which might just cost you that nice, quiet client.
Fighting procrastination. When you’re on your own, you have to be your own motivator. Especially when you have a seemingly overwhelming list of multiple priorities, the dread of deciding which one to attack first can often lead to a few hours of gaming or surfing instead. While it’s important to take breaks from time to time, eventually you have to get yourself into the zone on paying work.
Balancing work and life. Every hour you’re not billing is lost income, but you don’t want to give up your life — otherwise, what’s the point of working so hard? It’s even easier to get sucked into the 24/7/365 shift when you work from a home office, or you carry your mobile phone with you at all times. Work is always potentially with you, so you have to find ways to turn it off occasionally.
Keeping up with technology. When you work for an employer, they’ll usually tell you what they want you to learn. When you’re an independent, you must anticipate your market. Is this new framework going to take the industry by storm, or will I waste six months becoming an expert in something nobody uses?
Getting paid. If you let them, clients will make this into a recurring headache for you. It takes a lot of fortitude to insist on timely payment, and to be willing to take drastic measures to make that policy stick. But not getting paid for work is worse than having no work at all. The good news with this one is that once you’ve made your point, the clients that you keep probably won’t cause you any further trouble. The downside is that you often have to go through the whole exercise afresh for every new client.

By the way, April 14th marked my 20th anniversary as an independent consultant. Despite the challenges, I wouldn’t trade it.