The most stressful elements of breaking in to full-time consulting

When you became an independent consultant, was the most stressful part finding enough business to stay afloat, the feast or famine syndrome, or something else?

In response to my article on landing that all-important first client, TechRepublic member JLogan3o13 suggested another topic idea:

One thing I would like to see, and bet others would too, is a poll or topic about how to get over that horrendous hump we all face as consultants - that point where you have business coming in, and are faced with the decision to finally make the break from the full time job or not. For me I know it was terribly difficult; I knew I could drum up more business if I spent more time marketing myself, but I couldn't afford to spend that time unless I quit the 9 to 5. Definitely a stressful time, but one I bet everyone handles a bit differently.

Any time you make a big change like this, a certain amount of stress accompanies it -- especially when the change involves your livelihood. Any uncertainty about paying the bills is going to keep you up at night, wondering if you're handling it the best way you can. I had it easy: my employer converted to a full-time client, so I didn't have the uncertainty about income. Nevertheless, the change still brought a lot of stress with it. Somehow the relationship seemed more tentative (although it wasn't), and I had to worry about funding my own benefits, paying my taxes, and a hundred other little details I never thought of before.

For most consultants, though, the decision to drop their full-time job has much bigger consequences. First and foremost, it means a temporary loss of income while you build other business. Before making that jump, you need to weigh your tolerance for going without a paycheck.

There's also a significant risk that you might not be able to drum up as much business as you think you can. You should set an income goal that is both reasonable and sufficient, but you should also prepare for a worst case scenario. What is the minimum revenue that you feel certain you can produce? This should include only business that you have already contracted. The longer that you would be able to survive on that income alone, the better your chances of not needing to. That isn't just Murphy's Law at work -- if you don't have to scramble to avoid bankruptcy, then you can be more clear-headed and strategic in your marketing plan.

The great thing about full-time employment is that you always know exactly how much money you're going to make. The bad thing about full-time employment is that you always know exactly how much money you're going to make. Going independent may allow you to earn a higher income overall, but you pay for that in its unpredictability. The "feast or famine" syndrome in consulting is so common that just saying those three words makes every consultant nod their head in agreement. You should evaluate your tolerance for sporadic income before taking the plunge.

Full-time employment also means working for one employer. That employer may have conflicting goals of their own, but in the end they have to decide what's important to them. When you have multiple clients, they all think they're the most important -- and that's how you should treat them, too. That means skillfully handling multiple #1 priorities, including the priority of finding additional business to keep your pipeline from drying up.

Since JLogan3o13 asked for a poll, let's have one.

Also read on TechRepublic: What's the most challenging part of working as an independent?

By Chip Camden

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 b...