Why are you an independent consultant?

Does freedom, money, status, adventure, or something else drive you to be an independent consultant? Let us know by taking this poll.

 A friend of mine, Kevin Sigl, used to consult under the name RYU Consulting (the domain has since been recycled). When I asked him about the name, he joked that it should be YRU instead, as in "Why Are You Consulting?"

Indeed, that's a question worth asking. Independent consulting is not an easy career compared to full-time employment. To survive in the wild, the consultant must constantly hunt for new opportunities, refine and update skills, market themselves, manage a business, provide their own benefits, and deal with multiple clients who often possess starkly different personalities, styles, requirements, and payment patterns. Even the smartest or luckiest of us will eventually suffer for the risks we take. It isn't a question of whether we'll fall into a hole and break our legs, it's a question of whether we'll be able to climb back out.

So why do we do it? What is it about this career path that attracts us? I've been independent for almost 19 years now, so I have a few observations on that point.

Freedom. Many consultants operate independently because they like independence. They enjoy being their own boss, even though they have to manage aspects of the business that may not be their forté. An independent does not put all their career eggs in one company's basket -- they have multiple clients, and if a relationship isn't working out, they can reduce or eliminate their interaction with that client while focusing more on others. The independent can work whatever hours fit their style, though most who stick with it find that they work more than they did as an employee. Nevertheless, no consultant is entirely free to do what he/she pleases. After all, pleasing your clients is what the business is all about. Money. If planned and executed well, an independent consultant can take home a lot more money than an employee. But you have to do it right, or you could end up earning a lot less. Here are three things I've learned:
  • You must not undersell your services, making the mistake of comparing your rate to an employee's hourly wage.
  • You should hire a good tax accountant to avoid giving a much larger percentage of your income to the tax man.
  • You must learn to budget and keep a hedge amount set aside against the inevitable downturns.
Status. Anyone who tells you that they don't get a little ego buzz from owning their own business is lying. It's nice to be known as an expert in your field, and have the respect and admiration of your peers. There's no better equipment for attending a party or a class reunion. On the other hand, only the worst consultants aren't aware of their own shortcomings, so it's easy to fall prey to the feeling that you're faking it. You have to keep a level head, accurately assess your own strengths and weaknesses, and bear yourself humbly and honestly. Adventure. Most consultants never need to worry about dying from boredom; you can find a wide variety of projects and problems that require your ingenuity to solve. Some engagements may include travel to all sorts of interesting places. If you do start to feel like you're in a rut, remember that an independent can decide to change things up a lot easier than an employee can.

Some IT pros don't like being independent and would rather have the security of employment; these techies sometimes do part-time or interim consulting to supplement their income between regular jobs. With the current state of the economy, a lot more of this type have entered into the consulting market.

What's your story?

Why were you drawn to being a consultant, and why are you still doing it? Answer the poll below and give us the details in the comments.

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