Hands up those of you who have considered bailing out of whatever you’re doing and becoming a consultant of some type? Judging from the comments I get when I’m at social functions this is not an uncommon aspiration. I get hit on for information about consulting by people from all areas of the industry — chefs, restaurateurs, managers, academics — there seem to be an awful lot of people who want to have a go.
Make sure you have enough capital
I was one of them once. After a particularly uninspiring series of contacts with a new corporate boss, I spat the dummy and decided to go it alone. My logic was simple: I believed I could be a better manager without the constraints and politics of a big company, and I was determined to put my money where my mouth was — all $5,000 of it. If you suggested to me to start a consulting business without capital today, I’d laugh at you; but then I was too naïve to know it couldn’t be done.
This absurd lack of working capital caused me great grief for some years. Every dollar I earned was turned straight back into the business and we lived pretty rough for a while. It was lucky I didn’t have a family at the time — I don’t think it would be fair to put your spouse and kids through that sort of hardship. A consulting business is not like a restaurant. Restaurants can be established very quickly — normally within six months to a year. It takes at least five – ten years to establish a consulting business. That happened to be seven years longer than I imagined when I started.
Doing the work is the least of your problems
The main problem when you run a consulting business is not doing the work, it’s getting a constant flow of it. The first few years were a financial roller coaster. One moment I’d have no work, so I’d switch into marketing mode. The next moment I’d have a job so I’d stop marketing and concentrate on doing the job. Then the job would finish and I’d have no more work because I’d stopped marketing – and so it went, until I generated enough money to invest in some long term marketing tools and the white knuckle ride slowly came to an end.
I’m fortunate that I didn’t choose to call my company by a name that included the word ‘consultant’. This was entirely by accident, mind you, but it worked out well in the end. Consultants have got a fairly bad name in some quarters due to the past actions of a few sharks and I’ve always felt that there is a certain amount of stigma attached to the occupation.
It’s easier to market your services under another banner. I have always been thankful that my initial business concentrated on training and development and was named accordingly. We were accidentally drawn into consulting work on the back of our training activities and it now represents a large proportion of our business.
Steep learning curve required
Whatever your background you will have to face a steep learning curve in order to survive as a consultant. I had broad experience as a corporate manager, but I found myself quite unprepared for a lot of the things I had to do when I went out on my own. In organising my thoughts for this article I realised that I’ve become fluent in about twelve major computer programs over the last thirty five years, as well as becoming familiar with writing, printing, photography, psychology, public speaking, tax avoidance, industry politics and a plethora of other more minor skills.
All is not roses
There are some aspects to the occupation that are less than wonderful. Like having to be prepared to bite the hand that feeds you from time to time. Often, the person who employs you is the biggest problem. Consulting is not an occupation for the faint hearted. To justify the level of fees you must charge to survive you must deliver. This means you have to be confident, forceful, blunt and unfazed by confrontation. On several occasions I’ve presented a report, been thanked politely and been paid; only to find out later that the report never saw the light of day and ended up in the shredder.
It also helps if you’re quite thick skinned. No matter how good you are or how benevolent your motivations are there will be some people who will resent your presence because they feel their job is threatened. You can get some very rough treatment from them at times — like having your car scratched or being threatened on the telephone at home.
A stimulating occupation, but not easy.
But on the whole, consulting is really a fascinating, stimulating occupation. In the course of a year I get to travel and work with many different businesses. I might be in the city one day working with a top restaurant and in a beautiful, remote location working with a boutique hotel the next. I love the variety; no two jobs are the same. I learn something new from each of the businesses I work with and I get to meet some really interesting and sometimes very oddball people.
After the business became established I could have just worked like a beaver and made a really good living, but I took the decision to grow the company and sacrificed the profits for another five years. I don’t want to work hard all my life — so I’m creating a company that will give me lifestyle options when I want to take it easy — just like I advise my clients to do.