Going Solo: A Few Words Of Advice

September 8, 2006

I am often asked about being a soloist: an independent consultant. “How do you find work?” “Is it difficult to balance all the things you need to do?” “How do you market your services?” I thought I would try to scribble some thoughts that might help would-be soloists in taking the plunge — or avoiding this sort of life altogether.

I may be an edge case, in that I am an unusual sort of independent, but I bet there are some general lessons to be learned in here, somewhere.

Marketing and The Finding Of Work

I have a simple approach to marketing my services: I don’t. Or, perhaps more accurately, I don’t do any marketing other than blogging and attending conferences, which are the primary channels for potential clients. I leave the rest up to fate, the Tooth Fairy, and word of mouth.

Blogging is the centerpoint of my professional life, and in a real sense defines my professional identity. Many thousands of other consultants also blog, so I am not some outlier in that regard, and I believe that the benefits of diligently exploring your professional interests in the blogosphere can be enormous. Blogging is also relatively low-cost, although the time investment may be high. I know that there are some advocates of blogging who believe it is possible to get a solid return on a lesser time investment, but I try to blog daily, and often, many times a day. I have come to be considered an A-list blogger (whatever that may mean) but I think the key is to define a niche of interests that you write about that would allow a potential client to get an insight into your thinking. And then the email will start.

I speak at conferences frequently, and I have found that to be an amazingly productive investment. Even just attending conferences where prospective clients are attending can work. Note that becoming a well-known blogger may allow you to attend conferences free, even if you are not speaking, since conference organizers appreciate the coverage, offering another reason to blog.

The Balance Of The Soloist

The most difficult challenge for soloists is to find a balance between the various activities that must take place to survive. I like to oversimplify these down to three:

  1. Doing The Work — The heart of consulting — of whatever description — is delivering the work. A soloist has to deliver value to the client in order to make money. Most consulting-oriented people start with this capability: it’s the other two that cause problems, in general.
  2. Marketing and Networking — I have already noted that I principally market myself through blogging, and that I attend conferences: those are the outward signs of a willingness, or even an obsession with networking with likeminded others. When I find out about a web product that sounds interesting (my beat), I sign up for the beta, fool with it, write a review, ask for more info, and very soon I am involved in a direct communication with the company’s management. I read other people’s blogs and comment on their ideas. When attending conferences I try to chat with both old friends and folks I have never met before. I know many consultants whose natural introversion makes such activities difficult if not impossible. But these interactions are just as critical to being a soloist as performing the work, and are likely to take up just as much time!
  3. Prospecting, Contracts and Cash Flow — I am always happy to talk about money, and as a soloist it is imperative to get what you are worth, and then to collect the fees. This is a blind spot for many, and a make-it-or-break-it issue. I know a lot of folks that find it hard — even with people they know well — to ask for a project, an engagement, whatever, and to demand payment later on. It may seem obvious but many consultants only get involved with this as a necessary evil, but it’s not. It’s just as central as delievering the goods and networking.

My sense is that you need to be doing each of these three things an equal amount of time. One third of your time should be devoted to networking and marketing, that is finding new clients, or letting them find you; one third to talking up new projects, getting them into contracts, and managing the business side, up to and including getting paid; and one third performing billable work. I can hear the groaning already: only one third of the time billable?

Yes, and you will have to jigger your billing rate to make that work. I plan to only work 10 days per month, so that has to make all the ends meet. I know that 10 days will go to marketing and networking, and 10 days to prospecting, negotiating, contracts, and getting the money. I no longer fool myself that these things will happen by themselves.

So balance is the most likely place for a prospective soloist to run aground. They do not allocate enough time to marketing, or they underestimate the level of effort involved in prospecting, or they hope that they will have 22 billable days a month and set their rates too low so that they starve to death while working five days a week.

In The Final Analysis

I have found being a soloist a wonderful and liberating life. But it is not for everyone. Especially at the outset, it can have all the fun and charm of falling down an open elevator shaft.

Since building the necessary reputation for expertise in an industry niche can take some time, I would suggest starting on the marketing a long way in advance of quitting your day job, perhaps several months or more. Then start threading the prospecting in to see if you can indeed land some work at your survival rate (remember: only 10 days/month! No cheating!) Then, and only then, should you consider the leap. It’s not for everyone.

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