In my own experience, any number of people work for one or more companies throughout their working life and then find, for whatever reason, they want to consider private business consulting as a later-in-life career. I did this. If you look in my Experts Exchange profile, I worked for General Electric for a number of years in Finance and Information Technology, for Black Photo Corporation as Director – Information Technology, and then a short time for a regulatory company. I worked in a company environment for just over 30 years.
At the end of all that, I could have considered very early retirement, but I chose instead to incorporate and set up a private business consultancy. I have been consulting successfully for about 13 years, and although (sooner rather than later) I should consider later retirement, I will probably keep going for another year or so (at least this is my current thinking). I can fit consulting into my other volunteer activities and make it all work together, consulting keeps me physically and mentally active, and it seems worthwhile to continue on at a steady but busy overall pace.
For this article, I am going to talk about Information Technology consulting and financial accounting consulting. There are many possibilities for consulting and I provide consulting services in these areas where I have solid experience.
Why did I enter consulting? Why not just get another job?
On one hand, it is harder rather than easier to land a new job as we get older. On the other hand, consulting represented an opportunity to improve my overall skills and experience, to select customers that fit my personal business style, and to have a flexible working environment that works for all of my activities. The latter reasoning outweighed the former for me.
Can you get wealthy as a private (one person) business consultant?
Not likely, in my experience. In my metropolitan area, a large size technology vendor will charge about $175 per hour for services. Out of this, they pay the employee doing the work, pay employee benefits, pay office and support services, provide equipment, and make a profit out of the proceeds. Small businesses (the ones I deal with) will not pay that hourly rate to a private consultant providing weekly services of 1, 2, or 3 full days over a long period of time (months or years) supporting responsibilities requested by the customer.
Also an independent consultant cannot charge for vacation time, training time, meal time, holidays, and (in most cases) travel time. To bill out 6 hours per day, five days per week for 50 weeks with several customers is a very strenuous pace to maintain. I have done this and I speak from experience.
If you can bill one-half the corporate rate on a steady basis, and have enough customer work to maintain the above pace, you can bill out about $125,000 of gross revenue per year. Remove 15% General and Administration expenses of all kind, you might clear $100,000 per year that you can pay yourself. In fact, there are any number of reasons such as ups and downs in available customer work hours, higher expenses for excellent equipment and services, and unforeseen expenses so that it may not be possible to clear that level of net business income. However you do your consulting budget and then achieve hours of business from customers, independent consultants do not usually get rich on the backs of small businesses.
Is the work “white collar desk work”?
Not always. You need to plan on getting your hands dirty both figuratively and practically. I need to be able to assemble machines and connect things up. Sometimes this means crawling under a desk. I have to pay bills and deposit money in addition to preparing management reports for a Board Finance Committee. You need to be able to do anything you suggest that your client do (or at least get the service done for them at a reasonable price). I employ specialized server and VPN consultants and I do work with Chartered Accountants. We cannot know everything and businesses do not expect that we do. They do expect you can implement a service or project end to end at a reasonable price and in reasonable time. This means we need to provide a wide range of services from strategic services down to physical labour. Small business owners get their hands dirty as well.
In the world of Information Technology, I find that server expertise, break-fix expertise and general application and operating system expertise are different. I work in the latter area and engage consultants and technical services for the other two areas. In the world of financial accounting consulting, I provide the accounting, payroll, and sales tax services between client input and chartered financial statements.
What skills, experience, and personal traits does a consultant need?
(a) Personal Traits:
Most businesses and particularly small businesses require a consultant to be completely honest, have impeccable integrity and communicate in an open and transparent manner. A small business is very important to its owner and owners expect you to treat them in an honest and professional manner and to treat money as if it were coming out of your own pocket. You need to work hard and diligently. When the day is done, you need to leave (whether that is after 3 hours or 7 hours). You cannot put in a 7 hour day if there is not 7 hours of work to do.
On a side note, I bill by the hour and not on a fixed price project basis. Hourly billing is the fairest and most transparent method to charge for services for both sides (business and consultant).
You need to be good at what you do. I need to understand operating systems and applications in depth. I need to understand how to fix a customer's problem efficiently and properly. This means I need to have excellent technology skills. To put this in perspective, I do reasonably well in the operating systems and application zones of Experts Exchange as measured by Good Answers. That is what I mean by excellent technology skills.
I am also a certified QuickBooks Pro Advisor. I can lash together a QuickBooks client/server setup that works properly, and then set up and maintain a chart of accounts that properly serves a business. This is a somewhat unique combination of skills and experience but customers like it because one consultant covers a wide range of services they require.
From an educational perspective, I have a degree in mathematics and I have a very logical problem solving ability. This has been very helpful to me over the years. Linear thinking and problem solving are good skills to hone if you can.
Whatever consulting you do, you need to be able to speak, write and present clearly. You need to have a good grasp of your language (English where I am) and to be good at grammar and sentence construction. Slang English and two letter short forms (“u cn do ths”) are very poor in front of a client or prospective client. Swearing is 100 percent off limits. Never swear.
When I started consulting, I had 30 years of corporate technology and financial experience in manufacturing, retail, and regulatory environments. When I got my first consulting engagement, I realized how little I knew. Customers have a habit of asking any question at all and expecting a professional answer in return. Somewhat narrow, in-depth experience does not always translate to wide-range, thinner problem solving that is required in small business.
Before you start consulting, you should be sure the experience you have matches the business plan you intend to pursue. You can expect to put in a significant number of (unpaid) personal hours at the beginning of your consultancy to research problems and how to solve them.
Be sure to set aside time for training. Microsoft, QuickBooks (Intuit) and related training vendors put on local training sessions that can be very valuable. Accounting seminars put on by Accounting companies and Government Tax agencies can also be valuable to increase your overall skill and experience.
Full Time or Part Time consulting:
Yes – either. Full time consulting is just that, so you devote all your energy to it and do not hold another job. For me, part time is fewer hours billed to provide greater time for volunteer activities that do not conflict. Any time I have seen a regular employee try evening consulting to server clients, it is usually a failure. A couple of my clients come out of these failures because they want me to pay attention to them in their working hours. I see this as entirely reasonable. Don’t imagine you can properly serve your customers and hold down a regular job at the same time.
I switched to part time by working with friend who had voluntarily taken a package from his company, introducing him to my clients and gradually moving technology consulting over to him. I still assist him strategically, but my work is now fundamentally accounting consulting.
Equipment for Technology Consulting:
As a consultant with multiple clients, you will probably have to provide your own computer. I do and I use what works for me. Some accounting consultants can use a client’s computer, but I would rather provide my own.
You may find you have to support multiple platforms and try different things that you cannot do on a single machine environment. One operating system can only run one version of Outlook and trying some offbeat application or different anti-virus application may break your machine. This is distinctly unhelpful.
I have a ThinkPad X230 business computer for consulting purposes that runs Windows 8.1 Professional 64-bit. I run Office 2013 (365), Adobe Standard V11, NCP Secure Entry for VPN connections, QuickBooks Premier, and a number of other software applications. I can do most things with this machine and setup but not everything. So I also have VMware Workstation V10.0.4 installed and then Windows 7 Pro with Office 2010. Windows Vista Business with Office 2007, Windows XP Pro with Office 2003 and a number of earlier machines. I can make a temporary copy of a machine and try offbeat software without damaging the host machine. This is a good test bench for a technology consultant.
I keep the current version of QuickBooks Premier on my computer and use this for Accounting Consulting. All my clients use QuickBooks. I have just enough experience with Simply Accounting to help the occasional customer.
I keep a Nokia CS-18 USB Internet Key in my briefcase. This is one of those additional business expenses I alluded to above. I have an iPhone 4s as a business phone. This can be used to provide internet to your computer, but I prefer having my computer connected up in addition to using the cell phone independently of the computer. This combination has provided me with excellent problem solving abilities on a number of occasions where I did not have access to a working internet connection.
Consulting is a rewarding experience and can produce a decent working income for you as a reward for hard work and good skills.
It is not easy and is not appropriate for an average or low level of work ethic.
You need to put in unpaid personal hours to manage your business, network for clients, train yourself and research problem. If you are consulting full time, this means evening and weekend personal work.
You need to be confident enough, personal enough, and engaging enough to put yourself in front of someone you have never seen before and explain to them why they should engage your services.
I have been consulting on my own for 13 years, and it is the most robust career I have ever had. I have had clients for as long as 10 years and no client has ever dismissed me. I would do it again in a heartbeat.