Someone on the Statistical Consulting forum mentioned that she is going to become an independent consultant when she graduates and wanted to find out from people who are currently in that position what the one thing is that they hate most. This email drew a lot of responses including several people who cautioned this women about the difficulties for a young person to become an independent consultant. Here are the thoughts I shared on the thing I hate most and what the issues are with embarking out on your own as an independent consulting early in your career.
I hate accounting. My joke is that if my bank balance is within $100 of what the bank says, I chalk up the difference to sampling error.
I especially don’t like invoicing, and I put it off for months, which is really bad for cash flow. If my wife did not have a full time job, I’d be in big trouble. I also have a lot of difficulty keeping personal charges from sneaking onto my business credit card and business charges from sneaking onto my personal credit card.
If I could elaborate on what some of the other people have mentioned, I believe that independent consulting, to a large extent, is an old person’s game. There are three reasons for this. First, you’ll get most of your clients from “word of mouth” and the older you are, the more people there are who know you and are willing to spread the word on your behalf.
Second, as a consultant, you will get questions from all different directions. It takes a long time to build up a base of expertise enough so that you can answer most of those questions without having a co-worker you can fall back on.
Third, most of what you will do ten or twenty years from now will be the result of learning on the job. If you are a consultant in a larger organization, you will find that that they will invest money in you to make you a better consultant because they will see the benefits down the road. The funny thing about clients is that they are extremely reluctant to pay you to learn something new on their dime. Their time frame is very short term and they don’t benefit from the seasoned professionalism that you will develop by 2030.
Now you do have an advantage in that most of us old dogs still struggle with learning new tricks. And if you are in an area were you can pretty much guarantee that the questions you get will be closely related to your area of study, especially to the work you do on your dissertation, then you can still be successful as an independent consultant.
Don’t let us discourage you if your heart is in being an independent consultant. You didn’t ask for what the best thing was about independent consulting, but I will tell you that independent consulting is great because you work for the perfect boss, yourself. If you’re young, you’ll struggle with finding clients and you’ll struggle with answering all the questions that seem to come out of left field. But if you really love what you do and you work hard at it, you will be successful. I know a fair number of consultants who are much younger than me, and they seem to be doing okay.