Happy Birthday, Quality Tree Software

Last month marked the 15 year anniversary of my decision to go into business for myself.

Over the last decade and a half I have learned so very much, and had the opportunity to work with so many amazingly cool people. I feel immensely grateful. I’ve also had my challenges: strategic and financial missteps that cost me dearly. The cumulative result has been a carnival ride of emotions: panic, joy, mounting despair, satisfaction, panic, glee, giddy bouncy happy glee, disappointment, hope.

This being in business stuff is not for the faint of heart.

Because I’ve been in business so long, aspiring consultants sometimes ask me for advice. So I’ll tell you what I tell them:

Be prepared to work. Hard. Harder than you have in your life, and for less pay.

Some people think being a consultant is easier or cushier or more lucrative than having a “real job.” They see the hourly or daily rates that consultants charge, do the math to calculate an equivalent salary, and see buckets of shiny money. Or they equate independence with getting to work only when they want to, and on whatever they want to.

Certainly there are independent consultants who have structured their businesses to optimize for wealth, freedom, or both. You might succeed at doing that. But you need to know before you start that it’s a really long road between hanging out your shingle and spending 6 months every year lying on a beach.

Clients don’t just line up automatically ready to write you big fat checks for doing whatever you feel like. First, you have to find clients. When you’re first starting out that will be harder than you think. Then, in order to land your first few clients, you are likely to have to take gigs that aren’t exactly your ideal.

Out of your first 12 months in business, you will spend about a quarter your days doing billable work, the other three quarters trying to get billable work, and the other half of your days splitting your time between attending to the minutia of running a business and connecting with people in ways that won’t get you billable work immediately but might in 18 months.

Yes, I am aware that is 150% of your time. That’s roughly what it takes.

Later when you’re more established, the balance will shift. You’ll have more billable work and have to spend less time and energy scrambling to get your next gig. So it goes from 25-75-50 to something more like 50-50-50. Or, if you opt for a business model with longer engagements (e.g. contracting) you might end up at 75-25-50. If you want a business that involves shorter engagements and more time to work on pet projects (training, short term consulting), you might end up with a ratio that looks like 25-25-100.

Notice that the overall effort is still 150%. If you want a lifestyle business where you can put in 75% of the effort you would put into a job working for someone else, expect to get something like 10% of the revenue.

The bottom line is that running a business, any business, is hard.

I am friends with a variety of small business owners across a range of industries. We all have one thing in common: we work our backsides off to make our businesses go.

What people who don’t run businesses don’t understand is that the part of the business they see is just the front of the stage. They don’t see behind the scenes: the long nights spent juggling numbers, trying to predict and balance cash flow. They don’t see all the preparation that goes into the delivery of the product or service. They don’t see the duck legs frantically paddling below the surface; they just see the serene quacker gliding across the water.

As a business owner, there will always something that needs your attention urgently. Stuff happens. Problems crop up. Things don’t go as planned. So between handling emergencies, serving existing clients, meeting new clients, reviewing contracts, writing up the statements of work or proposals, growing your own skills so that you stay relevant in an ever changing market, invoicing, managing logistics, developing content, and attending or presenting at conferences, you will not have an actual vacation for years.

You might travel on business and squeeze out a few hours, or maybe even days, to see the sights. You might take a day off here and there when you’re too sick, or too tired, to continue. But running a business is a 7-day-a-week job. Your business will always be on your mind. You can’t escape it.

The good news is that when you figure out how to make your consulting practice fly, the rewards of all that work are definitely worth it. You get to follow your interests, work with a wider variety of people, help solve a wider variety of problems, and generally have more autonomy than when you’re working for someone else.

Even the cost of that autonomy, that you are wholly and solely responsible for finding ways to ensure you get a paycheck, is a reward in and of itself. It means that you have made a direct connection between the value you offer and the monetary measure of that value. It’s a connection few who work for others really get to make.

So the last 15 years have been amazing, humbling, fulfilling, exhausting, rewarding, challenging, and terrifying all rolled together.

I sometimes say that if I knew back when I started my company in 1997 what I know now, I probably would not have had the guts to do it. Yet I’m very glad I did. So if I could know not just what hardship lay ahead but also what satisfaction and joy there would be, then yes, I would do it all over again.

You can do it too, if that’s what you want.

It’s a wild ride. Your particular path will be different from anyone else’s, so you’ll have to find your own way. The whipsaw ups and downs and hard turns might make you a little green around the gills for a while. But if you can hold it together long enough, you’ll learn how to roll with it.

Being independent, or starting a company, isn’t for everyone.

Is it for you?

If you want to own your own professional destiny so badly that you’re willing to do whatever (legal, ethical, but exhausting) work it takes to make it through those incredibly rough first few years, then yes, yes indeed. It might be just the thing.

17 thoughts on “Happy Birthday, Quality Tree Software

  1. Congratulations! Certainly does sound like a wild ride!

    I’m glad you ended with a few /positives/, otherwise I may have left the independent business thoughts behind and never gone back to them. ;0)

    Appreciate you sharing a snapshot of you /story/. Good luck with the next 15 years!

  2. Happy birthday, Quality Tree! My business sure was a wild ride while it lasted.

  3. Really interesting. Perhaps not enough people know what happens “behing scenes” at consultancies. I know working at Assurity consultancy was an interesting experience – always considered it’s owner Garth as a Zen Master teaching me “the way of the consultant”.

    But yes, what was despiriting was seeing how the consultancy was engaged, for every successful engagement there were many, many dead ends. And proposals etc cost money to put on the table, but there’s no financial reward if you got second place (quoted from a manager).

    Sometimes you’d spend time with a customer, develop a relationship, talk them into seeing they had a specific need … only to find they totally agreed, but decided to engage your competition instead.

    Who’d be a consultant? 😉

  4. Elisabeth,

    Congratulations on the anniversary of your business. Gee, I remember all those years back when you first started out. Back when your consulting business was “just a wee little thing” as they say. When you first started the QualityTree website and all…

    Fantastic, and good for you! Best to you.


  5. Pingback: Jonathan Kohl | Elisabeth Hendrickson on 15 Years of Consulting

  6. Congratulations on this milestone, Elisabeth. May there be many more.

    You’re description matches my experience exactly. I could easily make more money with less effort by taking a job. But I love my work. I love helping others. I love seeing the difference I can make. I love the challenges. Sometimes I question why I do this, but most of the time I end the day exhausted but very happy.

  7. Congrats Elisabeth.

    I was pointed to this post by a friend. I have just stepped into independent test consulting ( May 1st) after resigning from a lucrative job.

    I liked the way you have captured the challenges involved in a very honest manner. I am looking forward to facing my share of them.

    I have captured my story here: My Journey to Becoming an Independent Consultant

  8. Congratulations. Hope to make it that far myself one day.

    I totally understand that part even tho I’m just on my third running year. I can’t even count anymore how many sleepless nights I’ve spent to fill up that +50%. But so far I’m more-less alive and despite going slightly gray-haired already I so enjoy those moments when I’ve been actually able to do what I really-really want and enjoy.

    I noticed you might visit Estonia again in comingfall, maybe we can organize a meet-up or something.

    With best regards
    Oliver Vilson

  9. Wow, 15 years. That is an amazing accomplishment. How many people do you have in your firm? What would you say would be the top 3 mistakes you made, and top 3 things you did that propelled you and your business forward? I’ve been doing this for 5.5 years, and its exhausting. How do you keep going for 15!!!

  10. A late congratulations to you. I teamed up with other independent consultants that were working under a common brand. We are now 30 consultants within agile development. I’d strongly recommend that, if possible, as it will make the struggling of running a business a lot easier.

  11. Congratulations Elisabeth!!! Loved your post, as a small business owner I can relate to the hard work and rewards!!!

  12. Going through this myself. I’ve been a contractor since 1996 but that is not the same – it’s more a less a full time job. Now actually a business wanting to get business and yes it’s tough and nothing is handed to you on a plate.

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