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.