Advice for going solo

Two years ago I left my job at MD Anderson to become an independent consultant. When people ask me what I learned or what advice I’d give, here are some of the things I usually say.

You can’t transition gradually

I’ve done consulting on the side throughout my career, and I planned to ramp up my consulting to the point that I could gradually transition into doing it full time. That never happened. I had to quit my day job before I had the time and credibility to find projects.

When you have a job and you tell someone you can work 10 hours a week on their project, working evenings and weekends, you sound like an amateur. But when you have your own business and tell someone you can only allocate 10 hours a week to their project, you sound like you’re in high demand and they’re glad you could squeeze them in.

When I left MD Anderson, I had one small consulting project lined up. I had been working on a second project, but it ended sooner than expected. (I was an expert witness on a case that settled out of court.) The result was that I started my consulting career with little work, and I imagine that’s common.

Things move slowly

As soon as I announced on my blog that I was going out on my own, someone from a pharmaceutical company contacted me saying he was hoping I’d quit my job because he had a project for me, helping improve his company’s statistical software development. First day, first lead. This is going to be easy! Even though he was eager to get started, it was months before the project started and months more before I got paid.

In general, the larger a client is, the longer it takes to get projects started, and the longer they sit on invoices. (Google is an exception to the latter; they pay invoices fairly quickly.) Small clients negotiate projects quickly and pay quickly. They can help with your cash flow while you’re waiting on bigger clients.

Build up savings

This is a corollary to the discussion above. You might not have much income for the first few months, so you need several month’s living expenses in the bank before you start.

Other lessons

If you’re thinking about going out on your own and would like to talk about it, give me a call or send me an email. My contact information is listed here.

5 thoughts on “Advice for going solo

  1. I have been a consultant now for almost two decades — my best advice is to view your consulting practice as a portfolio of work — the challenge is to fill your calendar with that work — visit my website linked above for more — and good luck!

  2. Good post. Agreed on the savings, and “things move slowly”. Every freelancer I know bemoans “feast or famine!” Worse, sometimes a single client’s requirements are in themselves hurry-up-and-waitish, and that gets really inefficient in terms of commitment compared to what you can bill.

    Agreed also on the clean break as a broad principle: I tried doing bits of work in my spare time, but there’s no way I had the time, energy or cognitive resource to tackle a project big enough to do myself credit.

    One thing I did do to blur the clean break *slightly* was offer to spread my notice period out: I was still only contracted for a month, despite being a senior team lead, so this was of mutual benefit. It meant I ended up accidentally following the advice of a friend who *did* go freelancing gradually, who said that if you ask to go part-time then: “Go for a three-day week. You’ll need a whole day to look for work, before you even start actually fitting it in.”

    But, still: that part-time buffer had a very definite time limit, and it was over before I even realised. It wasn’t a long-term plan or anything.

    Another thing that ended up good timing was that I went to a semi-formal conference (a Drupalcamp) close to the end of my notice period (paying for everything myself.) That meant I still had some HR structure to support the trip planning, but could present myself as a soon-to-be free agent. I picked up one of my highest-paying, longest-lasting gigs there, and that really helped me get started.

  3. Last year I also tried to work solo. But the main problem for me was that I’m working solo! I think you should understand before you’re beginning, are colleagues, is team really needed for you. I found that I’m too social to work alone. Now I only have plans to build my own team with my friends if I’d like to work solo again.

  4. Great post. I’ve been in a number of positions in my career, some, like at present, working for corporations. Some were being out completely on my own. They each have interesting and fun features, and, some, not so fun.

    I was committed to the running of my own business but, at times, necessities of life meant I needed to earn more, so I became a temporary contractor, at some distance, via a head-hunting shop. This detracted from my primary small business, but it enabled me to keep things afloat while pursuing that.

    In the end, I was able to find the position of essentially my dreams at a corporation. Yet, even there, I treasure my “microbusiness mindset”. That’s because, in 39 years of working for high tech companies, I’ve learned there is no guarantee of anything, however successful the business one is in appears to be, the world can change in a blink, and sometimes, despite your objective contributions, circumstances (and politics!) conspire to force you out. This is not your fault and it should not be owned. But you always need to be ready.

  5. Timing is also very important. I quit my job back in mid 2007 to start my own consulting and initially lived off my savings. What I did not know is that the banking crisis was about to start. Every industry was affected and so few gigs are floating around. After almost 2 years, I realized I am only earning a small fraction of what I originally was getting off my salary. So I quit my own gig and got employed again.

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