A year ago, I decided to take a break from full-time employment and explore a mix of consulting, advising, writing, and speaking. I’d never been an independent professional before: my career until then had been an uninterrupted progression of schooling and full-time jobs.
I’d expected my “funemployment” to last six months, which was my self-imposed minimum amount of time to try this out. Now that it’s been a year, I can share what I’ve learned about life as a high-class consultant.
The cold start is hard.
I had a lot of time on my hands in the first few months. It helped that Quora has just launched Knowledge Prizes, which turned out to be a significant source of both income and entertainment for me in my first month away from full-time work. I also used my newly free time to read, take online courses, and generally sharpen the saw.
I did enjoy the opportunity to spend more time with my family, including taking several weeks of vacation with them. But our calendar was constrained by our daughter’s school schedule, which meant that most of those weeks had to be in the summer.
If you’re contemplating a switch from full-time employment to consulting, be prepared for the first months to be slow. Consider techniques for self-imposed discipline, such as setting an alarm clock as if you had to wake up for a full-time job. That discipline can protect you from a downward spiral into procrastination and depression.
Inbounds drive business.
When I decided to become a consultant, I thought I’d have to invest significant effort in lead generation. I did reach out to a few folks whom I thought might benefit from my expertise. But nothing came of those efforts.
Luckily, I’ve had enough inbounds to keep me busy despite saying no to most of them. My early inbounds came from companies trying to hire me full-time; I persuaded some of them to take me on as a consultant instead. Since then, I’ve had more companies reach out to me specifically to engage me as a consultant.
Some of the people who reached out to me found me through shared connections — it helps to be a professional extrovert. But most knew me through my public writing. So if you’re thinking about blogging but can’t muster up the activation energy, I hope that my example motivates you!
Specialization pays off.
I won’t disclose specific numbers here, but I’m open about the fact that I bill at a substantially higher rate than most technical consultants. I could try to justify my rate based on my seniority: after all, if I were working full-time, I’d be an executive and compensated accordingly.
But what allows me to bill at a premium rate is my specialized expertise. When companies need help with query understanding, it’s hard for them to avoid running into me in their research. I’m one of the few people with deep experience in search and discovery, data science, and product development.
It’s hard to be the biggest fish in the ocean. If you want to be a consultant, I recommend that you find the biggest pond in which you can be a big fish. In fact, I recommend that strategy even if you’re pursuing full-time employment. Differentiation is what creates value.
Your time is your own.
When you’re a full-time salaried employee, you cherish paid vacations. You think of conferences as quasi-vacations: time away from the office that’s a break from the day-to-day and good for cultivating your network. You take your income for granted, decoupling it from the time you spend earning it.
Not so when you are a consultant. Every time I’m invited to a conference, I think about the opportunity cost of taking a day off of work in order to attend it. I have a lot more flexibility when it comes to vacation, but there’s no such thing as paid vacation when you’re billing by the hour.
I like the clarity and transparency that this model brings to my decisions about how to allocate my time. But I do have to be careful not to become so transactional that sell my happiness to the highest bidder. In the short term, your time is money; in the long term, your time is priceless.
Living the dream.
When I started down the path of consulting as my day job, I didn’t think I would like it. Mostly I was forcing myself to take a break, so that I wouldn’t make a reckless decision to jump into another full-time gig.
But it’s been a lot of fun, and I’m inclined to continue it indefinitely. I don’t rule out returning to a full-time employment — I’m sure there’s an offer out there that I couldn’t refuse, or perhaps an itch that will drive me to start a company.
Moreover, I do miss leading a team, and there are times I miss the ability to focus full-time on a goal until I’ve achieved it. But I love my variety of work, and there’s something liberating about being an independent consultant rather than a participant in the organizational structure.
The consulting life is not for everyone. When my friends express their jealousy of my freedom, I try to educate them about the downsides. But I won’t deny that, for me, it’s been a lot of fun.
I’m living the dream.