Consulting Isn't My Backup Plan

Although I’ve been self-employed for almost 5 years, I’m still regularly contacted by recruiters about full-time positions. Most of them are polite and professional, and I often refer them to other colleagues who I know are looking for work. Once in a while though, I hear from someone who just doesn’t get it. For example, I received a message on LinkedIn from a recruiter we’ll call “B.” He said he had an opportunity for me but didn’t provide any other details. I replied that while I’m not looking for full-time work, I’d potentially be available for consulting if he had a problem I could solve.

He replied with this message. In case you’re wondering, no, this isn’t one of my fictionalized stories–every mistake you see in the message below is exactly as “B” wrote it.

This is a Direct Hire position, I am confused as if you are looking for consulting work, wouldnt you be interested in W2 contract?

Puppeteer controlling two businesspeople

Besides the lack of professionalism in his writing, “B” demonstrates an attitude I have unfortunately seen in several recruiters over the years. They assume that consulting is a “backup plan” I’m using to fill the gaps while I’m looking for a “real job.” They simply can’t fathom that anyone would choose to work for themselves.

Personally, I’d be hard pressed to go back to working in a “cubicle farm.” Working from home and setting my own schedule makes me more productive, along with giving me the flexibility to spend more time with my daughter. I cherish being able to pick which projects and clients I work with; I can turn down prospects where I’d just be an “order taker” or tweaking PowerPoints. I don’t have to accept unreasonably short timelines or woefully insufficient budgets. I can focus primarily on the scenario-based projects I find rewarding. I never have time to be bored because there’s so much variety and so much to learn.

Certainly sometimes people go out on their own because they’re forced to when a regular job ends. Some freelancers are truly working independently as a stopgap measure until they find another long-term job. It happens, but I wish recruiters wouldn’t assume that’s what everyone is doing—especially when they’ve been running their own company for multiple years like me.

Many consultants are like me. We prefer working on their own and aren’t motivated primarily by those external forces. In their article Secrets of Star Training Consultants, Saul Carliner and John Murray explain that the people they identified as “star consultants” in the field were mostly independent because they chose this path:

For the majority, however, the forces pushing the participants into private consulting were internal. Some expressed a desire to move beyond a certain work environment. One expressed an interest in earning more money. And the most experienced of the participants expressed a desire to improve the effectiveness of learning experiences.

If you’re a consultant, what would it take to get you to leave consulting and go back to full time work? Once you’ve cut the strings, is there anything that would convince you to go back?
Image credit: (c) Can Stock Photo

26 thoughts on “Consulting Isn't My Backup Plan”

  1. W2 contracting is a good way to find work in ID regardless of your eventual path. A lot of the jobs posted fall into that category. That makes it easier to break into the field or into a company. You can have those roles and still think of yourself as an employee. However, if you can get into the mindset of being in control of your own career and being independent, as you said, that’s a good step towards going out truly on your own. You’re right that some of this is the mindset of being in charge of yourself. That means you have to set goals and be accountable to yourself, and you need to be willing and able to explain your value to others. When you’re freelancing, you should plan to spend about 1-2 days a week on your business–marketing, talking to prospective clients, blogging, administrative work, etc. That’s a big shift from spending 40 hours a week on someone else’s goals to spending maybe 30 hours a week working for paid clients and 10 hours a week working for yourself.

    1. That breakdown 1-2 days / week working on your own business and goals vs full time working on someone else’s goals really helps to put it into perspective, and provides insight into what is needed to make it work – thanks Christy. For me it shows how important it is is to build in time for investing and developing the business / yourself is (something that perhaps being an employee in the workplace doesn’t help prepare you for).
      Thanks for your insights, tips and links (here and on twitter) Christy – really valuable!

  2. Hey Christy thanks for your posts on freelancing / consulting – I’m also considering a move into freelancing / consulting and your posts plus the comments, responses and links to other freelancers / consultants provide fantastic and invaluable insight into the experience, what to consider when starting out as well as how to make it sustainable long term. Your experience of using ‘W2’ contracting as a stepping stone into freelance consulting / ID is also good to hear about – something I am considering too. I’ve previously done this type of contracting but currently an employee. I think it can be a good option for someone considering the move into freelance as contracting still provides a level of security / familiarity (contracted for a period of time, paid by the recruiter – so you don’t have to think about the ‘business’ / accounting side of freelance/consulting – quite yet or as much) – however I think the biggest advantage is that it starts getting you into the Mindset of being independent of your employer / organisation – since you know there is a timeframe on your employment it forces you to be more mindful of networking, your profile, and the marketability of your skills and experience (whereas as an employee you basically get paid for turning up – it can make you complacent about these things). Short term contracting also tends to be more outcomes focused as you’re often employed to meet a specific need and may be a good way to get broader experience across a range of organisations to build up potential clients / network and portfolio.
    Although my consideration of independent freelancing / consulting is more driven by a bigger picture move out of the city and into a regional area (where there simply won’t be the same job opportunities as a big city), as I read about people’s experiences with freelancing/consulting I’m seeing increasingly that the underlying driver for people making the move is to gain more independence, flexibility and control over their work, income and life (rather than simply to ‘pay the bills’) – there’s a mindset and attitude that is essential to being successful at independent freelancing that’s bigger than just ‘going to work’. This is the same mindset and attitude that’s driving our decision to move out of the city so it’s good to see an alignment there.

  3. Hello Christy,
    I’ve been working full time as an ID in various industries for seven years now and I desperately want to transition into consulting. Do you have any tips or suggestions on how to transition into consulting work? For example, where do you find clients, firms to work with, or opportunities to get started?

    1. My post on How Freelance Clients Find Me is a good place to start. That post includes links to some of my other posts with tips on moving into consulting.
      For many people, it’s easier to break into subcontracting first rather than getting your own direct clients. Many companies that specialize in elearning hire subcontractors for ID and development work. Google elearning companies or elearning companies in your local area and you’ll come up with a bunch of names. Those companies often list what skills they need on a website. The pay is lower for subcontracting, but you don’t have to do the sales yourself.
      You might also want to join the Online Network of Independent Learning Professionals. We have other members who are currently working full time and hoping to make the move too. The LinkedIn group is a bit quiet, but that’s where you can find out about our weekly presentations and the Slack chat where most conversations happen.

  4. Christy and others, you make an excellent point of expecting others to take your work as a consultant and as a business owner seriously. I’m familiar with doing ID work full time for an employer as an employee and doing ID work as a consultant, but wasn’t familiar with what a “W2 contract” is. So, I did a search and found out some information about it. Can you elaborate on what the pros and cons of working as a W2 contract employee vs. a full-time W-2 employee for an organization specifically doing ID work?

    1. Basically, the IRS classifies workers either as employees (W2) or independent contractors (1099). W2 jobs are what you think of as regular full-time jobs. However, many jobs are contracted through other companies (think TEKsystems, Manpower, etc.). You’re a W2 employee of a recruiting company rather than a direct employee of the company. For example, when I worked at Cisco, I was actually a W2 employee of TEKsystems. I was initially hired for a 6 month contract and renewed repeatedly for 2 years. Cisco paid TEKsystems, and TEKsystems paid me. I had benefits through TEKsystems. However, I worked in Cisco’s office. My day-to-day interactions were all with Cisco employees, not TEKsystems.
      Sometimes W2 contract positions are “contract to hire.” You start as a contractor through a company for 60 or 90 days with the possibility of being hired on directly. On my first ID team, we hired a number of people that way, especially when we were having trouble finding enough qualified candidates on our own.
      The advantages of W2 contracting are mostly benefits for the businesses, not the employees. It’s easier to have someone else do the preliminary screening of resumes and candidates. It can be cheaper as well.
      As a job seeker, it’s often easier to find a job through a recruiting company than to break in yourself. In some locations and companies, you’ll have many more opportunities as a contractor than an employee. A good recruiter can be a helpful partner in your job search. However, bad recruiters are only worried about what the companies want and don’t care about the job seekers. Contracting often has worse benefits and may pay less than being a direct employee.
      W2 contracting can be an effective way to break into the field or into a new location; that’s why I did it when I relocated to North Carolina. In some cases, W2 contracting can really be like being a full employee. Lots of IT jobs are that way; people work for 10 or 20 years for a particular recruiting/contracting company. They might work at multiple locations during that time, but the contracting company is the consistent employer.

      1. Thank you Christy for the explanation. If I may, I’d like to add that I think it depends on the sector and and/or the industry you want to do ID work in terms of how easy it is to find an ID if there’s a preference for one of the sectors or a specific industry. For instance, in colleges and universities there are plenty of ID jobs and you apply to them directly on the college or university’s website.

        1. True–brick and mortar campuses are much less likely to use contracting companies. They’re also less likely to hire IDs as consultants or to allow any IDs to work remotely. Corporations are more likely to use full-time contractors and/or independent consultants.

  5. I’ve been consulting since 2013, after being continuously employed full-time in the non-profit sector for more than 20 years. 3-quarters of that 20 years was spent working remotely, and I learned quickly how to be consistent, accountable, and diligent — even though I wasn’t physically visible to the rest of my team/co-workers. As a consultant, I love the ability to leverage those habits and create a sense of camaraderie with my project teams. It’s great to have the flexibility to work for myself, but also get to enjoy the feeling of “team” that comes with being part of a staff. I recently have gone through a bit of a twist, thinking about going back to working as a traditional employee…and for the right job at the right salary, I would do it. But, those opportunities are few and far between. I feel very fortunate that my husband and I have figured out how I can pick and choose, working as much or as little as I want. Our lifestyle has benefited from my flexibility more than it has from my financial contributions, but who knows! I guess for me, the point is about being able to make a real contribution. Whether I do this as a consultant or as a part of an employee team depends on the gig!

    1. Since last fall, I’ve been part of a network of freelancers. We meet weekly and have an active Slack community. It’s been great to have some of that sense of connection with a team again. Consulting can be isolating. I have also found that when I work from home I need to be intentional about getting out to interact with people in person.

  6. Agree with everything being discussed here. And find it hilarious for someone to refer to you as unemployed!!
    One more thing I think it’s important to mention here, is that often people in full time jobs don’t realise how much safer it is to work for yourself. If I have 5 client and one of them gets rid of me, I still have 4 clients – if your employer decides you’re surplus to requirements, you’ve lost 100% of your income.
    Oh and one more thing. I just gave myself a 20% payrise. That never happened to me in the corporate world!

    1. Would you guys mind chatting with me a bit on how to get started in the field of consulting? I would love to get your insight. It sounds like all here are doing quite well. I have been putting this off for some time now due to fear and uncertainty about how to work for myself. Any helpful guidance would be more than appreciated. Thank you again Robine

    2. Ant, I have used the metaphor of a 401(k) or retirement savings (I’m not sure of the UK equivalent for investments, but adjust for whatever investment portfolio would be understandable there). You would never put 100% of your investments into the stock of a single company. It would be too risky. However, employees trust 100% of their income to a single company. Being independent does have risk, of course, but it isn’t quite what many people picture.

  7. Christy, I would love to hear more about how you broke into consulting work. I am graduating with my Master of Science degree in Instructional Design and Technology and would love to begin working in a consulting capacity in the area of Organizational Development. I really enjoy your blog posts and look forward to speaking with you soon.

    1. In my case, I had been working at Cisco as a long-term W2 contractor. I knew my contract was coming to an end and wasn’t sure it would be renewed. I had been saving up money for several years, so I had a buffer available. As I was winding down at Cisco, I found a big subcontracting project through an elearning company. That didn’t quite replace my prior income, but it gave me enough to go for a few months (plus my savings) while I found other clients.
      For consulting with ID work, a portfolio is a must. If you’re not already creating one in your masters program, start working on samples now. For broader org development work, I’m not sure if the portfolio is as critical. I’d still expect to see something though. The only org development consultants I have known had multiple years of experience in business before they went out on their own. Instructional design, on the other hand, is much easier to start freelancing in right out of grad school. Are you truly looking at OD, or are you really thinking about doing ID and course development? If it’s OD, how much work experience do you have?

      1. Christy,
        Thank you so much for the wonderful advice. I am actually an alum of Walden University and as a graduate student part of our program has been to design our portfolio. I have included the link to it here on this response. I am looking for development and instructional design to start. I actually have ten years of experience as a Social Worker, five years in corporate training, and another 4 years of Human Resource and management experience. I thought that with my psychology background along with my experience in training, development and instructional design that Organizational Development would be a good fit. I am a contractor as well, I work for a large Department of Defense organization my most recent project is an e Learning course for the Navy. Here is the link to my portfolio.
        Please feel free to share any thoughts or suggestions that you may have about my online portfolio.
        I look forward to chatting further.
        Thank you,

        1. Given your experience, organizational development does sound like a good fit. As far as finding ID clients, I have summarized my process for getting consulting work.
          The link to your Capstone project don’t work. Maybe that’s a placeholder for a project you haven’t finished yet? Without seeing an example of an actual course or part of a course, it’s hard to tell your skills.

    1. One of my friends just started a new job this week, after being home getting a degree online and having a more flexible schedule. She’s struggling a bit with the transition. I know I would too.

  8. PREACH! I am so tired of my friends who say that I’m unemployed because I’m self-employed. I make more than most of them will ever dream about, plus I get to work when I want to work. I don’t have to be somewhere between certain hours 5 days a week.

    1. In 9+ years of blogging, I think this is the first “PREACH!” I’ve received. You made me smile. Since the first three comments came in within 2 hours of posting, I think I’ve hit a nerve here for many of you.
      I think it’s ridiculous to think you’re unemployed because you’re independent! That’s much worse than the recruiter who ticked me off. I have to wonder if there’s a gender component to that assumption. Do you think that your friends would assume a man who was self-employed wasn’t actually working? Is this a double standard for women?
      I will note that the first three comments on my post are from women. I’ve had some positive responses to this from men on LinkedIn, so this isn’t only a problem for women. I do wonder if people are more likely to assume a woman isn’t really running her own business though.

      1. Love that I gave you your first PREACH.:D
        The funny thing is, one of the folks who said that to me was another woman. She has a very high-powered career with the state here. Her husband is an attorney and works for himself. Yet I doubt she would categorize him as “unemployed.”
        I can’t remember what show it was – I think maybe the Golden Girls or something like that – where someone said that he was a freelance writer, and another character asked what that meant. A third character stated that it meant he (the freelance writer) was unemployed.
        I do think gender could be part of it. I am loathe to say that, as I am not one to jump on that train unless it’s blatantly obvious. People don’t question a male plumber when he has his own business. Most of the ID consultants I know locally are women.
        I wonder if it’s a combination of the field (especially as most people I meet have no idea what we do) and the gender.

        1. I am currently working on a series of courses on equity, so I am primed to see gender differences. I know it’s not as simple as just gender though. I’ve seen a male freelance writer get a similar reaction to the TV show you described too. I think you’re right that people have a hard time understanding the work too. It’s a combination of factors.
          In a conversation with my husband last night, we discussed the differences in how people talk about their work. We can call ourselves self-employed, freelancers, independent contractors, consultants, or business owners. Each one of those tells people something about our work. You can charge more money as a consultant than a freelancer. In fact, I’ve gone through my website and LinkedIn profile to replace the word “freelancer” with “consultant.”
          There’s also a difference in whether you approach this as just doing temporary gigs or if you approach it as running a business. I admit that when I started, I was really just thinking about doing lots of short term contracts. In the last year, I’ve been more focused on running a business. Even as a sole proprietor, I’m thinking about improving business processes and developing multiple income streams.

  9. Christy, I couldn’t agree more. And furthermore, if recruiters don’t change their perspective they are going to have a hard time finding millennials to hire as more an more of the younger workforce, want balance and flexibility that consulting and contracting can provide.

    1. We are definitely moving to a “gig economy.” I think there will still be a role for recruiters as more work shifts to being project based, but those recruiters will be sourcing consultants instead of W2 contractors.

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