I spent the early part of my career restlessly pursuing different opportunities. I crisscrossed the country jumping from various jobs in education with organizations I felt were doing innovative work. I thought I finally found a work home. I envisioned staying there my whole career. I was passionate about the work and good at it — the ideal combination. Then, I got laid off.
I was called into the legal counsel’s office where he and the director of human resources were waiting. I was told that the organization needed to save money. So, they were making cuts which included my role (snacking and meeting notes also apparently played a role, buy me a drink for that story).
Considering that I had strong performance reviews, I was blindsided by the news. It felt like a significant other told me the relationship was over, while I was picking out an engagement ring.
Even though I was fuming, I put the frustration aside and started searching for another job (ice cream helped). I’ve always had a regular job, so trying an alternative like part-time work, freelancing, or consulting wasn’t on my radar.
So naturally, I was surprised when advisers suggested that I take on some consulting work. They reasoned that this would give me an opportunity to learn about what kind of projects I genuinely enjoy, what kind of organizational cultures make me happy, and which leaders I wanted to learn from. This would position me well in terms of making sure my next gig was one that was long-lasting or I may end up realizing I love consulting and do it long term.
Instability, Immigrants, and Independence
This idea was completely foreign to me. As a child of immigrants, such a risky and unstable career move was almost unthinkable. My immigrant parents already did not understand my decision to work in education instead of a more conventionally prestigious career in medicine or law. Education consulting seemed even more outside of their frame of reference. And sure enough, when I called my mom to tell her that I was going to consult at least for the short term, she asked me, her voice tinged with skepticism and concern, not to tell my dad as this could cause him grief.
And they weren’t the only ones worried. I had always had a stable income so I worried whether I would actually be able to find clients or would this independent streak only lead me to depleting my savings? I also wondered whether people would hire someone without formal consulting experience. This was also an unknown world. If I somehow landed clients, this seemed to lead to even more questions like how much would I charge them? Did I need to form an LLC? What even is an LLC?
On the positive side, though, it was a pretty ideal time to try something new. I do not have a significant other. I have no kids. No pets. I even buck the millennial trend of owning plants. The dating profile writes itself! If consulting were to go horribly wrong, the only person who would be disappointed and broke was me.
Fortunately, I developed a strong network of potential clients and advisers who could help me operationalize my consulting. My work lent itself to partnering with organizations and I had established ties by building communities of practices.
However, while I leveraged my network to serve as thought partners and collaborators, asking them to hire me as a consultant is totally different. You’re asking people to trust you enough to hand over a project and to open their wallets. Others in my network were consulting so they were able to provide helpful advice. I learned a lot very quickly including how much to charge, which software I should buy (and stay away from), and how many projects to take on.
The Pros: Freedom from Pointless Meetings and Management
So I took the plunge and became an independent consultant. I was able to secure clients early on, which makes me extremely lucky. I made it official by forming an LLC and opening business bank accounts. I have greatly enjoyed many aspects of consulting:
- Flexibility: I am my own boss. I set my own hours. Do I want to take a gym class in the afternoon? I can do it and just work later in the day. Working from the couch in sweatpants under a blanket during a Chicago winter has also been a major perk.
- Diversity of projects: My projects include the creation of a tool to help schools better implement technology; interviewing practitioners to make a data set of innovative schools stronger for the next iteration; and marketing a service that connects schools to experts. There is no role that I know of that allows me to flex so many different muscles. This has helped me understand what work energizes me and what does not.
- Purposeful work: Any time that I am working, it is directly related to a project or maintaining my business. I no longer have to sit in on meetings that I am just tangentially related to. Every minute feels purposeful which often translates to working fewer hours.
- Insights into organizations: It has been fascinating to see the various work cultures. Some have thought out structures for how all projects are ran while others tailor the approach for each project. One client’s Slack channel is filled with custom emojis and channels dedicated purely for silly breaks while other organizations take a more business only approach.
The Cons: Famine Is Just around the Corner
I do not want to pretend like everything has been sunshine and rainbows (especially not the case during a Chicago winter). Here are some of the drawbacks:
- Always Selling: It was stressful to source clients initially and as I start approaching the end of my first round of projects, the awareness that I need to always be sourcing projects is more pronounced. Being my own boss is fun, but is it worth not having a steady income and a strong benefits package?
- Instability: You never know when feast or famine will hit. Right now, I am lucky to have a full plate of work, but that could dissipate. That fear of work evaporating is always lingering in the back of my mind. While flexibility of schedule is nice, when I am not working, I am not getting paid.
- Initial Startup Bumps: Navigating all of the hoops I needed to jump through to start a business and understanding tax considerations was not fun. Other considerations like finding insurance were also time sucks I had not factored. In addition, the time spent on business development is not paid time so your other work has to be able to cover that time financially while not stretching you so far you do not have time to dedicate to it.
Getting laid off sucked. But, I am glad that it pushed me into consulting. It is something I would never have done without losing a job. I went from a situation where I felt like I had no control to driving a business. I get to work with some great organizations and work on projects that stimulate me and are impactful. I may return to a traditional role, but I know now that this is an option that I can always return to. Right now, I am enjoying the ride. However, that doesn’t stop my mom from asking me if I can afford my rent…