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Becoming self-employed is an attractive career move for many people. Career consultants are self-employed individuals who design their career by moving from one assignment or project to the next, often specializing in a particular niche role, with a set start and end date on each contract. There are, however, certain pieces of the puzzle that are crucial to success in the world of the entrepreneur. Here are some tips for creating a successful consulting career that is sustainable, lucrative and enjoyable. 

Define your “why”?

Consulting is an attractive career for many, with lucrative rates, flexibility and exposure to a wide range of industries. There’s no shortage of reasons to think about becoming a Career Consultant. It is intense, challenging, creative and although immensely rewarding, but it can also be hard work. Understanding your purpose, your drive and motivation – whether it be to make more money, to see more of the world, to change the industry, make an impact – understanding why you do what you do is the foundation to making a successful career. To quote Simon Sinek “By WHY, I mean your purpose, cause or belief – WHY does your company exist? WHY do you get out of bed every morning? And WHY should anyone care?” If you don’t know why, your clients won’t either.

Who Me? Yes ME!

One of the most crucial aspects of successful consulting is defining your niche and crafting your value proposition, something we call crafting a career story that sells. Finding a niche that works for you is crucial to your long-term success – feeding into the clients you get, the reputation you build and even the money you can make. The best consultants are those that are not the “jack of all trades” being all things to all people, instead knowing what they have to offer, play to their strengths and say no to assignments that just don’t fit in that plan.

Defining your niche

Critically review your career to-date, ask yourself how each role played a part in your career story and what skills you’ve developed along the way. To help define what you do and who you do it for, ask yourself:

  • What ‘expert knowledge’ do I have and who would benefit most from that expertise?
  • What problem can I solve that no one else is solving?
  • What is my value proposition – what can I offer that no one else can?
  • Who and what is my ideal client industry/location/company size/lifecycle point? 

Some examples of key focus areas we work with in the Accounting and Finance consulting space include:

  • ERP systems implementations – SAP / Oracle configurations, migrating from Excel to Quickbooks / Xero etc
  • Regulatory Changes and Accounting Standard Updates, for example IFRS-16 / IFRS-17 updates or US GAAP conversions
  • Mergers & Acquisitions – including target assessment, due diligence and acquisition integration

Crafting a story that sells

A big stumbling block that both net-new and tenured consultants come up against is selling their story in a memorable way. Oftentimes, we get so caught up in the rush to close the deal that we forget about the human connection that really makes these deals sustainable in the future. Think about the last person who made a real impression on you at an event – it’s likely that you both connected on something more personal than just your career highlights or the USPs of your businesses. “People Buy People” as the saying goes and the “Crafting Your Narrative” workshops that Clarity offers can help put that human element back into your pitch. Sign up for our mailing list to hear about future events.

Choose your own adventure

Before jumping in headfirst it’s important to consider all the options out there. “Consulting” comes in various formats and where you sit in the consultant matrix depends on two things – your tolerance for risk and desire for flexibility. There are advantages and drawbacks to each which will suit every consultant differently.

Low Risk / Low Flexibility – Employee at a Professional Consulting Firm

If you prefer to work on a project basis with a discrete start and end but you can’t really imagine giving up your regular pay cheque, then consulting for a professional services firm like McKinsey or a Big 4 public accounting firm might be better for you. Typically, you are deployed to a well-established client base for defined purpose projects. They generally work with large Fortune 500 companies and are supported by robust internal policies and procedures so if you like structure and no shortage of projects this is the route for you. However, as a permanent employee, you are unlikely to have much flexibility or time off between projects.

Working with the smaller boutiques or specialized management firms may be better positioned to afford you this flexibility while also offering great exposure to mentors and a strong pipeline of interesting business. However, internal processes can be less developed and it requires a greater ability to work autonomously. 

High Risk / High Flexibility – Self Employed Contractor

If the corporate world just isn’t for you, the alternative is going out on your own and becoming a freelancer. Working for yourself is the dream for many consultants – the freedom to be picky about your work, choosing when to have free-time and being able to put your home life first is the holy grail! But working project-to-project also takes a huge amount of grit, resilience, hustle and a high comfort-level with uncertainty. There are two ways to ease that pressure and keep your project pipeline flowing – Specialist Recruiters and Networking – more on that below.

Show me the money

There’s no one-size-fits-all way of pricing yourself, particularly when determining your value is often circumstantial. Evaluate each opportunity as it comes, but as a rule of thumb, to determine your minimum hourly rate, halve your permanent salary expectation and divide by 1000 (eg. $90,000 annual salary = 90,000 / 2 / 1,000 = $45/hr). The more experience you gain and the more niche you become, the higher you can push this number. 

Do your research on invoicing options – speak to your personal accountant about the differences between incorporating, becoming a Sole Proprietor or even remaining as an Elect to Work temporary employee. There are advantages to all three but also some important drawbacks and is a personal decision that needs to work for you.

If you hate administration, don’t let paper-pushing be the stumbling block on your dreams. There is a slew of mobile and desktop apps to help you manage your personal accounting. You really do not want to head into tax season with no record of your work!

Lastly – advocate for the price of your services! Pricing at the end of the day is really just an agreed number between two parties. If you want to charge $1000/hr for your work, then do it, but know the value of that money and why your client should pay it. 

“Have you met Ted?”

Developing, and more importantly maintaining, a network of friends, peers, mentors and future colleagues is critical to your success as a respected consultant. Yet the word “Networking” sends shivers down the spine of even the most confident consultant. Building your network doesn’t have to be scary or complicated. The Key? Don’t overthink it.

Look at Barney Stinson, expert networker from the sitcom How I Met Your Mother, who knew exactly how to create opportunity from connections, simply by introducing two people, asking “Have you met Ted?”. Relationships, friendships and even business partnerships first start with a ‘Hello’. It really is that simple!

Using specialist recruiters

Finding a recruiter you trust who specializes in your niche area, can offer an invaluable support system during your consulting career. Recruiters are trained networkers, “opportunity generators” and often your biggest cheerleaders throughout the interview process. We have our pulse on the market, speaking to hundreds of people per week, meaning you get all the information hot off the press and access to some of the most interesting work before your neighbor does. 

Leaning on your network

Having to regularly market your business, as well as deliver on your projects, can be overwhelming. Leaning on your network of old colleagues, bosses, friends and family can help ease this pressure. Make casual coffees your modus operandi (maybe make them decaf!), ask for referrals and attend industry meet-ups. And when you are feeling brave, be like Barney, operating as an opportunity match-maker, introducing friends for a shared benefit. Networking meet-ups can be intimidating and scary but are a hotbed of industry connectors all there with the same goal. You don’t need to be afraid of saying hello to your luncheon table buddy, just remember the human element and show your personality!

Conclusion

Overall, joining the consulting world can be immensely rewarding, but careful assessment should be conducted before jumping in with both feet. With so much to think about, the Clarity Project and Interim Team can help you through the process. Request a Free Consultation on our website for insights on the consulting market.

About the Author

Aoife Kernan

Aoife Kernan is a specialist Interim and Project recruiter in the Accounting and Finance industry. She specializes in developing and nurturing relationships with Accounting across various industries. When not in the office she can be found exploring what nature has to offer across Canada.

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Clarity is a Finance and Accounting recruitment agency in Toronto and Vancouver offering Permanent, Project & Interim Staffing and Executive Search, with a focus in start-up and scale-up companies.

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