Plan for success: How to establish yourself as an independent consultant

Do you have the discipline to thrive on a consultancy job? Photo by: Connor Ashleigh / DFAT / CC BY

The project-based nature of development work and the frequent need for specific, short-term technical expertise make this sector ripe for a thriving consultant base.

Independent consultants play a large role in assisting NGOs, consulting firms and donor agencies in their activities, and striking out on your own can be a practical, and even lucrative, option if you’re seeking a flexible schedule or technical concentration.

Last week, together with membership group International Consultants Working for a Better World, Devex hosted a panel discussion on independent consulting to discuss some of the challenges and opportunities in branching out on your own.

If you’re considering leaving a steady paycheck for the life of a consultant, here are four tips both recruiters and seasoned consultants advise:

1.  Start planning your transition early

If you’re frustrated in your current job, the idea of quitting and starting out on your own may be tempting. However, make sure you take the time to plan out your transition. First, start saving. There will be expenses tied to becoming a consultant, such as building a website or attending seminars, and you will want to be in a stable financial position to weather the first few months when assignments may be scarce.

You will also want to start building a network of potential clients, including getting a better sense of their needs. Most consulting assignments come via referrals and word of mouth. Before you quit your job, make sure you have some warm leads and are sure your expertise is actually sought after by organizations

2. Decide if you want to be a small business or an individual consultant

Some independent consultants form their own business and operate under a business name rather than as an individual. As one U.S.-based consultant put it, it’s the difference between using a tax ID or a social security number.

So how do you decide which path to pursue? Think about your expertise and what kinds of assignments you seek. Do you have a very niche skill that would be in demand for short-term technical assistance to a project? Do you want to pursue assignments on donor-funded programs, or within a donor themselves? Are you more comfortable submitting a CV rather than a proposal? Finding work as an individual may make more sense for you.

If you instead envision offering a wider range of services and expertise — which may involve bringing in other people when necessary — and like the idea of pursuing RFPs and the possibility of building a business beyond just yourself, then starting your own small business,  even a business of one, may make more sense for you.

One thing to keep in mind is that hiring an individual consultant is an easier procurement process than hiring a small business for many organizations. So ask about these details when nurturing a group of potential clients.

3.  Be prepared to say no

When branching out on your own, it can be very tempting to accept any and all assignments offered, even if they are outside of your wheelhouse. But learning to say no and only take on those tasks where you think you can provide unique value is key to building a strong reputation and personal brand.

This also means spending your time responding to opportunities where you have an inside connection or when a contact has personally asked you to submit a proposal. One consultant who runs her own small business noted that she almost never responds to a public RFP. Proposals take a lot of time — which means money — so do not waste yours responding to something that may very well be wired to someone else.

4.  Nurture your network

Networking is important to any professional in advancing their career, but none more so than independent consultants. Most consulting assignments are not advertised. Even large institutions like the World Bank, which publicly post all staff vacancies, admit that the vast majority of consultants are hired through inside networks. This means you can’t take a passive approach to finding work.

While recruiters will find talent for full-time positions, individual departments will typically hire short-term consultants. So you will need to develop relationships with professionals in the departments you hope to work, and maintain them. Hiring managers we spoke to suggested reaching out about three times a year to update them on your availability to keep you fresh on their mind without becoming a nuisance.

Attending seminars and presentations about the latest tools in your area of expertise is not only important for staying up to date on the latest advancements in your trade, but also for building and growing that network.

When a department head can’t find the right consultant, they are more likely to seek referrals from friends, or look for people in databases like Devex rather than post a job vacancy. So be sure you have an updated Devex profile with a CV attached so you won’t miss out on any opportunities.

Are you an independent consultant in international development? What advice would you give to someone looking to branch out on their own? Please leave your comments below.

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About the author

  • Warren kate 1

    Kate Warren

    Kate Warren is Executive Vice President and resident talent and careers guru at Devex. With 15 years of global development recruitment experience advising international NGOs, consulting firms, and donor agencies, she has a finger on the pulse of hiring trends across the industry and insider knowledge on what it takes to break in.