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Becoming a consultant: Lessons from the first year

By Dr. Carol McCoy

Over the years how many of you have developed a special expertise and been told by friends and colleagues, "Why don’t you become a consultant? You know so much and you could make so much money!"

I’ve just finished my first full year as a consultant after working for 25 years for several large organizations. How does being on my own compare with life in middle management? For me, it’s been rewarding, exhilarating, challenging, and the greatest growth experience of my life.

Why did I happen to start my own Training and Development Consulting business? This wasn’t something that I’d always dreamed of doing, but an idea that blossomed when my employer merged with another company and offered a generous early retirement package.

I jumped at the opportunity to take early retirement, but what to do next? I went to the company’s career development center, and participated in an outside seminar, where I discovered that my top values are freedom, creative self-expression, and personal development. After only one session with my career counselor, I decided to take the plunge and go out on my own. The only way to be free to express myself and learn what I wanted was to be my own boss.

I began my journey by meeting with other consultants, who worked on their own or in partnership with others. They not only gave me great advice, but several of them referred business to me!

I also took workshops through SCORE, which helped inspire me to write my mission statement and my business plan. I also saw my accountant and found a lawyer, who both advised me to set up a sole proprietorship, a very simple process.

At the same time, I worked with an artist friend to design a logo and a business card. I felt such pride and satisfaction when I saw my name and logo on my card and my new stationery. It helped me make my new business more real to me. A final step was setting up a Web site, which explained my services and my background, and which promoted my books.

Now it was a matter of making my business successful. Several years ago I had ruled out becoming a consultant because of the plusses of corporate life and because of my fears. I liked having a steady paycheck, working with colleagues that I enjoyed and learned from, and being able to rely on a technology department to solve my computer problems. I was worried about making enough money to live on, having enough contact with other people, and managing my own technology. How have I done in managing these fears? Everyone told me to expect ups and downs, and be prepared for lean times, especially in the first year. I can’t emphasize this enough. As a first step, I made sure that I saved enough money to cover expenses on low-income months.

Because I started marketing before I left my old company, I had business right away, giving me the false impression that I might be able to have constant business in my first year. This was an unrealistic dream! While I thought I had enough saved, it was down-right hair-raising during the dead of winter and the summer months when people were not interested in hiring a consultant. The lack of business and income can get depressing, particularly during low light months.

To cover expenses it helped to have a line of credit -- besides credit cards -- to fall back on and to adjust my spending habits. But the real solution is finding steady income. A challenge has been finding new projects while working on a current project. You can never do too much marketing — people need to know you’re in business and what you have to offer. The constant need to find new business can be quite a strain.

What about the isolation? Surprisingly, this hasn’t been much of an issue for me. Being chairperson of a conference gave me some regular social contact with a group of wonderful, hard-working people. I liked having some place to go and a reason to talk with people besides marketing calls. (On the other hand, it also gave me a lot on responsibilities, which I didn’t get paid for!)

My many networking meetings with colleagues and clients, and teaching at USM’s Center for Continuing Education also kept me in touch with the outside world.

Now for the last bugaboo: Being my own technology department. My old computer’s memory shriveled to nothing as I added more documents, but I wanted to wait to update it. I had prepared for Y2K by having a colleague from my previous employer check over my machine. My colleague also helped me set up my own Web site on a free host.

It was fun setting up the site and watching it grow, like a rambling New England barn. Sometimes my colleague updated the site and sometimes I did it myself, with my primitive programming skills. Everything was fine and I survived Jan. 1 quite nicely.

But life changed dramatically on February 29, 2000, when I made a minor change to my Index (home) page. I pressed save as I always did, but this time the Web page went totally blank. It seems my host did not recognize “leap day” as a real date. To make matters worse, I hadn’t saved a backup copy. My host took two weeks to respond to my plea for help and sent me a note saying, "Thanks for your feedback"!

After much anxiety and struggle, I managed to re-enter a new abbreviated home page. I got some great learning, however. First, I was overly identified with my Web site — a strange neurosis. Second, I needed help and a backup system. Third, this crisis inspired me to have my site professionally managed.

Now I pay for someone to host my site. I have a address, a site which is easier to navigate, and automatic back-up. I also bought a faster computer with enough memory. This is all money well spent!

So, in the end what are the plusses of this life? I love my freedom. I’ve always liked to jump from task to task. Now I can create a program, write an article, mow the lawn, go for a walk, surf the net for ancestors, in any order I like. I enjoy being my own boss and directing my future.

I love the constant learning from my clients. I appreciate the variety of working with different organizations. If something doesn’t work out, I have other clients. I actually like working on a project basis, instead of getting a steady paycheck regardless of what I do, I have to “hunt and gather” my salary. I know I’m earning my living.

I have found some great clients, but it’s a lot of work. What I like best is being able to do what I enjoy and what I’m good at for clients who really want my services. All in all, it’s been a great move for me.

Dr. Carol P. McCoy is president of McCoy Training and Development Resources, a consulting firm in Falmouth, Maine. Her mission is to help organizations and individuals improve their effectiveness in a constantly changing world.

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