Hire Yourself: A Guide to Become an Independent Practitioner or Consultant

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Why should you Hire Yourself?

"Nothing is as constant as change."  This is as true today as it was when Heraclitus coined the phrase over 2500 years ago.  And it's particularly true when it comes to careers.  No matter what your career path might be, it's pretty certain that it will have some twists and turns.  And the best way to keep moving forward, in good times and bad, is to know what you have to offer and where it is in demand.  In a booming economy, for instance, there might be multiple opportunities to choose from, and it would be important to be selective and pursue the ones that are the best fit for your skills.  In an economic downturn, on the other hand, the lack of job opportunities can create more competition, and the people who can "market" their skills most effectively will survive. 

"Hiring yourself" as an independent practitioner or consultant can be a highly effective way to enter the job market, in good times or bad.  And the steps you will take to "hire yourself" can help you advocate for your strengths and potential whenever things change or a new career path opens up.  In addition to maximizing your career options, there are several other reasons to consider "hiring yourself". 

  • One is to test and define the "transferable skills" you need to move from one work setting to another, i.e. the abilities you've demonstrated in the laboratory or classroom that could be useful in another environment such as a business, government agency or non-profit. 

  • Another good reason to "hire yourself" would be as a bridge to a full-time job.  This could include marketing yourself to an organization that needs your skills or experience, but is unwilling or unable to hire you full-time as an employee.  For those organizations, taking you on as a consultant on a project-by-project basis might be an attractive option, and if the organization starts hiring employees full-time in the future, you could be first in line. 

  • For some of you, "hiring yourself" could also launch your career as an independent consultant to a variety of customers or clients.  Although such a career path can have its plusses and minuses, the idea of being your own boss and having a career—and a life-style—that you can control might be attractive and rewarding.  


What should you hire?  "You!"

The obvious answer is "you," but there are many aspects of "you" to consider if you wish to be a consultant or provide your skills and knowledge as a service.

1. Knowledge + Experience + Insight

The first and most important parts of "you" that you can hire are the knowledge and experience you have developed from your academic training and previous work experience.  But knowledge and experience are not enough for you to successfully "hire yourself."  You need to combine them with insight—the capacity to understand where your knowledge and experience might be useful and effective.  If you "hire" your knowledge or experience without knowing where those assets might be most in demand, you won't be likely to achieve the levels of success that you deserve.

2. Curiosity

A major factor in being a successful consultant or independent practitioner is curiosity—the desire to expand your knowledge, solve a difficult problem or follow an idea down to its conclusion.  Although this is a core trait of anyone who pursues a graduate degree, you may need to redefine it to fit a setting that's new to you, particularly a business, where the simple pursuit of a well-researched answer may not be enough.  You may find, for instance, that you need to answer questions like "How much money can we save by doing this?" rather than "Does this prove or disprove our hypothesis?"   And even more importantly, your curiosity must not only drive you to consider a new idea, but pursue it.  Taking the initiative is not enough; you need to follow through and bring things to closure.

3. Flexibility/Tolerance for Ambiguity

Flexibility, or as it is often called in the business world, your "tolerance for ambiguity,"  means that you need to be able to successfully handle circumstances that are not clearly defined and keep things moving forward, even when the end point may not be apparent.  This is a critical skill in the world of consulting, and those consultants who lack it are often frustrated by what they see as their lack of progress.  But the reality is that your knowledge, experience, insight and creativity may not be enough—you need to be flexible enough to adapt to changing circumstances and pursue new opportunities when they present themselves.  

4. Empathy

Empathy, or the ability to understand and accept how others see things, is crucial.  Without this, it will be difficult for you to provide products or services in ways that meet your clients' needs, even though you might know what the "right" answer is from your perspective.  Communicating your "answer" in ways that others can understand and buy into is a critical component of successfully hiring yourself.

5. "Presence"

Hiring yourself, and getting clients, is also dependent on how much "presence" you have—how much of an impact you can make on others.  This does not mean that you need to be a charismatic extrovert with an engaging personality.  You can use your particular combination of knowledge, curiosity or empathy to make an impact, but you need to do so, in whatever way you can.  Without it, it will be difficult to increase your business or convince an employer to hire you full-time in the future.

6. Resilience

Your ability to work hard, deal with setbacks and sustain your effort over time is another critical component of successfully "hiring" yourself.  You will need to manage multiple responsibilities at once, as well as travel—sometimes as much as 80% of the time—in order to serve your clients.  Managing all your work responsibilities is crucial, but paying attention to your health and balancing your work and personal life is also important.

7. Focus + Organization

Lastly, to hire yourself successfully, you need to be focused, efficient and organized.  You must have a way to manage your work, concentrate on the most important aspects, and keep track of your time so that you can be as highly productive as possible.  This includes managing yourself financially as well—you need to understand the value of your work and what you should charge for it.


Product, Customer or Market?

There are three ways to employ your skills, your knowledge and your experience.  The first is to view these assets of yours as a unique product or service that no one else can offer.  This might be your specialized knowledge about a particular field or subject, or a specific technique that no one else can offer.  A good example of this could be if you are a research scientist who not only knows how to use a mass spectrometer, but is also certified by the NRC in how to set up, maintain and train others to use it.  These skills may be relatively rare in your field and could help you offer a service that few others can provide.

The second way to think about your skills, knowledge and experience is in terms of your potential customers.  If your product is relatively standard or established rather than unique, there still could be many customers who are not aware of it and could use it.  If you are a city planner, for instance, you might find that large cities already have people like you on staff and are not hiring people, but smaller municipalities need your services and are willing to use you on a project-by-project basis.

Thirdly, you should consider the most appropriate market for your services.  You might be a skilled researcher in the academic sciences or humanities markets, and find that your skills are valuable in a market that you might not have first thought of, like patent law or public relations.      


How Do You Hire Yourself?


The first step is to develop a plan—you need to establish goals.  This means defining what you expect to accomplish in your first few months, your first year and, ideally, a little farther into the future.  If you are considering "hiring yourself" as a bridge to full-time employment, for instance, you need to consider where to start—i.e. what organization has the most potential to hire you down the road.  If you are launching your own consulting practice, however, your first consideration should be finding your clients and developing a portfolio of work, rather than concentrating on a single organization or client.

Planning also includes establishing your set-up costs—for an office, if you need one, phone, computer, insurances, accounting, legal advice and other professional supports.   You will also need to consider the certifications, licenses and permits you will need, especially if you need to establish yourself as a sole proprietor.  You should check city, county, state and federal requirements and guidelines for this.  There are also several useful links at the bottom of this guide.

Lastly, planning also includes the "affiliations" you should have—the professional associations you should belong to, as well as other organizations like the Chamber of Commerce or other potential sources of clients.


Once you've put a plan in place, you need to market yourself.  There are many ways to do this.  One of the most tried-and-true methods is Networking—letting others know what you're doing, either face-to-face, through social media like LinkedIn or with your own website.  Letting others know what you have to offer is critical, and you should make time to do it on a regular basis.  

As part of your marketing efforts, you should consider the materials you'll need.  These could include business cards, brochures, newsletters, a professional email address or a website.  As part of this, you should develop a mailing list and regularly expand and update it.

A highly effective way of marketing yourself is by teaching, giving interviews or giving public presentations to various audiences.  You should be on the lookout for opportunities to do this, particularly if it includes audiences that could connect you to clients that need your services.

Volunteering is also a good way to market yourself, particularly if it gives you an opportunity to provide your services to an organization that might hire you in the future as a consultant or full-time.  An additional benefit to volunteering is that it will expand your network and lead you to clients that you might not otherwise connect to.  For more information on volunteering, go to:  http://www.volunteermatch.org/

Lastly, you should always consider asking for referrals for work.  If you successfully complete a project for a client, you should feel confident that your client would be willing to recommend you to others, and ask them to do so.


As your marketing activities become more established and you begin getting clients, you need to manage yourself.  This includes developing a comprehensive budget that includes income and expenses, as well as managing your billing and accounts receivable (keeping track of those who owe you money). 

A critical step to managing yourself is setting your fees.  It is important that you charge a fair price for what you have to offer—too high a fee will prevent clients from being able to afford you and too low a fee will make them think that your services are not valuable.

Once you develop a business or consulting opportunity, you will need to provide appropriate contracts or letters of agreement to your clients.  These documents are critical—they protect both you and those you work for, and can prevent disagreements about fees, services rendered or outcomes down the road.

An important aspect of managing your "self" is to pay attention to the "Sell/Service Cycle".  This means avoiding the trap of continually "servicing" clients to such a degree that you are not taking the time to look for new business.  Not managing this effectively can lead to major fluctuations in your income, with some months of high revenue and some months without any income at all.

Lastly, a necessary part of managing is to pay attention to your professional development.  You need to keep up with developments in your field, as well as pay attention to strengthening your current skills and developing new ones.  This is another major reason why continued involvement in professional associations is important.


"Hire Yourself" Examples

To give you a clearer idea of how to hire yourself, the following alumni examples might be helpful:

A recent Penn graduate with a doctoral degree in the History of Art was having little success at finding full-time employment in the academic world.  Few, if any jobs, were available, and the only ones that were a good match for her skills and experience were at the Adjunct level.  Frustrated with her lack of progress, she decided to pursue opportunities in museum work, and began reaching out to fellow Penn alums who worked in museums throughout the Philadelphia area.  She also began attending open houses and museum openings to get an idea of current trends.  At the third opening she attended, she learned from a senior member of the museum staff that they were concerned about archiving a significant number of new acquisitions but didn't have the funds for a full-time position. 

Instead of seeing this as a lost opportunity, she asked if they would be interested in paying a fee to an outside consultant to archive the collection, and added that she knew of some potential funding sources that might defray the costs.  The senior staff member was sufficiently interested, and connected her to the museum director, who asked her to submit a proposal for doing the work herself.  She consulted with two of her professors at Penn who were familiar with this sort of consulting project, and developed a business plan that was accepted.  After successfully completing the archival work, she put together a brochure and other marketing materials, and began contacting other museums in the area.  She soon had additional projects, and after a brief time was able to extend her services to area schools and businesses who had archival material that needed consolidation or review.  She is currently consulting to a large regional healthcare system on how to archive and store their extensive art collection and add new acquisitions.

A PhD in Education who earned her degree a few years ago at Penn was frustrated at her lack of progress in academia.  Although she had a teaching position at a well-regarded university, she was not on a tenure track, and was worried that her career might have plateaued.  During her time at Penn, she had worked at the Center for Teaching and Learning with teachers and staff members who needed coaching on English language and presentation skills.  During a conversation with one of her colleagues who taught at the university's business school, she learned that there was a significant need for this service in the business world, especially for organizations with a global reach.  She negotiated with the head of the business school to offer her coaching services at no charge to executives who were taking continuing education courses, and one of them asked her to do the same for other executives and managers in his company.  On the strength of that, she put together a description of the services she could offer and reached out to a wide range of international businesses as well as professional business associations with members world-wide.  She immediately found work, and currently divides her time between serving individual business clients and conducting professional development seminars at business association meetings.  Most importantly, she continues to coach executives who attend her university's business school since it is an excellent source of potential organizational clients.

A 2008 graduate of Penn's School of Design with a Master's degree in City Planning was having no success at finding a job after more than a year of searching.  Out of desperation, he contacted the firm where he'd done his internship, and found that they were focusing their efforts on large projects and had actually turned down some small planning assignments that, in their words, "weren't worth the time or the money".  After looking into this, he realized that there could be a significant group of smaller municipalities (or "customers") who had needs that large planning groups weren't willing to serve, but who also couldn't afford to hire someone to do the work on a full-time basis.  He asked one of the principals of the firm to recommend him for one of these smaller projects, and based on the quality of his performance during his internship, they were happy to do so.  He soon got an assignment and was able, on his own, to successfully complete a project that involved rerouting public transportation and rights-of-way for the downtown sector of a town in rural Pennsylvania.  After finishing the project, he contacted other towns in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Maryland, and after completing the required licensure and certification processes, was able to increase his business to the point where he is now considering adding staff to his consulting practice.


Links— Articles, Books and Other Resources

Useful Books:

  • Breaking Through the Clutter:  Business Solutions for Women, Artists and Entrepreneurs by Judith Luther Wilder.
  • Buzz Marketing by Mark Hughes.  A focused, energizing look at how to successfully market yourself.
  • Flawless Consulting by Peter Block. A soup-to-nuts look at consulting, both internal and external.
  • How to Survive and Prosper as an Artist:  Selling Yourself without Selling Your Soul by Caroll Michels.
  • StrengthsFinder 2.0 by Tom Rath (Gallup).  An on-line exercise with an accompanying text on discovering your consulting profile.
  • Made to Stick by Chip and Dan Heath.  A marketing book that extends the concept presented by Malcom Gladwell of stickiness – it is all about crafting messages that are "sticky."
  • Managing the Small Consulting Firm by David Maister.  An excellent analysis of what it takes to run a small consulting group, with particular focus on continuous professional development.
  • SPIN Selling by Neil Rackham.  A well-researched presentation on the stages of consultative selling.