Stan Kimer hadn’t planned on working after taking early retirement from IBM at age 55. He imagined filling his days with travel and volunteer service. But during a year of transitional coaching included in his retirement package, he decided to become an independent consultant. A decade later, he runs Total Engagement Consulting, a diversity and career development firm in Raleigh, N.C.
Kimer appreciates that he can focus on his passions: diversity training with expertise in LGBTQ concerns, unconscious bias and employee resource groups, and skills-based career planning so companies can engage and retain their best employees.
That said, he made some mistakes along the way, like initially underestimating business development time. He encourages other would-be consultants to plan carefully, pursue a product or service with demonstrated demand, and expect to take years to build revenue.
“I love being my own boss and controlling my own destiny,” Kimer said. “Stepping out of your comfort zone and taking on challenges can be a great way to keep intellectually growing and staying vital while you age.”
Take Your Time
Starting a consultancy isn’t as simple as ordering a stack of business cards or creating a website. “SmallBizLady” Melinda F. Emerson recommends taking a year to lay the groundwork, or 18 months if you can. Begin by asking yourself why a consultancy appeals to you and what lifestyle you envision, says Emerson, author of Become Your Own Boss in 12 Months (Adams Media, $17).
Do you hope to work fewer hours? Do you want flexibility for leisure travel? Your approach will be different if you’re just looking for mental stimulation than if you need to replace a salary. Do you want to work remotely or at client’s offices? Do you possess the energy, self-discipline, personal savings and other resources needed to sustain you until you’re profitable?
The answer increasingly is yes, especially for retirees or people approaching retirement. The fastest growing segment of entrepreneurs are 50 years old or older, Emerson says. People considering this path should if possible, launch their new enterprise as a side hustle before they leave their day job. “I’m a big advocate of learning as many expensive lessons as you can when you’re still working for someone else,” she says.
Margot Halstead of Arlington, Va., wanted more autonomy as a government contractor while replacing the full-time income that supports her family, since her husband is fully disabled. Fortuitous connections at an industry conference gave her four promising leads, and a mentor helped her through the first year of consulting at her own firm, Orahill. “I hung my own shingle on Jan. 1, 2019, and made $80K my first year of independence. Not too shabby,” says Halstead, 52.
Define Your Niche
As an independent consultant, you’re a small business. So you need to clearly understand your target customers and what unique value you provide them. Look at other consultants in the field you want to enter. Study their websites, LinkedIn pages, client lists, marketing materials and social media presence. If you don’t see anyone offering services remotely similar to what you want to provide, beware. That could be a sign that there’s insufficient demand for your services.
Understand your strengths, skills and potential to learn—as well as the functions that you will not be able to provide personally. Are you a technical whiz? You might be able to hire a low-cost web design firm that trains you to be your own webmaster. If you’re great with numbers, dive into QuickBooks or another software package for accounting, invoicing and bill payment. If not, outsource. “You’re now doing every aspect of your big company,” says Ann Lim, volunteer mentor with the Service Corps of Retired Executives (opens in new tab) (SCORE), a national non-profit that helps business owners and aspiring entrepreneurs with human resources, sales and marketing, information technology, operations, facilities, customer service, development, finance and accounting. “The setup of a small business isn’t so complicated,” Lim says, “but it’s a lot of little things.”
Every small business should retain professional services in four areas: accounting, law, banking and insurance, says Lim, whose firm, Sweetspires, in Herndon, Va., provides general management services for small businesses. While you may not need a lawyer on retainer or an in-house accountant, a few hours’ consultation can set you up for success.
Your business may feel launched when you take on your first paying client or when your website goes live. Lim’s website, sweetspires.com (opens in new tab), has a checklist of common steps needed to launch. Expect to continue adjusting as your plans meet the reality of the market. Rely on your existing network and create new relationships to help answer the many questions that arise, from pricing to lead generation, contract negotiation and customer relationship management. SCORE, the Small Business Administration (opens in new tab) and professional associations in your field offer entrepreneurs resources at every stage. Consulting networks, such as Business Talent Group (opens in new tab), GLC Group (opens in new tab) and Patina Nation (opens in new tab), can provide a stream of business as you get up to speed on marketing—or if you prefer not to go all-in on business development.
You may need to pivot. When Paul Dillon retired from the McGladrey accounting firm in 2006, he intended to provide project management and business development services. He ended up in a completely different niche: supporting veterans as they started their own businesses. He’s grateful for the journey.
“Becoming a consultant on your own, a sole proprietorship, in your field of endeavor, offers a chance to set your own hours, and work at your own pace, while making an income,” says Dillon, 74, who now lives in Durham, N.C., while maintaining a Chicago office.
Create a Plan
Writing a business plan may seem intimidating. Explore free models online, or just write down your business idea in your own words. It should encompass a few simple elements.
- Your value proposition, which is the answer to four main questions: “What is the demand you see? Who has the demand; who is buying those services? What is your solution? Why is your expertise better than anyone else’s?”
- A description of your services and how they will be priced and delivered.
- A sales and marketing plan that includes your target market. Don’t assume social media will be a component. If you’re in cybersecurity, less public visibility may be the norm.
- An operations plan, whether you will work alone or hire a staff. Your goals for revenue and expected costs, as well as sources of capital, whether a loan or personal savings.
Katherine Reynolds Lewis is an award-winning journalist, speaker and author of The Good News About Bad Behavior: Why Kids Are Less Disciplined Than Ever – And What to Do About It. Her work has appeared in The Atlantic, Fortune, Medium, Mother Jones, The New York Times, Parents, Slate, USA Today, The Washington Post and Working Mother, among others. She's been an EWA Education Reporting Fellow, Fund for Investigative Journalism fellow and Logan Nonfiction Fellow at the Carey Institute for Global Good. Residencies include the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts and Ragdale. A Harvard physics graduate, Katherine previously worked as a national correspondent for Newhouse and Bloomberg News, covering everything from financial and media policy to the White House.
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