Contractor, Consultant, or Both: It Matters!

Contractor, Consultant, or Both: It Matters!

With the rise of the free agent nation and gig economy, there’s rampant confusion around the terms contractor, consultant, and independent contractor. If you are a self-employed consultant, you don’t want to be a contractor but do want to be an independent contractor. This article explains why.

Contractor or Consultant

How you perceive yourself matters because it influences how others perceive you. This affects how much money you can charge for your services and expertise.

Let me give you an example. Recently I met a sharp, professional woman with about 15 years of experience as a project manager and change management specialist. For the last few years, she’s been designing and implementing change management efforts for multinational companies. She’s been working through various agencies as a contractor and making anywhere from $90 to $110 an hour. Last week I recommended her to a client as a consultant with a pay rate of $135 an hour. This means that for a three-month, full-time project she’ll make about $12,000 more as a consultant. Annually, she’ll probably make $30,000 to $40,000 more as a self-employed consultant than as a contractor. (It’s hard to estimate because of unpaid time between projects.)

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Why Friends Don't Let Friends W-2

Why Friends Don't Let Friends W-2

As an independent consultant, does it matter how I get paid?”

Absolutely! In the U.S., being paid on a 1099 tax basis as a business instead of on a W-2 tax basis like a temp worker makes a huge difference to your profitability for two key reasons:

  1.  You pay less tax.
  2.  You save more for retirement.

Here’s how I figured this out.

Several years ago, as an independent consultant I did my taxes two ways using TurboTax® software. The first used my legitimate tax return that showed I was paid on a 1099 basis. In other words, I had received 1099 tax statements from my clients for that tax year; I did not have any W-2 tax statements. On this tax return, I took standard business deductions (for example, for my home office, supplies, and mileage), and I factored in my retirement contribution to my SEP IRA (Simplified Employee Pension).

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Shift Your Perspective to Make Business Development Easier

Shift Your Perspective to Make Business Development Easier

Most consultants I know struggle with business development, and it’s a top concern among those thinking about going independent. “I don’t know how to build a pipeline of leads” or “I’m not good at sales” are common refrains.

Most of us never had sales training so this concern is understandable, but reframing how we think about business development can turn concern into action. Read any definition of business development and you won’t find the word sales.

A shift in perspective can make a significant difference in how you approach something. For example, before you go parasailing the first time you might think, “I’m excited to try this!” or “Oh my god, I’m going to die!” You’ll have a lot more fun if you approach it with an “I’m excited” attitude instead of “I’m scared.”

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Two Reflection Exercises to Help You Work Smarter

Two Reflection Exercises to Help You Work Smarter

Everyone wants to work smarter, but when you’re self-employed finding time to work on your business, not just in it, is hard. You’re already so busy doing client work, where’s the time to make improvement? It’s even harder to step back and evaluate what you’re doing, not just how you’re doing it. Working smarter is about doing the right things, not just doing tasks more efficiently. 

But how do you know if you’re doing the right things? And what does “working smarter” really mean? Most businesses measure growth rate, client retention, revenue, and profit margin. However, as an independent consultant one thing is even more important—your own satisfaction and fulfillment, or literally your “internal rate of return.” You went out on your own for a reason—how is it working out?  

Below are two simple exercises to help you assess your internal rate of return and point you to working smarter. It’s best to do one or both either while you’re on vacation or just back from one, after you’ve cleared your brain a bit and caught your breath. Another option is to use your morning run or commute to think about these questions—no music, just listen to your thoughts. 

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Use Work Samples to Seal the Deal

Use Work Samples to Seal the Deal

Let’s face it, consulting often gets a bad rap. It’s perceived as nebulous, too theoretical, too touchy-feely. Plus, it's expensive. To combat this bias, use work samples and deliverables to show prospective clients how you do what you do. Demystify your process. This goes a long way toward removing uncertainty and skepticism. 

For 10 years as an independent change strategy consultant, I used this tactic to win several projects. Many clients don’t understand the difference between change management work and the more complex change strategy work. Most know that communications and training are involved but don’t understand how to achieve the buy-in of cross-functional stakeholders in a way tailored to their situation. 

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10 Minutes and $20 to Fine-Tune Your Image

10 Minutes and $20 to Fine-Tune Your Image

Consulting is a people business. Clients hire people who are smart, proficient, affable, and trustworthy. You probably perceive yourself this way, but do others? When people see your LinkedIn photo, what do they think of you?

Research from Cornell University shows that a first impression from an online photo usually persists. We make judgments when we see a photo, usually unconsciously, and these perceptions stay with us even after we’ve met the person. This lasting impact is formed in about a tenth of a second. Obviously having a really good, professional photo matters, but other things affect someone’s impression. It’s the background, the hair, the eyes, the smile, the posture—literally dozens of details. So how can you be sure that the photo you are using online conveys the qualities you want?

Thanks to Photofeeler, you no longer have to guess or rely on friends and family for feedback, who by the way will be biased because they know and presumably like you. Use the Photofeeler website to upload your photo(s) and get anonymous feedback on how competent, likable, and influential you appear. It’s easy, affordable, fun, and quite interesting.

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Setting Up a Foundation for Consulting Success

Setting Up a Foundation for Consulting Success

This article covers two sides of the same coin for independent consultants: how to set up your business for success and what expenses to track to pay less tax. They're interrelated. Let’s tackle the tax question first.

What do I need to keep track of so I pay less tax?

Here’s a short list of the most important things and some tips to make it easier.

  1. Have a dedicated credit card that you use only for business expenses. Use this card for anything you can think of related to your business, such as parking, tolls, cell phone, internet, office supplies, etc. Even if you work from home, what would you normally buy if you were in an actual office? These business expenses will be deducted from your gross earnings to lower your taxable income. If you can, pay your health insurance with this same card since it too will be tax deductible.

Tip: Download the credit card's year-end summary so you have a spending breakdown by category. Or you can download the transactions into a tool like Quicken each month and categorize the expenses there. (You’ll have to break them out by category on your tax return.)

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Consulting and Coaching: Be Wary of Mixing the Two

Consulting and Coaching: Be Wary of Mixing the Two

If you describe yourself as both a consultant and coach, this article is for youThere’s a lot of grey area and overlap between the two. Many self-employed professionals go to market as both. For example:

  • Mary Smith: Executive Coach & Consultant
  • John Doe: Organization Effectiveness Consultant and Leadership Coach

Usually there’s nothing wrong with this. Nearly all consultants I know consider themselves coaches to some extent because they often have to get a client to do something, to say something a certain way, or to see something they may not want to acknowledge. Sometimes the consultant has to “hold up a mirror” to a senior leader and point out a disruptive behavior that’s hampering the project’s success.

But consultants are not executive coaches. There is a fundamental difference in how each approaches their work. Being conscious of which approach is required is critical to a successful engagement. 

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Part 3: Optimize Your LinkedIn Profile with Skills, Endorsements & Accomplishments

Part 3: Optimize Your LinkedIn Profile with Skills, Endorsements & Accomplishments

This is the third and final part in a series of articles. You can download the entire series as a reference guide here.

Most independent consultants have no budget for marketing or advertising, yet they all wish they had a bigger client list. Having a well-crafted LinkedIn profile is free and one of the first things potential clients will look at when they hear about you. Make the most of it!

The first article in this series about how to optimize LinkedIn profiles explains how to create an excellent first impression with a photo, background image, and a succinct “tag line” to summarize your brand and expertise. The second article provides tips for how to market yourself as an independent consultant using the Summary and Background sections. This article summarizes the importance of LinkedIn’s Skills and Endorsements, and Recommendations sections, which are misunderstood and underutilized. It also includes practical tips for how to beef up these sections, as well as the Accomplishments section.

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Part 2: Telling Your Story to Optimize Your LinkedIn Profile

Part 2: Telling Your Story to Optimize Your LinkedIn Profile

This is the second in a series of three articles. You can download the entire series as a reference guide here.

With over 133 million users in the U.S. and another 334 million around the world, LinkedIn has become an indispensable tool and reference. If someone is interested in hiring you as a management consultant, it’s a good bet that they’re going to look at your LinkedIn profile, even if you have your own website. It’s critical you put your best self forward.

The first article in this series explained how to have a “top-notch top box” on your profile. If this top section is your storefront window, the mid-section is your main-floor merchandise. This article presents tips for how to market yourself as a professional self-employed consultant using LinkedIn’s Summary and Background sections. (Hint: it’s not by rehashing your résumé.)

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Part 1: How to Optimize Your LinkedIn Profile for Independent Consulting

Part 1: How to Optimize Your LinkedIn Profile for Independent Consulting

This is the first in a series of three articles about how to optimize your LinkedIn profile. You can download the entire series as a reference guide here.

Whether or not you have a website for your independent consulting business, it’s critical that you have a polished, professional profile on LinkedIn. When someone does an internet search on your name, 90% of the time your LinkedIn profile will be one of the top three search results. It’s also likely to be the one they click on first because the format is familiar and easy to skim. 

As a self-employed professional, think of your LinkedIn profile as your storefront window where you display your most unique and appealing merchandise (services). Your goal: entice viewers to learn enough about you that they want to meet you in person—and ideally hire you to solve their problem.

This article offers tips for creating a “top-notch top box.” This includes your headline, photo, and background image. If you do nothing else to improve your LinkedIn profile, make sure you optimize this section!

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Self-Employed? Lower Your Tax Bill!

Self-Employed? Lower Your Tax Bill!

Tax season is probably the most important time for independent consultants to think like business owners. This especially means being smart about how we handle our money. Our motivation is simple: pay as little tax as possible, ideally without triggering an audit. We all should be asking ourselves (and our accountants) this question:

As a business owner, what can I do to lower my tax bill? 

The answer is to maximize your tax deductions for this year and take steps to reap tax saving benefits every year. This article touches on the first and explores the second in depth.

For the Near Term: Take Standard Business Owner Deductions

You don’t have to have a legal business structure like an LLC or S-corp to take advantage of standard business-owner tax deductions. Sole proprietors qualify for deductions too, even if you only consult part time.

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Why and How Personal Branding is Vital for Independent Consultants

Why and How Personal Branding is Vital for Independent Consultants

Everyone in business recognizes strong brands and understands their importance. Coca-Cola. Nike. Apple. These brands represent certain values. Their branding helps drive sales by keeping their products or services fresh in the consumer’s mind.

Independent consultants need to think the same way. You need to be top-of-mind when the need for your expertise pops up so the client thinks to call you, or their colleague thinks to refer you.

In our field this is called personal branding. It’s not about creating a fancy logo or website; it’s about being known for something and consistently emphasizing your expertise. It’s about your reputation. It’s about your image, how you’re perceived in the workplace and online. It’s how you promote yourself and “go to market.” And it’s an ongoing effort.

Personal branding is not just some touchy-feely, trendy idea, or something that just happens. It takes conscious thought and repeated attention.

 

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For Independent Consultants, Business Development = Relationship Development

For Independent Consultants, Business Development = Relationship Development

The biggest stressor for self-employed management consultants is business development: how to cultivate meaningful regular work. It’s vexing for a variety of reasons. First, consultants are good at helping clients solve problems but usually aren’t trained in sales or marketing. Second, when knee-deep in projects and facing deadlines, consultants are hard-pressed to find time to publish thought-leadership articles or create, launch, and manage marketing campaigns.

To meet the challenge I recommend changing your frame of reference. Instead of thinking of how companies or consulting firms typically handle business development, use an approach more like how we work as individuals and soloprenuers. Take for example real estate agents, who are experts at keeping their names fresh in people’s minds:

  • At least once a week I get a postcard listing recent home sales in my neighborhood.
  • Once a week I get an email with an interactive map showing which homes in the city closed escrow and at what price.
  • Once a month I get a memo pad with the realtor’s name, photo, and area of expertise.
  • Once a quarter I get a postcard of upcoming social and sporting events in the city.
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Adapting Your Résumé for Independent Consulting

Adapting Your Résumé for Independent Consulting

The biggest stressor for self-employed management consultants is business development: how to cultivate meaningful regular work. It’s vexing for a variety of reasons. First, consultants are good at helping clients solve problems but usually aren’t trained in sales or marketing. Second, when knee-deep in projects and facing deadlines, consultants are hard-pressed to find time to publish thought-leadership articles or create, launch, and manage marketing campaigns.

To meet the challenge I recommend changing your frame of reference. Instead of thinking of how companies or consulting firms typically handle business development, use an approach more like how we work as individuals and soloprenuers. Take for example real estate agents, who are experts at keeping their names fresh in people’s minds:

  • At least once a week I get a postcard listing recent home sales in my neighborhood.
  • Once a week I get an email with an interactive map showing which homes in the city closed escrow and at what price.
  • Once a month I get a memo pad with the realtor’s name, photo, and area of expertise.
  • Once a quarter I get a postcard of upcoming social and sporting events in the city.
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