Most self-employed consultants I know have deep expertise in a certain function or industry, and nearly everyone would like to earn some extra money. If this describes you, check out what I recently discovered.
As an independent consultant, it’s vital that you convey professionalism at every step if you want to get hired at a great rate. Details matter, particularly when you’re making an initial impression. That’s why having a professional email address is a must, as is an eye-catching, effective email signature.
Negotiating is typically hard for everyone, but it’s especially tough for consultants. It’s our nature to make the client happy, so negotiating for a higher rate feels awkward. But when you’re self-employed, even the smallest increase in your rate can translate to big bucks, particularly if the rate is for a long project, or if you’re working with an ongoing client.
I recently discovered a series of practical tips on Instagram, of all places, by following Johanna Voss, owner of a boutique talent agency for female influencers and keynote speakers. With her permission, here are her three essential negotiation tips that every consultant should know.
Generally, the more experience you have as an independent consultant, the more likely you should move from billing by the hour to a fixed fee. At some point you’ll master your specialty and work much more efficiently than others. This means to earn what your services are truly worth, you’ll have to keep raising your hourly rates. But at some point, you’ll reach an invisible rate ceiling when clients think you’re too expensive, even if it takes you half the time to do the work.
When you reach this point, it’s time to start thinking about billing for your services by the project instead of by the hour or day. The idea is to price the project as if you’re going to do it from scratch, even though you know you’re going to adapt plans and materials from prior projects. By doing so, you’ll boost your income per hour.
Here’s an example…
The easiest time to raise your rate is on the cusp of something new — a new year, a new project, a new client. With the new year just a few weeks away, now might be the time. This article offers ideas of how to do this, as well as some sample language to use when notifying your clients.
How to determine your new rate
Unfortunately, there’s no one-size-fits-all formula. Instead, I suggest triangulating on a rate that seems fair. Look at several different numbers and then decide. Here are four suggestions.
First, make a ballpark guess of what you think your new rate should be. For example, if your rate is now $150 an hour, what do you think is a logical next step? $175? $165? Jot it down.
Second, calculate a percentage increase. The amount might be 3% or 5% annually. Or maybe you need to make up for two or three years without a rate increase, and a 10% or 15% increase seems appropriate. Do the math a few different ways and see how these numbers play out. In my example of $150 hourly, a 5% annual increase works out to $157.50 for year one, $165 for year two, and $172.50 for year three.
It was bound to happen. After 15 years and hundreds of contracts, I finally had a client that didn’t pay, and didn’t pay, and didn’t pay. For six months there was one lame update after another. “We’re working on it,” or “We’ve switched to a new process.”
Yesterday, my bank finally received the wire transfer. Here’s my story, what I learned along the way, and steps you can take if you find yourself in the same situation.
As a self-employed consultant do you really need a website?
I’m asked this a lot, particularly if a consultant gets most business from referrals or they contract through agencies or boutique firms. Besides, it’s highly unlikely that a prospective client is going to stumble upon your website and decide to hire you. Surely creating a website is a waste of time and money, right?
I used to say that if you had a really strong LinkedIn profile and you keep your network warm, you probably didn’t need a website. Indeed, I know dozens of independent consultants making six-figure incomes without one.
Now, however, my answer is, yes, absolutely, you need to have a business website. Here’s why:
About two months ago, the California Supreme Court issued a unanimous decision in the case Dynamex Operations West Inc. v. Superior Court that is likely to result in it being harder to qualify as an independent contractor.
More than ever, it’s critical that you take steps now to maximum your chances of passing what is likely to become a stricter vendor compliance process. Otherwise, it’s very likely that companies will demand that you do the work as a W-2 employee hired through a staffing agency. (Related video, “Friends Don’t Let Friends W-2”*)
Although this court decision directly affects only California companies, other states are likely to follow suit and use this ruling as a reference. At the very least, it’s likely to make employers in other States more cautious when hiring consultants as independent contractors.
Recently I logged into my retirement accounts and was surprised (and pleased!) to see that I had crossed the million-dollar mark. I don’t consider myself rich. In fact, money is usually tight at the end of the month. Yet my bank account says I’m a millionaire.
How did I do this? How can other self-employed consultants become wealthy too? Reflecting on my years as an independent consultant, I’ve boiled it down to five keys to success. (Sidebar: People define success differently. To me, having a million bucks in retirement savings is only one part of my total wealth. I also have a comfortable home, I’m healthy, and I have terrific relationships with family and friends. But I digress.)
Last August I wrote a blog post about how labels matter, specifically that you should make more money by calling yourself a consultant instead of a contractor. But it’s not just about labels and language. It’s not enough to simply replace contractor with consultant on your résumé and LinkedIn profile.
I’ve been studying the LinkedIn profiles of various contractors and consultants I know and reflecting on how they usually get their work. What differentiates the well-paid rock stars of consulting from the plug-n-play contractors? Several variables affect the person’s brand. They include prior work experience (internal with a company vs an external consultant with a firm), their consulting niche, and how they market themselves, but the real difference is how they find and frame their work.
Contractors find work through agencies or staffing firms while consultants are more likely to find work on their own, usually as a result of their professional network.
I have a quick question. I know a consultant who is going to do some work designing a company’s program for high-potential employees. The consultant has talent but not much experience. What hourly rate would you consider low, fair, too high? Can you ballpark this for me?
Although the question is brief, a helpful answer is not. Pricing consulting services is notoriously difficult, particularly for self-employed consultants. You need to consider the real and perceived value of your services, expertise, and experience, as well as geography and market conditions. Several factors need to be considered:
Everyone has questions about the sweeping tax reform that became law at the end of last year. As a coach and champion for independent consultants, I went on a fact-finding mission to answer two important questions:
- Are self-employed consultants still better off being paid on a 1099 tax basis as a business or on a W-2 tax basis through a third party?
- Is there a tax advantage to how independent consultants structure their businesses — as a sole proprietor, LLC, S corp or C corp?
Here’s what I learned after too many hours of research and talking with two CPAs and a lawyer. (Disclaimer: I am neither an accountant nor a tax lawyer, so I’m not qualified to give tax or legal advice. I’m simply trying to help self-employed consultants understand how the changes in tax law may affect them, so they — you — can have a more productive conversation with your tax professional.)
A. The answer to my first question is yes. It’s still better to be paid on a 1099 tax basis because you can still take business-owner tax deductions, possibly in addition to the new 20% deduction (more on that below), and you can still take advantage of better retirement options like a SEP-IRA to lower your taxable income. (See “Friends Don’t Let Friends W-2”TM for more information.)
As we close out the year, I’m reprising one of my most commented on LinkedIn articles. First published January 12, 2015, it’s just as relevant today as it was then. I’ve also expanded the original list of qualities from 19 to an even 20, and updated a few other things based the LinkedIn comments. Here’s to a prosperous 2018!
Let’s face it, not all consultants are created equal. Some can seemingly do anything with grace, style, and ease while others struggle to make anything happen. Over the last 20 years I’ve interacted with probably a thousand management consultants, from local independent practitioners to global “big four” advisors. Some are rock stars and some never will be, regardless of their education or what consulting firm they work for.
In a nutshell, a consulting rock star is someone who loves helping clients succeed, does whatever it takes to do so, keeps their word, effectively manages expectations, and produces A-quality work. They make the right things happen. They are smart, professional yet personable, excellent listeners with self-confidence, and possess deep expertise yet little-to-no ego. Bottom line, they are emotionally intelligent and engender trust through their character and competencies.
Recently I helped a consultant land a $420,000 consulting contract. That’s not a typo. It’s an 11-month project for one consultant: $320k in consulting fees and another $100k for travel expenses. I’ve excluded my company’s agency fee in these numbers; the actual budget was a bit larger.
Clearly this was a big win for the consultant. The client was pleased too since a global consulting firm working with his company quoted $660,000 for the same project. (See my related article, “Quote Your Rate with Confidence.”)
A project this big doesn’t just fall out of the sky. Why did the client contact me for help? The short answer: business development. The long answer: diligent business development that built a relationship over time. Rather than any one particular thing I did, it was simple actions over the course of five years. Those actions cultivated a trusting relationship with the client and, as a result, he was comfortable reaching out to me for help.
As consultants, it’s our job to help our clients solve problems and operate at their best. Sometimes this is easy, particularly when the needed correction is related to a process or operational improvement. For example, “You can decrease your product return rate by moving the quality checks upstream in the process.” Frequently, however, the advice is harder to deliver because it’s more personal, like when a business leader needs to change a behavior or a team member is acting inappropriately. In these situations, we may think about saying something, but it’s too awkward so we don’t. We wimp out and, in doing so, we do a disservice to the company that hired us. We’re not being our best.
Over the years I’ve discovered three, three-word tricks to make delivering difficult observations and advice easier — and more effective.
Independent consultants face the constant challenge of finding their next project. My last article discussed working with consulting agencies to supplement your business development efforts. This article offers tips for finding work through online platforms or marketplaces like Catalant, SpareHire, and TalMix.
Consulting agencies and online platforms are similar in that they exist to bring consultants and clients together, but they go about it in different ways and charge different fees. Agencies involve people in the matching process and, typically, to oversee projects and “manage the client relationship.” (I roll my eyes at the last phrase because good consultants can do this on their own.) Agencies usually charge about 30-35%, which nearly always comes out of your pay. Online platforms, on the other hand, charge 20-25%, which may or may not come out of your pay, and they don’t involve people as middlemen. Instead they rely on their technology to match consultants to client projects.
Perhaps the hardest thing for an independent consultant is not knowing where your next project is coming from, or when. While nurturing your own network is usually the best way to find work (see tips in my article), many consultants also supplement their business development efforts by affiliating with agencies and, increasingly, online platforms or marketplaces. This article summarizes the pros and cons of these options, gives you questions for starting your research, and introduces you to some of the better-known consulting agencies.
First, let’s clarify what I mean by “consulting agency.”
By “agency” I mean a company that matches independent consultants with client projects, like a talent agency. An agency is different than a consulting firm because agencies usually place one person at a time, and they assume consultants are bringing their own methodology and tools. Agencies don’t dictate the approach or oversee the work like a consulting firm does, although sometimes they require status reports or check-ins. To me, consulting agencies and consulting firms are both different than staffing agencies that provide tactical staff augmentation services, not consultants who diagnose and solve problems. This article is about affiliating with consulting agencies, not consulting firms or staffing agencies.
It takes practice to quote your consulting billing rate with confidence. The tactics in this article will help if you bill by the hour or by the day. There are other ways to bill for your talent and expertise but those will be covered in another article.
Benchmark so you know your rate is reasonable. There are lots of ways to do this. Talk with other consultants, do a web search on typical management consulting rates in your city or state, and/or try converting your employee salary to an hourly rate. Warning: this last calculation will be quite low since it doesn’t include profit, expenses, or the time it takes to run your business; try increasing this number by 40- 50%.
It also helps to have an idea of what consulting firms charge for consultants of similar background and expertise. Although rate information is a closely guarded secret, based on my 20 years in the industry here are very rough ballpark numbers for “management consulting” (not IT consulting, project management, training development, etc.).
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.)
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:
- You pay less tax.
- 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).
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
- 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.)
If you describe yourself as both a consultant and coach, this article is for you. There’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.
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.
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.)
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!
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.