New consultants routinely return to a regular job within a few months or a couple of years. In my experience there are two primary causes: insufficient levels of business (i.e. income) or inability to handle the ebbs and flows of client payment cycles and from the hopping from engagement to engagement.
Insufficient levels of business (i.e. income)
Most consultants seem to exhaust the capacity of their personal and professional contacts to bring project work and refer business their way within a few years of starting out. These are typically the first folks a new consultant turns to as they announce their availability. There are only so many inquiries and referrals that can come in from this resource pool.
Also, people have finite memories and attention spans. It’s easy for someone to forget they know someone with specific expertise in their network – particularly after a few years have past since their last encounter.
The result is insufficient business to maintain a reasonable income. And, in turn, the consultant naturally seeks to return to a regular job with a predictable paycheck.
The underlying culprit is their failure to develop systems for generating new business (assuming the consultant’s expertise is in demand). For technologists that have not built a business before from scratch nor ever had to do such personalized marketing and selling, it’s understandable this situation arises.
The solution is that – regardless of the area of expertise of the consultant – they must also develop expertise in business. And specifically in the unique attributes of the business of consulting. In general, we’re talking list building, encouraging referrals, selling and marketing in an effective manner, generating new business from existing client relationships, communicating with clarity and effectiveness, and cash flow management.
Where to Start
Anyone can do some consulting on the side (that is, alongside their regular job) if they’re not interested in or prepared to tackle the business side of consulting. They likely wouldn’t make it as a full-time solo consultant for very long (certainly not a happy one) if they jumped right in expecting to replace all of their prior income. Plus the lack of business knowledge means probably overlooking a lot of opportunities and leaving a lot of money on the table.
My first time around I got snagged by a lack of business experience. I ended up going back to work for someone else after about a year. I nearly had to do the same the second time around (and probably should have given the amount of stress and frustration I sustained as a result at the time).
Even if you aren’t sure you can tackle the the business side of consulting, there is hope because you can always go back to consulting more as you develop your business skills and even test out a lot of them while you’re still employed (since these business skills are just as applicable to side gigs).
You have to start somewhere. But be honest about where you’re starting so that you know where you need to focus to grow. It’ll avoid a lot of extra frustration and confusion.
And if you’ve been tossed into things involuntarily? Well, there are no quick solutions. I’d probably say something like: set appropriate and realistic expectations for yourself, learn as much of you can, experiment and iterate quickly, and be willing to do things sub-optimally to live to fight another day.