How to Quit Your Job, Start Consulting and Actually Make Money

Sick of your job? Your boss? Your commute?

You aren’t alone. Way too many workers are disengaged and unhappy at work and want out. Those with any entrepreneurial juice whatsoever dream of starting their own business; maybe opening a bar in the islands, but more likely taking their expertise and monetizing it as an independent consultant. Sounds easy, right? Quit your job. Maybe get another degree or certification. Take all your wonderful experience and expertise, design a website and hang out your shingle – the clients and the cash rain down upon your head, right?

Wrong.

A majority of small business consultancies fail, or at least don’t make enough money to support their owners for long. Check out any Starbucks on a weekday afternoon and see all the “consultants” hanging out, posting pictures of what they had for lunch on their Facebook pages.

Some thrive, however, and provide their owners with the freedom, flexibility and cash flow to do what they want. What is their secret?

Recently, I was on a panel with some world-class consultants who run successful firms to discuss this issue with graduates of UPenn’s positive psychology master’s program. A full account can be found here, but here are some highlights:

1. Start with what and who you know. This was Margaret Greenberg’s advice to the group. “If HR is your background, start there. If law is your background, start there. You get the picture. You’ll gain more credibility and can leverage your existing network. Build and expand from there.” For me, my expertise upon leaving the corporate world was pretty much limited to how to mix a passable Mai Tai and bum rides on the company plane, but I have gotten by.

2. Let the market define who you are. I told the crowd that after building your base, as Margaret suggested, don’t be “resistant to the market. Find out through trial and error what people are interested in paying you to do and build upon that. It might be very different than your original business plan or concept. Don’t cling stubbornly to some idea or process you picked up in your last job; approach consulting with a growth mindset and be willing to change.” For me, I grew from mixing boat drinks to living the lavish lifestyle of a Talent Management blogger!

3. Think like the CEO of the client. “If you can’t imagine how your project is going to help the bottom line of the company, then it will not be of sustainable value to the company,” said Pam Teagarden. Think like the client. “Be able to explain how your project outcomes are going to help the business in tangible ways.” Even if you see the wisdom of your bright idea, if the client can’t, forget it.

4. Communication style matters. “Drop the lingo,” cautioned Margaret, and “speak your audience’s language.” I agree. Don’t use consultant babble; talk like a real person. Try telling stories, suggests Senia Maymin, a multilingual Stanford Ph.D. and MBA who also has degrees from Penn and Harvard and the right to use consultant babble if anyone does. “When you want to describe your service, tell (simple) stories of how other companies have used it.”

5. Be willing to partner with others. Although working with another human being might be the last thing you want to do after escaping the meeting hell of the modern corporation, you need to be open to the prospect. Maintain a friendly network of people with skills complementary to, but different than, yours. “Research shows that businesses that have one person at the helm do not fare as well as businesses that have more than one,” said Shannon Polly. Being flexible to work with others when the need arises will “give you more reach.” I  like the idea of a  “virtual firm,” a network of interconnected people who can build a team based upon the demands of each project. As the late Chris Peterson always said, “other people matter.”

I hope you find this helpful. These people know what they are talking about, and have the track record to prove it. By the way, Senia and Margaret have an excellent new book destined for the best-seller lists showing how applying positive psychology in the workplace adds to the bottom line, a topic familiar to readers of this blog. It is called “Profit From the Positive,” and you can buy it at any book store or on Amazon. I have read it and highly recommend it.

So, read the book, follow the simple advice above, and start planning your fabulous new career. And have a Mai Tai on me.