How to Become an Independent Consultant

  • Will Jones
  • September 24, 2021

Maybe you are a veteran consultant and have moved your way up the consultancy ladder and are looking for a change, or you’re a newer consultant ready to embark on your own path. If you are reading this, you might have noticed the dramatic growth in demand for independent consultants and are considering taking the plunge  

And why not? Independent consulting offers a host of benefits—the flexibility to choose where, when, and how you work; a higher daily rate that you get to set; more control over your clients and topics, and the freedom to define your ideal work/life balance.  

Before taking the leap into independent consulting, there are a few things that can help set you up for success. 

Perhaps one of the first and most essential steps is to figure out how to build your client base. You should leverage the following to find your first project opportunities:

  • Your personal network: The most effective way to acquire new clients is to reach out to your contacts. These can be clients from your previous consulting career (assuming there are no non-compete clauses), friends and colleagues from your career, or old friends/classmates. It’s amazing what a LinkedIn crawl will turn up.
  • Your extended network: When you exhaust your personal network, try reaching out to contacts from your school, alumni network, or old employers. 
  • An external provider: These are companies that take care of the client acquisition for you. Be prepared to convincingly (and concisely) pitch yourself to be connected with potential project opportunities. 

Leverage Your Personal Network

Friends, colleagues, and family are very helpful resources when embarking on a self-employment journey. They can provide you with safe feedback on how you are pitching yourself, where they think your strengths lie and challenge some of your beliefs. If you can pass the friend test they can also connect you with valuable contacts and perhaps get your foot in the door at target companies. Plus, they can provide glowing recommendations that will help you begin to establish yourself as a top consultant in your field. 

Don’t forget that consulting means marketing—you have to be able to sell yourself to clients—and if you can’t effectively pitch a loved one on your skillset and value proposition, then you may have a tough time convincing a stranger or someone who has access to a massive list of potential consultants. 

Reach Into Your Extended Network

Outside of your direct colleagues, you can also reach out to your Alma Mater or previous employers. Some consultancies/corporates even have alumni groups that you can leverage to expand your network. 

The rule of thumb when starting out as an independent consultant is—don’t lose valuable connections, everyone you meet could be a potential client or lead to a client.

Join a Provider

In parallel to reaching out to everyone you know personally and peripherally, it’s worth looking into consulting platforms. Providers like COMATCH do a lot of the heavy lifting for you—they have a large portfolio of clients and will connect you with fitting opportunities. 

However, the independent market offers many different avenues to find your next project:

  • Hybrid Consultancies: In these firms, projects are partner-led, they will develop, maintain, and manage client relationships. They will be involved in interviewing you for the project and, if you work well with them, can be a good source of repeat work. The presence of the partner eliminates a major cause of stress for consultants: the need to find project opportunities. With a partner managing client development, you can focus on your consulting work. The disadvantage of this type of relationship is that for every client, you essentially have to update two people: the client and the partner at the firm. Additionally, these firms have their own analyst pool for support, however, unlike in a consulting firm you are unlikely to work with the same analyst twice so efforts to upskill them are likely to benefit the next independent consultant.
  • Interim Provider: Interim providers often offer a more focused client list — they are well known and tend to focus on a specific geography, with a particular industry or client focus. For a consultant looking to specialize in a specific area, an interim provider is an attractive proposition. Due to their focused nature, interim providers tend not to offer as many project opportunities as the larger platforms.
  • Consultant Platforms: There are two types of consultant platforms:
  1.  Open Platforms: Open platforms are like a job board. They share a long list of projects and anyone can apply for them. You might be in competition with a large number of other consultants vying for the same opportunities. This is a great model for clients since they have sometimes hundreds of qualified applicants, but it can be difficult for a consultant to stand out in such a crowded market.
  2. Closed platforms: Closed platforms have a deliberately smaller group of consultants. You will often need to go through screening in order to gain entry. When a project request comes in, it is pitched to a small group of consultants whose expertise fits the requirements—rather than the entire network. This ensures reduced competition and the pressure to low-ball your rate to get the contract. 

Regardless of what route you choose, there are 5 things you can do to make your life easier when you’re first starting:

  1. Maximize project opportunities
    Talk to as many people as you can, spread the net wide, let everyone know you’re making this transition into consulting and you’re looking for clients. Get on platforms, take people out for lunch, and get as many project opportunities as possible. This lets you choose the projects you like—and it allows for some cushion in the case of external factors that can upend your plans.
  2. Give yourself runway
    I would recommend having at least six months’ savings to run on, this; gives you time to build your pipeline; takes the pressure off your first opportunities and pitches; allows for the lag between working on a project, submitting timesheets, and ultimately invoicing
  3. Screen the platforms and providers
    Observe how the platforms present themselves online, how professionally they come across in conversation, and how high their screening criteria are – these are all good indications of the quality of clients they work with and how much they invest in the consultants they work with (ultimately you).
  4. Get to know the sales team
    On closed platforms, it is often the Sales team that is responsible for pitching consultants to the clients, so it is vital that you build a relationship with them. As soon as you join the platform, shoot the sales team a brief email saying “hello” and what your skillsets are so you’re top of mind when a relevant opportunity comes in.
  5. Keep your profile short
    Limit your experience to 3 or 4 projects and be very clear about what you achieved. Conciseness is a virtue: remember, you should have a solid 1-minute pitch for yourself ready at all times, and your profile is a support piece for it. Avoid using buzzwords to “spice” up your profile. Be direct and to-the-point: you are pitching yourself to people at the top of their field, so speak to them like the experts they are.

It can take time to pivot into this new phase of your career, but with perseverance, a good attitude, and provable results, you’ll be well on your way. If you have any questions (or suggestions for things you think should have been included) I would be delighted to have a short conversation.

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