Consulting Sucks (Sometimes)
15 Ugly Truths to Ponder Before You Take the Leap
The gig economy is roaring right along, and that means consulting work is more popular than it’s ever been. And the truth is there are many great benefits to becoming a consultant. In fact, you may even be thinking about taking the leap yourself. But before you hang up a shingle, renowned consultant and bestselling author Elaine Biech wants you to know a sobering truth: Consulting sucks.
Well ... some of the time it does, anyway.
“While consulting work is rewarding, fun, and often quite lucrative, no one should jump into it blindly,” says Biech, author of “The New Business of Consulting: The Basics and Beyond” and its companion workbook, “The New Consultant’s Quick Start Guide: An Action Plan for Your First Year in Business.”
“As much as I love consulting, it definitely has a dark side,” she adds. “And it’s important to explore some of the darker corners so you’ll know what you’re getting into.”
In her new book, Biech paints a vivid picture of what consulting is all about—the good and bad. The book shares the knowledge and skills required to start and grow a successful consulting practice. She doesn’t shy away from some drawbacks of consulting. Read on.
As with all startups, failure is an option. According to the Small Business Administration, half of all startup businesses fail within five years. Responsibility for success or failure rests almost entirely with the person who started the business. Some of the reasons include mistaking a business for a hobby; asking friends and relatives for advice; mismanaging money; lack of a business plan; poor or no marketing; lack of pricing knowledge; inability to manage growth; lack of commitment; failure to set and revise goals; inability to develop, monitor and understand financial statements; inability to balance business and family; and underestimation of time requirements.
“A lot can go wrong with a startup,” says Biech. “You’re better off being prepared up front for the level of effort it takes to stay afloat.”
You probably won’t strike it rich. Even though many consultants charge over $2,000 a day, that doesn’t guarantee you’ll “get rich” as a consultant. Without an employer to share the burden, you’ll still have to set aside money for taxes and benefits like health and life insurance and retirement. On top of that, you can’t do billable work five days a week because you’ll need to allot time for preparation, marketing and administrative work. You can definitely make a living doing this work, but don’t expect to make a killing.
You’ll give up the security blanket that is a regular guaranteed income. One reason people go to work for companies is to have a guaranteed income. There is a lot to be said for the reassuring promise of a steady, predictable paycheck. But—oh no!—there is no such security for consultants. You are responsible for acquiring business, servicing clients to their satisfaction, and billing promptly to keep the cash flowing.
Clients don’t always pay on time. “Clients don’t always pay their invoices on time, or at all, in some cases,” says Biech. “That means that you have to continuously generate enough work (and stay on top of billing) to maintain a steady cash flow in case money you counted on doesn’t arrive. It also means learning to live with the psychological burden of not knowing when (or even if) a check will come through—and, depending on your personality type, that can be a heavy burden.”
You might be disrespected or viewed with suspicion. There’s a lot of negativity around the consulting field, and you’ll have to have a thick skin to handle being called a “beltway bandit,” conman, pest or worse. (Biech has been called all three of these names!) There are many charlatans out there, so in some cases the negativity is deserved. In addition, the profession lacks legal standards or legitimate certification. But there are also lots of great consultants as well; unfortunately, they must often fight a battle of trust due to poor ethics or overcharging by a consultant who worked with a client previously.
You won’t always win the client. Imagine investing 10 hours to write a proposal that you later learn never had a chance because a candidate was preselected. It’s also common to lose a proposal on a technicality.
“Clients choose to ‘go another way’ for all kinds of reasons,” says Biech. “The disappointment never gets easier, but it’s best to take it as a learning experience and move on.”
And when you do win them, clients will exhaust you. You’ll be working for clients who go to work early, have tight deadlines and experience huge pressures. This often translates to doing 12 hours or more a day of sustained work for your clients—more if you take them to dinner after the workday. And depending on your client load, you could be working with multiple people inside several different companies each week and dealing with various personalities and sets of office politics. It can wear you down, which is why it’s so important to make time for self-care and relaxation during your time off.
Your client roster will stay in flux. You may have 11 clients today, but that could change tomorrow. A change in the economic climate or the industry, or even a change in leadership, could end a project abruptly. This possibility means that you must constantly market yourself and network so you don’t end up with only one or two clients.
Any semblance of work/life balance may go out the window. Consulting life may sound glamorous, but it’s really about long hours and a lot of work. Like most entrepreneurs, consultants spend 60 to 80 hours a week getting their business up and running during the first year and beyond. You’ll wake up for 4 a.m. flights and spend countless hours waiting in the airport. You’ll miss plenty of family dinners and often arrive home well after midnight. Weekends often aren’t free either, and you often devote them to catching up, making phone calls and even traveling. (Remember, if you travel on a Monday, you will lose a billable day of work.)
Let’s be clear: Traveling will consume your life. “Your clients may live all over the country or the world, which means you’ll spend much of your time away from home,” says Biech. “On the plus side, this means you can live anywhere as long as you’re within driving distance to an airport.”
Consulting is a lonely business. Working for yourself can be an isolating experience. On top of that, there’s no one to help you when you’re overloaded with work. This is why some consultants choose to hire people, from an assistant to answer phones to creating a partnership with another consultant to complete the workload. This, of course, means taking on the burden of generating more income (to pay the second person) or facing the growing pains of expanding your business.
You’ll struggle to get good food and enough exercise. “You have to work really hard to eat a healthy diet and exercise while on the road,” says Biech. “Instead of enjoying home-cooked meals, you’ll be eating lots of poorly prepared restaurant food, and most of your exercise will consist of running through the airport to catch your flight.”
Your social life will probably take a hit. Traveling means that spending time with friends is harder to schedule and carry out. When you fly back into town on a Friday evening, it’s usually too late to make weekend plans for social activities. And if you do have something planned, you may need to cancel when a work crisis comes up. It is possible to maintain an active social life when doing this work, insists Biech: You just have to be thoughtful with your scheduling and grab opportunities when you can.
You will miss your loved ones at home. Being away so often for work places an obvious strain on you and your family. Though you can stay connected via Skype and the telephone, you will no doubt miss being near your loved ones and have to forgo at least some events you wanted to share with them.
Working from home can be distracting. When they’re not traveling, many consultants work in a home office. This has some obvious pros, like enjoying privacy and working in sweatpants, but the biggest drawback is the constant distraction. Your mind will wander off to any number of personal projects. Your dogs will bark, and if you have kids, you can count on having them barge in when you’re on an important phone call.
“Some aspects of consulting really do suck—and it’s best to know up front what you’re getting into,” says Biech. “But that is also true of any job. If you’re passionate about what you’re doing, you’ll have the energy to power through the demands, and you’ll enjoy clients and your work. When you deliver outstanding work that you truly believe in and care about, you’ll feel great about yourself—and that great feeling makes all the rest worthwhile.
“Even with all the drawbacks,” Biech adds, “I wouldn’t trade it for the world. It was the best leap I ever took. I never feel as if I’m going to work; I feel that I am going to play every day.”
Elaine Biech is the author of “The New Business of Consulting: The Basics and Beyond.” She is a dedicated lifelong learner who believes that excellence isn’t optional. As a consultant, trainer and president of ebb associates for more than 35 years, she helps global organizations to work through large-scale change and leaders to maximize their effectiveness. She has published 85 books, including the Washington Post #1 bestseller “The Art and Science of Training.” She is the recipient of numerous professional awards and accolades, including ATD’s inaugural CPLP Fellow Honoree, ISA’s Broomfield Award and Wisconsin’s Women Entrepreneur’s Mentor Award. Biech has been instrumental in leading the talent development profession during most of her career and has served on several boards. She is a designer and facilitator for the online course, “How to Build Your Successful Training Consulting Business,” and has been featured in publications such as the Wall Street Journal, Harvard Management Update, Investor’s Business Daily and Fortune.
Customizing all of her work for individual clients, she conducts strategic planning sessions and is particularly adept at turning dysfunctional teams into productive ones. As a management consultant, trainer, and designer, she provides services globally to public- and private-sector organizations to prepare them for the challenges of the future.
For more information, visit www.elainebiech.com.
“The New Business of Consulting: The Basics and Beyond” (Wiley, May 2019, ISBN: 978-1-119-55690-9, $30) and its companion workbook, “The New Consultant’s Quick Start Guide: An Action Plan for Your First Year in Business” (Wiley, April 2019, ISBN: 978-1-119-55693-0, $28), are available at bookstores nationwide, from major online booksellers and direct from the publisher by calling (800) 225.5945. In Canada, call (800) 567.4797. For more information, visit the book’s page and the workbook’s page on www.wiley.com.