Is It Time to Become an Independent Consultant?
After more than a year of work from home — completely or part of the time — many fundraisers were eager to get back to the office. The colleagues! The coffee! The gossip! The super-fast copy machine! But others are asking, “Do I have to go back? Can I work from home forever and thrive?”
Leaving the comforts (and yes, the irritations) of working for a nonprofit organization or an agency can sound like Nirvana, especially after a day of meetings filled with office politics, talk and little to no action. But it’s not a move to be entered into lightly (unless circumstances force you to do that). One very successful and happy fundraising independent proprietor told me several years ago that if she ever went back to corporate life, it would be for IT support. She had found (as I have) that when you are on your own, every problem is yours.
So, is it worth it?
Here are some things to consider before “hanging up a shingle” and starting your own business. For the technical details (e.g., corporation or LLC), you will want to consult a CPA or lawyer, but these are some “gut-checks” to do before you turn in your letter of resignation.
Do you have at least one client that will pay the bills while you build the business? Depending on your state, taxes and registrations can be a (very expensive) killer. You may need insurance. You will need office supplies. Don’t count on your former employer or a client from your agency to be your key client. The former may surprise you and never call. The latter may be unapproachable because of a non-compete policy. You need an iron-clad commitment from someone — or another income source you can tap into in the interim.
Can you fill a niche that needs filling? There are seemingly more than enough fundraising consultants, and many of them seem to toss clients back and forth like a softball. What do you have to offer that people actually want to buy? Is that enough to sustain your company? Once you narrow your focus to match your skill set, your preferences and your bandwidth, is it marketable?
Do you have a contingency plan for… well, everything? I had a copy deadline and my computer broke. I had to rush out and buy a new laptop and have, ever since, had a spare computer in my office. I back up my files in three different places. I have a spare phone. In short, I am trying to make sure I stay in business, no matter what. The initial outlay wasn’t fun, but my experience with a dead PC taught me well: never be dependent on a single fallible thing for your success.
Do you have a support network? Have you found a good CPA to do the bookkeeping you don’t want to do, file the mandatory paperwork and advise you when you have questions? Do you have a vendor network you trust and that trusts you? Do you have friends to talk to when you need a sounding board? Do you have access to health insurance?
Can you survive rejection? Your best client — the one that loves you and raves about your work — leaves and the new hire has his or her own network. You throw your heart into a proposal and never hear a word back. Your client starts giving the “good stuff” to a larger company and feeds you the grunt work. The client edits your work so much (and so badly) that you don’t want to claim it for your own. Can you handle that — and sometimes make the tough decision to “fire” a client when it’s no longer working?
Do you have what it takes to survive on your own? Sure, we all dream of being the hot, new entrepreneur. But that’s not always reality. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that one in five small businesses fail in the first year, and half will be gone within five years. In addition to all the above, you need grit: courage and resolve. You have to give up the comfort, step out without a safety net and work long and hard if you want to succeed. There is no nine to five, and there is no team to step in when you’re swamped. It’s you… all alone. Is it worth it? Maybe yes, maybe no. Only you can make that determination.
Dave Goetz, founder of CZ Strategy, recently wrote, “The hardest entrepreneurial moment is not the decision to act. It’s the first few years afterwards, the interregnum after the emotional surge of the new and before the outcome is fully known.” Want to survive and thrive as an independent fundraising consultant? Then make sure you have the grit that will take you the distance.
Pamela Barden is an independent fundraising consultant focused on direct response. You can read more of her fundraising columns here.