Want to be your own boss?

Ask four key questions to determine whether to become a private consultant.

By John Suzukida, PE, Lanex Consulting, Minneapolis October 17, 2014
More than 12 years ago, I made a change from a corporate career to being independent—a change that had been years in the making (I’m a long-term planner). The reasons were many, chief of which was to dramatically reduce excessive travel while my kids were still at home. I’d also observed that the denominator in an equation is analogous to the length of our lives, and the numerator represents how we decide to spend that time. That time is almost entirely within our control—if we decide to live with the consequences, good and bad:
Numerator: How we spend time is almost entirely controllable
Denominator: Life span can be influenced by good diet, exercise, etc.—but we can’t control it.
Interestingly, the question people most frequently asked me after making that change was: “What are you doing for health insurance?” The individual asking me that question typically followed it by saying he would like to make a change but was staying with his current position for the health insurance. Clearly, insurance benefits are critical, but it often seemed like this was a reason to put off making a career decision. 
Pre-existing health conditions and tax complexities such as becoming an independent contractor can prevent you from departing from a job, but if you decide that you want the freedom of working for yourself, look closely at how constrained you really are—there may be options. Private health care insurance can be more costly than having a majority of a plan paid for by an employer—but at what cost? The Affordable Care Act changed the mind-set of many Americans, now that they can visit a health exchange to select from a variety of plans. Put together a spreadsheet after looking at the variables to help quantify the actual cost and viability of becoming independent. It may surprise you. 
After eliminating barriers like health insurance, consider the following.
What skills do you have that will be in demand?
Are there others who make a living on a contract or retainer basis doing similar things? Write down specifically what those skills are, which organizations can use them, and why they might want to “go outside” their company for that scope. Another independent contractor targeted companies smaller than $1 billion in revenue because they had the greatest need for her skills. Those companies weren’t quite large enough to have invested in that skill set and were typically just realizing that they needed those capabilities. She’s been busy ever since as a consultant.
What contacts do you have that can lead to real work?
Having a contact in the companies that you target makes the difference between having an insider say, “I know someone who can do this for us” and the reality of cold calling to sell your skills to strangers who are not familiar with your capabilities. Keeping in touch with former coworkers who have moved on to other companies is an easy way to develop a network of friendly contacts in your field.
How do you feel about marketing yourself? 
Picture how you’d contact potential companies, what you’d say, how you’d capture your value to them, how you’d charge for your services, what your “elevator speech” will be to capture your value, and how you’d follow up with them to close the deal. Bottom line, can you picture spending time selling yourself? 

Do you want to be a sole proprietor or potentially hire or collaborate with others?

Hiring others is significantly more complex than being a self-employed individual, so it’s important that you have a clear vision. 
A wise person with whom I’d worked said, “If you think you’re undercompensated or unappreciated, you will find your real value when you hang out your own shingle.” It can be a great alternative—or not—but if working for yourself has always been of interest to you, take control of your life, your numerator, and look into it. That deep dive could tell you to stay put or to become independent, but at least it will be your decision! 

John Suzukida was Trane’s senior VP of global marketing and strategy prior to founding Lanex Consulting in 2002, which focuses on strategic planning and product-to-solutions business model transitions. He has a BSME and distinguished alumnus award from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.