“Should I do some consulting on the side?” is a question that I’ve gotten pretty regularly with most of the people I help with career coaching over the last few years. Almost without reservation my answer is, “yes.” (More on possible reservations below.)
Chances are you know something that somebody wants to know. You have some kind of knowledge or experience that would make you valuable for a company, nonprofit, or individual. Anybody who has been at their trade for at least 5 years should have this experience (some even earlier if they’ve really honed their craft or their craft is a uniquely in-demand kind).
Consulting is Low Risk
First, side consulting is relatively low risk. It’s a chance for you to take the extra time you have available in a given week or month and turn that into side income using the knowledge you already have. You don’t start with massive projects that determine the success or failure of a company. You start with small, 4 or 5-figure projects that are easy to get people to agree to. Then you use these to increase your rates and your service offerings.
Non-Negligible Side Income
Second, this is a great source of side-income. Your first consulting project will probably be 4 or 5 figures. My first one was just $1,200. At the time, that was a lot of money to me to make in two weeks for relatively little work! Most people can charge considerably more than that for their first projects, too, and this is in addition to your usual monthly income. It’s not unusual for a consulting project here or there to increase your monthly income 30-50%.
As you complete more projects, get better case studies, and expand your offerings and client base, you can raise your prices relatively quickly. For the devoted independent side consultant, that extra income could allow a spouse to quit their job, pay for a down payment on a new property, or just generally de-risk saying yes to other opportunities by building up the rainy day fund.
Third, doing some consulting on your side makes your career more robust. The reality is that being an employee is only safe so long as your employer doesn’t choose to lay you off or fire you. In countries with at-will employment, it’s entirely possible you’ll wake up tomorrow without a job. You want to be in a place that even if you get laid off or fired, you still have income coming through the door. Consulting provides that. You can get an extra income on the side that makes you less dependent on your employer. Ironically, this often makes you more desirable to the employer, too.
It can also be a great way to test-run full-time opportunities. I first consulted with the 1517 Fund team as a content marketing and talent consultant before I joined the investment team. That’s an opportunity I probably would never have had if I had not been doing consulting at the time.
Consulting Makes You Better at Your Main Job
Fourth and finally, the skills you pick up consulting often help you at your day job. Consulting well requires you improve and stay good at your core skill set. You can’t just coast on the skills that got you hired in the first place. Good consultants also learn basics of negotiation, networking, maintaining some personal brand, and what’s in-demand in their marketplace. These are skills that a normal employee has to devote significant time and attention to learning. Somebody with a side consulting gig pays themselves to learn this.
Of course, some employers are territorial about their employees earning money on the side. (My $0.02 is that these employers aren’t worth working for, but that’s a topic for another post.) Make sure you’re meeting your core obligations before you break out into consulting on the side.
You Should NOT Consider Consulting If..
Of course, there are some cases where consulting on the side is a bad idea, but these are rarer than people think. The few scenarios where I would encourage somebody to ignore the allure of consulting mostly have to do with outstanding obligations.
You shouldn’t do consulting on the side if you continually drop the ball at your day job and don’t want to do consulting full-time. That’s a good recipe to get fired and then have to do consulting full-time.
You shouldn’t do consulting if you run a venture-backed startup in its earliest stages. You owe your investors and your employees your full and undivided attention. As you get more experienced and your company stabilizes, you may consider advising other founders for equity. But ignore that allure until you’re regularly hitting your growth metrics.
And you shouldn’t do consulting if you struggle with basic conscientiousness and keeping yourself accountable. Independent consulting is a form of self-employment and it takes a level of organization that most self-employment requires. If you’re attracted by the idea of independent consulting but aren’t very organized right now, first spend the time and attention in improving your organizational skills and systems before breaking out on your own.
What About Full-Time?
Some people love the thrill of working on different projects, pitching and closing new clients, and the (relatively) uncapped income potential that consulting provides. For these folks, full-time consulting can be a great gig. I still recommend that somebody starts with part-time, on-the-side consulting first before diving in head-first. But if you’re interested in talking more about how you can get to professional consultant status, shoot me an email and I’d be happy to chat.