In today’s internet-fueled economy, it’s easier than ever to find a niche in the workforce and fill it, which is essentially the definition of what consultants do. And frankly, in the future freelance jobs like consulting will likely become the norm, if they haven’t already, for making a living. Boutique marketing consultant Caitlin Connors made this exact point to Nathan Heller in his recent New Yorker article on the gig economy. “I think we’re just coming into the next wave of human civilization…. Humans can operate on a person-to-person basis, sharing ideas and sharing business without intermediaries.”
You’ve probably read articles like Heller’s and felt more than a twinge of recognition–either because you have hired a gig worker or you have been a gig worker–or both. And this isn’t a bad thing. Every day we see successful people striking out on their own to serve new, previously unidentified markets. This is the essence of a venture, of entrepreneurship, and of the digital economy.
So why shouldn’t you stake your claim as an online community consultant in the new gig economy? One reason might be the stress. Another might be the financial instability. But a little stress and instability is worth it if you have the drive to make it work. Look at Richard Branson, he has had his fair share of successes and failures, stress and instability, but his determination paid off.
As online communities go, this is more than just a niche market, and there’s plenty of room for new experts, companies, and cottage industries. With the emergence and widespread adoption of community and customer management products like Higher Logic and Salesforce, consultants and companies like Catherine Hackney’s Confident Community Consulting and Martha Jack’s eConverse Social Media have begun to emerge and specialize not only in community, but in community for specific platforms. As with WordPress, entire industries have sprung up around these products to improve the user experience and create innovative solutions for members and customers.
Despite the relative ease of becoming an independent practitioner, one of the highest hurdles for new consultants to jump is the first one: Getting clients. How do you build a customer base? How do you prove to a new customer that you have what it takes move their community to the next level? It’s just like building any relationship: Hard work, conversations and concessions.
You can’t expect someone to pay you for something you’ve never done before, so get lots of work and volunteer experience under your belt. Do things for free, and give your services away. It might seem counterintuitive, but it’s a great way to build experience. It’s also a great way to network with potential clients. I met one of my clients while volunteering, but keep in mind that we volunteered together for over a year before either of us talked about a work contract. You’re not playing a short game here. You can’t expect to cold call a hundred people and get yourself booked solid in a day. And even if you do succeed with a cold call blitz, ask yourself how quickly cold clients will find a new consultant when someone cheaper or smarter comes along. Build relationships and nurture them, then you can rely on them.
And I’m not using this relationship analogy lightly. If you want to make it as a consultant, you have to remember that clients are more than clients–they’re the people who help you make your living. For any independent advisor, they’re some of the most important relationships in your life.
After you have your foot in the door, you still need lots drive and time management skills to meet your goals and your clients goals. If after all of the networking and relationship building you don’t have the energy or stamina to actually advise your new clients, then you will either want to reconsider consulting altogether or get to know a time management coach. And if you expect to have the time to consult in addition to a day job, it’s even more important to make sure you don’t take on too much too quickly. Build time into your schedule to handle unexpected client emergencies and to take care of yourself. After all, you can’t nurture relationships with your clients if you don’t nurture yourself first.