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Thread: Working as your own consultant/independent contractor

  1. #1

    Working as your own consultant/independent contractor

    I'm at a point in my life and career where I might try to be my own consultant/independent contractor. Really, I just want to kick it around and see if it would be at all feasible. I don't have the luxury of not making a living for my family, so this isn't about "starting my own planning firm" merely as a resume-filler.

    I know I have strong skills and experience for certain types of planning work, but I don't know how I would actually obtain a sustainable flow of work, other than to get into touch with a few contacts who worked with my old employer (well-known regional planning firm in CA).

    So I've been thinking about how to market myself and the services I can provide. Obviously, you can't go after RFQs/RFPs like a firm can, because you don't have the resources and personnel to be a primary contractor. So you need to market yourself in a support position to those firms, where they can sub out work that they don't want to do themselves. The previous firm I worked for in CA would often contact individuals who had the experience to do substantial portions of the work (writing environmental reports, responses to public comments, general plan sections, etc.), and one of the things I was continually mystified by was how often these people (who we'd often pay about $50/hr) apparently had decades of experience but the quality (or delivery) of their work wasn't as good as what I could do in-house, or just didn't really seem like anything special. These were very well respected planners who you'd see at conferences, local mixers, who knew all the city managers and planning directors, etc., but when it came to actually doing the work, they didn't deliver a high-quality product. So they had the professional reputation without the actual expertise. In my case, I feel like I have the expertise, but not a comparable reputation.

    I know the following about my abilities and marketable skills: High attention to detail, ability to process and make order out a large amount of information, ability to see things from a larger perspective and what needs to happen so projects get finished, broad technical skillset, creative solutions to sticky issues, communicating in high-pressure environments, working effectively in a support capacity or taking the lead, as needed. Experience in environmental impact analysis and review (CEQA and NEPA), long-range planning, development review, space management, facility planning, graphics, high-volume document production, etc.

    So, what are some ideas about 1) how to market yourself--as a sole professional--to entities which may want to hire an independent contractor, and 2) actually get the work. Do you think this is really possible without having a lot of personal contacts who you've worked with before? I can make a few phone calls right now and ask if they, or someone they know, would like some work done, but I really don't know where to begin when it comes to getting work in this manner outside the word-of-mouth realm.

    Any tips or ideas would be very much appreciated.

  2. #2
    Cyburbian WSU MUP Student's avatar
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    IMO, it seems like it would be very difficult to break into consulting on your own without a handful of good contacts to start with but I really don't think you need an entire Rolodex full of them either.

    I think the key is to know your strengths and really try to find that niche market that needs that skill or service and agree that trying to partner with the bigger firms may be a way to go. As an example, when I was still in grad school, fellow students and professors noticed that I had a knack for finding demographic and statistical data (the number of people who don't know how to use Census, BEA, BLS, IRS, FDIC, etc. data amazes me), market analysis, modeling, slightly above-average GIS skills, and some basic database programming and VBA/SQL language capabilities. One of the students worked for a local architecture and engineering firm and was able to convince them to bring me in on a few occasions to do some small tasks that nobody on their staff was capable of doing. This in turn led to a few other paying gigs with a couple independent LAs and architects, a very large and well known foundation, and a couple local community development organizations.

    One of the other things that I probably had going for me was that I was willing to charge a super low hourly rate at the time. I had no interest in becoming a long-term contractor and I had no illusions that there were no better-skilled folks out there doing what I was doing. Once I started doing it, it became much more about the networking to see what full-time positions might be available and to see how things work in different types of firms besides just a municipal planning office.

    Summary: My advice is: Start with just a few quality contacts, find and exploit a niche, be willing to price yourself low to get your first few jobs.
    "Where free unions and collective bargaining are forbidden, freedom is lost." - 1980 Republican presidential candidate Ronald Reagan

  3. #3
    Cyburbian
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    #1. Do you want to do this a a full time job or a side job? If you are AICP certified, you have to be very careful with moonlighting.
    #2. Don't quit your day job. Start off with one contract and build your way up. Having worked as an independent consultant for several years, including working for start-up firms, WAY too many people, especially public sector planners, think that they have what it takes to start their own firms and they don't know a damn about building and maintaining a business. Test the waters first. It is VERY important to establish a reputation as a the BEST consultant out there. Be reasonable though: YOU have to put in 200% but to everyone else it appears like 85% (no one is ever really happy).
    #3. Always, always, always have plenty of marketing material on your person whenever you are networking. This includes cut-sheets, 1 page project descriptions, business cards, brochures, business cards, portfolios (if you have hard copies), etc. If you don't have them on you keep as much as you can in your car. You ARE a walking cottage industry. #3 is what gets people's attention. THIS is what earns me phone calls and interviews for contracts.
    #4. Attend as many networking events as you can: APA chapter meetings, municipal league, township officials, etc. Work the room. Prepare elevator speech(es). Don't be pushy. There are plenty of events I attend where I don't get any bites but I meet people who know people who know people.
    #5. Be patient and persistent. Don't expect to turn a profit from Day 1.

    It takes 80-100 hours a week to get a private practice up and running from Day 1 in a good economy. Unless you want to just do side-gigs I really don't encourage trying to go out on your own UNLESS there is a glut of work in your area that is prime for picking.

    Hope this helps-
    "This is great, honey. What's the crunchy stuff?"
    "M&Ms. I ran out of paprika."

    Family Guy

  4. #4
    Cyburbian Cardinal's avatar
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    All good advice so far. Let me add...

    Why not go after RFPs? Sure, you may not want to bother competing to complete the master plan of some large city, but you can certainly tackle smaller work and smaller communities.

    The late Chet and I took opposite approaches. Chet made a practice out of doing the development review for several small communities within the metropolitan area. I went after the studies and plans for communities across the country. When we worked together we had both angles covered. Do consider teaming with people you trust and whose work you know. Plenty of other independent contractors or small consulting practices would like to present a bigger team/added depth by including others in their proposals.
    Anyone want to adopt a dog?

  5. #5
    Great advice so far.

    Nrschmid: I am leaving my current job to support an ill family member back in California, so I will be out of work anyway.

    Cardinal: Plenty of other independent contractors or small consulting practices would like to present a bigger team/added depth by including others in their proposals.
    That's a good idea. This is the kind of thing I'd like to exploit; teaming with firms on an ad-hoc basis, retaining my independence and control over my own work, but supporting larger contracts of other firms. In essence, being the go-to guy of multiple firms when they need help, letting them get the work. From my experience, there are lots of small firms that happen to (perhaps unexpectedly) win a contract that's larger than what they're used to. Instead of having to take on a new hire, they could hire an independent contractor, thus saving overhead and having no obligation to me after the work is done.

    Compiling my portfolio is something I've wanted to do for a long time. I think when I get back to CA that will be the first thing.
    Last edited by chocolatechip; 16 Jun 2011 at 1:53 PM.

  6. #6
    Cyburbian ColoGI's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by nrschmid View post

    It takes 80-100 hours a week to get a private practice up and running from Day 1 in a good economy. Unless you want to just do side-gigs I really don't encourage trying to go out on your own UNLESS there is a glut of work in your area that is prime for picking.
    -
    Word

    Quote Originally posted by Cardinal View post

    Why not go after RFPs? Sure, you may not want to bother competing to complete the master plan of some large city, but you can certainly tackle smaller work and smaller communities...Do consider teaming with people you trust and whose work you know. Plenty of other independent contractors or small consulting practices would like to present a bigger team/added depth by including others in their proposals.
    Lots of firms out there casting their net far and wide, taking anything to keep the doors open. We have a bike master plan meeting here soon, and it is not a local firm doing it.

  7. #7
    Cyburbian SW MI Planner's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by WSU MUP Student View post
    As an example, when I was still in grad school, fellow students and professors noticed that I had a knack for finding demographic and statistical data (the number of people who don't know how to use Census, BEA, BLS, IRS, FDIC, etc. data amazes me), market analysis, modeling, slightly above-average GIS skills, and some basic database programming and VBA/SQL language capabilities.
    So if/when I ever decide to start my own firm I'll know how to contact for these things

  8. #8
    Cyburbian
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    Folks, do yourself a big favor. If you do not have PERSONAL experience in sales bringing in SIGNED CONTRACTS as a consultant or contractor, stay far away from starting your own practice until the economy improves. This applies to both public AND private sector planners. As I mentioned before there is a glut of underemployed or out-of-work planners, many whom have never brought in a signed contract, who think they can scrap together a small startup planning consulting business. It is a waste of your time and money, and I have seen dozens of firms and private practitioners struggle and fail over the past 5 years.

    As I mentioned before my last job in Wichita, KS was already competing for mid-size contracts against firms I battled with in Chicago (not to mention Denver, Kansas City, etc.). The firm did not think fast enough nor did they overhaul their marketing strategy, as I repeatedly requested, and it ended up costing my job barely one year in. These are still very dark times. If you have CAD, GIS, Photoshop, or other computer skills you could probably find job clearinghouses that offer contract work. It is only going to get worse for consulting firms (except for the 1-5% in any metro area who have it in with a huge contract and most of the time they aren't hiring anyway). Things will improve but not in the near future. I am generally a very optimistic and confident planner but starting your own shop is a terrible idea right now.
    Last edited by nrschmid; 16 Jun 2011 at 5:39 PM.
    "This is great, honey. What's the crunchy stuff?"
    "M&Ms. I ran out of paprika."

    Family Guy

  9. #9
    Cyburbian Cardinal's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by SW MI Planner View post
    So if/when I ever decide to start my own firm I'll know how to contact for these things
    He'snot the only one who specializes in that sort of thing!
    Anyone want to adopt a dog?

  10. #10
    Cyburbian
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    One way I got work when I was starting to go this route (with no illusions that I was in a place to get work on my own) was to find a niche I could fill in for another firm where I had contacts. I could do some housing as well as historic preservation (which I never got to use, by anyway), and so when they needed a person to do some work in these areas as part of a larger project or RFP they were pursuing, and didn't have that expertise on their own staff, I and my consulting partner could get on the bill as a sub. I'm sure this could've given us some opportunity to build a portfolio eventually. This seemed promising but then people moved on and I got a new job ...

  11. #11
    Cyburbian Fat Cat's avatar
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    Fat Cat

    I would agree with the comments regarding partnering with an existing firm, they pick you up on an as needed basis, you may want to consider doing this with a an engineering firm, on a as needed basis. This allows them to offer plannning services as a joint effort with building project or a service to an existing client. You may want to consider them hiring you for the project and then you come under their errors and omissions insurance.
    At one point I ended up doing marketing for other than planning activities. You never know where the path leads. The Local Chamber of Commerce that I belong to has provided training for its members at no charge and it includes marketing yourself, networking opportunities and insurance.

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