Last Updated May 26, 2009 6:30 PM EDT
Some jumped into consulting; others were pushed. But whether they ended up in the profession by choice or by circumstance, the independent consultants we spoke with said their new profession offered an unexpected mix of both benefits and sacrifices. The biggest upside: a fluid, self-directed lifestyle offering more opportunity to balance work and family and pursue personal goals. The toughest downside: uncertainty about prospects for the future, and a lack of backup when things get busy — or go wrong. Here's how three professionals have fared since they took the plunge.
Name: Kim Lopez-Walters, 43
Previous position: Consumer strategist at the market research firm Iconoculture
Current position: New product consultant to the food and beverage industry
How she got her start: After being laid off in July 2008, Lopez-Walters decided to use her decades of experience working for brands such as Pepsi, Quaker Oats, Nestle, Starbucks, and PowerBar to launch her own consulting practice, emphasizing her extensive background in new product development: “That’s my specialty,” she says. “I know how to launch and reposition food products.” Fortunately, Lopez-Walters had carefully cultivated her network of past coworkers and employers — many of whom ended up providing her with her first opportunities and referrals.
How she’s doing:
“So far it’s been great,” says Lopez-Walters, adding that she has no desire to return to the traditional workforce since the consulting lifestyle fits her needs as the mother of three young girls. One thing that’s secured her a steady stream of work has been her recent discovery of an interesting niche — taking over projects for employees who are going out on family or maternity leave. That’s helped her generate an income about 30 percent higher than her previous full-time salary. “But with my new expenses — office, insurance, health care, and taxes — it really becomes a wash,” she says. The real upside? The increased freedom and flexibility that comes with managing her own schedule.
Her biggest concern is income security. “I’m banking away as much as I can in case projects dry up,” says Lopez-Walters. “That’s the risk consultants always have in the back of their head.” Things are even more pressing now: Just as her business was hitting its stride, her husband was laid off from his full-time position, making her the sole breadwinner. It’s anxiety-provoking, but she’s confident they’ll get through it. Her husband, meanwhile, has had the opportunity to spend more time with the kids.
Name: Grant Son, 45
Previous Position: Vice president of consumer marketing, Time Inc.
Current Position: Consultant to new and established interactive media companies
How he got his start: Son, whose career in media has spanned nearly 25 years, was laid off last December when Time Inc. cut a third of its consumer marketing staff. As it happened, Son had already been considering a return to the entrepreneurial fray (he’d been CEO of a publishing startup that was eventually acquired by ESPN), and he decided to pursue consulting rather than jump into another full-time job commitment to give him time to develop and launch his new company. Getting his first projects wasn’t hard. “I’ve worked for the top brands in the business,” says Son, so he was able to generate plenty of work just from former colleagues. Right after he got laid off, Son sent a mass email about his consulting practice to his entire social network, and some of his ex-colleagues at Time Inc. immediately responded with offers of work ranging from web design to business development, which Son and his "virtual team" were happy to accept.
How he’s doing:
Surprisingly well. As Son points out, one side effect of the economic climate is the huge amount of recently displaced talent on the streets, available for work as part of a “virtual” team. “I’ve been able to enlist many former business associates as part of my network, which allows me to offer a comprehensive set of services,” he says. “We can basically do everything needed to run a new media company, from marketing and development to operations and finance.” As a result, Son’s been able to present a much bigger portfolio of options to his clients — resulting in an income that has so far run about 20 percent ahead of his prior salary.
Son always saw consulting as bridge toward his real priority — his new startup. As client work mounted, though, he realized he needed to start shifting time and attention out of his consulting practice and into his startup venture. His solution: He struck a deal with one of his clients to barter his skills and experience as “entrepreneur in residence” in exchange for the office space, infrastructure, and services he’ll need to get his venture going. He’s begun to cut back his client load in preparation for launch, which he says is on track for sometime in the next year. “In the coming months, things will improve to the point where companies are seeking out new opportunities,” Son says. “And by that time, I’ll be ready to go public with the details of my new venture.”
Name: David Mark, 57
Previous position: R&D scientist
Current position: Nutritional marketing consultant
How he got his start: Mark, who has a Ph.D. in nutritional biochemistry, was an R&D scientist for two decades, working for companies such as Monsanto, and most recently, Welch’s Grape Juice. He cites “bad weather” as the reason for being laid off from Welch’s in 2004: Welch’s only has three growing regions in the entire United States, and two of the three went sour in one year. The result was staff cuts across the board. Realizing that at age 52, he was probably “two jobs away from retirement,” he turned to consulting as a way to bring his career in for a “soft landing.” Welch’s ended up being his very first client. Mark knew that the research project he'd been working on at the time of his lay-off still needed to be wrapped up, so he offered to do it as a consultant, and his former boss readily agreed. Additional jobs came from other former employers of Mark’s.
How he’s doing:
Mark’s specialty is discerning whether science supports health claims — and, as consumer interest in healthy foods and beverages rises, he’s found himself ideally positioned to benefit. “My overhead is minimal, my business is steady, and I’m making more than I would have been if I’d stayed salaried,” says Mark, who’s satisfied that he’s made the right choice.
Complications: Probably the biggest concern on Mark’s mind is avoiding complacency. In order to avoid taking his success for granted, every year, on the anniversary of launching his practice, Mark takes time off to do “strategic planning,” thinking about how better to grow and position his business. He’s also rigorous about self-discipline. “I make sure I always put in a full workday; if things slow down, I work on writing articles for industry and consumer health magazines,” something he says is an important way to stay top of mind with clients and prospects. “My only curse is that my office is too near the refrigerator,” he says.