By Douglas Cole, 10EQS Managing Director. This article was originally published as a guest post on theconsultantlounge.com
When we think of an independent consultant we typically envision a one-person operation. What’s interesting about today’s environment, however, is that independents can now leverage an extensive global infrastructure in much the same manner as any company can. In fact, to a significant degree the individual has become comparable to a global firm. Let me try to offer a more detailed explanation below.
A Different World
Generally speaking, independent consultants have a common history, mindset, and aspiration (at least among the hundreds I’ve met and worked with). First and foremost, they enjoy the autonomy and flexibility of independent work, not least as a reprieve from the lifestyle imbalances they experienced as an employee at a large consulting firm. However, they also tend to retain the curiosity, drive, and ambition for which they were hired in the first place. Ultimately, their personal fulfillment depends on whether these deeper needs can be satisfied.
Traditionally, this has been quite a challenge. For those consultants who are strong enough to build a client base and secure a stable revenue stream, they usually reach a point where they become bound by two constraints. First, they realize they are limited by their own capacity, in the sense that they perceive their knowledge and expertise as the sole source of value to clients. This necessarily confines the size and scope of potential engagements. Second, they begin to see how administrative duties eat into their productivity. The unrelenting minutiae of time and expense tracking, tax planning, and contractual arrangements (among other things) not only consume potentially billable hours but also the time that could be devoted to business development.
Fortunately, these constraints have been substantially lifted. In all key areas – lead generation, administration, and even delivery – a growing number of virtual solutions offer ‘steroid shots’ for the independent consultant.
Pre-existing relationships are the logical starting point for someone who decides to venture out on their own. But diverse project work requires a wider platform through which potential leads can be generated. Nowadays, there is a plethora of services that match pre-vetted candidates with available projects – from InContract toHourlyNerd to Zintro. My own firm10EQS also plays in this space, though we place a greater emphasis on our channel partnerships with consultancies, investors, and global enterprises.
Such middleman services are increasingly attractive to corporate clients, who recognize that they can access top-tier talent without having to cover the overheads embedded in traditional consultancy fees. They also provide a marketplace that allows qualified consultants to access a much wider client base.
In the area of outsourced administration work, there is a similarly broad array of options. Theoretically, one could engage oDesk or Elance to hire a virtual assistant, but there are also more specialized services such as MBO Partners that specifically cater to independent consultants with a range of support services, from quarterly filings to online expense tracking to inter-jurisdictional tax management, etc.
The benefits of such services are twofold: first, they free up independent consultants’ time, allowing them to focus on higher-value activities; second, they facilitate access to larger and more prestigious clients, many of which have complicated legal, insurance, and security requirements. An outsourced service provider can vastly reduce the bureaucratic complexity associated with accessing these companies, thus removing a critical barrier to entry.
Delivery capacity is another potential barrier, and here again there are many interesting possibilities. In essence, today’s independent consultant can leverage a virtual collaboration platform to assemble larger teams with which to win and deliver more ambitious engagements.
At the proposal stage, one can improve one’s ‘hit rate’ by including indicative profiles of global experts who can be brought in to fill specific knowledge gaps on demand. In this way one becomes empowered to bid on a much wider range of projects, dramatically increasing the scope of potential topics and geographies.
For content generation, one can leverage a virtual community of collaborators – i.e., other independent consultants at various levels of seniority – who can provide client-ready deliverables, such as synthesized points-of-view on market or customer demand, industry benchmarks, competitor assessments, and so forth. These deliverables can be integrated as part of one’s remit on larger assignments, positioning the independent consultant as more of a virtual team leader than a one-person show.
A New Paradigm of Work
One of the most significant benefits of these virtual strategies is that they allow the independent consultant to focus on the highest-value activities, and to outsource time-consuming administration, research, and analysis. The consultant can do what ultimately matters most: strategy development, implementation, and forging a stronger relationship with the client.
As companies become more and more dependent on flexible talent, the demand for independent consultants will only increase. Virtual intermediaries will contribute to a new professional paradigm that is fundamentally different from the outsourcing model of old. This new model will be less about replicating functions like IT, Finance, or HR and more about performing discrete tasks on demand. At the center of this evolution are the independent consultants themselves, and the virtual ecosystems that are steadily empowering them.