5 reasons why the solo consultant lifestyle isn’t all it’s cracked up to be

Wed, Apr 3, 2013

Other, Uncategorized

Before I begin, I want to say this: I LOVE my job as a solo consultant. It’s everything I thought it would be–and much, much more. It’s fulfilling. It gives me creative liberty. It gives me the flexible schedule I need. Financially, it’s been great (and I’ll leave it at that). And, I just couldn’t imagine a better job for me, personally.

Home office

But, that all comes with some substantial drawbacks. And, that’s what I want to talk about today.

You see, when people think about solo consultants, they think about the lazy Friday afternoons you might spend by the lake (never happens). Working in your slippers in the office (I do this, actually). And catching a movie on a Wednesday afternoon between client meetings (have only done this ONCE in four years–and it was very late in the day on a Friday).

Basically, they see all the potential benefits of the solo lifestyle, and none of the hardships.

But, in reality, there are plenty of drawbacks to this line of work. People just don’t talk about them that much.

Over the last four years, I’ve noticed a number of reasons the solo lifestyle isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. I don’t share these with you to complain (remember, love my job). Or, to scare you. Just to give you a realistic view of what being a solo is all about.

If you want glamour, you’ve come to the wrong place

You think what I do is glamorous? Let me recount my “glamorous” lifestyle this week. Worked from home 4 of the 5 days. That other day, I had a couple client meetings on-site. During the days I work from home, I rarely leave my computer. I’m either writing or scouring the web literally the entire day. I take a break to go get my kids, eat lunch and get them to bed (no real “lunch break” with co-workers). Then I’m back at it in the evening. I usually watch at least one show a night with my wife (recently, it was House of Cards, which I highly recommend), but that’s about it. I only see other humans when I have client meetings or when I set up coffee meet-ups with others. Somedays I spend the whole day working in my pajamas (you would think that would be a perk, but it actually makes you feel like a slob, which is why most days I’ll purposefully get dressed in the morning even if I’m working from home the entire day). Very glamorous, right?

Credibility–try again

Try going to an event like BlogWorld or SXSW as a solo. You’re chatting with folks who work at Target. Sony. Kraft. Olgilvy. Weber Shandwick. All brands and agencies you recognize instantly, right? Who recognizes ACH Communications (or Arik Hanson, for that matter)? I’ll tell you who: Nobody. OK, maybe not nobody, but I will tell you that the folks who work for those big companies and agencies have a LOT more credibility in that environment than someone like me. Personally, I’m fine with it. But, this line of work is not for the insecure. If you like the title. You like the credibility. And you like the cache of working for a big agency or organization, this world is not for you.

The hours actually suck

You think the hours will be better, but in reality they’re just as tough as “agency hours.” Yes, you can definitely mold the schedule to fit your needs–that part is great. No question. But, the simple fact remains: You work in a billable system and you have to bill the hours. So, you work a lot of hours (provided you have–and want–the work). I sub-contract out some of my work (community management, a bit of writing and research as needed), but at the end of the day, the hours are pretty tough. Go in eyes wide open on that one.

Vacations are non-existent

But Arik, I see you going on vacations regularly with your family on Instagram (I take a lot of pics of my vacays on IG). It’s true, I vacation regularly. But, my vacations are shorter (usually 3-5 days at most usually). And, keep in mind, the phone/email is NEVER off. I’ve rarely taken a vacation where I wasn’t working. When I worked on the corporate/agency side, I almost always completely unplugged on vacation. Now, that seems like a thing of the past. My new plan: Organize four vacations each year–but vacations that are a bit shorter. Sounds like a lot, doesn’t it? Well, I figure if I was working on the corporate side, I’d have 4-6 weeks of vacation by now (that’s about how much my wife has), so I figure why shouldn’t I take a couple weeks for myself? The vacations are shorter on purpose–so I can take them more frequent without impacting client work all that much. But, that two-week vacation to Hawaii? Yeah, that’s going to have to wait for a while.

A lack of teamwork (mostly)

Maybe the thing I miss most about not working for an agency/company? The utter lack of teamwork I have as a solo. No one to brainstorm with. No one to bounce ideas off. No one to chat with while I make coffee. No one to talk about the Twins game last night. No one. I try to schedule a couple coffees/happy hours a week to get myself out in the flow–and that definitely helps. And, I do have a few accounts where I work with other contractors–but I rarely “see” them. When things get busy, it’s just me. And it sucks. Hard.

So, those are the drawbacks–and challenges–of the solo lifestyle. Like I said at the outset, there are plenty–and truth be told, many more–of reasons I love my job. But, I would be a fool if I didn’t recognize the drawbacks. I just work to find creative solutions to manage those challenges a bit better (shorter, more frequent, vacations, for example).

For my solo consultant friends out there, did I hit the mark here? Miss any drawbacks?

Note: Photo courtesy of veo via FlickR Creative Commons.

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44 comments
Marc_Meyer1
Marc_Meyer1

Good stuff Arik,. All true.IMO, When you are doing work as a solo, there is no vacation. So when you do go on Vacation, you're still working. Clients expect the work to be done and it's not like your colleagues can pick up your slack. Just to spend time with the family on a vaykay, the work day begins at 5am and the phone or tablet is nver far away, even on the golf course!

ladysportsman
ladysportsman

What if we have our own little "MN Solo PR Meet Up" ?? Coffee shop or cool hangout of choice - could run into a lunchtime hour. Would be fun to meet others, network etc.

iGoByDoc
iGoByDoc

Great post @arikhanson 

 

I have always been on the solo side, and I agree with many of your points you have mentioned. Been there, done that. But recently I have been with an agency, and I continually ask myself is this the life for me. I work just as many hours as if it was my business. Care about the work as if it was my business. Have not had a real vacation in 3 years. So, maybe it is just me, and I am doing the agency lifestyle wrong?

 

Would be interesting to see a post on 5 reasons agency life is not all it is cracked up to be! 

 

Anyway, enjoyed the post, and I still find myself asking that question. I miss working in the PJ's.

 

Doc

KelleeOReilly
KelleeOReilly

Arik:  this is a great articulation of some of the challenges associated with the 'solo'preneur life. I've been my own shop for 8+ years now and had similar versions of this "reality check" conversation with others who think my gig is amazing. And it is - but it's most certainly not for everyone!  I love the diversity of clients that I have, and I agree that finding a powerful network of trusted subcontractors to plug in to projects is a key to success!  One of the other issues I would raise is the issue of the "business side of the business" which is not something everyone excels at (and often the cause of some of those longer days/sleepless nights!):  bookkeeping/invoicing/contracting, handling your own workers' comp/liability/health insurance to be in compliance with state regulations, being your own tech department, etc.:  these are the definitively un-sexy side of being a solo (and one that many  ignore - at their own peril!)  I strongly encourage others in the solo/smallbiz world to be sure their business back end is covered somehow - in many cases, by hiring someone to help you handle that which is not your core competency. 

Doc Kane
Doc Kane

Very accurate, Arik. Along the lines of teamwork, what I missed when I worked alone was the ability to mentor folks and to work as a team at bringing changes and new ideas to an organization. There is some enhanced sense of achievement and worth when you contribute as a team to make something happen that is much different than doing it alone - which, of course, is constant when you're running your own shop.  

 

As far as cache goes, where the absence of it really hurts, is when you decide to become a part of the company environment again because you actually do miss the teamwork. Because you now lack that familiar "credibility" a brand lends to your experience, you'll find yourself up against all other jobseekers *with* that experience as a recent notch on their resume.  While an entrepreneur will have worn an insane number of hats during that time (salesperson, marketer, communicator, accountant, HR, etc.), all will be discounted because big companies don't seek out folks who can do *everything* these days, they seek out folks who can do one thing - and hopefully well.

 

That's the kicker, and the reality, despite the wonderful portfolio of clients one might possess. My advice is simliar to yours. If you like working alone, and can see yourself doing it indefinitely (this is the key), then such a role is perfect. If working with others and working on bigger, broader projects are part of what makes you happy, though, tread carefully in the solo waters - and be extra careful sticking around for too long without solid connections that can enable you to jump back in with little more than a hop across a puddle. Otherwise, that journey back to the "working world" might be longer and steeper than you ever imagined possible.

RogerFriedensen
RogerFriedensen

Arik, you hit the proverbial nail on the head here. I co-own a communication strategy firm with a long-time colleague, but we work from our homes so interactions are 95% of the time via phone, email or chat. I end every day feeling like I spent too much time doing too much "other stuff" (like walking the dog, running errands, emptying the dishwasher and so on), but I, like Lisa G., love it. There's always going to be a yang for every yin, and for me, the balance for working at home for the past three-plus years has been in the black. The lack of a true vacation is a hurdle I'd like to overcome sometime, but at the same time, the fact that it is choice that I am making for myself is empowering and much easier to swallow.

 

Great post, Arik, and please know this brother-in-arm is happy to serve as a sounding board and/or virtual collaborator for you anytime.

 

Best wishes for continued success!

 

Roger Friedensen, APR

Forge Communications

Lisa Gerber
Lisa Gerber

What? People don't know who you are? Clearly, they aren't paying attention, then. :) 

 

I LOVE being a solo again. And totally agree with your list of drawbacks. 

I actually rent office space. This was a conscious decision because I was worried about being a shut-in and working from the house. It gets me out, where humans are walking by and I was able to justify it right off the bat, by getting a client who walked by and saw that I did integrated communications. Wouldn't have got him otherwise. He knew of me but didn't know what I did. 

 

Also, I can't imagine not taking vacations. Yes, I check email and make sure nothing is burning down. But I take vacation. I let my clients know well in advance, and we work around it. I've never had any pushback. 

JodiEchakowitz
JodiEchakowitz

Arik, I think this post covers off everything that all of us solo's have been wanting to say for a long time but never have. Over time I've built a great team of (consistent) virtual consultants that work with me on different client accounts, handling various components of my clients' PR programs together with me. Since doing that, I've found that the opportunity to brainstorm, connect with others and feel less disconnected is greater. They also cover for me while I'm away so that I feel less stressed while away, and can even periodically take a (more) disconnected vacation (although this only tends to happen in December when most companies and my clients are also taking time off... although even then, I typically check email at least in the morning and evening.) But there are still times when I find myself heading off to my local Starbucks so that I can enjoy some of the white noise of people around me.

 

Despite the downsides, the flexibility that being a solo offers - especially with having kids - is something I love. I try to be more disciplined about stopping work at set times so that I have good quality family time, but it's getting harder and harder to set those boundaries. Often it takes a stark reminder from my hubby to get me back on track. 

ladysportsman
ladysportsman

I was excited to see this post hit my inbox as its something I've been thinking about after I paid into the IRS for the first time as an indie this year. I was actually calculating how much "better off" I would be tax-wise to work at a Starbucks.

 

You are right on the time off. Hubby and I haven't taken a week off together in a long time. But I certainly do a lot of extended weekends in the summer. I also bring my kayak with me when I visit a client on the west side - just drop in Lake of the Isles or Lake Minnetonka for a little paddle around. That is what keeps me sane.

 

I think my biggest drawback was moving to another state AND beginning my life as a consultant at the same time. You don't realize how many of your friends are from work until you don't have a "work" to go to everyday.

 

And I don't do billable hours - I'm on a retainer. Might be a good subject for another post - pros and cons of both.

ScottMeis
ScottMeis

Insightful post, thanks for sharing. Do you think there's a magic model out there? Given the current landscape, it's easy to envision how a well structured team of 7-8, all committed to doing a certain type of work and only making a certain salary (pssshhh) each year would be pretty great. Always going to be challenges no matter which way you split the pie.

KellyeCrane
KellyeCrane

I'm not sure who made people think being an independent consultant is easy and glamorous -- maybe the same people who think PR is, too? J There's no such thing as a free lunch, and being an indie consultant is no exception. As the Solo PR blog/community founder, I'm admittedly a little more bullish on being indie than some, but there are some antidotes to a few of the downsides you describe...

 

For credibility (or cache, as Shonali notes), dropping the names of your clients goes a long way to help with that, but you're right that certain people will judge (says more about them than us, IMO). Vacations can be arranged if you have a trusted fellow indie to back you up (I usually unplug completely for at least one week each year), and it's possible to arrange your commitments so you can take that two week trip to Hawaii -- just not very often. And I personally love being a slob. J

 

I founded Solo PR specifically to help with the teamwork aspect, and many who aren't solo don't realize just how supportive we are of each other. However, there are some people who truly need lots of human contact and miss it greatly when it's not there. Those people are typically not cut out for this career path.

 

Overall, no disagreement -- you've nailed the primary pitfalls. But those of us who've been at it a long time (18 years for me!) have found ways to work around them, and the joys of working for clients you love on your own terms -- and usually for much more money than you'd make at a traditional job -- more than outweigh any downsides.

Shonali
Shonali

The "bouncing ideas off" thing is there, for sure, but frankly, I value the independence more than the water cooler. I get a LOT more done on my own, so even though I'm also trying to "get out" more - because I recognize it's an essential part of business building - I'm trying to find the sweet spot, or balance between doing that on a regular basis and also having my "me" and "quiet" time so that I can produce the work I'm hired and paid for. Also, I know that if I need to, I can call on friends and other pros whose opinions I value, to ask them their opinion. It's not formalized, but I can, and do, do it.

I might reword your "credibility" point, or rename it, perhaps to something like "cache." Personally I believe I've built up a fair amount of credibility, and you have too (and many of the people who've commented below have as well). That's why we get calls, that's why we can stay in business. But no, it's not the same as saying you work for Kraft or, heck the ASPCA, when I was back there. There's a different kind of credibility now, I think - that which comes with having had the gumption to go, and stay, out on one's own.

As to the financial benefits - really, you're just going to "leave it at that"?! Don't be a tease!

Missy Berggren
Missy Berggren

We can always count on you to be real, Arik. Nice piece. As someone who works for a brand, I appreciate the name/brand recognition you spoke of. I also revel in the occasional morning or day working from home in my slippers (right now). I wouldn't be able to do it long term though. Like you, I rarely look up from the computer, let alone think about throwing in a load of laundry or making dinner early.

dianekrose
dianekrose

You nailed it, Arik. I especially concur with your last point. I truly miss the day-to-day interaction I had with my former corporate colleagues -- I worked with some smart people who could be counted on for ideas, enthusiasm and encouragement when my brain hit a wall. Today the only sounding board in my quiet home office is a cat that just sits there like a rock when I ask him for a better word or a new way to approach a challenge. Not quite the same...

JenRWilbur
JenRWilbur

Excellent, Arik! So many great things about being solo, but nothing's perfect (or for everyone), right? I've also found a major difference between being a solo w/out kids to being one as a mom. My flexibility decreased immensely now that I'm in charge of a toddler until about 9 AM. Gone are the days of working from 5-7 (some of my most focused hours) to get a ton of stuff out of the way before heading to the beach for a break before getting back at it. And knowing that I have to pick him up at 5 and won't most likely be able to work again until after 8, there's less time for those lunches out with colleagues, etc. Still one of the best gigs out there, but quite the adjustment once the baby arrived (which I'm sure is the same for anyone in any job ;).

MattHunt
MattHunt

Great article Arik!  I was having the same thoughts and echo your insights on the hours, vacations, and team work.  For those of us that had a hard time turning work off in a corporate environment it gets even worse as an entrepreneur.  There is always "more" that you could be doing to move your work forward and that little extra effort just might lead to the "success" that you seek.  The same holds true for "vacation time" since it is impossible to turn off completely.  When I talk with the friends that I left from the corporate world the two things that I miss the most are the friendships and the sense of a team working together for a common goal.

deedls
deedls

@BretInVancouver no doubt on that. I'm sure you have a good network of people you can talk to about most things though!

KellyeCrane
KellyeCrane

 @Marc_Meyer1 Hey friend, since your comment appears at the top as the most recent, I wanted to record what we discussed via Twitter: you absolutely can take a vacation! I unplug completely for a minimum of one week every year (and have for my 18 years as an indie), usually 2-3 weeks a year, all while working with Fortune 500 clients. You just need to build a network of supportive colleagues, which fortunately isn't difficult to do.

ladysportsman
ladysportsman

 @iGoByDoc  @arikhanson

 I would like a post on "agency lifestyle pro's and con's" too b/c I've always had this dream to work in an agency, but since I never interned at one, my resume never gets a second glance. And can someone tell me why that is? Does anyone have a mid or high-level job at agency that they've secured WITHOUT prior agency experience? Kind of off-topic here.

arikhanson
arikhanson moderator

 @iGoByDoc Solo and agency have much in common. Mostly the frenetic pace and client "challenges." Maybe you should write that post, Doc?

arikhanson
arikhanson moderator

 @KelleeOReilly That's something I learned early on--hire a good accountant and attorney. Overpay if you have to (which is the approach I take now). 

arikhanson
arikhanson moderator

 @Doc Kane Great point, Doc. I'm hoping I won't have to consider that possibility, but with a "one day at a time" mindset, you never really do know. I had a recruiter friend tell me that once you're in five year to the solo lifestyle you are "unhireable" (her words, not mine). Not sure if I completely agree with that, but it plays to your point a bit. Not only is the deck stacked against you a bit by who you're competing with, but you may also be labeled "difficult" because of your background.

Lisa Gerber
Lisa Gerber

 @RogerFriedensen and, look at the other side: I talk to friends who have agencies and lead full teams, and they deal with a whole set of problems I think I don't ever want. It's a question I think about often, do I want to grow a business or stay lean and flexible? usually the answer is the latter.

arikhanson
arikhanson moderator

 @Lisa Gerber I'm sure it's nice to be a solo when you live in the beautiful mountains. So jealous, Lisa. So, so, so jealous.

arikhanson
arikhanson moderator

 @JodiEchakowitz I haven't been doing the coffee shop thing as much lately due to workload, but I need to get back to that. Even that "white noise", as you call it, helped. 

 

And discipline on the solo side--that's a whole 'nother conversation. I have little to none, and that needs to change. I always leave a window each night to have dinner with the family and hang out with the kids, but I need more structure around that. Been thinking about leaving my computer in another room. Out of sight--out of mind!

arikhanson
arikhanson moderator

 @KellyeCrane I'm not saying I can't live without the downsides--some of them just surprised me. For sure the lack of human interaction. But, for me, I try to get around that with the coffees/happy hours/etc. Seems to be working so far. And yes, the Solo PR community is fantastic. I've been a little more active in the FB group recently--that's a fantastic place to brainstorm/vent/collaborate.

arikhanson
arikhanson moderator

 @Shonali Oh, trust me, I value the independence, too. But sometimes, I just miss having "work friends." It becomes obvious to me when I go out with other teams. But, the upside of that is, like you said--I get way more done in my "quiet" office environment. I'm hugely productive. That's a big plus. The cache point is very real. I've seen in play out more than once. Like I said, I have no problem with it, but that can be a big detraction for people. As for the financial benefits, that'll have to be a personal conversation next time I see you Shonali :)

arikhanson
arikhanson moderator

 @dianekrose I have a friend locally who calls her dogs the VP and CMO on calls with clients. Fold the pets into your corporate structure! :)

arikhanson
arikhanson moderator

 @rockstarjen That's a whole 'nother conversation. My weeknights and weekends are usually sucked up with kid stuff/events/outings. I love it, don't get me wrong, but that's a whole lot of time that one of my competitors might be spending outworking me. See, that's the paranoid person in me coming out! :)

arikhanson
arikhanson moderator

 @MattHunt Right there with you. Biggest one for me, too. By far. But, good with the bad, right?

iGoByDoc
iGoByDoc

 @ladysportsman  @arikhanson I never had other agency experience before I landed here. But I did own my own companies/agencies  previously. So, I did have that experience. 

 

I'll have to get on that post. =)

iGoByDoc
iGoByDoc

 @arikhanson I just may take you up on that. If I do, I will let you know. =)

JenRWilbur
JenRWilbur

 @Lisa Gerber  @RogerFriedensen Right there with you guys. When I went solo 8 years ago, I quickly learned that I didn't want to grow as a larger agency and take on employees and all the additional stress & commitment that comes with it. Nothing's perfect, but cheers to being solo!

KellyeCrane
KellyeCrane

 @arikhanson It's funny, when I worked in a traditional office, I was always trying to power through my work so I could get home. I'm a very social person, but I typically skipped water cooler chit chat and group lunches. For those reading this post, if this is you... you'd make a great indie! :-)

Shonali
Shonali

 @arikhanson I believe you just set up our next Skype/Google+ Hangout chat. :)

JenRWilbur
JenRWilbur

 @arikhanson I hear you. I think for me, it was just more of the adjustment of going solo pre-kids and loving the flexibility. While I'm sure I have more flexibility than most, it's still a challenge for me to compartmentalize in the AM (not try to be mommy & PR girl at the same time).