Three women share their experience as consultants and talk about what it takes to be one of them
By Deborah Jeanne Sergeant
Do you have what it takes to ditch your day job and become a consultant? Or launch your own consulting business after you’ve retired? That depends.
It certainly makes sense to parlay the skills you’ve used for years on your job into a career where you’re at the helm; however, operating a business is a lot different than working for a business.
Robin Bridson of Chittenango works as a professional development and training coordinator at Colgate University. She has both consulted and worked as an employee.
“You want to be very realistic with what you can do,” she said.
If you need the income to live on, could you work enough hours a week?
Retirees seeking entrepreneurship must perform due diligence to the market (is the service needed in the area? Is there any competition?), assess their passion (do you really, truly want to do this for a living?) and make sure they have the ability to manage a business.
The last item can make all the difference, since not everyone who possesses talent and passion and lives in the right market also possesses the ability to organize, launch and operate a business effectively.
New businesses require infrastructure, such as equipment and recordkeeping processes. Bridson likes One Note, which synchs information on her phone, tablet and laptop.
“I used to use lots of Post-It notes, but things get lost,” she said.
Ever Note is another example of similar Cloud-based synching software.
She also urges would-be entrepreneurs to evaluate their organizational skills, either online or on paper.
“Once you’re working on your own, you’ll need to keep track of expenses: mileage, getting suits cleaned and meals,” she said. “Itemize that.”
There’s also billing, marketing and web development. In addition to business management skills, sole proprietors need soft skills, including communication.
Linda Lowen of Jamesville consults as a writing and media coach. She said that flexibility is vital for consultants.
“It’s not a 9 to 5 job,” she said. “You have to understand you are given greater flexibility, but at the same time, you have to be flexible.”
She believes that many new entrepreneurs, especially women, struggle to promote themselves and value their skills and experience. Marketing relies upon entrepreneurs’ ability to connect with others to establish the relationships they need to do business, including clients and vendors.
“Are you good with people and confident entering a situation where you don’t know anyone?” Lowen said. “Can you respond appropriately?”
Jennifer B. Bernstein, president and founder of Get Yourself into College, Inc. in Syracuse, now 48, confessed that her family “thought I was crazy” because she wanted to leave her position as a tenured college English professor to become a consultant. She believes that starting her consulting business before she quit or retired made the leap easier.
She also sought professional resources that proved helpful. She took an online class about promoting her business, launched a website and blog and began networking so she could get her business name in front of potential clients.
“I personally don’t do a lot of traditional networking in my industry, such as spending time with others who do what I do,” Bernstein said. “If you want to start learning more about developing a business, it’s very useful to become part of a community that can help you learn about developing a company.”
Groups such as Women TIES in Syracuse, the local chamber of commerce, Syracuse Small Business Development Centers or other business-oriented organizations may be helpful.
Consulting part-time while still working helped Bernstein gain momentum so that when she went full-time, she had a steadier stream of clients, thanks to referrals and word-of-mouth advertising. Volunteering may also help provide helpful experience.
“If this is something you’re seriously considering, you shouldn’t just be dreaming about,” Bernstein said. “Use the time now to start clarifying possibilities and seriously look into what it would mean for you tax-wise and what it would take to get it going so you can make a smooth transition into that next phase.”