Starting Out as a Consultant


I’m considering leaving my position at the end of the academic year. I’m overwhelmed with thinking about what comes next, but I have done some consulting work in the past and might be able to do more of it in the future. 

What I’d love to know from folks who have already done it is, how do I start off as a consultant? In particular, I feel like there’s a lot to learn in setting up a small business, marketing myself as a consultant and getting people to pay me for this. I know I could do the work and have done a few odd projects here and there, but I’m struggling with how I might ramp that up into a full time business that supports me. I just don’t know how people find enough clients. 

What do people do to get enough work to make ends meet? Are there folks who have successfully made the transition from academic to consultant/small business owner? If so, what did you do to get there? 

-  Considering Consulting 

Hi, Considering Consulting! 

How one starts consulting will depend, I think, on the industry you want to consult for. I’m a UX consultant, but I don’t have my own business, per se. I’m an independent, I have not incorporated my business at all, and I file my taxes as an individual. I’ve talked with a lot of other consultants/freelancers, and they’re mixed on the value of incorporating. I know that isn’t the heart of your question, but I found it useful to hear from others about incorporating or not when I was first considering going out on my own. 

As for how to find clients and sustain yourself, there’s a couple things I’d recommend doing. First, find out what your true monthly spending is. Incorporate everything--fun, housing, medical, etc. Do some research on how much insurance will cost you as an independent (if you’re in the USA and not married/not on someone else’s medical insurance) and factor that in. Remember that consultants/freelancers get no PTO or sick leave, so factor that into your calculation as well. 

Once you have your baseline budget, figure out how much you’d need to make per hour to meet that budget. 

Once you’ve figured out your rates, think about the kind of client you’d like to have. Maybe at the beginning you take what you can get as you build your reputation or maybe you have enough other stable income that you can be more picky. Have an ideal client in mind regardless, because it will help you target the folks who might want to hire you. This will also make it easier to network. Networking will be key to finding clients. Go to meetup events, industry events, spaces where your prospective clients might be and make connections. Like all networking, it probably won’t end up in work right away, but it will pay dividends in the future. You’re growing relationships with these folks so they think of you when they need work done. 

Once you’ve done a little work for people, if they’re happy with you, they will tell their colleagues! Referrals are gold when it comes to building your client base. Eventually, you will have to start saying no to people who would like you to do work for them, which is a great problem to have! :) 

This is basically what I did--I made connections in the community, proved myself with my work, and I keep getting work thrown at me. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t lean times where there’s less coming in than I’d like, but you get to a point where you can save for that and still be comfortable in the leaner times. 

Good luck! 

  • Abby Bajuniemi 

Dear Considering Consulting,

The most important thing that I did when starting out as a freelance academic editor was telling my entire professional and social network about it. I set up a website and basically sent a mass email/mass social media update telling everyone that I’m now an editor for hire. My website listed my services and rates; something that people have told me they liked a lot because it offered transparency. Almost right away, people started hiring me or referring their students and colleagues to me. I made sure to blog regularly and keep people updated on my progress as I took editing courses, attended my first editing conferences, etc. I also collected testimonials on my website, which contributed to my credibility. 

Another thing that is really important is to find your community of colleagues. I have received steady support from and found a community in editor colleagues, or “edibuddies” as we call each other. I’m a member of several Facebook groups where editors share advice and experiences. I’m also a member of several professional editing associations like Editors Canada and the SfEP, which again makes me more credible in the eyes of potential clients and provides training opportunities as well as networking events in the form of workshops, conferences, and discussion forums. Therefore, I really recommend looking for a local or virtual community of colleagues, because I have received invaluable advice through these. Some of my colleagues have referred work to me (and I to them). Freelancing can get lonely, so it’s lovely to have a community, even if it’s virtual (and you will then have friends across the globe to visit!).

I have been able to support myself from the money I make, but when I first started out, I moved in with my father in order to keep costs low (this took about six months). I also recommend volunteering for some assignments, for example consulting for a non-profit, so you can get some experience on your CV and perhaps some references/testimonials for your website. Is it perhaps also an idea to attend conferences where your potential clients hang out, bring a stash of business cards, and meet them? Or are there any Twitter chats you can attend or hashtags you can follow? Can you interact with potential clients in other ways? 

Finally, I recommend cold-emailing companies and people through a targeted LinkedIn search. For this, you need to know who your ideal client is, and how much they should be able to pay.

There are many resources out there that can help you get started and run a successful business. I like the podcast Deliberate Freelancer, where Melanie Padgett Powers, an editor, talks about how she grew her business and found high-paying clients. There is a lot of other valuable advice on marketing your business, so do read! You can definitely do this! There are clients out there, but they have to know that you exist, that you are reliable, and that they can hire you!

-- Marieke Krijnen,

From my experience I can share that there is much more research work out there for consultants than academics are generally aware of. I left academia in the European context, so I've had the luxury of being covered by unemployment benefits while doing the groundwork to profile myself as an expert, creating the necessary visibility and reaching out to my dream clients (organisations). 

I joined an association of professional anthropologists (mostly doing marketing research) and I'm doing my consulting work through a cooperative, hence I'm surrounded by others who don't exactly do what I do, but who in one way or the other can relate to what I do. It's been refreshing to learn from and with these new colleagues.

Something else I'd love to share: Leaving academia has been a time when I could finally let go of neoliberal market language. In fact the very reason I decided to leave academia, was that I wanted to ground my work in values again. A book that greatly helped to prepare me for my post-academic life is "What Colour Is Your Parachute?" A few questions that might help: What drives you? Why do you do what you do? What would you do if you didn't even have to earn money? 

It can be anxiety provoking (in fact it is) to jump into a new field, but I found new encounters and a deep awareness of what I really have to contribute that eventually gave good contracts for the first 18 months of consulting.

  • Anonymous