Starting a consultancy can be like finding a date

linus tanLinus Tan is a PhD Candidate at Swinburne University of Technology. He researches design and management strategies that enhance collaborations in architecture teams.

Prior to his research, Linus worked in operation management in a digital fabrication laboratory and an air force squadron. He can drive a tank but can’t drive a car.

Linus’ website is a digital garden of research and design ideas, and he occasionally drops his thoughts on Twitter (@linustan). You can view Linus’ ORCID profile here: https://orcid.org/0000-0002-5705-0493


Photo by Markus Winkler | unsplash.com
Photo by Markus Winkler | unsplash.com

The COVID-19 pandemic has affected many universities across the world. It disrupted their revenue streams and most universities are finding leaner ways to operate. For many, this means laying off staff and discontinuing contracts.

I checked in with some of my university colleagues and they’re worried about job security. Some of the researchers in my network shared similar sentiments. Even tenured professors are not spared from this cull, as I have read in the past year on Twitter.  Casual researchers and tutors appear to have been affected the most. Since they do not have long-term contracts, they are usually the most convenient group to let go. Casual researchers and tutors like me.

“Will I be teaching next semester?” sounds like a stressful thought to have constantly but trust me when I say that this is only the start of the anxiety that rears its ugly head. My thoughts spiral something like this:

The subject coordinators said that they have me ‘on their books’ for next semester, so I should keep myself available and not apply for other jobs. But what if there are not enough students and I don’t get offered a role? How will I last financially through another semester? I’m sure they still need tutors to teach the subjects, so does that mean I am not as good as others if I get cut? Am I good enough for academia? Am I good enough?

I am not surprised to hear from my colleagues that they are now considering work outside academia. After all, job security in academia is turning out to be an imagined reality. While I can see the potential for these colleagues to fit into the role of a consultant, I noticed some hesitancy from them. Starting something new while balancing their current work can be daunting and overwhelming.

So, I thought it might be useful for me to share how I started consulting while working as a casual in universities. First up, I am neither an expert at starting a business nor do I run a big consultancy. But I am content with the projects I do each year, alongside my research, teaching, and creative works. I hope some of these techniques can help you get your foot into the industry.

1. Putting myself out there

The first thing I do is to make it known that I am accepting consulting work, sharing this information with those in the industry and my network. This is the most important step to take. How will potential clients know to approach you if they don’t know you’re available for hire?

To me, it’s like trying to find a date. I won’t find one by sitting at home waiting for something to happen. I need to sit alone at the bar to signal that I’m available. I need to be on the dating apps so people know that I’m looking. I need to let people know I’m single, ready to mingle, and they can swipe right on me.

I’ve read many bloggers on this topic and they say different things when it comes to advertising your services. They include build a website, network at events, join small business groups, have coffee with different people, or provide pro bono services. I think all but the last one is useful in their own way but I find that the right approach depends on the time that I have and my comfort level with advertising myself.

I have a website because I love to design, but that’s not how I get my jobs. I avoid many forms of networking because they put me out of my comfort zone. I don’t engage much in small business groups because it takes too much of my energy. What I do like is having coffee with anyone and listening to what they are currently doing. In return, I share the projects I’m working on, which offers insight into what I get up to and could offer in terms of services and expertise.

2. Making myself presentable to potential dates

I was having a coffee with a friend and we were chatting about dating apps. I thought putting up a few photos and describing what I like was enough for a profile but I couldn’t have been more wrong. According to him, the photos must show the casual, fun, adventurous, serious, and happy side of me. Instead of just describing myself, my bio has to spark curiosity and hook in a conversation. I was shocked at this complexity of the art of dating.

Thinking back on the conversation, though, it feels a lot like the process of finding consultancy work. Announcing that I am available is not enough. I need to be able to say that I run innovation workshops, manage research projects, communicate findings as stories, and help firms streamline their businesses. These are the faces of my consultancy services. They are the different pictures of my dating profile.

Aside from these “faces”, I think talking about services needs some subtlety. For example, instead of saying “I provide innovation workshops for companies” over a coffee, I might say something like:

What you said reminds me of the time I ran a workshop with a client. The team had communication problems, so I helped them unpack why it kept occurring. Turns out, they lost information because they had too many communication channels. Is that something that’s also happening with your team?

Briefly mentioning the service doesn’t force the conversation onto the service. It hints at what I did, which might pique the interest of the listener. Most importantly, our discussion started off about them, took a short detour into what I did, and came back to them. It’s a gentle way of providing them with a chance to ask more about what I did.

3. Get a wingperson

One of the biggest mental barriers is thinking that a consultancy service is a lone venture. That is not true! Can you team up with another colleague to provide greater value to potential clients? How about assisting a professional consultant to provide your expertise to their clients?

One of my services is running innovation workshops with firms and teams. My expertise is using design methods to help clients become more innovative. Since I lack the field knowledge, I team up with field experts to co-run the workshop.

My experience teaming up with experts has been rewarding. I’ve learned how to turn over a service quicker, the consulting work gets shared, and I have a sounding board on which to test ideas. But, most importantly, I get verbal feedback and assurance that I’m doing okay. In fact, teaming up is my favourite way of providing consultancy services. Not only do I reap these rewards, I get to work on a range of projects with different experts in various fields.

4. Swimming in the wrong lake

It took me a while to recognise the type of clients that appreciate my work. When I started consulting in 2012, I offered my services in the architecture field (I studied architecture and was familiar in that industry). While my peers went on to practice architecture, I taught and researched instead. That made me less specialised than my peers, and I had a hard time convincing potential clients with my limited architectural experience.

This changed for me when I asked my close friends, who were not in the architecture field, what they think I’m really good at and what they would hire me for. It turned out that my superpower was planning, out-of-the-box thinking, and coordination. They would hire me when faced with an unfamiliar project because I would think of everything in the preparation phase. Their responses changed the way I recognise clients. Now I don’t find clients based on what industry they are from, but what situations they are in.

It’s like trying to find a romantic date at the nightclub. It’s not impossible, but highly unlikely. Best to scout out another, more appropriate location instead.

5. Finding the right date

There are many kinds of dates, and the right date depends on what I am after. Am I after a thrill for the evening? Or looking to experience something regular? Or I’m looking for the one that will last a lifetime? Since there isn’t just one kind of date, I find it useful to be clear on the kind of date I need that fits my current circumstances.

I am happily challenged when I work on one-of-a-kind projects, so I aim for high-paying one-off clients. Pitching for these projects involves a lot of preparation and has little guarantee of getting the project. But they are experience-boosting and can lead to bigger opportunities. It’s like getting hired to run a one-off lecture. It takes time to prepare but  can lead to future lecturing gigs.

I also work on regular projects for clients, like the innovation workshops. It’s something I can do with little preparation and on short notice. It may not be particularly challenging for me as I am very familiar with the process but it brings in the dollar. It’s like teaching a repeated tutorial or the same subject three semesters in a row; chances are, not much can go wrong with it.

I entered the consulting arena by focusing on regular gigs. This provided me with some financial regularity. But once I am comfortable with such projects, I aim for one-off gigs for the experience. This keeps me content with what I do and fits well with my current schedule.

6. Lastly, my university is who I am currently dating

This may be an unpopular opinion but it is one that I stick with. I think it can help casual and short-term contract staff ease into thinking about their consultancy service as well.

I see universities as my clients. The clients pay me to provide research and teaching services. If I meet the clients’ expectations, we may form a relationship where I get recurring work from them. I may even get a larger volume of work the next time. However, I never expect the client to have work for me and I’m prepared for the working relationship to stop once they no longer need my services.

When I work for these clients, I pay very close attention to the hours I spend. When every minute of mine is worth a certain dollar, over-delivering costs me time, money, and energy. I’m not saying that I always work within the time allocated as I find that quite impossible, but I know not to spend a day recording an hour-long lecture. Why? If I get paid $180 for delivering a lecture, but spent eight hours making it, I essentially get paid $22 per hour for my work. That is the pay of an experienced barista at McDonalds.

With that said, I (as a casual member of staff) am not obliged to stay with one client. I am free to find new ones, whether they are other universities or organisations. I am also free to leave when a contract ends or when I have more meaningful work elsewhere. We’re just dating after all, and no-one has mentioned getting into a longer-term relationship. Perhaps the relationship has run its course and it’s time to find someone else?

One comment

  1. So true. A great read and great advice for casual academics. Been there and was on short term contracts for nearly 20 years with several employers. Never unemployed, occasionally underemployed.
    Finally now on tenured staff. Took a long time!

    Like

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