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Consulting: Should I trade my fledgling business for a real job?

In the September 26, 2017 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a reader asks whether it’s worth trading a budding consulting business for a “real” job.

Question

consultingI’m an avid follower and have found Ask The Headhunter positively inspirational. I especially enjoy pushing back on senior executives for their lame hiring practices and nonsensical rejection methods.

Anyway, here’s my situation. I set up my own consulting practice while job hunting. It’s been 15 months and the business is growing, but I’m also finally getting close to a job offer. The role is in my field of expertise and it’s as full-time internal consultant for a huge multinational.

I’m toying with the idea of pitching an outsourcing (consulting) arrangement for my firm in place of taking the job they’re interviewing me for. It makes sense as they would gain extra manpower, and I know we could do a better job for the same cost. But I’m concerned this proposition might derail the process. What do you think?

Nick’s Reply

Ask The Headhunter is largely about helping people get jobs, because few people are capable of doing what you’re doing – starting and running their own little business.

I make no bones about preferring to see people run their own show rather than get a job, but it’s not for everyone. Neither option is very secure, and when you work for yourself you usually come to realize you work for a slave driver who’s often a jerk. (Believe me, I know!)

But when things go perilously wrong in either scenario – having a job or a business – it’s only when you’re your own boss that you get to make the critical choices. You always have the chance to right the ship.

There’s a twist on this “job vs. self-employment” issue that some readers might like to consider: Want a job? Threaten to start a business!
Only you can judge whether suggesting a consulting arrangement will jeopardize the hiring process in this case. Because your question seems to be about making a choice, I’m not going to get into how you might make your pitch to this company. I’m going to offer some thoughts about how to approach the choice.

Consulting yourself

It sounds like you have some employees in your little firm, and you may be willing to let them all go. But regardless, I think  the bigger question to ask yourself is, Does it really matter if turning your interviews into a sales presentation does derail the hiring process?

This leads to more good questions. So start consulting yourself:

  • If you pitch a consulting option to the employer that turns them off, can you replace the lost job opportunity with other new clients?
  • Even if you try to switch this to a consulting gig and fail, will you learn enough from the experience to make you a better salesman the next time you try?
  • Can you afford to give up this job opportunity and continue what you’re doing on your own? That is, do you need the kind of security a job offers more than the benefits your own business provides?
  • Is this job opportunity worth giving up the progress you’ve made with your own biz?

What’s the risk?

You’re worried about the risk of losing a job offer which, by the way, you did not say is a sure thing. All I see is an expected bump in the road for someone who is growing a little consulting business.

It’s hard to shake the idea that you need a job. If you accept a job offer, will you be able to shake thoughts of what you might have accomplished with your own business?

I offer you no advice. I just don’t know enough about you and, besides, this is a choice you must make. If you need the salary and “security” a job offers, I’m the last guy to criticize you if you decide to accept it.

Songwriter Paul Williams wrote during the Viet Nam War that, “Peace is just the impossibly high first step.” So is taking any risk if you have a worthy goal.

I wish you the best, and I’d love to know what you decide and how it turns out. Thanks for your kind words about  Ask The Headhunter!

Have you traded a job to start your own business? What questions would you tell this reader to ask? Has anyone out there made the move to start a business, and then gone back to a regular job? What did you learn that might be instructive for this reader?

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15 Comments
  1. There are many trade offs to both scenarios. A consulting practice has no decision authority on the advice therefore you are free from the burden of a boss and retaliation.

    If you become a paid employee, you lose that freedom. You are being paid to perform a specific outcome and that may change . . (job descriptions usually add; perform other duties as required)

    My experience has been that companies like consultants when they need immediate advice and counsel. At some point they either don’t like the advice or determine you are an inconvenient change agent.

    When the project scope becomes mute, you’re left out to find a new endeavor.

    • @Paul: The key to starting any new biz is to understand the cost of sales and marketing. You must always have your next client or customer in the pipeline. That takes constant work. Of course, people who hold regular jobs have the same challenge — you must start networking two years ago so you’ll have a “next job” ready to go when this one goes south.

  2. Wow! Everything this person said runs through my head every time I’m contacted about a ‘job’. I walked (swam?) away from a sinking ship six months ago and started my own software company. I had to live on savings for a while, and I’m still not netting as much as I did, but I’m paying the bills. I’m hoping this little seedling bears lots of fruit one day.

    When it comes to jerky slave drivers, my boss has nothing on the last two I worked for. Seriously, I could write a book about literal insanity in the workplace.

    I struggle a bit when it comes to administrative tasks that I absolutely despise, but when profits pick up, I can hire someone who enjoys that stuff. And I won’t be a jerk to work for.

    • @Lisa: It’s easier not to be a jerk to your employees than it is not to act like a jerk toward yourself :-). I think the single biggest challenge when starting a biz is to avoid driving yourself into the ground.

  3. I know a few people who ran businesses, then got out and took a job, and felt very relieved. These were actually highly successful people. They were happy to have a steady paycheck. Also, these people don’t take grief from employers, and they work hard.

    I also know a few people who started businesses years ago, and in their 60’s and 70’s they could retire but they enjoy their work, and transitioning the business is easier said than done.

  4. I ran my own service business for over 20 years. Then made a decision to take my career in another but similar direction. I do not regret one moment of going from blue to white collar. However, the tech industry seems to be an (pardon this comment)industry more partial to hiring younger candidates (see today’s CNN and Bloomberg. I think that if you are going to make the jump, do it soon.
    Also, remember one of Nick’s most important points. That is, is this a firm that you really want to work for? Is this the place and the job that will do it for you, make you smile when you get to the office and feel energized? If not, maybe keep a similar job hunting strategy but find the right company to work for.

  5. I have had my own consulting business since 1987 but have taken a “real” job several times over the years. I have also turned down a number of jobs or turned them into consulting jobs instead. My main question I ask in each case is whether the job will be a major learning opportunity for me that will increase my value in my own business. If I can only provide value to a company with little chance of increasing my own knowledge base, then if I can turn it into a consulting job, I will take it. However, if I can provide value to a company as well as learn a new industry or expand my knowledge of an industry, then I will seriously consider taking the job. One should never look at a job offer as a permanent decision but what its impact on your own business could be long term.

  6. Whether to be self employed or to work in an organization run by others has always been a difficult choice for me. I’ve done both, and I have gone back and forth between the two. I don’t think there is an easy answer, at least for me.

    I like the security of being in a larger firm, even if I know the security is just an illusion. I like being able to depend on other talented individuals and doing work that is bigger than anything I could ever do on my own.

    Having a great boss, who has your back and who supports and inspires you is amazing. One of the best reasons to work for someone else. I’ve reported to some great managers, but…

    In larger organizations you always have some incompetence. Some of it rises to the top. Working for a weak, incompetent boss is just terrible. Life is too short for that sort of thing.

    Having weekends off and having paid vacations was very nice. But when you are self employed and if you are a sole proprietor, paid time off is something you have to earn and it may take awhile.

    When self employed, if you can not scale the business to where its more than just you, how much better is it than being an employee?

    I favor building a business that can run without you. If you are an employee, the minute you stop showing up for work, the pay check stops. If you are self employed but the revenue depends on you showing up for work, you are in the same boat. Take a few weeks off and the revenue stops. So the key is creating a business that keeps on working without you.

  7. My career has taken me across both worlds of consulting and “jobs,” although the majority of jobs I’ve taken required grantwriting and generating new sources of income. I left consulting this past year due to the uncertainty of healthcare, and the fact that I’m an older worker (58, still have many good years). I agree with Gail’s comment that a good question is whether the job will be an opportunity to learn and grow. As Nick often says, it comes down to due diligence, whether you are accepting a client or a job. Do your homework, weigh the cost/benefits, and ask whether getting up in the morning to go to work for someone else energizes you more than working on your own. I move tomorrow and start on Monday. Thanks Nick, for the wonderful advice in Fearless Job Hunting. Here’s to a successful next chapter for each of us.

  8. I am variously and simultaneously an owner and seasonal employer in my own business, an individual consultant for big business, and a part-time W2 employee for someone else’s small business. I follow Nick and recommend him to friends because his approach and tools apply to anyone who is out earning money through service to others. First, engage in conversations (networking, interviews) to connect to what people need and what you provide. Then create a specific opportunity (job, project, position) where you and someone else both benefit. Then, and only then, negotiate the business relationship that works for that situation. This question and Nick’s answer suggest that I’m not the only lurker on Nick’s blog who is not a traditional “job seeker.”

  9. I’m about to do exactly what your writer is considering. I’ve built a career consultancy over the years, and just accepted an offer to be a Director of Career Services at an outstanding local university. While there are lots of positives about moving into a traditional job, especially this traditional job, I have certainly felt that consultant’s tinge of “Oh no, what am I doing?” that such a shift naturally brings. To help assuage these feelings, I tell myself a few key things: 1) I’ve proven that I can succeed as a consultant, so I know I can again in the future if I want or need to; 2) Getting a big name university in my credentials will only help should I return to consulting; 3) I’ve arranged it so that I can still work with a few select clients in my free time. 4) Overall, I know that this job will make me better at what I do, regardless of which path I take from there.

    Hope this is a helpful perspective. Good luck!

  10. Three issues are really at play here: committment, competitiveness, and competence. Disturbing, yet revealing is this person’s statement, “I’m finally getting close to a job offer.” This is not the mindset of a true entrepreneur. I suspect this individual got into consulting to fill a void and to test the waters. As such I really question this person’s comittment to his own business. He/she has little competitive mindedness that is a key component of owning one’s own business, especially in the professional service sector. Finally, I lean towards the negative probability about the competence level of this person. The defining statement listed here by this person is a clear indication he/she has no real passion for their consulting business. I’ve been engaged in consulting over 25 years and have experienced many so-called consulting competitors that myself and my associates leap frog over them. The reason is passion and competence, both of which combine to define our competitive edge. Consulting is similar to sports competition. There are participants and then there are the battlers, the real warriors. The game reveals which is which. I see this person as a wannabe and not a true warrior. He/she should jump at the job, should it be offered to them. Also, don’t get on the same field as myself, my associates and others similiar to us unless you are prepared to lose. If you ever wonder why you lost a prospect, consider these factors, passion/competence.

    • You kinda sound like a dick. Isn’t the point of having a business to give back to the community? I wouldn’t want someone like you on my team.

      • I don’t think that kind of language should be used on this site.

        Do you own a business?

        Is your main purpose for working to give back to the community or to make a living?

        I think you are confusing businesses with non-profits, which are organizations for certain needs in the community. Of course, businesses do donate to certain charities but that isn’t their sole reason for being in business.

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