Celebrating year one with 10 tips to strike out on your own

My, how the months have flown. On January 1, 2012, I launched Sarah J Consulting as a part-time enterprise, hoping that I might eventually turn it into my primary career. In May 2012, that happened, and I haven't looked back. 

Lots of people made this possible, including clients who take a chance on me; colleagues who send me referrals and generously offer advice; and family and friends--especially my husband, who saw SJC's potential long before I could. 

Indeed, perhaps paradoxically, self-employment takes a village. I'm forever grateful to these villagers who helped me branch out on my own. Thank you, thank you, thank you!

Now, many people are curious about how I'm able to get clients--and, perhaps even more mind-boggling to folks, how I'm able to make a living by consulting. Here is my advice for those of you considering a solo gig:
  1. Have solid experience. Self-employment is self-reliance. You've got to know your field cold and be able to deliver in spades. Don't hang out your own shingle until you've built up a great amount of expertise in your professional area.
  2. Maintain excellent relationships with current and former colleagues. I have gotten numerous referrals and projects from people I worked with previously. Speaking of which...
  3. Never burn a bridge. Your reputation is everything--and it's a small world. Be kind and professional to all, as you never know where your next referral may come from. 
  4. Network, network, network. Ask colleagues and friends if they know anyone you could meet with to talk shop. Do favors and return favors. Attend/present at workshops and conferences when your time and budget allow. Have coffee and lunch with lots of folks in or related to your field. Get to know other consultants.
  5. Be tactfully honest with clients and potential clients. Know your strengths and weaknesses. Don't take on a project that you can't complete successfully. If a client asks your opinion, tell them what you think and not what you think they want to hear. Honesty is most certainly the best policy.
  6. Build a social media presence. Create a free website (you can purchase a domain name for ~$10/year). Start tweeting about your field. In the online age, the first place people go to check your credentials is the internet. Be there wearing your virtual Sunday best.
  7. Keep overhead as low as possible. When you're starting out, every dollar counts. Do you need to rent an office space or can you create a home office? Do you need to pay someone to do all of your accounting and build you a website, or can you teach yourself? 
  8. Track EVERY DOLLAR you spend. Did you have coffee with a potential client? Drive 5 or 50 miles to a client meeting? Purchase toner or paper or a pencil? Use Quickbooks or another user-friendly database to track all of your consulting income and expenses. Tax write-offs are key, especially when you are paying as much as 40 percent in taxes as a self-employed person!
  9. Line up clients and projects before you quit your day job. I can't stress this enough. No need to leave your full-time job--and salary--cold turkey, when you can easily begin building your business on the side. Sure, it's more hours and more effort, but if you keep your eyes on the prize, it'll all seem worth it. Because it is.
  10. Prepare for the lean times. Know this: In consulting, some months you'll feel like the king of the world and other months you'll feel like a pauper. Understand that the good months need to carry you through the tumbleweed. In my field, tumbleweed comes during the summer. Sock away your cash while you can.
Here's to 2013. Good luck, all! 

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