(The Coffee Shop Chronicles, Part 1)

Coffee time! That wonderful fall energy echoes in the coffee shop buzz as thoughts of back to work come to mind. As I order a latte, I hear a familiar voice. It’s George, a university colleague who did the stats for me on several evaluation projects a few years ago.

Gail: Hi, George, I haven’t seen you in ages! What’s new?

George: I’m retired now and thinking about consulting. My daughter hooked me up with her friend Maggie. She’s been in consulting for a couple of years. I’m going to meet her here. (He shrugs.) It's a place to start, I guess.

Gail: I’m meeting a guy called Chris from one of my consulting workshops. Why don’t we get together? (We head over to a table and Chris and Maggie soon show up.)

George: I had a chance to be a consultant long ago when I finished my PhD. I was offered a job in one of those big consulting firms but I didn’t take it.

Gail: Why not?

George: I’d always wanted to be an academic and I couldn’t see myself working 80 hours a week. So I took my position at the university and started working for $14,000 a year.

Chris: (laughs) Not these days—I’m pretty sure you would make more than that! I’ve been doing research for five years now. I don't want to give up my full-time job at the City but I am getting tired of transportation studies. I’m sort of keen to try consulting part time.

Maggie: I used to work for the school board but I went out on my own two years ago. My twins were ten years old and I wanted to be more available for their activities. The flexibility of working for myself seemed like a good idea and I was getting bored anyway.

Chris: And did you find work?

Maggie: Lots. My background is in organizational psychology so my practice is varied. It includes program evaluation, organizational development, capacity building, and training, a full-time load—or more!

George: So Gail, what do you recommend? What makes a good consultant?

Gail: First you need expertise and I’m assuming you all have that. But to survive you need stamina, self confidence, flexibility and resiliency. You have to be tough enough to handle whatever comes your way and keep on trucking. You need to be very clear about your personal values, research ethics and business practices because, believe me, one day they will be challenged.

Chris: Like how?

Gail: A client asks you to do something that you don’t feel is appropriate; or you find out something that could put someone at risk; or you get into a business dilemma with no easy answer—or something else. Every project will challenge you in some way and will force you to think about your values because there is no one else to tell you what to do.

Maggie: And then there are your social needs. You have to be able to work on your own for extended periods of time—no colleague down the hall to run to when you have a problem.

George: Sounds good to me. I never liked socializing in the department anyway.

Chris: I’m not so sure. We often go out for a beer after work and complain about the people we work with.

Gail: You need support networks but there are lots of ways to build them. For example I have many good colleagues I interact with virtually but I only see them maybe once a year.

Maggie: My husband is a great listener. It sure helps me.

Chris: Mostly I am worried about the money. I am kind of happy to get that paycheck at the end of the month. My fiancée has a good job too but we will need some security when we buy a house.

Gail: Does she have benefits?

Chris: Yes, we both do; health, dental, all the usual ones.

Gail: So it would a real advantage for her to continue working there. A lot of consultants rely on their significant others to provide the health care coverage—obviously it’s a big consideration.

George: But to start up, you need more than benefits.

Gail: Absolutely. You should be able to support yourself for at least three months while you check out your market, get your business plan together and find some good leads, and then you need another three months’ savings to fall back on while you wait for your first contract to actually pay you. After six months, if you are no further ahead, it’s probably time to reassess this option. You have to want to do this but if you have that fire in your belly, you will make it happen. The personal rewards, the learning, the challenge, the variety—all make it a great career choice and you can have a satisfactory income too. Your benchmark should be whatever you made in your last job.

George: (checking off on his fingers) So you need expertise, stamina, self confidence, flexibility, resiliency, ethics, social networks and six months’ savings. Maybe I’ll just take up gardening.

Gail: You could, George, but with all that statistical brainpower you have, will you be content looking at seed catalogues? You could be thinking about important issues that make a difference in people’s lives. Think if over and then let’s get together again.

Maggie: (looks at her watch) I’ve got to run. I’m meeting a prospective client in a few minutes. (She grins.) Wish me luck. Let me know if you decide to get together. We could talk about marketing—I can always use more tips.

Chris: Me too! Part time consulting is sounding good for me.

Maggie: (We exchange contact information. Maggie hands out her business cards.) If this project goes through, I may need more help!

All: Bye. See you soon!


For more on the continuing adventures of new consultants Maggie, Chris and George, see:

The Business Plan: Information Interviews (The Coffee Shop Chronicles, Part 2)
Barrington, G. V. (2012).
Consulting Start-up and Management: A Guide for Evaluators and Applied Researchers. Los Angeles: SAGE.

Next Up: Ethics on the Go

Photo Reference: http://frostegard.deviantart.com/art/Coffee-latte-37952880

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