Day Job versus Independent Consultant: Which is right for you?

I was looking for an e-mail from years ago when I came across this letter I wrote to the Senior Editor (Careers) for TechRepublic.com nearly six years ago.  Although the circumstances hardly apply to me anymore it may be interesting for IT Professionals just starting out, weighing the pros and cons of leaving their cozy and safe day jobs for the wild world of independence… or combining both!

It should be noted that I wrote this letter six weeks before leaving my day job; I did not have any certifications yet (I would get my first within two months).  The economic climate was probably much safer then than now, so that was not a concern at the time.  As well in Canada I was safe if I got sick – socialized Medicare and such.

I have spent the past three years as the M.I.S. Director of a local security company.  Along the way I made a lot of good contacts, and people started (as they will) seeking free advice.  From time to time 'they' would ask for help with a problem, and if I could accommodate them without interfering with my day job, I would.  The occasional jobs started to supplement my income nicely, and I was exposed to a lot of systems and software that I had either forgotten or would not otherwise have been exposed to.

Well one of these clients was so pleased with my work that they mentioned me to a colleague of theirs, who happened to be a long-lost friend from high school.  Ron and I had grown into computers together, and now he ran a computer consulting firm.  We met up again at a party, and he asked me if I would be interested in doing some sub-contracting.  We discussed it the next week and he gave me the name of a client whose company ran a small local area network.  Before I could even meet the client, she called and asked if I could do a favour by visiting a client of theirs whose computerized cash registers were down. 

I fixed up the client's client's problem by eliminating the virus from their system, and all of a sudden what had once been an occasional after-work job had turned into an every-lunch and every-evening job.  I had established a steady client base of small businesses who were frustrated by a long string of consultants and technicians who charged big bucks but were either unqualified, unreliable, hard-to-reach, or dishonest.  After listening to what each had to say, I examined who I was: I was certainly qualified and definitely honest.  So by making sure I was reliable and easy to get in touch with I could probably make some good extra spending money.

Though I still have my day job, I am billing on average fifteen hours per week.  My clients are extremely happy, and I am earning more money consulting than I do at my day job.  I know that many of my clients would be very happy to see me quit my day job to be more available, and that is in the long term plan.  I am also studying for a number of certifications, which will open even more doors to companies who may be sitting on the fence about hiring someone like myself.

My two greatest concerns about going at it as an independent were that clients would not want to pay for my services, or worse that the clients would not be knocking on my door.  However most business owners and managers that I have come across are not afraid to pay the hefty hourly rates that I charge, if that is what it takes to know that their systems will be working, and if they go down that I will be straight with them about what it will take to get them up again.  As long as I maintain my reputation and good name by offering those four points – qualified, reliable, accessible, and honest – I would be in good shape.

In a day and age when anyone can print up business cards and call themselves a computer consultant, businesspeople have to be able to separate the wheat from the chaff.  I tell my clients that there are consultants who charge twenty dollars per hour – and are worth every penny of it, and there are consultants who charge one hundred and twenty dollars per hour – and are worth every penny of it.  When your business relies on its computers to work right this time and every time, which do you think is your best bet to get you there?

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