Does it make sense for a project management professional to consider independent consulting as a career path? The first sign that this may be a key area in which to acquire experience is economic. Today, we are moving towards a project-based economy where work is divided into small pieces, each with a clearly defined scope and concrete deliverables. While many project roles are still traditional “inside” roles, project work is migrating to experienced professionals who can run and manage one or many projects for multiple clients at a time without working full-time for any one of them. It is partly due to trends like this that the independent workforce already more than 16 million strong in the United States is projected to add 4 million or more to its ranks by 2013. For Project Management Professionals already accustomed to working project-by-project, Independent Consulting can be a natural – and financially rewarding - progression in their career.

Only 19% of independent professionals in the U.S. today expect to return to full time employment once they experience life as an independent consultant. The statistic makes sense when you consider that independent consulting gives you the freedom to choose your own clients, set your own rates for work and is absent of the constraints and politics inherent in traditional employment.

When should PMPs consider Independent Consulting? Below are go/no go checkpoints used by other PMPs that can help you decide.

Over the years you have developed relationships with a network of clients, colleagues and peers that can vouch for your skill and experience. With experience, a proven track record and a network you are ready to make the move to consulting.
You have been with the same company for a decade or more, but organizational changes have you considering a different direction. The management style, or services offered have changed and decisions are mired in red tape. You want the freedom to simply do work you love minus the corporate politics.
You have no plans to become independent in the next 6-12 months but are beginning to think of the future. A life changing event has resulted in more income or reduced expenses. Perhaps your once dependent children are self-sufficient, or your mortgage has been paid, but the result is greater freedom to take a risk on a second career choice.
You are retired and financially independent, but you want to work and continue to contribute, but on your own terms.
You are retired but financially you still need to work to supplement retirement income and support your lifestyle.
Your entrepreneurial fire is burning hot and you want to start your own business, maybe even create your own small consulting firm using the talent in your network.
Out of work, you need income, whether it comes from a traditional W2 job or as an independent consultant.
Now that you know why PMPs choose an independent career, here is a nine-step path to get your first project:

Step 1: Ramp Up for the Journey with Key Success Factors

Know your defined, verifiable expertise – you must have specialized skills and knowledge
Show and illustrate your code of ethics – nothing is more important than your reputation
Be comfortable with marketing and self-promotion – it’s up to you market your services and talk to potential clients about how you can solve their problems
Become your client’s best friend - establish and develop high quality, enduring relationships with clients and other professionals – your success is measured by the success of your clients and your network
Build up your business acumen – running a business is more than being good at what you do, learn the steps or find a partner who specializes in helping with the business details

Step 2: Address any Contractual Obstacles

If employed, you need to have an honest, confident conversation with your employer. Be clear that this is a personal decision and assure them that you would not do anything to position them in a negative light -this includes stealing their customers. If you have a non-compete, don’t assume the worst. You can be casual, “by the way, we have this non-compete and I want to make sure we discuss it.” Non-compete agreements are non-enforceable in many states but the best way to handle is to be honest and professional.

Step 3: Plan Your Contingency Reserve

Figure out your cash flow before making the transition. Once you find your first project, you may be able to invoice weekly, but often monthly. The standard net payment terms in the industry are thirty days. While you might be able to be paid sooner, you should still have a cash reserve set aside that covers you for three months of expenses to help get you started.

Step 4: Advertising, Branding is the Cart before the Horse

You do not need to invest in office space, logos, websites and branding material –that can come after your first or second project. An independent engagement contract can give you all the protections you need and remove the obstacle of business structure from the initial launch of your business. Focus on finding a contract – paying work is the best way to stay on the happy path of independence.

Step 5: Communicate your Transition to your Natural Market

Talk to trusted mentors and colleagues in confidence to help you define your message and offering. After you have defined what you are offering, tell the world – your employer, colleagues, friends and family. In my experience of helping over 1,500 PMP consultants find their first project, I observed nearly all (close to 90%) found their first contract through their personal and professional network.

My Last Piece of Advice

Reputation is everything to an independent consultant, so never burn bridges. Never oversell your abilities or over promise on what you can deliver. Always operate with the highest degree of integrity and be very comfortable promoting and selling yourself – you need to be confident in what you can do and explain it to people with ease.

Independent Consulting is not for everyone. It requires an entrepreneurial mindset and a comfort level with the inherent risks. However, if after reading this you are ready, getting started is not as difficult as it may seem first seem.