About a year ago, I quit my job as Revenue Analytics Manager at Vox Media in New York City. I was setting out to fulfill my exciting childhood dream of publishing my first novel. But soon, anxious voices began to swirl in my head. How the fuck was I going to support myself?
The short answer is that I’m now a freelance consultant. In this article, I’m going to share everything with you that I’ve learnt so far about how to get high-quality consulting gigs that can keep you afloat. At first, I thought it would be easy to acquire freelance clients that paid me $150USD per hour for my data analytics skills. I felt optimistic because consulting is now expanding beyond freelance writers, graphic designs and copywriters, into fields like Marketing Strategy and Product Management.
But it turns out that getting these gigs has been a lot harder than I had anticipated. At its best, freelancing can give you the flexibility a full-time job never could. It can be a great side hustle between jobs and help you keep your skills up during your six-month scuba-diving sabbatical. You don’t even have to start your own business and become fully self-employed to do well. Yet at its worst, consulting means reaching out to “cold” leads for weeks on end with no income in sight. To date I have made about $4,000 from such projects, and I believe you can probably make significantly more than that if you avoid the mistakes I’ve made. (Update September 2023, I've now made $21,000 and seem to be learning from my mistakes).
So, let’s dig into how you can do it effectively.
(I’m sorry in advance if the tips mostly apply to tech workers. Leave a comment and I’d be happy to co-create with you to come up with more tailored advice for your industry.)
- Don’t join any platforms for freelancers
When I quit my day job, many of my friends quickly asked me,
“Why don’t you join [insert XYZ platform] to find freelance jobs?”
I tried a bunch of them: UpWork, Catalant, Braintrust, TopTal, Huddle, A Team. I spent six months applying to projects on these platforms and got nothing.
Why was I so unsuccessful? As it turns out, people are reluctant to hire a freelancer with no reviews or verifications. It’s the chicken and egg problem. You need a review so clients will see you’ve been recommended and want to work with you.
My advice to you is to: only sign up for a platform if you know someone who works there, and they can guarantee you will get your first consulting project. A referral to join the platform is not a project. An interview is not a project. If you are not guaranteed a project, don’t even bother signing up.
This advice seems counterintuitive. It seems like there is tons of freelance work on these platforms that will pay you the big bucks. But we can’t forget the most fundamental concept of microeconomics: supply and demand. The client posts one project (demand), while you put yourself in a bucket of people who have exactly the same skillset as you (supply). By doing so, you’re creating a completely unnecessary amount of competition for yourself. How are you going to stand out in a crowd of 30 digital profiles pitching the same project? You won’t.
In my opinion, freelancer platforms are the MLMs (multi-level marketing schemes) of our professional generation. I fell into this trap with the platform Huddle. I struggled to get placed on a project for months, so instead I tried to earn their referral bonus. I got 5 of my friends to sign up to the platform, further diluting my chances of being staffed on a project.
Don’t waste your time with any of these freelancer platforms like I did.
- Double down on your existing areas of expertise i.e. what you’re already good at.
Freelance consulting is not the time to try out a new career or take a side-step into a new industry. You need to identify your specialized skills in a marketable field, and pitch that to clients.
This sounds obvious, yet I still got this wrong. I had always fancied myself becoming a Product Manager, so for the first few months, I pitched myself as an early-stage start-up Product Strategist, even though I had no experience in this. Nope. Next I tried my previous title, pitching clients to see if they needed help with Revenue Analytics. It turns out my previous title means nothing to people. Nope again.
Months later, I finally learnt that I had relevant experience from Vox Media in something I hadn’t considered relevant: the podcast industry. My two first consulting clients were an agency and a show that wanted me to help them grow in the world of podcasts. This is now a major area of consulting work I do.
So, take a look at your resume, and write down all the areas that you have experience in, and all the industries you know something about. Maybe you’ve always worked in healthcare. Maybe you know how to implement software for human resources. The truth is, you won’t know exactly what clients are looking for until you ask them. So, at first, make an exhaustive list of 10 or so types of offerings you could sell as a service to clients.
For example for me this would be:
- Writing SQL tables
- Podcast growth analytics
- Digital media business strategy
- Revenue data automation using Google Cloud / BigQuery
You don’t need to have worked at a consulting firm, i.e. have been a management consultant, to be able to offer clients marketable skills. But, as you’re not the only person with these skills, you will still need to differentiate yourself in this sea of consultants. Which leads me to my next point.
- Leverage the fuck out of all your existing brand names.
In my experience, freelance consulting works more on name-brand recognition than anything else. In early conversations with potential clients in the podcasting industry, I realized they only wanted to hire me because I had worked at Vox Media. I have also been on the other side of this coin as the client. I had to hire a copyeditor for my novel, and according to Patricia’s bio on Reedsy, she had edited YA books at Penguin Random House. It didn’t matter if she worked there 10 years ago. That stamp of approval convinced me to hire her.
When pitching potential clients, now is the time to mention that fancy college you went to, whose student loans you are still paying off, and that giant company you hated working at for six months. Then, as you consider potential clients you should reach out to, think about the brands you have on your resume and ask yourself:
- Which companies or small businesses look up to my previous employers?
- Who would respect me a lot more as a consultant simply because I had worked there?
- Who were our competitors that might hire me to get special intel?
Now go find ways to schmooze with employees at those companies, to whom the brands on your resume will mean the most.
- Adjust your offerings to what the client is willing to pay for.
Starting out as a freelance consultant, I thought I could easily snag big-chip data analytics consulting gigs. In reality, I have found that the right consulting gig is a lot more about co-creating a project with a potential client. You’re narrowing down from all the services you could offer and customizing it for your client’s needs.
The best way to do this is to get your client on a Zoom or phone call, and ask them:
- What are the most urgent challenges your business is facing right now?
- How much would you be willing to pay someone to solve those issues?
This will help you understand how you can provide value for them and scope the project, and then you can position yourself as the person who can solve those issues. I also recommend proposing multiple potential projects, so the client doesn’t feel pigeonholed into a service that they don’t need.
I’ve included an example of a Consulting Project Proposal here, with some case studies as an example. Depending on your background, you could offer services like a business plan, operations strategy consulting, marketing strategies, helping clients with social media and building their online presence etc. Pitch them whatever sounds urgent and relevant to them, based on your skills.
- Establish the type of work you want and your boundaries.
It can be hard to know what to charge your first clients for your services, especially if you’ve never had a consulting project before. A general rule of thumb I go by is to charge 1.5-2x per hour of what you got paid at your most recent day job. The whole point of consulting is to do less work while having more time to live your life, so find a rate you’re comfortable with and never go below that.
For example, my salary averaged out at $55USD per hour at Vox, so I pitch my consulting rates at $70+ per hour, ideally in the $100USD+ range. If the client wants to pay more, obviously let them do that, and always ask them to spit out a number first so you don’t low-ball yourself accidentally. Or you can take Cindy Gallop’s advice and say the highest number you can utter out loud without actually bursting out laughing.
You’ll also want to establish your work parameters beforehand. Ask yourself: What is the absolute minimum per hour you would be willing to work for? How much do you want to make from your freelance consulting business in your first year? Do you want a full-time role? (If not, don’t interview for full-time roles).
Here are my parameters for potential clients:
- My absolute minimum rate: $50USD per hour
- My ideal rate: $70-$150USD+ per hour
- Maximum work commitment per week: 25 hours
- Target consulting income: $30,000 per year
- Other factors: 100% remote, I can live in Mexico and the role will require minimal travel
Especially in the beginning, it’s okay to do short-term, smaller projects to help you practice and gain confidence. Just be sure to maintain a respectable hourly rate. So, for example, one of my clients had a budget of $300USD. I told them that at $80USD per hour, I’d be happy to give them 3.5 hours of my time to complete it.
I’ve included a Consultant Agreement Template below so you can set your boundaries with the client as you start the project. This also includes the ways you prefer to be paid, and when the client should pay you (i.e. when they receive your invoice). If you are working for US companies, remember that 1099 Contracts are your friends. They are how you get paid for bigger consulting gigs. If your client want to send you one, that’s a good thing.
- Reach out to your personal connections.
To get high-quality clients, ask the people that you’ve worked with if they have a relevant consulting project. Your old coworkers and any external clients from your day job will be the easiest “warm” leads that you can mine for gold now that you’ve quit your day job. If you do this step right, you hopefully will get off to a great start, and won’t have to go selling yourself to people you’ve never spoken to on social media.
If you can, make a list of all your coworkers and any external clients you’ve worked with and download their contact information before you quit your job. Reach out to them via email or LinkedIn, and don’t scare them with your rates yet.
Here’s an example email I wrote to my potential client, a podcast agency that I had already worked with:
Great meeting with you today. Here is what we discussed:
Consulting for The Agency: I led analytics and focused heavily on the podcast business at Vox Media. I'd love to meet with founders of The Agency and see if there might be an opportunity for me to consult, e.g. identify business strategy for 2023. I've attached my resume.
Thank you, and I hope to hear from the team soon,
What is also cool and unpredictable is that, inevitably, some of your old co-workers will leave your previous company, at which point you’ll be primed to consult for them as part of their next adventure as business owners or team leaders or whatever. Reach out to them and schedule a call.
- Beef up your resume with relevant, quantitative things.
Whatever your day job was, finding a way to talk about the impact of your work from previous jobs is an important way to get clients to hire you. It can be hard to show a potential client exactly how much you contributed to the company’s revenue, but you need at least to be able to talk about the scale of your work. Putting numbers to your work makes you sound more impressive.
For example, here is how I talk about my work at Vox Media on my resume:
- Rearchitected Vox Media’s revenue data tables and ETL, enabling the $XMM+ Group Nine merger.
- Built and launched the Salesforce data integration; combined 40 data tables in SQL to give the Revenue Org insights into $XMM+ in annual Direct Advertising revenue and $XBN+ in pipeline.
If you worked in a clothing store, say how much revenue your store generated and how many customers you served. Or if you’re in Project Management, share how big the project was that you got completed on time.
- Always Start A New Client On A Trial Period.
Trial periods give you an opportunity to impress clients with your work early by going above and beyond. It also gives you time to see if you like this type of work and want to keep working with them.
When I started consulting for the podcasting agency, I completed a 10-hour trial period. I used this time to better understand the business problems the client was facing, so that I could then upsell my relevant services to them at the end of the trial period. This will also give you an opportunity to readjust your rates and try to get them to sign you on for a longer project. I’ve included a template of a slide you can use to upsell clients after the end of a trial period, assuming it includes a presentation.
We live in a world where there are an increasing number of ways to get things done. When you’re consulting for the first time, don’t keep applying through freelance consulting platforms and expect anything magic to happen. If you want high-quality consulting gigs that will help you find your niche and set you on a good pace in your new consulting career, you’re going to find them through 1:1 conversations with your network and your roster of former clients, coworkers, and any other random companies you’ve worked with.
My final advice to you is whatever you do, don’t give up! Rejection sucks in any context. Inevitably, we all worry a bit about what other people will think. But you just have to remember that you can learn something from every rejection and use that to pitch bigger and better with the next warm lead you’ve prepared.