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The 10 WORST things about being a freelance international development consultant

Updated: Dec 15, 2021

Okay, we've covered the "best" things in another post, and we absolutely love consulting ourselves. But there are some downsides too. We took a while to come up with 10 and most are entirely mitigate-able - especially when the types of strategies we discuss at the IC-Hub are applied - but it's very important to be aware of them!

1. It pushes you to work hard!

You will see this appear in the "10 BEST things" list as well framed in a different way, as this pushes you to deliver high-quality work.

As an in-house staffer, you're paid for your hours; not your work. The amount of work may not align with those hours Parkinson's law dictates that work expands to fill the time allowed... One study in the UK found that employees spend on average two hours per day on social media and other distractions (certainly the case in the office I used to work in early in my career!). As your own boss, you know full well that procrastination delays your work getting done.

In addition to that, you also know that your consulting reputation is hard-won over time and can be lost very quickly. This contrasts with most employment situations when a sub-par report or "bad day at the office" is more likely to be judged more broadly against your overall performance over a year or more. If you're not committed to delivering good work, then consulting might not be for you.

2. Career progress is not linear

When you're an independent consultant, you're your own boss. You're already CEO and founder if you will! You take control of your own destiny and chart your own progress.

If you "get consulting right" - and hopefully we at the IC-Hub will help you do that - you can leverage consulting to fast-track your way to delivering high-level and well-paid projects.

This does, however, contrast with the more stable career trajectory of the employee, where you will likely get a promotion every XX years (if your superiors see fit!).

3. Independent working and W.F.H.

Generally, as an independent consultant, you are more likely to spend a lot of your time flying solo and you won't benefit from those water-cooler conversations and office Christmas parties.

Without proper planning and being intentional about your work-from-home environment (something that employees have had to deal with as well this year), being freelance can be isolating.

On the flip side, there are loads of benefits to W.F.H. and there are plenty of ways to create a more sociable working environment if that's what you need. I've worked from co-working spaces on several occasions - in the UK, China, West Africa, and India. They're everywhere these days. And I've worked on larger consulting assignments, teaming up with other freelancers.

There's also the fortnightly IC-Hub meet-ups (signing up below will give you instant access to these), which has been another way to connect with peers, vent, and share wins.

4. Work overload

It may seem like a luxury to newbies who worry about not getting enough work, but I know many consultants who face the challenge of taking on too much work. Some because of the freelance mindset of "making hay while the sun shines" and others because they want to earn more or they are worried about saying no.

I take the approach of "when in doubt, say no" to make sure I maintain a good work-life balance and can always deliver for clients. It's not always easy though, especially when we're passionate about our work!

5. The hustle

There is a certain "hustle" to freelance consulting. You've got to find clients by networking, doing business development and marketing, which can be a challenge initially to many international development professionals. And you've got to do much of it on your own dime and time.

That said, business development and branding are skills that can be learned. They're also the types of activities that can be adapted to your own personal style. Networking, for instance, doesn't need to be sleazy and you don't need to continuously contact people on LinkedIn to see if they have any work going.

Doing it right, as we'll talk about at length at the IC-Hub, is a long-term process of branding and positioning where you create value for, and meaningful relationships with, your network.

Once you set up the right systems, you'll be doing it automatically and generating a flow of referrals that will set you the challenge of "work overload" described above.

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6. Risk of being in-between work

One of the biggest concerns people have about freelancing is whether they can make it work. No one can answer this and there will always be some risk in doing anything new and exciting.

There may be gaps in your work, especially as you're getting started. There's also a challenge in managing those periods - do you use those gaps to ramp up work to develop your positioning or take the time for a break or side project; or do you wander aimlessly feeling sorry for yourself?

If you do good work and market yourself strategically, applying the methods and strategies that we discuss at the IC-Hub, there's no reason why the only gaps in your work will be the ones that you choose.

From my seven years of freelancing experience (from 24-31 years of age), I've had two periods of around six weeks when I was involuntarily between consultancy assignments.

7. Losing control of working days

This is a challenge that I encounter fairly often still and there is no perfect way to deal with this. It's when you take on a 40-working-day contract only to find that the actual work involved (including the client's expectations about the output) is far more than 40 working days. You then end up working for free and perhaps unable to take on additional work because you're too busy.

This is perhaps less likely to occur as an employee, as you can only be at the office so many hours per week and you have XX days of paid leave.

The best way to address this challenge is to ensure that you and your client align expectations about the output early on and throughout your project together - such as through a detailed and realistic proposal before starting and inception report early on (e.g. clear number of target interviews or page limits for reports).

Through experience, you'll develop a better sense of how long certain projects take and refuse work that doesn't have the budget to account for that time.

8. Admin

Okay, so as a freelancer, you'll be your own business. You'll be CEO, COO, CFO and secretary rolled into one. You should command higher daily rates than when you were an employee, but you'll have to set money aside for taxes and social security. You'll have to invoice clients and follow up with them to make sure they pay.

This can be a new experience for many but it doesn't need to be a headache. Most consultants have fairly straightforward bookkeeping procedures to adhere to. In most jurisdictions I've worked in, it is simple to become a sole trader and many accountants will discuss your accounting needs with you for free. Invoices take only a couple of minutes to generate and send (plenty of templates available online) and I've rarely heard of clients not paying (assuming you're delivering the work!).

On the upside, as your own business, you will be able to expense a lot of things - travel, office equipment (the new wireless headphones I bought are clearly for business purposes!), etc. - to offset against your tax bill.

9. "Kick the consultant"

When you're a consultant, you are providing a service that's been outsourced by your client. The output ultimately belongs to the client. And if you do a brilliant job, they will take the credit. They may share that credit with you and you'll add good work to your portfolio. But your client contact will get the plaudits for hiring the right consultant.

If things go badly, the client can "kick the consultant" by explaining that the consultant did not follow instructions. This hasn't happened to me but I've witnessed it.

There are, however, ways to minimise the risk of this happening. Ultimately, you will want to proactively ensure that your main client contact and their "internal clients" all buy into your plan of action for your assignment (e.g. ensuring all these stakeholders provide feedback on your initial inception report or work plan).

This might mean taking a bit more time early on to communicate with these internal clients; to ensure they have had their voices heard. This will maximise their ownership over the final product. Throughout the project, you can shine a light on the influential role of your main client contact in the entire process.

10. Managing yourself

When you're a consultant, you don't have regular review meetings. It's for you to identify your faults and find ways to improve. That feedback loop that is critical to career development - in which your boss tells you where you're going wrong and how to correct course - is not automatically in place.

However, as with all these consulting "downsides", there are mitigation strategies. I do closing interviews with every client to really push for open and honest feedback from the client. We'll be talking more about this in future posts.

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