Escaping the Corporate Cage?

Escaping the Corporate Cage?

Every year, I see several people in the content field leave the big companies they've been working for, to go it alone as consultants. They feel the call of fresh challenges working with a variety of organizations (as I did when I left my comfortable position at HTC). They want to choose their projects, hours, and work environment, and may look forward to freedom from petty company politics. But I don't remember meeting anyone making this move who really understands what's involved and how hard it is going to be.

Of these people, perhaps just one quarter become self-sustaining with independent work. Another quarter manage to carry on consulting, with enough income from other sources that they don't have to worry about it paying all the bills. And a quarter realize that the gilded cage wasn't so bad, and go back to the same corporation or another. (I don’t see this as a failure in the slightest, by the way — corporations come in for lots of criticism, some of it justified, but they often house some creative and caring teams doing very good work.)

Why do so few make a financial success of independent consulting? One reason is that they underestimate the effort needed for marketing, sales, partnerships, and finance/accounting — all the tasks that aren't actually providing a service to the client but are necessary to provide that service. For sure, it's good for their business if they provide excellent service (I wish I could say it was essential, but a minority of consultants prove otherwise). Regardless of a consultant's reputation, however, contracts don't arrive by themselves. It takes hard work to get to that stage. Even when organizations want to work with an independent consultant, their policies may prevent it, or the consultant may need to work via an established supplier. All the effort to build relationships, market one's services, make sales and cover oneself financially takes time away from the thing many aspiring independents wanted to focus on: doing good work.

Even when it comes to delivering the kinds of services that you provided so well for your previous employer, you may find yourself missing the support network of developers and other colleagues with whom you'd built up relationships and could easily share ideas and feedback. Success is very rarely the achievement of one person; although we realize this intellectually, we only truly feel it when we have to replicate that success on our own, without our team.

Why am I saying this, when the consulting life has worked well for me? My Slideshare profile shows a few of the interesting things I've been involved in, and clearly if I've made it work for four years, something's going right. I think there are three aspects:

  1. I really do thrive on change, have a “high tolerance for ambiguity”, and all that stuff. My twelve years in Taiwan smoothed out some of my original English stiffness and made me far more aware of actual situations on the ground, rather than the situations that a piece of paper or my prejudices said should exist. This mental flexibility is essential to consulting work, where new information constantly turns up, and projects frequently lose budget, gain it, or change direction entirely.
  2. I had prior experience of being at the sharp end — the customer-facing end — of services work.
  3. I cheated. I didn't really go independent at all; I joined an organization that's small and flexible enough to do great customer-focused work, but provides a great team of developers, PMs, and consultants, as well as the essential operational functions that keep the business running.

The missing quarter of corporate refugees that I didn't mention earlier are all doing something similar. They're in services or vendor organizations and, for the most part, enjoying the work. They have good support teams and the opportunity to grow where their strengths lie. Certain kinds of companies seem better than others in this regard. Big consulting firms don't suit so well — they're more about funneling recent graduates through a standard machine that really does little to work with clients' unique needs and capabilities. Software vendors who are more interested in quick sales don't work that well either — if you've been a corporate user of enterprise software, you understand how a tool is nothing without the human factors of successful knowledge transfer and change management. The best kind of organization to move to if you're looking to apply your content project skills to new challenges is a small, client-focused services company just like Mekon. Coincidentally, we're hiring. 😉

Gilded cage installation outside Kings Cross / St Pancras Station, London in 2015. Photo © Ian Paterson (cc-by-sa/2.0)

Gilded cage installation outside Kings Cross / St Pancras Station, London in 2015. Photo © Ian Paterson (cc-by-sa/2.0)

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