“We have a three-month mortgage holiday. That means you have 90 days to make your consulting idea work and start earning.”

Gulp.

That conversation between my husband and I was the start of All Things IC consultancy, which turns five-years-old on 31 January 2018. No pressure!

Is this the year you decide to work as an independent practitioner or take steps towards it? If so, this post, which is the first in a series, will help.

To mark my business milestone I’m sharing what I wish I knew back in 2013. I’ve revealed what it’s like to work as an independent practitioner and how to make the move.

I appealed to my network via Twitter @AllthingsIC and LinkedIn, inviting practitioners to ask me questions. Thank you to everyone who contributed, there were so many varied topics I’ve created a series of articles to address them.

This first article covers:

  • What I wish I’d known in 2013
  • How to know if consultancy is for you
  • How to prepare to be a Consultant
  • Working patterns, including part-time working
  • What to call your business
  • Where work comes from
  • How to get everything done.

Future posts will cover money including getting paid and how to charge, where to work and misconceptions, plus how to learn and evolve.

Further reading: How to be a Communication Consultant: getting paid.

Thank you to the 63 clients who’ve invited me to work with you over the past five years and 150+ comms pros who have attended my Masterclasses. It’s been a joy to help you improve your internal communication and advise you as a trusted extension of your team.

Being named Outstanding Independent Practitioner by the Chartered Institute of Public Relations in 2017 was an honour, and I hope you find this post helpful if you’re considering a similar solo path as a Communication Consultant.

 

Working independently requires tenacity, courage and influencing abilities. These are skills any professional communicator should be well-versed in!

I’ve written more than 1100 blog posts since 2009, but this is my most personal to date.

Let’s dive in…

What I wish I had known when I launched in 2013:

  • An excellent accountant is worth their weight in gold
  • Online accounting systems are worth investing in
  • To have more faith in my abilities
  • You can work from anywhere
  • Being a Director of a Limited Company results in a lot of admin
  • Work will come. And continue to
  • How to talk about money upfront
  • It is possible to raise a family and grow a business
  • There will always be days when it feels overwhelming
  • Your mental health and wellbeing need nurturing
  • Being responsible for paying yourself is as liberating as it is terrifying
  • To remember time is money and to safeguard my calendar.

It hopefully goes without saying that you don’t need to be thinking about becoming a Communication Consultant. I know many excellent comms pros who are happy in-house and creating brilliant careers for themselves.

Why did you launch your business? How can you prepare to be a Consultant?
I launched All Things IC consultancy because my blog readers kept asking if they could work with me, and I loved the idea. I thought about going solo for nearly three years, and spent my last two in-house roles trying out techniques by working like a Consultant internally.

I spotted opportunities to share my knowledge with peers, led training sessions and shared content from the industry I thought may interest them.

If you’re thinking about going solo, use your time in-house to practice techniques, test your influencing and negotiating skills and invest in your professional development.

Spend time with HR colleagues talking about employee engagement and culture. Know how to map stakeholders. Learn as much as you can from commercial teams about how organisations work.

Don’t just learn or talk about communication. Get to know the language and true nature of your business – from the bottom line to the external factors that keep your Board awake at night. I cover this in my Strategic IC Masterclass.

What do you do when you launch a business?

Regardless of how you set your company up legally – e.g. sole trader or Limited Company, there are lots of other things to consider e.g. company bank accounts, VAT registration (if applicable) and branding. But, one of the most important things to do is communicating the fact you’re available for work.

It will seem strange at first, but it gets easier the more you do it and get comfortable with your chosen method. Attend networking events, create your own business cards and learn how to describe what you do in 10 words or fewer.

People hire people. If they don’t know you’re available to work with, they won’t hire you. It’s as simple as that!

Yes it is scary making the move. Even though I knew it was what I wanted to do. I wouldn’t change what I did, other than give myself certainty it would be ok.

I remember having dinner with my parents and husband and saying: “Can I do it? How do I know? What if it doesn’t work? Is this sensible with such a young family?”

Feeling the same? It’s totally normal and is why you need to trust your instinct about the right time and your abilities. Only you can truly know.

One reason for the fear was because I’d always had big brand names behind me. Going solo meant I was no longer Rachel from XX company, there was just me. Looking back, I was terrible at saying I was available to work with. I’m amazed anyone got in touch! I’d change that.

I spoke at the International Association of Business Communicators (IABC) Eurocomm conference in March 2017 about The Power of One and how it’s amplified by your network:

When is the right time?
Only you know when the right time is to try working independently.

I waited until my daughter was seven months old and in nursery before launching. I spent time during my maternity leave dreaming and creating a vision of how I wanted to work.

While she napped, I mapped out my business offering.

I spoke at Facebook and wrote a chapter of a book while on maternity leave, and realised being independent meant a whole new world was ahead. My first time apart from Miss M was when she was six weeks old and I went to the Share This book launch at Google alongside my fellow authors, the CIPR Social Media Panel.

After speaking at Facebook I went for drinks with the then CIPR President Jane Wilson and my fellow panel member Katy Howell, MD of immediate future. I shared my career plans and asked for their advice. They were incredibly encouraging and I try to do the same when I’m now approached.

Sounding boards
My husband Jon is a brilliant support and is often subjected to my many ideas! I have a close circle of friends I turn to for help, including my fellow The IC Crowd co-founders Jenni Field and Dana Leeson, Jeremy Reynolds, Sarah Pinch and Helen Deverell. I also have a professional mentor, Julie Hall, who I started working with in 2017 after I completed my own personal branding explorations.

If you are thinking of going solo, ask people you trust for their views and run ideas past them.

Some of the first clients who hired me have become friends. As they’ve moved organisations over the years, they’ve taken me with them and have kindly tested my ideas. My Masterclasses were in my head for three years before becoming reality with the help of loyal clients who provided feedback to refine my offering.

What should you name your business?
This is such a conundrum for practitioners! Do you name your business after you or choose a descriptive name and hope you are linked to it?

I’ve brainstormed with practitioners who’ve been on the verge of launching, but are stuck knowing what to call their business. My business name was my Twitter handle, @AllthingsIC, which I’d created when I got married three years before. I’d started to be referred to as “Rachel from All Things IC” while I was still in-house, so it made sense to call my consulting business after my Twitter handle.

Should you have a business name?
My answer is it depends what you’re doing. If you’re a Consultant being contracted in on long stints e.g. 6-12 months as an interim placement, your brand identity could be your name. Whereas if it’s external-facing, you could call it something else that fits how you work.

How can you get everything done?
I recently published my daily planner and shared How To Get More Done In Your Day – which is the technique I use.

In terms of typical routine, I work until midnight or 1am every night, I’ve always been a night owl and it’s my most creative time. If I have been on site with a client all day, my evenings are spent catching up on messages from clients and preparing for the next day once my children are in bed and I’ve had dinner with my husband.

Can you work part time as a Consultant?
Yes you can. I chose to launch my business to coincide with motherhood and create a different career path to enable my family to have flexibility. I knew it was the right time because I’d been imagining it for so long.

If I had to do it again, I would go with my instinct and trust it was the right time.

Miss M started nursery three days a week when I launched All Things IC. To start with, I worked part-time. She’s always been a good sleeper, so I arranged client calls on our ‘at home’ days at 10.30am and 2.30pm if we weren’t out, because I knew she’d be napping then. That was surprisingly successful!

My daughter is now five-years-old and my twin sons have just turned three-years-old. To answer Dan’s question regarding childcare, I now work full-time and we have a nanny who ensures everyone is where they need to be at the right time.

I’m going to address the first part of Kim’s question – about remote working – in the next article in this series.

Further reading on the All Things IC blog: Can you work flexibly and succeed in Comms?

Why do you blog?
My blog is my shop window, as clients know how I think and what’s important to me. I’d been writing it for four years before launching my business. As an ex-journalist, writing has always been an important part of my work. It’s how I express myself, work out loud and make sense of the world around me.

Where does work come from? How do you get new business?
I don’t think you ever get over the fear of getting more work. But you have to trust in your own abilities and know you can do it. Something always turns up. My diary now works 3-6 months in advance, but it took years of investing in relationships and still does.

Work can come from anywhere. Your reputation and word-of-mouth are essential.

One of the first clients I signed had sat next to me at a conference in 2009 when I was working in-house. We’d chatted as he wondered why I Tweeting what I was hearing. Four years later he hired me. You never know how long it will take for a conversation to translate into work and where that connection will be made.

Only this week I had a call with a new client who shared feedback she’d heard about me. It had prompted her to get in touch and ask me to work with her.

Make sure you know what your personal brand is, invest in people, be nice(!) and grow your network.

My blog plays a big part in how I work. I don’t typically pitch for work as every client I’ve worked with has got in touch and invited me to work with them, which I’m humbled by and proud of.

Clients say reading my thoughts, often for years throughout their career, has helped them solve problems and do their jobs better. Without knowing it, I’ve accompanied them through various roles.

Once they’re in a position to pay me for advice, they get in touch to explore how we can make that happen. I love hearing how something they’ve read or heard me say at a conference has helped them in their work.

You can do this too.

I often have other independent practitioners writing for my blog as I believe this website is a platform for ideas, not just mine, and invite people to pitch theirs to me.

You can start sharing your knowledge and ideas, working out loud to demonstrate how you think, what’s important to you, how you view internal communication and the value you add.

So when people have a problem, you’re part of their solution.

Questions to ask yourself include: What problems can I solve for practitioners? Then demonstrate your knowledge e.g. through LinkedIn’s new platform (choose write article in your status bar to get started) or your own blog.

The quiet months at the start
I remember sitting at my desk in the early days and looking at my empty wall calendar and wondering how on earth I was going to fill it.

As a professional communicator, your network and relationships are vital.

I remember posting on LinkedIn that I was looking forward to working with practitioners and I slowly started to receive messages from people in my network checking that I was available to work with.

During those quiet times I got organised, creating templates, branding and building the foundations of my business. I also blogged a lot and networked online and in-person.

One of the first pieces of work I did was to audit internal communication at the Zoological Society of London after being approached by their Head of Communications. We’ve continued to work together over the years and I was there again this week. I wasn’t offering audits at the time, but she approached me knowing it was the sort of work I would enjoy and be good at. She was right and I’ve now audited 15 companies.

Biggest challenge
To answer Emma’s question, my biggest challenge came last year, resulting in a heart operation for one of my sons at Great Ormond Street Hospital in December 2017.

He had countless medical appointments at GOSH. The joy of being my own boss meant I knew I could always make the dates, but I had to postpone clients and even cancel a Masterclass.

However, I was upfront with everyone about the reasons and was able to run the rescheduled Masterclass yesterday. The support from practitioners and clients was amazing and I’m thankful for their understanding and kindness.

I am glad to be out the other side for my son’s sake, and to bring consistency back to my diary this year. It’s been challenging not only personally but professionally too.

As an aside, a challenge of working independently is the fact your business is you – so being sick is not really an option!

I stay close to London due to my young family and health issues, which is where my network comes into its own. I partner with other independent consultants, including Helen Deverell @helendeverell, and between us we’re able to cover travel requirements. For example she has run focus groups on behalf of All Things IC and I’ve analysed the feedback and Helen also runs my Writing Skills Masterclass.

Clients also travel to me, including flying in from other countries, and I hire venues in London for us to work together. The joy of technology means we’re connected wherever we are in the world in between those sessions.

What I do
To answer Stephen’s question, (who was one of the first people to hire me while he was at Tullow Oil to help oversee their Yammer rollout – thanks Stephen)… When I first started out, I didn’t say what I was offering.

It was a deliberate approach because I wanted to explore what I was known for and design my business around helping solve problems for practitioners.

Over the years I have updated the Work With Me section of my website with examples of how we can work together as I’ve experienced them. This was important to my business model because internal communication is constantly changing and I wanted to ensure I was open to ideas and listening to the needs of practitioners.

I didn’t want to pigeonhole myself and lose the opportunity to help practitioners solve problems I hadn’t even thought to offer. Sitting on interview panels is an example of that.

How to forecast
Forecasting as a Consultant is important as you need to know you can pay yourself each month. I know I could make life a lot easier for myself and take on contract work, but that’s not where I’m best placed, so I don’t do it.

Sometimes I work with clients for a day, sometimes for a week, sometimes longer. This week for example I’ve advised five different organisations and taught my Strategic Internal Communication Masterclass yesterday (pictured below).

That variety is what suits me best. I love meeting practitioners, troubleshooting and coaching clients and comms pros to help them solve problems. But in the early days it made forecasting rather tricky!

As my diary works 3-6 months in advance, I now know what work is coming up and where the gaps are. But at the start, it was terrifying not knowing where that next client would come from.

But they do. If you show up, they show up.

What do you think of what you’ve read? Do you have any questions you’d like me to address in future articles in this series? You’re welcome to comment below or Tweet me @AllthingsIC.

Future posts will cover money including getting paid and how to charge, where to work and misconceptions, plus how to learn and evolve. I’ll be answering the queries I’ve been sent on those topics in those articles.

Here are those articles:

Thank you for stopping by,

Rachel

First published on the All Things IC blog 19 January 2018.

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