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MIDCAREER CHECKUP

Independent Means

Professionals are eschewing Corporate America to go to work for themselves.

May 20, 1996|KAREN KAPLAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Jennifer Rosky's resume is impressive. She has worked as a marketing manager for companies such as Nestle, Hunt-Wesson and Max Factor. But in the last five years, she saw three high-level positions disappear from under her as her employers shut down offices and eliminated jobs.

"No matter how hard I worked or how strategic I was, I would do my darndest, and what I'd get out of it was usually a severance check," said Rosky, who has 15 years of professional marketing experience.

So she decided to take control of her career and her finances.

Six months ago she started Solution Marketing, a consulting firm that specializes in helping companies meet short-term marketing needs and guides them with strategic planning. It's the kind of work she used to do, but now she operates out of her Los Angeles garage and calls her own shots.

"It's the same job, the same function. The only difference is my attitude," she said. "Instead of working for a boss, I'm working for a client."

That self-reliance is the goal of hundreds of thousands of workers who are hanging up shingles as independent consultants.

Some of them have seen demand for their services rise as companies rely more on outsourcing to meet highly specialized needs. But many others, like Rosky, are motivated to become consultants after being downsized out of jobs with Corporate America and want to continue earning a living based on the skills they have honed over the years.

"Typically they've been laid off, and they're looking for a way for that not to happen to them again," said Rick Eggleton, president of Franchise Network Southern California, an Irvine firm that helps people decide whether they should open a consulting business. "They're looking for some freedom, some independence and the ability to utilize their skills and talents and be safe. When you're your own boss, you rarely fire yourself."

But that doesn't mean that the financial life of an independent consultant is risk-free. Hubert Bermont, executive director of the American Consultants League in Sarasota, Fla., estimates that at least 90% of all first-time consultants last only a few months.

"It's not because they're not experts in what they do but because they don't understand the business of consulting," he said.

Nearly all would-be consultants are surprised to learn that they will have to devote one-quarter to one-third of their time to marketing their services, Eggleton said. Then there are other custodial chores such mailing out invoices, buying office supplies and logging bank deposits.

William T. Mooney, director of the Center for Consulting and Professional Practices in Torrance, advises that a successful consulting practice operate like any other professional business. That means selecting a name, creating a logo, getting a business license and fulfilling other legal requirements.

Once the practice is off and running, consultants should try to build a portfolio practice, Mooney said. That means spending time on traditional projects as well as seeking new opportunities such as public speaking engagements and seminars. Consultants should also be reevaluating their markets on an ongoing basis so that they can be ready to meet the future needs of their clients, he said.

But the most important--and least well-executed--element of a successful business is marketing. Veterans say they cultivate clients by networking in professional organizations in the fields they serve and by encouraging satisfied customers to tell their colleagues in the industry. A certain amount of cold-calling--a universally dreaded task--is almost always necessary as well.

Nina Craft, who started a personal development consulting business called VisionFocus in Redondo Beach, wrote a book called "Think It, Do It! The Procrastinator's Guide to Action" to help promote her services. Since the 54-page volume came out in November, she says her business has quadrupled.

"Now people call me so I can spend my time doing follow-up instead of prospecting," she said. "I can build more relationships quicker because my voice and thoughts are out there."

Another way to launch a consulting practice is to start a franchise. Eggleton says there are about 50 consulting franchises that specialize in sales, training, human resources and small business development.

Consulting is not necessarily a long-term goal for everyone. Many see it as a pit stop between jobs with larger companies, which have been known to extend job offers to consultants who impress them. Layoff victims sometimes start calling themselves consultants to avoid the stigma of unemployment.

"There is a fine line between being self-employed as a consultant and being unemployed," said Quentin Fleming, who has worked as a consultant for eight years and has been on his own since 1993. "There are so many people--I call them the 'wanna-bes'--that want to be consultants but have no training, no background, nothing. They just want to perform the technical skills they learned on their last job."

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