Rise Of The Independents

1st July 2024
4 min read

Is a new wave of independent consultants about to upset the apple cart?

Photo by Dmitriy Demidov

Do you remember the Great Resignation?

A moment in time late in the pandemic when senior professionals resigned in droves in search of better work/life balances?

Lockdown showed many of us how much better the work-life balance was, being able to work from home. Being able to spend the one or two hours a day, usually reserved for commuting, on things that actually mattered. Things like exercise, spending time with family, and baking bread.

Doing a rough calculation; I've personally spent over 1000 hours commuting every day between 2008 and 2019. Suddenly not having to commute opened up a whole new world for me. While not a trigger for my last resignation, I know it was for many.

Lead by my fellow Millennials, the trend continues.

While I'm sure a lot of these professionals went looking for other employers willing to give them the work-life balance they were looking for, many started their own consulting. Equipped with the skills, experience, and drive to hang out the shingle and take their work-life balance into their own hands.

Societal Mindshift

Two other things the pandemic taught us was how to work from home, and how to make video calls.

Working from home has now become an acceptable part of work life. Everyone knows that WFH is almost or equally as productive as working in the office, and comes with undisputed mental health benefits. In any working environment worth it's salt a hybrid work arrangement has become normal. To remain a competitive workplace is to offer a hybrid arrangement as a minimum.

Likewise, online meetings have not gone away. Instead, they have become directly integrated into working life. Partially for the above, but also because we've always used some form of remote communication; emails, fax, phone calls, telegrams, letters. Video calls are simply the next evolution in business communication, with an accelerated adoption. So much so that a video call is often assumed to be the default mechanism for collaboration.

A Very Particular Set of Skills

Three years later, I'm starting to the see the effects of these shifts.

As I become more embedded into my own niche, so too are many other similar independent consultants also becoming embedded. They're starting to network, and I'm starting to meet them. A lot of experienced professionals running their own consulting. With ready access to a large pool of clients that have also accepted remote, contracted, individuals as an effective way to collaborate.

An experienced professional working for themselves has a certain fire in their belly. They usually don't do 'good enough' work to keep their jobs. Instead, they do the best they can because their livelihood depends on it. If they're good enough to make it on their own, they usually are good.

Can you think of anything more powerful than a network of driven individuals with very particular sets of skills?

For clients looking for people to work with them rather than on behalf of them, this produces a dynamic and effective relationship.

A Branding Challenge

What's more, I'm starting to hear of clients seeking these highly-skilled independent consultants as a preferred option over the services offered by the incumbent agencies.

Independent consultants can offer significantly more targeted solutions to problems, and deliver it quickly and cost-effectively. However, the challenge is one of branding.

These agencies have so much brand equity their names are top of mind whenever it comes to looking for any kind of services that they offer. A scrappy band of talented firebrands can't hope to compete.

That's certainly the challenge I've faced. To get a foot in the door anywhere often means you need a reputation. A reputation takes a lot of time to build. Especially the kind of reputation that can allow you to capture mindshare and insinuate yourself into an industry.

As an independent consultant, it's hard to compete for mindshare with the old guard that have a 10, 20, 30 year head start. Yet just because they are a brand name, and just because they can serve your needs, doesn't mean they do it best.

Getting Organised

Conversely, it's hard to brand a network of individuals that have no unifying brand.

The same thing that makes independent consultants attractive could also be the same thing holding them back. Being small and agile means not having the human resources or capital reserves to throw at the problem.

Part of the path to get there, however, might be to embrace the independent consultant aesthetic, as I did. Drop the faux-agency, and be proud to be one person doing one very specific thing very well.

There's no shame in not being able to do everything. That's why the network matters and it's time we started to consider organising it.

A tool-roll of precision instruments.

Tagged: business · consulting · design studio

ⓒ Lincoln Black 2024

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