Explicit stories from the front lines of full-time independent consultants going after clients, and corporate professionals working side-hustle engagements. Independent consultant Steve Pruneau and corporate storyteller Daniel DiGriz trade off-the-cuff narratives of pursuing clients and revenue as free agents.
How to Price Client Engagements
Daniel: So we’re here today to talk about, “How do I come up with a price for client engagements? If I’m a consultant, an individual contractor, et et cetera.” And Steve, I believe you have a story to give us some guidance on that.
Steve: Well a little while back I was looking for a designer, like thousands of people do. In my case, I was looking for a high end designer, somebody that’s up there, at kind of the enterprise level of the expertise. I had two constraints, and three requests. Two constraints were, no change to the layout, and no change to the text, or the written information that we had, which was pretty severe. We were looking to change stock photos, and looking for recommendations on the color palette. And, recommendations for fonts.
So, I found a designer whom I was enamored with. Loved her work, thought it was a great fit, and so I’m all excited to reach out to her, “Yes, yes, we can talk.” And, we get into the conversation, you know, the usual exchanges. And after I’d explained what we were looking for, just kind of a recap of what I said in an email, the question which came back was, “What’s your budget?” Microphone drop. I was crushed. “I don’t know what my budget is, that’s why we’re talking.”
Now, let me be clear, she’s a very professional designer. She’s got a lot of experience with enterprise clients. But I didn’t … It just killed the flow of the conversation, and I was feeling the uncertainty of, “Well, you know, now I’ve got to kind of figure it out and this isn’t my expertise. I don’t know what stuff costs, that’s why we’re talking. I need advice, I need guidance.” It really stopped, full stop in the conversation. I’m thinking, “How do we do this?” ‘Cause I was still interested in her. But it told me a lot that, she doesn’t really know how to launch this kind of a project when there’s a lot of uncertainty.
And so, we talked through it, and kept dancing around it for two or three more loops. And she did finally come around. We’d almost given up on each other, and she finally came around, and she did what attorneys did. And I didn’t think of this, but as soon as she said it, it made sense. What attorneys do when it’s kind of an open ended project is they’ll say, “Listen. To get started, my retainer is this much.” And hers was pretty hefty. It was a few thousand dollars. But it made sense, relative to the quality of work that she does. And that’s how she reconciled the uncertainty. She said, “Listen, if you do … We can launch with this retainer, and then from then on we can chunk it up with payments for pieces of work.”
So that’s how we managed to resolve the question, but holy smokes, there for in the middle of the conversation, that was tough.
Daniel: Yeah, I’ve seen this a lot actually. And I think your point is that we need to be able to lead clients. It’s us that needs to step up to lead the clients to a pricing model that matters, or that matches. Even in the face of uncertainty. I work with another company that’s recently redefined their pricing models, and they’ve kind of cracked this nut. For them, they listen to the nature of what the client needs, and they offer either a project fee for a one time project. It’s best when there’s a very defined need, and a very defined time frame. Or, they offer a subscription fee for a recurring thing when they’re defining needs. But, there is a recurring defining time frame also, like monthly.
And then, when there are undefined needs, the needs are unclear. It could be a variety of different things we need over time, we’re not sure yet. And perhaps and undefined time frame, it’s sort of,
How Long Does It Take to Get Clients?
Daniel: So we’re here today to talk about how long does it take to get new clients, or if you have a couple of clients as an independent consultant, then how long to get more clients? And Steve, I think you have a story that’ll help us unpack this today.
Steve: I do. I’m an ex-airline guy. Not a pilot, but was involved in just about everything else on the ground, and that included some time at airports. Now the interesting thing at airports, for those of us who have been hooked into the business and loved it, is this orchestration of roles and the way everyone works together to get the flights going out and usher them in and so forth. That’s the context in which we as airport managers would hire people in or, for example, transfer in from other airports, and I wanted to talk about that decision. When we were doing it, it was very easy to establish, this is what the role is, customer service agent. You are going to be doing primarily boarding, and it was easier for the person who was putting in for the job to understand what the expectations were. So we had clarity on both sides, and therefore, even though it’s an important job, pretty fast decision. That’s the way we did it, because everything was all clear. Not only did the day-of operations go smoothly, but those kinds of transfer in and out decisions also were pretty smooth and fast.
Daniel: I actually find, yeah, that’s kind of a feature of having a regular W-2 job. You have a defined job description and everybody sort of knows what the role is, whether it’s butcher, baker, candlestick maker, pilot, ticket counter person, it’s like Legos. There’s a clearly defined job description so you can pull them out and drop them in, but Steve, when I went out into the independent consulting field, one of the first things I discovered was while I went out there to add value, and that process of adding value over and above what people could attain interacting with W-2 employees in a company, was more elaborate. It was more complex than what that company offered. My value was more difficult to explain, and so it was not so easy to treat me like a Lego, and just drop me into a spot. Oh, you need a new ticket clerk, I’m a ticket clerk. So I had to even invent job titles for myself or invent descriptions in elevator pitches that were as short as I could get them to try to convey that value and win clients. I think that may be part of what you’re touching on, is it’s really easy when, “Oh, you’re a pilot. I need a pilot.” It’s harder when you’re more like, I’m an HRIS systems consultant who specializes in X, Y and Z.
Steve: Yeah. That’s really what I’m trying to say. I gave almost an unfair example of the fastest decisions happen and our basis for comparison is in the regular world of work, traditional employment. Once we’re out in the wild as an independent consultant, there’s a little less clarity at least in the eyes of a prospective client. And so yeah, it only goes up from there in the way that you described. In my case, we all do several different things, and a couple of the things that I do, on the one hand, I’m a software implementation consultant, so there’s a particular software app that I work on in time and attendance for very large clients, but that is a role that several people in our community who need this work, it’s very clear to them, and so often even though it’s advanced consulting work, often clients, once they have a need, they understand what I can do and those decisions happen, again, very fast. But the bulk of my work as a solution architect and also when I do a workforce agility assessment, some people say “What? What is that?” And so that’s a much longer discussion, and it doesn’t happen in any timeframe that is similar to the story that I gave,
How to Execute the Side Hustle
Daniel: So we’re here today to talk about the side hustle, and people talk about the side hustle but if you’ve never done it, how specifically does it work? And Steve, I believe you have a story to start us off.
Steve: Yes. This is a story about a guy who went from working small jobs on the side by himself to pitching corporate clients as a team and having nearly $40,000 in the bank, all the while keeping his regular job. So let’s call him George, as in George Jetson. He had a regular full time job in the IT department of a well known large company. I met him while I was working on a project there, and the thing which connected us, why we were both on the same project, is we had experience in the employee time system that we were implementing there. And it turns out, we had both worked for that software company in the past at the same time, in the past, but we didn’t realize it. We didn’t know each other until we met on this project.
Well I had a problem while I was working on this particular job, and it was that I had a client on the side who needed a system administrator to implement this app. This is a smaller client than the full time project that I was on, and I knew that George had experience in this app. And the client really didn’t need somebody full time, they needed somebody part-time, and I didn’t have the system administrator skills that they needed to install the software. So one day over lunch, George starts telling me about some of his own side hustle gigs. I didn’t know he did that. He does some software development on the side, he does a little one on one training for up and coming programmers, and all of a sudden for me, bingo. George is really doing side hustles now, side hustle jobs, and he had the mindset for it.
So, I tell him about my client, and my pain, what am I’m gonna do? How am I gonna find a system administrator? And so I just hit him with the question. “Would you be willing to set up server environments for this client on the side?” Here’s the rub, it would probably take a day or two initially to get the environments up, which is kind of a big hit, but everything after that is pretty easy, not urgent, one to three hours at a time, pretty flexile. Man he didn’t hesitate. He was totally up for it.
Now the interesting thing is, he ended up working for this client for about three years. On and off, small requests, things like that. And he and I went on to pitch other clients doing the same thing, and I remember looking at what he had earned on the side after that three year period. I just happened to be looking one day. Turns out he had pulled in about $120,000 over a three year period, all while maintaining his day job.
Daniel: Well you know it’s interesting, I listen to that story Steve, there are a few things we can kind of extract from it in the way of sort of best practices for initiating a side hustle. And so, you might say that number one is, start your consulting practice on the side before you leave your job, obviously then you’ve got a source of revenue, you’re not jumping without a net. Number two might be to get comfortable with that feeling of working on the side over time. Number three might be looking for businesses who only need you part-time, obviously don’t need 40 hours a week. And fourth is get that first small engagement and get started. But I wanna ask you if, do you think that’s right, and also what does it take to really get comfortable with the feeling of working on the side, you know, what does that mean, since that’s kind of an open ended concept?
Steve: Those are all right, those steps. And to get comfortable, I think you have to have kind of a hunger. A hunger for more independence, “I’m gonna do what it takes to develop my own endeavors, my own professional freedom,
The Ethics of the Side Hustle – Moonlighting and Conscience
Daniel DiGriz: So we’re here today to talk about whether or not it’s unethical or at least ethically dubious to work on the side when you have an employer, especially if you don’t tell your employer. And Steve, I believe that you have a thing or two to say about that.
Steve Pruneau: Since today’s all about the ethics of the side hustle or what used to be called moonlighting, brought me back to the TV show. It really got me thinking about what is it that has this lingering feeling in many of us of, we should be loyal to, we should commit to, the company. Where did it start? And I think a lot of it starts in the interview with questions that sort of probe around what kind of personal sacrifice can you make? How dedicated will you be? For example, scheduling, travel, after hours work, all the things related to, what am I going to commit? What can you do for Steve? So somehow the socialization starts early.
Daniel DiGriz: Yeah, I remember when I was a younger man and I got tired of doing job interviews. They always felt like I was going somewhere with my hat in my hand, and so I started going into places and when they would ask why I’m there I would say, “I’m interviewing companies I’d like to work with, I’m here to conduct an interview.” It’s funny, actually. I got a position that way that lasted a while. They even created a job for me because they thought it was audacious and they were honored that I wanted to work there. I was like, “Yeah, this is great.” So it works. Flip the script on them. But the assumption is, no, of course we’re an impenetrable fortress and you take your hat off, come in with your application, and it starts the process. It’s the beginning when we become excessively loyal.
Steve Pruneau: Yeah. In my opinion, it goes way back to the fifties. The age of the organization man, which is William White’s book written in 1956, talking about the commitment that people make of themselves to the company. But that was at a time when we had economic expansion, long product life cycles, you could have a long run of a career, and even had pensions. So yeah, it comes from that, I think, and all those things that you talked about, the impenetrable fortress, the concepts of what can you do for us?
Daniel DiGriz: I like White’s book, The Organization Man. It kind of asserts that we assume that collectives make better decisions than individuals do, and therefore we tend to prioritize the advancement of the organization over the advancement of the individual and his or her own creativity. That becomes the source of loyalty. If that assumption is not true, if it’s not true that collectives make better decisions than individuals, and that certainly is being called into question today, then it’s not true. Then it’s certainly not unethical to shift the balance a little bit.
I want to say that not only do we see sort of the growth of flat hierarchies in corporations, and the realization that more management and more organization doesn’t make it better, but even the military, the most hierarchal traditional organization on the planet, is finding this out. General Stanley McChrystal, during the Iraq War, he wrote this book that talks about the fact that our sort of traditional hierarchy of control actually hindered the conduct of our American operations. Al Qaeda would disrupt the organized American military and win, so the solution was decentralize the authority down to highly trained individuals and teams. Again, that’s sort of what made us effective. So again, this assumption that the collectives are better at decisions comes from the same time when, okay, we could accept that assumption just because, in fact, we do get all of the benefits and support of, like the military, of the corporate organizations supporting us. We got the pension and we got the long term forty ...
Side Hustle Like a Secret Agent – Treating Work Fractionally
Daniel DiGriz: We’re talking today about how to be a secret agent, and we don’t mean spying on foreign governments, but rather, how to side hustle when you’re in a traditional job. So, if you’re an independent consultant or you would like to be, how do you get work, how do you get consulting, professional consulting work on the side, so that you’re not completely reliant on a single paycheck from your employer, or you’re completely reliant on your employer and their good will.
Steve, you and I have both done this, but I think you have a story of when you were first starting out?
Steve Pruneau: Well, I do. I’d been out in the world as an independent consultant for a while, yeah, but it was my first engagement at an apparel manufacturer. It’s winding down, getting ready to take my next big engagement. In my work, they’re often full-time projects, so it really consumes your time, and it’s hard to spin up a portfolio of work. So, all that’s looking good, but I also, as you point out, wanted to develop some other clients on the side. That’s all the intellectual side, and it was working out. There was a third client, and we were just getting ready to kick off.
Now, I’m moving into this next gig, which is at a fairly well-known movie studio. One day at the apparel manufacturer, the CIO kind of could see, I was having some anguish. She was aware of the side hustle, because she had been a reference for it. “Oh, how’s it going?” “Well, how’s this all going to work out? These guys at the movie studio are pretty conservative. They really like to dictate your time and things.” And She’s, “Oh, come on. You can work this out.” Basically said, “Look, you’re not working non stop from 8:00 to 6:00 every day. You know, you’ve got lunch breaks. You can take calls in the morning, do emails on afternoon breaks, do the work at night.” That was kind of the thing that broke me free emotionally. It was a really quick conversation.
After that conversation, I’m like, “Yeah, that’s right.” Then the logistics were pretty easy to work out. I could figure that part out, but I sort of needed a kick in the pants to get it all done. The embarrassing part is, you know, really, I’d been out in the world as an independent consultant for quite a while, and I was still having this hang up. Anyway, after about a month or two at the studio when I started that engagement, it was all starting to fall in place. Even the manufacturer, the apparel manufacturer, was having some ongoing work sometimes. I actually had two side hustles during my main gig, and that really got me into the rhythm of how this works. I’m really glad I got that kick in the pants.
Daniel DiGriz: Well, you know, I think as we listen to that, you’re kind of saying, it’s not like juggling 40 balls in the air at once. It’s more like being a dog walker. You’ve got two or three leashes, but it’s something you can steer, and something you can easily control. You know, as I’m listening, I found that the question that comes up for a lot of people is, wait a minute. There’s a practical or tactical issue about using company equipment, telephones, computers. You know, some companies ban use of email for personal purposes, et cetera. You can kind of get in trouble for that. You might even sign a contract. For me, Steve, I found that I’ve done it both ways.
When I was in an organization where that was the case, I would do 30 minutes before the commute, take some basic calls or do some basic calls, send some emails. Then lunches off site, and then simply my PM hours. It kind of worked out. When I was doing, even in the same organization, more sort of travel and remote work, you know, I might give a two hour presentation or something like tha...
What Goes In The Consultant’s Profile – Solving a Problem
Daniel DiGriz: We’re here talking about what we should put into a professional profile such as on LinkedIn or anywhere really we list our credentials as independent consultants, even a resume. Steve, I think you have a case study of something going on right now.
Steve Pruneau: Well, I was on a project, my last project where one of the consultants it was her first time as an independent professional and she sent me her LinkedIn profile and her resume on the side because she knew I’ve been in this world for quite a long time and thinking about okay, how am I going to get the next engagement. I took a look and wanted to share with you the feedback that I gave to her.
First of all, a little bit of a background on her. She has over 18 years with one company but it’s all consulting experience. She was perfectly positioned for her current role and she was super at the app that she’s working on which is Kronos as an Employee Time App. It’s the most widely used enterprise employee time app in the US.
What I saw in her profile contrasted a lot compared to what I knew of her, which was all good. On her profile, it was mostly work history. I actually had to work to see the little nuggets that reflected what I knew of her. I called her up and spoke, shared this that okay, I’m seeing all history but I want to turn it around because I know what you can do and what you’re doing for this current client project. The rest of the conversation was all about flipping her profile and her resume to be oriented to the problems that she solves and her consulting experience, which conveys extensive consulting experience like she has conveys, “Hey, you’re getting somebody who’s going to walk into the office and know how to solve your problems.” The rest of that conversation was about that.
Daniel DiGriz: It’s interesting you know so often it feels like we’re conditioned to do this, right? I mean we create a profile and almost there are these forms. If you log into LinkedIn it’s list your previous job, list the date and we go into this passive mode, almost like we’re filling out a job application. I always tease people you know it’s like you’re applying for your own job.
But, as an independent consultant you already have the job. You just need the client. I think what I’m hearing you say is move from that passivity of simply listing your history and a list of your skills to an active approach of connecting the dots and telling us the story a little bit about why you and what problem and what solution you connect together.
Steve Pruneau: That’s exactly it. That’s exactly why I wanted to talk about this is I think it’s unintentional that so many people basically fill out their history and then it shifts the burden to the reader to figure out well can this person solve the problem that I need to solve? So many times you hear even in regular employment, people move on. They don’t pause to read through and figure it out if it’s not clear in the first sentence, the first paragraph, first few seconds then they just move on.
In the case of consulting and contracting, even more so. Really got to be straight to the point of this is what I do, this is what I solve, this is why you want to engage me and all this bit about history and what you’ve done in the past becomes almost irrelevant except for the occasional follow up, okay tell me a little bit of what you’ve done but that’s conversational, that’s not so much on your profile. So absolutely, that’s what I conveyed with her is let’s amp up everything I know about you, all the good things that you can do for people and I want to minimize eliminate a lot of your history.
Daniel DiGriz: Well it’s interesting you look at the average LinkedIn profile and all of the length,