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Making the Move from Teacher to Freelance Consultant

by Tim Thompson

Three years ago I left my job as a visiting professor at a top university in South Korea and started a consulting company. When I tell people that I am a freelance communications consultant they usually pause and then ask what exactly it is that I do.  “Freelancer” and “consultant” are rather ambiguous terms, so when you put them together they often lead to more confusion than clarification. In this article, I will describe what kinds of work I do, why I wanted to do make the career transition, and try to help you decide if the move that was right for me is also right for you.

What Does It Entail?

In the last three years I have gotten paid for copy editing, presenting, presentation skills coaching, conducting short teacher training workshops, running multi-day corporate communication skills workshops, job candidate interviewing, interview skills coaching, language skills assessing, conference hosting, online and offline materials development, and leading a team of scientific communicators for a project at the Winter Olympics. The problem is that you can’t put all that on a business card, so you end up settling for a generic word like “consultant”.  

In an average month I copy edit press releases for a university, proofread emails and documents for a private company, check a translated manuscript for a freelance translator, give a talk to a group of public school teachers, and interview candidates to assess their language ability and fit within an organization.  If that sounds like an interesting way to earn a living, keep reading.

When Is the Right Time to Make the Move?

The short answer to this question is “after a lot of planning”. I was thinking about my company and doing side hustles for several years before I left a steady paycheck. Here are some questions you need to ask yourself before making the move:

1. What will my freelancing/consulting entail?

One of the toughest things about making my consulting business work is that I do a lot of things. It would have been much easier if I only done one thing. That being said, only doing one thing is why I left teaching. I wanted to branch out and have a variety of projects to work on. If you are thinking about freelancing, it is probably easier to focus on one area for branding purposes. That will help with selecting target customers and customizing your advertising for them.

2. Do I have enough of a track record in this field/these fields?

Once you have decided what will be on your menu of services, you will need to be able to prove to potential clients why you are qualified (or sometimes the most qualified) to do the work. In my case, I did a lot of side hustles and volunteer work that helped me build a solid track record and portfolio.

3. Who are my clients going to be?

It is important to be able to identify who has a need for what you are offering but can’t already get it internally. For example, I have been turned down by many companies that I have pitched my editing services to because they already had in-house editors. So, finding out who needs help from outside and has a budget to pay for it is an important step when creating a successful freelancing business.

4. How can I convince them to work with me?

Here, I answer the question with more questions. How well can you sell yourself?  Will you work completely online or will you be working with people face to face? Do you need to shave that beard or take out that nose ring to make a stronger first impression? Are you a naturally outgoing person who enjoys making cold calls and touting your business? Not everyone enjoys blowing their own horn, so for some people this could be a deal breaker.

5. How much should I charge?

My advice here would be to be flexible and knowledgeable. By flexible, I mean that one price does not fit all projects. Take editing for example. Some jobs are a better match for a “per page” rate and others should be billed by time. Also, would you charge the same amount to edit a group of emails and dense scientific articles if the word count were the same?  Your rates need to be negotiated depending on a multitude of factors, so stay flexible. By knowledgeable, I mean knowing what your competition is charging. You don’t always have to undercut them. Think about what you can do better than they can. Perhaps you can offer quicker turnaround or more personal service than a larger editing business. Pitch that.

6. Do I have a financial cushion?

Aside from the potential problem of no work coming in, there is the issue of doing work and then waiting to get paid. Accounts receivable are great if you are trying to show the value of your company on paper but it doesn’t pay the bills. Make sure you have some money stashed away, not only for the lean times but when your clients promise to pay but take longer than they should.

7. Do I value stability and routine?

If you do, this job probably isn’t for you. Freelancing involves a lot of hurrying up and waiting. It can also involve a lot of travel. For some people that is a perk but for others it’s a headache.

Three Tips

  1. Get a business license.

I didn’t want to get a business license at first.  It meant more tax filing and seemed like a bureaucratic hassle. However, getting a business license gave my work more credibility and made it possible to work with several big clients that needed to give my business number to their accounting departments in order to work with me.  

2. Tell everyone you meet and keep reminding them.

Not everyone you know is going to become your client but they probably know someone who could. Don’t forget to remind potential clients that you are available to work with them. I have gotten work opportunities to work because I sent a message to a company at the same time that they were looking for someone like me. Sometimes you make your own luck.

3. Lean on your friends and supporters.

Your professional and social networks are critical if you want to get started as a freelance consultant. Word of mouth advertising is both free and effective. Think about who you would rather hire for a project, a stranger who advertised online or someone your friend recommended.   

What to Expect

Freelance consulting can be the best years of your professional life or the worst. It is the epitome of betting on yourself, not just your skills and experience but your ability to market yourself and convince others to recommend you to their colleagues and friends.  There will be ups and downs, new opportunities, weeks of no work coming in, conflicts with clients, business relationships that blossom into friendships, opportunities to chase your dreams, and quite a lot of rejection.

Feel free to contact me if you think freelance consulting might be for you. Whether you plan to specialize in one area like scientific editing or dabble in several area like I do, freelance consulting can be a very rewarding way to make a living if you are looking to transition out of being a full-time teacher.

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