Should You Be a Consultant?
When The Wall Street Journal has a special section titled “The Journal Report,” I try to read it. I pay a lot to subscribe because I need to know what the current thinking is in all aspects of business.
I started reading “The Journal Report” to learn about the 10 ways to make more money in a job. The writer’s first suggestion was:
Listen to your boss.
I got no further.
The words hit me with the same effect that biting into a madeleine cake had on Marcel Proust (1871-1922).
The taste of that small, rich cookie sent a flood of memories reeling through Proust’s brain and was responsible for his vast literary work, “Remembrance of Things Past.”
When I started out in business, I had 10 jobs in the first 16 years.
The dumbest thing that I ever did was listen to the bosses.
A Checkered Career
When I got out of the Army in 1960, I had no idea what I wanted to do. My father was a successful writer and we knew a lot of people in the book business, so I drifted into publishing.
I loved working and acquired a lot of different skills, but the jobs were low-paying and I always needed money.
Everything would’ve been fine if I would’ve done some moonlighting. I didn’t do sports and had no hobbies. I had the time to moonlight evenings and weekends.
But I listened to my bosses—all of whom said, “If I ever catch you moonlighting, you’re fired. I’m paying you for 100 percent of your time.”
I remember, once in the early 1960s, I had a shot at writing for Enid Haupt, owner of Seventeen, who had a twice-a-week newspaper column for teenage girls. It paid $50 a column, which at that time, would’ve made all the difference in my life.
But when I didn’t get it, I wasn’t unhappy, because if the boss found out, I would’ve been fired from my $6,000-a-year job.
Instead of moonlighting, I wrote novels for two hours in the morning before going to work.
In 1976, I was working for a direct mail advertising agency, which had as its biggest accounts Richard Nixon’s Committee to Reelect the President (CREEP) and the Republican National Committee. No fan of Nixon, I was hired to write copy for all the other clients while the boss (who had told me that if he caught me moonlighting, he would fire me) and his son took care of the Republicans.
In the aftermath of the Watergate break-in, people stopped giving money to the Republicans, and the agency lost its biggest account. I had bought a car on Tuesday, a piano on Wednesday and then was fired on Thursday.
My father had just died and left me a little money and my wife, Peggy, was working. The agency guy gave me a month’s severance, so no matter what happened, the bills would be paid for a while. That night, we decided that I should try freelancing.
On the next day, I had resumes in the mail offering my services as a freelance copywriter. The following Monday, I had my first client—a newsletter for corporate directors. I fired the guy the following week.
My life as a freelancer was off to an inauspicious start.
Two things triggered this column—The Wall Street Journal special report and finding myself at a Phillies game last Tuesday night with Bob Teufel, former president of Rodale Press, and one of the smartest, most elegant men I’ve ever known. Seeing Teufel again after many years was another bite of the madeleine cake.
At the time I was fired, Teufel was circulation director of Rodale and a client of the agency. Since Rodale also depended heavily on freelancers to write and design circulation packages, I called Teufel and asked him what his opinion was of my going freelance.
Teufel kindly invited me to have a drink with him at the Oak Bar in the Plaza Hotel, where he gave me two pieces of advice that served me well and remain etched in my memory to this day.
Incidentally, this isn’t just advice for freelancers, but for anyone in any business.
1. Don’t over promise. Never guarantee delivery of two or more big projects on the same day or even the same week. Even out your workflow. Otherwise, you’ll miss deadlines and tick off the people who were expecting the work.
2. Always go first class. Clients and prospective clients like to do business with people who have an aura of success. Wear nice clothes, Teufel told me. Drive a nice car. Take clients to nice restaurants. When I told Peggy, she said, “I can live with that.”
Shortly thereafter, I met a hard-charging direct mail pro named Jim Prednergast who hired me by the day to write copy in his office, and gave me weekend assignments on a per project basis. I was on my way.
In 10 years freelancing and consulting, I was hired by all kinds of businesses that I needed to become intimately familiar with in order to write their mailings and ads. People were paying me money to learn all kinds of fascinating things. It doesn’t get any better than that.
Over the years, I discovered three additional rules that are critical to being a successful consultant or businessperson:
3. Never let a single client (or customer) represent more than 40 percent of your business. Maybe the number is 30 pecent or 50 percent, but if you get fired by a client—or dropped by a customer—that you were counting on for 80 percent or more of your revenue, you have a problem. An example of this was in the news this week about Imclone—memorable for the insider trading by Martha Stewart and founder Sam Waksal that landed them both in jail. A judge decreed that Imclone didn’t have exclusive rights to the patent on the colon-cancer drug, Erbitux, which is basically the company’s only commercially available product. Right now, Imclone must do some fancy footwork to survive.
4. Always sell when you’re busiest. Many freelancers, consultants and people in business can get so crazed with work that they don’t take time out to sell their services. Then suddenly, one day, all the projects are completed and nothing’s in the hopper. Often, it takes a while to land assignments and contracts—a fairly long sales cycle. With nothing on the docket, you can go for weeks without work (and without a paycheck).
5. Keep looking for new opportunities within your existing client base. Whenever I began working with a client and began to understand the business, I’d invariably see something more that needed doing. If I was hired to write a direct mail magazine subscription effort, it made sense for me to write the billing series and the renewal series. After all, the subscriber came in because it was my voice doing the persuading. It should be my voice asking for money and doing the renewals. The name of the game is to make your clients dependent on you by continually finding ways to help them to be more efficient and profitable.
If I knew in 1960 what I know now, I certainly would have moonlighted. This would have given me a client base and a chance to learn about other businesses, which would have broadened my knowledge and experience far beyond the insular world of a single company. If I had been fired from or quit my regular job (which happened a lot in those days), I would still have been working and deriving some income from my outside client base. And very possibly through the contacts I had made while moonlighting I would have found full-time jobs a lot more quickly.
In short, I would’ve moved farther along financially and professionally had I not listened to my bosses. I’m a much better consultant than a corporate employee, and would have found that out about myself a lot earlier in my career.