Over the past five years, the trend to replace full-time employees with independent contractors in the workplace has grown, and it is estimated that by 2050 20% of the US workforce will be freelancers, up from a mere 7% in the year 1995.
So what does the life and career of a consultant look like from the inside? Business Sherpa Group’s (BSG) Jan O’Donnell has worked as a Virtual CFO for over 10 years. She fills us in on the path that lead to a career in consulting, the best parts of the job, and the downside of the entrepreneurial spirit.
The first thing to know about Jan is she considers herself a business person first and an accountant second – as reflected in her choice to pursue a business degree over accounting in university.She has a passion for looking at the whole business of an SME rather than focusing on Finance alone.
Jan started her career in the accounting departments of small, growth-focused high tech companies including AIT and Westend, a Newbridge affiliate, where she developed a passion for working in fast-paced business environments. “Things were moving so quickly that it was very exciting,” she remembers.
Seeing the big picture in SMEs
Jan believes that her early experiences in small business gave her valuable exposure to the complete business process, which has come in handy when assessing the overall business situation of new clients.
She loved the ability to make change happen quickly, and felt at home amongst people with entrepreneurial spirit and a passion to build. After the birth of her first child, Jan saw an opportunity to continue the challenging work she loved on a more flexible basis. She started working with early-stage startups and added smaller owner-managed businesses as well as several Not-For-Profit clients to her portfolio.
Jan found working with entrepreneurs and charities shared many common elements, most notably the people.
Working with people who have a passion for their work is inspiring, and helping them realize their dreams through strong financial management is a perfect match.
Today, one of her clients is the Business Sherpa Group where she provides Virtual CFO support, while also supporting the Business Sherpa Group’s new Finance & Administration practice.
The virtual engagement
For this Virtual CFO, some days are spent onsite with a client, while other days are working on engagements from her home office.
The value for Jan, and for most BSG associates, is the flexibility to balance work and personal commitments. When prompted for the most rewarding part of her job, there is no hesitation from Jan: “The people I work with, both at Business Sherpa Group and with my clients”
Any downside from the traditional office environment? “As an independent contractor there’s less time to get to know people as you don’t see them every day,” says Jan. “But you still build trust, credibility, and find the time to have some fun.”
For Jan, that’s one of the benefits of the Business Sherpa Group – the core connectedness of Finance, Strategy and HR professionals. “Being a team of one is challenging as it can be isolating, but it is also part of the value we bring to executives of smaller teams who may also feel isolated,” Jan points out. “We know where they’re coming from and it’s a mutual partnership.”
Strategic partner to the entrepreneur
Most entrepreneurs are not accountants but they’ll often try to tackle the function themselves, and don’t realize the opportunity cost of the activity. A Virtual CFO like Jan can help entrepreneurs get the information they need from their financial statements, take care of accounting requirements, and strategize about business issues like poor cash flow.
“Our clients are often surprised by what a difference it makes. You are really getting a business partner that strengthens your decision-making.”
Are you cut out for consulting?
Leaving a full-time job to consult, of course, runs the risk of leaving a guaranteed income. Do you have the appetite to weather those financial fluctuations? Only you can answer that. Here are some other questions to ask yourself:
- Are there gaps in your résumé? Take a strategic look at your professional experience and consider how it lends itself to a contracting role. Volunteering or joining Boards are excellent ways to augment your experience.
- How’s your time management? “Determining how much to take on is critical,” says Jan. “It’s easy to take on too much, and there are often fluctuations in work demands that are outside of your control.” The BSG partnership is a big plus for Jan, as other consultants are available to help during peak periods.
- Are you comfortable selling yourself? Many independents find marketing themselves to be both challenging and uncomfortable. It’s important to think about how you’ll market your offering and the resources you have to devote to that effort.
- Will you get lonely? Going alone isn’t for everyone. You may miss the social environment of a traditional office and feel isolated…left on your own to balance your workload and solve client problems. Another reason BSG works so well for independent consultants is because it provides community and stability. Learning opportunities, networking, best practice sharing and regular touch points connect the BSG community.
For Jan, the love of learning, the opportunity to work with a variety of clients and the flexibility make independent consulting the right fit for her.
About the Author
Leslie Foley is the Marketing & Business Operations Coordinator at the Business Sherpa Group. She is a recent Economics graduate from Queen’s University who has built her skills through extracurricular involvements and summer internships.