Entrepreneurs and independent consultants are a fast-growing group. The current economic recession has seen more individuals become entrepreneurs than at any time in the past fifteen years. Veterans, the largest demographic of security-cleared professionals, are more likely than the general population to embark on their own business, according to studies. For young people and old alike the idea of building a business or brand, being your own boss and getting to do work you love can have a lot of appeal.
While independent consulting or self-employment can be a great option, there are definitely considerations to keep in mind if you’re a security cleared professional. Your active clearance can be one of your greatest assets as an entrepreneur, and you’ll want to make educated choices when it comes to keeping it, and running a successful consultancy or business.
I’m going to go ahead and start with corny sayings – if you fail to plan, plan to fail. Being your own boss means you’ll need to set the stage for your business, including long-term planning, business development and administrative issues. The more of these things you can do in your free time before you leave your current paycheck behind, the better.
Before you leave your current job, separate from service or take the leap into independent consulting, make sure you know your current clearance status and how long it will remain current. The higher the clearance, the harder it will be to reinstate after any length of lapse. As an independent consultant, entrepreneur or small business owner you will need to be sponsored in order to keep your clearance active. The easiest way to do this will likely be by sub-contracting, or doing consulting work for a company that already has “cleared” work. Sponsorships from the federal government may be available if you’re jumping directly onto a government contract (this sometimes occurs when federal government employees swap from government positions to contract positions within the same office).
Once you have a plan, start thinking about your network. Entrepreneurs rely heavily on their personal networks to generate business. Even after you’re established, keeping your focus on relationships will largely be one of the biggest assets to growing your business.
“Customer service will lose you more business than you realize,” said Max Peterson, VP & General Manager, Civilian and Intelligence Agencies, Dell, at a recent gathering of government sales and IT professionals.
Today’s environment demands “solution sellers” – individuals who can fix problems for their customers, and do it in innovative ways. In today’s cash-strapped environment, cost will be more important than ever. “Figure out how your product or service will do more with less. It has got to be about efficiency and effectiveness,” said Peterson.
Building your network, online and offline, takes time and effort. Join relevant professional associations, but make sure to pick one or two to be an active member in. If you’re just paying dues every month and not participating, you’re wasting your money. Attending events helps you get to know others in your field and also helps you know the problems or struggles in your industry.
Solid financial planning is critical as an independent consultant. Your first paycheck as a consultant can be pretty exciting. Reality sets in when you realize the piper will come calling next April, in the form of Uncle Sam, who will want those taxes that before now your employer set aside. Take home pay for consultants, whether working as sub-contractors, on government contracts, doing retainer work or project work, is generally several times higher than their salaried counterparts. Keep in mind the deductions that normally come out of a paycheck, however, and set that money aside. Also, be sure to consult a lawyer to avoid any legal pitfalls.
And one of the most critical pieces of advice for cleared consultants? Be open to new opportunities. Just because you’re a consultant now doesn’t mean you won’t make the jump back into a traditional salaried position down the road. Jumping back into the traditional job sector isn’t a sign of entrepreneurial failure – it just means you’ve found a better fit or another opportunity. That’s why it’s always important to keep your network active, keep your ears open, and consider relevant opportunities when they’re available. Today’s career path includes many evolutions – maybe a stint as your own boss will be one of them.