Going Solo

Pawel Szczesny has decided to give up on his attempt to be a freelance scientist. Here are some of the hard lessons that this PhD candidate from Poland has learned:

  • The consultant’s dilemma: when you’re working you’re not generating new ideas or business, and vice versa.
  • It’s tough to launch a freelancing career outside the major urban centres.
  • You will need more cash in the bank than you expected.

On a more positive note, Pawel found out that you learn a lot on your own; more than you ever would inside an organisation. That’s because you have to do a heck of a lot more. Pawel also learned that he was not alone, “Many times I was blown away by the help I had not expected.”

I’ve discussed similar issues in So you want to be an e-learning consultant? and want to underline a critical factor in going on your own. Having a good skill set as well as contacts is not enough to keep a solo business going. It’s possible to be a long-term contractor, which is what Pawel actually wound up doing, but it’s much more difficult to sustain all the components of a business just by doing contract work. Contracting will pay the bills but won’t grow the business. For that, you need a sustainable business model.

After five years, I’m still not certain about my business model but generally it includes:

  1. Integrating my professional development with marketing and connecting with my peers; AKA Blogging.
  2. Raising my professional profile and enlarging my network by writing articles, doing product/book reviews,  facilitating online communities, etc. – mostly for free.
  3. Consulting on a wide range of services in order keep the cash flow positive

The first two activities, though enjoyable, are a cost of doing business and I view them as replacements for marketing & advertising, which I don’t spend any money on. All of my consulting projects come through my network and luckily I had existing contacts when I went solo.

Most of my revenue is generated through consulting. Some projects are interesting and challenging but some are just work. My plan is to continue to publish through various media and discuss what I learn through my consulting and other activities. The aim is to do fewer and more interesting projects and increase the writing and speaking aspect. I know that I won’t get rich on this model but as long as I can have a sustainable business and an enjoyable lifestyle, then I’m fine with that.

To get to this point, I have kept my costs very low, spending only when necessary and taking advantage of every free or cheap option for my work. It’s a simple business model but it seems to be working. It’s also not a quick and easy way to success, however you measure it.

I think that Pawel had a great idea as the freelancing scientist and that this is a model very much enabled by the Internet, as is my own. However, it’s still not easy to go solo in any field.

5 Responses to “Going Solo”

  1. Tim Schlotfeldt

    Hi Haraold,

    you post some interesting thoughts. Here in germany e-learning and especially e-Learning consulting is a small and tough market. Most consultants I know are working as trainers and some as project managers also.

  2. Will Thalheimer


    First, love your blog and your tweets.

    I’ve kept my research-and-consulting practice for over 10 years now, but it’s almost always scary… Also, the amount of salary I’ve given up is just as frightening.

    I would add a couple of other things folks ought to think about to survive as a “freelancing scientist” (just off the top of my head):

    — Having a spouse with an ability to make money, be patient, believe in you (or tolerate your career choice), keep the finances, and so much more.

    — Branding oneself or one’s business. And, doing it in the right way.

    — Having a thick skin. Not worrying what the idiots keep saying. SMILE.

    — Believing in something bigger than just thriving/surviving as a consultant. Having a mission. Seeing it as something important that has to be done. This is key, because when the times get tough, you’ll need to re-energize yourself.

    — Bringing many multiple talent sets together. Public speaking, writing, analyzing, consulting, marketing, sales, accounting, etc.

    — And so much more as well.

    Here’s the deal: A consultant must do the following:

    3 days a week–billable work.
    1 day a week–marketing and sales.
    1 day a week–administrative stuff (and there is a lot of it).

    A scientist/consultant must also do:
    3 days a week–research and writing.

    So it’s not easy. SMILE.

    One key I think is to be able to figure out what your value-add is. In my field, what is needed are more people who translate complicated research (on learning) into workable (relatively simple) models (often visual models or real-world examples).

    But hey, don’t listen to me, I’m still thinking it’s all pretty scary…

    Exhilarating too.

  3. Harold Jarche

    Thanks for adding your perspective here, Will. You’ve been at it almost twice as long as I have. I like your recommendations, especially believing that something important has to be done. For me, that’s the aspect of democratizing the workplace and using open source models for learning and work.

    You also say that it helps to have a working spouse. With two children at home and as the main income earner, that would be nice to have, but we’ve survived on my income so far. There aren’t many job prospects in our area anyway.

    Hopefully I’ll get up to 3 days a week billable work some day soon …

    Have a happy and prosperous new year 🙂


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