Giving up Corporate America to be a Search Marketing Consultant

In 2015 I had at least 20 people come to me wanting to or needing to, due to a layoff, become a Search Marketing Consultant. For the most part I gave them all the same advice and wanted to share some of that advice with others not in my circle of friends. Note, most of these people I talk to are coming from corporate jobs and this post is tailored to my experiences with them. I will work on a second for agency people, as it is often a few other things they have to consider. There is the third category of people that I have talked to which are younger solo consultants, which are scrappy and want smaller projects to pay the bills and are not looking for larger scale projects.

Are you prepared financially?

This is the big one as t often has significant impact on the family. In many cases the layoffs come with a nice severance package so they have some money for a while. It is very hard to start making money in the first month.

Tools and Technology – All those tools the agency had you need to buy yourself. While you don’t need one of the Enterprise Search Tools you will need a handful of tools and a decent computer and that will cost you some money.

Corporate Payment Terms – The big problem for most is the payment terms. If you take a typical enterprise scenario they are typically Net60 and you can bill monthly. In some cases you can bill the first month immediately but that is still at least 60 days. In many cases you cannot invoice until the end of the month and with a Net60 that means not being paid for 90 days. This is if your lucky and you can get all the vendor details set up. Most likely you are waiting for 120 days or 4 months until that first check arrives.

Quarterly Tax Payments – This is what kills most consultants especially in the first year. In your corporate job you were getting a salary and that was taxed before you received it. Now you get the full amount from your client and you are required to pay “estimated taxes” on your expected income on a quarterly basis. If you don’t you will be hit with a penalty when you file. This is why I suggest below getting a great accountant to help manage this burden.

For example, if your lucky enough to get a consulting gig at $10k per month for the rest of the year, keeping the math easy of $100k for the year. If you are married and this is your only income your tax rate is 27% so each month you need to set aside $2,700. If you are single it is $31% or $3,100 of that $10k goes to taxes each month.

Liability Insurance – Nearly every project I work with requires liability insurance of at least $1 million dollars. This insurance with a umbrella costs around $2,700 annually.

How much money do you need to make?

This is the big one. While you might be known in the industry from your corporate job you may not have any cred as a consultant. I see many people making six figure salaries that want the same as a consultant. It is possible but has some pain points. In the chart below it shows you need to bill accordingly. For example, if you want to take home the same $150k from your corporate job, keeping a similar work/life balance you need to be 100% billable 8 hours a day for the year (not including weekends and holidays) at $200 per hour. This is not factoring any expenses but you get the idea. To make more you either have to bill more hours and/or raise your hourly rate.

take_home_rates

Time Management – The primary asset of a consultant is their time so make sure you manage it correctly.  Projects are $25 per hour takes as much work as projects at $400 per hour so try to focus on those that matter.  Most “starting your business” books tell you to do a lot of pro bono work to build a name and a client roster.  Reaching out to your network for projects can be far more valuable.  I am not suggesting that you don’t give back but watch those hours.

Can you do the work?

The ability to manage a search program at a Fortune 100 company does not mean you can do the work. I had one friend that has been running a large program for the past 5 years and has never actually audited a page or even looked at the actual Adwords management system and did not have time to try to learn everything so opted to not be a consultant. Fortunately many people currently do the work or have done the work so with a little review they are ready for business.

Are you leaving on Friendly Terms?

Don’t burn bridges on your way out. In nearly all the cases of layoffs, the person was eventually invited back as a consultant making more than they did as an employee. This is a great way to start building a book of business that may lead to other projects.

Reach out to Friends and Connections

This is critical that you network like crazy. Buy lunch for a few people in your network that can help you either make connections to other professionals but also give you suggestions on what they have done to maintain their business. Post questions on Linkedin or other channels. I find people in the search industry are generally willing to help you out with advice, referrals, introductions etc.

Find a Great Lawyer and Accountant

I often make this tip #1 as it is critical that you get your company set up correctly to maximize your legal protection as well as your tax protection. The accountant is critical as I have shown above, taxes are a bitch so you need to make sure you have a great plan. They can also help you set up your accounting structure and basic bookkeeping. You don’t need a big system so something simple like Freshbooks or Xero work fine. If you only have a few clients and minimal expenses a good Excel worksheet with a tab for each month can work well.

The lawyer is needed as I mentioned for setting up your company structure. Most can get by with a simple LLC. I typically do them myself as they are fairly straightforward in many states. However, in others they require filing in local papers as well as Articles of Formation or Incorporation. You can also use LegalZoom to help with this. You will need a set of contracts as well as samples of scopes of work. If you had a corporate job you may have samples of these already but if you don’t try asking friends in the industry for some.

Decide on a Niche

What do you do best or like to do? Do you have experience in a specific vertical or area of Search Marketing? Many of my projects come from referrals. This is because I specialize in a few areas such as enterprise, global and complex technical problems. These are things that typically don’t conflict with other consultants so they refer people to me. The more you can focus your efforts the easier it will be to stand out in a crowd.

Write about Obscure Problems and Topics

This is a great way to get people to find about about you. Also I call this “epiphany marketing” where you write an article that gives people that awareness they have a problem they did not realize they had. In the past few years I have written less but a few specific articles have generated significant referrals for me. They were articles or presentations at conferences that really made people think. The first was about organizing their search program, the second evaluating their agency’s performance and the third was about maximizing their performance across multiple portfolio brands.

Slowly Integrating into Consulting

Unless you have been laid off you can slowly work your way into consulting. If your current company allows it, start with some smaller projects on the side for friends and family. I have helped a few friends that wanted to move in using them to help with larger projects. This allows them to keep their day jobs while easing into the workflow and setting up their organization.

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  • Bill, you’ve hit so many things on the head. The network as a source of business, the former job. Pre-paying taxes sucks so badly it’s hard to describe how much… and I had no idea about the aweful payment terms on big contracts – good to be aware of that! It’s great you’ve created this resource!

  • Thanks Gab, lots of pains starting out especially in the big client arena. I will try to add more to this topic as it seems to have hit a nerve.