Lessons Learned: Starting out as an Independent Consultant

When I first decided to start my own consulting business, I had several questions:

  1. What educational background and experience do you need?
  2. How “Expert” do you need to be to become a consultant?
  3. How do I build my credibility?
  4. Through what channels will my clients come from?
  5. What skills will differentiate me from other consultants?

I have recently graduated with a Master of Public Health with only a few years of experience and no reputation in the consulting field. So, I contacted four independent consultants with more than 10 years of experience for advice. All of the meetings typically began with me saying, “I do not have a doctorate, wide-connections, years of experience, or a reputation….” No matter how hard I tried to come up with excuses of why I cannot start my own consulting business to the experts, I concluded that I was ready.

I have valuable skills and I don’t need an “Expert” title to begin my consulting journey. My professor gave me wise words to follow by: “Just do it!” – and so that’s how my journey started.

There is no shortcut to becoming a consultant. Everyone can start somewhere, regardless of having a Master or Doctorate. Here are the lessons that I have learned from receiving advice and reflecting on my own experiences.

Become part of a community to build your network

Becoming a social entrepreneur is a commitment that requires lots of your time and energy without immediate substantial gains: money and recognition.

More than the idea of having an extra income or making your name known as you start your own business, start with the idea of “How can I be of help to my community”, simply as a member of the community.

Your first consultation project can be a pro-bono (you may think that this gig is not motivating enough), however, if your values are heavily placed on immediate substantial gains, rather than advocacy work for the population you deeply care about, you will soon get burned out. Social entrepreneurship has to start with a question of why you want to do this, and how much are you willing to dedicate to this initiative. Investing your time into your community can be the greatest asset and one of the most rewarding experiences for expanding your network (which in turn may lead to many doors opening in the long-run).

As I got started on this initiative, I joined a non-profit associate board at Aspire Chicago, volunteered for a conference, and attended events/meetings where organizations I was interested in serving to build my network attended. As you search for a community to get involved in, I would also highly recommend you to find initiatives that have large partnerships with other organizations so that there are opportunities to be connected with multiple organizations.

Networking is the major channel that will connect you with prospective clients. Most consultants get plugged into a project through word of mouth, based on who you know. I often hear things like: “So and so I used to work with emailed me to join their project”. Consulting opportunities are rare to find on a career website such as LinkedIn or Indeed, and so networking is the best marketing tool we have as consultants.

When I recently attended a mentoring session at a conference, the speaker said:

“Whether you are someone just getting into the field or 20 years of experience in consulting, networking should be an on-going activity.”

Become part of a Professional Association

If you are based in the United States, register yourself to be a part of the American Evaluation Association (AEA) and join their “Find Evaluator” list. Some cities have locally based association that are AEA affiliated,  such as Chicagoland Evaluation Association or Washington Evaluators. Since evaluation is practiced globally, there may be an association that is based in your area. You will find familiar names already in the network, events to participate in, and job opportunities posted on their website.

Get connected with others on Social Media for Professional Development

Public health is not that popular topic that gains thousands of “Followers” on social media, and clients often will not come through your personal Instagram (or Twitter) accounts for inquires. However, you can use social media for inspiration and professional development. Surprisingly, I found many public health consultants on Instagram, and following them has benefited me. Did you know that there are over 321K Instagram posts tagged with #Publichealth! Although it is not as trendy as #Instagood with 704M posts, you can still find a subgroup of public health professionals through this hashtag that you can get connected with! For example, I was connected to PH SPOT via Instagram. After seeing me post about my journey, they had asked if I would be interested in sharing my journey with a wider-audience!

I’ve noticed that the public health community uses social media to teach, give advice, share free knowledge and opportunities, and for skill-learning. Social media platforms are great for professional development (I will talk about why professional development is so important in becoming a consultant in a later part of this post). You will meet many individuals working in diverse sectors, from early professionals to experts. Here are Instagram accounts I find most helpful and credible:

(Note: I did not receive any compensation for mentioning them.)

Build Credibility

Even if your first project is a pro-bono, it is a start. You can showcase this work to future clients through your C/V or website. It’s like creating a portfolio before you become a freelancer.

You can find work early in your consulting journey by finding independent consultants who may need assistance with their projects, consulting organizations who may have internships, or subcontractor job opportunities.

In addition to the actual work, be ready to take a few hours aside to write emails to prospective clients, read relevant materials related to your projects, and apply to more opportunities.

Know Your Worth

Pro-Bono is a great place to start but be wise about who you choose to work with. If they give you tasks that do not help you grow professionally and don’t respect your time, it is okay to say “No.” I love working with people in collaboration, but not for people. For example, during my unpaid internship, I was asked to find funding opportunities to pay their future graduate interns and do other busywork that was not related to my project. I was sitting at my desk thinking, “Isn’t this their job to find a way to pay their future interns?” So, I gave a vague reason why I had to leave and still thanked them for ‘some’ experience (which caught my current employer’s interest). Be purposeful when you are seeking out opportunities, and know your worth.

Stay Inspired

Truth is, the expected outcome of your business will not show right away. You are not going to get many clients in a short amount of time, and be traveling the world as a digital nomad. It will require some years of experience to build a large and valuable network. I am only at the start of this journey and am trying to embrace that this process will require persistence and patience. I realized that when I have difficult or “down” moments, I need to constantly stay inspired. Meeting like-minded people helps to continue to fuel my passion. Conferences keep me inspired and reminds me of the reason why I decided to start this side-hustle business.


Another reason why I highly encourage you to attend conferences is that it helps you assess what skills and knowledge you can improve on for professional development.

When you are a consultant, clients are going to choose you based on you and your skills. It is important to enhance your area of expertise and continue to develop skills that can help you stand out. Skills, knowledge, and experience are going to be the “Selling Point.” It’s either you have the skills or you don’t. It’s either you have the experience of leading focus groups or you don’t. You have to move out of the “Graduate Intern Days” and have an “I am an independent consultant and I can do this on my own with the skills I have” mindset.

Once you are a consultant for a client, there is no room for humility. Be confident about what you can provide and be proud of what you have accomplished!

Whether you are a Master level or Doctoral level professional, clients are simply looking for a “Problem Solvers”. I decided to not feel insecure about my reputation or title because all I have to do is deliver the work. Well recognized large academic research centers or hospital systems may work with someone with a doctorate and high reputation (e.g. university professor). However, small non-profits or social service organizations do not necessarily need someone with doctorate-level degrees  to get work done. They need someone who can solve a problem, which masters-level consultants can do very well! (You being more affordable may also be a competitive factor over someone who requires more pay per hour.)

To conclude

These are the lessons that I learned over the past month in this field. This post is a self-reflection post than a helpful resource. If it helped you in some ways, great! I may be at the same place 6 months later, but that’s okay. More than the outcome of my success, I am excited that this experience will only make me grow! I simply wanted to share my own experience navigating through the consulting field for peers in the same shoes.

Here are small milestones I’ve achieved during my first month:

  • Joined an Evaluation Team with independent consultants – Probono
  • Accepted a subcontractor position.
  • Applied for data-analysis volunteering position for another non-profit.
  • Became a member of the Society for Community Research and Action.

Follow me on instagram if you want to follow my journey!

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this blog are based on author’s own experience and may be subjective.

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