Reader’s question

I have been working at the same consulting firm for over a decade now. During the boom years of the Web, I turned down many interesting offers. It’s not that those offers were not intriguing, but I was sick of repeating a mundane routine. I have been fortunate enough to avoid the axe recently and am now ready to go out on my own and take on particular clients on a mandate-by-mandate basis. I do not need the money, I need some excitement… What should I do?

Jordan Ploor, WA

Whatever floats your boat

Some people seek the stability and comfort of a company job, along with the steady paycheck, company benefits and stable workload that accompany it. Others savor the opportunity to move from one project to another, serving new clients and collecting fat commission checks throughout.

Whether you are a freelance writer, a salesman working on commission, or a consultant on a mandate, you are, for all intents and purposes, what many in the industry call a hired gun. Of course, most hired guns join the payroll like everyone else and collect a regular paycheck, but they also have some carrot dangling in front of them — this carrot may be equity, commission, bonuses, success fees, or anything else that represents a considerable upside.

Hired gun or straight shooter?

Such work entails various forms: some writers make a living by earning fees for the articles and books they write. They write, get published, and then they get paid. Consultants in everything from IT to PR often charge retainer fees to cover themselves against any downturn in the market, but the lion’s share of their earnings come from “success fees.” The lingo can be broken down into an “engagement fee” and a “success fee.”

For example, a capital seeker may earn an engagement fee for conducting due diligence or preparing a business plan for a start-up, but he will earn considerably more of a success fee if he secures financing for the start-up. Individuals are not the only ones that work in such a way. Some record labels outsource their marketing to other firms — these firms may collect a retainer to pay for fixed expenses like rent and labor, but they try to exceed clients’ expectations in order to collect the fat carrot.

But is it for you?

Asking whether or not this is for you is like asking a guy whether or not he prefers to be single and playing the market, as opposed to being exclusive with a woman. If the market is solid and opportunities are plentiful, being a free agent offers considerable upsides and a great learning curve. But if you sense some dryness over the horizon, then chances are that your phone will not be ringing off the hook. In this likelihood, chances are that you may prefer the stability of a big company gig and the steady paycheck that comes with it.

Libby Gill, author and consultant to media companies, agrees that doing such work is not for everyone: “Some people need to be in a company setting, others really need to be on their own to shine.” It helps to be multitalented, but one also needs to have the right life situation to pull it off.

You can imagine that if you have a family to support, then the roller coaster ride that this line of work can entail might not be for you. But the reader in question emphasized that he “does not need the money.”

How to survive being a hired gun…

Ultimately, you must ask yourself how much you’d like to market yourself to gain business and accounts. If you are afraid to get on the phone, pitch to senior marketing and salespeople and show your value, then a pay-per-performance job is clearly not for you. After all, there is no shortage of wannabes in this space; there is, however, a great shortage of stars that can deliver on all fronts.

But if you feel you want to give this line of work a try, here are some important factors to keep in mind in order to survive.

Understand the industry
For one, you will need a good enough understanding of the industry you are in. What are the legal aspects? Are there any regulations that you must not violate? You cannot exactly raise financing for a start-up with the help of a loan shark…

Be aware of the company’s culture

Another key is to understand that every company has a culture, and even if you are a hired gun on a temporary basis, you cannot deviate too much from the company’s core values and modus operandi. Conversely, you may just have to deviate far enough — after all, if they wanted someone who acted like one of their employees, they would assign one of them to the project.

Know the inner workings of the business
The fact that a solid understanding of all of a business’ functions can make or break a free agent’s career is always underestimated. Trying to increase sales may help the firm but if it costs too much to deliver the goods, then the firm may be worse off financially, making your result less than optimal.

Remember that people are everything
Whip out the violin — business is all about relationships. So if you seek to move from one gig to another and collect hefty pay packages, understand that your focus should be on the people, and not only the numbers.

Maximize your value
Some of the best consultants are those who are always offered positions after they complete mandates for clients. In other words, even if you have no desire to stay with one client once your mandate is done, always position yourself in a manner that will make the decision makers wish you were a permanent fixture on the payroll. After all, if people mean everything in business, why would they squander such a gem of a person?

Never burn bridges
If you are offered something permanent at a company, do consider your options, but understand where the overall market is going. If you wish to turn down the offer, do so respectfully and keep in mind that you may one day wish to join the firm.

Enforce written evaluations
Making the company submit formal and written evaluation sheets is also recommended. Yes, you may be in it for the money, the learning or whatever else, but memories are relative and short-lived, and if you wish to get bigger and better projects, then have a standard evaluation form that each client can fill in once your work is done. The feedback will be precious and the written proof can cover your butt in case the people you worked for are no longer employed at the company.

Market yourself
Whether you choose to have a media kit, a website or a traditional resume, make sure that you market yourself to the best of your abilities. After all, if you cannot market yourself, how can you market something else?

Stay on target

When everything is said and done, such work is not for everybody, certainly not for the faint of heart. But if you find yourself bored at work, and are looking for something new and a potentially unlimited upside, then maybe this is the line of work for you. You might discover a side of yourself you never even knew you had.

Ash Karbasfrooshan is also the author of Course To Success, available at