Consulting, Subcontracting and Freelancing – 1985

From Back in the Day – 1985

From the December 1985 Chicago NSPI (now ISPI) Newsletter … and still true today IMO.


Consulting, Subcontracting and Freelancing

Guy W. Wallace

R. A. Svenson & Associates

December 1985 – Chicago P&I Newsletter

Many of us in the training business have or have had the dream of working for ourselves. Total project control; more flexible hours; better compensation, recognition, and rewards for our efforts are the perceived benefits we might enjoy should we take both the risk and the plunge.


As one who has made the transition from working within organizations to working from without, I have been approached on numerous occasions by fellow trainers seeking both reinforcement of the glamour, encouragement and the secrets of “how they can do it too.”

I have even been asked to coach a cadre of freelancers for one of my clients on how to do it better.


It all seems so glamorous. But if truth be known, the reality involves hard work, long hours, and not that much glamour at all.

But that won’t dissuade you, nor should it. What is your potential for becoming a consultant, a sub-contractor, or a freelancer? (And what are the differences?)

Your potential to succeed will be based on a match between what you have to sell, and what the marketplace needs and wants.

What you have to sell to those potential clients and what they need includes specific knowledge and skills in the mechanics of design, development, and implementation of performance and/or instructional systems. But “if you were them,” you’d also be looking for other attributes.

Your list of needed skills might look slightly different from mine, but I think you’ll buy the fact that the list should contain the following items: professionalism, commitment, flexibility, interpersonal skills, written and verbal communications skills and a sense of the realities of the business world.

How can you conduct a realistic assessment of yourself? Are you ready to go out on your own now? Will you be ready in a few years, or are you just not cut out for all that it will take?


The performance and/or instructional knowledge and skills you possess are based on what you have learned (via formal schooling and/or your on-the-job experience). If you look at a generic model of our intervention development process, you can begin to assess and categorize your knowledge and skills (and your level) within that framework.


Are your specific strengths in the areas of Analysis (of what – content, performance tasks, information systems?), Design, Development (of what – CBI?), Stand Up Delivery, Evaluation – or are you a master of all trades? What makes you think so? How have you demonstrated your abilities?

What specific, specialized skills do you have, and how much experience do you have to sell? At what level are you compared to your peers, both within potential client organizations and out there in consultant-land? What makes you think so?

Are you terrific at conceptualizing; developing detailed plans; managing/coordinating others; gathering, analyzing and synthesizing data; presenting/selling ideas? What makes you think so?

I believe that a client is looking for someone to provide a specific service (i.e., course development) and more. I believe that they are also interested in someone with the following attributes:

  • Professionalism
  • Commitment
  • Flexibility
  • Interpersonal Skills
  • Written and Verbal Communications Skills
  • A sense of the Realities of the Business World

I know that when I hire a freelancer to assist us on one of our projects, I too am looking for these attributes.

Some of these may be slightly redundant, depending on your interpretation of their specific meanings. So let’s look at them each a little closer.


By professionalism, I mean both your appearance and demeanor. What image do you project?

Like it or not, your visual appearance can make or break you in the first few minutes of interaction with potential clients. Not all clients will evaluate you on your style of dress and grooming – but even if they don’t, their own internal clients might take exception to the way you look. And that could spell your doom.

Take a good hard look at the successful consultants in our field. How are they usually dressed? How do you compare?

Regarding your demeanor, how do you “act” when in the client’s presence? Are you confident but not cocky? Are you following the client’s lead or are you chain smoking alone? Do you inadvertently or purposely swear and not catch the look on their faces?

It is extremely important that you present a very professional image, because that is what clients are hiring – professionals. How do you know you are professional?


How committed are you to your work and the work of your clients? Can you be expected to knock down walls and barriers and let nothing stand in the way of meeting the agreed upon outputs and schedule of the project? Are you willing to put in all sorts of extra hours and travel to complete the project – even after the scope has been changed in mid-stream?

How committed are you in your current position? If you’re expecting yourself to radically change because now you will be finally be working for yourself, think that over again. The consequences and rewards that you might expect to be your new motivation are typically not frequent, immediate, or large.



Do you have any history of non-flexibility? How quickly can you take a change in direction and begin moving that way? Can you juggle your calendar when the meeting dates keep changing for several projects simultaneously? What makes you think so?

As a consultant, contractor or freelancer, you are providing a service. Being in a service profession is much different than working in a training organization. (It shouldn’t be, but often is.) The client is king, always right, etc., etc.

The client is the one spending the money. What he/she wants to do may not always seem to you to be the best thing to do, but it is his decision. Your roles may be to provide your opinion, alternatives, advantages and disadvantages, whatever – but in the end it is and should be the client that has to make (and live) with the decision.

Interpersonal Skills

How good are you at interactions with people? What if you don’t know them? Can you persuade, negotiate, motive, sell; can you get things done through people? How will you handle outright hostility to the project, the client, the methodology or yourself? Can you be effective and get the job done without upsetting your client’s constituency? What makes you think so?

Written and Verbal Communications Skills

How effective are your communications skills? Do you really communicate and create an understanding? Are you a good communicator standing on your feet, without preparation time? Can you write to the point and communicate without writing mysteries, where it all makes sense finally at the end? What makes you think so?

Business Sense

Do you have a good grasp on the harsh realities faced by the business? Will you be thrown by changing priorities, procedures, or upper management decisions? Can you balance your needs to get a project done and the business’ need to get product out the door? How quickly will the client feel comfortable with your level of understanding of their business’s goals, products, processes, problems, opportunities, priorities, politics, personalities, etc? What makes you think so?

Now What?

Now that you’ve evaluated yourself and what you can bring to the client’s party, what’s the real market potential for you and what you have to offer?

Who are all the potential clients that might want your skills on their projects?

Where and how are you going to prospect for them? What are you going to sell them? Are you totally self-motivating, aggressive; do you take rejection and criticism easily; can you make cold calls on potential clients; can you sell yourself and develop trust? What makes you think so?

How much ($) are you worth to these potential clients? What are the going rates for these kinds of services? What are you going to charge? Will you have different rates for different types of work, or one daily rate? Will you give discounts for larger jobs?

Will the demand for your services fill your calendar to the extent that you can make a living doing it? How many days at what rate do you have to sell to make that happen? Can you find that much work? What makes you think so?

Questions, questions, questions. But take a good look and give them hard consideration. You don’t have to possess each and every one of these skills, knowledge and other attributes to be successful. Just enough of some and more of others. You only have to convince yourself, and then live with the fact that you were either right or wrong.

On last point. What are the differences between consulting and the other two (sub-contracting and freelancing) is in the type of work. One is primarily knowledge based and the others are primarily task based.

Consultants are hired for their knowledge, or expertise, so that their brains can be picked. They are not hired primarily to perform tasks associated with a project (although they can also do some of the work). They may be involved in assisting in the strategizing and planning of projects, or in analyzing data, but they may not be expected to produce volumes of outputs.


Sub-contractors and freelancers are more concerned with doing the work. Their own differences have more to do with the scope of work that they might perform.

A sub-contractor is hired to perform a specific sub-set of tasks associated with a specific project and is typically under contract. The scope is usually longer term.

A freelancer on the other hand may be hired by the day to perform work that might not all that well specified. (“Come on in for a couple of days to help us out in the writing/editing on this project.”) The work is shorter term.

I believe that these three labels represent a hierarchy of growth and development for those of us who want to go out on our own. A consultant may also be involved in sub-contract work, just as a sub-contractor might be involved in some short term freelance work. But freelancers are not consultants.

It is just as big a mistake to mislabel yourself in your selling efforts as it is to take on a project you are not qualified to take. Both may very well spell your long term doom. Do not oversell your abilities and experience, unless your client knows what your qualifications are and what risks they are taking.

The training community is too close-knit for your failures to go unrecognized and unrewarded. So come on in, the water is fine – but it’s deep.

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