One thing that often catches new consultants out is the amount of back-office admin work required just to keep an independent business running.
I think the reason it sometimes comes as a shock is because when we work for an employer, we tend not to have to worry about anything but the jobs to which we’re assigned. That’s no longer the case when we set out on the path to business-ownership.
Surprise, Surprise, You’re Not Just a Consultant
Once you begin your career as a self-employed, independent consultant, you also become the assigned resource for every task in your business.
That’s when the awareness surfaces that you’re not only a consultant. You’re also a business manager, administrative clerk, bookkeeper, and marketing specialist. It’s a balancing act that many struggle to manage, especially in the early days of a consulting start-up.
Now as someone who has been there, done that, and worn the many working hats of an independent consultant, I know how it is to try and keep all those plates spinning day after day.
Of course my business is a lot bigger today and I have a great team of people to help me. But I can still remember some of the tips and tricks I had to become familiar with when I was a solo plate-spinner—otherwise known as an independent consultant.
I’d like to share a few of them with you now, to spare you some of the frustrations of the back-office/front-line balancing act.
Tip #1: Batch Your Workload
Organisation is key to managing the back-office balancing act. If you’re constantly jumping between tasks which aren’t related to one another, your productivity will suffer, since each task will require a certain amount of “tuning in” time and you won’t be able to benefit from getting into a rhythm.
Try batching related tasks together. This can work with client-project tasks as well as your own business-management activities.
Set aside blocks of time to work specifically on communication tasks, such as emails and phone calls, which lend themselves to batching. You can perhaps do the same with accounting-related tasks such as bookkeeping, invoicing and paying bills, or website-related tasks like content-writing and digital marketing.
Tip #2: Don’t Work on Your Business at Client Locations
If you’re working away from home for a few days, it can be tempting to take a few minutes here and there to catch up on your admin tasks.
This might be acceptable during your evenings in a hotel room, but try not to do it when you are at your client’s business location.
Not only will it distract you from working effectively on your client’s project, but you’ll typically find that what you intended to be a few minutes admin work, turns into a much longer chore, especially if you’re working on tasks that are less than straightforward. Before you know it, a minor distraction turns into a major one.
In fact, even the time in your hotel room would be better spent trying to get some rest. If at all possible, save the business management work for when you’re back at your home office.
Tip #3: Know Your Natural Working Cycle
We all have times of day when certain types of work come more easily to us than others. If you can come to understand your natural working habits, you’ll be able to use that knowledge to your advantage.
For example, if you’re someone who concentrates better in the morning hours, use that time to work on the most demanding tasks (which usually means you’ll be doing client work), then pick up some of your administrative activities in the afternoon (assuming you are at your home office).
It’s OK to work during the night-time too when you’re at home, if that’s a time when you’re at your most productive. Just remember to schedule sleeping time—and I do mean schedule it, because it’s all too easy to end up burning the candle at both ends until there’s nothing left.
Tip #4: Consider Hiring a Virtual Assistant
There is one way that you can get help with your business management tasks, which will really tip the balance in your favour—and it’s an option that wouldn’t have been open to you a few years ago.
The Internet and cloud computing have made it possible to do many tasks from anywhere, which means you can outsource tasks to somebody who will perform them at a rate far less than that at which you value your own time.
This point is important, because your business management tasks are not billable. If you can hire a remote-working contractor to handle your admin at a reasonable hourly rate, you’ll be able to put more of your own time into billable work, and hence be more profitable.
A competent virtual assistant can take on many of those time-consuming activities that keep your business running, allowing you to do your business, instead of managing it.
As a consultant, your core business is assisting clients to achieve outcomes. By outsourcing your non-core activities, you can save yourself from the back-office balancing act, give some time back to yourself, and perform more of the core work that will actually enable your business to grow.
Don’t Forget to Add Your Life Into the Balance
As a final word of caution, remember that there is a third part to the independent consultant’s balancing act. It’s called life. It’s also typically the first element to be put on the back-burner when you’re getting a new consulting business off the ground.
However that’s a trap you should really avoid falling into…
The best way to avoid it is to be meticulous about scheduling, and to include your family and leisure time in as slots in your business schedule. Be as ruthless about protecting those slots as you would about an important client meeting or your thrice-weekly, two-hour billing and invoicing slots.
Your business exists to support your life, not the other way around. Never lose sight of that… or of the fact that planned downtime is as critical to your success as the hours spent in the back office and on the front line with your clients.