One of the advantages of working in the field of technical communication is the wide range of opportunities and options available. While the vast majority of people in the profession hold in-house, full-time positions, some of us choose the less certain path of contracting or consulting.
Over the years, we have been approached by many new TechComm practitioners who wish to be more entrepreneurial. We have also discovered that many people (including some of our clients) are unsure of the distinction between contracting and consulting. With that in mind, we present some general guidelines on the differences between these two paths, and whether or not they are suitable for you.
From our perspective, contracting means project- or deliverable-based work that has been negotiated between you and the client. (For the purposes of this discussion, if you are a contractor who works for a contracting company, we consider you a full-time employee, though your local tax and business laws may vary.) Consulting means providing evaluation, analysis, and advice to help a client solve a business problem.
Before we discuss the differences, we need to acknowledge that there are common characteristics.
The good: Both paths offer flexibility and some degree of control over your own destiny. You decide your specialization; you choose when you work; you even choose to accept or reject clients. Rather than facing age discrimination, the contractor and consultant can both use their gray hair and wrinkles as an advantage!
The bad: Both paths are risky. There can be cash flow problems, financial uncertainty, and definitely an increased tax burden. The contractor and consultant both need to engage accountants, lawyers, and other business professionals. They both need to market themselves, manage their business, drum up new clients, and sometimes chase after payment. There are no paid holidays or vacations. Finally, neither path is appropriate for someone new in the field. Most successful contractors and consultants first invested at least ten years in the industry (for at least three different companies) as employees, learning the profession, and developing their expertise.
What does this mean for you: Entrepreneurship is not inherently better than being employed. You have to ask yourself: Do you require certainty and stability, or do you crave variety, change, and independence?
Contractors usually have the project well defined before they start. The client needs an installation guide for a piece of equipment, a tutorial for a software application, or maybe an IFU (instructions for use) for a medical device. The deliverable sets the main scope, although there may be some fine-tuning during initial meetings. When the contracting project is training, the deliverable is the actual workshop or course that the contractor presents, and the scope is also very clear (date, duration, topics covered, etc.).
But for the consultant, there is not always a clear deliverable. Often, the client knows that they have a problem, but has no idea about the process required to solve it. Therefore, the consultant is both defining the scope of the work, including budget and time frame, while educating the client.
Point of contact/reporting
Contractors typically report to the head of documentation or the PM (product manager). While there are many other stakeholders involved in the review process (SMEs, legal, regulatory, etc.), they seldom need to directly deal with company directors or executives.
The consultant, on the other hand, provides strategic advice specifically for heads or directors of departments and higher. They, too, may have other stakeholders involved in a steering committee or task force, but their main client to satisfy is usually a higher-level executive.
For contractors, it is all about deliverables, and usually user-facing deliverables. This means user guides, manuals, quick starts, online Help, and more. While contractors may develop internal docs, reports, dev docs, etc., this is less common.
The consultant, on the other hand, almost exclusively creates internal content that is intended to help a company plan, develop, and execute a strategic response. This can include things such as a content inventory, a requirements matrix, an accessibility assessment, taxonomies, and more.
For deliverable-based projects, payment may be fixed (for example, for an in-house course or a carefully defined repair manual). More commonly, it is an hourly rate (usually with a fixed cap on hours for a deliverable), with invoicing occurring monthly.
Consultants, however, may invoice periodically for T&M (time and materials) based on a day rate, or invoice only when a deliverable has been accepted by the client. In some cases, there may be a value-based payment that includes a bonus linked to a measurable value.
Nothing that we have discussed is always true in every situation! Contractors who regularly work with tiny tech startups, for example, inevitably find themselves providing consulting services to their clients. In many cases, the client has no idea what deliverables are needed, how to prioritize for better UX (user experience), how to conduct usability tests, and more. The client often needs a great deal of education about documentation, content, and what a TechComm professional can provide. The contractor’s role oozes far into the realm normally reserved for the consultant.
Consultants, too, may find that their work crosses over into contractor territory. For example, on large projects, the consultant may work on site on a regular schedule.
Both of us prefer the careers we have created by being independent. We have had the pleasure of working with some outstanding clients and being involved in intensely satisfying projects, but we recognize the downside. It is risky, stressful, and occasionally terrifying!
Before you launch into being an independent contractor or consultant, first:
- Ask yourself some difficult questions. Be honest about your preferences regarding security vs. freedom, consistency vs. variety, etc.
- Identify what your specialty is. You’ll do far better if you have expertise in a specific area. Do you have enough expertise and enough years of experience?
- Talk with someone who has been a successful contractor or consultant and is willing to be a mentor. This can provide you with valuable advice to help you avoid basic pitfalls.
- Consult with an accountant in your area. Tax laws vary significantly in different countries. Find out about the financial aspects of being independent before you take the plunge.
- Think about where and how you would find clients.
- Do you have the financial cushion to survive the initial cashflow challenge? Does your partner or family agree with this path and the possible risks?
If you are a contractor or consultant and want to share some advice, we’d love to hear from you!