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The Accidental Consultant

1 September 2014 2,538 views 2 Comments

PaulTeetorPaul Teetor is a quantitative developer, specializing in analytics and software engineering for investment management, securities trading, and risk management. He is the author of the R Cookbook, published by O’Reilly. He works in the greater Chicago area, where he lives with his wife and sons. In his mind, he is a fabulous musician.

Losing your job is the typical reason for becoming a freelance consultant. That’s what happened to me, but it wasn’t exactly a straight line from ex­-employee to freelancer.

Several years ago, I worked at a hedge fund whose niche was something called spread trading, exploiting small discrepancies within the financial markets. The Great Financial Crisis of 2008 brought the demise of the fund and pink slips for the employees, including me. The job market was awful, making re­employment a dim possibility.

With the gracious support of my wife, I decided to write a book on R, the statistical software system. Very fortunately, I landed a writing contract and finished the book while R was becoming a hot topic. Honestly, my motivation for writing was pretty simple. I had accumulated about 200 ‘recipes’ for common tasks. I wanted to share them with others. I thought a cookbook would help people climb R’s learning curve.

At the same time, I continued studying ways to quantify spread trading. I wrote some research papers and created a simple website where I could post my writings. The site floated near the top of Google’s page rankings because, hey, who the heck writes about spread trading? I also contributed to other writer’s blogs.

Here, too, my motivation was pretty simple. I was fascinated by the statistics of spread trading. I wanted to explore and learn. I hoped that sharing my ideas would elicit feedback from other analysts, and it did.

I also applied to give talks at conferences, I volunteered to run the local R user’s group, and I responded to requests for help with R. I posted on Twitter. I contributed answers to mailing lists.

Over time, the book, the website, and my community activities acted like advertising. People could see what I knew and what I’d accomplished. From that came discussions. From the discussions came business opportunities. I began doing projects and billing for my time.

About that time, one of my job interviews came through with an offer. I had to decide between steady employment and freelance work, which was a difficult decision. I was enjoying myself tremendously, but the ‘stochastic income’ lifestyle of freelancing created burdens for my family and me. Ultimately, I turned down the job offer. That decision worked out well, and since then, my income has been steady enough and strong enough. (I’ll mention that the potential employer was forced to lay off staff within a year. Apparently, the ‘steady employment’ thing was an illusion.)

Here are my recommendations for anyone considering freelancing:

Have a specialty. Clients won’t hire you just because you “know something about statistics.” Clients hire you because you can solve a problem more quickly and efficiently than they can. Besides, without a specialty, your only competitive advantage is to undercut other consultants, and that’s the road to poverty.

Be visible. Show the world what you know. Not everyone has the opportunity to write a book, but everyone can create a website where they post their work. Include your contact information.

Get out in the world. Don’t sit at home. Volunteer to help with your local ASA chapter or user’s group. Apply to speak at conferences. Tell local colleges and universities you are available for adjunct work and statistical consulting. Have lunch with other freelancers in your area.

Be ready for the stochastic income lifestyle. Every freelancer faces periods without billable time. It’s inevitable, such as the time between gigs. Are you financially prepared to live for three months with no income? Are you psychologically ready? It can be stressful.

Apprenticeship is necessary. Freelancing right out of school is not a good idea. Find and establish your specialty first. A possible exception is the PhD who has already demonstrated mastery of a topic. Nonetheless, all recent graduates can benefit from joining an established group in which they can learn the practical aspects of business and commercial analytics work.

Add value wherever and whenever you can. Make a difference. This is part of being visible. It’s also good experience, good material for your résumé, a good source of referrals and recommendations, and good karma.Long ago, a wise business consultant taught me the First Rule of Business: Always give more than you get. That applies double in consulting. Clients come back over and over to the consultants who provide genuine value. Clients dump the consultants who don’t.

Perhaps you want to be a freelancer and you’re asking yourself, “How can I find clients?” Honestly, I don’t have a simple answer. But I do know that adding value wherever and whenever you can will make a difference in the world. People will notice. They will wonder how you could add value for them. Be ready to tell them.

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  • Monica Johnston said:

    Thank you, Paul, for your article. The article is inspiring, and it provides great tip/reminders. Can you please expand a little bit on “adding value” or “giving more than you get”? Thank you in advance.

  • john said:

    Nice honest article.
    I hope that the freelance work is still keeping you busy.