How Freelance Finance Consultants Are Beating Big Firms
Freelance finance consultants are delivering high-quality results for clients at a lower cost than traditional consulting firms. How do they manage to do it? One of Toptal’s most in-demand finance freelancers, Michael Ng, explains how freelancers are able to outdo their more established competitors when it comes to communication, expertise, and ROI.
Having been fortunate enough to spend the better part of the last decade working as an investment banker, venture capitalist, board director, and freelancer, I’ve witnessed the evolution of professional services firsthand. A lot has changed, including the adoption of flexible operating models and success-based fee structures. But one thing has become clear to me: On a consistent basis, clients are happier with both the cost and results of projects delivered by freelancers.
Only having to deal with one person for everything related to the project was invaluable. It enabled us to better adapt as the situation evolved & execute more efficiently. Former client and CFO, leading European retail operator in the food & beverage sector
I’ve seen this from the client perspective as a board director and from the advisor side as a freelance consultant—and increasingly, it is becoming apparent to my colleagues industrywide. It is perhaps unsurprising, given the increased personal touch afforded by freelancers and the increased accountability at an individual level for each project.
While freelance finance consultants may have historically only served younger companies in the form of projects like investor presentation creation and modeling, we’re increasingly seeing them handling more multi-disciplined projects. Projects like cash management or post-merger integration would historically have only been outsourced to traditional, on-site consultants, yet today, clients recognize the value of hiring a multi-disciplined freelancer with the same skills and higher accountability.
Here, I’ll discuss what draws companies to freelance finance consultants, my personal remote freelancing experience with a traditionally on-site engagement (cash management), and the factors driving a high ROI for more mature clients hiring freelancers for finance projects.
Why Companies Are Shifting to Freelance Finance Consultants
Finance and management consulting came to the forefront following the Great Depression, when large corporations sought out expert advice in ever-increasing numbers. Since then, the profession has expanded and opened up its offering to companies of all different sizes, solving the most critical issues facing businesses today. However, given the inherent importance of their work and legacy of catering to large corporations, charge-out rates for top-tier consultants (senior partner level) can go as high as $16,000 per day (paywall).
However, corporate consulting rates are increasingly under pressure with the steep rise in the number of freelance finance consultants, who typically leave these traditional consulting firms to find a better work-life balance but critically offer top-tier experience at realistic rates (given their considerably lower cost base).
Freelance consultants are inherently less expensive than traditional consulting firms—particularly remote freelance finance consultants. Experienced freelance consultants have lower training costs and virtually no overhead expenses (e.g., expensive offices in which to entertain clients). Further, they are more open to working virtually and less likely to include potential travel expenses in their fee.
You may be thinking, why is this happening now? Perhaps this movement is only temporary. The truth is that there are multiple, long-standing secular trends that have bubbled this very situation to the surface.
Permanent employees are leaving full-time jobs at the fastest pace on record, and more people are freelancing than ever before. This has created a growing talent gap in the full-time employee pool, resulting in an increased demand for qualified freelancers. According to Morgan Stanley, more than 50% of the total US workforce could be made up of freelancers by 2027.
For companies hiring freelancers, they are increasingly seeking out those with deep, specialized skill sets (and not just those who are a “jack of all trades”). The reason they have been able to do this (and still be successful in finding the right freelancer) is the increasingly large freelance talent pool available to them. Furthermore, given the quality of specialized freelancers now available for hire, the delivered results continue to improve.
Freelancers no longer have to go it alone and build up their own business from scratch (including finding potential clients). They are now able to be hired through pre-vetted, high-grade freelancing platforms that manage everything from sourcing quality projects to managing payments, client communication, and timesheets. For instance, Toptal only accepts about 3% of the freelancers who apply to be on the platform, effectively optimizing value-creation for clients by granting access only to top-tier talent at realistic rates.
How to Become a Successful Freelancer
Becoming a freelancer can be liberating — and also a little terrifying. Where do you even begin? What processes and structures do you need to have in place? How do you find clients? And how do you know how much to charge?
What the Experts Say
“Going out on your own isn’t always a deliberate choice,” says Sara Horowitz, head of the Freelancers Union and author of The Freelancer’s Bible. Some people do make the switch consciously in order to capitalize on their unique skills and networks, earn more money directly, escape the corporate grind, and have more work-life flexibility. Others end up as their own bosses because they’ve left jobs and are trying to figure out what’s next, or they start doing a few projects on the side and realize the work is enough to be their main gig. Sumeet Goel, who founded HighPoint Associates, a professional advisory firm that staffs independent consultants at companies ranging from midsize ones to the Fortune 500, agrees that many freelancers often happen into it: “I’d say 90% go down this path because of circumstance. It’s not so much that they decide to do it; it’s more that they wake up one day and they’re an independent consultant.” Whether you chose freelancing or it chose you, you’ll only be successful if you follow some important steps.
Reach out to your existing network
A robust network is a freelancer’s best friend. The goal is to start your business with “a group of people who really care about you” and who are ready to support you along the way, says Horowitz. Reach out to the people closest to you to let them know what you’re doing. This doesn’t have to feel like you’re begging for work though, says Horowitz. In fact, she advises taking people you like out to coffee or lunch “before you have an ‘ask’” and offering to help them out in any way you can. “It’s the equivalent of doing informational interviews. You’re just making clear the kind of work you’re doing now and that you’re available to help anyone who might need it,” she says. Being in touch with your network isn’t just important at the beginning. Goel says it’s crucial to build time into your schedule going forward to continue networking. “You never want to be so busy that you can’t reach out to the people who can help you,” he says.
Make new connections
It’s important to have a few fellow freelancers you can turn to for advice and support in your network. Sure, they may be “the competition,” says Horowitz, but they are also a great source of information. Look for professional associations in your field, search LinkedIn for people who are in the same business, and attend conferences in your areas of expertise. Horowitz’s organization hosts monthly meet-up events for independent workers in 18 cities across the U.S. “It’s a great way to get to know people in the context of building your business,” she says. If you’re concerned about the networking aspect of being out on your own, you’re not alone. The Freelancers Union has a host of resources, including an “Authentic Networking Guide” that, according to Horowitz, “outlines some best practices for new or nervous networkers.”
Determine your fee
Knowing how much to charge is one of the things your network can help you with right away. Horowitz suggests asking your fellow freelancers what the market is like for your skills and what their rates are. Don’t make the mistake of basing your fees on what you need to earn. “This isn’t about your expenses,” says Horowitz, “so don’t add up your mortgage payment and your other costs of livings to figure out your hourly rate.” If you’re moving from a full-time job, Goel suggests this calculation: Take your cash compensation and divide by 250 (which is the number of billable days after factoring in vacations, sick time, and typical downtime) and then add 25%–50%. Then take that figure, compare it with the rates you’ve gotten from your network, and find a middle-ground number you can float as an experiment and then adjust based on feedback from potential clients. You may have to quote a lower rate at the beginning, while you’re still figuring how much you’re worth and trying to win work. But plan to raise your prices sooner rather than later. Horowitz says you’ll know when you’ve hit the right level: “When you’re reliable and good and you charge a fair rate, people rehire you.”
Find a good accountant
Even before you have money coming in, hire a trustworthy accountant. “I always recommend getting someone who can help you set things up properly,” says Horowitz. “This might be a lawyer, but I find that the kind of support you need is more about economics than law.” A professional can advise you on whether it makes sense to incorporate, how to save in taxes, and how to manage all of your expenses. Goel suggests setting up an LLC or similar designation to separate your business assets from your personal ones. He also recommends signing up for a business credit card right away, which will “make taxes and tracking expenses easier” and “get you in the right mindset.”
Define Your Niche
You need to stand out as a Salesforce Freelancer. To the average client you will be approaching, everyone appears to do the same thing. Listing your capabilities with Salesforce technology is unlikely to resonate with your prospects. Defining your niche shouldn’t involve focusing on an industry, or a Salesforce product/cloud.
Your offering is the services that you advertise to potential clients, like a catalog of your deliverables. An offering will group together multiple deliverables in a way that makes sense, to ensure your clients are left with a functioning Salesforce org, plus to be a more enjoyable and profitable experience for you.
- Project – Fixed Cost: the cost is agreed upon before the work commences. For that amount, you will deliver the scope of work. The cost remains fixed for the whole duration of the project, and the client must raise a request if they want to make changes.
- Project – Time & Materials (T&M): the client agrees to pay based on an hourly, or day rate. While you should still prepare a scope of work and estimate the time (and cost) it will take to deliver, there is no fixed figure. You deliver the scope of work to the best of your ability and ‘roll with the punches’ – if something unexpected happens, you work to resolve it.
- Managed Services: an ongoing contract where you commit a certain number of hours per month to the client, over the contract term (anywhere from 3-12 months). If you’re looking to become a Salesforce contractor, this is for you!
- Ad-Hoc Support: is exactly what it says – it’s unexpected, they are small chunks of work, and they are often the result of something going wrong (which means you are taking on risk). Examples include: fixing an automation issue, adjusting user permissions, or providing some training.
How to Get Clients as a Salesforce Freelancer
Option #1: Get Your Own Clients
‘Outbound marketing’ to get in front of potential clients, or to become discoverable (‘Inbound marketing). This includes writing articles, videos, speaking, prospecting/outreach.
|Control over your day rates.||Time consuming: upfront effort and ongoing time commitment.|
|Control over project scope.||End-to-end responsibility puts more pressure onto you.|
|Able to operate with your personal brand||No escalation point for unexpected occurrences – it will all be on your head.|
|Stay laser-focused on your niche||Risk of overworking to progress as fast as you can.|
Option #2: Subcontracting Through a Salesforce Consultancy
Option #3: Recruiters
Recruiters earn their commission by connecting organizations that need a Salesforce specialist with suitable candidates. Having an oversight on both the supply and demand side means that recruiters can match you with a high-quality opportunity – they can become your eyes and ears on the ground!
You will mostly find that these engagements are ‘full-time’ 40-hours-a-week for a period of time (usually 6 months). While common for recruiters to have contract opportunities on their books, some do come across freelancing opportunities from time to time. Staying connected with a recruiter will mean they will alert you about both.
|Quality and speed in the opportunities they can find for you, and how fast they do it.||Expensive for clients to hire you where placement fees eat into the project budget.|
|Can negotiate the day rate for you.||Find yourself up against more competition.|
|Good sources of information.||Risk you will be persuaded into an opportunity that doesn’t align with your goals.|
I covered this topic when I spoke with Brian Shea, host of the Salesforce Freelancing interview series. The 3 Work Models & Getting Your First Clients (Ep. 1), read the full show notes.