Do you dream of one day working as a lone wolf with the guts to cut the corporate umbilical cord and stand on your own? You can make your dream come true with forethought and advanced planning.
To make it as an economics consultant, you'll need nerve, a niche and a name. The nerve you probably have to be born with, but you can work on the niche and name the day after you graduate from college, preferably with a master's degree or doctorate.
Most economics consultants start out working for a trade association or a financial institution. William Conerly, PhD, owner of Conerly Consulting LLC in Portland, Oregon, parlayed a position as a regional economist for First Interstate Bank into his own consulting firm.
Because he covered economics in five Pacific Northwest states, he was quoted in the newspaper and on television, met a ton of business people and served in high-profile volunteer jobs, such as the Governor's Board of Economic Advisors. "Most of my business now comes from the visibility I had as the bank's economist," he says.
Before running his own firm for five years, Cliff Waldman worked for the National Federation of Independent Business, America's largest trade association for small firms and a powerful lobbying group on Capitol Hill. His niche? Small business -- an area many bigger consulting firms don't touch.
Sometimes an event will create the opening that leads an economist into consulting. Bernard Markstein III, president of Markstein Advisors in Phoenixville, Pennsylvania, opened his own shop after he was laid off by Meridian Bank.
"At that point, I did look around for a regular appointment, but I decided I wanted to stay in the area," he says. "There were limited jobs for economists with my background, so the only choice was change professions or start a consulting firm."
Lay a Good Foundation
If going it alone is on your list of career goals, start laying the foundation today by networking and making contacts who can send business your way in the years ahead. Conerly methodically collects and stores business cards. After you've collected information from associates, you'll have a nice database of contacts to whom you can market materials like newsletters.
Try to pick positions that maximize your exposure. "Don't just spend time in front of your computer," says Waldman, now an economist with Manufacturers Alliance/MAPI, a business research firm based in Arlington, Virginia. "Meet the other people in your organization, join a professional national association and a local association. Learn how to network and how people can use you. If you don't do that, no matter how good your work is, you're not setting the stage for entrepreneurship down the road."
Next, start stashing your cash. "You have to know that if you don't get a job immediately, you can still eat," Markstein says. "I had a severance package from Meridian and some other resources. Unless you're really lucky, it takes a year to establish yourself."
A financial backstop will also lower your stress level and keep you from lying awake at night wondering how much longer until the bank forecloses on your mortgage.
The final step is to write out a plan for your business. You'll need to find customers, and that requires marketing. If you're still in school, take a marketing course. If you're a mid-career professional, ask yourself if you've got the style, smarts and eloquence to target a market and sell economic services -- and the persistence and self-esteem to repeatedly hear, "Thanks, but no thanks."
The Fine Print
Before you head down the consulting path, take off your rose-colored glasses. Lone wolves don't run in packs, and they live in the desert. Sure, you won't have a boss giving you orders, but you also won't have everything else the corporate world supplies, including marketing support, a payroll department to calculate your taxes, a closet with office supplies, free coffee and coworkers to chat with when you're ready for a break in the workday.
In the end, a decision to go it alone is really about your comfort with taking chances. But as Waldman sees it, "The most interesting careers are ones where people take risks."