When it comes to careers in project management, the opportunities are endless. Project managers work in pretty much every area of every industry.
There are project managers who oversee creative projects like marketing campaigns or fashion events and there are more technical project managers who run projects to create or implement software systems, sometimes in large hospitals or organizations like Comcast or Meta.
Regardless of your industry or interests, there are many ways to grow a career in project management.
One career opportunity you might be interested in pursuing is to support organizations, PMOs, or even other project managers as an independent project management consultant.
If you’ve ever wondered if this might be the career path for you, stick around to learn more about how you might hang up your own shingle and become your own boss.
What Are Project Management Consultants?
Project management consultants can work in a variety of capacities. They might go into organizations and help advise companies on best practices regarding project management tools or methodologies.
They might also help companies build project teams needed to complete a specific project or project type.
Another way project management consultants can provide value is by acting as a project manager for a project or set of projects within the organization—this, by definition, may also fall under freelance project management instead of independent consultant, but I (along with several other PM consultants I know) still offer this service to clients.
Finally, some project management consultants provide training or coaching for less experienced project managers looking to grow, upskill, and ensure they know how to run a successful project.
What Do Project Management Consultants Do?
Project management consultants do many things. Honestly, one of the best parts of being independent is choosing the work that best aligns with your interests and skill set. Do you love helping people pick tools and define processes, but the idea of managing a project budget makes you want to run for the hills screaming?
As an independent consultant, you can carve out a niche, helping clients choose or set up their project management software or other tools used in the project management process (and maybe never have to see another budget pacing spreadsheet again).
How To Become An Independent Project Management Consultant
There’s a pretty low barrier to entry when setting yourself up as an independent project management consultant.
The term is not legally regulated, so having a specific type of undergraduate degree (bachelor’s degree), an advanced degree, or specific project management certifications, like the Project Management Professional (PMP) or agile certification, can be helpful. But there are no specific educational requirements.
The legal requirements to set yourself up will vary from country to country, so be sure to factor your business needs into these steps. We’ll talk about it at a high level here, but if this is a path you’re considering, consulting a certified accountant and a lawyer is highly advisable before you officially kick off your business.
1. Decide on the services you’d like to offer
Before you officially launch a business, you should have a good idea of the services you want to offer. Think about your competencies, interests, and the type of services you think there’s a demand for.
Brainstorm a list of both products (project management training, templates, etc.) that you might want to create and offer and services (project management software consulting, hands-on project management workshops, scope creep prevention, budget analysis, etc.) you can sell.
2. Confirm there is a need or market for these services
You’ll want to chat with some potential clients at this early juncture to understand what type of services they might hire a project management consultant for and how much they’ll pay for those services.
This will help you realistically understand what to expect in the early months of your business. And even if some of these folks don’t hire you when you’re ready to kick off, they might be good referral sources for other businesses in the future.
The bottom line is that before you go all in on your new business venture, you want to ensure there is enough demand for your services (or product offerings) that you’ll be able to support yourself for the long haul.
While there may be periods that are less lucrative than others, you want to feel confident that your business will survive or be able to pivot and service clients in a way that will still bring you joy (and financial security).
If you go the independent route instead of joining an established consulting practice, this is a really important step as you won’t be able to rely on anyone supplying you with reliable business opportunities.
3. Determine how you will price your work
Pricing your services and managing your finances may be a new skill you must build as you start your independent consulting business. Like project management job salaries, there is a lot of variety in consulting pricing.
In fact, I could write a whole other article on this topic alone. Some consultants bill for their work on an hourly basis, while others have a fixed fee for a project.
Regardless of how you decide to bill, figuring out how much to charge is as much an art and science as project estimating and scoping. Your prices may depend on:
- Years of experience
- Types of project management consulting services you offer
- Your educational background
- Industry served or niche
- How much demand you have for services
As a general rule, your pricing should go up the more experience you have and the busier you are. This doesn’t mean you need to cut your rates to bargain basement levels when things are slower, but it does mean that you might want to be a little flexible.
4. Set up your legal business entity
Before you start serving clients, it’s important to ensure you’re legally set up to do business. In the United States, this might look like establishing a Limited Liability Corporation or S-Corp and ensuring you know how to estimate and pay your taxes in accordance with federal, state, and city laws.
In addition, you may also want to consult a lawyer to help you write your contracts or master services agreements (MSAs) that your clients will sign. This will help keep everyone accountable and ensure your contracts are written correctly and are legally binding should a dispute arise or should you have to follow up with a client who is not paying invoices on time.
Finally, it is worth considering adding professional liability insurance, sometimes called an errors and omissions policy, so you have protections should you end up in a legal dispute with a client.
As you build up your business, some clients may require that you carry a certain level of coverage and name them on a certificate as co insured. Your insurance company can walk you through the particulars of setting up this type of policy.
5. Create or update your website, LinkedIn, and social media
Now that you have yourself set up legally, you have an idea of what type of services you offer and how much you’ll charge. It’s time to start building up your online presence. Don’t go too crazy with this initially.
A simple website created using a no-code solution like Softer, Caard, or something similar will be fine to get you started. All you’re looking to do here is show potential clients that you’re a viable and professional business and give them a taste of what it might be like to work with you.
As you build up your business, you may want a more robust website to house testimonials, case studies, and even a blog or video library.
When it comes to social media, less may be more here initially, too. You don’t need to build out a full plan for every social media channel. It may be enough to update your LinkedIn profile and share your news with your network.
You can also add your new role and information about how to get in touch with you to any of your other social profiles. Include a link to your booking or scheduling page if you have one. This way it’s easy for prospective clients to book a meeting with you to determine if your services could be a good fit for their needs.
6. Start promoting your services
Once you’ve got your website and social profiles updated, it’s time to start promoting your services. Depending on how many clients you need initially, you may want to ramp up your promotional efforts slowly.
Consider starting with some LinkedIn posts (or other social media) explaining what you do and who you help. Try to start getting this content in front of prospective clients and the stakeholders in those organizations who can hire you. Since you’ve set up your website and all your profiles, it should be easy for potential clients to start booking your services.
7. Sign your first client(s)
Now comes the exciting part, those first yeses. As you start conversing with potential clients, note how it’s going. Do people seem eager as you start talking about your services and tend to shut down when you mention the price? Or do you find that you’re getting a lot of questions you can’t answer?
It will take patience, persistence, and a lot of conversations before those first clients start to sign on the dotted line. If you’re losing patience, try to focus on what questions are being asked and work through the answers. This process will get easier the longer you’re in business.
Once a prospect does say yes, and they’re ready to work with you, make sure you have a signed contract with a detailed statement of work so you and your prospective client are clear about your engagement and the project’s scope.
8. Get feedback and iterate
The more clients you work with and the more projects you work on, the easier it will be for you to articulate what you do and your unique value proposition.
Don’t be afraid to ask clients what they like about working with you and where you have some room to improve. This can be terrifying when you’re just starting out, but getting feedback and implementing the feedback that resonates can help your business grow faster and become more profitable.
Is Project Management Consulting Profitable?
Like any other job, project management consulting can be very profitable if you put in the time and effort to continue to grow your skills and invest in your own career development.
Assuming that the average experienced project manager makes around $100,000, PM consultants can expect to bring in around $150,000 - $200,000 on average. The salary of a project management consultant will depend on their experience, what type of consulting they do, what industries they work in, and how much they work.
Personally, I have different rates for different kinds of projects. Corporate and pharmaceutical industry consulting engagements are on the higher end of my rate range. On the lower end are nonprofits and organizations in the social justice space.
To be profitable, you need to understand how much you need to charge per project or per hour based on how much money you want to make. Here’s an (oversimplified) example of how to calculate your hourly rate so that you can understand how much of your services you need to sell.
Goal Salary: $150,000/year take-home pay
Taxes (add 30%): $45,000
Software, insurance, licensing: $3,500
Memberships and Dues: $1,500
Accounting and legal fees: $1,000
Office supplies: $1,000
Conferences and professional development: $2,000
Travel for conferences and professional development: $3,000
Health Insurance Premiums: $3,900
Retirement contribution: $5,000
Total billing needed: $213,400
So, if you want to bring home $150,000 a year and you need to bill $213,400 to make that happen, you need to know how many hours you’ll work per year.
If you worked a standard 8-hour day five days a week, that gives you 2,080 hours. But you’re not going to be able to bill 8 hours every single day. You must factor in holidays, vacations, sick time, and any other days you might need to step away from work.
Conservatively, let’s say you’re planning to work 49 of 52 weeks a year. That gives you 1,960 billable hours. Now, you also need to remember all the other activities you need to do to run your business. This includes business development and marketing, accounting, researching insurance, etc.
So, to be safe, plan to bill around 35 hours per week. That gives you 1,715 billable hours. So, to bill all of the dollars needed to hit your goal and run your business, you would need to charge at least $125/hour.
Read more about project manager salaries here.
3 Benefits Of Being An Independent Project Management Consultant
While there are many ways to have a career in project management, there are several benefits to going out on your own. These benefits may also be able to be achieved in other career paths, so it’s important to evaluate if you really want or need to go out on your own to achieve these goals.
One of the most fun parts of being an independent project management consultant is the variety of projects and experiences you’ll have.
In just five short years, I have worked on process improvement and projects with a luxury fine jewelry company, a facilities management and software company, seventeen digital agencies, an ecommerce marketing department, a clinical trial software company, three higher educational institutions, and so many more.
If you like to think creatively and work with a wide variety of clients with an even more diverse set of needs, the independent route might be the right career choice for you. That said, working in a larger digital agency is another way to work on a large variety of projects without taking on the risks that come with solopreneurship.
2. Ownership of your schedule and income
When you work for yourself, you can set your own schedule and determine how much you charge. Not a morning person? See clients in the afternoon or evenings. Saving for a big trip or another big goal? Work more hours or raise your rates.
Some independent consultants plan their year so that they can take extended periods of time off or work remotely while traveling. These are all options for you if you choose to go this route. You could take an extended vacation during the holidays to enjoy warm weather in another part of the world or even take a sabbatical to learn a new skill or spend time with family or friends.
And when it comes to compensation, you might be beholden to what the market will allow you to charge, but you’re still in control of your rates, and you can give yourself a raise whenever it feels appropriate; you’re no longer confined by a company’s compensation policies or salary bands.
3. Ability to think more strategically about project management as a profession
While senior roles like head of PMO or Director of Project management allow project managers to grow into more senior and strategic leadership roles, it’s another benefit of becoming an independent project management consultant.
Consultants help solve challenges with processes, tools, reporting, and planning at a higher level in a business than simply managing a project or a smaller subset of projects for an organization.
If you’re looking for new professional challenges, this is an easy way to find them consistently.
Read more about the job benefits of a career in project management more broadly here.
What Qualifications & Skills Do Project Management Consultants Need?
As we’ve already discussed, there is no legal, educational, or other standard qualification to become a consultant. Anyone with the legal right to operate a business can call themselves a project management consultant.
The word consultant (similar to the word coach) doesn’t carry any weight when it comes to qualifying someone’s experience. That said, there are still specific qualifications and skills that clients look for when hiring project management consultants.
Project management and leadership experience
To become a successful project management consultant, you must have some project management leadership experience. Potential clients will want to understand what kinds of projects you’ve led and the results you’ve achieved.
For example, when I meet with digital agencies to discuss my work, I talk a lot about prior engagements and the results my clients got from working with me. I ensure that when I have these conversations, I have permission to share this information, and I avoid divulging any confidential information my clients have shared with me in order to do my work.
So, how do you prove your experience if you can’t share company names or details of your work? Sometimes, happy clients will be glad to act as a reference and will be able to speak to prospective clients about what it’s like to work with you and what to expect. At the end of every engagement, ask your client if they’re willing to act as a reference and speak to your experience and qualifications.
Project management certifications or an advanced degree (MBA or master’s degree in project management)
Like project leadership experience, potential clients will be looking for credentials that demonstrate both your educational experience and your commitment to the profession. But, there isn’t just one right degree or certification that can qualify a consultant.
A mix of higher education, like a master’s degree in project management or business administration, and certifications like Project Management Institute’s (PMI) PMP or Scrum Alliance’s CSM certification, can do the trick.
Another reason to maintain industry certifications is that they require continuing education hours. These hours can help you keep up with the latest developments in the industry and keep your skills sharp and your clients on the cutting edge in implementing project management best practices.
In order to be successful as a project management consultant, you’ll need the right mix of skills. While you may not be equally strong in all of these areas, you want to have at least foundational skills in all of the following:
- Superior project management skills: To lead organizations through digital transformation or solve project management challenges, you need to have superior and well-rounded project management skills.
- Advanced communications skills: As a project management consultant, you’ll need to communicate with many different stakeholders in your client organizations. This includes everyone from senior leaders to other project managers. Some of whom may not be thrilled that you’re there.
- Problem-solving: Companies and business leaders hire independent consultants to help them solve the most complex organizational challenges. So, it should come as no surprise that you’ll be expected to help find solutions to really challenging issues. This will require expert problem-solving skills and the ability to help others solve organizational challenges, too.
- Risk management: From running projects, you know that all projects have some level of risk. So, when thinking about your consulting engagements, you’ll want to be proactive in mitigating and minimizing risk.
- Sales and Marketing: In order to drive business growth in your consulting practice, you’ll need to hone your sales and marketing skills. This may be a new area for you, but project management should have prepared you well. As a project manager, you’ve probably scoped and estimated new work, shared results with stakeholders, and needed to persuade others to either initiate a project or make a change in a project that’s already underway. These skills are similar to sales and marketing skills and can help you to get started.
- Business operational skills: Even if you’re on your own, you’ll still be running a business. Filing taxes, purchasing equipment, and making financial projections will all become part of your responsibility.
- Interpersonal skills: Quickly building rapport and establishing yourself as a professional is going to be key to your success as an independent consultant. Keeping interpersonal skills sharp and learning to connect with a wide variety of people in a wider variety of roles will be important.
- Time management: Juggling multiple clients and projects and making time to work on and grow your business means you’ll need super advanced time management skills. As a business owner, all of this can be more than a full-time commitment if you let it, so make sure you schedule some time to rest, recharge, and pursue other interests and hobbies.
Independent Consulting Is Challenging But Rewarding
If you've been reading along feeling excited about going out on your own, I hope this article has helped you feel more prepared to take the next step in your project management career and launch your consulting practice.
You’ll be able to help others grow as project managers and help businesses grow and become more profitable. It’s an honor and a privilege to serve others in this way, but it can also be challenging for an experienced project manager. The skills needed to run an entire business may be new to you, requiring you to do some skill-building.
And finally, being independent means you need to source all of your own clients. There can be times when you have too much work and others when you’re worrying about how you’ll pay the bills.
To make this part less stressful, build up an emergency fund or a safety net to ensure you’ll have some extra cash on hand during the slower times. You can also use this downtime to invest in your education and learn new skills, methodologies, and techniques to support your clients better.
Need more ideas for continuing your education, or want to build some new skills in other areas of project management? Sign up for The Digital Project Manager newsletter to keep fresh tips and best practices flowing into your inbox!