12 Going independent

12.1 Building a client base and developing your business

For many, the idea of working as an independent freelancer is an appealing alternative to a more traditional role as an employed member of staff. Indeed, contracting has many advantages over permanent roles – it can give you flexibility in your work schedule, the ability to choose what work you do and the gratification that comes with having built a business on your own, to name just a few. But to have a viable business, you have to have customers, and exactly how to find those customers is an important question for any business.

This chapter is aimed at those who would like to establish themselves as independent data scientists and data science consultants and provides advice and learnings from our own experiences as contractors. Starting a business comes with many challenges and there are many good resources on entrepreneurship readily available. We will focus our attention primarily on the unique aspects of operating a data science consulting practice.

12.2 Finding clients and helping clients find you

Perhaps the single question we are asked the most is, “How do I get clients?” It would be nice to be able to point to a concrete resource – a specific website with an easy-to-complete form – that functions as the freelancer analogue of a job application form. Such resources do exist – platforms where companies can post their data science needs and where contractors apply (bid) for the work. This can be a great way to find projects and to build up your data science portfolio, especially when you are starting as a freelancer. In time, however, your role may evolve to include consulting, encompassing a lot of what we have covered in this book. In this case, many of your clients will not have a defined project, and an important part of your role will be to define and design the project based on the client’s needs. Such projects rarely appear as advertised tenders on these platforms, so you have to find them through other means.

So how do you find such contracts? In the case of your authors, the contracts usually found us. This is both reassuring and disconcerting: reassuring in the knowledge that you may not have to invest a lot of time and energy into obtaining work, and disconcerting in the fact that until the work starts coming to you, you are a little bit stuck. But that doesn’t mean that you are powerless – there are several steps you can take to help your prospective clients discover you and show why they should hire you.

12.2.1 Build a network

The single best way to grow your business is through word-of-mouth referrals, so it’s critically important to create a professional network. A network is a group of relationships, and you should view your professional contacts as relationships that you want to nurture and develop. While you can not guarantee that another person will want to have a professional relationship with you, in our experience, most people are very happy to meet others and grow their networks.

For many of us, networking doesn’t come naturally, and the prospect of having to strike up a conversation with strangers can be intimidating. Often the advice you hear is along the lines of, “Just get over it”, a sentiment which is both lacking in empathy and myopically unhelpful for many. Unfortunately, we don’t have a magic solution for this, but we can tell you that networking is a skill like any other and that it gets easier the more you do it. If you find it difficult, the best advice we can give you is to practice: go out on a limb and try to strike up a conversation with strangers you meet. For example, if you see someone standing alone at an event, try to strike up a conversation; most likely, they would welcome you making an effort to engage them. Many people like to approach networking as a chance to step outside of themselves: if no one knows you, then you can use this as a chance to take on a different version of yourself that you don’t normally tap into. This is not to say that you should be insincere or untrue to yourself, but rather to not feel the pressure of self-consciousness. Many find this strangely liberating.

You should bear in mind that in professional contexts, most people are going through the same thing you are: they want to meet people and grow their networks, but may not feel entirely comfortable doing so. At the end of the day, consulting is a people business, and you need to learn to talk to people who may be very different from yourself. In other words, cast a wide net and practice the skill of bridging a communication gap between yourself and someone with a completely different background or role.

Data science is an exciting field with a vibrant, dynamic community. Most cities have regular Meetups and with the recent COVID-19-induced social distancing measures, many of these have been transformed into virtual formats that can help to remove geographical barriers. We strongly recommend that you find a Meetup or two that aligns with your interests and get involved. Similarly, conferences can also be a great way to meet people. Both Meetups and conferences can give you a chance to speak, and many have built-in systems to promote people who are at the early stages of their careers, such as lightning talks or travel scholarships for more junior people or those from underrepresented groups.

12.2.2 Promote yourself

While self-promotion may feel unnatural, it is important to get the word out into the world that you exist, that you do good work and that you bring value to your clients. Ideally, your amazing work will speak for itself, but the reality is that many people do amazing work, and you need to make your amazing work stand out.

There are several ways to promote yourself. One is to produce content that the world can ingest. For instance, presenting at conferences can be a great way to showcase what you’ve done and to give the audience a glimpse into your personality. Writing is also a good approach, although writing is often time-consuming and many of us struggle to find the time needed to do it well (including your authors).

Social media can also be a good way to promote yourself, especially within a data science community that is notoriously engaged in on-line discussions. This notion was elegantly encapsulated by Chris Albon, who tweeted:

Facebook is your family newsletter. LinkedIn is your resume. Twitter is the bar after the conference that perfectly matches your interests.

For more concrete suggestions about how to promote yourself and develop a strong profile, we strongly recommend Build a Career in Data Science {target="_blank"} by Emily Robinson and Jacqueline Nolis.

12.2.3 Have a strong profile

As a contractor, you will rarely use your CV to find clients. In its place will be your online profile, and it’s essential that you take the time to create one that is engaging, informative and approachable.

Take the time to create a LinkedIn profile that succinctly describes what you have to offer. Often our profiles evolve – the typical approach is to periodically add items to an existing profile that we were once happy with. This can result in a disjointed patchwork of items with no clear narrative. While it can be heartbreaking to remove achievements from the past, your profile must be current and relevant. For example, if you have entered data science after a career as an academic researcher, you may be tempted to include details of your graduate research and your publications. Most prospective clients will not care about this, and the result is a profile that looks unprofessional and lacking in substance and focus. Instead, focus on your achievements that are relevant to your data science career.

Having a website or a blog is also a good way to showcase your skills and expertise, as well as a convenient way to list original content. We encourage you to update your profile regularly and keep it as relevant and current as possible. As above, Robinson and Nolis provide a wealth of suggestions for how to do this.

12.2.4 Get involved with your community, both locally and internationally

A great way to expand your professional network is through community involvement. For example, the R for Data Science Online Learning Community is an active group of nearly 6000 R enthusiasts who discuss R pro- gramming at all levels of expertise. The group includes designated mentors who volunteer time to help others and it has several ongoing book clubs for people with common interests. For data scientists using the python stack, there are regular Pydata Meetups and conferences globally as well as other ways to get involved. Such communities can be wonderful ways to get involved with others who have shared interests and to improve your craft.

We also recommend contributing to open-source software projects. For many who are new to the field, this can seem like something that is well beyond your expertise. However, many projects or packages rely on input from the community to maintain their work, and even contributions such as grammatical corrections, fixed typos or bug fixes are gratefully received. Many repositories will invite contributions at different levels and will even flag issues that are better-suited to those who are new to open source contributing.

12.3 The realities of consulting

When embarking on consulting it is important to remember that you are not applying for jobs, rather you are building relationships and partnerships where you align your goals on projects. In a way, you are creating your job.

These opportunities often come about because your skills satisfy a very specific set of requirements: you provide a level of expertise that the client wants and, hopefully, you have a demonstrated track record of delivering good work. However, even if you have the right skills, expertise and track-record, you may not necessarily be the right fit for every client or project. It’s important to remember that even for large companies, the people who make decisions are…well…people. Gut feeling and matching temperament will have a large impact on how decisions are made: sometimes they will work in your favour and sometimes they won’t.

When building your business, some things are within your control and some things are not. You can’t control how prospective clients are going to make their decisions, naturally. But you can control how you present yourself to them, and having a realistic picture of how you can help them overcome their business challenges will go a long way in showing that you deserve their business.

At its core, consulting is about improving the position of your client – creating value and showing stakeholders the value you can add. Therefore, when you work with a potential client, it’s important to convey that you are a problem-solver. The business problems you will face are often less defined and less structured than you might be used to. As we have discussed throughout this book, that puts more responsibility on your shoulders to create something valuable. But that also allows you to be creative in how you design a solution. While it may be daunting, it’s also incredibly exciting.

Naturally, you also need to be technically sound. You should have the skills to deliver good work on time and within budget. As your career progresses, referrals will become increasingly important for capturing new clients, so be sure that those who know your work will be in a position to say good things about it. As a side-note, your technical development is an ongoing process that will never be complete. This field moves fast and changes frequently, so be sure to make time to keep up with current trends and improve your skills and knowledge. Think of this time as an investment in yourself.

In the early stages of your career, you will likely be desperate for work and eager to take any job that comes your way. That can be opposed by a concern that taking a job without being 100% sure about how you would deliver a successful outcome can be risky. Both feelings are normal and, with experience, you will become more comfortable with committing to work when you are not 100% sure of how to deliver it. You have to strike a balance between ambition and safety, and exactly where that balance lies for you is something that only you know. We often tell our students that, with experience, they will start to develop a faith in the process of data science – in the fact that the solutions to these uncertainties will be revealed naturally through the work itself, so long as you do the work well.

You should always remember that a contract for a project is not unidirectional: you, as well as your client, also play an active role in the decision to take a partnership forward. Some clients are difficult, and you will most likely encounter some that you are not willing to work with. You have a right to be selective in whom you work with and in what you expect from your client; if a client relationship is likely to be difficult or draining, you should be prepared to turn the work down. No one wants to renege on an agreement and it is much easier to turn work down than to walk away after a project has started, so keep your eyes open when first interacting with a potential client and don’t ignore it if your instincts tell you that the relationship will not be a good one.

12.4 Freelancing versus permanent roles

Many of our students are drawn to the notion of working independently. Indeed, freelancing can be a dynamic and exhilarating way to make a living. It gives you flexibility, almost always comes with great variety in terms of the work you do and allows you to be your own boss. Permanent roles can also be dynamic and exhilarating, although it’s fair to say that they are less flexible than freelancing and rarely allow you to be your own boss. Which type of role is right for you? Naturally, that’s a question only you can answer. To help you to better understand the realities of these two paths, we discuss below some aspects that you may not have considered.

12.4.1 Flexibility

While freelancing does afford you the ability to pick and choose what work you do and the flexibility to work when and where you want to, this notion can become romanticised and may not always be realistic, especially for early-career data scientists. Many clients expect you to work normal business hours and will want to have you on-site. While remote working is becoming increasingly accepted, the buy-in is not 100%. Furthermore, some companies will have strict legal restrictions on where their data can be used; the financial services industry is a notable example. When trying to build a business, you are often so focused on getting work that you will paradoxically have less freedom than someone in a permanent position. In other words, until your business is established, your need to build a client base and generate revenue can drive you to take nearly any job. While we don’t recommend you take work out of desperation, it is often the case that early-stage freelancers have less flexibility than expected. As your business grows, so will your ability to adopt a more flexible system of work. The flexibility of freelancing is real and it can be fantastically liberating. But it may not be as easy to realise as you might expect.

12.4.2 Variety

Freelancing can be a great way to work on a wide range of problems. That said, many permanent roles also come with high degrees of variety. While you may not have as much freedom to decide exactly which problems you choose to work on, you may find that you are exposed to other aspects of the business in a permanent role that you might not otherwise have access to as a freelancer.

For example, many senior data scientists will become responsible for leading teams, with a career trajectory that moves towards roles that are more strategic and managerial than hands-on. The skills required for such a role are much different from those technical skills required for a job that is more focused on coding. As a freelancer, unless you want to expand your business to include staff, you would not have this sort of exposure. Of course, managerial roles are not right for everyone and are not a necessary eventuality, but the point remains that permanent roles may give you different types of variety than you may get as an independent contractor.

12.4.3 Job stability

One of the major differences between operating as an independent contractor and being a permanent member of staff lies in job stability. As a freelancer, you are responsible for your own stability and for determining what sort of spending runway you would like to have for your business. Of course, no business is 100% safe from economic instability, however, companies do tend to provide more stability than does the market for short-term contracts. If such stability is important to you, this may be an important factor to consider.

Similarly, different types of companies differ widely in their stability. In general, larger, more established companies will be more stable as compared to small companies and start-ups. Naturally, there are no certainties. For instance, in 2007 we saw a massive financial crisis in which numerous “too big to fail” companies went bankrupt. Of the many sectors available, government/civil service roles are among the most stable, although again, this is not a certainty.

Similarly, permanent roles will often come with benefits that can be massively important as well. For example, planning for your retirement is hugely important and should never be ignored, but it is something that many early-career professionals tend to overlook. As an independent contractor, it will be up to you to plan for your retirement. Similarly, in some countries, health insurance is provided by your job, at least in part. This can be a benefit that could translate into immense amounts of money if you need health care, and its importance should not be overlooked.

Relatedly, your ability to borrow money will be affected by your employment position. In the UK, for instance, it is difficult to be considered for a mortgage unless you have at least three years of positive financial records for your operation to support your application. If buying property is on your radar, this could be an important factor in your decision.