How to Outsource Yourself to Your Former Employer

Longing to join that crowd of free agents, but don't know where you'd turn to find that crucial first client? Take a look around your office. Tip number 1: Don't be overly grateful to your boss.

Jon Lieb was working as the communications manager for The Greenberg Group, a real-estate-consulting firm in Long Island, New York, when a few people in quick succession asked if he was available for some freelance work. It made him think the time could be right to go out on his own.

Working for himself was something he’d always wanted to do, but he wanted one solid, steady client to get him going. So he came up with a plan to outsource his own job. His boss, Steven Greenberg, “listened to my reasoning, that he would get the same level of results from me in a more cost-effective way,” Mr. Lieb recalls.

Mr. Greenberg agreed, and arranged for Mr. Lieb to work in the office once a week and be available by phone as needed on the other days in exchange for a retainer. Now, over a year later, Mr. Lieb has a half-dozen clients as well as Greenberg. The deal he struck isn’t the one he’d negotiate as a seasoned consultant (he charges other clients an hourly rate). But Mr. Lieb says his former boss has given him referrals and sends him to represent the company at events where he can network with other potential clients. Most importantly, he says, the arrangement gave him a low-risk way to strike out on his own.

The number of people who count themselves as self-employed rose in 2003 to 9.3 million from 8.9 million the year before, after declining between 2000 and 2002, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. If you’ve been longing to join that crowd of free agents, but don’t know where you’d turn to find that crucial first client, take a cue from Mr. Lieb and look around your office.

“This a great time” to turn your employer into a client, says Terry Lonier, a business coach for the self-employed and the author of “Working Solo” (John Wiley & Sons, 1998). “Everything is up for grabs these days: Companies are open to anything that will save money, improve efficiency or boost the bottom line,” especially outsourcing.

But, you need to have a proposal that will appeal to the boss and a plan for adding other clients to your roster fairly quickly. Here are some tips novices should keep in mind when they seek to turn their former employer into their first client.

Don’t Be Overly Grateful to Your Boss

Even people who made a strong business case for outsourcing their job felt, in retrospect, that they were still thinking about their employer as a safety net more than as a client. They felt “grateful,” “lucky,” even “blessed” that their boss would give them this opportunity. As a result, they focused too much on how they could accommodate him or her in terms of their availability or fee structure. And they didn’t think hard enough about what would be best in the long term for their fledgling business.


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