Working as a Plant Biology Consultant

28168846776_03f67d9437_zAt the 2016 Plant Biology conference in Austin, Texas, we had the opportunity to sit down with Michael Gonzalez to get tips on pursuing a career as a Plant Biology Consultant.  Here are some of the tips and suggestions Michael shared with us.  For more information, you can contact him at michael@mdgonzales.com

Getting Started:

The first step towards establishing yourself as an independent consultant is to identify what skills you have to offer and how you can market those skills.  Some areas of expertise that Michael has seen used successfully in this way are computational, education and breeding, but the list is not exclusive to these skill sets!  As a self-employed person, some basic skills you will need to develop are time and money management, as these are the most critical factors for your short and long term success.  Some specifics on these and other necessary skills are detailed below.

Building your clientele:

The first step towards making your new business successful is to start building your clientele.  The key here is Networking.  Of course, to make the most of each conversation, you will want to be prepared.  Michael suggests writing down a mission statement based on what you do well and practicing it as a sales pitch.  This way you will be sure to hit on every key element of what you have to offer.  One thing to keep in mind is to provide enough information to gain interest, but not so much that you enable your potential client to take your ideas and run with them on their own.

Another critical element is developing a Marketing strategy.  To maximize your networking opportunities, you will want to increase your visibility.  In addition to the traditional business cards, Michael also recommends using online tools, like setting up your own website and blogging on sites frequented by potential clients.  Of course, the best marketing tool is face-to-face interaction.  Michael’s advice for this is to be prepared with that sales pitch and, above all, sound professional.  Michael repeated this tip multiple times, emphasizing that the extent to which you are prepared and sound professional will go a long way towards closing the deal.  The best way to prepare for each meeting is to not only rehearse what you have to offer, but to also research the person with whom you are interacting, what it is they do and what specifically you have to offer them in their research.  Michael says potential clients are looking for someone who can come in and get the job done, not another graduate student they will need to manage.

Finally, while having clients is obviously critical to establishing a solid business, you will want to be selective about the clients with whom you agree to work.  Entering into contracts with the wrong people can be more trouble than its worth, and may potentially put your business at risk.  Remember that building a solid reputation is an essential element of establishing a sustainable business, and the people with whom you do business reflect on you as well. 

Negotiating your contract:

Two of the main tips here are to develop your negotiation skills and to get your contract in writing.  No matter how nice or honest a client appears, you do not want to take the risk of someone “forgetting” the deal to which you both agreed prior to you doing the work. 

This brings us to the delicate issue of setting a consulting fee.  Of course you do not want to over price yourself, but you also need to be able to pay your bills and have some money left over for savings and spending.  Michael shared with us that one of the mistakes he made as a new consultant was failing to account for having to pay his own taxes, healthcare and retirement savings.  In general, he advised estimating ~30% above what your salary would be if you were employed by a company.  If you aren’t sure what average salaries are for people employed in your area of expertise, you can find out by using online sources, such as PayScale, Glassdoor, Monster and many others.  When doing this, use more than one source and be mindful of the job location to be sure the number is reasonably accurate.  What is fair in California may be grossly overcharging elsewhere!

The key here is to be sure how much your time is worth before entering into a contract fee negotiation.  Michael also advised to keep in mind who your client is and adjust up or down based on what they can afford.  It is also fine to ask for more and negotiate down, but know your lower limit.  Of course, with each kind of client there come different challenges.  One specific example Michael provided was that when working for academic clients, one issue in getting your desired fee could be that it is higher than the salary of the PI who is hiring you, which would be difficult for them to justify.  In this case he suggests compensating for the lower salary by asking for additional money to cover travel or equipment, which will be tax deductible business expenditures. 

Determining which jobs to take and which to decline is a balancing act between the amount of time and effort you will need and want to devote to a project and how much money they want to pay you to get the job done.  Another thing to consider in negotiating your contract is whether to set your fee based on the project or by the hour.  If by the project, you should have a reasonable estimation of how much time it will take you to complete so you do not end up shorting yourself.

Finally, Michael also advised keeping your long-term goals in mind when setting your contract parameters.  While you may be excited to be self-employed right now, you may not want to remain so forever.  In the event you do decide to return to work for someone else, whether in academia or industry, you will want a publication record – including posters, papers and patents – to which you contributed.  Along this line, when you agree to do work for someone at a company or a University, be sure you are clear on what you are agreeing to give them.  Michael cautioned us to verify the contract distinguishes between using your intellectual property for someone and developing intellectual property for them.  The difference is in who owns your work when you are done!  One thing to avoid is accepting equipment, such as a work computer or email address, from a client as any work done using this equipment, including emails, will belong to them.  Michael again emphasized the need to know what you want and to what you are agreeing when negotiating your contracts.

Formalizing your business:

Be sure to know the different types of business before committing to one.  Michael recommends going with a LLC (limited liability company) over a sole proprietor option.  The main reason?  Going with sole proprietor makes all of your personal assets vulnerable if a client decides you did not fulfill your contract obligation and sues you.  With an LLC, you open a separate bank account to use for all business expenses, and only the money and assets associated with this account are at risk in a lawsuit. (For more information on this, click here.)  Michael also recommends using Legal Zoom, as it is a user friendly, affordable tool for getting the appropriate paperwork together for your business.

In Summary:

Overall, Michael provided us with some valuable advice regarding a career option many of us may have overlooked or been too intimidated to consider.  Even if you prefer to work for someone else, these tips can help you be more attractive as an applicant.  Thanks, Michael, for taking your time to share your expertise.

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