Hello! I’m Jan Upton and have over 25 years of consulting experience; the past 13 spent creating and running Institutional Research Consultants, Ltd. (IRC). Below are lessons for each business life cycle stage that I wished I had known when I started out, and recently learned ones.
Lesson Learned: Inception: Evaluation has a wonderful culture of independent consulting. I attribute this to a group of AEA visionaries who established a strong support system and welcomed newbies with open arms. Had I realized this earlier, my company would have a different name and the first two years probably would have been much easier had I focused on pursuing evaluation-related contracts.
Lesson Learned: Survival: Concerns about survival and cash flow continue despite a company’s growth and longevity. I have experienced and witnessed others who had long-term contracts end abruptly due to unexpected funding cuts or other impossible to foresee circumstances. Viewing consulting as “serial part-time work” and always being open to additional opportunities provides a healthy perspective. IRC usually has 12-15 sources of income, so the probability that all will disappear at once is unlikely. Nevertheless, having 4-5 projects end the same month happens. Projects also vary widely in the amount of profit they represent.
Lesson Learned: Growth and Expansion: Managing growth requires bringing in assistance through subcontracting with other evaluators as well as support services (e.g., transcribing and report editing). I wish I had hired my first employee about five years sooner than I did. Having no guarantee of continued growth is my rationale for not doing so. I now realize that an employee could have helped ensure IRC’s sustained progress.
Lesson Learned: Balance: Balancing work and personal life continues to be my greatest challenge. Having multiple urgent deadlines at the same time is the norm. Getting to the point where the work load is not all consuming is a goal I’m still working on!
Lesson Learned: Maturity: My firm is a reflection of myself. I provide initial report and data collection templates and have the final say on all project activities. I also have long-term relationships with many clients. As I move toward retirement, I am striving to position IRC to live on without me. Creating a business is in some ways analogous to raising a child—it is difficult to let go! Ultimately, long-term survival is contingent on turning over management to others.
Independent Evaluation Consulting: New Directions for Evaluation, No. 111 (2006). Especially see Gail Barrington’s “The Evaluation Consultant’s Life Cycle: Theory, Practice and Implications for Learning.”
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