IN 1981, after Peter Brown decided to step off the corporate ladder and try to make it on his own as an independent consultant, he called a general manager at Honeywell Inc. whom he had worked with in the past. Mr. Brown told this contact that he wanted to help companies bid for contracts to deliver public services. ``That's great,'' the contact said, ``but what do you know about setting up summer jobs for kids?''
``I told him I was willing to learn fast,'' says Brown, author of a book published this year, ``Jumping the Job Track: Security, Satisfaction, and Success as an Independent Consultant'' (Crown). ``It wasn't what I set out to sell, but it's what [these] people wanted.''
Brown was a new member of what is possibly the fastest-growing segment of the work force. This group does not really have a name, he writes in his book, but are alternately called ``outsourcers,'' ``corporate refugees,'' ``the portable work force,'' ``consultants,'' or ``independent contractors.''
Brown, now a successful planning consultant in St. Paul, Minn., has never gotten a contract in the area in which he intended to specialize. Instead, he says he followed the market and, after three or four years, found the right fit.
``I learned if you have flexibility, a passion for pleasing your customer, and common sense, you can do well on your own,'' he says. ``You don't have to be an expert. That's the surprise and the promising message.''
Sense of adventure
People are motivated to leave their jobs in the corporate world for any number of reasons, Brown says, including corporate downsizing, a changing world economy, and more personally, a feeling of not fitting comfortably in the culture a larger organization. There is a common thread, however, among those who make it as independent consultants.
``They have to have a sense of adventure,'' Brown says. ``They have to be good at relationships and have a sense of give and take in the marketplace. People who enjoy controlling their own destiny do better at it.''
Take Bryan Robertson, for example. Mr. Robertson is president and founder of Providence, R.I.-based Subsidiary Services International, which is hired by American fashion goods companies trying to enter the European market. But Robertson began by working his way up the ladder of several different companies.
``There's been a progression throughout my career of going from less control to more control,'' Robertson says. ``It became more and more important as my career developed.''
Starting out as an account executive in an advertising agency, Robertson says he felt he was at the whim of other people's management skills, as well as their success or lack thereof. ``If you got return, that's great,'' he says, ``but at least for me, there wasn't enough return there for the effort.''
From there, Robertson went to work for Adidas, a maker of athletic clothing and footwear, an experience he says was another example of feeling out of control in a corporate environment. ``But I was scared to death of the alternatives,'' he says.
It was only after working as vice president for United States and European marketing at G. H. Bass, a shoe company in Falmouth, Maine, that Robertson says he realized ``perhaps it was as risky in a corporate environment as it would be to go out on my own.'' He knew he had to either fish or cut bait. Setting up shop
``A solution came to me about how to do business internationally for medium-sized companies,'' Robertson says. ``Instead of setting up a subsidiary, you could hire one.'' He met with Bass contacts in Europe and decided, after finding investors, that he could work as an ``export department for hire.''
Robertson says he felt comfortable right away working for himself. He had two clients, was working on a break-even basis, but he didn't continue to push until things got difficult. ``It's the difference between making and not making it on your own,'' Robertson says. ``If you're not convinced you're a 10, you're going to have problems.''
It's when he is going right down to the wire - wondering whether he can meet the payroll, pay the bills - that Robertson feels it would be easier to get a ``regular'' job. ``But then I have to pinch myself and remember how I felt in that environment,'' he says.
In contrast, Pattie Garrahy, Robertson's wife, thrived in the corporate environment. Seeking a better balance between motherhood and a career, however, led her to start up her own company, PGR Media, a media planning firm in Providence.
Having worked as a media supervisor for a start-up advertising agency and later as media director at Faberge in New York, Ms. Garrahy approached Faberge with the idea of working on an outsource basis. Soon, she found herself doing consulting work from her home.
When she moved back to New England, Garrahy says she was ready to do more. She began doing media planning for UNUM, the Portland, Maine-based insurance company, as well as work for L.L. Bean.
After landing a $2 million media account with a company called Lifeline, Garrahy got busy hiring someone to help her.
Finding more flexibility
Three years, one full-time employee, and three freelancers later, PGR is now working to diversify its client base across different industries. Though she works long hours, Garrahy says she does have more of the flexibility she was looking for. ``It's probably more intense,'' but it's all about being able to make choices, she says.
Sometimes, those choices make it hard for people to leave the corporate environment, Brown says.
``Many people seem to be looking for rules about working independently,'' he says. ``I've realized how tough it is for people to envision this life.''