Making a choice: founder, consultant or employee?

The below is a guest post by Tyler Wallace.

Currently, I find myself at an important crossroads in life. It’s a position I’ve never encountered before. I have a choice in front of me. I can choose to pursue a nine-to-five career, consult, or launch a startup. Honestly, the outcome of this decision is unknown at this point. This is my attempt to work it out.

Over the course of this past year, I’ve been an employee, a consultant, and launched a startup. Due to a sudden recent change of circumstance (literally an act of Congress), I now have to decide which path to pursue for good (at least the foreseeable future).

Below is a timeline of the events over the past year:

April 2013 – Signed 18-month consulting contract
May 2013 – Quit 9-5 job and began consulting
July 2013 – Formed startup company
October 2013 – Launched product
February 2014 – Startup failed
April 2014 – Consulting contract shortened by five months

Before I left my nine-to-five, my dream was to build a platform for hospitals to share best practices with one another. These hospitals would essentially be each other’s consultants or subject matter experts. I knew that I couldn’t develop this concept while still having a day job, so I began consulting to allow for greater flexibility in my daily schedule. The consulting revenue also allowed me to bankroll my startup without loans or outside funding. The startup would later go on to fail (the reasons could be an entirely separate blog post).

Now I have a choice, and not much time to make a decision. I could go back to a nine-to-five, that would mean searching for jobs, applying, interviewing, and then getting plugged back into the corporate grind. If I choose to keep consulting, I’d have to put on the sales hat and land another client or two. If I went the route of the startup, I’d have to find some amount of outside funding that would provide a salary starting on July 1st. Each course of action takes time, which is why I can’t delay.

Below are my thoughts on each of the choices facing me.

Being an Employee – Security, Resources, and Magical Direct Deposits
I honestly didn’t understand how good I had it at a nine-to-five until I left. I think most employees are the same way and take it for granted. I sure did. Even though I really liked my job, there was something appealing about quitting and being my own boss.

After I quit my job, I realized that I missed the corporate resources. The support services that I took for granted became absent. If my computer broke, I couldn’t call the IT department. It was my problem to fix. If I had an issue with a contract, I couldn’t take it down to my internal general counsel for review. And when it comes to accounting, I had no idea how many forms have to be filed with city, state, and federal agencies! It’s a nightmare! I spent $160 last year on fines and fees for Georgia alone.

Some days I envy the employee. He or she can show up, get their assigned work done, and then go home. Here’s the best part: the employee’s pay is magically deposited into their bank account on a regular basis.

The question I’m left with is this: could I go back to that routine? Honestly, the moment my consulting contract was cut short, I began job searching. In the midst of uncertainty, there was a longing for something steady. I started a dialogue with one of the nation’s most prestigious healthcare consulting companies. After a few emails with the HR department, I started the application process. One of the required forms to sign was titled “Core Values and Standard of Behaviors.” It was a six-page document outlining “values” such as how/when to take personal phone calls, complying with dress code, punctuality, and friendliness. My stomach churned when I read it. Am I willing to sacrifice my freedoms for security? Or am I simply being naive and selfish?

Consulting – More Freedom, Better Money
This brings me to consulting. Consulting has been a fantastic experience for me. The money is better than being an employee, the networking is invaluable, and the freedom is something that has to be experienced.

If you are an employee, I would urge you to venture on your own and consult for a year. Try it. Take control of your employment just for a year. The personal and professional growth is well worth it. Even if I decided to go back to a full-time, salaried position, I would be ten times more valuable to an employer today than I was one year ago. I’m much more well-rounded as an employee.

Consulting isn’t without its downsides. As a consultant I sell my expertise. Since I’m not paid to give bad advice, I must know everything about my area of expertise. It can be tiring to stay on top of the industry trends, policy changes, and best practices. Then there are the added uncertainties of where the next project will come from, that the project could be truncated. Unlike a nine-to-five, I have to manage multiple aspects of my company, which inevitably leads to working some nights and weekends to catch up on administrative tasks. Being a consultant certainly has enough risk to feed my entrepreneurial appetite, but the uncertainty is an unnecessary stress factor.

The most enlightening experience I had regarding consulting was a conversation with Jacqui Chew, a Four Athens mentor. I was talking to Jacqui about how well my consulting was coming, and I made a statement similar to this, “I’m good at startups, look at my consulting business.” She made this comment, which would go on to change my perspective of startups forever – “You’re good at consulting, not startups. Don’t confuse the two.” She was right.

Startup – Exciting Times but Added Pressures
Launching a startup with the end goal of having a viable product that generates revenue not tied to hours worked (and hopefully helps people) is thrilling. It’s also one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done. The process is far more complex than what I assumed, and I was green coming into it.

This time last year before I quit my job and launched a startup, Jim Flannery told me, “You have a wife and kids, I would not recommend launching a startup.” To this day, I wonder whether Jim’s advice was litmus test to gauge my commitment, or if it was legitimate, heartfelt concern. I’d like to think it was a combination of the two.

The startup was fun, however, an incredibly difficult time for the family. There’s always going to be stress and anxiety, plus the added pressure to make sure the family doesn’t starve. I’m not sure I want to go through that again. I know it was only for a matter of months, not years, but it was tough. I feel for the other spouses and parents in the space. (Definitely not to take away from anyone else because we all have made sacrifices.)

Earlier this year I was awarded the Founder of the Year for 2013. I told my sister, and her response was priceless, “Congrats on winning Founder of the Year! You should put that on your resume.” She didn’t catch the irony. I laughed it off, but a month later the startup failed. Now, I might be updating the resume.

Financially, I stopped putting money into our savings account, IRAs, and 529s to bootstrap the startup. My wife and I would love to own a home, but we can’t at this time and couldn’t if I launched another startup. She’s been incredibly patient with me so far, but when does it become unfair to her?

Back to Square One
So with a decision bearing down on me, I now have a choice to make. Should I climb back on the career ladder? Should I attempt to grow my consulting business? Should I risk everything and launch another startup? To be frank, I’m no closer to a decision now than when I began writing this blog.

My biggest revelation is that my priorities could be weighted poorly. Am I so bent on launching a startup from scratch that I am ignoring the potential of my consulting abilities? Am I not applying to potential awesome opportunities with companies that have internal incubators and startups because I don’t want to admit failure and return to a nine-to-five? And ultimately, does my family have the greatest priority in all of this? Ideas, opportunities, careers, companies, etc. will come and go. One of the few constants in life is family. Maybe the question shouldn’t be: do I want to be an employee, consultant, or entrepreneur? But instead, what situation is best for my family? These are all difficult questions with no easy answers, but a decision has to be made.

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