Independent consultants face the constant challenge of finding their next project. This article offers tips for finding work through online platforms or marketplaces like Catalant, SpareHire, and TalMix.
Consulting agencies and online platforms are similar in that they exist to bring consultants and clients together, but they go about it in different ways and charge different fees. Agencies involve people in the matching process and, typically, to oversee projects and manage the overall client relationship. Agencies usually charge about 30-35%, which nearly always comes out of your pay. Online platforms, on the other hand, charge 20-25%, which may or may not come out of your pay, and they don't involve people as middlemen. Instead they rely on their technology to match consultants to client projects.
While there are distinct pros and cons to working with consulting agencies, there is little downside to using a platform because (a) it's work you've found with little effort, (b) you manage the client relationship, and (c) the platforms charge less than agencies.
These online marketplaces are gaining traction with clients and consultants. We suggest signing up with one or two and being active on their platforms by checking for opportunities once or twice a week. (Like Google searches, platform analytics track everything.)
Catalant (formerly HourlyNerd): Per their website, "Catalant connects the world's leading companies with over 40,000 experts and firms to meet on-demand business needs." With over 650 client companies in 120 countries, it's a global marketplace where consultants set their rate and submit "pitches" on projects. (More on that in FAQs below.)
Catalant's agency fee is around 20%. The company prefers to pay on a 1099 tax basis but some clients still insist on a W-2 payment to the consultant. (Catalant is trying to change that misperception, which is one of the reasons they're an official PICA service partner.)
Consultants are screened before getting access to the marketplace; 90% of them have an MBA or Ph.D. from a Top 40 graduate school and an average of 10+ years of work experience.
A variety of work is available, from very quick tactical projects to longer strategic roles. Some are fixed price, some by the hour. Sample projects include company valuation, workshop development, competitive analysis, financial projections, go-to-market plans, performance measurement, and pricing.
SpareHire: Specializing in consulting jobs for investment bankers, management consultants, and corporate development specialists (i.e., private equity or venture capital), SpareHire has over 5,000 professionals in its network.
Rates to the client (not to you) range from $75-200 per hour. SpareHire's fee is 25% of the total project value. In other words, they pay you 75% of what they receive from the client.
Although it's a marketplace, consultants don't bid on projects because SpareHire believes that leads to “price-first, quality-second” outcomes. Instead clients provide a non-binding budget estimate when posting a project so that they can quickly attract the right professionals. Pricing may be hourly or fixed and may be renegotiated after identifying potential consultants. They usually pay on a 1099 tax basis.
TalMix (formerly MBA & Co): Based in London, TalMix offers consulting opportunities in strategy, market research, due diligence, competitive intelligence, operations, and program management. Most of their projects seem to be in the European Union, but that may not be the case.
Before gaining to access the platform, consultants are screened for things like communication skills, and are asked to take variety of technical exams specific to the applicant's area of expertise. Although this may be intimidating, it may also mean that there is less competition for projects which may be important since it's a bidding marketplace.
Expert360: Based in Australia, Expert360 is APAC's leading marketplace and management platform powering the freelance economy, but they also have an office in San Francisco. Founded by Bain & Company alumni, the platform gives clients access to over 15,000 vetted independent consultants, freelancers, and firms. Service areas include strategy, human resources, marketing, sales and operations, deal advisory, accounting, and finance. Payments are handled directly by the client. The 15-20% placement fee is paid by the client and not deducted from your pay, which can be anywhere from $500-$5,000 per day depending on your expertise.
TopTal: Per their website, Toptal is an exclusive network of the top freelance software developers, designers, finance experts, and project managers in the world. It's a bidding marketplace with $100 million in annual revenue, operating in over 100 countries. The company description on LinkedIn says it hand-matches “leading companies and startups with experts in fundraising, financial modeling, forecasting, pricing, and more,” so we're not sure how automated it really is, nor do they disclose their fees. With a little digging we discovered that rates for developers and designers range from $60-$95+ per hour, and finance talent makes $100-$200+ per hour.
Hillgate: Although their mission is to provide consulting talent to companies of any size, 75% of their projects are with Fortune 500 companies. Areas of expertise include strategic planning, marketing, corporate development, market research, and competitive intelligence. The average engagement is two to three months. The majority of Hillgate's consultants have MBAs, 4-8 years of experience, and have worked at top-tier consultancies and companies.
They are based in the U.K., but have featured opportunities in San Francisco, London, Amsterdam, Düsseldorf, and Canada. They don't list their fees or how consultants are paid. Like TopTal, Hillgate may be a hands-on agency posing as a platform. (Related reading: Supplement Your Pipeline with Consulting Agencies.)
Q: Does it cost anything to sign up? No, but we recommend signing up with only one or two to start. Like most things, you're likely to get out of it what you put into it so it's better to concentrate your efforts.
Q: How will I be paid? Except for Expert360, you'll be paid through the platform company. The client pays the platform company, then it pays you. Usually this is on a 1099 tax basis, but not always. It may depend on the clients' preferences. Some unsavvy clients still insist on paying all outside talent on a temporary W-2 basis. (Being paid on a 1099 tax basis is better for you as a self-employed professional. Be sure you understand why by watching our 2-minute video "Friends don't let friends W-2"™.)
Q: What are the fees? The platforms usually charge 20-25%, but this often does not affect you. In other words, you set a price and the client agrees to pay the platform the service fee on top of your rate.
Q: What does it mean to submit a pitch or bid? This sounds more intimidating than it is. For example, on Catalant's platform, a pitch is simply completing some prompts about why you think you are a good fit for the project. This is your chance to highlight relevant work experience, demonstrate sincere interest, and upload a targeted resume and related samples. (Recommended reading: Use Samples to Seal the Deal.)
Similarly, a bid is a ballpark estimate of what your billing rate is likely to be for the work. It sounds like the bid can be refined later as you learn more about the project but this is something to investigate. Consultants from large firms often shy away from anything that sounds like a proposal because it triggers memories of 90-page PowerPoint decks, but the platforms are nothing like that. It's just a way for clients to get an idea of why you may be a good fit and about how much you charge for your expertise. Do your pitches and bids in a word processor so they're easy to adapt for the next opportunity.
Q: How much time does it take? Depending on the platform, it probably takes about 30 minutes to register, and it may take about an hour to respond to a client opportunity. (Your responses will get faster the more you do. Try adapting and readapting your original one.) This is a particularly small investment, considering you can do it in your comfy clothes at home without having to commute to an interview.