February 2020 Consultant of the Month
It took several years of contemplation before Gretchen Harding made the jump to consulting. Her initial fear of work instability was overridden by a call to re-focus on family. Through a variety of roles at Intuit and other Silicon Valley companies, she’s built lasting relationships with people she can rely on when she’s looking for a new opportunity. While launching products is her specialty, she’s also been known to bake a delectable plum tart.
What are you currently working on?
Gretchen’s Keys to Success
- Deep consideration before consulting
- Upfront facetime with clients
- Continual networking with former colleagues
- Periodic self-assessments
- Only taking on rewarding work
I’m at Intuit focusing on the go-to-market and customer acquisition plan for QuickBooks Online’s new segment, mid-market enterprises. I see myself more as a consumer marketer than a B2B marketer, but Intuit mainly targets small businesses. They make purchase decisions similar to a consumer, so my skill set applies.
A note to fellow consultants: just because you haven't done a particular kind of work before doesn't mean you can't do it. If you're a well-rounded marketer, you know you should start from customer insights, and you'll figure it out from there. And to companies: by hiring experienced contractors, you can test out new markets before making a permanent decision. Intuit has now hired a full-time employee with mid-market experience to take the product forward, and I am onboarding a new team as I finish out my contract.
What was your path to becoming an independent consultant?
Having met a number of consultants, including Ken (Chen, EM founder), I had been thinking about consulting for four or five years. With my husband’s career and my family’s needs, working full-time was just not working. I had a desire to do consulting, but also a lot of fear of not having stable work. At the time, there were a lot of layoffs happening. It made me realize there are no guarantees either way.
I was working at Intuit and reached out to a former manager to see if I could work as a consultant at her new company. She was glad I did, because it hadn’t been a year since she left Intuit and she wasn’t allowed to poach me. She hired me at Lytro, a consumer light field camera company. While my goal was to reduce my workload to 20 to 30 hours a week, I ended up working 60 to 70 hours a week. It was still a good decision to move there, because I had a great experience working at a hot Silicon Valley startup with people I admired.
After two years, I was burnt out though. I switched from being an employee to having a three-month contract at 20 hours a week while they looked for my replacement. That was my soft start to contracting. After that, I hooked up with EM Marketing, who I had hired many times at both Intuit and Lytro. I also reached out to my network to start looking for projects.
What got me past the initial fear of jumping into consulting was that my family needed me more than I needed to have a full-time job or advance my career. Consulting gives you the flexibility to keep some skin in the game. Even if you’re working part-time, no one is really looking at that on your resume. You’re still gaining skills.
Periodically, I do a self-assessment. What are my family’s needs now? Do I still need to work full time or can I work part time? Do I need to work as an employee? Do I want more from my career?
Honestly, right now I want to be emotionally rewarded and challenged by my work, but I'm not trying to get a promotion or a specific title. That may change. Everybody's different: think about what you want for yourself and what role work plays for you. And realize that decisions aren't permanent.
What has been your biggest challenge about being a consultant? How have you addressed it?
At a previous contract gig, the clients didn't expect me to work on site even though I was close enough to ride my bike. In the one year that I was there, my manager turned over four times. Because I wasn’t in the office, the last manager thought I was not performing well. It was not a good experience. There was miscommunication and misalignment.
The lesson I learned was that you should work in the office at the beginning of a project, especially if it’s someone new that you’re working with. Even if your commute is an hour and a half, it’s better to do the facetime. If it’s too far to be in the office, find another way of setting time aside -- even just 15 minutes -- each day to check in. That should set you up for success.
What do you love about consulting?
I like that I can explore opportunities. If I am not enjoying the work, I don't have to accept a contract renewal. If I’ve never engaged with a client before, I prefer to have a short initial contract. You can see if it’s the right match of skills and interests, and if it’s the right amount of time needed to work on the project.
I have found that when I'm an employee, I can't turn it off. For one of my clients, I worked 20 hours a week. They got me 100 percent when I was working, and the rest of my life got me 100 percent when I wasn't.
Where do you work?
I mostly go into the office. It gets me out of my house where there are distractions like laundry, dishes, dogs, and kids being loud. Often, my husband works from home and we don’t have the space to work there together. On Fridays, I volunteer during lunchtime at my kid’s school so I work from home. Most people aren't at the office on Fridays anyway.
In the summer, my family sometimes visits relatives in Wisconsin. If we’re there for a week or two, I can keep projects moving along and I'm still able to take time off to spend with the family. Having that flexibility and being able to work from anywhere is a really nice benefit of consulting. But I highly recommend taking a real vacation when you can.
How do you market yourself?
I maintain my LinkedIn profile because I rely on my connections. When I’m on contracts, I ask my managers to write a recommendation on my LinkedIn profile so I have fresh ones. My network is so important -- the person who hired me at Matterport had worked with a person at Intuit who I had never worked with, but that person talked with my manager from Intuit and Lytro, and it gave them confidence in their decision to hire me.
When networking, I try to schedule a coffee or a call. Sometimes they're busy so I just email them to say I’m looking for work. But I prefer to get together personally with people so I can ask what challenges they have at their job. Often you hear something where you can offer help.
A benefit of having been at a big company like Intuit is that they host marketing reunions almost every year. That's been a great networking opportunity. Definitely take the time to stay connected.
What are the things you like to do when the work slows down?
I am so much better at this now. I take good care of myself when I work. I take my dogs for longer walks. Or I hike a little further astray than the normal neighborhood walk and try new trails. I take exercise classes at my local YMCA.
I also like to bake, and my family loves it when I make baking a priority. I love to make pies with fruit from the trees in my yard. My plum tart is gorgeous and delicious, and I make a nice looking apple pie. I like trying new recipes, especially ones that include secret healthy ingredients, such as brownies with black beans for protein.
What’s one tip you would give to new consultants?
Don't just jump into consulting. Talk to people who are doing it. Figure out if it’s going to be right for you. My spouse has a steady income with good insurance, which has given me the flexibility to consult. He does not want to be a contractor, but does want to work for startups. Back in the day, we both worked for startups at the same time and determined that it wasn’t a good strategy for us. It's too volatile. We decided to have one person with more stable employment, and we could take turns.