Challenges and Opportunities in Working Independently

By Ellen Supple

After 28 years advocating for youth and their futures in varied institutional settings and roles, I co-founded an independent college and career consulting practice, for my own encore career. I had taught business planning for several years, but I quickly discovered the huge gap between theory and practice: Independent practitioners face daunting challenges. The NCDA Global Career Development conference program in 2015 promised support for independent practitioners, and I arrived in Denver determined to be a sponge for new ideas and resources. But I was wary.

I had become accustomed to independents being kept at arm’s length at other association gatherings, fostering an “employed versus self-employed” distrust. Imagine my gratification in discovering how very different this conference would turn out to be. From my first session to the closing remarks, NCDA’s conference welcomed independents and I felt like an equal and indispensable partner in an important quest. I could focus on the nuts and bolts required to expand my practice.

Ready to identify my challenges and discover new inspiration, I directed myself to a day one presentation, Celebrating the Business of Private Practice, led by Sue Aiken M.S. NCC, MCC and Nancy Miller M.S. There I found easy camaraderie, trusted expertise and collegial motivation.

Both respected NCDA professionals, editors and authors, Nancy and Sue shared their success stories and strategies in independent client and contract work. In a balanced forum of mingling and interactive brainstorming, discovery and practiced advice, they encouraged us to define:

Why we’re in business - for the independence, to focus on our own missions
What we call ourselves - career counselors, career coaches, consultants, PCC, CDS, CDP, CDS
Our services - counseling, coaching, teaching, project coordination, writing, editing
Our business challenges - finding clients and closing sales, ethics and liability considerations, communication, accounting, and more.

Next, Sue and Nancy urged the session participants to find opportunities to counter our challenges. I noted our activities and discussion mirrored major considerations in a business plan: Legal, Marketing, Operations and Finance. I concluded then that creating a thorough and sound business plan becomes the first, best opportunity!

To create some small advantage for readers who didn’t attend this session, I present a summary of our common challenges with opportunities to prevail:






Choosing the best legal structure – Sole Proprietorship? Partnership? LLC? Corporation?

  • Consult an attorney. Our legal structure determines our scope of liability and also how our profits are distributed and taxed.

  • Research and know local licensing requirements and regulations.


Managing client expectations of scope of services.

  • Create clear, legally sound contracts. Maintain thorough notes and records.


Applying industry ethics to specific situations.

  • Establish and consistently follow clear communication guidelines.

  • Find industry mentors or champions.


Finding clients! Most present agreed that this is our most formidable obstacle.

  • Diversify your audience. Contract with cities, universities and agencies, for example.

  • Gain visibility and credibility. Actively participate in associations within our industry or communities. Volunteer on boards. Publish articles.

  • Network and collaborate with other professionals serving our target markets by joining a formal group or participating in community events. Join our local Chamber of Commerce.

  • Leverage Social Media. Post market specific offers and information on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. Develop a following. Post regularly. Use personal accounts to boost business posts and expand our reach.


Converting leads to clients; closing the sale!

  • Address the potential client’s needs or ‘pain.’ Listen. Create trust.


Knowing how to price services.

  • Become comfortable with our pricing, whether offered in a package or for individual services.

  • Consider costs to provide services but present value to client.

  • Scale pricing to populations. Offer referral or other incentives to offset client budget limitations.

  • Set and maintain a limit on pro-bono services.

  • Benchmark competitor pricing in setting rates.


Standing out from competitors.

  • Establish a niche service, something complementary, for example, that competitors don’t offer.

  • Turn competitors into sales forces! Collaborate. Mutually refer clients for niche services.


Managing client schedules, communication and records.

  • Access reliable management software. Colleagues recommended Crm Zoho, Simple Practice and Brighter Vision.


Wearing all the hats.

  • Recognize strengths and outsource/hire for help in key areas, such as marketing strategy or website maintenance.

  • Establish a local network of other service providers; share resources and even contracts.


Protecting our investments.

  • Consult a commercial insurance agent/broker for professional liability and property insurance. Many carriers offer packages to fit our level of risk. Those choosing a legal structure with a liability shield ( LLC, Corporations) still should carry commercial insurance.


Managing accounts.

  • Access accounting software such as Quicken or Quickbooks to balance books and track invoices and taxes.

  • Outsource all or part of financial recordkeeping. We might use software for bookkeeping but hire a tax preparer to ensure income tax compliance.





How then does the independent practitioner arrive at a place of affirmation and celebration? For this first-timer, the NCDA conference in Denver and this session in particular aroused me to be proactive, diverse and diligent, to focus on expanding credibility and visibility. I started by offering this reflection, but I won't stop there. See you in Chicago in 2016!



Ellen SuppleEllen Supple, MFA, has counseled high school and college students on career development strategies for the past 28 years, and specializes in careers in art and design, college admission strategies and Gap Year itineraries. She co-founded LIFEmaps for College and Career with Nichole Clark, MA/Counseling, in 2013.
Email Ellen at ellen@LIFEmaps4cc.com

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Michal Orenstein-Orpaz   on Saturday 08/01/2015 at 01:11 PM

Hi Ellen,

I commend you for taking the first step in expanding your credibility and visibility. In doing so, you have provided fantastic information which is of great value to a solo practitioner such as myself.

I have not attended this year's conference. The effort you put into your detailed and well organized summary is greatly appreciated.

I hope to attend next year's conference and will attempt to connect with you so I can thank you in person.


Michal Orenstein-Orpaz

Paula Brand   on Tuesday 08/04/2015 at 03:32 PM

Thank you for sharing that wonderful chart you created. I did attend NCDA in Denver but I was not able to attend this session so I am thankful to hear what I missed.

Paula Brand   on Tuesday 08/04/2015 at 03:33 PM

Ellen, I forgot to say this... I enjoyed meeting you and thank you for attending my round table on certifications.

Channel Blunt   on Monday 08/10/2015 at 11:52 AM

Great article Ellen!

"From my first session to the closing remarks, NCDA’s conference welcomed independents and I felt like an equal and indispensable partner in an important quest. I could focus on the nuts and bolts required to expand my practice."

I felt the same way! I was so inspired.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in the comments shown above are those of the individual comment authors and do not reflect the views or opinions of this organization.