Being an Independent Practitioner
Independent Practitioner

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Going Solo: Working as an Independent Practitioner

Although the composition of the qualitative research business is changing, many qualitative professionals are considered independent practitioners — meaning that we work for ourselves and not for larger research organizations. The reasons there are so many independent practitioners in our profession are quite simple:

  1. Starting a qualitative business requires little to no overhead. We don’t need to source raw materials, we don’t need production lines, and we really don’t even need offices. Put simply, one does not need a lot of capital to "hang out a shingle.”

  2. Ours is a relationship-driven business. If you have a good relationship with a small group of research buyers, you may indeed have enough business to keep you well fed and the bills paid for a while.

  3. There are many resources at our disposal. By being part of the QRCA, we have access to the greatest minds in our business, who more often than not make themselves available to serve as mentors and provide advice.

If you are thinking of going out on your own, there are three realities that you should be aware of as you consider your future as an independent practitioner:

  1. Besides your skills as a qualitative researcher, the primary characteristics that will set you apart from larger research firms are flexibility and focus.

    • Since you don’t work for anybody else, you are in complete control of how projects are designed and priced. If your client suddenly changes direction or needs something immediately, you have more flexibility than a researcher working for a larger agency to create client delight in those situations. I hear from clients all the time that this is a primary driver of choosing an independent practitioner over a research agency. It will be frustrating at times — but embrace this, as it is a key point of difference you have compared to research firms.

    • Because you can keep 100% of your profits, you can afford to take on fewer projects. This means that you can give your client a higher percentage of your attention than someone working for a larger firm. When clients feel that theirs is the only project you are working on, you will earn more of their business.

  2. Success may work against you. I know this sounds counterintuitive, but when you become successful in this field you will likely go through a cash flow crunch. It goes something like this. You win a project with a new client and celebrate your success. The euphoria wears off when you realize that you now have to write a large check for participant honoraria, cover your travel fees, and maybe even pay half of the facility’s charges depending on whether it is your first time using that facility. You then do the work and, if you’re lucky, you get paid in 45 days. In that time you win another project and the cycle repeats itself. Some advice: Try to obtain a line of credit from a bank before you become self-employed (banks are simply not lending money to self-employed individuals these days). Also, build strong relationships with facility owners; some are ex-moderators and know the struggles you are going through. In one researcher’s first year, one facility in particular offered to cover all honoraria until the client reimbursed the researcher. This gesture kept him in business during his first year of self-employment.

  3. Outsource what you can. When first starting out, some researchers did everything from receive bids from facilities, write screeners, order food, arrange travel, manage the field, write discussion guides, moderate groups, edit video, and write reports. It is hard to do all of that and find time to hunt for the next project. As such, outsourcing certain functions can work to your advantage. Contracting with an independent field manager saved one researcher tens of hours a week because he no longer had to obtain bids from facilities, write screeners, or manage the field. The time saved could be spent looking for new business and cultivating client relationships (which is more fun than writing screeners).

There are many other aspects of being an independent practitioner that you need to consider: How to manage the slow times, estimating your taxes, and how to differentiate yourself from other qualitative practitioners, to name a few. As such, the decision to go out on your own should not be made lightly. However, the life of an independent practitioner can be very rewarding and we wish you well on your journey.

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