‘Pay What You Want’ rock albums, restaurants – why not consultants?

I was gearing up to tackle the final edit on this post when a news item came on the radio saying that a supermarket chain is trialling selling items past their ‘best before’ dates, for a flat cost of 10p per item.

A tin of beans that is past its ‘best before’ date is just as good as one that isn’t, we just don’t want to buy it because we’re conditioned to think it’s inferior (properly canned goods last indefinitely).

The supermarket reckons that selling it for 10p will help avoid perfectly good food going to waste by giving us a financial incentive to overcome our prejudice.

It suddenly struck me, that’s what this post is about. Just substitute ‘Available high skill professional aged over 50’ for ‘tin of beans past its ‘best before’ date’, and you’ve got the gist.

But I digress, and I haven’t even started.

In case you didn’t know, ‘Pay What You Want’ (PWYW) is a marketing approach which allows customers to pay what they think a service is worth. It’s been around for a while: some museums have been doing it at selected times for years, a few restaurants do it, and some rock bands have done it for streamed versions of their albums.

It struck me that it could be good to run my freelance IT management consultancy on a PWYW basis, for reasons I’ll explain in this post.

Of course, the next thing that struck me was that there must be others doing this. However, I did some quick web research and found just one consultancy offering PWYW, and that was just for an initial session. There may be loads of others doing it, but if so their SEO might need some work, as I couldn’t find them.

So why would I consider it, and what are the wider implications?

I left my long-term job as an IT specialist and manager at the start of 2017, at the age of 56, and it naturally led me to think long and hard about my priorities in planning what to do next.

Top of the list came stuff like intellectual challenge and growth, adding value using the skills I’ve developed during my career, and making the most of what I hope will be at least 15-20 remaining productive years.

Not unusually for someone in my position, financial reward wasn’t a big factor; it’s still important, just not ‘mortgage to pay and kids to get through college’ important like it was five years ago.

When I looked at the jobs and contracts market, I found that, as far as I could see, a 56 year old with 33 years at one company and moderate reward expectations gets about as much interest as the vegetarian sausages at a bushmen’s barbie.

Around the same time, I was asked to do some due diligence for a small company on their IT. Unsurprisingly for a small operation, they had no in-house IT person, and their IT infrastructure, applications and contracts had evolved largely through a series of tactical decisions and purchases. They brought me in to help them get this under better control, as they saw effective IT as a critical part of their business strategy.

I found I was able to do some good across the whole scope of their IT, because I’ve done lots of different IT stuff in my time, and I discovered that the capabilities I’d developed in a large corporate environment were very transferable with just a few common sense tweaks.

From creating an IT software and infrastructure strategy, target architecture and costed roadmap, to drafting an Information Security Policy and helping them sort out their IT service contracts – all of this was bread-and-butter work for me and valuable to the client. They simply hadn’t had the time or expertise to do it themselves, and their IT service partners either didn’t have the capability or the independence to be able to do it effectively for them. I even found time to do some first and second level support tasks that their offsite IT support provider couldn’t easily cover.

The model seemed to work pretty well for the client and for me at a working level. It was the charging model that was going to be the tricky bit if I was to make it a sustainable concern.

Your average small business can’t easily afford your average consultant rates, and I didn’t have the MBA, the proprietary methodology or the apparatus of a big consultancy behind me to justify charging those rates – just a wealth of practical experience and knowledge.

And I was painfully aware of all those hackneyed negative perceptions of consultants I’d experienced first-hand in my career – ‘Miles of Powerpoint and not much else’, ‘Borrow your watch then charge you to tell you the time’, and so on.

I’d seen plenty of consultants give the lie to those prejudices by adding real value, and I wanted to make sure I was with them. It’s vital to me that my customers know they are getting value for money from what I do, so it seemed to me the only way to be sure of doing that was for my customers to decide how much value I add and to pay me accordingly.

That’s what led me to the idea of ‘Pay What You Want’ consultancy – seeing a need for affordable IT management consultancy for small businesses, recognising that consultancy is only as valuable as the worth customers get from it, and my personal prioritisation of intellectual stretch and adding value over financial gain.

So much for my personal approach. Let’s think about the bigger picture and how my experience relates to it.

We’re all aware of the ageing demographic, and the challenge that our economies face in supporting people living longer.

In theory this should be partly balanced out by people working longer, and for many this is uncomfortably true – certainly in the UK, if you’re relying on a state pension, you will need to work longer to get it.

But I believe we also have a significant pool of highly skilled, physically and mentally fit people whose capabilities are being seriously underused. I’ve written about this elsewhere on this blog, and I’m coming back to it because I think it’s a big issue which is not getting enough attention.

This pool is made up of people like me – I’m 57 but it could apply to people anywhere from 50 to 75 or older – who have had high value careers in management or specialist areas, who aren’t relying on the state pension, but who are out of the mainstream jobs market, either through choice or necessity. They are the people whose roles have been outsourced, who are looking to return to the jobs market after raising a family, or who have simply decided to take their defined benefits pension because they can.

I see some efforts by government and a small number of enlightened employers to harness the value of this workforce, but overall my perception is that recruitment and employment practices have yet to catch up with the changing demographic.

And this isn’t simply a rant against age discrimination in the jobs market, although I’m convinced that still exists; I believe it’s more complex than that.

I don’t think it’s a huge oversimplification to say that, to get a management or specialist role, you need the right network contacts, an exact skills match on the CV search, or to join a graduate scheme.

I believe these criteria tend to exclude a large proportion of this group, who may not have a fantastic network, whose transferable skills are strong but not the kind that come up on a CV search, and who may just have a few challenges in getting themselves onto a graduate scheme.

Add to this the lower financial drivers and the barriers rack up against getting this demographic adding the value that they can.

I’m seeing highly skilled managers and specialists playing golf or stacking supermarket shelves, not just because they can, but because they see no way for them to use their skills with the way the jobs market works.

That’s partly what gave me the idea of setting up my virtual soapbox on the virtual street corner, and hawking my skills directly for whatever anyone wants to pay. My skills are still fresh in the tin, it’s just got the wrong ‘best before’ date, and I’d rather they were sold for 10p than go to waste.

I think we need new ways to engage with this population, or we risk an increasing proportion of people joining the ranks of the supported in society when they are entirely capable of being supporters.

I’m very conscious that we can’t create roles for these people for the sake of it; the ROI has to be worth it. And I’m convinced the ROI is there if we are prepared to challenge the sacred cows of how recruitment and employment policies work.

But, for example, I reckon I could make a decent business case for having a few low-cost, high experience consultants in many companies. We wouldn’t be allowed to call them ‘village elders’ these days, but you get the idea.

That, and my PWYW consultancy, are just two ideas – the important thing for me is that we need to recognise and start to tackle this changing demographic with some new thinking, or we risk losing a large body of valuable skills.

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