For a $200 billion industry, the American consulting business is mysterious to most. Clients tell consultants to keep quiet about what they’re doing. And their work is kind of hard to explain anyway. You may know someone in consulting, but do you know what they actually do all day?
In any case, the consulting industry remains a pricey help line for giant companies and a powerful career magnet for elite college grads and MBAs. But the business of recruiting is changing. Consulting careers are known for long hours and endless travel. Top graduates these days think very differently about work-life balance, so they may not find consulting worth the tradeoffs, especially when their skills are in demand at growing tech companies with lavish perks. And for those who are committed to consulting as a career, going freelance—once a path reserved for consultants with many years of experience and contacts—is becoming more of an option.
Carlos Castelán is on that path now. With a Harvard MBA and previous professional experience at a big retailer, he’s the type of candidate consulting firms go after. And they did. But he chose a different path out of business school. He now offers up his service directly to corporate clients. It’s something he greatly prefers to the life of a first-year consultant, when there’s little choice over the types of projects one can work on and being on the road every Monday through Thursday is a near certainty.
“It would be very tough for me to go to a big company at this point,” Castelán explained. “Having a family is very important to both my wife and me, so that travel element really is difficult to manage.”
He does travel for projects, but he has the choice of which projects to take on, including those that allow him to stay in the Minneapolis area. Castelán says he’s making more money than a typical starting consulting salary at a major firm.
He gets these projects by offering his services through a company called HourlyNerd, a startup that connects businesses to freelance consultants and takes a cut of the fees. The idea is a space where companies that don’t need seven-figure consulting engagements can find experts to help them with small and medium-size problems. It’s proving popular with businesses and consultants, not to mention venture investors, who have poured in more than $11 million into the company.
HourlyNerd is based in Boston, a city which is in many ways the cradle of consulting. Several of the biggest firms began here, and all of them flood campuses every year to recruit Harvard and MIT students in bulk.
The ex-consultants working there sometimes talk about the industry the way Uber execs talk about the taxi business: bloated, inefficient, incumbent, all the startup swear words. But for the most part, they’re not really competing for the same projects.
“Their model is so expensive that they can’t be working on the 30, 40, 50-thousand dollar projects that we are, so it’s not necessarily all that attractive to them to pursue,” said Rob Biederman, one of HourlyNerd's founders.
He added that some big-name consultants have even referred business to HourlyNerd, projects too small for them to bother with. The company sees itself as expanding the potential market for consulting, by generating new business from companies that don’t have the budgets to hire giant consulting firms. Big businesses are coming on board too.
While much of HourlyNerd’s work at this point is projects on a smaller scale than the big consulting firms, it does compete directly with them for consulting talent.
Right now, MBA students at elite schools are prepping hard and for high-stakes interviews that’ll determine whether they get coveted summer internship offers. Many of them will be gunning for Bain & Company, where partner Keith Bevans leads global consultant recruiting. He and his team have been pitching Bain to MBAs for a long time.
Whether the competition is tech companies, banks or freelancing, when candidates ask him about long hours and travel, he’s clear there can be some of that. But he makes the case that it’s part of a bigger overall experience that pays off for employees. And like any good consultant, he cites data.
“Every other month, every case team gets surveyed on a couple of different metrics to understand how satisfied are they, how much of an impact are they having, do they feel like they’re learning, do they feel like they’re developing,” he explained. “Time and time again, what we see is that doesn’t correlate with hours and it doesn’t correlate with travel.”
That may sound like a slick sales pitch from a 20-year Bainiac, and it is. But there are independent data. In Glassdoor’s latest report on the best U.S. companies to work for, Bain comes in second, beating out Google, Facebook and Apple.
It may be that HourlyNerd and platforms like it enable sorting that wasn’t possible in a pre-Internet era. With on-demand consulting increasingly an option, people with analytical minds and a taste for problem solving may not have to sign up with a big consulting firm if they aren’t interested in the travel. And those who are can still go to work for places like Bain.