Jeroen Pennings is an independent digital consultant and project manager who has a strong passion for building start-ups. In this article, we delve into his experiences following his transition from consulting to freelancing, as well as exploring his aspirations for the next phase of his career.
How did you get into consulting?
I’ve always had a particular interest in digital businesses. During my studies, I interned at bol.com in the business development team - basically, a team full of former consultants tasked with some of the most difficult problems in the company. A year later, I started working at bloomon in an operational role. There, most people in leadership positions again had consulting experience. That’s why I started looking for consulting firms that focused on digital.
Enter SparkOptimus. For me, the ideal place to develop my consulting skills. It was really nice to be surrounded by like-minded individuals and to learn various new skills such as analyzing difficult problems, storytelling, managing myself & others, and much more.
Why did you leave?
Roughly 50% of my projects at SparkOptimus were right up my ally: building disruptive ventures in fields like mobility, consumer goods, and farming. The other 50% of projects, I worked on – often lengthy - projects for multinationals involving a lot of corporate politics. I sometimes find it frustrating that having the right idea would matter less than knowing the right person. I learned to navigate these environments, but it didn’t give me joy. After 3 years, I made the decision to leave.
At the time, I had the opportunity to join Deck, an insurance start-up as COO. In this role, I would focus on growing the company in a scalable way. I started there in February 2020, just before COVID-19 hit. It was a crazy period: like most companies, our focus shifted overnight from growing to surviving. It quickly became clear that my role would also be impacted. We decided to part ways and I had to pursue new adventures.
Did you regret leaving SparkOptimus at that time?
Not at all. It was disappointing at first, because my role encompassed everything I had wished for. However, it felt like I had learned more from those 3 months than I would have done in one more year at SparkOptimus. After leaving Deck, I registered with the Chamber of Commerce (KvK) and posted my story on LinkedIn. Two days later, I secured my first assignment: I became ad interim Head of Growth for Geldvinder, a corporate venture from Dutch pension fund APG.
What are the biggest differences between freelancing and working at a well-organized consulting firm?
A big difference is no longer having team members around you to improve the quality of your work. I’m an extravert thinker, so my output improves if I get challenged. As a freelancer, I organize my own feedback. Typically, I try to identify sharp minds at clients, and ask them to critically challenge my ideas. I can also have problem solves with fellow Sweavers.
As a freelancer, you also have to organize for learning yourself. I am the only person responsible for my learning curve. That implies being more assertive in asking for client feedback, and looking for more personal growth outside work.
I also see big advantages of freelancing. I have a more direct relationship with my clients. I have a better work-life balance and more flexibility. I can say ‘no’ more easily to assignments that I don’t want to do. On top, being a freelancer allowed me to make some amazing trips. Being accountable to nobody else but myself, feels like a great deal of freedom.
You recently spent a year travelling the world. What did you do?
My girlfriend and I converted a 27-year-old Mitsubishi into a campervan. We drove East and spent a full year in countries like Turkiye, Georgia, Saudi Arabia and Oman. It was the experience of a lifetime. We met so many wonderful people, saw the most beautiful natural phenomena and learned a great deal about ourselves.
What was it like to get back to ‘normal’ life?
In April we decided to start our journey back to the Netherlands. I started looking for new assignments and found one through Sweav. The funny thing is, I already had a first introductory call to discuss project objectives and scope with my client from a car repair shop in Turkiye. Professionally, the transition to normal life could not have been more smoothly.
What is next for you?
I am currently validating a business idea that aims to connect people from different backgrounds and thus bridge cultural differences. I will continue to do freelance work parttime, and want to focus on companies that make a difference for good e.g., in education, shared mobility, and sustainability. Traditionally, a lot of talent in consulting is being directed towards industries that don’t necessarily make the world a better place. I don’t want to work in those industries anymore.
In conclusion, what is the biggest misconception about freelancing?
The biggest misconception is that your learning curve stagnates. I experienced the opposite: as a freelancer, you continue to learn a great deal. If you know how organize for growth, I might make the case that you actually learn more than at 90% of the other opportunities out there.