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By Sarah Dry

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Matthew McClain likes to spend a few hours a week upside down.

A public health consultant by profession, McClain is a yoga devotee by practice, and hanging out heels-over-head is part of the program. Now that his three-times-a-week yoga class is threatened by the imminent departure of a longtime teacher, he's urging his classmates to find a replacement.

McClain is skilled in the art of persuasion, too. Within the field of public health, his specialty is development and strategic planning for government agencies and private, non-profit advocacy groups. Daily he battles organizational inefficiency, poor planning, and budgetary meltdown. By comparison, getting fellow yoga practitioners to find a new teacher should be a snap.

Recently McClain finished a six-month project for the Health Federation of Philadelphia, a group of Federally subsidized neighborhood health centers for low-income city residents. The Federation had just emerged from a growth spurt and needed to set new goals, but wanted a third party to identify them. This task fell to McClain.

He began by educating himself about the Federation and its member clinics. He went directly to the people who knew it best -- its employees, including medical staff, board of directors, and executive director. (Through the interviews, says McClain, "you hear things, hear conflicts, misunderstandings, facts.") In all, he conducted about 20 interviews, steeping himself in the problems and concerns of the staff. Once finished, he posed himself a question: "What does all this add up to?"

He determined that the client should expand its services to include not only health care, but health research, too. The Federation now intends to open a "health services research and policy" division to study the conditions that cause its patients' most common illnesses. McClain's feat, in his own words, was to "sew the quilt together, bring various voices together."

"The employees spoke to the rest of the organization through me," McClain says. "A consultant's opinion can be essential to the decision-making process of an organization. It really helps groups to do what they already know they want to do when it's confirmed by an external authority. I love being in that role."


Divining organizational Achilles' heels and devising ways to fix them virtually requires McClain to work from outside the corporate environment. Naturally, he also prefers to. "I'm very interested in organizational dynamics," he says, "but I think I have a fundamental inability to cope with being in an organization."

People think that the self-employed lifestyle is relaxed, that you have total control of your day -- that's a myth. There's always risk, always exposure. You never know how much longer you're going to be able to maintain independence.  

Working as an independent contractor comes with its own burdens, of course, and McClain is quick to dispel what he sees as prevalent misconceptions about IPs. "People think that the self-employed lifestyle is relaxed, that you have total control of your day -- that's a total myth. There's always risk, always exposure. You never know how much longer you are going to be able to maintain independence."

McClain is speaking somewhat theoretically, because these days he has plenty of work and doesn't worry much about where his next job will come from. Indeed, he actually spends time trying, politely, to defer overtime projects.

A single, on-going contract with the Philadelphia Department of Public Health (which operates independently of the Federation) anchors McClain's business, accounting for 40 percent of his yearly billable hours. (When McClain says 40 percent, his calculations are based on a traditional 40-hour week and 52-week work year. This amounts to 2080 billable hours per year: 40 X 52 = 2080.)

"I've had a retainer with the city of Philadelphia for nearly six years," he explains. "We agree I'm going to provide a certain number of hours and they guarantee a certain amount of work. I give them a discounted rate and I avoid marketing and other costs."

Most self-employed people McClain knows, however, work many more hours than they bill for. "There's work that doesn't get billed but has to get done," he says, including marketing, accounting, and office work. "If you're billing 2080 hours a year, you're fully employed -- more than fully employed."

Judging from his schedule on a Monday in March, McClain isn't having any trouble filling the rest of his billable hours.

In the morning, he attends a meeting in Rockville, Md., on an important piece of health legislation. He leaves early for a conference of national AIDS-awareness advocates in D.C. From there, he races to Union Station to catch the five-o'clock Metroliner to Philadelphia -- he's got to meet with community volunteers there. At 8:14 p.m., he departs Philadelphia for D.C.; at 11 p.m. he's home, but another hectic day looms eight hours ahead.

Following His Nose

Success in business hasn't gone to McClain's head. He feels grateful to be where he is, doing what he's doing. Long days and difficult clients are small bother, he says, for a chance to do something that makes a difference.

"I'm an out gay man in a field that affects my community and many others," he says. "I feel personal satisfaction that I'm making a difference. I'm really, really lucky."

Unfortunately, McClain has no simple way to explain the secret to achieving fulfilling, financially remunerative self-employment. "Following my nose" is the phrase he uses to describe the path to his success. "Coming into it from the passion side, rather than the intellectual side."

Like many good things, McClain's success is a cocktail -- of skill, opportunity, and resourcefulness. First, he has a set of versatile skills that includes grant writing, facilitation, and long-range planning. Second, he applies these skills to ends he cares about -- including AIDS education, research, and service. Third, he knows the value of his own time.

One of the most ingenious ways that McClain maximizes his own time is by keeping others out of it. When he can, for example, he works alone: "When you're one person like me, it's not that hard to accommodate [variations in schedule]," he says. "When you're working with colleagues or hiring people to work with you, it can get more complicated.

"It's back to the myth of the self-employed, or 'not having a job.' I have as many bosses as I have contracts at the moment. The clients all feel that they are number one on my list." Of course, says McClain, "it's impossible to have nine people as number one."

The trick is to make all clients feel as if they're the only client, and McClain has mastered it. Anyone wishing to forge a working life without a permanent boss -- anyone with more than one client, for that matter -- will want to know how to do it, but the answer is elusive.


McClain's education and prior work experience didn't exactly point him towards large, abstract public policy problem-solving. His undergraduate degree from the University of Cincinnati was in art history, and for years he worked as an arts administrator and curator before he began helping small businesses with fund-raising and long-term planning. This dovetailed into the AIDS-related work he does now. McClain says he's never felt handicapped by his lack of formal training in public health policy. Expertise is what counts, he says: whether you get it in school or on-the-job doesn't matter.

When you work for yourself, experience is often the best teacher, too. "There's a lot to learn about the business of being in business," McClain says. "Even if you get advice, you don't discover a lot of things until you make a mistake."

McClain's most painful mistake was failing to research Philadelphia's taxation requirements for the self-employed. "The tax obligation for self-employed people in Philadelphia is very bizarre," he says. "You pay your taxes in advance [for the coming year]." Very few cities have this requirement -- for that matter, most cities don't have a wage tax at all. "I didn't find that out 'til the year was over," McClain continues. By the time he did, he was already due to pay taxes for the coming year, as well as for the year past. (So when people express sticker shock at his day rates, he reminds them that the fee must cover all of his expenses, including vacation time, sick days, and overhead -- things that employees take for granted, because they're covered by employers.) Now he knows to look out for circumstances special to the self-employed, and says he stumbles upon them all the time.

On occasion, McClain daydreams about the security of life within the cubicle kingdom. "Sometimes I wish I had just a regular job so I only had to negotiate with one person," he allows. "I would have more free time if I worked a 9-to-5 day."

But it's a fleeting dream.

"Any job in the world has a set range of expectations and responsibilities. I know that some day I would just become bored. I prefer multiple issues, problems, tasks, simultaneously. To me, that's a rich work life."

June 16, 1999

Edited by Eric Gershon
Illustration by Eli Cedrone
Production by Keith Gendel


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Sarah Dry is a freelance writer and book editor based in Boston. She has been a staff writer at High Country News and The Dallas Morning News.


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