It has been nearly fifteen years since I, with my wife as my partner, decided to become a consultant. We have grown substantially over those years and established ourselves as recognized experts and a trusted brand in the niche we serve. As a result, we have been able to lead a life which has given us the freedom to spend time with our young children, travel as a family, and in general, maintain a high standard of living.
In short, the decision to become a consultant was a good one.
With more than a decade of experience under my belt, now seems like a good time to reflect on the what brought us success and, where possible, provide a smoother, shorter path for anyone who wants to start a consulting business. In this post, I cover what I feel are the five most fundamental steps of the pre-launch and launch stage. I will discuss growing a consulting business and other aspects of consulting in future posts.
So, if you are wondering how to start a consulting business, you are in the right place. In this post, I’ll walk you through steps that were important for me and that I have found apply universally.
Important Note: Give the current situation with COVID-19, it is important to remember that, with the growth of high-quality Web conferencing platforms as well as options like online surveying, sub-contracting through services like Upwork, and other digital tools, it is now possible to run a consulting practice without ever having to hold in-person meetings. I conduct the vast majority of my work now entirely virtually.
What is a Consultant?
Before we dive in to the five steps, I think it’s important to define consulting as I use the term here. Consulting means different things to different people, after all.
For me, a consultant is an independent contractor who is able to increase the capacity, the level of performance, and/or the confidence of the clients who engage them.
Let’s break that down a bit.
Clients often hire consultants because they simply don’t have the internal resources to address an important challenge or opportunity. They may not have anyone on staff with the appropriate knowledge and skills and or the people the do have may already be committed to other priorities. In this case, a consultant provides knowledge and/or skills that increase the client’s capacity.
In other cases – or often at the same time – a client may be seeking to get a higher level of performance out of the resources it has – for example, through training, facilitating the right conversations among the right people, or implementing new systems and processes. While this type of consulting work generally does increase a client’s capacity, it is aimed specifically at improving performance.
Finally, consultants are often brought in simply to help clients increase confidence, particularly around key decisions. That may mean decisions that have already been made, that are in the process of being made, or that need to be made. Consultants, in this case, are often seen as objective outsiders who can help break through internal biases and barriers and bring clarity to otherwise muddled situations.
The best consultants, in my opinion, usually bring all three of the above elements to their work and are intensely focused on providing a high degree of long-term value through their services. In other words, they are not just freelancers doing tasks for hire. Their presence significantly improves the condition of the clients they serve because, through their work, they help the client learn and grow, creating a lasting impact.
Note that none of the above really relates to what a consultant consults about. You can be a consultant about just about anything. Being a successful one is much more about how you go about it – so let’s get to that
1. Embrace the Right Mindset
Many readers may be tempted gloss over this section as “fluff,” but I urge you not to. If I can point to a single factor that distinguishes the highly successful consultants I’ve meet from their less successful colleagues, it is mindset. By mindset, I mean your willingness to recognize the challenges inherent in launching a consulting business, face them head on, and be willing to do the work necessary to grow and improve substantially over time.
You will not, for example, get very far with a mindset that says “I’m no good at selling” if you want to become a consultant. The reality is that you will need to spend roughly half of your time marketing and selling if you want to build a thriving business. This means doing things like writing articles, speaking, making phone calls, going to meetings – activities that are only indirectly related to actual consulting.
I was fortunate in this regard: my background prior to starting a consulting business was primarily as a sales and business development person. It was familiar territory. I was also a good writer and a reasonably good speaker and I put those skills to work as part of building an “on ramp” to consulting. If the whole idea of selling makes you uncomfortable, you are going to need to do some serious work to adjust your mindset before you will be able to launch a consulting business successfully. As a starting resource, I suggest Dan Pink’s excellent book To Sell Is Human.
A willingness to sell, however, is only one aspect of mindset. Another, closely-related aspect, is belief in your own abilities. Many would-be consultants have trouble selling to others because they are unable to sell themselves on the idea that they actually have something valuable to offer. Naturally, this mindset leads to not asking for the sale, under-charging for services, or even delivering services at no charge, all of which are a recipe for disaster.
Very often the cause of this “unworthy” mindset is what psychologists have labeled “impostor syndrome,” which is characterized by an inability to fully appreciate our accomplishments and “a persistent fear of being exposed as a ‘fraud.'” While there is no easy solution to overcoming imposter syndrome, the first step is to acknowledge it. For more information about imposter syndrome and tips on how to combat, I recommend a brief Harvard Business Review article titled Overcoming Imposter Syndrome as a starting point.
One other aspect of mindset I will mention here is what I call the “curse of methodology.” – this may be the opposite of impostor syndrome – i.e., intellectual arrogance – or it may be a crutch – “I’m not worthy, but my methodology is.” Keep in mind that there is no one-size-fits-all methodology, and prospective client usually don’t want to feel shoehorned. Also keep in mind that, to the extent that something can be documented as process/methodology, it becomes extremely hard to maintain as a competitive advantage in today’s world.
2. Create a Focused, Value-Driven Strategy
I can – and probably will – write a book on this one, but for purposes of this post, I’ll be as brief as possible.
Strategy is about clarity.
It is about how you will make decisions among the available alternatives and avoid distractions that sap your resources. When your aim is to become a consultant, it pays to answer the following questions as clearly as you can:
Who will I serve and – this is critical – who makes the buying decision for this group?
Serving small business owners, for example, is quite different from serving HR people at Fortune 500 companies. Ask yourself who you feel truly motivated to serve, who clearly wants or needs what you have to offer, and who will clearly benefit from what you have to offer. (I discuss this process in more detail in Hitting Your Strategic Sweet Spot.)
Narrowing your target in this way gives you a much better chance of aiming correctly and actually hitting the target. As a result of this process you will, for example, know much better which searches to do to research your market, you will have a better idea of the language to use in promoting yourself, know better which events you may want to speak at – the list goes on.
Keep in mind that the people most directly impacted by your work may not be the same people who make the decision to hire you. As a general rule, aim as high up the org chart as you can. If you are focused on executive team building, you need to be talking to the CEO. If you are focused on increasing sales, you need to be talking to the chief revenue officer or senior VP of sales (or the CEO). You get the picture. You don’t really have a prospect until you are talking to someone who has the ability to sign or authorize a check.
What value will I provide to them – i.e., what positive outcomes will I provide?
When you are done, what will be better? The outcomes you aim to create should provide the basis for nearly all messaging about your business. It will also serve as the basis for how you provide value and price your services for what they are really worth.
In my experience, articulating value effectively usually goes beyond the typical advice of emphasizing “benefits.” A better-functioning team, for example, is a benefit, but what is the ultimate value in that? Is it going to help move new products to market much more rapidly, thus accelerating revenue growth and enabling more investment in product innovation? The more specific – and, ideally, quantifiable – you can be, the better.
How will I position myself relative to the alternatives?
In most fields and industries, you can swing a cat and hit multiple consultants. If you want to become a consultant who doesn’t just win RFPs, but who is sought after by name (no RFP required!), you need positioning that stands you out from the crowd. While establishing such positioning may sound like a daunting challenge, it actually flows naturally from the previous two points: a crystal clear understanding of your audience and the valuable outcomes that audience desires.
It is not, in other words, about coming up with a clever name, or plastering your lovely mug all over your Web site with a slogan like “The World’s Best 7-Step Process.” No one cares. As Al Ries and Jack Trout put it in their classic, must-read book Positioning: The Battle for Your Mind:
To find a unique position, you must ignore conventional logic. Conventional logic says you find your concept inside yourself or inside the product. Not true. What you must do is look inside the prospect’s mind. You won’t find an “uncola” idea inside a 7-Up can. You find it inside the cola drinker’s head.
So, get inside your prospective customer’s head and find the language and images that will really strike a chord. Keep in mind that coming up with the best positioning and related language may take time. Do the best you can out of the gate, and then listen and adjust as you go along.
It took us years at Tagoras (my consulting firm), for example, to arrive at the simple phrase “Reach. Revenue. Impact.” to help us describe our value to clients and position ourselves as focused on increasing reach, revenue, and impact specifically for organizations in the business of lifelong learning, continuing education, and professional development. This clarity helped us refine our messaging significantly and position ourselves at the higher end of the market.
3. Establish an Effective Web Presence
This one seems like such a no-brainer these days, but I continually encounter consultants who clearly do not know how to leverage the Web to their advantage. This is not to say that you have to have a cutting-edge Web presence to become a consultant, but you do need to have the fundamentals in place. Before you begin actively promoting yourself as a consultant, you should:
- Establish an attractive, user-friendly Web site. As necessary, pay someone to do the design and the technical work. It’s money very well spent. You can find plenty of good contractors for both on Fiverr or Upwork (or 99Designs is also an excellent resource for design work). I strongly recommend using the open source Wordpress content management system (CMS) for your Web site. It’s free, well-supported and maintained, and any decent Web designer or developer is going to be very familiar with it. You also do not have to be very technically skilled to update content in it yourself.
- As part of putting together the Web site, get some professional photos made. Stay away from cheesy, obviously-posed-hand-on-chin type stuff, but don’t just have a friend snap some pics (unless that friend is a pro). This is your professional presence. Again, it’s money worth spending.
- Put real thought and effort into your “about” page. Create an “about” page that highlights the aspects of your experience and expertise that are likely to matter most to the people you aim to serve, and in particular, the people who are likely to make buying decisions. In other words, don’t post your entire resume – no one cares, other than your mother. Be concise, but to the extent possible, provide examples and stories that illustrate the kinds of positive outcomes you are capable of achieving.
- If at all possible, include multiple testimonials throughout your site. Obviously, if you are just starting, these won’t be from clients. Most people, however, can get testimonials from past colleagues or customers. Ideally, testimonials should speak to the value you provide and should provide a picture (or video), name, title, and company/organization of the person giving the testimonial. If you don’t have these from the very start, make it a goal to get some as soon as possible.
- Publish an initial 5 to 10 substantive pieces of content (articles, videos) on the site that clearly demonstrate your expertise and the value you provide. These days, my recommendation is that half to two thirds of this content be long form blog posts or articles – i.e., 1000+ words in length – that provide “evergreen” advice/how-tos on some key aspect of your area of focus. This is the type of content that tends to do well in search engines and gets shared and revisited. Another half to a third of your content should, ideally, be brief (5 minutes of less) videos of you talking about/presenting – again, on topics that relate you your expertise and educate you prospects. These also do well in search engines, and video, by its nature, helps you connect at a more personal level with your prospects. (Note: this is just an initial “shot across the bow” as far as content goes. Anyone who wants to monetize their expertise will need to make a consistent effort at content marketing over time.)
Those are the main elements of your own Web site, and focusing on your own site is critical: don’t just rely on popular social media sites like Facebook and LinkedIn to create your Web presence. The rules of those sites can change at any time, and you simply do not have the level of control with them that you do with your own site.
That said, I do recommend that you choose one social network initially – e.g., Facebook, LinkedIn, or Twitter – to use as a way to help “amplify” your Web presence – e.g., by spreading the word about the content mentioned above, connecting with other experts and influencers, etc. My default choice for this is LinkedIn, simply because it has such a foothold among people who tend to make buying decisions for consulting, but you will need to consider where your buyers are most likely to be.
Over time, you will likely want to become active on other social networks, but resist the temptation to try to be everywhere at once out of the gate. Maintaining a truly effective social media presence requires time and energy. Particularly in the early days, much of this time and energy is better spent in other areas covered here.
Finally, I’ll note that you can start making connections and promoting yourself before you have all of the above in place, but I don’t recommend it. A firmly established Web presence gives you a place to refer the people with whom you have initial conversations. Just as important, going through the process of creating and deploying everything I cover above is extremely valuable for clarifying your strategy and informing how you communicate effectively about your business.
4. Establish an E-mail Capture Process
Repeat after me: a strong e-mail list equals strong options. Out of all the things I wish I had done earlier and better, building a high-quality e-mail subscriber list is number one. I include it in this post because it really does pay to start the process early if you don’t want to just become a consultant, but actually build a thriving, long-term consulting business.
Keep in mind that “high quality” is essential when it comes to building a list that is truly an asset. Do not add people to your list without their explicit permission, always provide relevant content when you send out e-mails, and make sure it is easy for people to unsubscribe if they choose to. With those factors in mind, there are three key elements to incorporating e-mail capture into the launch of your consulting business.
- E-mail list software – While there are ways to use Outlook or other e-mail programs to send out mass e-mails, it is really better to go with a specialized e-mail software provider like ActiveCampaign or Mailchimp for managing your e-mail list(s). Processing subscriptions and sending out messages through these platforms can significantly lower your chances of being labeled a “spammer” – which can kill your ability to reach prospects and customer by e-mail – and they also offer good tools for automating your e-mail communications. All of the common platforms provide easy ways to place a sign-up form on your Web site.
- Lead magnets/Content upgrades – These days, only a small percentage of people will fork over their e-mail address just to receive a newsletter from you. To convert Web visitors to subscribers, you have to offer something of value that will be received only once an e-mail address is provided. This may mean access to a white paper, checklist, report, or video featuring content your target audience is likely to find valuable – an approach typically referred to as offering a “lead magnet.” Similarly, you may offer the chance to go deeper/learn more about whatever topic you cover in a blog post or other freely available piece of content. Again, this may involve offering access to a white paper, checklist, etc. This approach is typically referred to as a “content upgrade.” You will likely need to try a few approaches over time to see what really clicks with your audience, but don’t get bogged down trying to figure out the perfect offer. Chances are you already have content around that you can re-purpose as an offer for attracting subscribers.
- Ongoing content – With a decent lead magnet, its actually not too difficult to start getting a pretty good flow of people signing up to your list. The problem is that most of them will start tuning out pretty quickly if you don’t provide them with ongoing value. Worse, some of these people will forget that they subscribed to your list in the first place and will end up marking you as “spam” somewhere down the line, which can damage the overall deliverability of your e-mails. In most cases, you will want to send out something of value to your list at least once a month, and once every week or two is likely to be much more effective in most cases. In any event, before you start collecting e-mail addresses, it is a good idea to create a simple editorial calendar in which you note down a dozen or so items you might send brief e-mails about in the coming weeks and months.
5. Work Your Existing Network
Think of everything above as kindling. At some point, of course, you have to light a fire under that kindling, and the best way to do this is to leverage the network you already have.
A key first step is to reach out to all of your key contacts from any past business experience you have. Generally speaking, these people are going to fall into one or more of the following three camps:
- Prospective clients
Let these people know that you have become a consultant and clearly communicate the value you provide in that role. Ideally, point them to a specific, relevant piece of content on your site that you feel they will find valuable. (As noted above, this is a key reason to have your Web presence in place before you start prospecting.)
- Referral sources
These are people who know and like you and who will likely be willing to refer you to others and others to you. as relevant, ask for a call or ask them for names of people they think would be interested. Make sure they know your Web address, and suggest some specific pieces of content they may find it valuable to share with others.
These are people with solid networks who can help get the word out about you even if they are not necessarily prospects necessary sources for direct referrals. You are looking for people reasonably strong blogs, podcasts, social networks, etc. You will likely already know some of these people. Others you will need to reach out and start relationships with.
At this point, you are aiming for a “money milestone,” to borrow a phrase from the guys over at Internet Business Mastery. You want to land that first paying client as proof of the fact that, yes indeed, you can do this.
Yes, there are a million other things you can do to become a consultant (some of which I’ll cover in future posts), but focus first on getting the above done and done well before turning to other activities.
And, if you really want to become a consultant:
Get Started – Now!
Of course, I have the benefit now of ten years hindsight to organize my actions into the neat little segments above. I had nowhere near that level of clarity starting out, but the main thing was that I started.
“Consulting” has a way of sounding like something you can get to some day, when your schedule clears up some or when the kids are little older or when you have accumulated a little more experience and knowledge. But the “right” time will never come.
If you are serious about wanting to be the captain of your own ship, about pursuing work that simultaneously helps both you and the people you serve grow tremendously day over day, then now is the time. You’ve got the benefit of my advice above, and with a little search, of many others who have gone down this path before you to launch a consulting business.
So, brace yourself, pursue the areas above with focus and discipline, and look forward to a day soon when you will can say with both confidence and pleasure, “I have become a consultant.”
Bonus: Beyond Consulting
To become a consultant is, of course, only one business model for monetizing your expertise. It is often the best place to start, because the barriers to entry are low. Over time, however, a key way to scale your consulting business is to sell online courses, memberships, and other knowledge products that help you reach a larger audience and create passive income. Look around this site for plenty of info about creating and selling online courses, including: