Thursday, April 22, 2010

Starting your own consulting practice

Fairly regularly people who are thinking about starting out as independent consultants ask me about my experience and for any advice. Here's my first round of thoughts on this. I expect to return to the topic.

1. The question that is usually asked first is, "How do you get clients?" The answer is that there is no secret sauce. To paraphrase E. B. White, if you want to be an independent consultant, you have to be willing to be lucky. It helps if you have spent the past 5-10 years building up a reputation among a group of people who would be in a position to hire you.

2. Clients aren't going to find you on the web, probably. The people most likely to hire you, especially when you are starting out, are people who know you personally, or people who get referred to you by someone who knows you personally.

3. If you are going to do it, commit. Announce (to yourself, if no one else) that you have started your own consulting firm. This sounds like a more definitive move than, "I'm freelancing."

4. If you are going to start your own consulting firm, it will need a name.

5. If your firm has a name, it should have a branded email address. If you've never registered a domain name before, don't sweat. It costs $11 on for a domain and then $50 per year per user to get private-label Gmail via Google Apps.

6. Now that your firm has a name and a branded email address, you'll want some sharp looking business cards. You'll need a title, too.

7. If you've got the time, it would be nice to also build a website for your firm that lays out your experience and service offering.

8. If you qualify, you may want to sign up with one or more of the staffing firms recently started that specialize in placing management consultants into short-term projects.

9. If you haven't already, begin building your reputation via the wide array of online opportunities to make yourself known. Blog about your area of expertise. Offer to speak at a local college or business school. Help organize a conference, or speak at one. Podcast yourself. Make Youtube videos of yourself explaining some concept. Write a white paper and post it on your website. Review books on Amazon relevant to your expertise.

10. Be generous. Put yourself on the list of alumni of your school willing to speak with current students or recent graduates. Coaching younger people can help you identify interesting trends early on.

11. Let folks in your network know what you are doing, but don't ask for leads. If they know of a potential project, they'll let you know.

12. Polish your profile on LinkedIn. Take time now to describe the projects you've worked on. Send invitations to connect to the folks in your network. Learn how to use LinkedIn Groups.

13. Better yet, start your own group - create your tribe. Read Tribes by Seth Godin for some inspiration here.

14. Be willing to invest some time free up front. If you don't have a brand yet, clients don't know what to expect. Lower the barrier to bringing you in by offering to do a free 3 to 5 day diagnostic. Blow them away with your insights and suggestions on next steps. Try to do this even before you have a discussion on pricing. After a project, don't nickel and dime your client when there are a few hours of follow-up required.

15. Practice the pricing discussion with a friend before you have the discussion with a client. Having some comfort discussing pricing when you are selling your own time is challenging the first few hundred times you do it.

16. It helps if you are passionate about helping other people be successful and the money is not the motivating factor.

17. Keep in mind the trust equation, (from The Trusted Advisor by David Maister)
T = C + R + I / S, where T = Trust, C = Credibility, R = Reliability, I = Intimacy,
and S = Self-orientation

Unmet needs

Great essay posted in April by Paul Graham on how to find a good idea for a startup. His essays are indispensable for anyone thinking about starting a startup. He writes:

There's nothing more valuable than an unmet need that is just becoming fixable.

The same thinking that Graham applies to startups also applies to taking the initiative within your own company. What unmet needs in your own company can you identify and do something to address?

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

The Struggle: Which one are you?

Are you the one pushing the rock up the hill?  Or the naysayer, the doubter, the hole-poker, the one saying "we've tried that before," "that will never work here," "that's already a very crowded market," "this industry is different"?

A tiny percent of us are the ones pushing the rock up.

A larger percentage are blocking progress.

But most of us play both roles at the same time.  We come up with creative ideas that could transform our lives or our business, and then we make excuses.  "They" won't approve it.  I don't have time.  It isn't in the budget.  If this idea was so good, someone would have thought of it already.

This sculpture, which I saw at a corporate office, is titled "The Struggle."  

The biggest struggle we face is against our own internal resistance.  Fight that resistance.  Seth Godin's recent book Linchpin is a manifesto for those who are fighting that fight.

Your career, your chariot

Etymology pointers based on a post at The Word Detective:

If you are thinking of your career as a carefully plotted out series of steps, increasing levels of responsibility with promotions every two years, it is worth at least considering the implication of danger, even of recklessness, inherent in the word's history.

Career comes from the Latin carrus, or wheeled vehicle. Think not of a wagon filled with hay pulled by a reluctant donkey in a muddy Roman field, but of a wheeled chariot racing into battle, the horses with nostrils flaring, the driver standing and holding a spear.

In Middle French a derivative of carrus came to mean "racecourse" and from that the metaphor of a "course of life" brought the modern sense of "chosen occupation."

But the word still retains a sense of daring and adventure. Career can be used as a verb meaning "to rush ahead at full speed."

Is your career a chariot? Crack the whip. Embrace the adventure buried in the word's origin.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Be persistently polite and politely persistent

Be persistently polite: Your career is a multi-round game. Don't think of any transaction as one-off. Assume that everyone your interact with might be your boss or the decision maker at your customer some day. Treat them that way. This is perhaps too obvious to mention by itself in a blog post. Only worth noting as a pair to the inverted form:

Be politely persistent: Just because you emailed the hiring director/boss/acquaintance once with your request for an interview/permission/favor, don't assume that she is still thinking about it and just trying to reach a decision before getting back to you. Odds are, your email has been lost in the shuffle.

Maybe she meant to respond, and is still meaning to respond, but now your email is buried several hundred emails deep and she can't overcome the activation energy required to search for your email in order to get back to you.

Do both of you a favor - reach out again, politely. Forward your last email with a "Just wanted to follow up on my email from a week ago; when would be a good time to discuss?"

I can think of numerous examples where I've been helping a client fill an open position where a bit more persistence might have been a deciding factor. "Just wanted to follow up on my inquiry from a week ago. I remain very interested in the opportunity you are seeking to fill and would love to have a chance to discuss my qualifications..."

The worst that can happen is that you'll be told that you aren't in the running for the position.

Best case - you might be hired.

I know one VP of Sales who, after interviewing candidates for a sales role, doesn't hire anyone unless they attempt to follow up with him six times. In his industry, it takes on average six attempts to reach a customer before making a sale, and he isn't interested in hiring anyone who will give up on the fifth attempt.

Exercise: Apply for your own job

Let's say you are about to interview for a new job which you are very excited about and think would be a great next step in your career.

You'd probably research the company and its competitors, read the annual reports, read any analyst reports you can get your hands on. You'd prepare for the typical questions such as:

What relevant experience do you bring to this role?

What would you hope to accomplish in your first three months?

How will you measure your success?

What opportunities for improvement do you see for own company/department and how will you help us capture them?

Try this exercise: Apply for your own job. Do the industry research that you'd do if you were really applying. Think through your answers to questions like the ones above. Imagine the entire conversation you would have with your current boss if you were applying for your own position.

Well, you're hired. Now go do those things you just said you would do.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Getting started on the job

This advice was passed around in an email when I was in business school, and I like to reread it at least once a year:

Getting Started On The Job

By Robert J. Callander, Former Executive-in-Residence

• In past years, a number of students stopped by my office to tell me about the job they landed. Good stuff, but after a few happy words I find that along with the anticipation of beginning a career there is a certain amount of anxiety revolving around questions such as, "What do I do when I arrive?" "How do I act?" "Is there anything I can do in advance to get ready?" "What is important as I build a foundation?"

• There are many answers to these questions because every corporation and every individual is different. But maybe, just maybe, there are a few things to think about and a few disciplines you might find helpful.

• It is annual report season. Get a copy of your company's report and its proxy. Read them over. Do not memorize the financials. Just get a sense of what the company does, where it does it, what is unique, who the top people are, what the board of directors is like. And while you are at it, why not do likewise for your two leading competitors as well. In short, know where you are.

• Get through The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, and The Financial Times before you get to your PC at the office. If your boss reads these papers you better know the morning items he/she is talking about. If he/she doesn't, you have an edge.

• Having done the above, do not "showboat" your knowledge. Let it out like toothpaste-gradually. Don't attack-counterpunch. Have them asking, "how did he/she know that?"

• Never eat lunch alone. If you are in the marketplace be with a client. You'll never find one sitting in your in-box. If you are not on the client side, seek out peers in your area or get to know other areas. Conversation and knowledge flow easily over a meal. You'll be surprised what you learn.

• Do small things well. Management notices thoroughness. You will have plenty of chances to focus on the intergalactic stuff later on.

• Focus on the people below you. It is they who will make or break you. Simple human decency and a chat over a cup of coffee go a long way. They will tell you what is really going on.

• Ask questions and listen. No one likes or needs a pontificator.

• When you have a success, use "we." In failure, use "I." Don't get this backwards!

• Identify opportunities-everyone can point to problems. Avoid starting sentences with "I'm concerned about..." People want solutions.

• Take the issues, not yourself, seriously. Self-deprecating humor is your best gyroscope.

• Keep physically fit. It's a long race. You can't be anxious and out of breath at the same time. Physiologically impossible.

• Saying and writing "thanks" to clients and people in the company goes a long way. Most people spend their days getting bashed about what they did wrong. They get few compliments.

• Lastly, always "be there." Reliability is a scarce commodity these days.

Your choice

Would you rather be a factory worker or a factory owner?

If you are a knowledge worker in the new economy, you can choose to own the means of production.

What is holding you back?

Master the tools of your trade

Would you call yourself an expert in Microsoft Excel? Or Word? Or Visio? Or Photoshop? Or whatever applications dominate in your industry?

Well, if not, why not?

Have you invested the extra time to buy the manual and learn all the short-cuts, what all those extra features on the menu bar do that most people in the office never touch?

It is a shockingly good investment and amazing how few people do it.

If you know how to do Pivot Tables in Excel, you can do analyses in 5 minutes that could take anywhere from an hour to all week or up without the Pivot Table tool. And a shocking number of people in the business world never bother to learn Pivot Tables, or if they do, they have only the most basic familiarity with them.

Learning to use the tool opens up opportunities that would not even occur to you if you didn't know the tool exists. Rather than seeking out just what I think I need to know, my approach with a new application is to learn what every function, every button, every menu drop-down item does. When I get a new tool, I don't know what I don't know. I don't know what function might come in handy some day.

But most people don't take the initiative to teach themselves a tool beyond the bare minimum of what it takes to get by day-to-day. This includes MBA students. In a lot of situations, I'd rather have someone on my team who is an absolute master in Excel than someone with an MBA from a top business school. The MBA costs $100K or more and two years of your life, while mastering Excel takes about 40-80 hours and $35 for a good manual.

In just about any business environment, mastering Excel will give you an advantage over most people in the office. Mastering Word will also help. Most business environments will have specific applications where mastery will give you a further edge.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Resources available at website of noted career coach

The website of Ellis Chase, a noted executive coach and career coach, has an excellent set of resources. Visit:

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