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

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