5 things I wish I’d known before starting my own consulting business

I’d been employed as a consultant for almost 20 years before I started my own firm. I’d been involved in the sales process; I’d done a ton of delivery; I’d grown teams; opened new divisions and offices; and consulted around the world.

Starting my own consulting business was a vision I’d had for some time. I’d been preparing for it. And when the opportunity arose, I leapt at it.

I never imagined that it could be as hard as it was!

Like many new consulting businesses, for the first year all was well. I was straight into 6-figure revenues, and I really thought I was on to something.

But things changed rapidly towards the end of the second year. And that’s something that happens to many new consulting businesses. They don’t fail through lack of opportunity, they fail through not knowing how to market.

So here’s 5 things I wish I knew back then when I started my consulting business.

The 5 things you need to know to make a success of your consulting business.

ONE. No-One Cares About You!

This one might hurt a bit, but…no-one cares about you!

Ok, someone out there probably does. Maybe your mum. Or your husband or wife.

But when it comes to your consulting business, no one gives a hoot.

So if they don’t care about you, then what do they care about?

Drumroll please………..themselves.

Not really a surprise, and having been in consulting for as long as I have, you’d think I’d know this already.

But then I’d never really ‘done’ marketing before. There was a department for that. Or in most instances, simply a Marketing Administrator.

That’s because the firms I’d worked at in the latter part of my employed career were mid-sized firms. They were international, and their primary route to market was relationships and referrals. Plus the semi-regular responding to RFP’s. So they didn’t really do much by the way of marketing. Maybe an occasional case study or a white paper, but that’s about it.

But when I started out on my own I realised that I needed to get the attention of my prospects. And that’s what this whole marketing thing was about. Yet there are many different ways to market – by my count there’s more than 50!

When I started doing ‘marketing’ I made some classic errors. Most notable was that my marketing was all about….. me!

I’d cold call people and tell them about my services. I published a website which simply listed what I could do. My LinkedIn profile listed my previous job responsibilities. And I wrote case studies about what I had done.

It was all me, me, me.

But as I said, no-one cares about you, and neither did they care about me.

What I should have done was make my marketing all about them!

More specifically, I should have focused on the exact problems that my ideal clients were facing, and positioned myself as an expert in helping businesses like theirs to overcome their problems.

TWO. Repetition is the name of the game!

One of the things I always loved most about consulting was the variety. The ability to take on different projects, in different sectors, and in different locations.

In fact, I often used to refer to my job when I was employed as a ‘hobby job’, because I simply hopped from one client to the next taking on exciting and often unrelated challenges.

The trouble is, when you’re a micro-business or even a business of one, you can no longer afford to do lots of different things for different people.

You need to become known, liked and trusted as an expert in resolving specific client problems. You need to specialise.

Despite what some might say, you simply can’t generalise because:

  1. It restricts your fees as a specialist will always command a higher fee than a generalist
  2. Marketing becomes unaffordable as it’s not clear who you’re marketing to and about what problems. You spread yourself too thinly to be effective
  3. Without effective marketing, it means you’re reliant on a very small number of clients who probably already know you. They know you’re a great consultant, so they throw you an array of different opportunities. Grateful as you are, this just further ensconces you as a generalist.

You need to learn to embrace repetition because there’s a lot of things you need to do in your business again, and again, and again!

Yet this is actually a good thing, as the more you repeat something, the better you get at it. Whether it’s your marketing, or your sales, or your project delivery.

THREE. If you outsource what you don’t understand, it’s gonna get expensive!

Whilst I did learn very early on that there was a lot of stuff that I knew very little about when it came to running my own consulting business, I also learnt very quickly that there are a lot of people out there ready and willing to take your money from you!

If you’re like me, and as a consultant I suspect that you are, you have integrity. You’re forever concerned that you’re delivering the highest value to your clients, and finding ways to improve upon what you do.

Sadly, the same can’t be said of everyone.

Where I was overwhelmed and underprepared for the amount of marketing that I needed to do, I thought a sensible thing to do would be to outsource some aspects. For example, ‘digital marketing’ which at the time I knew very little about.

I also outsourced cold calling after a short stint of doing it myself and realising that it was a pretty horrible way to start each day!

What I learned in hindsight, however, was that I wasn’t ready to cold call. I was still too busy talking about myself, rather than focusing on identifying clients with the problems that I knew I could help them with.

This is something that the cold calling agency should have advised me on at the time, but I think they were too busy banking the cheque.

The same problem extended to my digital marketing. I remember very clearly having a conversation one day with the digital marketing agency I’d outsourced to at the time. They said to me during a performance review that, “Things are going great, we’re getting some really good conversions”.

Yet the only thing I knew was that the phone hadn’t rung once! How could my outsourced provider believe that things were going great, when I had the polar opposite view!

In this instance I learned what I already knew – what I’d been telling clients for years – don’t outsource a problem!

What I should have done was worked much harder to understand the results that these outsource providers were going to help me achieve. And that’s key – you should work in collaboration with your outsource service providers; they help you to expand your capabilities. They shouldn’t been seen as simply providing an opportunity to hand off something so that it ceases to be your problem anymore. It doesn’t work that way, believe me!

FOUR. Growing to multiple 6-figures or even 7-figures is impossible to do on your own.

Oh there’s so many people out there promising 7-figure businesses to consulting business owners.

Of course, it’s more than possible to achieve 7-figures in revenue. Heck, I’ve opened up and created 7-figure practices many times in my career. But it is not – I’ll repeat that – IT IS NOT POSSIBLE to do it on your own.

You’re going to need a team.

In fact, once you get much past $250k you’re likely to need a team. But that doesn’t mean to say that you need to employ people as there’s many ways in which you can build a team. We’ve already mentioned one, which is outsourcing. But you can also partner with other firms, subcontract, take on contractors, etc.

FIVE. You’re never going to feel the same again!

Now I’ve written about this before, but running your own consulting business puts you firmly on the emotional roller coaster. You experience such wild swings between enthusiasm and utter despair that you just wouldn’t believe. And what’s more, this is probably within a single hour, let alone a day or even a week!

And yet somehow, everyone else out there is making it look easy! There’s no better way to make yourself feel stupid than to run your own business. Of course, the reality is that the vast majority of successful people have spent years working at their craft beforehand. It’s just that it’s conveniently forgotten when their success is reported upon.

Let’s take to today as an example of my own emotional roller coaster. I’m writing this at 8:30pm on a Sunday. I’ve been working in my study since 6:30am. And there’s a long way yet until I’m done for the day.

Amongst the things I’ve been doing, I’ve been working on a sales page for the next release of my coaching course. That was going great, and I was feeling pretty good about it, right up until the website crashed! I could have cried!

Then I got to writing this blog article. I started it last Thursday. I also got my weekly email newsletter all prepped at the same time. I was excited to think I’d get it out on time on Friday. That was two days ago! I felt good about it then, but now its late and I’m cursing myself.

If you’re going to run your own consulting business, then you need to develop some tough mental resilience to deal with the emotional highs and lows that running your own business brings. But more importantly than resilience is purpose. It has to be worth it!

You have to understand why it is you’re putting yourself through the pain. You need to understand what the driving reason is that keeps you going, what your finish line looks like – whether that’s the goals you’ve set for the next week, or for the next 10 years.

In summary

You can boil these 5 things down to the following advice:

  1. You engage your prospects by putting them front and centre, and by becoming an expert in solving their specific problems
  2. Repetition, repetition, repetition – do a few things really, really well, across your marketing, your sales, and your project delivery
  3. Don’t get other people to do what you don’t understand as you’ll only be disappointed with the results (and the subsequent big hole in your finances!)
  4. You can’t do it on your own – you need a team, whether it’s virtual or real!
  5. You need to define your purpose. For the most part, you’re on your own. Yes, there’s people close to you that support you, but largely you’re on your own! In order to build the mental resilience required you need a sense of purpose because running your own business, especially a micro-business, can be one heck of a challenge.


Images courtesy of unsplash.com and the following photographers:

abi ismail


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