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

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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 up 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. All of sudden I was staring at an empty sales pipeline.

This is common for many new consulting businesses and can often lead to failure.

They don’t fail through lack of opportunity, they fail through lack of knowing how to market.

So, here are 5 things I wish I knew back then when I started my consulting business.

Five things that you need to know to make a success of your consulting business.

  1. No-one cares about you
  2. Repetition is the name of the game
  3. Don't outsource what you don’t understand
  4. Growing to multiple 6-figures+ requires a team
  5. You’re never going to feel the same again!

01 No-one cares about you!

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

Ok, someone out there probably does. Maybe your mum. Or your significant other.

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 separate department for that.

Not only that, but 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, referrals, and the occasional RFP.

So they didn’t really do much by the way of marketing. Perhaps the odd case study here or there, but that’s about it.

But when I started out on my own I realised that I needed to find ways to get the attention of my ideal clients. That’s what this marketing thing was all 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 those problems.

02 Repetition is the name of the game!

One of the things I always love most about consulting is 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 solo, micro or boutique business, you can't afford to do lots of different things for different people.

You need to become known, respected and trusted as an expert in solving specific client problems. You need to become a specialist.

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

  1. It restricts your fees - 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 simply 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 dilutes your chances of being a specialist.

What you need to do is to learn to embrace repetition. You need to find the things that you can do in your business again, and again, and again!

Contrary to what you might think, this is actually a good thing. The more you repeat something, the better you get at it. Whether it’s your marketing, your sales, or your project delivery.

03 Don't outsource what you don’t understand

I learnt very early on that, despite my experience, 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 relieve you of your hard earned cash!

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 I needed to do, I thought a sensible thing 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 client problems that I knew I could help with.

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. Not once!

How could my outsourced service 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 the 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!

04 Growing to multiple 6-figures requires a team

There are 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 to start growing your 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, etc.

05 You’re never going to feel the same again!

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 couldn’t believe. And what’s more, this is probably within a single hour, let alone a day or even a week!

Yet somehow, everyone else out there is making it look easy!

In fact, there’s no easier way to make yourself feel stupid than to run your own business and believe that for everyone else, it's easy!

The reality, of course, is that the vast majority of successful people have spent years honing their craft before they come onto your radar. That means you only get to know them once they're successful, and those people that report upon their success often conveniently forget the struggle that cam beforehand.

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 before 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 it brings.

More important than resilience is having a sense of purpose.

It has to be worth it! You have to understand why it is that you’re putting yourself through the pain.

You need to understand what those driving reasons are that keep you going. And 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. 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, sales, and 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!). Learn just enough first so that if and when you do outsource, you'll know how to measure effectiveness
  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 are 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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