So, you’ve decided to become an independent consultant — great choice!
Independent consulting delivers freedom, control over your work-life balance, an increased income and long-term job security. But to get there, you need to get started.
Figuring out your first moves in a new industry is tough. When entering the world of self-employment, where every decision is up to you, it is even harder. Indecision can delay your move into consulting for far longer than necessary.
What can be hard to see for people outside of the consulting industry is that a career change into consulting does not need to be abrupt, risky or hard. In fact, when done right, it can feel like the most natural transition in the world.
Here we’ll detail your step by step journey towards grabbing control of your life and building a consulting business that’s all your own.
Step 1: Start by taking stock of your network
Although you may think you need to pack in your old job before you can start out as an independent consultant, this is simply not true. You may not be able to start signing clients yet, but you can start setting up your practice right here and now. The first step lies in taking a long look at your contacts list.
Your network is essential to your business. It’s what you will use to secure your first engagements. You need to identify the key players within your network — who is a decision-maker who could need your consulting services one day? Who would introduce you to potential new prospects down the line?
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Expand your network using the tips we've provided here.
Reach out to the people you know best
Once you have categorised the people within your network, reach out to the ones you know well. By speaking with people you trust and already know, you will remove the pressure from these first meetings and be able to be more candid about your plans — asking for advice on how they see you performing as a consultant.
Getting a feel for what others think about you in this role can be invaluable. People you have worked with in the past will be able to identify other skills or knowledge that you hadn’t thought about, which you can demonstrate and build on to help you land clients in the future.
Expand your networking circle
Once you meet with those people you feel comfortable talking to openly, you will need to expand your efforts. This is something you can do on your own. However, in your early meetings, you should look for introductions from those contacts who trust you. This will allow you to expand beyond just your peripheral network to whole new groups of people. A recommendation is always the best introduction to someone new.
As you grow your business, this process of network expansion should remain consistent. Every new contact you make, and then impress, can help you meet new people who may eventually become clients themselves. Successful consulting engagements will form the backbone of this expansion strategy down the road. However, that process starts with the network you have today.
Tailor your networking style
You can’t speak to every contact the same way. For people you know well, you can be upfront about wanting their help. For people on the periphery, or people you are meeting for the first time, you may need to be a little more cautious.
Generally, people are resistant to one-sided interactions — people don’t like being asked for help from strangers without getting anything in return. No one really likes a sales pitch, either. If you start blathering on about how “skilled” you are, it will be hard to get a second meeting.
A critical skill for new consultants to learn is how to show your skills without pitching. We will go into greater detail later, however, the basics come down to understanding the pain points of the person you are speaking with, and then provide real advice that will help them. You need to be careful not to give so much away that they no longer need your help. But by offering real advice, you will show your skills while actually engaging with someone, which is exactly what you need to do!
Assess your network’s ability to support your move into consulting
Although your goal from the start should be to expand your network, the first decision networking will allow you to make is if becoming a consultant is a viable option today. You don’t need a fully formed network from day one, but you do need a support structure that will allow you to grow.
Remember, quality trumps quantity every time. One highly-connected contact might be able to help you jump-start your entire networking operation — getting your foot in the door with a dozen decision-makers. The ability of your network to support your new consulting business comes down to a combination of size, connectivity and a willingness to help.
Step 2: Identify your most marketable skills and how you can broaden your skillset
Consultants should never stop learning. You need to stay on top of the latest news and trends in your field, and always look to expand your areas of expertise. The more things you know, the more opportunities there will be available.
As already mentioned, your early networking engagements will help you learn more about your skillset — both your strengths and weaknesses. You should think about what you learn and the kind of engagements your existing skills allow you to tackle. Think about your blindspots and develop good habits around learning to help you constantly improve.
Generalist vs specialist consultants
There is room in consulting for both generalists and specialists. However, some of the most successful independent consultants aim to be a little bit of both. This will maximise the number of jobs you are able to take, along with the scope of work you are able to offer on any one engagement.
For example, if you can consult on the technical side of a digital transformation project (like a cloud migration) and help create and implement training schemes around that new IT rollout, you will increase your value to clients.
Focus on your core skills and grow from there
As a corporate professional, you have core skills. Once you have been able to identify those, start by making sure that you are really up to date with the latest thinking and issues. You may not agree with the latest trends (that’s alright — clients may value that perspective), but you should at least know what is going on.
From there, just keep learning. I would recommend setting aside at least half a day a week to focus on self-improvement — more, if you have time. Think about areas that sit just adjacent to your core skills (IT training vs IT planning, for example) and look to make inroads. A good consultant never stops improving on their specialist knowledge or rounding out their skillset. This is what will make you even more valuable within the market, which will in turn help your business grow.
Step 3: Network… But learn how to network properly first
As soon as you start branching out your networking efforts to people you don’t know too well, getting your networking technique right is critical. You need to get good at first impressions, writing follow up emails, and creating long-lasting network relationships that turn contacts into contracts.
Your ability to survive and thrive will depend on your ability to network regularly and effectively. When your consulting firm is up and running, you’ll need to allot sufficient time and effort to your networking activities.
Think of yourself as a gardener and your network is your garden. You need to strike a balance between nurturing your existing contacts and planting the seeds to grow new connections. You’ll need to ensure that you’re maintaining regular contact with those who are close to converting while also lining up tomorrow’s clients.
And just so that we’re fully aligned, let’s talk about what we mean (and what we don’t mean) by ‘good’ networking.
What networking is
Networking is how you start to help prospective clients see value in you and your brand. It’s an opportunity to start building a relationship. It’s your opportunity to meet people and leave them with a good impression of you. That’s it. That’s all it is. It’s your chance to allow members of your network to put a face to your name. This could be through meeting mutual connections, or during networking events.
Networking may also be a way in which you can subtly hint at what you can do for them. If their operation comes up in conversation, it’s a chance to show you’ve done your homework, and can identify ways in which you might be able to help them.
However, remember that it’s not just about you and what you can give them. People like to talk about themselves, so when it comes to networking, let them. This is also a great way to glean information from them which could be useful when it comes to following up. This is the time to capitalise upon the momentum you built up in your first contact, and ideally, your sign off should foreshadow how you do that. If you promised to look into something for them, or send them resources, make sure you follow through! And, of course, remind them what a pleasure it’s been meeting them and that you hope to be of use in future. This will ensure you create the perfect first impression.
What networking isn’t
Networking is absolutely not an opportunity for you to work on your “elevator pitch”. It’s not an opportunity for a hard sell. It’s not uncommon for new consultants to bolt out of the gate and start hard-selling everyone they come across. But they quickly learn the hard way that this is not the way to make the requisite first impression — as mentioned, people dislike hard pitches and often don’t know how to react to them, so it’s best to steer clear.
Real world and digital: A battle on two fronts
Effective, networking takes place both in the digital realm — usually LinkedIn — and in the real world. It’s best to be doing both whenever opportunities crop up.
Network online and ‘in real life’
While getting to know people in real life is crucial, you don’t want to neglect your online presence either. Being active on social media — especially LinkedIn — can help you reach a wider range of potential clients. This will be a very useful resource as it will help you get to know the key players within an organisation and you can reach out to them directly. It’s a great way to facilitate what could later turn out to be mutually beneficial business relationships.
LinkedIn also has a blogging feature which presents opportunities to engage prospective clients and participate in thought leadership — keeping you front of mind and increasing the chance that you are the first person people call when thinking about hiring a consultant.
You can either make a memorable first impression in person and then use LinkedIn to remain visible to the contact, or message them over LinkedIn and meet in person. Either way, you should be making an effort to stay in touch online and in the real world as this can help you determine a contact’s viability as a prospect through what you find out about them.
When it comes to networking, never forget that its primary goal is generating perceived value in your brand from the client’s perspective. Being online doesn’t change this. Always think about your audience and look to serve their needs.
Step 4: Start building a reputation that elevates your brand
As in any small business, your reputation is your most valuable resource. Your reputation is what strengthens and elevates your brand. It helps clients to see value in you and your services.
The good news for independent consultants is that they already have a formidable reputation from their former lives as executives. That’s why it’s so important to start building your network with contacts for whom you’re a proven commodity.
When working for a firm, regardless of the seniority of your position, much of your reputation was attached to that company. With independent consulting, the opposite occurs — it is your personal reputation which is attached to your name only. Creating this kind of reputation will solidify your brand and give you the credibility that many companies look for when hiring consultants. They want to avoid those consultants who have bad reputations; who make consultants seem like hacks. Having a better reputation increases your value and demonstrates that you are someone who can be trusted to deliver real results.
Remember, even before you quit your day job, it’s possible to start building the kind of reputation that will lead to a full consulting calendar.
Establish your reputation through thought leadership
As we discussed previously, LinkedIn is an extremely useful resource for thought leadership and it is something you can start doing before you even start your consulting business.
LinkedIn’s blogging platform allows you to publish blog posts, tutorials, infographics and other helpful resources that can be invaluable in establishing your knowledge, experience and credentials for prospects who are at the top of your funnel. It can go a long way towards delivering value to prospects and therefore adding value to your brand.
Never walk into a meeting without doing your homework
Business leaders look to consultants for answers. As such, you can never afford to look like a deer in the headlights — your reputation depends on it. Never walk into a meeting without setting aside at least half an hour to do some extensive research into the company, the key players and any operational issues that could be holding them back.
The more answers and solutions you’re able to present to them at your first meeting, the better the impression you’ll make.
Deliver operational excellence to cultivate referrals
Of course, it doesn’t matter how great your first impressions are if you’re not continuously delivering results to your clients — this is the backbone of your business and your reputation. Only by demonstrating that you can deliver consistent and quantifiable results to your clients can you ensure that you’ll not only be invited back but also gain referrals.
Referrals are the lifeblood of independent consulting firms and they only come when you’re able to consistently deliver distinctively.
Step 5: Step back and reassess your reasons for getting into consulting
There is a reason you got into consulting. In fact, there are probably many reasons: you wanted control over your work/life balance, freedom to pick who you want to work with and job security that you can’t gain by being employed by someone else. These are still achievable goals, whether you have only just started or are looking to transition now.
As you progress down the path of building the foundations of your business, you need to step back and make sure that you are headed in the right direction — a direction that will deliver the outcome you want and need. You need to think about what your goals are. What do you want to get out of your consulting firm? Do you want to be able to retire in 10 years? Do you want to gain new knowledge and skills?
For example, if your aim was to gain job security, you need to take the right steps to build a consulting business with a strong foundation to ensure you have that security in the long term. You can do this by making sure your priorities are correct: you need to ensure you are continuously cultivating a wide range of contacts and avoid taking any big long term engagements. The reason for this is because even though long term contracts may result in short term security, they limit you from taking on many different short term engagements which will deliver you security in the long term. This is because if one of your clients leaves, you still have many other engagements to rely on, meaning your business won’t instantly take a big hit.
Whatever your reasons for becoming an independent consultant, establishing clear, realistic and measurable goals early on can help you to ensure that you’re steering the ship in the right direction.
Map out what a working week will look like for you
Your goals will also dictate your operational parameters, so you need to know what you’ll be doing on a day-to-day basis.
Many a clever and talented executive has fumbled the ball as an independent consultant because they never mastered the fine art of time management. As a consultant you’ll need to divide your time between working on projects, building your network, meeting up with existing contacts to touch base, researching and learning new skills as well as the myriad administrative tasks that come with being an independent consultant.
You should aim to have 6-8 meetings a week — even if it’s just for a quick chat over coffee — either with new prospects or old connections, to ensure you stay at the forefront of people’s minds. Whilst networking in person is essential, make sure not to neglect your online presence on LinkedIn. Engage with posts, message people and aim to post one thought leadership post a month.
It’s easy to get buried under an avalanche of paperwork or go to a meeting poorly informed when it feels like time is always against you. You need to ensure you have time for researching and preparing prospects and clients, so you can continue to deliver real outcomes. To help you, one of the best investments you can make in your early days is hiring an Executive Assistant (EA). They can ease the burden of administration and give you more time to dedicate to activities which will grow and strengthen your firm.
Yet, while they can be absolutely invaluable, an EA is by no means the only form of support available to you...
Step 6: Look into associate programmes and know which kind is right for you
Working for yourself does not mean working alone, and you can gain access to the skills, resources and contacts of other consultants by joining associate programmes and consulting partnerships — the two main consulting partner types.
These two discrete terms tend can be used interchangeably, but they are actually two very different organisations, and which you choose will depend on the goals and priorities of your new firm. Let’s take a look at the difference between the two:
Associate programmes are essentially outgrowths of independent consultants who have more clients than they can effectively service. When you join one, you can access their huge network of clients and still maintain a large degree of autonomy. Rarely will an associate program demand exclusivity of their members.
While this may seem perfect for a new consultant, they certainly have their caveats.
When you join an associate programme, the contacts are very much the programme’s contacts, not your own. Because you will be reliant on their network, your own will start to be neglected and you could lose lucrative opportunities to other consultants.
What’s more, an associate programme will demand a significant chunk of your fee (usually over 50%) for your trouble. Although some offer a degree of training, the support they offer is fairly minimal.
While they can help you to make an easier start, this may not necessarily be the best start.
By contrast, consulting partnerships (or consulting franchises) will not furnish you with a lengthy list of contacts. However, they will give you a wealth of support and resources to help you to make the best possible start in building your firm.
They can provide access to training and mentorship programmes. They represent wonderful networking opportunities. They give you unlimited access to other members of the partnership and their collective pool of knowledge, experience and expertise. If your client asks you a question you can’t answer, there’s a good chance that someone in your partnership can. They can help you to build upon your existing skills while learning new ones, so that you can appeal to a broader client base.
Most will even provide you with administrative support, like your own EA.
While you could certainly find success with either option, it’s imperative to choose one which aligns closest with your personal goals.
How does Positive Momentum support partners?
Look to the future… while keeping an eye on the present
Once you’re established as an independent consultant, success lies in your ability to divide your attention between the short game and the long game. You’ll need to ensure that your name, face and voice are never allowed to fade from memory within your network. After all, half the challenge of landing a job is getting in the room.
You’ll have to leverage LinkedIn, other social platforms, phone and video calls and face-to-face meetings to maintain close contact with your network and keep providing value for your clients. If you allow them to forget you, winning new assignments will become so much harder.
Master this balancing act and you can be assured of sustainable success. And don’t forget to lean on your EA and other support infrastructure to help you to manage your time.
Never stop learning
Finally, a great consultant never stops learning new skills. This allows you to be both a specialist and a generalist depending on your client’s needs. You can consolidate existing knowledge while learning from other consultants within your partnership.
Make sure that you’re always reading in your downtime or listening to audiobooks and podcasts in the car. You never know where a useful nugget of information may come from or how it can help you to bring greater value to your clients.
Great consultants never rest on their laurels. They’re always striving to better themselves and strengthen their brand. And that’s a valuable trait in an economy where personal reputation is everything.
Are you ready to get the ball rolling?
Now that you know where to start (and that you don’t even need to quit your job), how much longer can you afford to wait? You could currently be assessing the contacts that introduce you to future clients, and establishing yourself as an industry thought leader to showcase your capabilities, so how much longer can you afford to let golden opportunities pass you by? It’s never too early to start building the foundations of your firm.
What better time to start than right now?