The term “consultant” can describe just about anyone these days, but perhaps, a more appropriate term for consultant would be artist—that person with niche expertise, who can radically change how an organization thinks, perceives, and operates, just by sitting down and spending some time with them.
But, just as it’s not enough for an artist to brush paint across a canvas and hope to be discovered, consultants must also be their own best agents, money managers, and personal assistants. There is, in fact, a unique cocktail of skills and competencies any consultant must hone in order to establish a thriving business. Here are the most important factors to consider:
For the new consultant, writing a business plan should be a hybrid of old and new, blending experience and expert knowledge with a fresh look at the marketing industry. To write a good business plan, new consultants should answer a series of questions:
- What is my skillset? When answering this question, think both of niche expertise and any more general business competencies you bring to the table. Separating your expertise from your competencies from your weaknesses will help you not only determine how to brand yourself but also to determine who you need to hire.
- How are my offerings/approaches different than that of bigger consulting firms and/or from other private consultants (i.e. what is my competition, and how can I top them)?
- Who is my audience? What kind of messages grab their attention, and how are they best reached?
- What am I going to charge?
- Am I going to be a sole proprietor, an LLC or an S-Corp, and why?
In fact, just answering these questions is often the best way for a consultant to start in lieu of a business plan. Why? Because the best way to build a consulting business is to plunge in head first, see what the market really thinks of your skills, adjust accordingly, and go from there. It’s once your business really gets busy that you want to think about these next classic business plan questions:
- Are my backend business systems working smoothly and efficiently? If not, where can I streamline?
- Am I spread too thin between too many related but ultimately separate sub-niches? If so, where is the most rewarding place in which to concentrate my efforts? Might I consider different pricing structures to maximize profit for time invested?
- Am I reaching the audience I want to reach? If not, how can I either reach them or how can I better service the audience I have instead? Knowing yourself is key, but so is adaptability.
- How well is my pricing structure working, and how can I continue to grow in the future?
When you’re finally ready for a more formal template, the Small Business Administration has got you covered.
Certifications and Licensing
One of the most important things to consider before launching out on your own is the type of documentation you’ll need. This is especially true if you’re going to be working across state lines, as different states will require different paperwork. Professional certifications, while not required, can also be crucial to your credibility, both as a stamp of trustworthiness and as an entryway into events where you can network among like-minded professionals who can send you referrals.
Lastly, research carefully the many government agencies with whom you’ll need to file and to whom you’ll need to pay taxes. In some states, you’ll only need to deal with the feds, while in others you’ll need to file with the state and the city as well.
As a marketing consultant, your daily job description will involve plunging into organizations as a complete stranger and getting the team on board to make changes. There’s no better way to prove that you have both the social skills and the expertise to do this than by networking and building strong relationships with potential clients or those that can refer to you.
And if you’re not a natural extrovert, don’t worry; you don’t have to go to absolutely every single networking event that ever spams your inbox. In fact, effective networking can occur only when you’ve discovered your networking style and narrowed your efforts and energies to match.
You can, for instance, begin your local networking efforts on Twitter and follow up when you meet your online friends at an event, rather than having to chase them all down at that same event cold. Or, you may find that you’re best when networking at an informal, wine-infused social hour with other industry professionals than in a highly structured pitch event for small business people that span the industry bounds. There are more networking events and opportunities than ever, so, for the most ROI, find the one that’s right for you.
For many consultants, getting that backend systems set is a big headache, but the earlier you do so, the better. While you can’t know for sure which backend systems you need before you’re actually working on your own, you want to have has much in place as possible, so that when you do get busy, it’s just a matter of directing all of those administrative tasks neatly where they need to go.
Backend systems can mean:
1. Having a Customer Relationship Management (CRM) System. Whether you’re connecting on social media, at networking events, over email, or on the phone, knowing where your potential clients are in the sales process at all times is key, so is managing the relationship with clients that have already signed off.
You need a communication system that allows you to prioritize urgent communications and that streamlines your efforts so you can quickly and completely respond to your clients in a way that makes them feel cared for and respected—the surest way to get both return business and referrals in the future.
2. Invoicing and Accounting. Often the most dreaded aspect of running your own consultancy, invoicing and accounting are absolutely crucial business systems to get down right out of the gate. Think I’m wrong? Have fun chasing down invoices as you try to identify just who in an organization actually holds the purse strings, or where that invoice even disappeared to once you hit send.
I’m not even going to mention how much of a time suck it is to try and corral countless hours across service packages you’ve tracked in various spreadsheets, when you haven’t gotten a core, streamlined system in place, let alone expenses and inventory.
Your best bet is to take a close look at a small business invoicing guide, get the setup right the first time around, and adjust as you identify your needs. This way, you’ll be able to spend your time working and growing your business, rather than trying to figure how it all fits together come tax season.
3. And more. If you haven’t worked on the backend side of a business before, I highly recommend hiring a systems consultant yourself or, at the very least, doing extensive research online.
It should go without saying at this point, but it’s absolutely crucial that consultants (and all businesses) have an online platform. The first part of this means getting yourself a professional looking website, one that represents your voice and approach while also keeping pace with modern design trends, so you don’t look outdated.
This will vary widely between various consultants and the tone they wish to set for themselves—with some needing a more dry, cut, and clear approach to visuals and copy, while others will be all about long-form, voice-y sales pages that show off that sparkling personality (looking at you, branding consultants). Use this site as your base—one you can paste into any online comments and pepper throughout social media.
Last but not least, it’s important that all new consultants combine idealistic and achievable goals both for the long and short term. Yes, a business plan is a good place to start, as it will help give you that overall year, five-year, and ten-year plan to get going, but it’s important to recalibrate as both the market and, well, your desire for a life-work balance change exactly what this means.
Depending on your personality, it can merit working with a business coach or at the very least getting yourself a business mentor to help you with these reevaluations. Otherwise, it’s far too easy to get so caught up in the every day workings of the business that you lose sight of the bigger picture.
Of course, there is much more to starting your own consultancy than this, but thinking these few things out is a great place to start. Before you know it, you’ll be busier than you can imagine … and you’ll be glad you set up your core systems ahead of time.