By Ruth Sando
I have recently (2017) retired after a long career in private industry, working both as an employee and an outside consultant. After earning my Ph.D., I spent over 20 years in the financial services industry (in banking and insurance), and then for five years was a senior international housing finance manager before starting my own firm, Sando and Associates, in 2003.
There is a high failure rate for people going into business for themselves, but it is highest for those who do insufficient preparation. If you are interested in working as a consultant, I have some suggestions that I hope are helpful.
Become an expert
My work experience has convinced me that the best way to become a consultant is to first work in your field long enough so that others will view you as an expert, worthy of being hired for advice.
Understand what life is like for your clients
My years on the inside taught me the language and worldview of American industry. I also learned about the pressures that staff and management are under, how decisions are made, how budgets are created, how functions are staffed, etc. When I took a position as an international consultant, I learned how to market services, write proposals, create budgets, manage teams, resolve issues with the client, and create the final report.
Spend time preparing to work independently
I decided to go out on my own three years before I actually did so, and I used that time to create my own “board of directors” for advice, hire a graphic artist to do my business card and website, buy the equipment I needed, research the competition, develop a marketing plan, join organizations, begin networking, interview successful entrepreneurs, improve my presentation skills, and save money for a financial cushion.
Develop a clear statement of what you have to offer
In order to develop your website and to market your services, you need to be able to articulate what value you provide and how you differ from others providing similar services. Also, you need to understand what departments in the organization are likely to hire you, and focus marketing efforts on people in those areas.
Make sure you make a profit
When you have a business, your goal is to stay in business. When someone wants to hire you, you need to still be available. So it is important to be committed to your work, stay competitive, and make a decent living. Many consultants have a variety of billing rates, depending on whether the client is a government agency, a non-profit, or a private organization. You need to be able to price your work correctly, recognizing that you are not billable all the time, and must include vacation time and the costs of insurance and other benefits in your pricing.
Spend time in ways that will bring in more customers
Find out what organizations your potential clients belong to and join them. Volunteer to be a speaker at professional conferences where you can get in front of clients. Write articles for the journals that they read. You will have a limited budget for marketing, so make sure that it is spent in ways that lead to new business. Once my business was underway, I found word of mouth to be the most important source for new clients. LinkedIn had also proven to be an important vehicle for being noticed, and spending time updating your LinkedIn page is likely to be time well spent.
Make sure you enjoy what you do
Consultants are self-motivated, so we have to enjoy our work and the challenges that come with it. We also have to update our marketing strategy when conditions change. There may be some tasks that you don’t enjoy or are not good at, and it would be wise to try to hire those tasks out, rather than let them be a drag on your time and energy.