Start a company. Raise funds. Scale. Change the world.
These terms are all the rage today. But what if you are in a transitory phase at this point in your career? What if you want to use your skills from your career to be your own boss in an industry that you know everything about? What if you want to move forward doing what you do best? What if you want to help others while helping yourself?
Then the world of consulting is for you.
Consulting offers major opportunities but it also has its fair share of challenges and difficulties. It isn’t for everyone. You need to have the right mindset, offering, operate in the niche that is a right fit for you, and have an ability to find ideal customers. Even more difficult, you need to deal with the mental health aspects that come with the territory.
But don’t worry, because this is precisely what we are going to discuss in this post.
This post is in collaboration with Mylance, the fastest way to legitimize and grow your consulting business. Mylance provides users with a turn-key website to showcase their experience for free, and then has a community, templates, playbook, coaching, and more to help consultants grow their business. It’s what I wish I’d had when I started consulting.
What does a consultant do?
If you want to make your mark as a consultant, you need to understand what it is that consultants actually do. In simple terms, consultants are essentially experts and fixers.They are hired to solve a problem or fill a role for a short amount of time. But this isn’t all consultants do.
- Consultants provide an outsider’s perspective on the business.
- Provide expert guidance.
- Fill a role temporarily (consultants work on a project by project basis).
- Execute on a deliverable.
- Provide input that is difficult to find with a full time hire, especially in a niche industry.
- Create strategies and help implement those strategies.
Here is a simple chart from My Consulting Offer that explains the consulting process:
There has never been a better opportunity to become a consultant as expertise is required. Work tools such as Notion and Airtable allow for work to be completed anywhere in the world. Communication tools like WhatsApp and Slack make back and forth conversations simple and efficient. Companies of all types and stages are investing in the right expertise to help them tackle their challenges.
But more importantly, companies are facing difficult times. With inflation and an uncertain economic outlook, experts are needed now more than ever. Companies rely on experts to help them avoid costly mistakes, save time and money, navigate an uncertain market, and increase their chance of success. This is relevant to everyone, regardless of what business function they fulfill.
And what are these major business functions? A few include:
If you have expertise and experience, you can provide value. No two consultants are the same. One may come from doing marketing for an early stage startup while another may have had years of sales experience at a publicly traded company. Your experience makes you unique and this uniqueness is the advantage that you can provide to your clients.
Put aside any doubts you may have and begin to look into offering your skills and experience.
Skills to be a successful consultant
No two consultants are the same but they all face similar challenges regardless of their industry vertical. This chart from Consulting Success illustrates the consulting skills that are the most challenging (and the most important) for new consultants:
These are broken down further in the bullets below:
- Marketing: The promotion and outreach to locate prospective clients. The reason that this is the top challenge is because it is the most difficult. The clients are out there but finding and engaging them is a process within itself. This is especially challenging when you have a limited network to turn to. While cold outreach isn’t the best method for marketing, the key is warm introductions and customized outreach. Knowing your audience and how to approach them is key. This is different for everyone so expect to experiment.
- Sales: The ability to move beyond conversations with prospective clients and transform these into paid clients (either one time projects or recurring). This is difficult for a variety of reasons as the clients may not be ready to hire or may lack a proper budget.
- Fees: Pricing services that are offered which make business sense to both the client and the consultant. Charge too much and you run the risk of alienating a potential client. Charge too little and you end up doing a lot of work for a limited amount of money.
- Operations: The act of creating and running the business. This involves the legal aspects, incorporation, accounting, etc. For example, Will you have your own custom proposal and letter of engagement? Or will you download a customizable template? How do you intend to get paid? Monthly? Upon delivery of your work? Will you be an LLC? Or a C corporation? Will you take weekly calls with your clients? Or will you work asynchronously with them?
- Knowing what to focus on: New consultants often get confused on where to focus their attention. Is it on their clients? Building their personal brand? Networking? Marketing?
- Time Management & Organization: Consulting can quickly get out of hand unless you are organized and stay on top of your responsibilities. Unlike a large corporation with a team to handle different aspects of day to day business, you will have to rely on yourself to get things done.
- Emotional: Starting a new business is difficult. It is a lonely journey where you have to obey yourself instead of a boss. This is more difficult as it sounds.
- Project Delivery: Ultimately, being a consultant means delivering on the projects for your clients. Deadlines need to be met and if the client isn’t happy with the results, be prepared to redo them.
One of the most important skills to have (despite whether you are just starting out or are a seasoned veteran) is to have a business owner mindset. You need to be able to take action when required, accept responsibilities for your action (or lack of action) and constantly be pushing yourself to find new business and expand your skill set.
You must also understand that like any skill or career, the more you do it, the less difficult it becomes. But this doesn’t mean you will be an expert within a week. Consultants are constantly learning, experimenting, and taking chances on themselves. If you want to be a successful consultant, you will have to do so as well.
For example, say you had one client who loves your work but the next client thinks your work is less than stellar. Instead of blaming the client, you need to look in the mirror. Maybe you lacked certain skills or need to shore up some weak points in the final deliverable. Regardless, every client is different and the truly successful consultants use every job to learn and grow.
You need to realize that if you can be hired full-time, you are qualified to work as a consultant. You already possess all the skills required and have the experience (in many cases, you may even be overqualified).
The challenge is simply narrowing down the niche you intend to operate in as well as your ability to pitch in a concise way.
Let’s begin with the niche.
You can’t be everything to everybody nor should you be. Focus on your area of expertise. If you never worked in biotechnology then this isn’t the industry to dive into. You want to be able to showcase your expertise and truly come off as a valuable solution to your client’s problems. You should be able to confidently demonstrate what you can do and in a manner that is cost efficient and adds a lot of value. This brings us to the pitch.
You need to be able to pitch in a clear and concise way that showcases the sheer value you bring to the table. The pitch should help the client visualize working with you. Here are a few examples:
- Your experience allows you to easily handle all of the challenges that the client is facing.
- You have knowledge that you can provide to your client which isn’t readily available.
- You have an ability to deliver on any KPIs in an efficient and professional manner.
As we stated before, a consultant is an expert and expertise matters. At the end of the day, the client wants to save on time and have an edge in business. You can provide that and not only make their business function better, but make their lives easier.
If you want to be a successful consultant, you need to pick a specific niche to operate within.
Ideal clients are different for every consultant. Some are better equipped to deal with a major corporation while others may be able to help smaller teams. Here are a few examples of different types of clients:
- Individual clients: An individual client often requires outside help to achieve their strategic goals. This help comes in the form of an expert (aka, you). For example, they may be a sole proprietor of a business who is looking to expand their reach or a leadership professional who wants to establish themselves as an industry expert. This could be due to the fact that the client may lack the required skills to achieve strategic objectives but is willing to pay the consultant for their expertise and time. For example, creating their E-commerce store, their MVP, or handling their marketing and building their social presence. Budgets tend to be small, but consultants who are open to gaining experience and building their client list should pay attention
- Early stage startups (pre-seed and seed): Early stage startups have limited resources. Most have limited external funding (if any). This means that hiring a full time employee isn’t in the cards. It is the perfect opportunity for consultants as they can play key roles, helping the business mature and grow. It isn’t uncommon for consultants to remain on the team as the startup raises funding. Some may even become full time hires or continue to work with the startup for the entirety of its journey.
- Growth stage startups (Series A): Growth stage startups already have funding or are generating cash flow. While they can hire full time roles, they may prefer the flexibility that hiring a consultant provides. Hiring a consultant allows them to save on cash burn, extend their runway, and achieve their strategic objectives.
- Publicly traded companies: It isn’t just individuals and startups who use consultants. Major corporations are also in need of outside consultants and contractors. Companies like Google employ thousands of outside workers to fulfill a variety of roles and stay competitive in the market.
To be a successful consultant, you need to have a success mindset.
What is that exactly?
It is a mindset that is focused on growth, both personal and professional.
It is a mindset focused on the big project, not the small and trivial.
It is a mindset that realizes that every setback is also an opportunity.
It is a mindset that rejects rejection and keeps moving forward.
It is a mindset that focuses on the end deliverable for a client, because your final product is a reflection of your skills and reputation.
Finally, it is a mindset that seeks to be the best in whatever niche you operate in.
These all seem simple enough until you realize how difficult they are to put into practice. It is one thing to have a client accept a lucrative offer but when it comes to delivering the final project, it needs to be your best work.
And a success mindset does not accept anything less.
It does not accept a project that is full of grammatical errors.
It does not accept a project that is missing information.
It does not accept a project that is non-functioning.
It does not accept a project where the client’s input is ignored so the consultant can satisfy their ego.
Understand that you are what you do. You are the result of your actions, your work, and your professionalism. If you choose to be sloppy, hard to work with, and hard to reach, word will get out. No one wants to deal with someone who they can’t trust, especially if they are paying them to handle important business.
The success mindset is essential for those who truly want to be a successful and professional consultant. All other mindset and thought processes should be left to the amateurs.
Overcoming imposter syndrome and the Jonah Complex
Perhaps the hardest aspect of being a successful consultant is the fact that you must overcome internal doubts.
This is not as simple as it sounds.
Because the vast majority of people suffer from imposter syndrome.
You may have heard of it. Imposter syndrome is a psychological occurrence in which an individual doubts their skills, talents, or accomplishments and has a persistent internalized fear of being exposed as a fraud. Consultants are not immune from this fear. In fact, it is more frequent in entrepreneurs than in full time employees, with 84% of entrepreneurs facing imposter syndrome compared to 58% of employees at big tech companies such as Google, Amazon, and Microsoft. Common symptoms include:
- The notion that one believes that they aren’t worthy of their past successes. They attribute their achievements and success to luck rather than skill and hard work.
- One may not check all the boxes that a client requires, leading themselves to believe that they are unworthy of the opportunity.
- They may talk themselves out of the opportunity, believing that they are incapable of successfully accomplishing it.
- They may refuse to be proud of their past achievements, both personal and professional.
If you want to be a successful client, you must face these doubts but not give in. This is worth repeating:
You must face these doubts but not give in!
We all face doubts, especially when faced with an opportunity that could prove challenging. But the truly successful among us rise to the occasion. They move forward, not in absence of these personal doubts, but in spite of them.
This is what separates the successful consultant from the rest of the pack. They know the obstacles that are inherent in any job, but they push past any doubts that they may have and focus on the task at hand. They get to work, knowing that they are more than capable of delivering on the objectives.
Understand that when you think of yourself as an imposter, you are not only suffering from imposter syndrome, but you are also refusing to embrace your own greatness. This is known as the Jonah Complex, or the fear of success or the fear of being one's best. This could be detrimental to your success as a consultant, not because you have feelings of being an imposter, but because you are living far beneath your potential. People who suffer from the Jonah Complex face the following:
- A fear of appearing self-centered or arrogant to others.
- Difficulty envisioning themself as a thought leader, subject matter expert, or prominent figure in their niche.
- A fear that their successful life would appear extraordinary to their peers and not acceptable.
- A fear of responsibility that comes from recognizing one’s own talents, potentialities, and personal greatness.
You cannot and must not let any of these thoughts stand in your way. After all, someone must be a leader in the field, someone must be on top, someone must be considered the best.
Why not you?
In life, we all face rejection. However, if you want to be a freelance consultant, expect to face more than the usual share.
Why is this the case?
Because it isn’t easy getting clients. While everyone may have a need for your services, for whatever reason, they may not choose to work with you. This could be from a myriad of factors that include everything from budget constraints to the refusal to trust someone from outside of their professional network.
There is no easy fix for this and it is paramount not to take it personally. The most important factor is to keep moving. It only takes one yes to change your business and even your life, but getting to that yes could take dozens of rejections.
Throughout my varied background, I have faced rejections in every manner possible. I was rejected by clients. I was rejected by people. I was rejected by publishers and studios. I was rejected by game shows. I was rejected by my peers.
In fact, I don’t think there was a time when I didn’t face rejection.
I was called too senior, too junior, too crazy, and too expensive. I had too much experience or not enough. I lacked certain skills or had too many to offer. Regardless of the excuse for not wanting to work with me, I simply pressed ahead.
And you must too.
Persistence is the most powerful force in the world. The most talented people faced it and overcame it. In a rejection letter, Rudyard Kipling was told he didn’t know how to use the English language before giving the world The Jungle Book. Nolan Bushnell rejected Steve Job’s offer to invest in some company he had just created called Apple, and Stephen King had so many rejection letters that the nail he used to display them on the wall had collapsed from their weight. He replaced the nail with a spike and continued to write.
You must prepare yourself. Realize that the rejection email you receive is often the result of factors outside of your control and has nothing to do with your offer, skillset, pricing, or personality. Additionally, many may reject simply because they lack the imagination and understanding of what you bring to the table.
Pay them no attention.
Understand that there are countless opportunities for one who wants to become a successful consultant, as long as they never give up in the face of rejection.
I am a super connector who helps founders build their business, raise funds, and prepare for success.