Starting a consulting practice can be a grueling but rewarding experience that allows you to 1) do what you excel in and love, 2) work with people and organizations you care about, and 3) make your own rules and approaches to work and problem solving. While all of those things sound great, and can be accomplished (within reason), there are three things I’ve learned that can either make or break your consulting practice. I thought I would share what I’ve learned from my own experience to help others going into consulting or considering it as a career. Take one of these qualities out, and you’re likely to run into trouble in your practice.
Let’s dive in and take a closer look.
As a consultant, you have to be incredibly resourceful, and when I say resourceful, I mean using all the resources at your disposal. This means you must go beyond just utilizing your professional network you’ve worked so hard to build over the years. (You’ve done that, right?) Being resourceful means you consider and actively use all of the tools available to you to become an expert in your field.
- Do you regularly talk to people within your professional network? And, no, I don’t mean spam them with pitches every other week. But do you build authentic relationships with people in your network and take an interest in their lives? Do what I do and book regular discussions with people in your network into your schedule. Be organized and make it a priority. Consulting is based on relationships and all relationships worth anything take time to build.
- Do you regularly attend networking events in your city? No consultant can survive in a cocoon or cave. You have to be out there talking to people and keeping your finger on the pulse of your industry. Does this mean you have to attend every event that comes your way? Definitely not. Be selective and choose the events with the highest return on your time investment. Search Meetup to get an idea of what’s available in your area. The same holds true for professional associations. There’s one for everyone, but be selective. Not an event in your city? Consider starting one.
- Do you have a mentor? Get one. Don’t count it as a chore you’ll fit into your already busy schedule when you have time. Consider a mentor the single greatest investment you’ll ever make in your career and find a valuable one who can speak to your specific field and isn’t afraid of giving you tough advice. And, no, mentors aren’t just for times of trouble or the “early days” of getting started. Keep a mentor for life. It doesn’t have to be the same mentor, but you should always have this type of person in your life. Check SCORE for a mentor near you.
- Read. And I mean read, a lot. In addition to having mentors, there’s no coincidence the greatest CEO’s are also the most well-read people in business. Early in my life I developed a hunger for reading and now am devouring 60-90 books per year. It’s made me a well-rounded person and fed my curiosity to always be learning and growing. And, yes, I read equal amounts of fiction and nonfiction. Don’t underestimate the value of the liberal arts. Take a hint from Bill Gates and commit to reading every day.
- Tap into small business resources in your community that can help you such as your local Small Business Development Center (SBDC) or Chamber of Commerce. Practically every community offers some level of support, whether nonprofit or governmental. Take advantage of those services. Don’t just skim the surface in your search, but go deeper than those resources, particularly if you are a veteran, person with a disability, ethnic minority, or otherwise.
The idea here is not to create an exhaustive list of resources for consulting. There are literally hundreds of resources available for consultants. Get away from “Google-for-the-masses” and dive deeper in your search for useful resources. You’d be amazed at the niche communities out there for support.
Success in consulting takes time and persistence. Few consultants make it big the first year they start their practice, and many start with very small projects or just any work they can get. You have to be committed to getting over the highs and lows of consulting, which can be a roller coaster of emotions.
This means being tenacious.
Being tenacious means to not readily relinquish a position, principle, or course of action and to be determined. Do those things describe you as a consultant? If not, learn to be persistent and tap into that internal energy you feel when you think about your life’s mission through your work. Pursue your consulting with purpose. Read The Purpose Economy by Aaron Hurst and take its wisdom to heart.
In addition to approaching your consulting with purpose, learn to tap into your inner hustle Gary Vaynerchuk-style (or Tim Ferriss). Don’t settle for defeat, but wake up in the morning ready to tackle the day’s work whatever it might be. Develop a routine that enables you to regularly tap into this inner hustle, whether it’s going to the gym, meditating, reading, listening to your favorite podcast, or having breakfast with other consulting colleagues. Find what works for you and learn to practice discipline on a daily basis.
Creating healthy habits will empower you to build persistence in your practice, which will be the fuel you need when times get tough.
I occasionally receive emails from people entering consulting only to be discouraged that they haven’t landed a project in the first several months or first year. They are often feeling defeated, deflated, and want to give up. This isn’t unusual. But, more importantly, take solace in the fact that you are not alone and that there are others out there going through the same struggles. Learn from others and don’t be afraid to share in your vulnerability. Just don’t settle for living in defeat as an option. Charge through your difficulties and be persistent.
Every consultant enters into the business because they are keen on solving problems for an organization and are confident in their ability to deliver a solution. But many consultants get stuck on the “solution” they have in their mind and fall into the cliche that “if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” Don’t fall into this trap, but learn to listen and be adaptable to what solution you eventually offer. In other words, learn to be an innovative and creative consultant, regardless of your field.
One of the most important rules for entering into consulting, or any business for that matter, is: Don’t fall in love with the solution. Fall in love with the problem. What I mean by this is, don’t lose sight of why you went into consulting in the first place, to apply what you have learned in helping people and organizations solve some of their thorniest problems. Quite often where you start as a consultant or business isn’t where you end up. Most of the well-known brands and services we use on a daily basis didn’t start where they are now, but learned to be adaptable and stay focused on the problem they were solving for a certain population. They were resourceful and persistent, and eventually landed on a solution that worked. The same holds true for consulting.
Many consultants can’t seem to understand “why people just don’t get what I am selling.” While this can be for many, many reasons, some even outside of your control, a big reason is often that the consultant just isn’t listening to what their prospects are telling them, therefore, there is misalignment between the consultant and the prospect. Too often the consultant is so much in love with what they have to offer that they can’t learn to get out of the way and be adaptable or be willing to truly listen to their client’s needs.
Before you even enter into consulting, make sure you have established market fit and have validated your service offerings. I can’t stress this enough. The landscape is always changing, so this exercise isn’t a one-time effort you do at the beginning of your practice, but something you can utilize regularly by learning to be adaptable to the industries you serve. Always be surveying, listening, and iterating on what they need. I’m not recommending you continually change your service offerings, just that you should go into consulting with an open mind knowing that no industry stays the same and that many innovative solutions come from outside the industry. If you’re in a sea of other consultants that offer the same services, which is incredibly common in consulting, learn to focus on a more defined population and differentiate your offerings. Read books like Blue Ocean Strategy and apply its principles to your consulting practice.
Once again, don’t fall in love with the solution, but the problem and pain points your population is having. Be empathetic and stay focused on those pain points at all times.
The Caveat (aka Stating the Obvious)
As with any list that claims to be the answer to achieving success, this list isn’t exhaustive and all that you need as a consultant. There are a tremendous amount of resources and pieces of advice out there for consultants, many of them incredibly useful, and some of them outright misleading or outdated. And the reverse is also true: there are literally hundreds of ways a consulting practice can fail, from a poorly designed website to an unproven business model. But I’ve never found a successful consultant that didn’t have these three qualities. I hope they benefit you in your practice.
If you’re a consultant and this article has helped you, but you’d like more individualized one-on-one coaching for your practice, consider taking advantage of my coaching services. I offer hourly coaching to other consultants, which can be done via email, phone, video, or in-person. Reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.
About the Author: Josef Scarantino is Founder and President of Scarantino Consulting LLC, specializing in advancing the mission of businesses, organizations, and educators through diversity and workforce development training, program design, and innovation leadership. Josef is also the Founder of EightTen, a social enterprise aimed at increasing the engagement and inclusion of people with disabilities in the labor force through skills development, mentoring, and apprenticeship.