During a time of transition (forced or otherwise), many of my very successful corporate executive friends ponder the merits of starting a consulting practice. It seems like a logical career path. It may be. But the transition from corporate executive to successful consultant has more to do with self-knowledge than subject matter expertise or skill. If you have been successful in business, you probably have the skills to become a successful consultant. That said, here are seven things to consider before you start your new, new thing.
1. Your Identity
You have been John Smith, EVP, Widgets & Strategic Initiatives for Gigantic Corp. for years. In fact, you did 8 years at Big Corp. before you got your dream job at Gigantic Corp. Your business card has always had a household name on it. Everyone has always immediately returned your phone calls and emails. After all, who in their right mind would not respond to an executive from Gigantic Corp.?
That was then. In your new life, you are going to be John Smith from John Smith Consulting. No one will know what you do or why they should call you back. Your business card will say something like, “John Smith, President, John Smith Consulting.” Even if you make up a cool corporate-sounding name, you are still going to be just some person who is consulting.
This simple fact will have a dramatic impact on your presentation of self in everyday life. You will go from “Jeff … he runs a division of Disney” to “Jeff … he’s a _____ consultant.” You may not think this is going to matter. Trust me – it will make a huge difference. Be sure you’re ready for the psychological change. It can be severe.
2. Getting Work
Just because you’re an expert in doing work does not mean that you are an expert in getting work. These are two very different skills. You’ve had a few jobs in your life and been on a few job interviews. Now, you’re going to be going on a job interview or job interviews every single day. Selling your services will be a constant requirement. Work does not fall from the sky. The world is a very competitive place and people who do what you do spend all of their waking moments thinking about how to take food directly off your table. If you’re not the aggressive sales type, you will need a plan to fill your sales pipeline.
3. When You’re Working You Can’t Be Selling. When You’re Selling You Can’t Be Working
Even if you are an awesome sales person (and most consultants are), there is an immutable law of consulting life: When you’re working you can’t be selling, and when you’re selling you can’t be working. We all live in a time-constrained world, but if you’re building a solo consulting practice, be ready to spend your days selling and your nights working. You’ve never worked harder or longer. And while you have developed expertise managing one boss, you will now be managing many. These are not trivial issues.
If you’re unlucky enough to have a client that wants you on-premises during the day, you’re going to have to learn to manage your sales process. It is very difficult to work 8- to 10-hour days for a client and be an efficient manager of your own sales pipeline. How will it play out? You may be technologically sophisticated enough to handle it, or your career may start to look more like that of a freelancer than a consultant. Not bad, but not ideal.
There are several good solutions to this problem, but they all require you to build a small business infrastructure. Be prepared: consulting is not a job; it’s a business.
4. Lumpy Income vs. Steady Paycheck
One of the biggest shocks for every corporate executive turned consultant is the transition from a steady paycheck to lumpy income. Are you ready to get paid 45 to 90 days after you send a bill? That’s the best of it. Consulting sales cycles can be pretty long. You might go six months without a sale or a job, then do four weeks of work for half a year’s wages. It all comes out in the wash, but it is anything but steady. Do you believe in yourself? Will you have enough confidence in your abilities to keep your head in the game when you just aren’t winning bids or getting paid? Consulting is a rollercoaster. If you don’t like rollercoasters, you might want to consider another line of work.
5. What Specific Problem Do You Solve?
Why does consulting look so easy for some and so difficult for others? Consultants who solve specific problems make it look easy. In a perfect world your prospective client will say, “I need ____. Call Joe!” If your consulting practice solves a specific problem, you will always be on the short list for ____. Get this right and everything else will take care of itself.
In success, you are going to have two soul-searching issues. They are rich people’s problems, but they are worth mentioning.
6. Your First $10,000 Round of Golf
When your consulting fees hit $10,000/day (or any big number; it’s a relative scale), a friend or client is going to ask you to play golf on a Wednesday. This is awesome! Except that Wednesday is a work day and even though you are playing as a guest, the round is going to cost you $10,000. Will you go play or go work? You may think you know your answer right now. Trust me – you don’t!
This is an abbreviation for “One and Only Biggest Client.” This is the dream client that books 80 percent of your time and is responsible for 80 percent of your income. Having an O&OBC is the worst possible thing that can happen to you. Don’t let it. Do you have the ability to restrict a client to no more than 20 percent of your income so you can risk-manage your business? Lose your O&OBC and you’re back to square one. Lose a client that represents only 20 percent of your business and it’s another day at the office. You may think you know how you’ll answer this question now. You don’t. Saying no to additional work from a good client is very, very hard. If you want to run a strong, sustainable consulting practice, it’s a requirement.
Is consulting right for you? Hopefully, these seven thought-starters will help you arrive at your decision.