It’s resolution season, and perhaps you’re considering a change in your work life.
Maybe – just maybe – you’re thinking about starting your own consulting and training practice.
How do I know? Because at least once a month, somebody – a friend, a client, a participant in a community workshop – asks me, “How do I become a consultant?”
Here are five tips from distilled from twenty years of running a consulting and training business. Please note that becoming a skilled trainer (item 5 below) is a terrific way to build a consulting practice, generate income, and meet potential clients.
And if you work with consultants or trainers, this inside look might make you smarter consumer.
1. Design your business model
There are several ways to be paid as a consultant, including
- By the project – a board training, strategic planning process, or feasibility study – which is my typical model
- As part-time contract staff (learn the legal limitations before you do this), such as serving as interim executive director or interim development director
- On retainer: regular, predictable monthly or quarterly payments
For most consultants, the fantasy model is a handful of retainer contracts with consistent, well-funded customers. That’s never happened to me, yet my business has grown steadily.
Given your needs and restrictions – available time, family commitments, ability to travel (or not) – what business model works best for you?
If you’re just starting out, look for an “anchor client” that can cover at least 40-50% of what you need, financially speaking. You can piece together the balance from smaller contracts while growing your business.
2. Become a skilled juggler
If you’re already running a fundraising department – my life before consulting – then you know how to juggle. Consider what you can keep in the air, all at the same time: an annual appeal, a few benefit events, grant proposals, a crowdfunding campaign, a series of major donor visits…
Consulting is a lot like that – multiple clients, relationships, deadlines, proposals, and projects, all happening simultaneously.
If you prefer to focus on one thing at a time, consulting may not be your best option.
3. Much of your time is unpaid – bill accordingly
Every few years, I conduct an informal poll of my consulting peers.
For me, the most useful question is, “What percentage your work time is billable hours?” The typical answer is 30-40%.
The remaining time is spent running the business, marketing, preparing bids for projects that go to other consultants, responding to email, professional development, relationship building, etc. A lot of this stuff happens on evenings and weekends.
To be clear, you might be more efficient than me – and I honor you. However, whatever you’re billing per hour or per job, your actual pay rate is a lot lower when you factor in all those unpaid hours. Set your prices high enough to cover that time.
4. The consultant should never work harder than the client
This gem is borrowed my colleague Sharon Behar. It’s based on the idea that consultants are change makers, and if the consultant does all the heavy lifting, then the client won’t embrace change.
Here’s an example. When I’m hired to assist with a strategic plan – which typically includes community interviews and surveys, a written assessment, and facilitating a board-staff retreat – I always make the client write the plan.
Why? Whoever writes the plan owns the plan.
If the consultant writes it, the strategic plan tends to sit on a shelf, lonely and ignored. When the client organization has to wrestle all their great ideas into a document – including timelines, deliverables, and a budget – then they’re more invested in following through and actually doing the stuff outlined in the plan.
5. Training is the best marketing
As we noted in an earlier post, one of the best ways to find clients is by facilitating community workshops related to your expertise.
Are you interested in providing consulting services for conflict resolution? Lead a class on how to improve your listening skills.
Do you want to help clients create fundraising plans? Facilitate a fundraising workshop.
And so on – choose your topic. When you demonstrate your expertise with a group – using all the great training and facilitation skills we’ve been sharing in this blog and in our book – people will seek you out to work with their organizations one-on-one.
And don’t be shy about charging for the workshop!