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Landing That First Client: The First 90 Days

On a Sunday drive, I noticed a sign over the freeway advertising that a company called Wordplex was hiring. I asked my friend to take down their phone number.

That Friday, I left a message for the director of marketing, Ken Walsh, describing a little about what I do and asking him to call me back. Since Friday was also my day to do errands, I left the office for a few hours. When I returned, I found a message from Ken on my answering machine: "Boy! What timing. We were just talking about the need to formalize our sales training program. I would love to get together with you. Please call me in the office Monday and let's set something up."

I still get goose bumps thinking about that message. I called Ken back, and gave him a proposal by Friday. The following Monday, I had a signed contract and received a check.

I framed that check and for many years looked at it whenever I lost heart. Wordplex has since gone out of business and Ken retired a long time ago, but let me tell you, he received a Christmas card from me every year until we finally lost touch.

Many of you may think I was lucky - and I was. But there were many people, just like Ken, whose names I noticed in similar ways, who did not return my calls or simply told me never to darken their doorway again.

Getting Through the First 90 Days

Unless your spouse is a TV network executive or you have a rich aunt, you do not have all year to start earning money. Typically, consultants who do not get a project within the first 90 days throw in the towel and start looking for a regular job.

My advice to those of you who really want to make a go of it is to

  • Go with your strengths
  • Try to get subcontract work
  • Watch your cash
  • Be nice to your "angel."

Go With Your Strengths. I have found that if someone is magical at doing something, he or she would really rather be doing something else. To paraphrase Groucho Marx, I would not join a club that would accept me as a member.

Let's say that you are the world's greatest sales trainer. Your audiences love you. You carry them to levels of inspiration that others can only dream about. However, you probably dislike being a stand-up trainer and dislike sales audiences even more. I am sure that what you really want to be is an instructional designer or author of e-learning modules, both of which you are mediocre at.

However, please bear with me. When you are just starting out in your own consulting practice, go with what you've got. Be a sales trainer. Teach a few classes. Earn a couple of bucks. Maybe when you have a little money in the bank, you can move on to designing a few sales training courses. After a year or two, you may move on to developing e-learning modules on the sales training topics you know so well. I recommend that you stick to your strengths when you begin your consulting practice and then add products and services that may interest you as time and finances allow.

Get Subcontract Work. I once read that it takes nine months to a year to be asked to bid on a major consulting contract. That is typically the amount of time it takes from the day you first talk with a training manager, director of training, or human resources manager until the day they call you about a specific project. From that point, it can take several more months until you actually work together. Consulting is a relationship business, and the decision makers of the business are typically very conservative.

If you were not able to adequately prepare to open your consulting practice by networking, speaking, publishing, being active in a professional society, and growing a network of professional contacts, you need to find a way to eat while you jump-start your practice. Many new consultants accomplish this by working as subcontractors for well-established consulting firms. These firms often hire subcontractors to complete parts of projects (for example, developing a design document or writing a workbook) or even completing an entire project. Typically, the contracting firm manages the project, maintains a large amount of the contact with the client, and keeps a healthy share of the money. As a subcontractor, you may be paid a set price for a specific deliverable or service, or you may be paid an hourly or daily rate.

The good news is that if you are even somewhat connected to the professional community, it should be easy for you to pick up a subcontract within the first month or two that you are out on your own. You won't have to worry about being paid, because the contracting organization usually pays you fairly quickly, regardless of when the client pays them.

Subcontracting is an especially easy way to get started if you have already been certified by an established training company (such as the American Management Association) to present its courses. These companies often receive requests they cannot fulfill using their own internal capabilities, and they are happy to point their clients in the direction of a competent and certified resource.

The only bad news in working as a subcontractor is you will make less money, get less satisfaction, and will not get to retain the business relationship with the client.

  • Subcontractors typically earn half of what they could earn by working directly with their own clients.
  • Since the contracting organization manages the project and handles most of the client contact, you may miss the client interaction and often need to live with someone else's decisions.
  • Finally, the contracting organization owns the client, and you cannot market yourself to them. If fact, most contracting organizations will make you sign an agreement that prohibits you from doing business with their clients for at least one year.

When you are looking at your monthly bills and the negative balance in your checking account, the ability to quickly earn several hundred bucks a day does not seem half bad. The downside is if you get caught up doing too much subcontracting work, you'll never get your own practice off the ground and truly work for yourself. You can usually gather a listing of contracting companies that use subcontractors by looking at the advertisements in professional publications or the sponsors listed on professional association websites. I have found that most local professional societies support job boards that list contract assignments in addition to full-time opportunities.
Watch Your Cash. Unless you have been monetarily blessed, you will face financially challenging times. Best to hold on to your cash tightly. Sure, you have to invest in yourself. Of course, you need to spend money to make money. However, my recommendation is to put a tight clamp on your personal and business expenses. Wait a while. Many companies buy lists of new businesses, because they know you are easy prey. They will be calling to sell you computer systems, copiers, postage meters, and office furniture. They will tell you that all these gadgets are necessary to gain an advantage over the competition and to make you look professional. Bite your tongue and pinch yourself ten times before you spend a penny - your money is very precious now.

Be Nice to Your "Angel." In the first chapter of this book, I described someone called an "angel." This could be a spouse, a parent, or a well-to-do relative or friend who provides you with financial, as well as emotional, support while you are building your consulting practice. Some consultants are fortunate enough to have a couple of "angels."

Whatever it takes: Be good to your angel. That could mean calling a few times a month. It could mean sending copies of articles you have written or press releases of speeches you have made. You could even include him or her in the acknowledgments of your first book. Maybe you should take your angel to dinner occasionally, wash the dishes, or take the kids to the park on a Saturday morning so he or she can sleep in, shop for clothes, or play golf. Perhaps you should just send a kind note - or simply say thank you.

It's Never Over

If you have landed your first client and lasted through the first 90 days, congratulations! However, if you think all the hard work is now over and you can stop marketing and rest on your laurels, think again.

It takes years to establish a consulting practice, and there may never be a time when you do not have to get out there and hustle. If you play your cards right as time passes, you will be able to substitute writing, speaking, and being involved in professional organizations for direct selling activities. Working for yourself is not for the faint of heart. But as we outlined in previous chapters, there are many pervasive benefits that make establishing your own firm well worth it.

Getting It Done

In this chapter, we covered how you can survive the first 90 days by using your strengths, procuring subcontract work, watching your cash, and showing appreciation to the people who helped you through it all. But don't forget: While the first 90 days are hard, they are only the beginning.

Spend five minutes to consider all of this and answer the following questions:

What are your strengths?

What organizations will you contact for subcontract work?

What actions can you take to save money or cut back on spending?

Who are your "angels"?

How will you thank them?


Excerpted from Consulting Basics by Joel Gendelman. Forthcoming from ASTD Press in June 2010. Reprinted with permission of the publisher, ASTD Press.

Joel Gendelman is the senior partner of Future Technologies and has published over fifty articles and two books on instructional design. He lives in Littleton, Colorado; .

About the Author
Joel Gendelman knows firsthand what it takes to become a consultant, and takes pride in saying that he has made every mistake mentioned in this book. His lighthearted, conversational style makes the learning process enjoyable as he shares his 25 years of consulting experience and knowledge. As president and founder of Future Technologies, Gendelman has developed activity-rich corporate presentations and communications for Lockheed Martin, Microsoft, Nissan, Lucent Technologies, and Genentech. He has also conducted workshops and provided on-site and virtual consulting for Kaiser Permanente, Wells Fargo Bank, Exxon, Hewlett-Packard, and Microsoft. Gendelman holds a master's degree and doctorate in educational technology, and has written four books and numerous articles. He has won several awards and is a frequent speaker at international conferences and corporate events. Currently he resides near Denver.
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