When I talk with people who are considering becoming consultants, they often mention wanting to wait until they have more money or time, or have their lives in better order. Who wouldn't? As with most big decisions, there are always a few things we'd like a little more of before jumping in.
More money. Whether you work for yourself or for a corporation, you can always use more money. I think that never a person was born who was too thin or too rich. Certainly not me. But this is especially true when you first hang out your shingle. Unless you are very well connected or extremely fortunate, you may go several months without a contract. Even if you have a contract, it may be additional months before you actually receive income from it. Delayed income is further exacerbated by the fact that you will likely need to spend several thousand dollars on computer equipment, business cards, and postage - all before you earn a single penny. If you have a few months' worth of living money in savings, you are in good shape. If you have an "angel," who can carry the load until you get on your feet, say thank you. If you can pick up a contract from your employer or a subcontract from a friend, you are lucky. If not, you had better have a lot of guts.
More time. Getting your consulting practice on its feet will take time as well as money. If you have a lot of money, you will not need to spend as much time because you can hire help. However, this is rarely the case. Starting a consulting practice is similar to buying a house that is a fixer-upper. You have to put in a lot of sweat equity. Most of the consultants I know work at least six days a week, especially when they are building their practice. Rarely do they take a real vacation, but this is just part of the price they are willing to pay for being their own boss. If this price is too high, you should stay in a secure job with a salary and benefits.
More Zen. I have always believed that the only time your life is truly together and without worry is when you're dead. Marital or relationship problems, difficulties with children or aging parents, middle-age crises, or health issues are common to many of us. We simply can't put off the important decisions in our lives until we reach spiritual enlightenment. However, if you're in the middle of an angry divorce or have children who need your help, now is not the time to become a stress-reduction consultant. It would be better to wait a few months.
Plan your escape by building connections
I had no plan in mind when I started my own firm. I was a vice president of design and development at a small consulting company that had fallen on hard times. I can still remember when the owner came into my office one Friday afternoon to tell me that business was bad and he could no longer afford to keep me. I had been with the firm for just six months and only recently moved out of the conference room into my own office. That Monday, I started my firm in a spare room, with a cheap telephone, a desk I fashioned out of two cinder blocks and a couple of boards, and an extra kitchen chair. Today, I have a large office, an administrative assistant, red mahogany furniture, and a great computer setup.
But don't be fooled. I was one of the lucky ones. For every story of a consultant who went out on his own without a plan and succeeded, there are 10 who are still standing on freeway ramps holding signs that read "Will Consult for Food." The best time to go out on your own is not when your department has been reorganized for the third time. The best time to go out on your own is when you have prepared - and prepared well.
The key to planning well begins with building your connections. There are four main components of forging powerful connections that can drive your business: networking, speaking, publishing, participating actively in a professional society.
I recommend that you start pursuing each of these seriously if you are considering starting your own consulting firm. You don't have to be perfect in each of these areas, but you do need to start building your portfolio so that you are adequate at all four, darn good at two, and great at one. Some of you might not be the best writers, or are anxious speaking to groups or dislike organizational politics. However, if you want to succeed as a consultant, you are just going to have to stand up and take it. If you are not skilled at any one of these areas, read a book, take a class, join an organization like Toastmasters, or hire a coach.
Networking. Let's start with networking. As I mentioned earlier, your first and maybe best clients are likely to come to your attention through people you already know within your own company, from companies that work with your department, or from firms that work for your company's partners or suppliers. You do not want to jeopardize your job by letting these people know you are preparing to move on, but make sure they are aware of the types of things you are capable of doing. Create a list of professional contacts, and keep those people well informed of your activities and accomplishments. Try to talk with the more influential people every quarter or so. You should also consider building and maintaining a website or blog to keep your future clients up-to-date on your professional activities and accomplishments. Consider expanding your circle of friends by using social networks, such as LinkedIn and networking groups that relate to topics of interest, such as e-learning. If you decide to use social networks, set up separate accounts for your business and always be professional. Mixing business and pleasure is always a dangerous thing.
Speaking. Chapters of ASTD, ISPI, and a host of other professional societies are always looking for good speakers for their chapter meetings and regional conferences. These professional societies also hold yearly international conferences and need many speakers for sessions and workshops. I recommend that you review their websites and see when they will be accepting applications for conference sessions. It is often many months before the conferences themselves. Anne Bruce, in her book Speak for a Living, gives great advice on how to launch and build your speaking career. This and other books are solid resources to help you drive your business through speaking engagements.
Publishing. Publishing can range from newsletter articles for your local professional society to submitting articles to international journals or magazines, or even writing a book. Being a published author builds your credibility in your field and establishes you as a trusted expert. And with search engines constantly seeking out solid content, your article just might be the source of your next big client. ASTD and ISPI produce several publications. I recommend searching their websites for a list of their publications and reviewing their author guidelines.
Participating in a professional society. Being active in a professional society means a lot more than paying your membership dues and going to an annual conference. It's more than simply joining a local chapter and going to a couple of meetings. Active involvement means participating in the leadership of the organization as an elected officer, member of the board of directors, or member of a committee. It means reaching out to your fellow members for ideas, contacts, and resources. A professional association could also connect you with a mentor who has trodden the consulting path before you and you, in turn, can mentor other members with what you have learned.
If you are considering starting your own consulting firm, I recommend you peruse each of these activities pretty seriously. Now, don't get frightened. I'm not saying you have to be gifted in all of them, but I am saying you need to start building your skills in each area.
Performing each of these activities well takes time. Even once you have honed your skills, it takes time before you will may invited to speak, have your articles accepted for publication, or get elected as the president of a professional society. Most local professional societies book speakers six months in advance, professional publications may have a one-year backlog of articles, and it takes three to five years of active involvement to become the president of a local chapter of a major professional organization.
I recommend starting small and working at the local level before you aim your sights toward gaining a national reputation. Join and become active in the local chapters of at least two professional societies, serve on a couple of committees where you feel you can make a contribution, submit an article or two to a newsletter, and offer to speak at a chapter meeting on a topic you feel strongly about.
Note: This article is excerpted from Consulting Basics by Joel Gendelman.
Joel Gendelman has 25 years of consulting experience. 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 consulting for Kaiser Permanente, Wells Fargo Bank, Exxon, Hewlett-Packard, and Microsoft. Gendelman holds a master's and PhD in educational technology.
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