How to Get Started in the Consulting Business

“How do you get business?”

I get asked this a lot, and since I doubt random people I meet at conferences are truly interested in my life, I think what they really want to know is:

“How can I get business as a consultant?”

I’ve been working as a consultant for over thirty years. Here are the steps, in order of how I got started in the business. Hope this helps.

1. Be able to DO something that has an impact your client can SEE.Leave the client with a concrete product  – a grant proposal submitted, database that now can be used to produce reports, statistical analysis and final report to a funding agency, a program that automates your monthly charts. The consultants I know who provide “coaching” or “strategy” have a harder time finding work because no one is quite sure what you’re going to do, if you did it well or how to tell when you’re done.

2. Go to graduate school and stand out. I started out with two projects that were referred to me by a professor who had more consulting work than he could do. When I went looking for more work, I could point to those successful projects. I have been hired on several occasions by former professors. By “stand out”, I mean academically. I published articles while a

graduate student, presented at conferences, received two fellowships and a small grant. In my statistics classes, I was at the top of the curve. Be genuinely interested in your field and try to learn as much as you possibly can, more than is just on the test. Work on campus. While you may get noticed if you are working full-time and just on campus for class, it is certainly less likely.

3. Work at a university. I was a professor full-time for seven years and part-time, on and off, for the next 14. There is a lot of questioning in the media currently about the value of a higher education. I think it depends on the type and quality of your education. Certainly there are a lot of really smart people at universities. Most people don’t meet a lot of statisticians and as my students graduated, moved on in  their careers and came to the point where they needed a program evaluator or statistician or statistical programmer, they thought of me. Others didn’t know me but they called their alma mater and talked to someone, a business professor, Multicultural Student Programs, or whoever they happened to know and that person recommended me.

4.Write the proposals yourself. Several of my first major contracts came from proposals I helped write, either as part of my duties at the university, or on a consulting contract. The client needed an evaluator, they didn’t have anyone in mind, so I offered to throw in my resume. (By the way, I get LOTS of people asking if I will write the grant for free and then they’ll give me the evaluation contract if it gets funded. I always say, “No”.  That is the topic for another post.)

5. Find partners who bring you business. After about ten years, I started working with partners who were very good at finding business. I don’t know how they do it. Magic, I think. If you’re good at the technical side and you find some partners who are good at the business development side, count your blessings and don’t EVER, EVER regret the share of the money they take. I have acquaintances who don’t do a fraction of the business I do

and a big reason is that they don’t see why they should share any part of “their” money. I just shake my head.

6. Be generous with your referrals. Many times, I have referred clients to graduate students or other professors who were interested in starting out as consultants. Partly I did this to pay back the help I got early on. My less altruistic reason is that it is not a good use of my time or the client’s money to be doing t-tests in SPSS or correlations with Excel. It’s one thing if that’s part of a project, but if it’s the whole project, they’d be better off paying someone $40 an hour and I’d be better off working on a contract for $20,000 or $200,000 instead of one for $2,000. It would be nice to say that these people paid me back by referring work to me later. They didn’t, in most cases because I was much further along in my career and they don’t really have enough business to let go of any. I guess there is a philosophy of only helping people who might be in a position to help you back, but I don’t hold to that. Interestingly, in most cases, those CLIENTS came back to me when they had larger projects. Other consultants have referred work to me when they were booked. I haven’t paid back the favor yet, but I remember it. I think what goes around comes around. Karma.

7. Don’t ever rip anybody off. There have been times when a client was really over a barrel. I once had someone who called two days before a grant proposal was due because they had forgotten the research design section. Everyone on the project thought someone else would do it. I came in on another project that was 18 months past due on their evaluation reports and the agency was pulling their funding if they didn’t get it in six weeks. You get the idea. There are times when people are desperate. I DO charge overtime on those occasions, and it may be as much as double our usual fee because I may have to have people doing data entry, editing and other tasks and they all have to be paid overtime. It’s the law. I’ve known people who charge triple or more in those situations. The client will pay it. But they’ll never work with you again. If you can pull out all the stops and get an incredible job done at at reasonable price, they’ll remember you and come back under normal circumstances.  Related to that is charging a fair price for your regular work. I have friends who brag about their consulting rate – which is much higher than mine – but they have no work. Yeah, well, when I’m not working, I charge a million dollars an hour.

8. The biggie is referrals from other clients, and this is how most of our business has come about over the last dozen years, in addition to numbers 4 & 5, but you can’t get client referrals until you have clients. The question was about how you get started.

I haven’t mentioned LinkedIn, CCR (Central Contractor Registry), presenting at conferences, meetups or any of the networking that is supposed to bring you business. That’s because it hasn’t DIRECTLY brought us much business. Some of those things have brought us some business, and maybe my magic partners have met a lot of people that way (I’m pretty sure not).

I say “directly” because what these venues have done sometimes is thrown us in the path of people we already knew, when a conversation would come up that, “Hey, we need a statistician- ” or “Could you do training on — ”

Also, LinkedIn didn’t come up until we had been in business for decades, and I don’t think I heard of CCR until about a dozen years ago. The size of contracts we get from these sources would probably be a much bigger proportion of the business for someone just starting out.

Well, good luck!

I’m off to Grand Forks in the morning and I had better pack. I kind of like North Dakota in the summer, but winter is a whole different ball game. Which comes to the subject of another post – are you insane to be considering going into the consulting business?

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One Comment

  1. I started in my second year of undergrad studies — recruited into a small firm (part-time) by a professor. So, after almost thir{MUMBLE} years in consulting my answer to ” are you insane to be considering going into the consulting business?” is:

    it’s not a requirement, but it certainly helps to be a few standard deviations off the median in most dimensions of preference: hours worked, willingness to do public speaking, acceptance of hotel food, constant work travel, ability to keep one’s mouth shut when required, comfort with judgment calls…

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