It seems like everyone is a consultant these days. You might roll your eyes at this, but know that it’s actually a beacon of hope for aspiring entrepreneurs. With the high demand for specialized services, and the relative simplicity of starting an online business, there has never been a better time to start a consultancy.
But what is a consultant exactly? The skills and services vary widely, but essentially, a consultant is someone who is hired to offer expertise that will move a person or business forward in a specific area.
How to Start a Consulting Business: 5 Key Questions
Consultants handle social media, IT, human resources, PR, business strategy, pretty much you name it. I, for example, am a freelance writer by trade, but much of the work I’ve done in the past was as a digital marketing consultant.
Consultants are doing amazing things. For example, the founders of ticketing platform TryBooking had “fairly average results” for 10 years at their first startup until they hired a business consultant who helped them craft a business plan that turned everything around.
And consulting isn’t limited to the business world. When Australian skier Alisa Camplin took home a gold medal at the 2002 Winter Olympics, she called her sports psychology consultant her “secret weapon.”
Sounds awesome, right? But how do you know if you have what it takes to be a successful consultant? While it’s not as easy as ticking off the boxes on a simple “Starting a consulting business checklist,” it’s still pretty easy to determine if you’ve got what it takes. Let’s dive into the answers below.
How to Start an Online Consulting Business: 5 Key Questions to Ask Yourself
Do I Have Sufficient Skills to Start a Consulting Business?
That’s a great question! My simple answer: Have you ever had a job? Then congratulations, you have skills people will pay you for! I don’t mean to make it sound easy; of course, you will have to be able to produce results for your clients. But you might be surprised by just how much you have to offer when you really think about it. There are consultants in business organization, college admissions, personal style, and even confidence.
What clients want from a consultant is proof they’ve got good ideas to execute on and examples of work they’ve done in the past. That’s why portfolios, discovery calls, and proposals are so important; they’re your opportunities to show proof of your expertise and offer recommendations on how you can move your client’s business forward.
In my five years as a marketing consultant, not once has anyone asked about my college education. Not once have they asked to see my certifications. Not once have they asked me how many years I’ve been doing this. Those things are nice to have, but they don’t necessarily make a good consultant.
In short, how can you tell you have what it takes to be a consultant? If you’ve got multiple projects in a field that you’ve worked on and can show them as proof of your expertise, that’s about all it takes. There’s no set number of years of experience, no required degree.
My challenge for you: If you want a true litmus test for seeing if you have enough skills for starting your own consulting business—try to get your first client. If you can convince someone that you will bring them enough value that they are willing to pay you, you’ve validated your business idea. You aren’t stalling and talking in hypotheticals anymore, you’re doing it! Once you get that first client, it becomes much easier to get that second and third, and things will snowball from there.
Why Should I Start a Consulting Business?
Consulting has very low barriers to entry compared to product-based businesses or service-based businesses that need multiple employees. Here’s a list of some key benefits:
Simple to Structure
A service-based business of one person (you) is the simplest business you can start. In the U.S., it’s known as a sole proprietorship, and it requires no extra paperwork to create. You are the business, basically. And unlike product-based businesses, a consulting business requires no product design, prototyping, manufacturing, or shipping.
Again, unlike product-based businesses, a consulting business doesn’t have many expenses. There’s the business license, and maybe some accounting and project management software. But if you’ve got a computer, Internet, and expertise, you can be a consultant. Eventually, of course, if you decide to scale your business into a consulting firm, you’ll have the payroll expenses of hiring other consultants. But at the start, an independent consultant is a lean startup.
Allows You to Gain Experience for Future Business Ideas
Consulting is the perfect way to get hands-on experience solving problems for clients; this can result in your first product, whether digital or physical. A great real-life example of this is serial entrepreneur Jonathan Siegel. He got his start as the founder of a consultancy that built software for other businesses. But then one day he decided to have his team build software during some downtime. What started as an in-house project turned into his first product: RightCart, shopping cart software that was later acquired by Buy.com.
Helps You Make Industry Connections
As a consultant, you’ll carve out a specialty as an expert in a certain niche. As you continue to work with clients, you’ll network with key leaders in your industry. Keep in touch with those connections; you never know just where they may take you.
Is Consulting Right for Me?
Just because anyone can be a consultant doesn’t mean anyone should. Here are some of the key characteristics of a successful consultant:
Without a boss or coworkers, you’ll need to be able to get the work done on your own. This can mean anything from administrative tasks such sending invoices to clients, to sales tasks such as following up on prospects.
You’re Deeply Knowledgeable in a Particular Area
This one seems like a no-brainer, but it’s such a big part of being a consultant, it needs to be stated: You’ve got to be knowledgeable about something others want to know. I hesitate to say “expert” because that word tends to scare people away. While you don’t have to be a world-renowned expert on using Instagram to grow an email list, if you want to be a social media consultant, you’d better have real experience in that field and past results to back it up.
You’ve Got People Skills
Consulting is a service, meaning you’ll be working one-on-one with clients. Because of this, you need to have good people skills. You’ll be marketing yourself, negotiating with clients, and presenting ideas—if that makes you want to run for the hills, consulting may not be for you.
How Do I Choose My Niche?
“Niche” is a hot word right now—and everyone is telling you need to find yours. But I’m going to give some advice that goes against the grain: Don’t worry about niching down in the beginning. I didn’t.
You see, in the beginning, you’re still testing the waters. You think you know what industry you want to work in and what kind of clients you want to work with, but the truth is, you have no way of knowing until you start.
As digital marketing consultant Josh Hoffman points out, if you niche down too early, you may end up getting boxed in very quickly. For example, if you decide you want to be a Facebook ads consultant for wedding planners because you’ve got tons of online ad experience and you love weddings, but you’ve never actually worked with wedding planners, what’s going to happen on that initial client call? They’re going to ask to see proof of your previous work in their niche, and you may very well lack some specific piece of knowledge or skill you weren’t aware you needed. Then you’ll be stuck without the relevant experience and skills.
But let’s look at it another way. Let’s say you marketed yourself as a Facebook ads consultant who’s worked with a wide variety of businesses—restaurant chains, software startups, and construction companies. When you have a discovery call with a wedding planner, they’ll ask to see your past results, but of course, they’re not going to expect to see previous work only in the niche they’re in—and that’s fine. You didn’t market yourself that way. Now your past work will still be relevant because it shows you know how to produce results with online ads, even if it isn’t in their specific niche.
On top of that, it’s by not niching down that you’ll find your dream niche. In the beginning, it’s okay to cast a wide net in order to learn what you like and narrow down later. Trust me, most people don’t get it right on the first few tries. I started out selling videography services but quickly learned that wasn’t my calling. I then moved into copywriting, and eventually branched out to what I do today: digital marketing for startups.
What Consulting Services Should I Sell?
OK, now that we’ve got that “picking a niche” roadblock out of the way, it’s time for our next one: deciding what services to sell. Here are three ways to approach this:
Sell the Services You Did in Previous Jobs
Guess what I was doing before I became a marketing consultant for startups? I was working on the marketing team of a startup. The same services I performed as an employee—managing social media, writing copy, creating marketing campaigns—were needed by other startups on a consulting basis. This made the transition from employee to consultant way easier. There was no need to reinvent the wheel.
Learn New Skills Through Online Courses and Real-Life Practice
The biggest mistake I made when I started consulting was not seeking out continuing education. I was hesitant to spend money on educational resources. But let me tell you something: As a consultant, you never stop learning. There’s always some new trend to discover, or an old skill to improve.
Here are some ideas for online courses that can help you to learn how to start a consulting business:
- Interested in learning how to use Pinterest to drive organic traffic to a website? I’ve taken Pinterest Traffic Avalanche and can recommend it if you’re new to Pinterest marketing.
- Think being an affiliate marketing consultant or blog coach would be rewarding? I found that Pajama Affiliates blogging and affiliate marketing course gave me a solid foundation in learning what it takes to monetize a blog.
- If you want to be a social media consultant, Instagram Domination teaches you how to grow an account to 500,000 followers in 12 months.
- Want to specialize in influencer marketing? Influencer Magnet shows you how Foundr was able to connect with big names such as Richard Branson, Arianna Huffington, and Tony Robbins.
- Want to work with clients to boost their productivity (or just boost your own)? Productivity Machine teaches you serial entrepreneur Ari Meisel’s tried-and-tested methods for making the most of your time as a business owner.
If you want a large database of low-cost online courses, Udemy is a good place to start. It features 65,000 courses on topics from iOS development to cinematography to career coaching.
But the learning doesn’t stop in the classroom. You need to then apply what you learn to real-life circumstances. So, for example, if you want to expand your consulting services to offer copywriting, you can take a copywriting class and then offer to write sales page copy for an existing client at a reduced rate. Once you knock it out of the ballpark for that client, ask them for a testimonial, and put it in your portfolio.
Still Stuck? Sell a Service That Helps Make Money or Save Money
Seems simple, right? But so many service-based business owners get this wrong. When you get to the core of it, what every business wants is to make money or save money. If you can prove to them that the expertise you provide will help them achieve one (or both) of those things, you have a valuable and desirable service.
- Facebook advertising
- Conversion copywriting
- Sales funnel strategy
Each one of the above services can help a business increase its revenue or reduce its costs. Whether you offer SEO or productivity consulting, always tie it back to how your expertise will help your client get what they truly want.
There’s Never Been a Better Time to Start a Consulting Business
As you can see, consultants come in all shapes and sizes, spanning a wide variety of skills, from business to public relations to personal style. And with the simple business structure, low costs, and potential to help you find product ideas and grow your network, it’s no wonder being a consultant is a dream job for many.
So if you find yourself constantly wondering, “Should I start a consulting business?” or even how to start a consulting business on the side, wonder no more! If you’re self-motivated, possess expertise, and have people skills, you’re well on your way to starting a consulting business. But like I said earlier, the best way to know if you’ve got what it takes is to take action. Put yourself out there, and try to get your first client.
For the exact details of how to start a consulting business, check out our in-depth consulting, freelancing and coaching guide.
What are some consulting services you think you could offer? Share them in the comments and we’ll let you know what we think!