Being a consultant is a role that works with big companies, but I have found that it doesn’t get much traction in small businesses and startups. The image of a self-proclaimed expert who can generate a report, make a great presentation, and leave you to do the implementation, is just not attractive when you don’t have a staff, and you are already overloaded with the crisis of the day.
I learned this the hard way, when I left IBM a few years ago to share what I had learned with the exciting world of startups in Silicon Valley. I found out that they weren’t looking for consultants, and were even a bit leery of anyone who had spent time in the world of big business. Startups need outside experts who can do the work, as well as relate to the challenges of a new business.
Luckily, I had always been a “hands-on” professional, and I had learned the pragmatics of people leadership, marketing, management tools, and funding. Thus I quickly dropped any mention of consulting, and was able to find some challenging roles. Over the years since, I have honed my own list of rules for those of you who wish to migrate from big business to this new world:
- Re-focus your efforts from consulting to freelance. Freelance or contract work implies an execution role, versus an advisory role. In startups and small businesses, there is always a need for a hands-on project leader or interim executive. Freelancer is the modern term for someone with expertise who is not seeking a long-term commitment.
- Promote yourself with a title to match your expertise. Simply defining yourself as a marketing specialist, designer, or project leader minimizes the stigma of the consultant role. Specialists and certified professionals are already seen as experts who do the work, rather than just make recommendations for others. Use social media for more visibility.
- Adopt a project-based revenue model with metrics. Agreements based on projects to be completed, rather than an hourly rate, put the focus on quantifiable business outputs versus time spent. For example, a marketing project would be the number of leads generated or ad impressions, instead of recommendations for improving the process.
- Market yourself and work at all organizational levels. Leadership by example works at all levels of a company. It is not limited to the realm of the top executive or board of directors, who could bring in consultants for studies and analysis. Freelancers can justify their cost based on more direct return on investment calculations at all operational levels.
- Treat every business as a customer, not a client. A client relationship suggests that the consultant is in charge, whereas the customer designation recognizes the more modern model of the customer in control. It also highlights all aspects of required customer service, satisfaction, testimonials, and referrals to friends in the business.
- Be responsive to all modes of modern communication. Many consultants have been hard to contact between scheduled meetings, due to their use of formal communication processes. It’s time to adopt your customer’s favorite mode of communication, whether that be texting, phone calls, or social media, and not limit your responses to office hours.
- Adapt your style to the new business work models. If your customer’s dress code or decision process is informal, you should adapt yours to fit in, rather than continue to act and look like an outsider. If the startup team is distributed around the world, your challenge is to meet their process requirements, rather than expect them to meet yours.
- Above all, deliver results rather than recommendations. PowerPoint presentations are not business results. If your customer needs service and support procedures, then your deliverables should include customized creation, implementation and training, rather than simply recommendations on what to include.
Remember that as a freelancer, you are the brand, and you can’t rely on your big company name or relationship. You need to use the modern vehicles for promotion and relationship building, including a professional web site, social media, and industry conferences to show your expertise, credentials, and connections. That need to market yourself hasn’t changed since consulting.
Another positive is that the number of small businesses and startups makes your opportunities an order of magnitude larger than the number of big companies, and also includes them. Another positive I found is that it’s more fun to actually do a job, rather than just make recommendations. What could be more satisfying than having fun, and making money at the same time?