Consultants Library

The Ultimate 10-Step Guide for Success as an Independent Consultant

by Claudia Arena on 21 Aug 2018

If it is your (long term) goal to build out your independent consulting business, here are 10 tips that can guide you to start, grow, and expand.

More and more professionals are deciding to take the leap and work independently, enjoying the benefits of better pay, increased flexibility, and the ability to take on more interesting projects. In a poll performed by Odgers Connect (OC)¹, no less than 74% responded that they work independently to gain greater control on their professional lives and projects – even more than the financial benefits related to it.

Leaving the corporate career ladder, therefore, does not mean that professionals are not interested in development and growth. There often is a desire for a bigger challenge, not just fulfilling role-based or interim work. Especially now that independent consulting has become a viable alternative as a career path (with more than half of independents still seeing themselves in this profession in five years time!), building up a sustainable income flow has become an important topic. It, therefore, does not surprise that almost a quarter of respondents see themselves running their own business¹. For some, this is even seen as proof of your right to exist as an independent.

If it is your (long term) goal to build out your independent consulting business, regardless if this is professionalising and stabilising your workflow or setting up a larger company, here are 10 tips that can guide you to start, grow, and expand.


1. Have enough money on the side

If you are only just starting out as an independent professional, you will quickly discover that there will be some down-time as well in-between projects, no matter how good you are at what you do. And it is precisely for these times that you should have enough money set aside. If you have not done so already, be frugal in your spendings during the first few months of being independent, and slowly build up a buffer of money. Such a buffer can also allow you to wait for more interesting projects, and it enables you to accept longer payment terms if needed.

Further down the line, it’s likely that you will want to grow and do more. This will require investing in professional and personal training courses, subscriptions to knowledge repositories and networking and conference events to bring greater insights to your work. We come back to these points again later. These investments are easy to ignore as an independent but are crucial to your long term success. Put cash aside from the start to make it even easier to invest in yourself in the future.

Lastly, and not unimportantly, having a financial buffer gives you more peace of mind allowing you to enjoy life more.


2. Define your niche and build a reputation

Being good at many crafts has its advantages. Especially professionals coming from the consulting industry have quite broad experience. However, it is essential to specify your personal brand to help clients understand what roles they can use your skills for. In what area(s) will you be the best candidate they can find? As potential clients are increasingly looking for specialised knowledge², it is important to set yourself apart and further deepen your expertise through the roles you take. If you just turned independent, you can set your focus on a specific industry, competence, function or technology where you have experience and thus credibility in. Build this further up by taking on projects that underline this experience. It goes without saying that it should be an area that you enjoy doing!

That way, your name will become known in the space, as you can consistently market specifically what you do to both client and consulting communities. Having a strong reputation in a clear niche you will notice that opportunities will start finding you. This brings a host of benefits, from having less project downtime yourself to being able to refer other professionals for a small commission, or bringing opportunities to other people in your network. In other words, you incrementally start expanding your business impact beyond yourself and enabling you to increase your revenue streams without increasing your professional risk or work obligations.


3. Utilise and continue building your network

Often, people don’t realise the value of the network they have built during their career, but especially as a starting independent consultant you can give yourself a great start by actively using it. There is no shame in contacting former colleagues or clients (where allowed) to increase the exposure of your business and gain new opportunities. In addition, you can take a more proactive and exploratory approach by asking your LinkedIn contacts whether someone knows a company that could be in need of your skills, and ask them for an introduction. Any new contact may be the source of future opportunities, or could help you in other ways during the process of growing your business. It’s often not so hard to get a quick coffee scheduled.

If you want to grow beyond your personal network, conferences, seminars, and other social networking events provide a great opportunity to expand your reach. This way, you can get in touch directly with potential clients and fellow independent consultants, while at the same time staying up-to-date regarding the latest developments in your field. Might sound expensive, but for a low-budget starter can already be quite valuable to get in touch with new people. Next to that you can get hold of early bird tickets if you plan ahead, or attend sometimes free opening sessions of big conferences. You may also join consulting platforms that connect you with specialist consulting communities.

Don’t be too focused on instantly trying to monetise your new contacts. Trust will have to be build from scratch, and needs time and investment. A recommended read about this is the New York Times and Wall Street Journal bestseller Give and Take (2013)³, where Adam Grant outlines that ‘giving more’ without expecting something in return means building an extensive network with many fruitful links, leading to success for you and your peers.

Also keep in mind that with cold business development it can take six to 36 weeks from your first contact with a client to starting a project; Closing rates being around 10 to 20 percent⁴. This means that if you are looking to sustainably build a pipeline for your business yourself, you need to stay highly connected with your network and actively follow up and keep multiple opportunities warm. If this seems like a lot of effort to you or a bit scary, an easier way to get project or role opportunities outside your network is through consulting platforms. By co-working on business development opportunities you can build on their resources, cases, expertise, and network to land bigger projects with higher rates and returns.


4. Invest in your brand and market it

To build your business, you need a strong personal and business brand to be credible and trusted in what you do. This makes it more appealing for other independent consultants to work with you on a project for a client, and provides you with different positioning in your tariff negotiations.

Your personal brand needs to flow seamlessly into your business brand. Tailor your business brand look & feel to your chosen niche and core USPs, and align your CV, LinkedIn activity, and other content you publish. Build a story and narrative around you and your business, expressing your competence and what you have worked on in the past. Provide social proof to clients that your business has the resources with the skills and expertise they are looking for – being on top of your game.


5. Business development should be on your agenda at any point

Finding work as an independent takes time, and being “on the bench” in the early stages can be an uncomfortable feeling. As a starting independent, you can reduce the time to project work by already thinking about your next project or opportunity while still busy with other tasks. A next step would be to spot needs at the client you are working for and propose someone from your network to fulfil that role. However, if you are seriously looking to build out your business, you should consider dedicating time for business development in your agenda every week to allow for relationship management, networking, and proposals. This means that your aim is to not be staffed 5 days a week, but instead see actively sourcing potential opportunities for yourself and others as part of your job. You have to explore what balance works best for yourself, depending on whether you like to focus on only one big project at a time or manage multiple projects simultaneously, together with other professionals.


6. Team up with the right people

Essential for success is to work with the right professionals, as the quality of these people will also reflect on you and your own brand. You can find team members by becoming part of a consortium, through your own network, or via consulting platforms. In this, consulting platforms that pre-screen and verify the skills of independent professionals can be particularly useful. As they have a larger pool of professionals and specialties, it enables you to source cross-functionally, significantly facilitating the process of finding a fitting person.


7. Invest time in the right places

It sounds cliche, but time is money. This is especially true for independent consultants, as the product you sell is the time you dedicate your brain to the client. In any case, you should attempt to make the best of your time and use your skills where they add most value. If you find that not to be so for some activities you perform, do not hesitate to outsource these to other, better suited professionals. This frees up your own time and allows you to focus on other aspects in which you can add more value⁵. At the same time, outsourcing can professionalise the activities as you choose an expert to perform them, thereby also improving your brand image. Parts of your business where this can be especially useful include administrative work, building and maintaining your website, or other tangential processes that your strengths do not lie in.


8. Professionalise your work processes

In order for you to make the best of your time, it can make sense to put some structure to your own workflow. This includes having your own working space and working regular hours. This helps you be productive during your working hours, and enjoy your time off. Furthermore, if you choose to work from a co-working space you stay motivated and inspired, as you are in contact with other entrepreneurs and independent professionals. At the same time, having an office location other than your personal home can give you a more professional impression, also to clients. Being able to invite clients or contacts to your office location for a meeting can be a blessing.


9. Develop new income streams

Eventually, working on your own and focusing only on your initial niche might not provide the challenge you are looking for. Once you have built up your reputation sufficiently and have a strong profile, expansion is a logical consequence of the previous steps you went through. If you want to expand, one option to do so is to start helping your clients with challenges outside of your direct area. While you may not have the capacity or specific skills to support your client you can help them by referring in other high quality consultants to support. In the process, you build a greater reputation in the market and can also earn commissions. Another possibility is to step into a project manager role and thereby work on multiple projects simultaneously, while again sub-contracting skilled professionals. If you know suitable candidates yourself and are ready for the additional business risk and commercial administration, then utilise those contacts to fill the team. Otherwise, you can find pre-screened and verified experts on a consulting platform, and form a team of specialists to deliver projects of highest value. All together, these activities can lead to a more steady and increased income stream, with less dependence on yourself being 24/7 at work or available.


10. Find the right balance and stay healthy

Being independent is amazing, and further building out your own business is an exciting and often exhilarating undertaking. However, it can also be stressful. Much of what you endeavour will be new to you and not without risk. Therefore, it is especially important to keep a good work-life balance and a healthy lifestyle. Incorporating sports into your daily routine is a great way to stay active, and next to its physical benefits it can also keep you mentally fit and reduce stress⁶. Practicing mindfulness is another great way to remain balanced; Meditating daily reduces stress and increases concentration, self-awareness, and happiness, among other benefits⁷. You can easily learn how to do so with the help of apps such as Headspace or Calm. Don’t keep running in a treadmill, but take time to reflect and set your goals. Ultimately, you’ve made the choice to become independent to increase your happiness as well as performance. Take that flexibility and freedom to develop the career path that fits you – and a great career choice it is.


Closing thoughts

The operating models of large companies are changing – but with the professional gig economy becoming a serious and stable way of doing business, the operating model of independents is changing, too. Being a highly experienced, often entrepreneurial professional, you can pick and choose contracts, build your networks, and take charge of your own career trajectory.

When it comes to career development in the Gig or open-talent economy, surprisingly little research has been done yet to guide the millions of independent professionals following this track. The 10 step summary can provide guidance in setting the North Star for yourself, and potential steps to grow your business. What does your ambition and development path look like?


Interested in reading more?

Here is a selection of articles and reports documenting the changes and developments in consulting that are discussed in this article

¹ Consultancy UK, 2017, “Booming independent consultants buck gig economy trends” citing Odgers Connect (OC)

² MCA, 2017, “Consulting in the Age of Disruption – MCA Annual Report 2017

³ Grant, 2013, “Give and Take”

⁴ Steinberg, 2012, “5 Tips for Building a Killer Consulting Business

⁵ Haden, 2016, “4 Ways Outsourcing Can Really Help Your Small Business Grow

⁶ ADAA, 2018, “Physical Activity Reduces Stress

⁷ Crane, 2017, “8 Ways Meditation Can Improve Your Life

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