Tom and Freddie share their key advice for those considering a consulting career.
Professionals worldwide are more frequently opting for careers outside of the traditional corporate path. For some, that means exploring the possibility of becoming an independent consultant. While having greater control of your destiny, maximizing your earning potential, or even finding a better work/life balance can be very appealing, being an independent consultant can be challenging.
In his role as the founding partner of Chameleon Collective, Freddie Laker has a proven track record as a successful consultant—and he’s successfully mentored dozens of other successful consultants over the last six years. In a conversation with SEO expert Tom Dehnel, Freddie shares the top tips that he discusses with every potential new independent consultant to ensure their success.
Tom, who has consulted on SEO for finance brands like Goldman Sachs and Current, tech companies including Okta and other Andreessen Horowitz portfolio companies, and consumer brands like Franchesca’s, shares his own great advice for brand-new consultants—plus his #1 absolutely crucial tip for independent consultants. Together, he and Freddie deliver a well-rounded list of top ten tips that aspiring consultants should take to heart.
#1. DON’T FUSS OVER BRANDING
People stress too much about branding, worrying about their logo, name, email domain, and business structure when they’re just beginning, says Tom. “Don’t worry about any of that stuff when you’re just starting out,” he says. “Companies create those things to solve problems.” He started an S corp after he’d started making money, not before.
Instead, spend time developing your contracts. “I do think it’s helpful to have a really solid MSA that protects you,” Tom notes. He also suggests consultants develop an explicit scope of work (SOW) for client work, making the terms and deliverables of the work crystal clear.
There is one important aspect of initial branding, however—and that’s where people often go wrong. Steer clear of “pseudo-professional language” on your LinkedIn profile. “You see a lot of this: ‘I developed growth strategies for integrated channel marketing platforms for international stakeholders.’ What the hell does that even mean?” Tom says. “No one’s searching for that.” Instead, choose terms that people are actually going to look for, like “Google Ads consultant” or “email marketing consultant.”
#2. HONE YOUR OFFERING – SPECIALISTS WIN THE DAY
Clients hire generalists for full-time positions; when hiring consultants, they are hiring specialists. They’re paying a premium for expertise, and they’re looking for people with a “superpower” that warrants this additional expense.
Lots of people have comprehensive bios that read like Wikipedia. “No one has time for that kind of stuff,” Freddie says. Clients need fast solutions; they’re skimming these profiles. So, throw your generic career bio out the window and rewrite it through the lens of a specialist.
When striking out as a consultant, begin by determining your superpower. Find two, maybe three, things that you’re an expert at—for example, serving as a business analyst, a brand strategist, or an interim CRO. Then, pull selectively from your history and experience to come up with a minimum of three supporting facts that establish you as an expert in each of these domains.
“When you have a specific expertise that you are trying to bring to market, even as an independent consultant, think about it almost like a thesis statement,” Freddie urges. SEO-optimize your title—again, choosing something like “growth marketing consultant” or “brand strategy consultant.” Think of the bio as the intro in a classic essay structure; it should support your thesis statement. Only focus on the duties and accomplishments from each job that support your thesis. You should have a unique pitch and story for each of these one to three domains that establishes you as a credible expert. Having more than three will confuse potential customers and your social network when trying to establish your personal brand.
#3. THINK ABOUT YOUR VALUE
Recognize the immense value you’re providing beyond just your superpowers, Tom says. First, since your client is dealing with one person rather than an agency, communications will be faster, which boosts agility. With an agency, they’d be talking with an account manager who needs to circle back with the entire team. Second, they don’t need to hire a full-time employee for your role, which dramatically cuts down on risk and may save substantial expense. Third, you can lend a valuable outside perspective.
#4. UNDERSTAND HOW TO SET YOUR CONSULTING RATE
Now that you have defined your specialization and considered the value you bring, you’ll need to figure out your consulting rate. Many new consultants are confused about how to handle this, but these simple rules will make this task less complicated.
The market sets the rate on any particular skill set, and the more in-demand you are, the higher you can set your rate. Many advanced consultants will tell you never to do hourly rates, advising you to focus on project- or value-based pricing. That’s excellent advice for consultants who are experts at accurately estimating the level of effort involved in a project and masters of controlling client scope creep. Still, in the beginning, focus on hourly rates to reduce your risk of a project going wrong.
How to find this rate? Look at the compensation package for a traditional job at your level and field today, reverse-engineer it to an hourly rate, and then double it. “I always tell people that should be your starting consulting rate,” says Freddie. “This gives you some breathing room because you know that if you are billing 15–20 hours a week, you should be in a spot where you’re paying all your bills and not freaking out.” And it goes without saying that if you become a top-rated consultant, you could dramatically increase your earning levels beyond anything you previously thought possible.
#5. DON’T GIVE SOMETHING FOR NOTHING
How does Tom deal with requests for on-spec work? “If you’re going to give a concession like that, make sure it’s really clear what the value is to you,” he says. Don’t give something for nothing, he urges. He typically wouldn’t do spec work without a very clear agreement for how it would benefit him, like making a connection to three prospects on LinkedIn. Usually, he and his client engage in very little negotiation when setting up an SOW, but if a client wants him to be flexible about something, he asks for something that can benefit him in turn.
Freddie shares one case when spec work can prove useful. “If you are a new consultant, and you are making a leap into a new category or area of specialization that you have no credibility in, or very little credibility in—if jumping over into that area gives you a portfolio piece that you can talk about publicly, then it might be worth it,” he notes. For instance, if you come from the agency world and want to leap into being an interim marketing leader, doing some spec or discount work can help you establish yourself.
#6. FOCUS ON GETTING BUSY VS. FUSSING OVER PRICE
Filling up your calendar with work that uses your superpowers will build your mojo as an independent consultant. When you first start, it’s okay to be somewhat flexible about the rate because you must become confident in your ability to succeed. When new consultants are too precise about their rate and their own perceived value, they can frequently pass on opportunities, and then if new opportunities don’t arise or they don’t get busy, they get spooked. Once they get spooked, they start to lose confidence. “They don’t pick up some of these initial jobs with clients that they want. And it messes with their mojo,” says Freddie. “They get psyched out, and then they basically start to fail. Clients can smell that lack of confidence on people.”
“Get busy. Get the cash flowing,” he continues. You can discount your listed rate and work 30 to 40 (or more) hours per week to pick up clients. Especially if you’re making the leap from a corporate job, that will keep you moving forward. Worry about breaking even before you worry about high-level margins. Being busy makes you feel good, and it helps get your name out there as a great consultant. Over the coming months, you can rotate out the clients at lower rates for new clients at higher rates—and you’ll do it with a glow of confidence that will set the tone for your new career.
“That feeling of abundance, like ‘I have enough,’ is the genesis of all good decisions,” says Tom. When you’re feeling good about the position you’re in, that will keep propelling you forward.
#7. INVEST IN YOUR SPACE
Investing in your space will both make you feel good and make your clients feel good about you. In his own home office, Tom hangs art that he likes and has designed the space to reflect his tastes. He enjoys spending time in it. “I feel like I’m sitting in a place of abundance,” he says. When starting out, your space and budget may be limited, he notes, but simple choices can go a long way. “Make your space as comfortable as you can to start; it doesn’t need to cost a lot of money,” he says.
For instance, get the lighting positioned right, even if you’re working from the dining room table, says Freddie. You’ll then project a sense of professionalism on your calls. “Your space is part of your brand in today’s world,” he emphasizes. Use the Krisp.ai app to filter out background noise if necessary.
Your goal should be to create a great experience for your client. “They don’t want to be talking to someone who’s in a weirdly lit room who looks like they’re in a witness protection program, and their voice is all scrambled,” Tom laughs. And remember, these are things that anyone can do regardless of budget!
#8. VALIDATE YOUR OFFERING “PRE-LAUNCH”
Before taking the leap to consulting, do some basic market research. “Think about yourself as a startup product,” Freddie says. As with launching any product, you want to do market validation. Make a list of people you have worked with throughout your career who understand who you are and respect what you do. Select 5 to 10 people who genuinely understand your skills and the value you deliver. You may not have spoken to some of them in 10 years, and that’s okay—this is an authentic way to reconnect with people. Send them a note saying you’re reaching out to people you’ve worked with in the past who you respect and who understand your value. Say you’d love to get their input about a prospective career change if they have time to chat. Everyone appreciates being asked, “I’m considering making a career change. You’re someone I respect deeply and whose opinion I value. Could you find 20 to 30 minutes to catch up and give me your feedback on an idea I’m considering?”
Then, use that opportunity to discuss whether they feel you should continue to pursue your current career on a traditional path or if they believe you would be a good consultant in your areas of specialization.
The purpose of the call is to gather meaningful feedback, not sell your services. In Freddie’s experience, however, 9 of 10 people find their first clients this way, and 1 out of 10 realize consulting might not be for them, which saves them from a lot of pain and embarrassment. Some of the people you speak with may be excited to be able to work with you again. Or they may provide an introduction.
Ask hard questions, Tom adds. People may be afraid to offend you, leading them to be too polite. “Don’t be afraid to push back and say, ‘I’m glad you’re excited about it. How would you price this kind of service?’” he says.
#9. EVALUATE YOUR CONFIDENCE
Before making the leap, do a self-check: “Can I sell 15 to 20 hours of my time per week, every week, without any help from anyone else?” Jumping into the role of an independent consultant means you’ll need to depend on your ability to generate business for yourself, especially in the beginning. If you’re successful, you’ll build a growing list of happy clients who will rehire or refer you, and you’ll establish a network of like-minded professionals who invite you to collaborate on their clients.
If you think you can do this, then you’re ready to make the jump into independent consulting. Be careful not to rely on overly optimistic views of having gigs lined up or getting all your projects from a particular friend, agent, or consultant. It may happen, but it also may not, and if you’re confident you can do this on your own, then you’re not putting your livelihood or anyone who may depend on you at risk. Also, if you’re successful on your own merit and those connections end up coming through as well, you’re going to be extremely busy and successful.
#10. HAVE INTEGRITY
“The number one principle that I think independent consultants need to have if they’re going to be successful at this is integrity,” says Tom. “All I mean is, do what you say you’re gonna do, and when you screw it up, own it and try to make it right.” We’re all human; we all make mistakes, but the little things really matter. Meeting deadlines you’ve agreed to is a big thing. If you need to push one back, that’s usually fine, but communicate about it; don’t just leave the client wondering. Work hard to follow through on your promises and over-deliver.
Tom gets a lot of referrals because he strives to give clients a good experience, which begins with integrity.
Making the decision to become an independent consultant can feel nerve-wracking, especially if you’ve never worked outside of a salaried position. And in some cases, people make the leap impulsively and then feel overwhelmed. When leaving his last corporate job, Freddie made up his mind at 4 p.m. on a Thursday and quit by 4 p.m. on Friday. That’s exactly the wrong way to go about it, he says! Around 10 o’clock that night, he thought, “What have I done?” and stayed up until 3 a.m. on LinkedIn combing through everyone who knew his skill set firsthand. Though his outreach paid off, you can start your own journey as an independent contractor with more thorough preparation. Following these top ten tips will help you strike out on the right foot!