It’s been almost a decade since I left Corporate America to pursue my entrepreneurial aspirations. Most of that time has been spent as a consultant. Among the many ups and downs, I’ve learned some very important lessons – some harder than others.
In this post, I’ll discuss five secrets that no one told me when starting my consulting business (but wish they had).
#1: Clients Can Have Weird Sticking Points
Clients can sometimes have inexplicable pet peeves and irrational frustrations. Consultants must be able to look past such shortcomings and keep things on track.
Here’s a perfect example of what I’m talking about. Early in my consulting career, I was helping a company rebrand its website. As with any web project, there were a lot of moving parts to consider. Content, graphics, code, and other elements must come together to provide an engaging end-user experience. Our team put the finishing touches on the project, and the new site went live.
A few weeks passed, and the site seemed to be performing very well. At least that’s what I thought, until I received a rather terse email. Apparently, in the client’s opinion, the site was occasionally loading too slow. To my dismay, the blame was on my shoulders, since I was the one who recommended the developer and oversaw the project. After receiving a stern lecture, I recommended that we recruit an additional developer who could troubleshoot the specific issue and resolve the problem. We ultimately figured out the root issue, which made the client happy once again.
At the time, I thought this was just a case of client grumpiness. Looking back, I now know that each client can have unique (some might even say “weird”) sticking points. In this situation, the client could not look past a minor load-time issue, despite the site generating more revenue than ever before.
Key takeaway: Be attentive to how clients think and view the world. Looking at projects and situations through their eyes can reduce unnecessary friction.
#2: Marketing without Technology is Purely Theoretical
My undergraduate degree is in marketing. I’ve read countless books about marketing theory and advertising strategy. My first desk job was in a corporate marketing department. As helpful as these resources and experiences have been for my career, today’s consultant must embrace (and master) a wide variety of technological principles and apps.
Shortly after publishing my profile on the oDesk marketplace (now known as “Upwork”), a client hired me to create a marketing plan. This type of opportunity was well within my sweet spot, given my mix of book knowledge and corporate report-building skills. To my delight, the marketing plan was well received; but, a new question was quickly posed. Who would help implement the plan?
Gulp. I hesitantly volunteered.
Did I know anything about HTML, CSS, or responsive web design? Had I ever built a single landing page? Did I know which content management system was better than any other? I’m embarrassed to admit the answer to all such questions was a resounding, “no.” I had book smarts, but I did not have much practical experience.
Thankfully, my clients were patient and willing to learn as I learned.
Key takeaway: Don’t just tell clients what to do. Be prepared to tell them how to do it.
#3: Most Tools Have Incredibly Complex Terms of Service
Time to get paranoid.
Although technology can be instrumental in helping clients achieve goals, it also has its share of hidden gotchas. Considering that there’s a software as a service (SaaS) for nearly every business problem, it’s not unusual for a given company to rely on dozens of different apps. Each app has its own terms of service (TOS) agreement, which can require a juris doctorate to decipher.
The majority of entrepreneurs that I know just accept the terms during signup and move on with their lives. There’s something to be said for this approach. On the other hand, by completely ignoring an app’s TOS, the business owner could be setting himself up for a costly mistake in the future. This is especially true when using a “freemium” version of an app, which can sometimes be intended for “non-commercial” use.
I’m certainly not a lawyer, but I do try to peruse an app’s terms of service before signing up. If it looks overly restrictive or unreasonable, I might look around for another solution.
Key takeaway: At least consider reading a tool’s terms of service before signing up.
#4: 100% Hourly Billing Can Be Detrimental to Everyone
Hourly billing is arguably the most common compensation model for consultants. However, I’ve come to learn that hourly may not be appropriate for every circumstance.
Allow me to illustrate. Most of my time is spent helping clients build and refine their marketing strategies. However, customers routinely ask me to also assist with copywriting. These are obviously quite different, yet related activities. When operating under a strict hourly arrangement, I find that all of my billable time gets consumed by various consulting priorities – leaving little to no time for content creation.
To remedy the situation, I began looking at each article as a standalone work product (with a fixed budget). This approach has proven to be beneficial for both parties. The client knows that each week will yield several solid pieces for a guaranteed price. From my standpoint, I am able to better prioritize my work backlog. The fixed budget also incentivizes me to further enhance my efficiency, thereby preserving a higher effective rate of production.
Key takeaway: Look for ways to package up services into budget-friendly deliverables.
#5: Health Insurance is Really Expensive
Last but not least, I wish someone had told me about how expensive health insurance can be for the self-employed. Although, if they had, I might not have taken the plunge and joined the entrepreneurial movement.
So, on second thought, I’ll retract this one!
Key takeaway: I guess I’ll just keep raising my deductible each year!