Contributors from members of the Copper team
Being your own boss can be a dream come true. You set your own salary, build your own schedule, and can take as many vacation days as you want.
But you can’t just wake up one day a business owner.
Getting a consulting business off the ground isn’t easy. Whether you’re jumping into consulting full-time or you’re looking to build a side gig, the first few months of establishing your business are crucial.
Unfortunately, many new consultants plan for overnight success. They think they’ll just send a few emails, reach out to a few acquaintances, and soon the work will come pouring in. It doesn’t take long to realize “overnight success” rarely happens.
The truth is, starting a consulting business takes a lot of planning and hard work.
In this comprehensive guide on how to start a consulting business, we'll look at:
What is a consulting business?
Consulting is an incredibly non-descriptive industry. Because it’s so broad, there can be a lot of confusion around what a consulting business actually does.
Generally, consulting businesses provide advice or direction on a particular topic in a specific field. More specifically, consultants work directly with clients to help achieve specific goals using their own experience or industry knowledge.
With the help of a consultant, clients are able to reach their goals faster, overcome roadblocks that were previously holding them back, or solve problems in new, more efficient ways.
Here are some reasons why a company might hire a consultant:
- They’re unable to identify problems and need an outside perspective.
- They need a catalyst for change and hope a consultant will push the company to make major shifts.
- They don’t want to stick an internal employee with tricky work, such as making staff cuts.
- They want an industry expert to teach or coach management and staff.
- They need assistance in building a strong reputation or breathing life into a deteriorating business.
Consultants can be found in just about every industry, from the business world to medicine. While they typically work directly with an organization as a whole, entrepreneurs or high-level executives may work one-on-one with a consultant to achieve more specific goals.
There’s no single path to building a consulting business. However, this kind of freedom means you can create something that appeals directly to your unique needs, as well as your clients.
Let’s dive into how to get started in the consulting world.
How to build a consulting business plan
In the words of Benjamin Franklin, failing to plan is planning to fail. Any solid, sustainable business––regardless of size or industry––needs a business plan.
Business plans are often used to convince investors or banks to provide funding to a new business. However, it’s not likely that you’ll need a lot of money to get your consulting business started. But that doesn’t mean you don’t need a business plan.
Think of yourself as an investor in your own consulting business. You need to use your business plan to convince yourself that you’re not only capable of doing the work, but that you also know exactly how you’re going to make money, what you’re going to do with it, and how you’re going to grow.
Before you start any networking, marketing, or other work, you need to draft up a unique business plan. Here are the things you should consider.
1. Identify your niche.
When creating a new business, many entrepreneurs or freelancers think they’ll get more work by casting a wide net. They try to appeal to the masses, showcasing everything they can do.
This tactic rarely works. In fact, not narrowing down into a niche can actually make it more difficult to get work as a consultant. When you’re trying to connect with everyone, it makes it challenging to truly click with any potential client.
Instead, identify your consulting niche. These are the clients, companies, or industries you would ideally work with.
For example, Kurt Elster is a consultant whose niche is helping Shopify store owners discover hidden profits:
To find your niche, take a look at your industry of expertise. Ask yourself the following questions:
- Where is this industry lacking?
- What do professionals in this industry need? Why aren’t they already getting it?
- What value can I provide to this industry or these professionals?
- Who would benefit the most from my knowledge or experience?
Because consulting is so broad, you want to try and get as specific as possible. Simply stating you’re going to provide “human resources consulting” or “marketing consulting” isn’t enough.
Narrow down your customers and clients. Do you want to work with large enterprises, or are you focused on small, local businesses? Is there a specific demographic you’d like to target?
Identify the purpose behind why a client might hire you. While you might be an expert in your field, understanding the reason behind your hire can further narrow down your niche.
For example, do you want to teach a company’s staff the tricks of the trade or do the “dirty work” for your clients? Do you want to point out problems and solutions, or build strong business reputations?
Knowing your niche can help you create more targeted messaging when the time comes. It can also act as a bit of a checklist for helping you identify strong potential clients. We’ll talk more about client prospecting later on, but for now, think of your niche as your “perfect” potential client.
Really dig into where you specialize, but keep in mind that you can always shift directions. You’re not stuck with this decision for the duration of your consulting career.
2. Know your unique value.
The consulting industry is saturated. When a potential client chooses to work with a consultant, they’ll likely have dozens and dozens of options to choose from.
You need to be able to tell a client why they should choose you.
Identifying your unique value can help you stand out from competitors. By understanding––and showcasing––the rare perspective or experience you bring to the table, you can win more clients.
Look back on your accomplishments to see what your unique value might be. Why would a client want to work with you over another consultant?
Be specific. Generic characteristics like being friendly or organized probably won’t get you too far. Instead, pinpoint exactly why you’re an expert in your industry and what useful knowledge you can share with clients.
For example, this consultant showcases his accomplishments on the About page of his website:
Don’t be afraid to brag a little. This isn’t the time to allow imposter syndrome to get the best of you. Own your accomplishments and use them as fuel for building your consulting business.
3. Describe your personal “why.”
Goals and planning go hand-in-hand. It’s easier to properly execute a plan if you’ve set goals to help move you along.
However, as a consultant and business owner, your goals will likely be rooted in some personal desires. In other words, knowing why you want to start a consulting company in the first place will shape your goals as a business owner.
Your “why” might be for a more flexible schedule, for more money, or because you’re dying to share your knowledge and industry wisdom.
Don’t feel like you need a pageant-queen-approved response. Knowing your true motivations behind starting a consultant business is much more important to your overall success than claiming to want to achieve world peace (unless, of course, you’re consulting for world leaders).
Make a list of every reason you can think of. We’ll come back to this later when we’re ready to set goals, but you can also use this list as motivation to keep you going.
4. Create a networking strategy.
Anytime you’re building a business from the bottom up, you’re going to need to rely heavily on your network. Friends, family, past colleagues, or mutual connections will all be crucial for helping you land your first consulting clients.
However, you can’t expect to truly build your network (or your business) just by handing out a few business cards.
Before you start your consulting business, you need to develop a networking strategy that outlines who you’ll connect with, how you’ll meet them, and what you’ll do to build the relationship.
Networking might include in-person events or digital connections, such as on Twitter, LinkedIn, or even community Slack groups:
Community Slack groups can be a great place to ask questions and build connections with potential clients.
In your business plan, break down your strategy for establishing those initial connections. You might decide to send cold messages to individuals within your niche, or you could focus on warm introductions through individuals already in your network.
Like most things at this stage of your business, the details can always change. However, outlining how you plan to connect with potential clients will give you direction when you finally open your consulting business.
Know thy client 🔍
Learn how to collect and use information about clients to build deeper connections and longer-lasting relationships with this handbook.
5. Determine your pricing strategy.
When you’re just starting out as a consultant, getting paid anything can feel like a far-fetched dream. However, you don’t want to land your first client because you undersold yourself just to get a payday.
Your pricing strategy should be a part of your initial business plan.
To determine your pricing strategy, you first need to establish how much you’re going to charge. You can take the easy route and look up the market rate for your consulting route, or you can use our rate-finding spreadsheet to make sure you’re accounting for taxes, expenses, and your own personal monetary needs.
There are four common ways that consultants charge:
- By the hour. Billing by the hour ensures you’re able to charge for all the time you spend on a particular product. However, it also involves constant time-tracking and may be scrutinized by clients.
- By the project. Billing by the project allows consultants to set an up-front rate before work is completed so both parties can budget appropriately. Unfortunately, if a client requires more attention than anticipated, you might end up making less than your hourly rate.
- By monthly retainer. Setting a monthly retainer means setting a predetermined amount for your services each month. It usually involves outlining what projects will be completed, but you may also reserve time for calls and on-demand issues. A monthly retainer is great for long-term, consistent clients.
- By return on investment (ROI). Consultants may charge a certain percentage of the benefits (like increased revenue or decreased spending) they bring a company. Unfortunately, those benefits usually don’t appear immediately, which means payment may be delayed by weeks or even months. It can also be difficult to measure certain types of ROI, so payment may not be accurate.
For example, if you're a brand consultant, it can be nearly impossible to accurately measure the ROI of a rebranded company. The benefits of good branding can also extend over years, meaning you could be missing out on money you’re owed with an ROI-based payment plan.
Each payment style has its benefits in certain scenarios. Knowing which works best for you can help your consulting business grow more efficiently.
Keep in mind that you can always charge your clients through different pricing structures. However, negotiations and money conversations are always easier when you have a go-to plan that you know works.
6. Set personal and professional goals.
Because your business plan is primarily for you, it should also act as a professional development guide towards establishing your consulting business. As the final section of your plan, lay out personal and professional goals and expectations you hope to achieve through consulting.
Think of these goals as your long-term objectives or desires, but also consider the steps you might need to take to get there.
For example, say you hope to someday consult for Fortune 100 companies. If you don’t already have experience working with companies of that size, you’ll need to establish some more realistic goals to get you closer to that ultimate prize. Consulting for a Fortune 500 company would set you on the right track.
You should also consider what personal achievements you’d like to reach through becoming a business owner. If you’d like to only work part-time or you’d like the freedom to work from wherever you want, outline this in your plan.
Your business plan should also consider any training or certifications you’ll need to get. Keeping your skills relevant and up-to-date can ensure you’re an in-demand consultant and help you stay competitive. Even if you’re unsure of what those trainings may look like in the future, establish how often you’d like to get a new certification or take new courses.
For example, if you’re opening a marketing consulting business, it can be impossible to know what training you’ll need ten years down the road. However, if you establish in your business plan that you’d like to receive a new certification every two years, you can fill in those blanks as the time comes.
Your consulting business plan should be constantly evolving. As you grow as a business owner, attract new clients, and learn the lessons of consulting, it’s extremely likely that you’re going to need to switch things up.
Even so, writing your business plan before you get started can help lay the foundation for a more sustainable consulting business. If you feel lost or overwhelmed, you can come back to your strategy to remember why you chose to enter consulting and what you hope to achieve.
Prepare for your business launch.
Your plan should get the juices flowing and help you better understand if you’re fully prepared to start your consulting business. After completion, you may find that you need a bit of time to get your ducks in a row.
Or, you may be ready to launch the next day.
There are a few important steps to take before officially launching your consulting business. Let’s look at them.
7. Establish a digital presence.
As a new consultant, you need to establish credibility with potential clients quickly––especially if you’re going to be connecting through cold calling or even warm introductions. To prove you are who you say you are, you need to establish a digital presence through a website and social media profiles.
Your consulting website adds an additional layer of professionalism to your new business. It gives potential clients a resource for learning more about you and allows interested individuals to reach out to you for more information.
It also gives you an opportunity to show off a bit.
On your website, share your story, experience, and what you can provide your clients. Explain the unique value you can bring to the table and what someone can expect from working with you.
You can also share examples of work with past clients, although if you’re just getting started these case studies may be limited. You can always come back to add them when you have a bit more to talk about.
A consulting website, like this one from Dana James Mwangi, gives clients an opportunity to get to know more about you and your business.
Create strong messaging that depicts both the consulting brand you’re trying to build as well as who you are as an individual. You can then use this messaging throughout your marketing materials to build a cohesive profile for yourself.
Next, update your social media platforms. This step is particularly important if you plan to use them to reach out to potential clients.
Your Linkedin, Twitter, Facebook, and even Instagram should accurately reflect who you are and what you do as a consultant. You want it to be immediately apparent why potential clients should connect with you and what you have to offer them:
Your LinkedIn profile should showcase who you are and what you do, making it easy for potential clients to understand why they should get in touch.
Preparing your website, social media platforms, and other online profiles can ensure you hit the ground running when your consulting business finally launches.
8. Determine what business tools you need.
When creating your business plan, you outlined goals and expectations you hope to accomplish through running your own business. Now is the time to identify what tools, software, or apps you need to reach those goals.
In other words, what will help you work efficiently so you can successfully launch and grow your consulting business?
While there will likely be a few industry-specific tools you need, let’s go over some generic apps or programs any consultant could benefit from.
A proposal or contract generator
Having solid proposals and contracts can help ensure you and your clients are on the same page every step of the way. However, they can be time consuming to create manually––especially when you need to whip up a new proposal for each client:
A proposal and contract generator, like And Co, provides templates that allow you to create professional, consistent documents for your consulting business.
Using a proposal or contract generator can help automate this process. A tool like PandaDoc or And Co can also add design elements so all your documents look more professional and consistent.
These tools also allow you to send clients documents to be signed. Digitizing this process means you don’t have to worry about printing and mailing documents, and you can easily store final contracts right in the app––making it easy to refer back if either party needs a refresher.
To further speed up your sales process, you can auto-populate documents and keep track of every document's status within Copper. Learn all about how to do that in this webinar.
Consulting involves a lot of communication––especially if you’re working with more than one client at a time. A CRM can help you keep your conversations organized.
Your CRM should integrate with the tools you use most, like Gmail, to maintain all your client interactions. It's the place where you can store notes, contract details, project expectations, and more information on each client and prospect:
Copper collects notes, communication activity, deal details and more into one place, making it easy to maintain strong customer relationships.
Your CRM can also be used to track activity, sales, and goals. If you're a stickler for measuring how well you're doing and growth over time, this will come in handy.
Invoicing and payment processors
It might seem like you’re getting ahead of yourself by thinking about how you’ll be paid when you haven’t even launched your consulting business, but having invoicing software ready to go can make the payment process significantly smoother.
There is a pretty broad range of features when it comes to invoicing software. Some tools simply provide templates where you can create invoices, download them as a PDF, and manually send to clients via email.
Others, such as Wave, take care of the entire invoicing, payment, and accounting processes for you. Within the same tool, you can send invoices and track income and expenses—and clients can make their payments too.
9. Let your network know.
Once you have your ducks in a row, it’s time to inform your network that you’ll be launching your consulting business. Reach out to friends, family, past colleagues and business acquaintances to see if they or anyone they know might be in need of your services.
There are a few ways to do this.
First, you can send emails or direct LinkedIn messages. These often have a more personal touch, but if you’re not close with the individual it may feel spammy. It’s best to limit these direct outreaches to those who already trust your expertise and skills, such as past team members.
Keep your message short and to the point. Here’s an example:
- Hi John,
Hope you’re doing well. I wanted to let you know I now offer content marketing consulting services to B2B SaaS companies.
If you know of anyone in this space who I should get in touch with, please send them my way.
Thanks for your time!
In an ideal world, each connection would get back to you with leads to follow up on. Unfortunately, this isn’t likely to happen––but spreading the word can be a great way to get a conversation started around your new consulting business.
In addition to direct messages or emails, you can also post to your LinkedIn feed.
However, you don’t want to think of this post as a promotional post. Instead, approach it as if you’re simply updating your network on your latest career move.
Here’s an example:
- After 15 years at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, I’m excited to announce I’ve gone into business for myself. I will now be offering independent advertising consulting services to consumer-focused organizations in the Chicago area.
I’m thankful for my time at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce and the experience it has given me, and I look forward to all that consulting can teach me.
The goal with this post is to inform your network that you’ve made a career change and letting them know you’re available for work without feeling overly self-promotional. While there will be a time to market yourself, right now you should be focused on creating a buzz.
Launch, grow, and sustain your consulting business.
You’ve created your business plan, established your online presence, and let your network know you’re making a career shift.
You’re finally ready to do what you’ve set out to do––start your consulting business.
Launching, growing, and sustaining your business is like a cycle. You land your first client, complete the work, hopefully create a long-term relationship, and start the process again. But between each client or project, there should be some time for reflection and adjustment.
Let’s take a look at the different steps of this process.
10. Collect consulting leads.
There are dozens and dozens of ways you can market yourself as a consultant. From focusing heavily on networking at industry events to running Facebook advertising campaigns, you have a lot of options to help lock down a client.
Here are a few ideas for generating leads as a new consultant:
- Ask for referrals from your existing network.
- Use Facebook ads to drive interested leads to a landing page.
- Attend relevant networking events.
- Host a webinar on a topic related to your niche.
- Start a blog and offer to guest-post on other blogs that your target audience might read.
- Get active in LinkedIn Groups.
Just don’t try to tackle every marketing opportunity at once.
Your time is limited—especially if you're working for yourself. Focus on where you can truly connect with your target audience. Research what they're interested in, where and how they spend their time online, then select the marketing options most likely to get their attention.
Make sure these leads are in the niche you identified in your business plan. While each individual may not fit your “ideal client” image perfectly, you should still be focusing your attention on leads within your industry. If you’re struggling to connect with these “ideal” individuals, you may need to switch up your marketing strategy.
11. Nurture long-term, consistent client relationships.
Consulting is a relationship-based business, and long-term relationships are crucial for developing a sustainable business.
However, these long-term business relationships don’t always happen organically. As a consulting business owner, you need to put in the work to nurture clients to repeatedly hire you for additional work.
Here are some tips for building long-term relationships:
- Know your strengths and limits. As a consultant, it can be tempting to take any work that comes your way. However, agreeing to work that doesn’t fall within your strengths could damage your credibility. If a client asks you for advice outside of your scope of expertise, point them in the direction of someone with more knowledge.
- Be transparent and honest. Life happens. If you fall behind, need to take a day off, or you made a mistake, be transparent and honest with your client. Let them know what is going on and what you’re going to do to get back on track.
- Think about the next project. Anytime you’re working with a client, you want to think beyond just the project you’re working on. Thinking ahead to what that next project could look like can show the client you’re proactive and serious about their business taking off.
Once a project with a client is done, stay in touch. Keep them updated via email or LinkedIn and check in to see how their business is doing. Staying engaged even when there isn’t work to be done can help you stay top of mind, build stronger relationships, and retain more clients.
12. Identify areas of improvement.
As you adjust to consulting and running your own business, you’ll likely recognize mistakes you’re making or ways you can operate more efficiently. Having a routine evaluation process can help you ensure you’re always moving forward.
Complete an assessment of a client and project as soon as you finish working together. Make notes of what went well, what might have been a little bumpy, and if there were any ignored red flags you want to be aware of with the next client. (You can store this information as a note in your CRM.)
If you feel comfortable, ask the client for an evaluation for the work you completed. This could be based on results seen within the business, or just be suggestions on where they see you could improve. This external perspective can help you identify issues or challenges you weren’t aware of.
You should also be constantly looking for new tools or platforms that can make consulting even easier. Identify opportunities for automation, or consider bringing another employee or subcontractors on board.
Pro-tip: Invest in yourself. When you run a consulting business, your mind is your equipment. Look for education opportunities, events, or conferences where you can refine your skills and learn something new.
Start building a roadmap for your consulting business.
Consulting businesses are diverse and unique. The ins and outs of how each one is run can vary immensely, meaning there's no foolproof step-by-step approach to starting your own consulting business.
That's why planning is key. Create a truly sustainable business by investing in a strong business plan, laying your business foundation, and focusing on areas of improvement as you grow.
Running a business involves a lot of trial and error, so don’t be afraid to make mistakes. Learn from each opportunity and client, and continue to develop as a consultant.