I've had quite a few people ask me, "how did you get started in consulting?". It's a valid question, especially if you're very early in your career. How to find your first client and grow your client base when you have limited experience seems nearly impossible, at first. The goal of this post is to take some of the magic out of this process and share my personal experiences with gaining a solid footing in consulting only 4 years after graduating. Be Present & Be Patient.
Our generation is prone to moving quickly. We graduate from college, take a job in another city, spend a few years (at best) there and move again. We're often impatient, and if things aren't going exactly as we expect, we decide it's time for a change. My 'luck' (not really, but let's call it that) in consulting is a direct result of the time I have invested in one place, developing relationships with the people here. Consulting is all about who you know, and I'm sure I don't have to tell you that networking is key. My first consulting job was the result of getting to know people and organizations, building trust with them (without even looking for a job), and low and behold, when an opportunity presented itself, I was there, ready to step-up. Gaining trust and developing relationships takes time. The last consulting job I got was with an organization I had known for the past two and a half years. I stayed in touch, grabbed drinks with the colleagues I had there, and when they needed somebody, I was the first person they asked. Why? Because they trusted me, and I had been a consistent presence for the past number of years.
It may take some time, but finding your "thing" is critical in developing a consistent reputation. Your reputation is what will get your jobs. e.g. "Oh Courtney, I know she's a great relationship builder - I think she's a business development consultant". It took me some time to find my focus in consulting, especially since I was a recovering engineer with an engineering degree who happily fell in love with business development. A good tool for finding your "thing" (in the case you don't already have one) is to try Strengthsfinders to help you focus.This online test identified what I was good at in the context of the workplace. It helped me take the idea of "sales" and match it to my personal strengths. Then I stuck to it. Sure, I could easily consult in other areas, and this might be tempting at first. When I started, I was presenting myself as a sales consultant...and a pitch coach...and a STEM education consultant. Soon enough, I couldn't easily explain what I did when I met people. That's BAD. You want what you do to be obvious. Just because you can do multiple things doesn't mean you should. Just like a startup company, focus is critical, especially when you're just getting started. Using strength finders as a tool, I picked my strongest area and I focused on that.
It might sound strange, but you are product, of sorts. You are unique, you solve somebody's problems, you have competition, and of course, you have a price. Once I had my strengths identified, I could easily pitch myself as a "product". Think through what you do, why you're better, what makes you unique, and most importantly, what problem do you solve for your customers? This will help to identify your target clients and craft a value proposition for yourself, targeted at that audience. As an example, what makes me unique is my engineering background and the fact that I'm good with people and a good communicator. I also had experience with young, innovative companies, so that set me on path to be a great "solution" for tech organizations that needed business development help. I already spoke the language of their customers - this made me stand out from other sales consultants that simply graduated with a sales degree (my value prop!). Finding the problem you solve and positioning yourself as a solution to your customers is key - and the great part is that this process follows in line with any business model, so it's easy for your to read-up on.
A note on personal brand: you hear about "building your brand" a lot these days. That is nearly complete bullsh*t (excuse my language). If you think of yourself like a product, what would happen if a product had nothing but a brand? Will anybody buy it? A brand is merely one very small component of you - you have to focus on the problem you solve, for who, and why you are better first and foremost. The brand will come later.
Directly related to networking is the need to make yourself known. Once you have established your "thing" and found your value proposition and ideal customer, you can't just sit around waiting for clients. Continue to network, and when you do, make sure you have an online presence. Establish a personal website - doesn't have to be fancy, but invest a few hundred dollars in a domain with your name, a simple Wordpress template, and populate with examples of your work and a way to contact you. I've gotten numerous requests directly through my personal website. Make sure you have business cards, and make every effort to gain media recognition. Lucky for me, I have been involved in organizations that gain media attention for awhile, but I've also been fortunate to be nominated for local awards (e.g. Crain's Cleveland 20 in their 20s). How do you get awards? I can honestly say I have never self-nominated for anything. My nominations have come through my personal network, so once again, your reputation and your network is key!
Last but not least, if you're a product, you should be a high-quality product. This means delivering consistent, best-effort work for every client you have. And even if you don't yet have a client, having character and working hard at your current job is equally important. I've gotten referrals for consulting gigs from previous employers, and repeat business because of my reputation. Even if you're not out trying to gain new business, make sure you're always at your best. It's simple, but one half-assed project could set your career on fire.