The Definitive Checklist for Starting a Consulting Business (incl. PDF)Oct 16, 2023
- Things you should know before starting an independent consulting business
- The definite checklist for starting a consulting business (scroll to the end for the PDF download)
- The 4 mistakes to avoid when starting your independent consulting business
- Select books and resources to help you get started in your independent consulting journey
- How my coaching can empower you to start and grow a sustainable consulting business
Who is this guide for
Have you been thinking about becoming an independent consultant? Are you worried you won’t be able to sell your services and generate consistent income? And you’re not sure how to start a consulting business?
This article is for you.
In this article I’ll walk you through the specific steps to start a consulting business. You’ll have the checklist you need to launch a consulting business. You can use this checklist whether you want to start with part-time consulting while you still have a full-time role. Or you can use the checklist if you’re ready to launch a full-time consulting practice.
Now is the time.
I hear from so many consultants they regret not starting their businesses sooner. They tell me they’ve been thinking about going on their own to consult for 5, 10, even 20 years and they never felt the time was right. Then, a push of some kind happened for them. Typically the push is a lay-off or getting fired from their full-time role. They realize now is the best time but wish they’d done it earlier.
For you, whether you’re testing the waters of consulting or know now is the right time, I want to make sure you have the comprehensive details you need to start your consulting business off with a strong foundation.
This is your starting a consulting business checklist, so you have a definitive plan for launching and sustaining a successful consulting practice.
Things you should know before starting an independent consulting business
You think you’re ready to start a consulting business, but you’re worried you don’t know what you don’t know.
This is common.
You don’t want to get yourself into a business endeavor that isn’t what you expected it would be.
That’s why I wrote this article for you.
I want to help you understand the realities of the consulting industry, of starting a consulting business, and what it takes to be successful.
Before I walk you through the steps, it’s important to give you a high-level picture of what’s possible when you start a consulting firm.
The upside of running an independent consulting firm or small boutique consultancy
When you’re running your own consulting business there’s a lot of upside. There must be a lot of upside or it wouldn’t be worth it. The upsides include having autonomy to do what type of work you do and what types of clients you take on, feeling more fulfilled by your work, having direct client relationships, and the potential to make more money than you would in a salary-capped, full-time role.
What people don’t tell you about running an independent consulting firm or small boutique consultancy
Don’t kid yourself. Running a consulting business is stressful. All the weight is on your shoulders to market yourself, to sell work, and to deliver results for your clients.
You need to learn how to run all the functions in your business, ranging from business owner, to finance, to accounting, to human resources, to marketing, to sales, and the actual consulting delivery.
At the same time, you need to master the emotional intelligence and mindset required to be a successful consulting business owner. You’ll need to learn to deal with uncertainty. You’ll need to learn to manage worry and stress. You’ll need to learn to deal with rejection and losses. And you’ll need to deal with feelings of humiliation, embarrassment, and shame.
Most people think about all the skill sets they need to learn when they become consultants. They think they’ll feel calm, clear, and certain after they have some wins under their belt and feel more competent as business owners. This isn’t true. When you’re a consulting business owner there are inherent ups and downs. The key to building a long-lasting, successful, and predictable business is to learn to manage through the range of emotions that come with owning a business.
Running a consulting business isn’t for the faint of heart.
But, it’s worth it for the financial rewards, the impact you can make that you wouldn’t have otherwise, and for the personal growth.
How do you know if you are ready to start a consulting business?
So, now you know that starting and running a consulting business will be filled with ups and downs. The next question you’ll likely ask is -- how do you know you’re ready to start your consulting business?
There are several paths to starting a consulting business. You’ll need to pick the one that’s right for you.
Here are several options to consider.
(1) You can start consulting as a side gig while you’re still working in your corporate role. This requires having the capacity to take on additional work and also the ability to do so without a conflict of interest.
(2) Or, you can build up a pipeline of clients while you’re in your corporate role and then time your corporate exit when the first consulting client is ready to start your engagement.
(3) Or, you can quit your corporate role “cold turkey” and start your consulting firm.
(4) Or, you can launch your consulting business after being laid off or fired as an alternative to spending the time searching for a full-time role.
There’s no “right way”. You’ll set yourself up to be successful if you commit to the path you’ve chosen and are dedicated to making it work no matter what.
How long does it take to land the first consulting client?
When you’re thinking about starting a consulting business, one of the questions that you’re likely thinking about is “How long will it take to land the first consulting client?” This question is not one I can answer for you directly. No one can answer that question.
But, I can tell you that the range is somewhere between a day and 6-12 months. The factors that influence this wide range include the strength of your professional network, the strength of your reputation, your differentiators, and how selective you are about the nature of the work, the type of client, and the rates for which you’ll work.
The definite checklist for starting a consulting business (scroll to the end for the PDF download)
When you’re ready to start a consulting business, there are twelve steps to take. You don’t need to take these all at once. You also don’t need to complete all the steps before launching. Instead, you can take one step at a time, test it out, finetune it, and then after that step is running effectively, you can move on to the next step.
The good news is you can begin making money after taking step one.
In other words, you don’t need a clear business model, a consulting niche, a well-defined target market, or pre-defined pricing to make money.
You can begin making money by committing to your business and reaching out to a few former employers or colleagues to let them know what you’re doing and asking if they know anyone looking for a consultant.
I’ve even had clients land 3-4 clients through a simple post on LinkedIn. Landing a client from one LinkedIn post is the exception, not the norm. It may require you to make phone calls, set up Zoom meetings, and/or scheduling coffees. For some consultants, it takes a handful of these meetings to land a client. For other consultants, it may take dozens. But, it’s certainly doable to land consulting clients when you’re persistent. You just need to take the first step of deciding you’ll do what it takes to be successful and taking action from that place of commitment.
Then, you can continue working through the other steps until you have a predictable, well-oiled consulting business engine.
Step 1: Decide you’re going to succeed at building a successful consulting business
What consultants often overlook is that there’s a difference between deciding to start a business and committing to succeed at building a consulting business. Anyone can start a business. You’ll set yourself up for consulting success if you decide and commit to building a successful consulting business.
Deciding means that you cut off all other options. For example, deciding to build a successful consulting business means you no longer look for full-time roles. Your consulting business requires dedicated, on-diluted focus.
Deciding means you’re not hoping you’ll be successful or waiting to see if you’ll be successful. No. Deciding means that you’re committing yourself that you’ll continue working, testing, refining, and iterating until you hit your specific business goals.
Step 2: Put the consulting business basics in place
Take a couple of hours and put your business basics in place so you have a registered business, an LLC (if recommended by your tax professional), a separate business bank account, a business credit card, a domain (you don’t need a website yet), a LinkedIn business profile, an updated LinkedIn personal profile that describes what you do as a consultant and links to your business and a business email address associated to that domain.
Step 3: Land your first consulting client
Now that you know the type of business model you want to pursue, at least initially, you can focus on speed-to-revenue as a consultant. It’s important to land a first client or two so you have revenue coming in, specific client case studies, and can refine your business approach based on real-life experience.
To land your first consulting client, think about who you’d most like to work with, who you already know, and who would benefit most from your experience and expertise. Then, meet with them. Ask for introductions. Talk to as many people as possible. And, don’t think you need to have everything buttoned down beforehand. You are someone who can think on your feet and leverage your consulting skills of asking great questions and listening to move the conversations forward.
Notice I didn’t say you need to create a website. And, I didn’t say to wait on landing clients until you’ve buttoned down your consulting niche, ideal client, or rate sheet.
I recommend you focus on speed to revenue so you can support yourself and your business while you work through the more formal details of your marketing collateral and sales plans.
Step 4: Choose your consulting business model
The next step is to choose your starting point consulting business model. In this context, a consulting business model refers to the way you’ll deliver the work.
Make a few initial decisions about your consulting approach. Do you want to work alone or as part of a larger team? Do you want to take on longer-term type engagements that include implementation and more hands-on work? Or, do you want shorter-term engagements that offer more variety and turn-around?
To decide, consider your background and what feels easiest to you as an initial step.
The mistake a lot of consultants make is to think they’re doing something wrong if they’re taking on implementation-type projects instead of higher-level strategy work. They think they’re doing something wrong if they’re charging hourly instead of value-based pricing.
Everyone needs to start somewhere.
Running a consulting business requires another level of courage beyond what’s required to work within a corporate role. Please don’t make the mistake of criticizing yourself for not running your business “the right way” or for thinking your path to the ideal consulting business is too slow.
Choose the business model that makes it easiest to sell your services as your starting point. For example, if it feels easiest to sell your services back to your former employer, your former corporate clients, or former corporate colleagues, then start there. If it feels easiest to apply to consulting roles through marketplaces, then test that out as part of your business model. If it feels that charging hourly to start is the path of least resistance, then do that.
Step 5: Get clear on your niche and ideal client
Next, you’ll want to establish your consulting niche and define your ideal client type.
Your consulting niche is the specialization your consulting is centered around. Your niche is what you want to be known for such that your ideal clients think of you.
And, you also want to be clear on the characteristics that define your ideal clients. Are they early-stage? Are they mid-market? Are they late adopters? Are they Fortune 100? Are they in a specific geography (e.g. the Midwest)?
Having a clear niche and ideal client will help you narrow your business development approach and also make it more effective. For example, if you know you want to help mid-sized manufacturing companies improve their process efficiency using a Six Sigma approach, you’ll be much more clear on where to find those ideal clients and how to position yourself.
And, at the same time, you aren’t required to have a niche and ideal client defined before you land your first few clients. I see too many consultants wasting time perfecting their business when they could be generating revenue. As a consultant, you can start as a generalist and then build a reputation for a specialty over time.
Step 6: Determine your offer and pricing
Next, you’ll want to get clear about the consulting services you’ll offer and what you’ll charge for those services.
Let’s start with what you want to offer. What expertise do you have? What outcomes do the clients you’d like to work with want to achieve?
Think about how you can set yourself apart as an expert and advisor as opposed to an extra pair of hands for the client. This will help you avoid becoming a staff augmentation-type resource.
Then, determine what you’ll charge for the services you offer. For example, you might have a base hourly or daily rate you charge to start. Then, you might leverage that base rate to build out project-based pricing. Eventually, you might evolve into value-based pricing. For more on this, read the “Independent Consultant Rates and Retainers Guide” for a detailed article about pricing your consulting services.
One simple way to set your initial prices is to take your annual revenue goal, add a % for overhead (e.g. insurance, taxes), and then divide that number by the number of billable hours you plan to work in the year. You can also leverage online consulting rate calculators such as the MBO Partners consulting fee and bill rate calculator.
Step 7: Create a business plan for your consulting business
Next, combine your business model, consulting niche, ideal client definition, consulting offers, and consulting pricing into a business plan for your consulting business.
Your consulting business plan is your clear vision of what you want to accomplish in your consulting business over the next 3-5 years and the detailed roadmap that lays out how you’ll achieve those goals for your consulting business.
You can open this article for a specific consulting business plan template.
Step 8: Establish a weekly business routine for attracting your ideal clients
Next, you’ll want to make sure you establish a weekly, repeatable lead generation routine. It’s important to create a consulting lead generation routine that’s easy to execute and enables you to make steady progress toward filling and maintaining your consulting pipeline.
Otherwise, if you approach lead generation as something you only do when you know you need a client, you will experience the common consulting peaks and valleys. This can lead to panic about your cash flow and second-guessing your decision to become a consultant.
You are a business owner. Your primary job is to generate business. As consultants, we often think our primary job is client delivery. Client delivery is important, obviously. But, you don’t have a business without clients and revenue.
If you want a successful and profitable consulting business, you must consistently dedicate time to business development, including lead generation, marketing for overall awareness, and selling.
Here are several starting points for you:
- Routine for Consulting Lead Generation in 26 Minutes a Day
- How To Get Consulting Clients Step-By-Step
- The Independent Consultant's Ultimate Guide to Lead Generation
- The Ultimate Guide to Business Development for Independent Consultants
Step 9: Put in place a consulting sales funnel
After you have a lead generation routine in place, you’ll want to build out a step-by-step sales process and funnel for your business.
A consulting sales funnel is the step-by-step process by which ideal potential clients become aware of you and your expertise.
These are the repetitive marketing and sales tasks you commit to so potential clients become aware of you (this is the top of the funnel), and the specific steps you take to move them down the funnel from awareness, to interest, to consideration, and ultimately to a decision about engaging you.
Step 10: Get the tools you need for your consulting business to thrive
Next, you’ll want to focus on putting tools in place that help you automate repetitive, lower-value tasks and help you maintain consistency as a business owner.
For example, you’ll be ready to build a compelling website after you have a clear definition of your consulting niche and ideal client and you’ve tested and refined them into a clear business that you want to be known for and sought after.
You’ll also be ready to create a one-pager that describes your services and highlights your expertise and differentiators.
And, you’ll be ready to update your LinkedIn profile again with your keywords.
You can also configure your CRM (customer relationship management system) to make your lead generation tasks more repeatable and effortless.
For a full list of tools you can leverage to make your consulting business more professional and more predictable, read the articles on The 14 Essential Tools for Independent Consultants and The Best CRMs for Independent Consultants.
Step 11: Get professional assistance (VA, bookkeeper, etc.)
Now that you’re landing clients, generating revenue, and have a consulting demand generation process, and a client acquisition process, you have the most important consulting business building blocks in place.
Get help. Don’t do everything yourself.
It’s important to delegate the tasks that aren’t directly related to revenue. For example, you can engage a bookkeeper, an administrative assistant, an accountant, a virtual assistant, and/or junior consultants who do more detailed work.
You can also hire a coach to help you fine-tune your systems, to make them more effective. Having these support resources in place will free you up to have time to think, prioritize, and take action as a consulting business owner so you achieve your business goals.
Step 12: Systematize your consulting business
And finally, focus on systematizing your consulting business. You can do this by setting up a task management tool such as monday.com where you capture recurring tasks and plan out your internal and client-facing projects in one comprehensive tool. This will set you up to continuously improve your internal consulting business processes and client delivery methodology.
These repeatable processes will become assets in your business, to help you run your consulting business more predictably and efficiently. They’ll enable you to bring on internal support resources, subcontractors, and even employees more effectively.
The 4 mistakes to avoid when starting your independent consulting business
There are three mistakes Independent consultants commonly make when starting their consulting businesses. I want to help you avoid making them.
Mistake 1: Spending too much time preparing to launch your consulting business
Many consultants spend time defining their niche, ideal client profile, and/or pricing before landing their first couple of clients. As a result, they spend time building out something without the benefit of market input and at the expense of focusing on revenue generation.
Instead, it’s most impactful to go out and land your first few clients by networking with former colleagues, past clients, past employers, and others who are decision-makers or could introduce you to decision-makers.
Mistake 2: Wasting resources (time and money) on marketing materials (e.g. a website) too early
Many consultants think they need formalized marketing materials, such as a website or a professionally created marketing deck. They spend weeks and even months, and thousands of dollars building out this collateral. Then, they realize they’ve missed the mark in terms of the nuances of their ideal client and what that ideal client cares about. They realize they want to pivot the services they’re offering from being execution-heavy to heavier in strategy.
As a result, their website and collateral are out-of-date and require significant updates.
Instead, I recommend you start with an MVP (minimum viable product) for your marketing material. Specifically, use your LinkedIn profile for your interim website and create a one-pager for your business using MS Word or Canva. Then, adjust as you have more conversations with your ideal clients, collaborators, and referrers. Continue to iterate your self-created materials until you rarely make changes and then engage graphic designers and website designers to professionalize your materials.
Mistake 3: Spending time doing what’s comfortable versus doing what’s effective
Starting a consulting business requires marketing and selling yourself. There’s no way around it. But, most consultants don’t come to the table having experience in marketing and selling, let alone marketing and selling themselves. As a result, it’s common to have a fear of rejection and a fear of failure.
It’s not a problem that you’re feeling afraid.
The problem comes when you allow the fear to hold you back from taking the actions that are most effective and have the highest probability of success. For example, you might choose to write a blog and think that ideal clients will somehow find it, read it, and reach out to you. This type of blog marketing is rarely effective as your primary lead generation method. Blogs are typically used as a compliment to other marketing methods (e.g. networking or speaking). The reason why consultants choose to write blogs instead of other strategies is because writing isn’t as scary as talking to other people.
To avoid making this mistake, choose the business development activities that have the highest probability of generating ideal client leads and clients. Notice any fear or resistance you’re feeling. Then, do those activities anyway.
Mistake 4: Not realizing, prioritizing, or focusing on making the mental shift from employee to business owner
Independent consultants commonly overlook the need to make an intentional mental shift from employee to business owner.
When you’re thinking like an employee, you’ll set priorities and make decisions based on the rules of engagement and how you were successful when you were in a corporate role.
Now the rules have changed.
You’re no longer the cog in a corporate wheel. You don’t have a specific box in a hierarchy. You don’t have a title or a corporate brand behind you.
Now, you get to set your own rules, set your own priorities, and build your own reputation. This requires you to think like a business owner and the CEO, CRO, CFO, COO, CMO, and consultant all wrapped in one.
Select books and resources to help you get started in your independent consulting journey
The good news is that independent consulting is a business model that’s becoming more accepted year over year. Enterprise clients have established processes and systems to hire independent consultants.
Because of its popularity and growth, there are many resources available to help you succeed. The resources include blogs such as the one you’re reading, books, podcasts, and coaches.
Books for starting and growing your consulting business
There are dozens of books focused on helping independent consultants and boutique consulting owners succeed. For a list of the top books for consultants, read the article The Best Books for Consultants.
Podcasts for starting and growing your consulting business
Podcasts are also a helpful resource for you as you start, launch, and grow your consulting business. The podcasts I recommend for you to get started with your independent consulting business are mine (of course) - The Grow Your Independent Consulting Business podcast and the Business of Authority podcast. And then learn about the 5 Best Podcasts for Consultants.
How my coaching can empower you to start and grow a sustainable consulting business
For a jump start to accelerate your consulting business, consider hiring a coach who specializes in working with independent consultants.
I hired my first coach four or five years into my consulting business. I was stuck earning much less than I had in corporate, was working more than I wanted to for my work-life balance goals, and was constantly feeling like a failure.
I decided to double down on figuring out my business model and how to market and sell my services. That’s when I hired my first coach.
I thought coaches were only for CEOs. I hadn’t considered hiring one for myself.
But, I was at my wit’s end and luckily a friend recommended one.
My first coach changed everything for me. She helped me get clarity about my business model, including what services I wanted to sell (consulting and coaching helping start-ups scale) and what I didn’t want to sell (affiliate marketing and products).
My coach helped me build confidence ahead of time in order to be more effective at marketing and selling myself.
I know for a fact that I wouldn’t be in business today as an independent consultant coach if it weren’t for my own coach. She helped me navigate the constant uncertainty, ups and downs, and fear that comes with growing a business.
That’s why I’m a coach now, helping other consulting business owners launch and grow their businesses using my launch-IC™️ and scale-IC™️ formulas. That’s why I also have a podcast that helps independent consultants succeed at growing their businesses. And, the IC Toolkit with resources, tools, and checklists for independent consulting business owners. And, why I write articles such as this one for the Independent Consultant’s Success blog.