How To Get Your First Consulting Client (Even If You’re Still An Employee)
Can’t scratch the itch of starting your own business?
Perhaps you feel comfortable in your corporate job…but you still find yourself bitten by the entrepreneurship bug?
If that sounds like you, consulting might be perfect for you.
Consulting is similar to freelancing in the sense that you're working with multiple clients instead of a single employer.
However, as a consultant, you’re not just providing a pair of hands.
Instead, you focus on providing — and getting paid for — your knowledge and expertise.
Clients are paying you for what’s in your head.
Example: You're a product manager at a start-up company. You're responsible for guiding the success of your companies' product. That means you're constantly speaking with your customers, your developers, and determining which direction to take your product.
If you were to “freelance” in product management, you would take some of the daily tasks you do in your company, and do that for clients.
If you were to “consult” in product management, you would apply the insight you've accrued to solve higher-level problems with your clients.
Instead of working as a pair of hands for your client, you serve them as a peer — someone who helps them with their strategy (deciding on the work that must be done) instead of mere implementation (doing the work that must be done).
By the end of this article, you'll learn 3 ways to win your first consulting client while you're still an employee.
Can An Employee Be A Consultant?
Becoming a consultant while still being an employee is one of the lowest-risk, highest-reward businesses you can start.
One of the biggest challenges in entrepreneurship is finding a product-market fit.
That means ensuring people want and will buy what you have to offer.
Consider this: you already have product-market fit.
The fact that you are employed and being paid for providing your skills means that you have product-market fit.
The market (your employer) is paying you for your product (your skills, experience, and insight).
Now, to start consulting, you must find clients.
Clients are like employers, except you don't just work for them — you work with them.
As a consultant, they will engage with you as a peer. They aren't going to tell you what to do. They're going to ask you what they should be doing, and why.
Over the years in your role as an employee — whether you know it or not — you’ve have gained the insight and experience required to consult.
If you think on a strategic level (why you should be doing something) rather than just doing it for the sake of doing it, that’s thinking like a consultant.
This experience is far more valuable than just doing the work. It's a form of higher-level decision making that has much more of an impact.
Example: Deciding how the website will be structured and its purpose to the business is far more valuable than placing the pixels on a screen.
Here's an exercise for you to find out your area of specialization — what area you can consult in:
First, write about your primary skills:
- What do people ask for your help on?
- What do you love to do at work?
- What skills do you want to achieve mastery in?
Second, write down details about your current employer.
- What industry are they in?
- What type of customers or clients do they serve?
- What is your manager's title?
An easy way to start consulting is to provide your skills for other companies that are similar to your employer.
That will provide the fastest and easiest way to solve the marketing and sales challenge: getting clients.
NOTE: Before you start consulting with clients on the side, check that it's OK with your employer first. In most cases, they will be fine with it as long as it’s not a direct competitor. This isn’t legal advice. It’s what we’ve observed working with consultants over the last 11 years and being a consultant for 21 years.
3 Ways to Get Your First Consulting Client
There are hundreds of marketing strategies you can use to find your first consulting client. Instead of listing a bunch of tactics, I'll give you 3 “methods.”
Remember: your goal is to have a conversation with an ideal client (someone similar to your current employer) who would benefit from your expertise.
The Direct Method
Direct methods involve reaching out directly to your ideal client.
Pros of the Direct Method:
- It's quicker. With an email or call, you can have a meaningful conversation with your potential client.
- It's good for new consultants. Speaking with your market is one of the best ways to figure out how it works, and what you should offer them.
- You'll get fast and direct feedback. You'll learn if clients are willing to pay for your services, and if not, what you must change about your approach.
Cons of the Direct Method:
- It's uncomfortable. You'll learn to face rejection and hear many “no's” for every “yes”.
- It's a shorter-term strategy. You can't leverage these conversations very well into other things to help your business.
- It's difficult to scale. There's only one of you, and you can only do so much direct outreach in a day.
How to do it: Pick up the phone, and call your ideal client. Or, send them a personalized email saying you're interested in speaking with them. Set up conversations about them, their business, their needs — and how you might be able to help.
The Indirect Method
Indirect methods involve creating intellectual property, thought-leadership, and content that draw your ideal clients to you.
Pros of the Indirect Method:
- You'll develop thought-leadership. Thought leadership is content where you demonstrate your expertise and how you can add value.
- It creates greater leverage. Thought leadership markets and sells your services for you 24/7.
- It will hone your skills. Developing thought leadership involves critical thinking and writing skills, both of which make you a better consultant.
Cons of the Indirect Method
- It takes some time to work. Creating content won't give you instant results, and you'll have to be consistent with it.
- It requires more skills. You'll have to learn and develop new skills in order to create effective content.
- You have to promote it. You can't just create it and assume people will come — you have to spend even more time getting it out there.
How to do it: Take a common problem in your industry and write a long-form article about it. Or, record a video about it. Then, share it with your market — the people who you'd like to work with, and would find the content insightful.
The Relationship Method
The relationship method involves leveraging your network to get connected with your ideal clients.
Pros of the Relationship Method:
- Consulting is a relationship business. The more high-value relationships you have, the more business opportunities will come your way.
- It teaches you the value of follow-up. Following-up is one of the most valuable skills in consulting, and networking is all about your follow-up.
- Referrals are extremely powerful. If one someone in your network recommends working with you, that conveys a lot of trust and certainty.
Cons of the Relationship Method:
- It's harder to do virtually. Zoom catch-up calls are good, but they won't beat a face-to-face coffee or lunch.
- You can't rely on it. Many consultants rely completely on their network, and if nothing comes their way, they don't know what to do to drum up new business.
- It's difficult to scale. Although there are ways to leverage your network, it requires a lot of industry authority and planning.
How to do it: Make a habit out of reaching out to someone in your network every day. Ask how they are doing, and try to add value to their lives. In doing so, you'll stay top of mind, and they'll think of you whenever someone mentions your skills or the industry that you serve.
Start with the relationship method. Then, try the direct method. Finally, try the indirect method. Over time, you’ll end up doing all three. But early on, observe which one helps you start conversations with your ideal client the fastest.
Winning your first piece of consulting business is all about fit.
What problems does your ideal client have?
What kind of value would their company gain from your skills?
How are you going to set your consulting fees — and make an offer?
With these questions in mind, you can turn a conversation into a paid consulting project.
How To Make The Transition To A Full-Time Consultant
You've won your first consulting client or two. You are earning some extra money, and you're enjoying working with your clients.
How do you actually make the transition to a full-time consulting business owner?
Depending on your tolerance for risk, you can either do the Side Transition or the All-In Transition.
The Side Transition
The Side Transition is where you consult on the side, gaining more and more clients while still holding onto your full-time job.
This approach works well for people who need more security and don't mind working overtime and are OK with working on weekends.
However, it can take quite a while to get going because you're still devoting so much time and energy to your full-time job.
The All-In Transition
The All-In Transition is where you quit your full-time job and go all-in on your consulting business.
This approach works well for people who have clients lined up and who have higher risk tolerance.
However, it is a much riskier approach. Save up 6-12 months of runway so you can cover your expenses in case you struggle to get clients early on.
You can even turn your current employer into your first consulting client if you're savvy.
First, tell them that you're interested in starting your own consulting business.
Second, tell them that you really enjoy working with them in particular, and why you do.
Finally, tell them that you would like to change the structure of your position — working with them as a consultant instead of an employee.
Reiterate the benefits of this restructuring for them. They won't have to provide you with benefits. They won’t have to pay you hourly. They can pay you only when they need you.
In turn, you get to work with them as a consultant — and now, you're free to work with other clients as well. Turning your employer into your first consulting client gives you the best of both worlds.
Imperfection Action: Win Your First Consulting Client
Are you excited about the potential of starting your own low-risk business, increasing your income, and turning your long-time dream into reality?
Put this information into action. Or, as I like to say, imperfect action.
Use one of the methods above to start a conversation with an ideal client. If they would benefit from your skills and expertise, make them an offer for consulting.
None of this will be easy. In the early days, it's hard to start conversations with clients. It's hard to make offers. You'll have step outside of your comfort zone and work on all sorts of skills you don’t quite yet have.
But winning your first consulting client will change the course of your career — and even change the course of your life.
There's nothing more rewarding than running your own business, removing the ceiling on your income, and realizing your true potential.
Don’t let the fact that you have a full-time job hold you back. Instead, use that as leverage to start your consulting business in the first place.
Michael Zipursky is the CEO of Consulting Success® and Coach to Consultants. He has advised organizations like Financial Times, Dow Jones, RBC, and helped Panasonic launch new products into global markets, but more importantly, he’s helped over 400 consultants from around the world in over 75 industries add 6 and 7 figures to their annual revenues. Over 35,000 consultants read his weekly consulting newsletter. Michael is also the author of the Amazon Best Sellers ACT NOW: How successful consultants thrive during chaos and uncertainty, The Elite Consulting Mind and Consulting Success®, the book.