On a Sunday drive, I noticed a sign over the freeway advertising
that a company called Wordplex was hiring. I asked my friend to
take down their phone number.
That Friday, I left a message for the director of marketing, Ken
Walsh, describing a little about what I do and asking him to call
me back. Since Friday was also my day to do errands, I left the
office for a few hours. When I returned, I found a message from Ken
on my answering machine: "Boy! What timing. We were just talking
about the need to formalize our sales training program. I would
love to get together with you. Please call me in the office Monday
and let's set something up."
I still get goose bumps thinking about that message. I called Ken
back, and gave him a proposal by Friday. The following Monday, I
had a signed contract and received a check.
I framed that check and for many years looked at it whenever I lost
heart. Wordplex has since gone out of business and Ken retired a
long time ago, but let me tell you, he received a Christmas card
from me every year until we finally lost touch.
Many of you may think I was lucky - and I was. But there were many
people, just like Ken, whose names I noticed in similar ways, who
did not return my calls or simply told me never to darken their
Getting Through the First 90 Days
Unless your spouse is a TV network executive or you have a rich
aunt, you do not have all year to start earning money. Typically,
consultants who do not get a project within the first 90 days throw
in the towel and start looking for a regular job.
My advice to those of you who really want to make a go of it is to
- Go with your strengths
- Try to get subcontract work
- Watch your cash
- Be nice to your "angel."
Go With Your Strengths. I have found that if
someone is magical at doing something, he or she would really
rather be doing something else. To paraphrase Groucho Marx, I would
not join a club that would accept me as a member.
Let's say that you are the world's greatest sales trainer. Your
audiences love you. You carry them to levels of inspiration that
others can only dream about. However, you probably dislike being a
stand-up trainer and dislike sales audiences even more. I am sure
that what you really want to be is an instructional designer or
author of e-learning modules, both of which you are mediocre at.
However, please bear with me. When you are just starting out in
your own consulting practice, go with what you've got. Be a sales
trainer. Teach a few classes. Earn a couple of bucks. Maybe when
you have a little money in the bank, you can move on to designing a
few sales training courses. After a year or two, you may move on to
developing e-learning modules on the sales training topics you know
so well. I recommend that you stick to your strengths when you
begin your consulting practice and then add products and services
that may interest you as time and finances allow.
Get Subcontract Work. I once read that it takes
nine months to a year to be asked to bid on a major consulting
contract. That is typically the amount of time it takes from the
day you first talk with a training manager, director of training,
or human resources manager until the day they call you about a
specific project. From that point, it can take several more months
until you actually work together. Consulting is a relationship
business, and the decision makers of the business are typically
If you were not able to adequately prepare to open your consulting
practice by networking, speaking, publishing, being active in a
professional society, and growing a network of professional
contacts, you need to find a way to eat while you jump-start your
practice. Many new consultants accomplish this by working as
subcontractors for well-established consulting firms. These firms
often hire subcontractors to complete parts of projects (for
example, developing a design document or writing a workbook) or
even completing an entire project. Typically, the contracting firm
manages the project, maintains a large amount of the contact with
the client, and keeps a healthy share of the money. As a
subcontractor, you may be paid a set price for a specific
deliverable or service, or you may be paid an hourly or daily rate.
The good news is that if you are even somewhat connected to the
professional community, it should be easy for you to pick up a
subcontract within the first month or two that you are out on your
own. You won't have to worry about being paid, because the
contracting organization usually pays you fairly quickly,
regardless of when the client pays them.
Subcontracting is an especially easy way to get started if you have
already been certified by an established training company (such as
the American Management Association) to present its courses. These
companies often receive requests they cannot fulfill using their
own internal capabilities, and they are happy to point their
clients in the direction of a competent and certified resource.
The only bad news in working as a subcontractor is you will make
less money, get less satisfaction, and will not get to retain the
business relationship with the client.
- Subcontractors typically earn half of what they could earn by
working directly with their own clients.
- Since the contracting organization manages the project and
handles most of the client contact, you may miss the client
interaction and often need to live with someone else's decisions.
- Finally, the contracting organization owns the client, and you
cannot market yourself to them. If fact, most contracting
organizations will make you sign an agreement that prohibits you
from doing business with their clients for at least one year.
When you are looking at your monthly bills and the negative balance
in your checking account, the ability to quickly earn several
hundred bucks a day does not seem half bad. The downside is if you
get caught up doing too much subcontracting work, you'll never get
your own practice off the ground and truly work for yourself. You
can usually gather a listing of contracting companies that use
subcontractors by looking at the advertisements in professional
publications or the sponsors listed on professional association
websites. I have found that most local professional societies
support job boards that list contract assignments in addition to
Watch Your Cash. Unless you have been monetarily
blessed, you will face financially challenging times. Best to hold
on to your cash tightly. Sure, you have to invest in yourself. Of
course, you need to spend money to make money. However, my
recommendation is to put a tight clamp on your personal and
business expenses. Wait a while. Many companies buy lists of new
businesses, because they know you are easy prey. They will be
calling to sell you computer systems, copiers, postage meters, and
office furniture. They will tell you that all these gadgets are
necessary to gain an advantage over the competition and to make you
look professional. Bite your tongue and pinch yourself ten times
before you spend a penny - your money is very precious now.
Be Nice to Your "Angel." In the first chapter of
this book, I described someone called an "angel." This could be a
spouse, a parent, or a well-to-do relative or friend who provides
you with financial, as well as emotional, support while you are
building your consulting practice. Some consultants are fortunate
enough to have a couple of "angels."
Whatever it takes: Be good to your angel. That could mean calling a
few times a month. It could mean sending copies of articles you
have written or press releases of speeches you have made. You could
even include him or her in the acknowledgments of your first book.
Maybe you should take your angel to dinner occasionally, wash the
dishes, or take the kids to the park on a Saturday morning so he or
she can sleep in, shop for clothes, or play golf. Perhaps you
should just send a kind note - or simply say thank you.
It's Never Over
If you have landed your first client and lasted through the first
90 days, congratulations! However, if you think all the hard work
is now over and you can stop marketing and rest on your laurels,
It takes years to establish a consulting practice, and there may
never be a time when you do not have to get out there and hustle.
If you play your cards right as time passes, you will be able to
substitute writing, speaking, and being involved in professional
organizations for direct selling activities. Working for yourself
is not for the faint of heart. But as we outlined in previous
chapters, there are many pervasive benefits that make establishing
your own firm well worth it.
Getting It Done
In this chapter, we covered how you can survive the first 90 days
by using your strengths, procuring subcontract work, watching your
cash, and showing appreciation to the people who helped you through
it all. But don't forget: While the first 90 days are hard, they
are only the beginning.
Spend five minutes to consider all of this and answer the following
What are your strengths?
What organizations will you contact for subcontract work?
What actions can you take to save money or cut back on spending?
Who are your "angels"?
How will you thank them?
Excerpted from Consulting Basics by Joel Gendelman.
Forthcoming from ASTD Press in June 2010. Reprinted with permission
of the publisher, ASTD Press.
Joel Gendelman is the senior partner of Future
Technologies and has published over fifty articles and two books on
instructional design. He lives in Littleton, Colorado; www.fttraining.com .