4 Tips for Starting Your Consulting Business

How to get a one-man consulting shop off the ground

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Tim Berry
Thinking of starting as a consultant? Even in these tough times? Maybe you've always wanted to. Maybe some things just went wrong for you, so you have no choice; you have to.

I can help. I did consulting for Business International in the 1970s, for Creative Strategies in the 1980s, for McKinsey Management Consulting for one brief period, and for myself and my family, on my own, through most of the 1980s and early 1990s. Eventually, that became Palo Alto Software, but it was consulting first. And I learned a few things that might help you if that's where you're heading. Here's my list:

1. Get that first big client.
Most successful consultants start with one big client. The best scenario is to leave your current job as a consultant, billing the company you worked for, for as long as you can. That happens a lot. The employer is relieved not to have the fixed cost but also to have your expertise available.
2. Focus on distinguishing differences. Build your business identity.
Success is related to focusing on a narrow something that you do differently from and presumably better than all others. You need an angle. The first time I went on my own, it was as a computer-literate M.B.A. (back in 1983, when not every M.B.A. was computer literate) who had lived in Latin America and spoke Spanish. That gave me an angle.
Look for your own angle. We all tend to generalize and think inclusively about the different things we can do. Instead of that, think of what you can do that nobody else can (or only a few). Don't just do business planning, for example; do growth planning for retail businesses or manufacturing or something else you know. If you can make that focus be legitimately green—energy efficient but not greenwashing—that's even better.
Bill Cosby once said, "I don't know the secret to success; but I do know that the secret to failure is trying to please everybody."
3. Build it on value.
Make meaning. Nothing drives a business more than believing that what it's doing matters to people and is important. Whether you're offering more healthful free-range organic meats (butcher), more healthful organic baked items (baker), or poverty-repelling candles (candlestick maker), believe in the value you're giving. Or get out of business.
Imagine yourself closing the office at the end of the workday. Do you feel good about what you've done all day? Is what you do for your clients good for them?
Ultimately, business success is rooted in having people who want to buy what you're selling. Are you giving them real value?
4. Keep your perspective. It's business, not life.
People get wrapped up in business and particularly in start-ups. I've been there, for sure. We spin the yarn about entrepreneurship as passion and dedication and endurance and then forget too easily that's there's that new business and then there's also the rest of your life.
I recognize that you may be in a tough spot during difficult times. Hard to get it out of your mind if you've been forced to hope you can build your own business.
But you do have to turn your mind and your worries off for a few hours a day. Listen to the people on the other side of the table at dinner; you care about them more than you realize. And get regular exercise: There will always be reasons not to, but the time you invest in exercise pays off later in productivity.

Tim Berry is president and founder of Palo Alto Software , founder of bplans.com , and a co f ounder of Borland International . He teaches starting a business at the University of Oregon . He is the author of books and software including Business Plan Pro , published by Palo Alto Software, and The Plan-As-You-Go Business Plan , published by Entrepreneur Press. H e has a Stanford M . B . A . degree and degrees with honors from the University of Oregon and the University of Notre Dame . He blogs at Planning Startup Stories and Up and Running .

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