When starting a consulting business the first challenge to overcome is to implement effective marketing and sales to create leads and close high-revenue, high-profit opportunities. The alternative is to just busy yourself with delivering the small number of projects you have in the hope that new work will magically materialise just because you're good at what you do!
Once this first challenge is met, the opportunity for growth arises and, in time, the solopreneur becomes the micro-business.
However, this can often be out of the frying pan and into the fire because the biggest problem preventing the micro-business from growing is often the owner themselves!
Let me explain. Consulting businesses are typically started by people who were formerly consultants in a bigger firm, or an internal consultant in corporate, or a deep technical Subject Matter Expert (SME).
Their passion is consulting in their chosen technical discipline - whether it’s management, HR, technology, or whatever.
The founding consultant is incredibly proud of their achievements as an SME. Heck, they even started a business doing it!
This pride comes from working hard to achieve their level of expertise. Long hours. Lots of study. Lots of expense, and a ton of commitment.
This can make it very hard to let go. To step back from being the leading expert, and to allow themselves to also focus on being a business leader and a business builder.
Building a business is a very different calling to being a top-flight consultant
The transition to becoming a business builder is really no different to someone becoming a middle-manager in a large corporate.
Right or wrong, promotion is often the result of demonstrating expertise as an SME.
There’s this chasm to cross from being a valuable ‘doer’, to passing through the highly volatile and expendable middle-management layer, before finally becoming part of a senior leadership team.
It's easy to spot the consulting business owner who's clinging on to the value of being the ‘doer’.
How do I know? Because they say things like:
But the client will only buy from me. They want me to do the work.
Most of the time this isn’t actually true.
The consulting business owner is confusing ownership of an engagement with on-the-ground delivery.
What's it costing you?
Let’s consider the impact of not letting go and what it’s costing your business.
If you continue to position yourself as THE expert in your business, then:
- You’ll be unconsciously encouraging your clients to demand that you deliver the projects
- Your staff will feel like they can never be as good as you because you’ve put yourself on a pedestal. That means they’ll perceive a glass ceiling on their personal growth
- You’ll be conflicted between the efforts it takes to stay at the top of your game as a consultant, whilst also trying to get to grips with all the things you need to learn and do as a business leader. In short, you’ll be even busier and even more hostage to your business
- You’ll not be able to create the legacy that you were hoping for, and once you leave your business it will cease to exist!
The solution isn't what you think it is!
Under-delegation is often seen as the problem, but it's only really half of the problem. The other half is the lack of any formal processes.
In the majority of micro-businesses everything is done in an ad-hoc manner, maybe even badged as ‘just-in-time’ to excuse the lack of rigour!
Yet without standard processes it's difficult to delegate anything more than low-level administrative tasks. And it's almost impossible to provide any form of structured training and development.
Once you have well-defined processes, and a team to support them, your business will fly! You’ll:
- Be able to spend much more time working ‘on’ your business as opposed to only working ‘in’ it
- Delegate effectively ensuring team members are gainfully utilised
- Be able to take a break from your business! Go on holiday and actually rest (a bit at least)
- Spend more time doing things outside of your business that you enjoy, like time with family and friends, and engaging in your hobbies and interests
- Build a business with tangible value to attract future investment and/or enable you to sell it
What clients really want
Let's go back to the situation where the client demands that you do the work.
When you build a relationship with a client, initially it’s because you own and deliver the project from cradle to grave. From the initial marketing campaign, the sales process, and the engagement delivery.
That’s a lot of responsibility for one person to manage. And it’s even harder to let go of.
But when a client says they want you to do the work, what they’re actually saying is that they want you to be accountable for the project outcomes, and for ensuring that the project gets delivered to the same level of quality that they’ve come to expect from you and your firm.
In my experience, clients are often both pleased and supportive that your business is growing.
If you’ve developed the right kind of client relationship, they’ll even go so far as to give you lots of support by allowing you to put new, less experienced hires on projects, and even providing you project opportunities better suited to a team approach.
The power is in the team
What clients honestly don’t expect is for you to do it all. And that stands to reason.
Think about it - the more experienced you get, the better you get at new things, the worse you get at old things.
It’s because the old things become less interesting to you. They don’t challenge your skills as much anymore.
Whilst they may be mundane to you, to new hires with less experience they represent new and exciting challenges. Team members with less skill and experience than you will relish the opportunity. They’ll approach those tasks with the same levels of enthusiasm that you once had for them.
So it makes sense to you, your team, AND the client for you to deploy a team with varying levels of experience and expertise, and for your to delegate. To not do it all yourself.
It’s in the team where the power is - not the individual.
And the clients knows that. They want you to succeed and to grow. In fact, they expect you to grow as they’ve chosen you to support their business and they don’t want to think they’ve made the wrong decision.
In a micro-business, your role is to be the conductor of the orchestra, not a one-man band.
In building a team, with supporting processes, your business becomes infinitely better.
It’s more resilient. More experienced. More capable. More valuable.
A team, however, is only as good as its processes. Otherwise it’s not a team, but a collection of individuals.
Where to start - staff then processes, or processes then staff?
In a utopian world you’d have time to carefully design all of your processes, then go out and find an entire team to perform each element. Of course, that’s not the real world.
It’s very difficult to motivate yourself to document processes if there’s no-one to actually follow them other than you!
That said, you can save yourself a lot of time by documenting processes for the things that you do repeatedly.
It also gives you a greater chance to identify opportunities to leverage technology to automate tasks.
And if you provide recurring revenue services in your consulting business, even if it’s just you, it’s essential to document process to ensure that you deliver your service consistently.
The more you can document before taking on staff, the easier it will be as you’ll be better able to identify the right hires, to describe what you want from them, and to get them up to speed quickly once on board.
The best way to tackle the problem of which comes first is to consider your current position.
If you have no processes documented, no time to document them, and an urgent need for additional help (resources), then focus on getting a staff member first.
On the contrary, if you can afford the luxury of documenting some processes - no matter how rough and ready they are - it will pay dividends in the long run.
Most consultants start their own business because they want freedom from employment, and because they’re really great consultants.
In nearly all cases this unfortunately doesn’t mean they’re any good at marketing and sales. Once the marketing and sales hurdle is overcome, the growth opportunity risks being squandered through chronic under-delegation, often caused by the high self-esteem consultants hold themselves in!
But to scale your consulting business, not only do you have to let go - to stop being the top expert, but you have to embrace a bit of boringness. A bit of sameness.
In growing and scaling a business, repeatable processes are your holy grail.
You can’t continue to do it alone. You need to embrace your team, and support them with well-defined processes.