Should I Become a Consultant: Part I

With the current economic uncertainty, more and more people will likely be contemplating a consulting career. Odds are, if you’re reading this blog, either you know someone who’s entertaining the idea or you, yourself, are considering making the move.

So, what’s the first step in deciding to become a consultant? Start asking questions. Understand what’s involved. Explore your options. Some may think it’s easy to start, manage, and grow a consulting practice, while others may be frightened by the prospect. The only way you’ll know if it’s right for you is to do your research.

WIC members have a lot of experience in this area, so I thought I’d summarize what a few of them had to say. Hopefully, these ideas will help you answer the question.

Understand a Consultant’s Work Life
The consulting life is a good work life, in many ways. You have the opportunity to help people solve problems and achieve business results much greater than they initially thought possible. Conversely, you may not get the chance to see things play out, once you’ve made your recommendations and handed off the project. Or you may not be able to help execute the plan without being asked first.

Many of the benefits are clear—flexible hours, removed from corporate politics, and creative freedom to name a few. But what’s often not so readily apparent is that being a consultant takes A LOT of work behind the scenes.

A consultant, unless employed by a larger firm, is a small business owner, an entrepreneur, who must devote a lot of time to business development in order to thrive. The most successful consultants make it look effortless, but they’re always marketing in some way. Experienced consultants say you should expect to spend 20 percent of your time each week developing new business with new clients, a critical step to ensure continued success as the economy ebbs and flows.

Running and growing the business are satisfying, if you’re an entrepreneur at heart. But some people don’t like that part of consulting. Many people don’t realize just how much time a consultant spends running the business. In addition, we’re often re-inventing our businesses based on changes in our interests and the marketplace. That means “re-starting,” in some fashion, throughout the life of the business.

Test the Waters First
It’s important to test your entrepreneurial interest before going too far down the consultant path. Study a few issues of Inc., Fortune Small Business, or Fast Company. All of these publications address small business management quite well, as do a number of websites. Look at Fortune’s small business case studies in “Ask the Experts.” If the problems they’re solving aren’t interesting, it’s a sign you may be missing the entrepreneurial DNA that’s an important part of consulting success.

If you pass the “Am I really an entrepreneur?” test, the next step is to do your homework about the field that interests you. Select a few consultants who work in that field and approach them for informational interviews.

To find these people, search the WIC consultant database or social networking sites, such as LinkedIn. Identify several consultants with skills like yours. Contact them and request a little time in person or on the phone to learn more. Ask about their specific experience and career path, and seek advice about what you need to learn and do to prepare for a consulting career in their field.

To search for consultants in WIC’s database, use the advanced search feature (coming soon) on the Women in Consulting website.

Do Some Background Prep
Think about the types of problems you want to solve, the organizations and people with whom you want to work, and the issues you have successfully solved for an organization in the past. What challenges come to mind first? Marketing? Management? Business process? Sales? Project management? Fund raising? Infrastructure or systems?

As a consultant, you concentrate your business and marketing efforts in one specific area, not all possible avenues. It’s important—and good business—to specialize, because it makes it easy for the right clients (your target audience) to find you.

If you’re to be a successful consultant over the long-term, you have to be clear about who you are, and what you do to make your clients (organizations or individuals) more successful.' About Jan Richards

Principal of J. G. Richards Consulting, Jan helps companies improve profitability and revenue as they decrease business complexity and costs. This occurs in many ways, including: streamlining business operations; project management for major change and process improvement teams; coaching leaders of major change programs; creating long-range visions and strategic plans. A WIC Board member, Jan oversees WIC's strategic initiatives and mentoring programs.

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