How to grow a small consulting business

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For this post, I am assuming that you are starting from the position of a solo consultant who may sometimes work with other consultants.

1. Distinguish yourself from others

If clients know that you are the expert in the area where they are facing challenges, they will feel more confident in your ability to carry out projects. For this reason alone, it is wise to consider specialisation.

To find out your strengths, start by looking at those things that you are really good at. These are things that you may not even realise, because for you it comes naturally whereas other people struggle in this area. Personally, one of my strengths is being able to determine the actual problem very quickly and then design an effective and creative approach to solve that problem.

Secondly, what expertise do you have or are you willing to develop? Is there a topic that you find particularly interesting? For me personally, that topic is entrepreneurship. I am fascinated by how entrepreneurs can start from nowhere and develop something that can sustain many people. Because of that, I am a passionate believer in the power of entrepreneurship to create wealth and lift people – and countries – out of poverty. When you look at the more developed countries, you see that this is mainly done by small and medium-sized businesses. For this reason, I have chosen SME entrepreneurship as my area of speciality.

Thirdly, what experiences do you have that others do not have and that can help you to provide value to your clients? Taking myself as an example, I was born and raised in Liberia where my parents built a farm and a school. So I grew up surrounded by entrepreneurs. My mother is Dutch, and in addition to being raised in both the Liberian and Dutch culture, I studied business administration at top schools in the Netherlands. I also run a successful NGO and a social enterprise in Liberia.

The sum of my strengths, education and experience combined allows me to be able to take Western best business practices and apply them to the African context, using what I learned growing up, but also what I learned from 11 years building up and managing organisations in Liberia. This is part of what makes me good at what I do.

My life is different from yours. That is why you will be successful in areas where I will struggle.

Finding out your strengths and combining them with your expertise and experience is one of the best ways to determine where you can add value to and grow your consulting business.

To find out what they are, do study yourself and ask people who know you well. Friends, family, but also your (former) clients. You can also take online tests.

2. As a solo consultant, specialise

Choose a niche market. This may be the area in which you have the most expertise. Or the area that you find most interesting. Being an expert does not mean that you are the number 1 expert from the day you start. It means that you choose something you are willing to commit to become the very best in.

To identify or verify possible niches, the following questions may help:

  • What areas of speciality are not being served well? Study the market and talk to people to find out. Maybe there is an area that big consultancies do not find interesting. Or they feel the market is too small for them (but it is big enough for you).
  • What specialities might continue to be ignored or underserved in the long term?
  • Which areas are your clients and potential clients struggling in?

As you choose a niche, also determine the type of client you want to work with. Define your ideal client. Your ideal client is somebody who wants your service and is also able and willing to pay for that service. This may mean that you have to find different ways to market your services as compared to the standard approach. The good thing about this is that you can also use it to set you apart from other consultants.

3. Have a business plan

Many people do not like to write business plans. They are intimidated by the idea. But if you do not have a business plan, you are like somebody jumping into the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, having no idea where the shore is, but saying that you want to reach the shore. How will you get there? How do you even know which way to go when you start swimming? Are you even able to swim nonstop for several hours? Where will you get water to drink?

Having a business plan forces you to look at your environment, to make projections, to analyse and to prepare. It forces you to plan. To plan your budget, how to increase your profits, effective marketing, and cost management. If you do not make a plan, you are at the mercy of whatever happens.

Additionally, not having a plan means that you cannot monitor your business. Maybe you are running online marketing advertisements on Facebook. And those ads are bringing in a whole lot of people to your Facebook page. But are these people actually buying from you? If they buy, are they buying the products that have high profit margins? Are you even sure which of your products have the highest profit margins? Do a cost analysis, and you may be surprised to find out that the products you thought were doing well are actually losing money.

Having a business plan means that you can answer the following questions:

  • What do you want to do?
  • What does the market look like?
  • What are you offering?
  • How will you sell your service or product?
  • Who is your target market and how will you reach them?
  • Why should they do business with you? What sets you apart from the competition?

If you need to refresh your mind about what should be in a good business plan, check this post.

4. Have a strategy for business growth

If you do not have a business growth objective, where are you going?

What goal have you set for your business growth? Is it to double your sales? Wow! To grow your profits every year by 300%? Fantastic! May I please see the strategy and breakdown of activities that you have designed to achieve this goal?

Unless you have a clear strategy and action plan that you keep testing and adjusting based on what you are learning through experimenting, you will just be trying anything in hopes of getting your business to grow.

When you plant a tree, it will only grow well when the conditions are right. If there is no sunshine, or no water, or if it is being starved because there is not enough soil for it to get nutrients, it will die. If you want a good harvest from that tree, you will need to take certain actions, monitor how the tree is doing, monitor the environment and make adjustments so it can do as well as possible.

Growing a tree is the same as growing a business. You need to know what kind of environment you are in, what is needed to stimulate growth, and you need to continuously adjust if what you are doing is not working. Or if the environment is changing. And if you do not have the knowledge, you need to ask an expert to offer you advice. Find out more here about how to design your business growth strategy.

5. Build your authority

Clients want to know that the money they are going to spend on you will bring them good results. They will prefer to work with an established expert rather than somebody who is just starting. Even as you grow, the key to growing as a consultant, is having clients’ trust that you can solve their problems. At the end of the day, you do not want a client to say, “Make sure to add John to the shortlist when you are sending out requests for consulting bids”. You want your clients to say, “We need Esther, get her here as soon as possible, I don’t care how much she will charge”.

One way to build your authority is to publish. Whether you are publishing on Facebook, through email newsletters, a blog or on LinkedIn, sharing your thoughts helps to show clients that you know what you are talking about.

6. Use subcontractors

Using contractors is a good way to grow your business without having to force yourself to work 24/7. You will need to have clear agreements with your subcontractors regarding prices (use fixed-bid estimates), and make sure the quality of their work is good. It is also a good way to offer new services to clients without having to hire full-time staff. Make sure to test the subcontractor first, for example by agreeing to pay them for a few trial projects.

Note that working with subcontractors will require you to take on a more managerial role. In addition to keeping your business finances organised, you will also need to define, document and monitor scope of work of subcontractors. As well as have a hiring process, a job description and a contract.

7. Raise your consulting fees

Yes, you will lose clients because of this. But if you are clearly able to articulate the value you can add – by taking the time to define your unique selling point based on your strengths, experience, education and niche – you will find that this also brings in new clients. More importantly, these will be better quality clients and you will be able to use these projects to further develop your expertise and build your reputation.

Before making this decision, be sure to carry out competitor research to find out what your competitors are charging.

Note: if you are not able to distinguish yourself from competitors or if the value you are offering is not acknowledged by your client, this strategy will not work.

8. Create a scalable product

Consultants usually get paid by the hour. If you do not work, you don’t get paid. Having a scalable product helps to solve this problem and grow your business.

A scalable product is a product that can be sold whether you are there or not. For example, an online course, an e-book or a research report.

You sell this by putting it on your website or in your email newsletter. After promoting it, once it is up, people can buy it at any time, even while you are sleeping.

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Key message

Growing a consultancy business is similar to growing any other kind of business. You need technical expertise (a niche, experience and strengths) as well as business management skills. If you are able to combine these two, the potential for growth is almost unlimited.

How may I help?

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