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How to Get Clients for Your New Consulting Business

Having ironed out the day of the week for reader questions last week, I’ll get right to the point here.  Today I’m going to talk about how to get clients for a consulting business.  This is in response to the following reader question.

It’s ideal to reach out to existing contacts, but past that what is the best way to approach people outside your immediate network for work?

When starting out, should you be highly specialized or more general to get the freelance practice started? And is it better to focus on a particular single offering or cast a wider net by offering more services?

So let’s set the scene.  You’re working a 9-5 gig, but with visions of starting to moonlight.  Maybe you want to become an efficiencer, a freelancer, or a consultant (if you’ve been reading my developer to consultant series).  Whichever of these you want, the advice I’d give is coalescing into one consistent narrative.  And I’ll offer that narrative today.

The person asking this question is exactly right in the first sentence.  It is ideal to reach out to existing contacts and, more specifically, to those who view you favorably.

But it’s not ideal for the reason you probably think.

You probably think these are ideal outreach candidates because they like or respect you.  But, while that doesn’t hurt, it’s not actually that important.  The reason outreach to close associates is so valuable is because they know how you can help them and how you can help others.

Job-Seeking Teaches You A Sales Pitch That Hurt You as a Consultant

I’m going to answer the reader question, but first I have to explain this subtle distinction.  And I’m going to explain this subtle distinction, but first I have to explain why the best way to look for jobs is the worst way to land consulting gigs, and vice-versa.

When you apply for jobs, your general mission is to make it clear how broadly useful you can be for prospective employers.  A good resume paints you as someone with a broad set of skills and a work history full of employer-favorable outcomes.  It reassures prospective employers that you’ll be useful to them in the years to come, regardless of changing circumstances.

The overarching message?

“I can be useful to you in whatever ways you need and deem necessary.  You, future boss, are the work planner and I am your broadly useful resource.”

This makes you an honestly good employee.  And it makes you a relatively useless consultant.

I once referenced an idea from Book Yourself Solid  that you need a “who and do what” statement.  I help [who] do [what].  As a consultant, you have this statement in lieu of a resume.

The overarching message?

“I can be useful to you in this very specific context where I am an expert and you need my help.”  This makes you pretty useless as a prospective employee, but well-positioned as a consultant.

We Luck Out Because Our Closest Associates Understand Our Who-And-Do-What

Why did I take this detour and explain this distinction?  Well, it’s relatively simple once you see it.

When you decide to blast out of the only thing you’ve ever known, a corporate career, you tend to approach freelancing like the next chapter in that same career.  You want to put together a “freelancer resume” (or something like that) and send it out to people as if you were looking for a salaried position.  You give it to your closest friends, family, and associates because, as with employment, you think it gives you an “in.”  And it might even kind of work out that way.

But that’s not really the way it pays off, assuming it pays off.

Your friends, family, and associates know you.  And so they say things to people they know like, “hey, my friend here is pretty good with security and stuff, and you were mentioning that you needed some help there.”  They become matchmakers of sorts, pairing your skills with people in their networks.

People you don’t know as well don’t do this effectively, even when they want to help.  You email them and say, “hey, I’m on my own now,” and they aren’t sure who to introduce you to because they don’t know you very well.

You Can Turn Casual Acquaintances into Good Referrals and Strangers into Warm Leads

Say you go off on your own as a general app dev freelancer.  You probably send your resume to a bunch of people and ask them if anyone in their network needs “software development.”  Maybe you specify a tech stack.  But then again, maybe you don’t bother.

When you do this, you’re giving people a homework assignment.  Remember the job-seeker’s message to prospective bosses?  “You’re the work planner, and I’m you’re broadly useful resource.”

Well, when you prevail upon your network, you’re sending the same message.  But you’re not working for them.  You’re asking them to figure out how their network should use you as a resource.

Don’t do that.

Instead, tell them exactly who in their network you can help.  Use your “who and do what” statement.  I help SaaS startups with security ahead of funding pitches.  Or, I help aspiring agile enterprises go from version-based deployments to feature-based deployments.

Now, you’re not giving your network homework assignments.  Instead, you’re giving them the ability to do people they know a favor.  “Oh, hey, my friend that’s about to make a funding pitch, if you need some help demonstrating that your app is secure, I know someone that can totally help with that.”

When you do this, you turn casual acquaintances into sources of referral and strangers into warm leads.

How to Get Clients?  Not Just Specializing, But Reframing What You Do

Let’s now get back to the original question: how to get clients.  Should you start out casting a wide net, or should you specialize.  You should specialize.

But it’s about more than just specializing.

I could say that I specialize in static analysis focusing on metrics related to code maintainability, for instance.  That’s highly specialized, but almost no one is going to understand or care, no matter how much they like me.  I have to reframe that specialty in terms of its benefit to others.  I help companies initiating mergers and acquisitions decide if the code they’ll inherit should increase or decrease their offering price for the target company.

Now I’m teeing up what Jonathan Stark calls a “rolodex moment.”  Anyone I explain this to thinks, “oh, Jennie’s company is acquiring another company right now!”  They have someone in mind who may want to talk to me.

When you do something general like, “I write tez codez,” no one is ever going to have a Rolodex moment.  You’ll only get business in the same way you currently do as a salaried employee — by coming in as a low status generalist and doing job interviews and such.

Your Plan of Attack

One of the hardest things for people, I’m finding, is getting to the “aha” moment of flipping from generalist to “who and do what,” specialized service provider.  No judgement here.  I honestly did this only sort of inadvertently and in fits and starts over the years.  It’s a hard mental change to make, and it feels weird, unnatural, and downright career-suicidal at times.

It feels like you’re painting yourself into a corner.

But relax.  You’re not.  I promise.

Still, here’s a low risk game plan that you can start while still employed.

  1. Stay in your current job.
  2. Pick a way that you can help companies without writing code (i.e. being a software laborer).  How can you aid them in diagnosis or prescription of therapy?
  3. Start blogging, writing books, speaking, whatever, about your new specialty — how you help [who] do [what].
  4. Quietly float this service to your network until someone bites and seeks to pay you for a consultation.
  5. Once this goes well, refine and scale up.
  6. Quit your job only when you feel your new consultative work can sustain you.

It Will All Work Out, I Promise

Now, don’t freak out on me.  There’s nothing to say that part of what you do, including the diagnosis and prescription phases, can’t involve you writing code.  But you don’t want to be known for laboring and you don’t want to lead with that, or you’ll find yourself in a pigeon hole.  If you write code to make your service delivery more efficient, that’s your business.  But you’re not selling software development labor — you’re selling solutions to specific client problems.

If you become known as a generalist programmer, you’ll find yourself incapable of rolodex moments.  Seemingly every company on earth needs app dev, so if you let yourself be known for app dev, people will say, “GREAT, send your resume over to our recruiter-bro who will pull request you an interview!”

So specialize.  But specialize specifically in solving a tangible problem for a segment of the market.  This will make your marketing efforts easier and it will make your outreach easier, by converting it to warm outreach.  You get clients a lot faster when everyone you know (and even some you don’t) can pitch you to their network.  And that only happens when it’s crystal clear who you help do what.

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Britt King
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Nice article on framing your value through specialization, Erik. The longer I remain in the consulting game, the more I appreciate the book “Million Dollar Consulting” by Alan Weiss. Recommended reading for aspiring and seasoned consultants alike. The chapter on value based pricing is worth the cost of the book alone. Some insight from Alan that really took me by surprise was how *wrong* he said he was, when he first started selling workshops and speaking engagements, about what keeps consultants from real success. He thought the problem was undercapitalization, that consultants didn’t have enough funds to see them through… Read more »