How I Grew My Consulting Business From Zero to $300,000 in 18 MonthsAug 01, 2017
It was the scariest moment of my life.
I was leading one of the most strategic and high-profile projects the Disney operations executives had ever collectively embarked on and I knew it was time for me to quit. This big decision wasn't about Disney - as the company and its executives were (and still are) the best of the best.
My massive career transition was about so much more. For sure those 70-hour workweeks were getting to me. I felt like my two small children that were growing up without me.
But the real motivation was this internal discontent that started to take root in me two years prior. My Dad's death from lung cancer was a wakeup call to reconsider my life priorities.
So I leapt from the corporate ladder for the adventure of finding my highest potential and started my own consulting business.
Like all new entrepreneurs, I was full of money fears. I wondered IF I was going to replace my salary with consulting revenue and how QUICKLY this was going to happen.
But what I lacked in cash, I made up for in vision and commitment and I bravely launched my business. And to my great surprise, I grew the business from zero to $300,000 in the first 18 months!
You see, I am not a marketing guru. I didn't have a commercially published book. And shameless self-promotion is not my thing. But yet I was attracting AND landing clients all around the world!
There were lots of things I did right that empowered me to parlay by Disney experience into success as a consulting business owner. And there were LOTS of mistakes along the way.
I want to share with you both my wins and rookie mistakes so that you accelerate your consulting growth and sidestep any unnecessary and costly missteps. These insights took me years to learn, but you can instantly apply these best practices as you grow the thriving consulting practice of YOUR dreams.
LESSON #1: BUILD YOUR BUSINESS ON YOUR BEST-AT STRENGTHS
When I first started out, I had that scarcity mentality and I wanted to offer everyone and anyone everything...and the kitchen sink. As a result, I attracted all kinds of clients - some who were a great fit and others who sucked the living daylights out of me.
Our biggest asset isn't money or time - it's capacity.
The key to sustainable success is build your business on the foundation of what I call your "first tier gifts." These are the strengths we possess that come so naturally to us that we almost feel apologetic about asking money for it because it doesn't feel like work.
If you offer what you are best at (vs. what you can do but have to work a lot harder at it) you:
- Create more value for your clients
- Expand your capacity, creativity and energy for your business
- Experience your confidence that empowers you to market yourself without fear and boldly ask high-paying clients to work with you
KEY TAKEAWAY: Do what you love and you'll never work a day in your life. Figure out your favorite gifts and talents and build your business on the strength of that foundation.
LESSON #2: TO DO GOOD, YOU HAVE TO BE GOOD...MAYBE EVEN THE BEST
Working as an internal consultant at a company like Disney enabled me to fully hone my craft. I didn't just know about consulting, I became a world-class consultant before I marketed myself that way.
To be clear - you don't have to go to grad school or work at a company like Disney before starting your own consulting business. But at some point if you want to work with companies like Disney, you need to cultivate your knowledge and skills around what it means to advise corporate executives in terms of:
- Basic business acumen and how companies create and track success
- How organizations function and create value
- What causes or interferes with performance achievement at the individual, team and organizational levels
- How to apply your expertise in a consultative way
- How to lead from influence vs. authority
- How to navigate the tricky political and relational terrains that comes with organizational change
You wouldn't go to a doctor of any kind (generalist or specialist) who didn't know human anatomy. Similarly, you don't want to offer consulting to an organization without really taking the time to understand how the world of work ACTUALLY works and how your consulting expertise fits in and adds value.
KEY TAKEAWAY: Cultivate your consulting skills and pursue excellence in all that you do.
LESSON #3: KNOW THE "VALUE" IN YOUR VALUE PROPOSITION
Every change project I supported at Disney had to have a business case in order to get approved. What this means is that we had to show the return on investment each change initiative was going to create in terms of employee satisfaction, customer satisfaction and business results.
And even through I was an internal consultant, I had to prove the incremental value I created by virtue of my participation. In fact, for my larger projects, I had to submit a measurement story that showed the math and the actual return on investment for the project and the return on approach for my involvement.
For example, when I was on the project to rebrand Disney's Animal Kingdom, we had to prove the value of the rebranding and I had to prove the value of my high-involvement approach.
While I was at Disney, I thought this was a waste of time. After leaving Disney to set up my own shop, I realized what I internalized the idea that I wasn't an expense to be managed but I was an investment that generated a return. Having this understanding in my head, heart and gut has empowered me to:
- Pitch the right work
- Ask clients directly to work with me
- Ask for (and receive) equitable compensation
- Proactively advocate for and land the 2nd, 3rd and 4th contracts
KEY TAKEAWAY: Connect the dots between what you do and the results you create so that you too can have inner confidence that your consulting matters.
LESSON #4: WIDEN YOUR TOOLBOX OF CONSULTING APPROACHES
The fastest path to growing your consulting success is NOT found in the constant hustle for the next client. It comes from making the most of every lead and every client that you already have.
To do this, you need to first establish a winning partnership with a client at the start of your engagement with them. During the contracting process, it's less about getting a signature on the dotted line for an immediate contract and more about positioning yourself as an essential strategic partner against the more significant business performance challenges.
When I was at Disney, my team and I had were expected to practice our consulting skills and as a result, I have become a master at the pivot. I know exactly how to move an initial client conversation from a request for a specific tactic into a larger consulting engagement.
The second part of this formula is expanding your perception on what you have to offer. Sure, you might be an expert in marketing, leadership development or IT, but why limit yourself when you can learn a whole wide range of potential ways to help your clients? Underneath the subject matter that you feel like you have mastered are transferable skills that apply to a variety of business performance situations.
For example, my training is in Organization Development and as such, I have become an expert in qualitative research. I can offer an employee and leader assessment projects but I can also offer a customer assessment project, even if I have zero formal training in marketing because my skills are transferable.
KEY TAKEAWAY: Discover all the different consulting solutions and techniques that you can leverage to create greater client value (and greater compensation for you.)
LESSON #5: NEVER LOSE SIGHT OF WHY YOU STARTED YOUR BUSINESS IN THE FIRST PLACE
I started my business because I wanted work/life balance. Yet, as my business started to grow, I started to set more aggressive revenue targets for myself and as a consequence I burnt out.
I'll never forget my first global assignment...while my kids were home with the nanny.
Maybe I was living the dream, but it was someone else's dream not mine.
KEY TAKEAWAY: Your success is defined by you, not anyone else. As Anna Quindlen says, "If your success is not on your own terms, if it looks good to the world but does not feel good in your heart, it is not success at all."
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