Crash course in: Becoming a consultant

A colleague who recently left is now offering his services as an independent consultant - and charging a king's ransom. It's tempting to follow suit, but what should you consider first?

by Alexander Garrett
Last Updated: 09 Oct 2013

What can you offer? 'Consultants bring expertise and insight to a business situation,' says Stella Bowdell, head of the Institute of Consulting. 'You need to be absolutely clear about the skills and experience you are offering.' Think about how you can add value for clients, rather than being a sub-contractor.

Look in the mirror. Expertise isn't enough - you'll also need the aptitude and personality to make the transition to consultancy. 'You'll need self-motivation and the ability to multi-task,' says Mike Johnson, consultant and author of Starting Up On Your Own (FT/Prentice Hall). 'You should be mentally and physically fit as you may have to work long hours, and family support is desirable.'

Get quality help. 'Don't waste time on things others can do better; get the best help and advice you can,' says Johnson. 'Find a good IT guy, accountant and lawyer, so you can spend your time doing what you do best.'

Identify your niche. The trick is not to cast it too wide or too narrow, says Jela Webb, a Brighton University academic who consults and coaches on consulting. 'It also needs to be something people will want in the long term. The Millennium Bug left swathes of people suddenly unemployed when the millennium arrived and there were no problems.'

Network, network, network. The best way to find clients is by personal recommendation, so leverage every network you can. 'Start six months before you leave employment, so you can talk to potential clients and see what's out there,' says Webb. Don't forget chambers of commerce, trade bodies and family and friends. And create a profile on the Institute of Consulting's register.

Team up. Even if you want to remain a one-man band, it's worth finding other consultants you can form a loose association with. 'They may need extra support on projects and it's a good way to build your portfolio,' says Bowdell.

Share your thoughts. 'Get published so people know what area you are in and see you as an expert,' says Webb. Presenting at conferences is also good for your credentials.

Know your worth. How much you charge can make or break you. 'Find out how much other people's fees are by pretending you are looking for a consultant and asking them,' says Johnson. 'But be careful not to charge too little - people may think you're not very good.' Much of your time - 20% to 40% - will be taken up with admin, marketing and other tasks, so work on the basis that 60% to 80% of your time will be fee-earning.

Protect yourself. Get a contract in writing and professional indemnity insurance.

Do say: 'X has significant experience (references supplied) and a reputation as one of the leading thinkers in this subject area.'

Don't say: 'All your consulting needs at rock-bottom prices.'

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