I often get asked how I started my consulting business, which I launched five years ago. It’s evolved from what I described as being a “Jaquelyn of All Trades” – in which I took on a wide range of project-based work – to my current business focused on gender dynamics in the workplace, which includes consulting, public speaking, and writing.
Here’s how I got my first client.
After I managed a political campaign in 2012, people kept approaching me with interesting projects, and I realized there was an opportunity.
It began with a lot of self-reflection. I started having conversations with my closest friends and mentors to help me identify the kind of work I was interested in doing, what I was good at, and what people would pay me to do. I asked them to keep their eyes peeled if they heard of anything that would be a good fit.
I expanded my conversations to people who had worked with me and knew my skill set. I hadn’t perfectly honed my elevator pitch, so I said something like, “I’m really interested in partnering with you on project-based work, anything from capacity building on existing endeavor to bringing a project from idea to implementation. If you see anything that would be aligned with my skill set, please let me know.”
Then, I’d ask if there was anyone else they’d recommend I talk to in order to keep my network expanding.
To follow this model, I suggest starting with close friends to help get you comfortable with consulting language. Keep expanding the circles after that. Talk with past employers you have a good relationship with and former colleagues. Then expand to folks who are more peripheral connections.
Kate Gremillon, who founded Mavenly + Co, describes being a “professional coffee getter” when she first started her business. Like me, she took one coffee meeting after another to let people know what she was working on and how they could partner with her. (PSA for those lean startup times, tea is usually the cheapest thing on the menu.)
Coffee getter mode can be exhausting, but can pay off. After three months of coffee dates, I started to feel discouraged and think my my chances of finding a paying gig were getting more remote as I reached farther into my network. Right as I was becoming frustrated, I landed my first client.
My first client was a woman I’d met only two or three times on the campaign trail. I’d asked for a meeting to let her know I was available, and within a few weeks we signed a contract. It took a lot of coffee meetings, but once I got in front of someone with a project that aligned with my skill set and had the resources to pay me, the process of landing the client was efficient and enjoyable.
There are many ways to begin consulting. I used my existing relationships to build out my prospective client list, which strikes me as the easiest and quickest way to begin consulting. When someone is already familiar with your work, you don’t have to convince them of your value or your capability. Furthermore, since starting this business five years ago, I’ve found consulting to be highly relational – almost all of my contracts have come through referrals.
If you don’t have an extensive network, consider what you can do to increase the number of people who are familiar with what you do.
Consider trying to secure your first client an experiment before you make the investment of time and capital to start a full-fledged consulting business. This will allow you to determine if you like taking on project-based work and working independently in a low-stakes setting. Consulting is not for everyone, but it’s been a great fit for me.