You don’t have to quit your job to start your business. In fact, one of the lowest-risk businesses you can start — even while you still have a corporate job — is consulting.

What does it mean to be a consultant?

Consulting is giving (and charging for) advice to other professionals and businesses.

Imagine you’re a web designer who works with food & beverage brands and you’ve built hundreds of websites for your clients…you’re more than just a web designer. Your experience empowers you to give advice, and likely even strategy, on web design — not just do the web design work itself. With the amount of experience you’ve gained, learning what works and what doesn’t, the advice you can give is even more valuable than the design itself.

Consider this — many people can build a website. But not many people have built hundreds of websites for food & beverage brands. Companies will pay you for your expertise and advice. And now, more than ever, companies are open to hiring freelancers and consultants. 

With remote work on the rise (44% over the last 5 years), it’s normal for companies to hire external people: consultants, contractors, freelancers, etc. By the end of this article, you’ll know how to transition from corporate to consultant — and you’ll be armed with 2 proven strategies to help you win your first consulting client.

Is consulting right for you? 

Let’s start with who consulting isn’t for.

If…

  • Realizing your potential
  • Being your own boss
  • Flexibility & freedom
  • Unlimited income potential

…doesn’t resonate with you, then starting your own consulting business might not be the best option. These are the top 4 reasons people transition from corporate to consultant (taken from our 2019 Marketing for Consultants Study). But with this upside comes increased risk

If you’d prefer the perceived safety and stability of the corporate world, don’t let anyone hold that against you. (I’d argue that the corporate world is nowhere near as safe and stable as it once was, but that’s a topic for another time…)

But if one or more of those ideas pluck at your heartstrings, then consulting might be for you. And if you have years of experience working in the corporate world, you’re already halfway to becoming a consultant.

How to get started as a consultant

Here’s the difference between providing your skills to an employer versus doing so as a consultant: 

As a consultant, you’re serving multiple clients instead of a single “employer.” When you applied for your current job, you sent in your resume, did an interview, won the job — and then started working for your employer. 

You stopped marketing yourself.

As a consultant, this marketing process never stops. You continue to market and sell yourself — even after winning clients. “Jobs” become client projects. And you are always looking for new client projects — even while you are working on one (or many more). The art of identifying new clients and turning them into paid consulting work is marketing and sales.

These are the primary skills you’ll lack as a new consultant.

You can do the work — you just don’t know how to win the work. But if you know how to win new consulting work, you can earn far more than you would working in a corporate job. 

Identify your profitable area of specialization

To make marketing and sales easier, you must specialize.

Be a big fish in a small pond. 

Serve a specific industry, and you’ll lower your amount of competition.

Think of two variables:

  • WHO you serve.
  • WHAT you do for them (and WHAT problem that solves).

Then, you can create a message like this: 

WHAT you do for WHO you serve.

Examples:

  • Brand Consulting for eCommerce Start-Ups
  • Digital Marketing Consulting for Fintech Companies
  • HR Consulting for Universities & Colleges

Notice how much more specific these messages are than something like “marketing for small businesses.” If you specialize and serve a specific industry, you’ll not only have a much easier time identifying your ideal clients (business leaders who run companies in your industry)… 

…but they’ll be much more open to speaking with you (and hiring you) as well.

And don’t forget: your passion is essential here.

Your WHO should be a group of people who need your service, you have access to, and who you genuinely enjoy serving.

Your WHAT should be skills that you are an expert at, people need, and that you enjoy doing.

This messaging can, and will, change over time. With a draft of this message, you’re ready to start approaching and winning clients.

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How To Win Your First Consulting Client

There are many ways to get your first consulting client. I’ll give you two to start with.

Method 1: Your Current Employer

Say what?!

Yes, you can turn your current employer into your first consulting client. Many of our students have done exactly that. Here’s how you do it.

NOTE: This method only works well if you have a good relationship with your employer and you enjoy working with them.

Schedule a conversation with your current employer. In an open, transparent way, explain to let them that you’re considering starting your own consulting business. Reiterate how much you enjoy working with them. Then, suggest that instead of leaving your position, you’d like to change the structure of your position. Instead of being an employee, you’ll serve them as a consultant.

With you as a consultant, they can continue to reap the benefits of your expertise and skill without having to pay you a full-time salary or benefits. And it’s a win for you because your employer becomes a client instead of your boss. That means you can work for more clients.

Method 2: Reach Out To An Ideal Client

You know who your ideal client is — because you know WHO they are and WHAT you do for them. That’s the identification part of the equation. So, once you’ve identified ideal clients, how do you turn them into a paying client?

It starts by having a meaningful conversation about their business, their situation, their problems, and their goals. In consulting, this conversation is “sales.” Notice how different it is from your stereotypical used-car salesman “pitch.” This conversation is all about your prospect.

How to reach out to potential clients

To have these conversations, you must first reach out to them. 

Whether you do this by email or phone, your early days as a consultant are going to involve a lot of direct outreach: reaching out to ideal clients to start these meaningful conversations.

Here’s what an outreach message looks like:

“Hi NAME,

I’m really impressed with what THEIR COMPANY is doing in the INDUSTRY space. I’ve recently shifted from working with companies like COMPANY, COMPANY, COMPANY into bringing my experience to help other TYPE OF ORGANIZATION as an advisor.

As this part is new to me, I would really love to learn about your experience in the industry. It would mean so much to me if I can ask you a few quick questions — even 5-10 minutes would be invaluable to me. Are you available tomorrow afternoon by any chance? Thank you so much.”

You’re not asking them to listen to your sales pitch. You’re asking them a few questions about their business, their situation, their problems, and their goals.

Notice how both these methods require you to have a conversation. Yes, it might be uncomfortable. And it will push you outside your comfort zone.

If you aren’t willing to have conversations about how you can create value for people, then you’re better off sticking with your current job. But if you’re up for the task, read on to learn how to make the transition from corporate to consultant.

Transitioning from Corporate to Consultant: Two Proven Strategies

Once you’ve won your first client you have two options for making the transition from corporate to consultant.

1. The Side Transition

This is where you begin working with clients while you’re still employed.

The upside of this is that it reduces your risk. You have a safety net and can quit once you’ve matched or exceeded your full-time income.

The downside is that your employer might not be OK with your side gig. And it will be harder to win clients and complete projects because you’ll be doing it on the side and have less time and energy. 

2. The All-In Transition

This is where you put in your two weeks’ notice now — before you’re 100% sure you have the income to sustain yourself.

The upside of this is that it puts your “back against the wall” and you have all the time you need to win and work with clients.

The downside is that it’s riskier.

If you go this route, save 6-12 months of income to sustain yourself. In my experience coaching hundreds of consultants, this is more than enough time for you to figure it out and bring your income up. 

Remember — where there’s an upside, there’s also risk. 

You can’t reduce all risk — but by following one of these strategies, you have different options that match your risk tolerance. Worst case scenario? It doesn’t work out. You go and get another job.

But you’ll have gained a ton of experience and a tremendous amount of respect for yourself for giving it a try.

Action Step: Go Win Your First Consulting Client!

Your action step for this article is to go and win your first client. It’s going to be messy. It’s going to be tough. You will get rejected a few times.

That’s ok.

Winning your first consulting client is a life-changing experience.

For many, it’s the first step of a lifelong dream of working for yourself, increasing your income, and realizing your true potential. It all starts with a meaningful conversation with an ideal client.

So go out there and create that conversation. Listen deeply. Add value. And if there is a good fit, make an offer. Or, you can continue working at your corporate job…wondering what could have been.

Which path will you choose?

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AvatarMichael Zipursky

Michael Zipursky is the CEO of Consulting Success® and Coach to Consultants. He has advised organizations like Financial Times, Dow Jones, RBC, and helped Panasonic launch new products into global markets, but more importantly, he’s helped over 400 consultants from around the world in over 75 industries add 6 and 7 figures to their annual revenues. Over 35,000 consultants read his weekly consulting newsletter. Michael is also the author of the Amazon Best Sellers ACT NOW: How successful consultants thrive during chaos and uncertainty, The Elite Consulting Mind and Consulting Success®.