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Growing A Small Business in Florida Thursday, June 12, 2003
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So You Want to Be a Consultant?

Planning, marketing and top-notch skills are key to a successful consultancy.

  - By Jeffery D. Zbar

Karen Fredricks had all the ingredients for the perfect consulting practice. She had expertise in small business software. She had a list of 100 clients and more than 1,000 prospects to call on. She led local software users groups and she was finishing up a new book, "ACT! 6 for Dummies." She was an aggressive marketer, aligning herself with industry trade groups and speaking frequently at luncheons attended by likely clients.

The only problem for Fredricks in the fall of 2002 was that she also had a full-time job at a Boca Raton accounting firm, where she consulted with clients on how to use such software programs as ACT!, Quickbooks and Microsoft Office.

In January 2003, Fredricks quit her day job, tapped $5,000 in savings to take an office and create marketing materials and a website, and launched Tech Benders, a Boca Raton-based consultancy that teaches people how to use small business software.

"I knew that I wanted to be a private consultant," says Fredricks, president of her new firm. "But I couldn't do it as an employee. I just needed to take a chance."

With layoffs and economic uncertainty, many executives are taking their expertise and launching consulting practices. Today, it's estimated that 100,000 executives are providing consulting services. But to some potential clients, consulting is a four-letter word. They see a "consultant" as an unemployed executive who prints cards and a shingle with "Consultant" on it - all the while waiting for a better full-time job to come along.

For a true practitioner, consulting is a career path, says Gayle Carson, a certified professional consultant to management and a member of the executive committee of the National Bureau of Certified Consultants. For 13 years as president of Miami Beach-based human resources consultancy Carson Research Institute, Carson has consulted with executives seeking to change or improve their careers. Along the way, Carson has seen many consultants come and go. "What makes the difference is the commitment," she says.

Marketing prowess

While many executives have the right skills and knowledge to be successful consultants, few have ever had to market themselves to win over and keep customers, Carson says. For example, creating attractive sales kits, business cards and a website can position the practice as a business, as opposed to a sidelight or career waypoint, she says. Joining or visiting professional associations, local chambers of commerce and economic development groups can place the consultant in the right circles to generate favorable exposure and new business.

Once a job is done, stay in touch with the client so that he or she will spread the word about your work. "People's biggest mistake is under-anticipating what it takes to make people aware of your depth of experience," Carson says. "It's beyond marketing. It's relationship building. The phone doesn't just keep ringing. Developing strong relationships is the smartest thing I ever did."

George Makrauer launched Comad Management Group Inc. after seeing an opportunity to become an entrepreneur. Today, the Treasure Island-based company consults on corporate communications, management and internet integration for a variety of industries - from physicians to hoteliers to manufacturers.

Makrauer often is hired by senior executives to help improve a company's business practices. He's not there to substantiate the executive's opinions or beliefs, he says. In fact, a good consultant should be anything but a nodding "yes man." Instead, the consultant should listen closely to issues and concerns, ask thoughtful questions and challenge the client's answers - even if it puts the engagement at risk.

"Listen to what they want, research what they need and deliver the services that get them the results," Makrauer says.

The transition

Successful consultants see each day as a chance to learn and evolve. Makrauer started as an environmental consultant in the 1970s, before evolving to business management in the 1990s. To start her consultancy, Fredricks first networked with noncompeting consultants from other industries and markets. She learned that her fee - $135 an hour - was reasonable. Every six months, she plans to revisit those peers to learn about industry changes.

"I lap up every word they give me," she says.

Never having been an entrepreneur before, Fredricks labored through the details of opening a business, she says, from leasing space to getting phone and internet service, a website and even licensing her new company. But like many fledgling consultants, her main concern early on was leaving the steady paycheck behind for the uncertainties of entrepreneurship amid a recession. But now that's all behind her, she says.

"The biggest part was wondering, 'Am I going to be able to afford my dinner next week?'" she recalls. "Actually, I hit the ground running and my business remained steady. I'm eating better than I ever was."

Consulting 101
When you've decided to make the leap into consulting, follow these six guidelines.
  1. Write a business plan.
    If you're serious, write a detailed road map for your success. Discuss in detail your areas of expertise, as well as expected client groups, marketing efforts and annual financial projections.

  2. Market, market, market.
    Between networking, creating an informative website and marketing materials, public speaking and positioning yourself among prospects, becoming a successful consultant means becoming the rainmaker. For many new consultants, marketing will be a new effort. Learn and perfect it early. It's essential to success.

  3. Join trade and Industry groups.
    Whether for peer interaction or networking among potential clients, joining a professional association related to your industry puts you among experienced consultants as well as prospects. Among peers, you can ask and learn about billing rates, industry pitfalls, conferences and events, and other insider information that a newcomer might not know. For more insights, check out the Institute of Management Consultants USA and the National Bureau of Certified Consultants.

  4. Exude Confidence.
    Consultants aren't "yes men" who toe the company line. They're outsiders hired to provide differing viewpoints and ideas - without fear of fallout.

  5. Hone your skills.
    Attend industry conferences, seminars and trade shows to keep fresh your talents, expertise and knowledge of any new trends. This makes you more valuable to your clients.

  6. Follow-up.
    The best future client is a satisfied past client. Keep in touch with them to see if they have any follow-up issues. You'll also ensure they remember you when making recommendations to their friends. Persistence pays.


Institute of Management Consultants USA
2025 M St. N.W., Suite 800
Washington, DC 20036-3309
(800) 221-2557

National Bureau of Certified Consultants
1850 Fifth Ave.
San Diego, CA 92101
(888) 543-1114
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