Question: What is the fastest growing business in America today?
Answer: Private Consulting
Not only are there more small businesses than at any time in American history forming, but an ever increasing number of those businesses are that of private consultants. Why? Is it the Clinton economic plan? Has government created these "new" jobs as is so often the claim? I think I speak for most of you when I say the answer is, "Of course not."
The new consulting businesses popping up across the map are a direct result of corporate downsizing. As major corporations are, for the first time, scaling back on technocrats such as engineers, human resource professionals, and MBAs, consulting firms are born from the dying corporate carcasses like a Phoenix rising from the ashes.
There are three reasons why these professionals, suddenly jobless, become consultants:
1. They're professionals with technical skills and talents. They're too proud to work at Wendy's, Walmart, or collect welfare from Mother government. The case for action for starting their own business hit like a hammer on a rusty nail when they were laid off.
2. Other big corporations, long the symbol of corporate status and security, are downsizing too. There just aren't as many professional jobs in corporations. But the work still needs to be done, so the big boys are outsourcing. This shift in the technical marketplace has illuminated light bulbs over the heads of thousands in the past 5 years.
3. They aren't good enough to make a living playing golf.
Are all these firms going to achieve success in lobbying for the seeds scattered by IBM, AT&T, and General Electric. Well....No. There are still critical business success factors which need to demonstrated by these fledgling S-corps. Since I own and operate my own engineering consulting business, here are some of my own poignant observations and suggestions for getting started in this hot field.
If you want to make a living as a consultant, you first must find a more empowering "Why?" than the 3 reasons I just gave. Being forced into a career change is generally not the best way to guarantee long term success. But don't lose heart, even if that's how you started, you can quickly come to appreciate other, more powerful reasons for being your own boss, such as:
1. Being your own boss. Make your own hours and take vacations when YOU want to.
2. Freedom to attack any niche market that interest YOU. Your interest and passion are key motivators when times are tough.
3. Retire when YOU want to. This isn't dictated by a corporate policy.
4. Establish your own salary. You never again have to complain that you're worth more than you make. As a consultant, you're worth exactly what you make!
5. You're job is as secure as you make it.
6. You work where you want. Home, office, or villa in the south of France.
Once a consulting business is underway, these reasons must be compelling enough to drive the principals through the hard times, paperwork, and trivialities that your own business will surely bring.
The next thing that prospective consultants have to do to achieve professional success is to define the scope of the business. The way to do this is to first take stock of yourself and any employees that you might have. What are your technical strengths? Weaknesses? Interests?
The parameters of the services that are offered should play on the technical strengths and interests of the consultants and avoid the weaknesses like the plague.
You may ask, "Why is that necessary/" to which the answer is, the best way to use a life preserver is to never get in water over your head. Sticking with your strengths prevents drownings.
You're fired up about beginning this business! You know what you want to consult on! What now? Before making the leap, its a good idea to know and be able to define 3 things:
1. Is there a market for my services? Who will my customers be?
2. Who else does what I do? In other words, who is the competition?
3. Why am I better than those folks in number 2?
If you are selling spectacular views of the sunset from your eastern facing balcony, you've got a problem! If there is no market for your services, punt for now, flip some burgers to pay the bills, and re-group. If there is, you're not out of the woods yet.
Someone else may do what you do. In fact, maybe a lot of folks do what you want to do. If that's the case, you're going to have to penetrate their market, because unless you get extremely lucky and catch a customer on a good day, you'll most likely have to steal somebody else's business, which means you better have a powerful good answer for number 3...Why you're business is different and more importantly, provides more value to your client!
My wife sold long distance for about a year and got out of the business. She told me that it is one of the most cut-throat businesses to be in. Why? Because everybody has a phone, and 99.9% of those people have long distance service. It takes one hell of a sales pitch to make people want to switch something that most of them are comfortable with, especially in the 30 seconds you'll likely have before they hang up!
Telling them why you're better necessitates creating an awareness of a problem that the potential customer may not even realize they have. This is the most important factor in making a living consulting!
You can be the best engineer, accountant, or paralegal that there is, but if you can't clearly explain what sets you apart from all the rest, then practice this, "Hello. Welcome to K-mart. Enjoy your day!"
Without covering the entire gamut of "How to become a Consultant, 101", the final thing an enterprising young, or old for that matter, consultant in anything needs to be is fashion conscious. Unless you happen to have bankrolled six figures of seed money for your business, you are going to have to wear a lot of hats, and if any of them happen to clash with the rest of the outfit, it will be the ultimate business faux pais.
For example, as an engineer at IBM, my typical day may have revolved around the marching orders of running printed circuit peel tests, solving a processing problem on line number 3, and going to a status meeting to present to my management when I'm going to deliver the new inspection machine.
Exciting stuff, I know, but as complicated or not as this might sound, these duties are fairly limited in scope if not technical complexity. They're all engineering duties!
For my consulting business, I have to juggle a lot more eggs, and if one hits the ground, "Splat!" A partial list of some of the "hats" that I, and most start up consultants, must wear are those of the...
liability insurance underwriter,
accounts payable and receivable clerk,
customer service representative,
and, I know there's something else. Oh yeah, engineer!
In time, many of these functions can be delegated or farmed out, but until the business has a full plate of clients to feast on, these tasks generally fall on Y0U.
There are many other avenues of professional consulting that I could explore with you, but that would take several days and I'd have to charge you ten thousand dollars for my time.
Suffice it to say that if you think you might want to join the ranks of us consultants, make sure you want it for the right reasons, that you know exactly what it is you want to consult on, you know your market and your market knows you, and do your calistentics, because you will need to have Gumby-like flexibility to pull it off.
Karl Walinskas is a professional engineer, speaker and freelance writer in Pennsylvania who owns and operates a communications development company called The Speaking Connection www.SpeakingConnection.com . He is a frequent contributor to business publications across the country. He can be reached for questions or suggestions at 570-675-8956
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