How to Be a Consultant with No Experience

Starting a Consulting Business

How to Be a Consultant with No Experience

Senior woman working at desk with tablet

“How can I become a consultant with no experience?”

You can ask that question and use it as an obstacle, or you can use it to find and build the steppingstones to a life with greater independence, satisfaction, and income.

There’s a lot of reasons a career as a consultant attracts people. Surveys consistently show that consultants have greater satisfaction, more independence, and higher earnings than full-time employees. Also, the risk in starting a consulting business is low compared to other businesses. It takes fewer assets to start a consulting business than any other business. If you do have to return to work as a full-time employee, your consulting experience and proactive attitude will be viewed as a plus.

One obstacle people have to becoming a consultant is their feeling they have no experience.

Lack of consulting experience comes in two ways, lack of experience in the business side of consulting and lack of experience in the business or technical field in which you advise. 

How to Become a Consultant with No Experience in the Field

To start with, get rid of any notion of becoming a “general business consultant.” That path leads into the desert with no water or food in sight. As a generalist when you try to market to everyone you are marketing to no one.

As a new consultant with no experience you need to find a niche where you have interest, where there is a high-value need, and then build your expertise, authority, and solution set. These are the basics you must have before anyone will consider hiring you. So, how can you get started when you have no experience?

Before you begin looking for clients some things you should do to gain domain experience and build a knowledge foundation are,

  • Find and learn from a mentor
  • Join consulting or industry organizations and learn the language and culture
  • Work as a minimally skilled partner or sub-contractor on related projects
  • Work as a freelancer at hourly rates once you have some skill and experience
  • Begin networking and increase your visibility and availability. As your expertise grows so will the gravitas of your name

How I Became a Consultant in a Field Where I Had No Experience

I started my independent consulting career as one of Microsoft’s first twelve partners. Microsoft contacted me at the start of their partner program because at that time I was an “expert” in finance, modeling, and the new field of desktop spreadsheets. But, 17 years later, as a highly successful Windows and Excel consultant to Microsoft clients, I was exhausted and ready for a different area of consulting. So, I knew the business of consulting, but I did not have expertise in my new field.

I had always been interested in strategy and strategic performance improvement so I read every book on the subjects I could find. When Harvard Business Review published Kaplan and Norton’s first article on using Balanced Scorecards to set and measure strategic objectives, I was hooked.

I had no experience with strategic consulting, but here is what I did to get started,

Read

  • I read every book and magazine article I could find on strategy and corporate performance
  • I took notes as though I was in a college course

Study

Courses and Certification

  • I took a course on facilitating executive teams from the Center for Strategic Facilitation led by Jane Stallman. Jane had been a Senior Partner at the famous Lockheed Skunk Works®. (Think super spy planes: U-2, SR-71 Blackbird, F-117 Nighthawk.) Jane is a true magician at facilitating and leading innovation.
  • I took a certification course from Kaplan and Norton on Balanced Scorecard.
  • I earned a Six Sigma Black Belt with an excellent online course from Villanova University.

Building that background took about a year of study and work, maybe seven days out of the office, and a few thousand dollars for training fees and travel. When spread over a year it wasn’t a huge expense or amount of time away from my core work.

Then, I faced the problem of finding clients and setting fees,

Networking and Being Mentored

  • I talked with other consultants. And really listened. 
  • I was already a member of the Bay Area Consultants Network, so I spread the word that I wanted to assist anyone with pro bono strategy or performance work.

Pro Bono for Experience

  • Two friends were doing a pro bono for our county’s childhood development organization. The three of us did a multi-week pro bono consulting project that involved interviews, planning, objectives, and metrics.

Pro Bono for Experience, Networking, and Testimonials

  • A month later, I heard that one of the largest non-profit performing arts centers in Northern California was changing its strategy to prepare for commercial competition. They had planned to do the facilitation and strategy in-house to save money.
  • I volunteered to facilitate and guide the work at minimal cost (almost pro bono). That “mostly weekend” engagement spread over six-weeks and involved facilitating executives, managers, staff, and million-dollar donors.
  • The strategy and objectives we developed were used for three years.

With those “pro bono” experiences, certifications, and testimonials I was ready to start consulting in strategy and strategic performance management.

After multiple corporate clients I wrote what for years was one Amazon's top selling books on strategy and Balanced Scorecard.

It all started with a pro bono.

How Experts Can Become Independent Consultants Without Consulting Experience

It is much easier to start a consulting business if you already have expertise and experience in a business or technical niche, but you currently work as a full-time employee.

Before you leave your employer, there are many things you can do to make your launch successful.

As a new consultant “with no experience” there are a few things you must consider that go beyond the usual consulting business startup, 

Check whether you are bound by a non-compete agreement

Most states still allow and enforce some form of non-compete agreement. If you want to work in a field competing with your employer, you should check with an attorney. A few states, such as California, Montana, and Oklahoma ban non-competes. In some cases, you can negotiate with the employer in a non-compete state so you can become an independent consultant.

Assess partnership arrangements with employer

Some employers will agree to your independent consulting and may actually help you support your old employer’s clients.

Having referrals from the brand of a previous employer is gold. They produce guaranteed clients with no marketing required on your side. However, do not expect this to go on forever. In most cases these referrals only continue for a year so use that time to market yourself as described in the Ultimate Guide to Starting and Building Your Consulting Business.

Get referrals

Don’t leave an employer in a bad position when you depart. This can come back to haunt you.

Maintain excellent relations with co-workers, managers, and former clients. Often consultants get hired back to do consulting in the company they left.

Leaving with a good relationship can set you up for referrals and testimonials.

Business plan

Be absolutely sure you do not retain or use any proprietary information from your previous employer that go beyond trade craft knowledge. If you are in doubt, check with an attorney.

Do a business plan. Even as an independent you need to do a business plan; mission statement, objectives, budget, niche, clients,…

Write a “cornerstone” that keeps your consulting services focused and keeps you from being distracted by the next shiny new thing. Cornerstone’s are covered in multiple areas of the Ultimate Guide to Starting and Building Your Consulting Business.

Build your professional brand

Even if you don’t have a business you can still build your professional image and brand with articles and posts on LinkedIn, magazine articles, speaking at conferences, sitting on association boards, …

Build your network and leads list (quietly)

Starting networking well before you leave an employer

Network with a purpose at professional events

Create LinkedIn connections and stay engaged (we emphasize this in the course)

Stay engaged with influencers and people who might give you referrals

Practice a networking introduction that starts a focused conversation and leads to referrals.

Don’t ask for referrals until you have given notice.

Remember, referrals always dry up. If you don’t build a marketing machine you will be doomed to the Feast-or-Famine cycle.

Create a professional website

While you are employed you don’t want to create a consulting website, but you can create a professional website where you publish a free blog with your insights, articles, and assets.

Your email list built from your blogs and newsletters will be one of your most valuable consulting assets.

For the primer on starting a consulting business, download the free 115 page Ultimate Guide to Starting and Building a Thriving Consulting Business or read it online.