“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,
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,
Courses and Certification
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
Pro Bono for Experience
Pro Bono for Experience, Networking, and Testimonials
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.
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.
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.