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How to start a consulting business

Becoming a consultant gives you unlimited freedom in your career, and there’s never been a better time to get started. Learn how to start a consulting business, manage it with the right tools, and build a self-generating client base.

Woman starting a consulting business at home

You’ve built a solid professional skill set, and you’re ready to take your next step. Maybe you have a secure 9-to-5 job managing your company’s online community, and while you’re good at what you do, you don’t feel like you’re reaching your potential. 

You’re considering setting up a consulting business and helping different companies start their own digital communities, but your knowledge of entrepreneurship is a blank slate. You need help—and some inspiration would help, too.

Or maybe, like a record number of others, you recently lost your job due to layoffs. You loved being a social media manager at your last company, but you’re wondering if this might be a new opportunity. You’ve wanted to leave the corporate world behind and start your own business, but you need help figuring out how to start.

We’re here to help. Keep reading to learn how to start a consulting business, what separates successful consultants from their struggling counterparts, and how to set yourself up for growth.

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Impress clients at every turn with professional proposals, contracts, payments, and more.

Understanding the consulting business

Consulting services look different depending on the industry you work in. Almost every industry uses consultants at some level, and the overall goal is universal. By observing and analyzing specific aspects of how a company works, a consultant provides unbiased advice on moving forward.

What makes consulting unique?

While just about every other industry spends its time learning how to break the mold and stand out, consultants aim to blend in. If you start a consulting business, your job will be to disappear into the churning gears of your client’s business, find the sticky points, and get them moving again.

Current trends driving the consulting world

Being up to date on consulting trends will help you land clients. Here are 5 priorities to be aware of as you pitch your first client:

  • Focus on ROI and measurable impact: With more data and advanced analytics tools on the market, companies demand measurable results from every project, including consulting.
  • Use of digital technologies: A consultant’s job is to help companies work more efficiently, and artificial intelligence (AI) takes efficiency to the next level. Look for ways you can integrate AI into your consulting work. Try using HoneyBook’s priority lead tool, which predicts lead strength and revenue potential.
  • Adapting to remote work: As of 2023, more than 26% of workers were entirely remote, and 79% preferred to work from home at least once a week. Offering virtual meetings and consultations shows your understanding of the current landscape.
  • Emphasis on sustainability and social impact: With most Americans seeking out brands that reflect their values, the market for environmental, social, and governance (ESG) consulting is on the rise. Experts say spending on ESG consultants will reach $16 billion by 2027.
  • Specialization and niche expertise: The global market allows clients to find a consultant in any area of need. Highlight your unique skill set and emphasize what you do better than anyone else.

Types of consulting businesses

Now that you understand the concept of consulting, the next step is choosing a service to provide. Consider your background and what part of the business world you understand best. Here are 7 common types of consulting businesses to get you going:

  • Marketing
  • Sales
  • Human resources
  • Finance
  • Strategy
  • Business operations
  • Information technology (IT)

Most of the examples in this article will focus on marketing, but don’t let that deter you if your experience lies elsewhere. You can transfer the lessons and tips into any industry.

Identifying your niche

Within your area of focus is your consulting business niche. A niche is an area of expertise a consultant primarily or exclusively focuses on. For example, if you go into marketing consulting, you might choose one of the following as your niche:

  • Branding strategy
  • Marketing research and analytics
  • Social media management
  • Content marketing
  • Digital marketing

Choosing a niche helps you stand apart from the crowd, which will consist of many generalists. They may have a passing knowledge of all aspects of marketing, for example, but only you have a decade of experience driving leads through content. 

Assessing the market’s needs and potential competition

A booming industry like consulting always presents plenty of competition. To build an in-demand business, you need to analyze that competition.

You’ll need to play detective and flex your resourcefulness. Dig into industry reports, trade publications, and online forums to find common client pain points. Keep an eye out for questions your future peers aren’t answering and services they aren’t providing—especially if they match your areas of expertise.

Evaluating your expertise and skill set

Your value as a consultant comes from the knowledge you’ve gained and the results you’ve achieved. Your next step is to match those achievements and skills with the market’s needs.

Your business will share some features and services with others, especially at a high level. Every industry has core skills that all consultants need to provide. 

That said, every niche has a gap somewhere. If you find it, you can solve a problem no one else is addressing.

Creating a business plan

It’s easy to jump into consulting before considering the nuts and bolts. Writing a business plan forces you to pause and consider those details, such as how you’ll cover the costs of your first year or how you’ll reach your target market.

Long-term goals and short-term objectives will give you direction. Consider where you want to be in 1 year, 5 years, and 10 years based on your target audience and niche. Then, think about how you’ll get there.

Defining your service offerings

You’ve thought long and hard about the value you’ll offer as a consultant. Now, it’s time to articulate that value.

Fortunately, you’ve already identified your skills and the problems that need to be solved. All you need to do now is clearly describe that skill-problem match in an engaging way.

A great service offering solves a client’s problem with clearly defined actions on your part. Describe what you’ll do and what kind of results the client will see, and you have a service offering.

Structuring your business plan

Your consulting business plan should have 6 core components:

  • Executive summary: what you offer, what needs you meet, and how you’ll stay afloat, explained over 1 to 3 pages
  • Business description: your business’s structure, purpose, and goals
  • Products and services: what you offer and the benefits those offerings provide
  • Market analysis: where you fit in your industry, including predicted market opportunities and trends you plan to embrace
  • Sales strategyyour target market and how you’ll attract and retain clients
  • Financial planning: analysis of costs, projected income, and sales forecasts for 3 to 5 years out

Your business plan will be a road map for your first few years. You’ll use it to plan for the future and get back on track when facing challenges.

Establishing your business

Now comes the exciting part: making your business a legal and operational reality. The first step is to choose a business structure. Your primary options are:

  • Sole proprietorship
  • Partnership
  • Limited-liability company
  • Corporation
  • S corporation

Your structure will determine how you file taxes and deal with liability issues. 

Depending on your location, industry, and organizational structure, you may need to register your business. Your local government can explain the process and tell you whether you need a license, a permit, and/or insurance.

Crafting your value proposition

Before you develop a marketing strategy, you need a value proposition. A value proposition describes the core client benefit that differentiates you from your competitors.

Your consulting value proposition is a 1- or 2-sentence summary of:

  • Whom you serve
  • What problems you solve
  • Why clients should choose you

If you’re like most independent business owners, you could talk for hours about why clients should choose you. The challenge with a value statement is to keep it under a sentence or 2. Think of it as your elevator pitch without the elevator.

One standout example is the value proposition from the consulting group GrowthHit’s website:

We help ambitious companies lower CAC, increase LTV, and break revenue records.

  • Increase Profits by improving conversion rates
  • Acquire New Customers by maximizing ad spend
  • Grow Sales with a team that’s scaled 150 brands

GrowthHit’s value proposition answers all 3 questions clearly and concisely, with the bonus addition of an impressive credential. This consulting team has helped 150 brands scale.

Another example comes from the HR consulting group Educe:

We transform talent management for growing Fortune 500 businesses, higher education institutions, and public sector organizations by guiding them to leverage technology more strategically.

Educe’s value statement is concise and informative, with no wasted words. It inspires trust and communicates professionalism in a single sentence.

Building your brand

If your consulting value proposition is your elevator pitch, your branding is the full presentation. Your brand encompasses all aspects of your business’s identity, from your persona as a professional consultant to your company’s core values and aesthetics. 

Developing your online presence and persona

Your target market will build a perception of you based on your digital presence. By taking control of that digital presence, you can dictate how audiences come to know your consulting brand.

Your consultant persona is the center of that presence. The more actively you construct your persona, the more control you have over how people perceive you. It’s important to purposefully build your brand’s identity and voice from the beginning, based on the type of professional you want to be.

Building credibility

Credibility is the result of credentials mixed with confidence and polish. Highlight your credentials by sharing any certifications, client case studies, or testimonials you’ve collected. 

Polish comes largely from your design tools and how put together they make you look. Through the HoneyBook platform, all of your client communications can be branded, polished, and professional. 

Applying marketing and networking strategies

Your ideal marketing strategy depends on your niche and target clients. Your No. 1 goal is to be where they are—whether they already know they need your services or not.

It’s important to have inbound and outbound engines in place. Some clients will come to you, but only if you put your name and expertise out into the world. Others will realize they need your services only after you’ve reached out to them.

Choosing marketing channels

A 2023 study explored the most effective marketing channels for consulting businesses, which included:

  • Phone calls 
  • Direct mail and print advertising
  • Networking events
  • Joint ventures
  • Online advertising
  • Referrals

Experiment with a combination of channels until you find which ones drive the best results. Always use some inbound tactics, such as ads on Google or social media, plus outbound options, such as cold calling or trade-show presentations.

Make sure your inbound strategy includes search engine optimization (SEO). Paid ads make you more visible, but they work only as long as you pay for them. An optimized presence increases your chances of appearing in the search results.

Networking and building partnerships

As a consultant, you can build powerful partnerships with non-competing businesses that share your audience. Think of the products and services your target market needs, and then start a conversation with a provider.

Industry events are perfect settings for these conversations. Always come prepared with a value proposition for your potential partner, such as a mutual referral engine or co-hosted event.

Acquiring and retaining clients

Marketing is the beginning of your clientflow pipeline. The next step is to get clients in the door, meaning you must learn their pain points. 

Securing sales is more challenging than marketing because you must personalize the process for each potential client’s needs. That individual focus is even more pronounced in consulting than in other industries. Your client pipeline will depend on your ability to zero in on every lead’s challenges and present your services as the solution.

If you can do that, you’ll have a decent flow of clients. Establishing that flow is a major accomplishment, but avoid the temptation to rest on your laurels. Keep building relationships by going above and beyond.

Close the loop of your client pipeline by regularly requesting referrals. Many consultants drive the bulk of their business from referrals, primarily because they allow their work to speak for itself.

Strong client retention and repeat business are essential for success. As your business grows, managing tasks that keep clients happy becomes increasingly challenging. HoneyBook’s all-in-one clientflow platform simplifies everything, from booking and planning to follow-up. HoneyBook ensures a seamless client experience by streamlining everything from payments to project management. 

Pricing your services

At some point in the sales conversation, the big question will arise: “How much do you cost?” 

Options include charging by the hour, day, or project. Hourly and daily rates are safer for novice consultants who can’t yet predict how long a project will take.

Once you’ve gained experience and begun to work more efficiently, consider moving to a project-based model. Project-based pricing is easier for clients to budget for, but you’ll need to know how many hours you’ll put in.

The hourly requirements will help you set your fees. Look at sites like Glassdoor or Indeed and calculate how much a consultant in your field earns annually. Break it down by hour or week, depending on the extent of the project, and consider the value you offer. Experienced consultants with proven results can charge more than the average.

Managing your consulting projects

Whether you’re new or experienced, always frame your rates based on the benefits the client will receive. Point to results from previous projects whenever you can, and help the client understand that hiring you is an investment.

To maintain your referral pipeline, you’ll need to deliver a top-notch client experience, starting with onboarding. You’ll need to establish an onboarding process that works best for you as a consultant so your clients can learn how you work and you can effectively scope the project. 

Consultants are vulnerable to a phenomenon called “scope creep,” in which a client makes small additions or extra requests to the project plan, and though they don’t seem like much at first, they add up. Defining and documenting the project’s parameters from the onset safeguards your profitability. 

Project management tools are also essential for staying on track. HoneyBook helps you keep your project scope documents in one place so you and your clients can use them to track your progress. HoneyBook provides end-to-end client management, so it’s easy to find the materials and records you need when you need them.

Scaling your business

If you plan and execute your strategy well, you’ll reach a point at which you can grow your consulting business. Strategic growth is essential, especially in the early stages, as you learn how to operate as a larger business.

Start by streamlining and standardizing your operations. You can get things done faster when you can take action without it becoming a major decision. Create standardized service packages and guide clients to the best ones for their needs. 

If you haven’t already hired or contracted help, now may be the time. Consider whether you want to outsource or build an in-house team. 

Invest heavily in sales and marketing and examine your tech stack. Advanced tech is essential to scalability, especially once you start working with automation and AI-powered tools.

Finally, make sure you have the highest-quality business management software. A growing business must scale everything up, from marketing to internal communications. HoneyBook can help you streamline your operations and improve your efficiency. 

Managing your finances

Reaching the growth phase requires careful planning, especially regarding finances. It’s never too early to set up an accounting system and start tracking your cash flow, including client invoices and expenses.

HoneyBook easily integrates invoicing and payments into your client management workflow. Multiple expense categories make it easy to organize your costs. Plus, HoneyBook integrates with QuickBooks so you can automate even more of your bookkeeping.

Taking the leap 

From marketing to finances, successful consulting starts with the right strategy and purposeful planning. Identify your niche and target clients, and then develop a comprehensive business plan. Get specific about your value proposition and use it to craft a recognizable and authentic brand.

Keep close track of your finances, but focus most of your attention on cultivating client relationships. Those relationships will power the referrals that in turn power your business.

There’s never been a better time to start your consulting business. With your unique skill set and HoneyBook’s end-to-end clientflow management platform, you’re ready for success in a highly entrepreneur-friendly economy. Commit today and change your professional life forever.

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