Pulkit Rastogi, Founder - FirstParticle.com shares his story of how he left his full-time job and launched a successful consulting business.
We have two lives, and the second begins when we realize we only have one.
Before I tell you about how to start a consulting business in India or perhaps anywhere in the world, let me rewind the clock by 4 years when I made the decision to begin my entrepreneurial journey and recently started FirstParticle.com. I was working as a Business Development Manager in one of the best companies in the Chandigarh tri-city, drawing a decent 50K per month salary, which even though should have been enough for my lifestyle in those days (no girlfriend, no wife, no kids…) but given that I had other financial commitments, such as rents, EMIs, credit card bills, it was tight. I wanted to earn more but considering non-financial factors such as my employer company was so cool - I could play video games, table tennis at office and the fact that people & culture in the company were so amazing, it just kept me hanging...until my entrepreneurial itch become unbearable and my monkey brain started pushing me outside my comfort zone.
And then the big day came - my 30th birthday. When I blew those 30 candles, I wanted to stop ‘spreading’ and start growing in one direction. I wanted to consolidate. Suddenly, I stopped taking interest in others and started taking interest in myself and do the things that I really wanted to do. I always wanted to live my life on my own terms. I wanted to create something I could call my own. But now at 30, I was feeling anxious about my aspirations because I felt that the time was running out.
Going to the office with those mixed feelings was weird - I was happy with my job but was unhappy being in it. I also became more inquisitive. Why are we doing it? Why aren’t we focussing on that? Would I have done it differently? Not a productive thing to do if you’re an employee. I used to tell myself how I deserved more and that I am capable of achieving a lot more. I wanted more challenges, more money, more growth, more freedom than what my job could offer. I had been doing same things for over 6 years of my job - leaving home at 9, coming back around 8 - working on other people’s ideas, taking instructions even if when they made little sense.
It was a risk I had to take for myself. And so I did. I resigned from my job and the reason I gave to my boss was an honest one - ‘I want to do my own thing’.
Why am I giving you all this background? Because I want to tell you that you’re not the only one who is anxious, confused or even scared. The process of leaving a full-time job and starting an own venture is one of the biggest decisions we take in our lives. My friends who have gone through this process tell me how they felt they were playing with fire. Though, it wasn’t how I felt when I made my switch. I was a bit more strategic. I found my first client in the first month of starting my business, giving me a net-profit of $3000 in my first month. But that’s a separate story.
So I am writing this essay for those who are about to start their consulting business and need an extra-push and guidance from someone been there and done it, to help them prepare, start and grow. These tips will help you if you’re starting a consulting business in UI Designing, web development, quality assurance, testing, digital marketing, accounting, etc. It will also help you if you’re an independent writer, nutritionist, photographer, journalists, accountant and looking to get high paying clients and grow faster. Let’s dive right in.
1) Relax - the worst case scenario isn't as worse as you might imagine
It’s comfortable getting a fixed salary in your bank account every month. Pretty much opposite of what entrepreneurship is about, especially consulting business when you’re starting out. Thus, let me acknowledge the ‘extra’ nervousness you might feel when you have a family which depends on you for a living. Leaving a settled job then and starting your first company becomes twice as hard. All the internal chatter - ‘I have kids going to a good school’, ‘What if I don’t get work for 3 months’, etc.
Indeed, the stakes are high because your adventures and mis-adventures affect not just you but your whole family. Thankfully, the worse case scenario isn’t as bad as you might think. The worse case is that your business might fail miserably and you won’t make a single dime. What will you do then? Simple, go back and get a new job. Obvious, right? No, it isn’t. I have seen how my friends seem scared to death thinking about the worst case scenarios. Like the world will come to an end if their decision doesn’t work out.
2) Can’t find a partner? Start alone...
Starting your first business alone is often frightening. You look for support - a comrade, a business partner. It’s only natural. When we’re children, we look for parents and teachers to support us. As we grow up, we look for a life partner. When we start a business we look for a business partner. We seek help and moreover - we don’t want to fail alone. Nothing wrong with that but what’s important is that you partner with someone for the right reasons. Someone who can add real value and that’s why it’s important that you take your time. But you don’t have to wait until you find someone. Start alone. You’re more likely to get better partnership opportunities after you start.
3) It’s hard to sell a service, it’s easier to sell a solution
Consultants who solve average problems, make an average income. The consultants who solve burning problems, make bigger names and bigger incomes. So when you decide to become an independent contractor or consultant, you must ensure that the problems you solve are burning in nature. The problems that give your potential clients sleepless nights. Let me give you few examples: weight problems, financial problems, data security problems, fitness problems, nutrition problems, technical problems, relationship problems, etc. People who have these problems really suffer and thus see value in paying a premium to ensure they solve it as soon as possible.
So while pitching clients, don’t sell them services, processes, and systems. Your prospects and clients don’t care about them. Believe me - they even don’t even care how hard you work. The only thing they care about is whether or not you can solve their burning problem. If you can prove them that you can solve their burning problem better than anyone else, consider yourself hired.
4) Price yourself high
It's funny when you start charging for your services. I still remember how it felt. I was nervous and even scared. Who would ever pay me for my services? How do I justify? What do I say? What do I charge? What if they say no? All the internal chatter. Four years into running my consulting business, I finally learned that for my ideal clients who are convinced that I can solve their problems, the price is trivial. They will be happy to pay me a premium to get their problem solved. Paying me high will only increase the overall value they derive in hiring me.
On the flip side - if my clients are telling me that they can’t afford my services, it’s not an operational or management problem. It doesn’t mean I should lower my price - It's actually a marketing problem. It means I am reaching the wrong audience. I just need to tweak my marketing to attract the clients who can afford my services and filter out the ones who can't.
5) Start with a niche to develop an expertise
The most terrible way to start your consulting business is to create a generic business that solves everyone’s problem. When everyone is your potential client, no one is. It’s the surest way to guarantee failure.
Want to guarantee success? Start with a niche. For example, if you’re a fitness expert who helps clients shed weight and gain muscles, what unique value are you offering? How are you different from other fitness experts out there?
A better way would be to target a niche. So instead of saying, “I help my clients shred weight and gain muscles”, you can create far more value for your clients by ‘adding your expertise’. Thus, your clients are more likely to hire you and pay you a premium price if you say that - “I help women in the age of 40s to 60s shed weight and gain muscle mass”. Or, “I help women between 25 to 35 lose pregnancy weight and gain muscles”. Now that’s specific.
Targeting a specific niche was of the best business decisions I made when I started my own consulting company -ILoveFashionRetail.com. Instead of providing digital marketing consulting to anyone, I chose online fashion retailers. Not only my clients pay for my expertise in online fashion, but the marketing is far manageable when you’re a niche player. My website ranks globally on the first page for ‘Fashion e-commerce” and other sets of keyword phrases.
6) Package yourself as a specialist
Let me ask you a question - who makes more money - a general physician or a brain surgeon? You got it. A brain surgeon because he is a specialist. A brain surgeon sees fewer patients and yet earns exponentially more than a general physician, who works with more patients every day and yet makes less money. Why? A brain surgeon is a specialist and general physician is a generalist.
When you start your consulting business, you have to make a deliberate decision that you don’t want to be a generalist. For example, instead of saying I can help you with your digital marketing to grow your business (the general physician way), your clients will see more value in hiring you, if you offer them to grow their sales using Facebook paid ads. In other words, a Facebook marketing expert can charge higher and thus make more money than someone who calls himself a digital marketer. Similarly, a fashion copywriter or a sales copywriter can make more money than a generic copywriter who does all kinds of writing.
7) Getting clients results is more important than getting new clients
When we’re about to start, our biggest worry is how to get clients? Valid concern. But often consultants and contractors get so busy chasing new clients that they forget the most important thing - ‘getting clients results’. How many inches have you helped your clients lose? How many zeros have added to their sales numbers? I am talking about success stories and case studies. In the business of consulting, a portfolio means nothing if there are no success stories. Getting new clients can’t guarantee growth but getting client’s results can guarantee exponential growth.
Luckily, If you follow my above 2 advises of focussing on a niche and becoming a specialist; getting your clients' results won’t be that hard. When you do the same thing repeatedly for clients in the same vertical, you become world class at it. Success stories follow automatically.
8) Separate your business and personal accounts
I have struggled in keeping-up my finances for a long time. I started as a proprietorship firm. I was accepting payments in my savings account and I used to spend money from the same account. I did the same thing with my credit card. I had two credit cards and I was using them randomly for personal and office transactions. I realized my mistake later when I sat down with my CA to file taxes for the first year of my business. There were hundreds of ATM, credit card & online transactions and I had little recollection of why I made each one of them. I couldn't even identify many transactions and didn't know if they were personal or professional? It was one royal mess.
You don’t need to repeat my mistake. When you start, make sure you use separate bank accounts and separate credit cards for personal and office expenses. Don’t mix things up. For personal expenses, transfer a fixed amount from business account to your personal spending account. Furthermore, you can have a 3rd bank account and you can use it as a savings account (never spend from that account). This is the only way you can know your profits, expenses, and do savings. It’s basic stuff. Can’t believe, I didn’t know about it when I started.
9) Prepare yourself mentally & physically
Running a business is tough. It requires mental & physical strength. That's why it’s important for you to keep working on your brain muscles to manage your stress before it manages you. Here is what I do to manage my own stress:
- Meditate: I meditate for 18 minutes daily. Why 18 minutes? Because that’s how long this guided meditation video is. Sometimes, I switch to Sam Harriss’ guided meditation. This morning ritual works like magic and resets my brain every before I start my day.
- Workout daily: I spare at least 30 minutes every day in the morning or evening for running. You can go hit the gym, swim, dance, do yoga or whatever you find most moving.
- Develop a reading habit: There is a direct correlation between the habit of reading books and success. Need proof? Try to find a person who is successful & happy and doesn’t read many books. I am yet to find such a person. I read 30 mins in the morning and then 30 mins before I go to sleep. Obviously, I read longer over the weekend.
“Begin each day by telling yourself: Today I shall be meeting with interference, ingratitude, insolence, disloyalty, ill-will, and selfishness – all of them due to the offenders’ ignorance of what is good or evil.
― Marcus Aurelius, the Great Roman Emperor
10) Fire bad clients
When you get paid to do someone else’s work, it’s easier to fall into the victim trap. You have to deal with thankless clients who have the habit of writing their email subject in upper case (I hate it when someone does that). Everything is marked as urgent and all their task emails end with an 'ASAP'. They are just waiting to be upset about everything and rarely appreciate good work.
Let's not judge them. I am sure the clients I fired had their valid reason to be arrogant and unreasonable. They had pressure from their investors. They had issues in their personal life. Their website got hacked. They skipped their breakfast when they wrote that unpleasant email. Or may be that’s the only way they know to get their work done.
Having worked with dozens of such clients, I know it's always hard to get results to such clients. And on the other hand - the clients whom I have served the longest and delivered the best results are always friendly, reasonable and professional.
So what do I do? I screen my prospect clients from their survey responses and the way they talk to me during the sales call. And after the project is over, if I notice synergies missing, I wait for the right time and fire the client to minimize further damage. Furthermore, I can tell you from my own experience that every time I have fired a bad client, God goes out of its way to ensure I get a ‘nice’ client almost immediately.
11) You don’t have to be an asshole to be profitable
I started my career in business development and got my sales training under some of the most skillful salespeople when it comes to selling software & marketing services. I had weekly and monthly sales targets and almost everything was fair as long as I achieved them. It was OK to lie to a client. It was OK to over promise and under deliver. The delivery wasn’t important, closing the 'damn' sale was. Even though, I always managed to keep my sales supervisors happy but at the personal level - achieving my targets never made me happy. I knew that the way I was selling was wrong and unethical. I changed multiple companies in the process until I joined my last company (before I started my consulting business), where I learned that I need not be an asshole salesman to grow. I learned working there that I could be honest to my prospects and yet close the project at a premium rate because clients value honesty. I don’t need to fake. I can be nice & honest to a client, get them awesome results and still make tons of money.
12) Develop a consistent writing routine
The best opportunities have knocked my door because I have a writing routine. My write-ups got featured by Forbes. I got featured in the management textbooks of Bloomsbury and Fair child publications, which is read in the colleges and universities around the world. I got contacted by Swarovski, Switzerland to work with them and other unicorns offered me some amazing business opportunities. All because I follow a simple routine of blocking 6 hours every week for writing. And see - you have found me today because I spent around 15 hours writing this piece together and if you like it - may be you contact me and we do amazing things together.
There is little value in keeping your knowledge and daily experience to yourself. You forget them and they never see the light of the day. On the other hand, there is an unmatched marketing value when you develop a consistent writing routine. Even if you can spare just 4 hours every week, it’s great. Remember, writing is the easier part of the overall writing process. What’s harder? To sit down on a chair for 2 hours.
And if you think you’re a good writer but just don’t have time for it, let me tell you - it’s easy to never write and tell yourself a story that you are a writer. If you think you can write, just start writing. Moreover, better good writers are also better thinkers. When you learn how to write, you automatically learn how to think clearly - a skill which helps you make better business decisions.
13) How to scale-up your revenue beyond 6-figures
There are only so many clients you can work with when you’re an independent consultant or contractor. And thus, there comes a time when you feel limited in terms of your income potential - when you want to scale-up your growth by being able to work with multiple clients at the same time and go from 6-figure income to 7-figure and beyond.
How do you do that? Build softwares or informational products for your target audience. And that’s the best part of starting a consulting or freelancing business. When you spend so much time in solving problems of the same target audience, you start to know them as well as they know themselves. You know about their problems fears, and desires. You know what keeps them up at night and you know their emotional triggers. Smart consultants know that this knowledge is worth gold. You can use it create million dollar informational and software products. For example, a fitness expert who specializes in helping women in their 40's lose weight and gain muscle can create an online training program. Similarly, a quality assurance consultant can use his knowledge and experience to create better softwares for its target niche.
If you look at my consulting website - I sell ebooks & online courses for online fashion retailers and fellow consultants to increase my revenue potential.
14) Keep working on your communication
I know this is one is obvious but this essay won't be complete without it. Consulting business is a business of communication. It doesn’t matter whether you’re helping your clients lose weight, gain muscle, get secured, make money, save time, etc; your client's perceived and actual value depends greatly on your communication with them -how well you communicate during the sales process to turn them into a client and then how you communicate with them to keep them as a client. The best example is to look at the best doctors - the ones who are most successful and make the most money are the ones who are the best communicators. They have the ability to make a patient feel better just by talking to them during the diagnosis.
If you want to grow your business rapidly, be 'strategic' with the way you communicate with your prospects and clients.
Now is the greatest time to join the consulting & gig economy. Uber drivers are getting paid for taking people from point A to point B; and ecommerce consultants like me who get paid to help online fashion retailers market their ecommerce business. If you’re an amazing photographer or a journalist, you don’t have to go and work with Times of India. You have more options. You can start your independent brand by your own name. Just blog, share and there you go. You might make less money at the starting of the curve but if you get your ducks in a row - you can command more freedom, more money, and more satisfaction by doing something you actually love doing. 20 years from now, the independent consultants and contractors will only have brighter future with more growth options.
I hope you learned something new from this article and that you use it as a resource as you start your own consulting business. If you have any queries, leave them as a comment below and I'll do my best to answer.