In last Friday's rant, I gave a little bit of autobiographical history about my experience going out on my own. In today's rant, I'd like to continue this thread, talking about why the time is ironically ripe for others to set up shop today and how best to get started. I'll start by relaying a conversation I had last night with a friend, a fellow entrepreneur who has his hands in multiple pies (but makes his core living in a very similar way to me -- selling his own expertise, in his case, as a CFO for hire). He told me the story about a colleague of his, a former corporate finance and CFO type who had just contacted him about going out on his own and to get his advice about Pareto ordering the types of opportunities he should pursue. My friend's advice (which also would have been mine): go after everything. Relentless focus should come later. Get hungry, stay hungry and hunt to kill in the first twelve months. That's the only way to survive regardless of the economic climate when you're starting out.
With advice like this, it might seem like an absurd time to hang your shingle on the small business / firm door. But I actually disagree. I think now could not be a better time to start-out. Consider that job security in many companies -- at all levels -- is at a record low. Executive management, shareholders and even government are taking away our bonuses and raises -- despite the value we can demonstrably show. At least when you're out on your own with a few clients you diversify your risk portfolio a bit. And you can often make a strong value proposition in the early going to current and former employers to hire you in a contractor capacity rather than a full-time one because it will help them out by using a variable cost structure (which they can more easily rein in if need be). I found early on that using the word "contractor" rather than "consultant" helped with my initial few clients. Contractors sound less expensive, even if they're not. There's also an aversion to consultants inside many companies, especially during the downturn (where hiring consultants is often disallowed).
Budgeting is another vital consideration -- not just your own but especially those of your prospective clients. This can be a sensitive topic for many organizations and as a newcomer to your space, it's important to tread lightly but tread you must. Prospects typically remain prospects until they become clients -- the challenge is to know when they're willing to pull the trigger on an engagement and to not oversell or alienate prior to that time. Probe and listen for what they know (and don’t know) they need, ask how they intend to accomplish it and if appropriate design your fit to a solution set. This not uncomplicated process will usually reveal current budgetary intentions. If you can then put forth a meaningful proposal, great. If not, maintain regular contact by informing your prospects what you're up to and use that process to gauge their readiness to engage. Staying in touch and top of mind (through an online newsletter or push-based service for a blog), is essential to the hunt.
This brings me to daily time management. One of the most thrilling aspects of going out on your own is that you decide how to prioritize time. This may sound too obvious, but how you allocate your hours can determine your success. Chances are your likely history of working inside larger organizations has not allowed you to do what you do best at the optimal time of day. You will have more plates and more on them than ever before. Take some time to decide what works best for breakfast, lunch and dinner – not to mention the tasty snacks. Carve out your best time for family, exercise, client development, project management, writing, crystal ball gazing and don't neglect recreation. For example, in my case, I find that I actually do my best writing on a plane provided I've had adequate time to prep and outline what I want to write.
In terms of going out on your own, I gave a few pieces of advice in the original post about the need to be brutally honest with yourself and your core capabilities -- not to mention the importance of lining up your first deal as early as possible. In addition to these pieces of advice, I'd also suggest joining a professional coaching / group support service like Vistage. I skipped this in the early going and I missed out as a result (my wife swears by Vistage as a key growth driver in her business, from sounding board, advice and lead perspectives). I'd also suggest you position yourself as an expert with a unique point of view as quickly as possible and find a soapbox to get up on. Just this month I had a friend, who started a software company, find and close a lead from a blog post that his colleague co-wrote that generated an inbound call. Not bad. But my friend and his colleauge had a point of view in their company from day one and knew the importance of presenting it to the market.
On the other side of the marketing coin, not everyone gets the point of view thing right. My wife had a meeting yesterday with the ring leader of a group of three guys who just hung out a shingle that describe themselves as "change agents". No joke. These were 3 guys (finance, marketing and operations) who lost their jobs and are trying to make a go of it. They want to work with middle market companies that are "ready for change" and that "get it". Don't we all ...