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So, You Want to Be a Consultant

By Michelle Collins |

Imagine spending weeks immersed in a foreign culture, experiencing the sights, sounds, and tastes that others can only dream about. Imagine someone is paying you to plunge into exotic locales. For consultants like Mike Leslie, this scenario is their reality.

Beyond the dream, the consultancy business presents many challenges. To find out how to meet these challenges and how to be the best in a crowded field, we went straight to the consultants themselves.

1. Focus on a particular area
"If you distinguish yourself with something innovative, then to me that narrows your field of competition because there's a smaller percentage of consultants. There are a lot of generalists, but there are very few specialists," says Joe Zaccaria, consultant and owner of JAZ Consulting Limited. By avoiding what he calls "a laundry list of services," the security specialist can separate himself from the pack and focus on what he does best.

This niche also allows you to identify a need for your services, as Michael Leslie, president of Nakodo Consulting, can confirm. "Large corporations have their own export people; small corporations can't afford me. I niche very tightly into the SME category, for example, somebody already exporting to the US," he says.

Undecided about where you fit? Design your own niche. If you run your own business, you set the rules. Pat Bolger did this when he started Bolger and Associates. He offers his expertise in both the environment field and the health and safety field.

2. Market your skills
Most consultants start their own business after years spent working in a particular sector. A Canadian Association of Management Consultants report on the industry shows that over the past decade a greater number of smaller companies have been emerging. With this in mind, you have to determine how your unique skill set can become a must-have for potential clients. Why should they hire you instead of the competition?

Bolger says his experience working on six different continents is one of his most valuable selling points. Through this experience, he has learned how to deal with environment issues and health and safety issues from different perspectives, including rich and poor nations and extreme weather conditions.

3. Where the clients are
So you've found your niche and identified what makes you the best. Yet you're still not busy with calls and faxes and e-mails. Perhaps you aren't looking for clients in the right places. It's time to network.

Bolger, Leslie, and Zaccaria all list networking and referrals among their top ways to get more work. Yet each approaches the task differently. Bolger finds belonging to a variety of industry associations is beneficial, while Leslie relies on client word-of-mouth. "I'm very focused on one-on-one targeting of potential clients. I also realize that unless they succeed in Japan, I'm not going to. Happy clients mean referrals; unhappy clients mean you're in trouble," says Leslie.

As for Zaccaria, he finds solutions to potential barriers—competing with former RCMP officers, and establishing his name after emigrating from the US. Rather than going head-to-head with competitors, he approaches them to propose a partnership of expertise. "I consider each one of my colleagues as a potential source of consulting revenue. What I've done is taken a list of some of the top consulting people in Canada, and I've offered my expertise to them and proposed partnerships. That has opened some doors for contracts that I wouldn't have had."

4. Financial expectations
You won't spend all your time travelling the world, or inventing ways to keep criminals at bay as Zaccaria does. Much of your work will be unpaid marketing and administration. Setting rates that allow you to make a profit and accommodate this unpaid work can be challenging.

Zaccaria bases his rates on a particular formula. Estimating that he will accumulate 1000 billable hours over the year, he calculates how much money he needs to maintain his current lifestyle, including both personal and business costs. From there, he determines a standard rate.

While you can determine your rates on a weekly, monthly, or yearly basis in many ways, your ratio of paid and unpaid work is likely to fluctuate depending on several factors. These could include client demand, your history and track record, and geographic location.

Bolger breaks down his time like this: 60% on billable time, 20% on networking, 10% on administration, and another 10% on professional development. Leslie splits his time into 40% consulting and 60% marketing. "It's a feast and famine kind of thing. What happens is that for a month I'll go out and look for work, and then all of a sudden I'll get three contracts at one time. I'll be so busy only doing that, I'll finish the last one and realize that I don't have any more work, so I have to go back out and prospect again. It's quite seasonal," says Leslie.

5. Best the competition
While you can expect competition from both the major consulting firms and independent practices, there may be some competitors that you weren't expecting.

For Zaccaria, our security consultant, competing with RCMP officers has been challenging. "That's a big problem here in Canada because a lot of the consultants in this market are retired RCMP members; they receive a pension; they're not running their business as a business. That's very tough for me to compete with because I can't work for the rates that they work for."

The way to get around this? Create quality work that convinces your client they would be crazy not to hire you. "When you put our reports side by side, there is a world of difference, because I've dealt with international organizations and Fortune 500's, and that's the level of reporting that I provide."

While Leslie says he doesn't see much competition from other consultants, export brokers are a different story. Brokers will take possession of the goods and go out and find a Japanese buyer for them, taking a commission from the sale. Leslie acknowledges this method probably means more business for the brokers, yet it also puts them at a disadvantage. He turns their disadvantage into an advantage for himself. "From day one, I've never [taken possession of goods] because it excludes you from doing work for other people. [Brokers] eliminate a number of clients, because they can't work with any competitors from that day forward. Once you're handling one cookie manufacturer, another cookie manufacturer won't talk to you."

Canadian, Eh!

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