How to Write a Business Plan for a Consulting Business
If you've found yourself holding a pink slip from your corporate employer or perhaps are just tired of the old 9 to 5 grind, one of the best ways to get back on your feet might be turning your experience and skills into a consulting gig since just about anyone who possesses specialized skills can hang out a shingle of their own. But before you do, you might want to consider taking the time to create a business plan for your new venture, which will not only help you map out the opportunities before you, but also the threats.
While business plans doesn't appeal to everyone, especially if you don't ever expect to raise capital for your business, it can be a critical factor in getting your business off the ground, says Jennifer Leake, a certified management consultant and founder of Consultants Gold, an online community dedicated to helping consultants run their ventures successfully.
That's why, as you get started, Leake offers the following tips for developing a plan:
- Write it! "Putting it on paper requires far more thought than just having it in your head," says Leake.
- Keep it simple so that you revisit it often—so don't make it too long or too complex, she warns.
- Spend the lion's share of your time defining your niche and why you are uniquely situated to serve it. "If you can't succinctly articulate what your business is selling, you'll never get people to buy," says Leake.
- Don't create your plan in a vacuum. "You'll develop a better business plan if you have feedback, and you'll be more likely to take action if you have accountability from mentors, coaches, or success partners," she says.
But crafting a business plan for your new consulting company doesn't mean you should stick to the average template you can find online, as you should spend your time focusing on the elements that most often make or break companies in your industry.
"Writing a business plan for a consulting firm sounds fairly straightforward because there are so many who call themselves 'consultants,' but it can be quite difficult for many reasons," says Michael Hermens, president of Finance Forward, a financial advisory firm in Dallas.
That's why Hermens says that you should focus on four key areas when fleshing out your business plan:
1. Value Proposition
Answer this question: What is your specific value proposition?
"Thousands of ex-IT programmers are now 'Social Media Consultants,' " says Hermens. "What do you do that thousands of other people don't?"
The keys to building a solid value proposition are to give decision makers solace that they made the right decision, he says, which can be done in three ways: 1. Offer a service guarantee, 2. Build and take prospects through a well-defined methodology, or 3. Specialize so narrowly that it is easier to increase your stature. "The challenge with a guarantee is that larger firms don't normally purchase on that basis and smaller firms generally take a service guarantee as a tacit admittance of being mistake prone," says Hermens. "A well defined methodology or approach takes a while to build, but is well worth it for prospects who do not know you. Narrow focus helps potential consultants gain exposure, increased stature helps clients be satisfied with their hiring decision."
Dig Deeper: Nobody Buys a Value Proposition
2. Target Market
Answer this question: What is the best target market for you, or do you hunt every potential client that might possibly need your services?
"Understanding your target market is the most difficult planning activity," says Hermens. But developing an understanding of the competitive landscape is crucial, particularly go-to-market and pricing strategies, as well as the specific problems that the industry or market segment is trying to solve. "Gaining insight into how companies in your industry go to market, the basis on which consulting firms compete, matters," he says. "In strategy consulting, it might be references of former clients or the published knowledge share that gets clients interested. In large IT deployments, it is probably the strength of the methodology. With forensic consulting, your name and personal credibility is a huge selling point." In other words, determining how you should go to market, how (or how much) you charge your clients, and your familiarity with specific industry jargon and problems the industry is trying to solve, are crucial in planning your consulting business, according to Hermens.
One approach offered by Beth Corson, founder of Your FundingKey Advisors, is to choose a few industries and then outline the size and type of businesses that you'd like to work within those industries. "Rather than the desperate approach of taking any client that comes along, be selective and create a clear road map of where you want to go," she says. "Several years from now, your client roster should be fairly close to the plan that you make now. By working with similar clients in a specific industry, your company creates a level of expertise that makes it easier to perform well and get new clients because you understand their unique challenges and how to overcome them."
Dig Deeper: How to Define Your Target Market
Answer these questions: How do you market your consulting business? What tactics do you employ to get in front of decision makers to evaluate your offering?
There's no question that in order to get your new consulting venture off the ground, you'll need to market your skills and experience to potential clients. That can be difficult, though, when you're a sole proprietor, since time spent marketing is time you're not billing for. While you can always hire an outside firm to help, your fledgling business might find the cost prohibitive. The answer, then, is to be creative in finding ways to promote your offering. One way to do that could be through landing public speaking engagements, which can be very effective at promoting your knowledge and point of view on your industry's challenges, says Hermens. Another option can be to partner with other companies that might offer complementary services to your own, a tact that may also help you build experience in new areas. But, at some point, you must develop your own client relationships independently if you want to keep your company growing.
Dig Deeper: How to Promote Your Consulting Business
Answer these questions: If you have employees, what is the best way to deploy them, given the reality of project work? Do you plan to pay them hourly, by confirmed project, or salaried?
"The issue here is how do you leverage yourself to grow revenue?" says Hermens. "Consultants who develop their brand can write books and charge an hourly rate, but they still cannot serve two clients simultaneously. Leverage allows your consultancy to flourish as your company takes on more projects." The key, then, is to think about how you align revenue arrangements with employee compensation and how to pay employees to ensure they are available when you need them by asking yourself questions like: Do you pay a salary and risk a lull in projects? Or, perhaps you pay employees on a project basis, only when they work, risking their availability when you get a new contract? "The goal here is to align revenue with employees compensation in the beginning as your consultancy grows," says Hermens. "Once your business becomes large enough, put key people on a salary, with performance bonuses. They will stick with you, have learned your go-to-market strategy, and know your methodology inside and out."
Dig Deeper: The New Rules of Employee Compensation
Darren Dahl is a contributing editor at Inc. magazine, which he has written for since 2004. He also works as a collaborative writer and editor and has partnered with several high-profile authors. Dahl lives in Asheville, North Carolina.