You have skills. You have experience. You have knowledge and expertise and talent.

You're also tired of working for someone else.

So you decide to start a consulting business.

And you're not alone: every year thousands of people cut the corporate cord. But building a successful consulting firm turns out to be much harder than they thought... and for reasons you might not have considered.

So I got advice from Ash Varma, the founder of Varma & Associates, a 25-year old consulting firm. (Ash is also the CFO & COO of Jennifer Brown Consulting and an executive coach for a number of c-suite CFOs and attorneys. So yeah, he knows what he's talking about.)

Here's Ash:

Most people know the "objective" hurdles to building a successful consulting business: capital, support, competition, growth... all the "business" stuff. That list is formidable.

But what about the emotional hurdles involved in starting your own business? Few people are prepared for the magnitude of the emotional challenges they will face--much less prepared to overcome those hurdles.

Here are three:

1. The challenge of defining who you are... and what you really do.

In theory defining yourself and your business sounds easy, but in practice it's extremely tricky.

For example, say you were a lawyer in a big firm. Will you continue in the same practice areas? Or will you need to expand your scope and become more of a generalist?

On the other hand, maybe you liked and did a number of different things--what will you do now? Will you remain a generalist or narrow your focus?

Making that decision can be difficult, but then you'll face another emotional challenge: balancing what you want to do with what you may need to do.

Initially I struggled to answer those questions. I liked doing a number of different things and had trouble deciding how to limit my scope. I was good at putting deals together but could also run companies in the media space... and I also loved working with startups and new ventures.

That led to...

Emotional pitfall #1.

No one tells you how lonely it is to stay mentally focused and balanced while you fight for your first big gig. You know you need to focus on finding and landing the best clients, but at the same time you literally must be talking to anyone you can find so you can actually land paying clients. (If you wait for the perfect client you can easily wait yourself out of business.)

That is emotionally draining--at the same time you're trying to narrow and specialize your scope you also need to broaden and expand your scope just to get your business off the ground. The mental conflict that results is not just tiring but also emotionally draining.

Add to that the fact that even if your family is supportive, they can't really help or assist you. It's all on you--no one, aside from other consultants, can understand and feel your pain.

In the early days of my business I definitely had to do the dance of being broad and narrow(er) at the same time, and it was truly mentally and physically exhausting. You'll need to be patient. You'll need to stay confident. You'll need to be opening to broadening your scope while constantly trying to narrow it.

Know you will face that challenge. See it as a hurdle to overcome--because, in time, you will.

2. The challenge of landing your first big client... and dealing with failure.

How do you land your first big client?

I had cast the net far and wide and I was very proud of the number of potential clients I had lined up. But months into my first year I still had not landed my first major paid assignment.

I did think I had one that was about to close. I spent months on it, crafting it to align perfectly with the client's needs. That led to...

Emotional pitfall #2.

What happens when you get close to landing your first big client?

One, the Inverted 80/20 Rule rears its ugly head. You can do everything you possibly can, but since other parties are always involved (the client, the client's financial resources, the competition... the list goes on and on) you can only impact about 20% of the final decision. (That's not always true, but in complex assignments this is often the case.)

You can do everything perfectly... and still not land the job.

In my case, just days before closing the deal my client informed me they could not go forward. I actually broke down on my couch and cried--I was emotionally, mentally, and physically exhausted. I spent eight months trying to land the deal... but didn't.

No one prepares you for the emotional pain you'll face or for the inevitable self-doubts. (Not to mention friends and family--well meaning, of course--who say, "Are you sure this is the right line of business for you?" or, "Shouldn't you look for something more stable?"

Finding that first big client is tough. Dealing with the emotional strain of failing to land that first big client is even tougher. Know that. Accept that. And learn from every failure. In time, you'll land your first client--and then you'll forget all about the pain you went through.

(Okay, maybe you won't forget... but all those early struggles will seem worth it.)

3. The challenge of building relationships... and keeping them.

Personal relationships can be extremely tricky when you're a consultant.

I often advise my clients--and fellow consultants--to think very hard about doing business with their friends or family. It's almost always a bad idea: there are many opportunities for disappointment and even the loss of the relationship.

But it's also tempting; who knows you better than your family and friends? They're logical candidates for becoming a potential client.

That leads to...

Emotional pitfall #3: The challenge of consulting for friends and family... and what happens when the engagement ends.

The engagement is tricky, but the exit can be even trickier. What were you actually hired to do? How did you do? Was it a success? If it wasn't, was that your fault? If the project didn't turn out--for whatever reason--as you hoped, how do you maintain your existing relationship?

What happens to that?

If everything went perfectly and it's simply time to move on, your relationship might now be even stronger. But, since there are almost always a number of issues and outcomes in flux, there may be some lingering feelings--and not all of them positive.

No matter how self-confident you are, it's natural to end a project wondering if you could have done better or done more. (People with high standards always ask themselves that question.)

It's even more natural to wonder if you truly came through for a friend or family member. And it's natural for those individuals to wonder if you did everything possible to help them. After all, you're family--shouldn't you have gone the extra extra mile?

No matter how hard you try to be objective and professional, working for friends and family is a sticky wicket of emotions at best. Know that going in... or better yet, avoid taking on those projects, especially if the personal relationship you have is important to you. (And shouldn't it always be?)

The bottom line: Many of the emotional pitfalls we face as consultants are a lot like the emotional pitfalls we face in relationships. It's business but it's also personal--because, ultimately, it's you that is on the line: your skills, your experience, your expertise.

Your clients hire you because they trust you--and you naturally want to come through for them. So you will take it personally. You should take it personally.

Know that going in--and then work hard to deserve the trust your clients place in you. That will make all the emotional struggles you may face seem totally worthwhile.

Now it's your turn: what are some of the emotional pitfalls you have faced... and overcome?

Published on: Sep 15, 2014
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