How To Survive Your First Year In Business As A Consultant

Here's an inside look at best practices for staying successful (and sane!) as you get your consulting practice off the ground.

So you finally took the leap and started a new business providing professional advice to individuals and businesses in your area of expertise (e.g., business, sales, marketing, public relations, accounting, technology, legal, etc.). Congratulations! You’re in for the adventure of a lifetime. But don’t underestimate the challenges: The work is hard, the hours are grueling, and if you don’t stay focused and organized, you could fail.

“Getting started is the hardest part,” says Elaine Biech, author of The New Business of Consulting: The Basics and Beyond. “Surviving your first year isn’t as much about the work you do as it is about the way you run your business and the way you take care of yourself.”

Biech says working for yourself is a dream come true, but the demands it places on you can be overwhelming if you’re not prepared. You need to form good, sustainable habits right off the bat. In fact, it’s your habits that will make or break your new business. They ensure that your business runs smoothly and help you make the best use of your time.

Here are a few tips to help you get started on the right foot.


Manage your physical and mental health

1. Establish a healthy lifestyle now

It’s not easy to eat well and exercise when you’re working 60 to 80 hours a week. If you don’t make it a priority right now, you’ll find yourself grabbing fast food and living at your desk. The first step is to get mindful: Do your eating habits need improvement? Schedule regular exercise (even if it means adding a 20-minute walk to the end of your lunch break). Also get plenty of sleep both at home and on the road, with the help of an eye mask, cozy pajamas, and earplugs if necessary.


2. Find ways to manage stress

Take note of what causes you stress and be sure to mitigate those factors as much as possible. For example, if you feel under siege from being on several conference calls back to back, spread them out over the course of a week. It’s also wise to have a game plan for dealing with stress when it does strike. Create a routine to help you relax and wind down, whether it’s practicing yoga, going for a long walk, or meditating.


Manage your time

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3. Prioritize big projects

Work on several large projects rather than dozens of small projects. You use a great deal of time traveling from one client to another, remembering names, and getting up to speed on a project. Biech advises focusing on large organizations (think Fortune 500 companies). They have more available work, greater ability to pay, and more chances for repeat work.


4. Do the hardest tasks first

Do some tasks challenge you more than others? Do you sometimes feel uncomfortable? Do you feel unqualified to complete an action? Well, get used to it. You will be expected to do many things that are not easy. Suck it up. Just do it. Do the hardest thing first. Imagine how good you will feel when the hardest one is over for the day.


5. Manage cash flow with timely invoicing

“Timely invoicing is the only solution to cash flow dilemmas,” says Biech. “To be paid, you must invoice your clients in a timely manner. The same day isn’t too soon. In the beginning, it is likely that you will not have staff to invoice your clients; it will be your job. Keep an invoice template on your computer for clients who will incur repeat billings. Keep a generic template for all the rest. It saves the time of starting a new one each time.”


6. Adopt some time management best practices

Set your priorities first thing in the morning; identify your best time for writing,  client calls, and so forth; use waiting and travel time to make lists, listen to podcasts, review your finances; handle each piece of paper only once; set deadlines; take short breaks often; minimize interruptions; set deadlines.


Establish good business habits

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7. Charge what you are worth

Know what you are worth and make that amount your rate. If you are not currently charging what you are worth, make adjustments sooner rather than putting it off. (Just give your current clients a six-month advance notice before changing your fee structure.)


8. Track your spending

Track expenses carefully either with an app or begin with a simple filing system for paper receipts. (No, your pockets do not qualify as a good filing system.) This ensures that you will always know where the receipts are located when you are ready to prepare an invoice.


9. Market all the time

Marketing ensures that you maintain an adequate flow of clients to keep you in business. In the beginning, you may need to market yourself tirelessly. The great news is that there are plenty of marketing tactics that are simple to execute and either free or very close to it. “Every experience with every client, every conversation with a colleague, every visit to a professional meeting, every comment to a friend is a marketing event. As a consultant, you are always selling yourself,” adds Biech.


10. Delight your clients

Always provide more than you promise. Build trust by being transparent, accurate, and dependable. Send them books or articles you think they will enjoy. Mail them greeting cards for no particular occasion. These are all ways to let your clients know that you value them and their business. Your projects will end, but the relationships will continue.


11. Add copyrights to all original documents

“There may come a time when you will find your original work floating around in an organization or being used by another consultant,” says Biech. “If your integrity is ever questioned, a dated copyright on your material protects you and your work.”


Take advantage of being your own boss

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12. Create balance in your life

Once you become your own boss, figure out what’s most important to you and make time for those things. Maybe it’s family, or spirituality, your social life, or even elements of the work itself. The key is to arrange your life so that no important part of your life is overlooked in the name of work.


13. Create your own rules

This helps you maintain the balance you strike between work and the rest of your life. Create rules that hep you keep your business in perspective. Tell yourself, If it’s not done by 6:00 p.m., it can wait until tomorrow. Or make it a rule that you always spend Saturday morning with your children.


14. Make working from home enjoyable

Take a walk in the late afternoon; eat lunch on your picnic table in the backyard; work from your deck while you enjoy a glass of iced tea; go for a midday gym workout.


15. Identify hobbies outside of work

Don’t let work consume your entire life. Make time to take up a new hobby or learn a new skill. Go hiking. Take a gourmet cooking class. Write poetry. Refurbish a classic car. Study your heritage and develop your family tree.


“Your first year of consulting will be a time of tremendous change and growth,” concludes Biech. “Help yourself along by forming habits early on that will help you succeed. The more initial effort you put into setting up a thriving business now, the more you can enjoy your work life in the years to come.”


Elaine Biech is the author of The New Business of Consulting: The Basics and Beyond. As a consultant, trainer, and president of ebb associates for more than 35 years, she helps global organizations to work through large-scale change and leaders to maximize their effectiveness. She has published 85 books, including the Washington Post #1 bestseller The Art and Science of Training. She is the recipient of numerous professional awards and accolades, including ATD’s inaugural CPLP Fellow Honoree, ISA’s Broomfield Award, and Wisconsin’s Women Entrepreneur’s Mentor Award. Learn more at elainebiech.com.


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