Recently someone wrote me asking for advice on how to break into the world of consulting. I thought the best way to address this was through a post on my personal experience…
When I was 24 I lost my job. I won’t get into specifics, but it was a difficult time because everything I had worked so hard for suddenly seemed to have been stripped away from me. At the time I wasn’t really sure what I wanted to do, but I knew I did not want to put my trust into another corporate experience for a long, long time. I wanted to do something on my own, but at 24 with only a college degree, what could I do? Fortunately I had three primary assets working for me:
1) I had a severance that allowed me a two-month runway
2) I had experience in starting a company from scratch, including the fact that I was fairly in-tune with technology and networking
3) I was located in Washington, DC
The first thing I did after creating a detailed budget for myself was to figure out what I was good at â€“ what value I could provide to a client. At the time, not having any substantial degree or experience, my main value was in low rates (I’d undercut anyone) understanding spreadsheets and some international finance experience.
Since I knew I was going to be sending out a resume to a diverse array of business-types, I created three resume variations, each emphasizing different skill-sets. I also created an online presence for myself, which at the time consisted of a personal webpage that was really an online CV. I also got snippets of business plans and RFPs I had worked on, redacted the confidential information and prepared them as examples of work I had done.
The primary place I sought opportunities was Craigslist. Craigslist, specifically Craigslist Gigs, is great because it attracts lots of contract-type positions and the pool of talent applying is much smaller than say Hotjobs so the response rate is much higher. Through copious research, IÂ was also privy to a number of other niche websites where I could troll for temporary job opportunities, or networking events.Â I also signed up for a statistics class at Johns Hopkins University â€“ a move that would later pay off in huge dividends. At the time, my reasoning was that not only could I ‘bolster my resume’ with more statistics, but saying I was student could open the door to lots of new opportunities. I was particularly interested in the fact that I would get a .jhu email address. I knew firsthand from a previous job the power of parlaying the â€œstarving studentâ€� card. I also joined a number of organizations where I felt the affiliation would bolster my credibility: I joined NetImpact and an Organization for local entrepreneurs and CEO’s.
From there it was just a matter of responding to lots of opportunities. I created template responses I could customize to save me from having to write unique responses from scratch each time.
At first, there was no gig that was too small. I’d write a business plan for a startup, go in and crunch numbers at a non-profit for a week, or even create a power point for for a busy execuitve. Soon however, I began to get some really interesting offers and I ended up with such amazing opportunities as 1) writing a business plan for economic development in south of St. Lucia (sponsored by the government of St. Lucia) 2) working with the executives of the YMCA of America 3) working for a VC helping to structure an acquisition.
Ultimately I ended up as a full-time student at Hopkins getting an MBA, rather than enrolling at SAIS (my original intention). However, my consulting opportunities were so personally rewarding and lucrative that I ended up consulting all throughout the two years of my MBA. When I graduated, knowing that I could survive on my own gave me the confidence to start my own company. However, even if I had not started my own company, my experience consulting definitely would have afforded a business-experience advantage over my classmates. My work also allowed me to experience a number of industries without having to make a long-term commitment in that field. Overall it was one of the best career moves I think I could have made.
Currently if I were just setting out as a consultant, here are a few things I would do:
1) Download and use Skype as much as possible to save money on calls. I would use Grand Central or Skype-Out to have an official â€˜office’ phone number
2) Create a robust online presence. Have a blog with links to a LinkedIn profile, examples of work, etc. Maybe even include some testimonials
3) Set up alerts and use RSS to monitor for interesting opportunities, as they emerge
4) Outsource some of the work, including looking for opportunities to companies mentioned in the 4-hour Work Week
5) Make sure to have a reliable laptop computer. I’d likely stick to Mac
6) Use free applications like Freshbooks and Basecamp to manage clients
7) Make better use of tax shelters for self-employed individuals
Any soloists/freelancers/consultants out there have more tips? Add them to the comments
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