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Words of Advice

3 Things I Wish I Knew Before I Started My Consulting Business

I quit my job. I was over it, but on top of that, I had been so checked out at work that I was also afraid that they might fire me. The anxiety of being fired and the sickness I felt from how things were going at work were both taking their toll on me.

Why was I checked out? I had been over it for months. All of “it”. The meetings that weren’t even worth an entire email. The politicking for a raise when I totally deserved it (I was literally told I needed to raise my profile internally to justify paying me more for my work). Not having my work respected by the teams that needed me most. Arguing with colleagues who thought I would take their scolding because they were my superiors—which they weren’t. Having coworkers “tattle” on me because they thought they should have their way when I pushed back on things that were bad for the client.

I was also over my morning commute. I was over my alarm clock. I was over spending 12 hours a day on a job that only paid me for 7.5 of them. And I knew I didn’t have another 30+ years of this in me—at this company, nor any other.

I went to a doctor one Friday night because I had pain that wouldn’t go away. He ran every test he could. He found nothing wrong.

I knew it was stress and anxiety before I got to the doctor. I was just really hoping he found something he could treat.

He didn’t and I was tired of feeling this way. So, I quit my job.

This is when it was supposed to get easier. No boss to ask for a day off to handle family stuff. No showing up to my desk just to be seen, when there wasn’t any work to do. No more people telling me what to do. I was in charge!

Final-fuckin-ly!

And, if I knew then what I know now, me being in charge would have actually been a good thing.

…so why wasn’t it a good thing?

I became a digital and branding consultant (I started before I left my job). I was getting real clients who were paying me real cash to do what I would have done for a friend for free. And these people came to me based on referral. I didn’t know people were paying enough attention to me for me to get referrals.

This alone was enough for me to think I could be in business for myself.

I was good at making websites. I was patient enough to work with rough clients on design projects. And I was good at spending the money that came in. I knew what I needed to know to solve my clients’ problems. But, frankly, I knew nothing about running a business.

I knew how to build the idea of a business. I knew how to present a brand properly. But, I didn’t know how to make sure my money would come in as predicted every month.

Let’s be clear though, I did know how to make money. I just rarely knew how much I’d make before I made it and didn’t have a system in place to make sure I never made less than X amount of money in a month. So, if I wanted to make $3,000 and only $750 came in, I wasn’t always sure why.

However, in this case, I could afford the trial and error. Before I quit, I saved to buy a house. Instead, I started a business. I could live on the inexperienced-entrepreneur roller coaster and I had a great support system that was emotionally sensitive to me throughout this time.

But, if I knew then what I know now, I wouldn’t have been in that space for long—if at all.

There are three key lessons that, if I could go back and make myself understand, I am sure my businesses, brands, and bank accounts would have grown much faster. And with much more stability.

Lesson 1: You already paid your dues. Stop ripping yourself off.

To this day, I shudder when I hear someone say, “I’m just starting out so…” as an excuse to charge less than their worth.

Please, please don’t ever say this to yourself or—worse—a potential client! If you have experience (if you’re starting a new life as a consultant, then you probably have experience) then you are not just starting out. You’ve been doing this work or studying this field for years now. The only thing you might be new at is the stuff your client doesn’t care about, like bookkeeping, opening a business bank account, pitching your services, and any new skills you’re using to run the business.

Whatever the “work” is, you’re not new to it.

In my efforts to not be an entitled millennial entrepreneur, I tried to pay my dues. I took low paying clients, regularly. I let people make me think my prices were too high and took lower than I should have. I over-delivered for prices that, today, aren’t even worth setting my alarm clock.

You probably think that’s okay. It’s not. Not if you’re good at what you do. That’s okay for people who are literally entering a brand new space. If you were an HR professional and now you’re learning how to play guitar and are starting to teach children how to play as well, sure, you’re just starting. Take all the experience you can get. But, if you’re selling your HR knowledge as a consultant, you better charge real dollars (or pounds, or euros, or bitcoin—whatever).

I was so focused on getting eyes on my work that I wasn’t always getting the right amount of money I could for my time and my knowledge. That was my mistake. I even played (and lost) the “I need more followers” game. As it turns out, followers, for me, didn’t translate into money. Selling translated into money. Pitching translated into money. I was so sure that if I had the internet street-cred that my business idols had, I would make whatever it is they must have been making. It was an honest, naive, and very misguided mistake that prevented me from making more money.

The path from consulting to money isn’t a hard one to follow. I made it hard. I made it complicated. I wasn’t relentless about making sure my business was bringing in as much cash as it could. I also wasn’t confident that I could do numbers that I’d never before earned in one month. So, I settled. Frequently.

There were times I just settled for making enough to live on in a month. And yeah, some months I did that, but that meant working at least as hard the next month. I was much more concerned with copying business models I didn’t understand than I was focused on choosing and learning a model that would work for my life. I forgot that I went into business to make my life easier.

Instead I worked all hours of the day, and many hours of the night, just to not make more, per hour, than I made at my last job.

When I look back, it’s so simple to see how I could have done things differently and earned more so much faster. I easily see how, with only 25% percent of the effort I put in to my first year of business, I could have made at least what I made in these first 4 months of the year.

But it would have also helped if I had understood the next lessons as well…

Lesson 2: People wish they knew what I know. That’s why they’re willing to pay.

I grossly underestimated how much I knew. Which is silly because my plan was to get paid for what I knew.

Actually, that’s not fair. I didn’t underestimate how much I knew. I underestimated the value of what I knew.

As a consultant, part of my job was to know things. The other (and most important) part of my job was to get people to pay me to help them understand those things. If you don’t value what you know, you’ll never be compensated properly for it.

“But what if the person doesn’t want to pay what I think I should be paid?”

Great question. Simple answer: First, don’t work with them. Then, fix your branding or messaging so that people with those budgets stop being attracted to you. You’re doing something that makes them think you’ll work with them. Stop whatever that is.

When I wasn’t compensated properly, it was because I was working with people who couldn’t possibly value what I knew at the level I needed to be paid. At that point, they weren’t capable of making the money that this knowledge could make them. So, for them, it might have hurt to pull $75 out of their pocket for a consultation. Especially if they weren’t sure how they were going to get a return on that investment.

Fast forward to two years later when I had a 1-hour phone consultation with a client (it was in the morning, so I made the call from my bed) for $200. They didn’t even use their whole hour. Yes, $200 for 30 minutes on the phone, with the morning crust still in my eyes. And they were wildly grateful for the session.

When you’re so anxious to see money that you’re willing to make a client out of anyone who has a little bit of it, you’re screwed. That’s not setting up a business that’s designed to grow. That’s setting something up that’s designed to struggle. You’re gonna need a lot of those struggle checks to keep yourself from struggling. But, how do you end up in this struggle cycle in the first place?

Usualllllly, it happens because you’re vague about what you sell. You end up taking projects that you and your potential client pieced together (on an awkward-for-you sales call). Now you’re accepting a too-low, made up rate, without even knowing what it will actually take to complete the work.

You don’t have clear services (maybe because you don’t understand what people will pay for, so you keep it vague) and you haven’t created prices that match what you want to bring in (because you don’t think you can “get away” with charging that). Now you have to take whatever work you can get—and it still may not make you the numbers you want to make. Then you start thinking it’s impossible to make what you want to make, so you prematurely pivot and start making changes to your business—but you make the same mistakes post-pivot.

So, maybe you go from being a graphic designer to a web designer. It’s not that people didn’t want graphic design, it’s that people who are willing to spend bank on graphic design are looking for someone who can show them that you can handle working with them. No one charging $100 for a logo is going to get a big name client. It’s too low. And they definitely don’t want to hear from the eager newbie who says ” I can design everything!” and “I have affordable options”.

Those clients don’t want affordable options, they want an expert whose price reflects their worth. If you charge $100, your work is only worth $100. They want something worth more than that.

Your big money client doesn’t want your ability to design everything, they want a high quality graphic for their webinars that make $10,000 a session. If you know what you’re doing, you can turn that into a contracted client who pays you at least $1,000 a month. But, someone inexperienced would probably just be glad to make $50 from that opportunity. Self-induced struggle.

Whether you want to be the kind of consultant who lets people pick their brains for money, or the kind of consultant who also does the work-work, you need to remember there are people willing to pay for your expertise. If you really want to thrive in this game, go be what those people need. Stop trying to be the “I help everyone with everything” person, because then you’ll have to accept the low-ass payments that the “everybody”s can afford.

If I had paired that with this next lesson, I’d have probably been able to make something more of that time I went sorta-viral in my first year.

Lesson 3: There are people who know more than you and can get you where you want to go faster than you can get yourself there.

I did not want to buy coaching. I did not want to buy a lot of courses. I went to every free webinar that I could. And it took me years to get where I now know I could have gotten in months. There was something virtuous in me “making it” without help.

It wasn’t virtuous. It was foolish, silly, and prideful. And it left me spending a lot of time feeling inadequate and earning too little to be proud of myself.

There were people who were exactly where I wanted to be, and were willing to teach me for (what I now know is) a small fee. But I was living in a lack mindset and couldn’t stomach the idea of paying for something I thought I was supposed to innately be good at. I was afraid to let go of the money. I thought I was afraid to trust some “expert” with helping me. The truth: I was afraid that I just wouldn’t get what they tried to teach me. For all that, I could have struggled alone and kept my money.

And struggle I did. Not getting a professional’s help early on may be the biggest misstep I took in business.

I am now very aware that being held accountable by someone who truly knew what they were doing would have skyrocketed my success, my earnings, and prevented a lot of those days of entrepreneur depression days when my self-worth was lost in how much I didn’t make that day / week / month. Those were very low days and I would not wish them on anyone. Anyone.

It’s not just sad to think about (or dangerous to experience if you have emotional challenges that make low days a real threat to your existence). Days like that prevent you from working properly. At that point, I was my business. I was the CEO, the secretary, the mailroom girl, the tea maker, the janitor—the whole damn business.

If I checked out, everything checked out. When you feel like you failed, curling up in a ball may make you feel better, but—if you’re like me—you’ll quickly hate yourself for taking time to lick your wounds when you could be fixing the problem. I was worse to myself than all of my previous bosses had ever been to me—combined. And I had no one to guide me towards the solutions I needed. In moments like that, I thought I’d be better off with a “good job” instead of a business. I can’t count how many times I secretly quit on myself.

Between this wild roller-coaster and unpredictable income, I only got by because I didn’t have kids or anyone depending on me and—THANK GOD—I didn’t have any major emergencies come up that cost me time or money to fix.

I took my laptop on every trip. I brought it when I needed to be with relatives in the hospital. I worked all the time. Sometimes, I was just busy being busy. I wasn’t productive. I had no guidance. I wasted a lot of time trying to feel like I was running a business because I just didn’t know what to do. I needed help.

It was like trying to build a semi-truck, without a manual, and trying to test the engine by driving it, while only making it a few meters at a time—all while only having a basic driver’s permit.

It didn’t have to be that way.

I only know that now. I didn’t know I didn’t have to struggle. I thought struggle was a rite of passage in the entrepreneur game. It’s not. Bootstrapping doesn’t have to come with crying yourself to sleep because you don’t know why your business isn’t growing as fast as it could. And I kept things like that from most people because I wanted them to keep being proud of me. Some days, that was the only thing that kept me going, so I needed them to believe the dream I sold myself.

So, if I could go back. I would walk into my dark bedroom, wipe those tears right off of my face, and tell myself, “invest in the help you need now. Where you can be in three months can keep you from ever having to feel what you’re feeling right now again. And, believe me, this won’t be your last night crying like this if you don’t change things soon.”

Things are better now.

Much better.

I don’t worry like I worried before. I haven’t cried myself to sleep since…I don’t know when.

I’ve hired people. I don’t have to do everything in my business anymore.

I spend money to invest in myself and my business (which are different areas of investment).

I don’t work as hard. I make wayyyy more money. An hour of my time alone costs more than my NYC utilities and cell phone bill.

At this very moment, I work a lot, but that’s because my work is in demand right now with the way the world is in flux right now.

However, just three months ago, I wasn’t taking any new clients—so I could relax and regroup.

Oh! And I recently took a 10-day vacation to Japan—WITHOUT my laptop!!!

I know—for sure—that those three lessons would have gotten me to this place a long time ago. While I don’t live in “regret” about things, I am sure of this: if I was forced to do it all again, I would do a lot of it differently.

Obviously, it’s not impossible to get to a better place the hard way, but after having done it the very hard way, I’ll pass on doing that again.

If you’re thinking about becoming a consultant, because you want to or because times have changed and you have to, please take my advice. It does not have to be hard. It will be challenging, because you will be doing some things you’ve never done before, but you do not have to feel incapable—and replacing your salary doesn’t have to take years.

Value yourself and get help when you need it.

Anything else is in the way.

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