Words of Advice

Why Most New Consultants Fail in their First Six Months

Let's take a look at how most people start consulting businesses and then let's look at the right way to start a consulting business.

When I was in high school, several of my teachers told me that college would be so hard that I shouldn’t expect As. When I started getting Ds in my college algebra class—a subject I normally ACED—I thought that’s how it was supposed to be.

When I saw the class getting tough, I let myself believe college had finally caught up to me and I was doomed to fail this class.

Eventually, I shook that shit off and realized my grade was very much in my control. I got a B in the class, but I know that if I hadn’t have let people into my head, I would have gotten an A.

In the personality quiz I built to help people see what their consulting personality type is, I asked people how much they think they’ll make in their first 6 months in business. Most of them selected “I think it’ll take more than six months before I’m profitable.”

quiz question screenshot

The lowest option was 5K and I still wasn’t surprised to see people didn’t even think they’d make that much in 6 months.

It’s because people say things like “it takes years before businesses are profitable”. But, the question wasn’t how long will it take for you to be profitable, the question was how much do you think you’d make. They chose the answer that matched what they’ve heard before—even if it wasn’t what I’d asked.

What I was really testing there was how much people believe they can make money at this consulting thing in a short amount of time.

There is no reason that you can’t make 5K in 6 months. There are plenty of reasons why you might not, but most of those reasons have to do with your plan (or lack of a plan) and little to do with whether it’s been 6 months or not.

The people with no plan, who don’t believe they’ll make 5K in 6 months, will probably still struggle to make 5K after 12 months.

It’s not just about how long you’re in business. It’s about what you’re doing with that time. Are you on social media growing your following? Are you diligently putting together a professional website? Are you on the phone with potential clients? Or all of the above?

There actually is a right answer—and it’s not “all of the above”. Two out of three of those options aren’t a great use of your time.

But you probably said “all of the above” because someone—who has probably never had a business—made you feel like those options were all the best answer.

And this brings me to the point of this writing. There is one way your consulting business is likely to go in the first 6 months—the way most new solopreneur businesses start. Spoiler alert: this is a story of struggle. But there’s another way—a much better way—that it could go if you had a wise game plan. I’ll show you that one later.

Let’s walk through the example that’s most likely if you attempt starting a consulting business without a game plan.

Month 1: “I’m figuring it out…”

This is a really exciting month. You’re full of hope and you believe you can do this—as you should. You’re trying out what other consultants and people in similar spaces to yours are doing. Maybe making YouTube videos or testing out how to do a webinar.

You’re putting together really slick looking social media posts and using cool automation software that posts to your accounts for you. It’s all going smoothly and you’re really happy with how this feels. However, it would be nice if your friends were sharing more of your posts. This is your new business, after all. They could be a little more supportive.

It’s okay though. You got this.

Month 2: “This is harder than it looks…”

After your first month of creating content and working on your online brand, you still haven’t earned any money. You weren’t expecting to make much your first month, but that was a lot of work to not see any income. You vow to work harder this month.

You had a few people seem interested in working with you, but they didn’t turn into clients. Not a big deal though, you’re working on a proposal for a new potential client and you’re really excited about it. It’s clear that this person is serious about working together—especially after that 1 hour and 22 minute consultation you had. You know they’re sold and this proposal is just a formality.

You keep on trucking with your social media posts. Although social media is not how the potential client you’re writing this proposal for even found you in the first place, you know more clients are out there and you need to stay relevant on social media to find them.

Month 3: “Do…I smell bad?”

You’re not asking that because you’ve been working so much for the last three days that you haven’t showered. You’re asking that because you’re three months in and you still haven’t gotten a real client.

You did some work for a friend of yours because they really needed your help and you really needed a testimonial, but you’re not even close to making what you wanted to make this month—if you’ve made anything at all.

That proposal you wrote last month was perfect, but they never got back to you. You called to see if they got it, but it went to voicemail. You left a wonderful message, but still nothing. Not even a text.

Maybe it’s time to go back to the drawing board. Something isn’t working.

Month 4: “I knew I could do this!”

Finally! A real client. And they’re really excited to pay you and work with you! This is a dream come true! In fact, if you had three more clients like this, you’d be able to replace the income you used to make with ease. This is how it’s supposed to be.

“Finally, it’s working out for me!”

Month 5: “I don’t get paid enough for this ish

You’re grateful—very. You’re actually working from home and have a paying client. So, this isn’t a “complaint”. Howwwwever, this client wants a lot of work done and, even though it’s nice money, this doesn’t pay all your bills. You didn’t work this hard for this money at your last job. At least when you were putting in extra hours, you made 4 times this much.

Is it possible you oversold them (because you were making up services based on what you thought they’d pay for) and now you’re working your ass off to make them feel like they got their money’s worth?

Month 6: “Is it weird that I feel trapped?”

So, you found a couple new clients. They don’t pay anything like the client you have, but its still nice to be working with someone else.

You’re learning not to get so worked up over everything your bigger client says and does. If you don’t jump to answer every email they send as soon as they send it, and finish the work you have in front of you, you realize you’re a bit more productive. Your relationship with their project is getting easier, but you can see this isn’t your ideal client and you’re not sure you want to continue working with them all year…

But this is your biggest money maker. How do you leave this client without a better one up ahead?

Let’s assess this, shall we?

So, let’s recap. After 6 months, you’ve just about made one month’s salary. You’re not totally happy with how this is working out. And you want to break up with your biggest client with no replacement in sight.

For someone with no training and no guidance, this really isn’t that bad. Obviously, you didn’t meet your goal, but it is commendable that you essentially made money out of thin air.

If you think it has to take more than 6 months to become profitable, it’s probably because this is the route you’d take. Without training or a plan, you’d have no reason not to get stuck with clients who aren’t a match for your income goals. You can learn how to put together a solid plan here.

The mindset that leads to this is the belief that you’re lucky for anyone to want to work with you in the first place, so you think you have to say yes to everyone. The amount of time you spent, on that client who wasn’t a fit, probably wasn’t worth the money you made. But, because you believed you had to struggle, you struggled.

Sadly enough, that example is what many self-made entrepreneurs are living (even if they’re not telling you). Now, let’s take a look at what your first six months could look like if you don’t make those same mistakes.

Month 1

This is still a really exciting month! You’re full of hope and you know you can do this—as you should. You have a plan for how you’re going to get your first few clients and you’re creating content with the intention of helping them see your value—not growing a large following of people who are only mildly interested in what you do.

Month 2

You’re getting positive feedback about your content and you’ve had a few consultations. They’re a little trickier than they seem, but you were smart about keeping the call short and sticking to the script.

One of the people you spoke to flat out told you that they couldn’t afford you, but would love to work with you when they get the money—they never told you your price was too high (because you were great as communicating the value of your service).

Another person is pretty set on working with you. I guess you’ll know for sure once they pay the invoice you sent them.

Month 3

It’s funny, even though you weren’t trying to grow your social media following, your numbers are growing and your engagement is on fire! Looks like someone already learned not to chase vanity metrics and is using all they’ve learned about building connections to grow online. Lit!

The invoice you sent last month was a win and you landed your first proper client! In fact, client number two just signed on and you have a call with a pretty enthusiastic potential client later on today. Things are looking good. It might be time to get a part-time assistant to help with a few things…

Month 4

You were right about the assistant. It’s not that you’re swamped, it’s just that it doesn’t make sense for you to manage so many of the small things your clients needs when you should be doing bigger picture things, like pulling in more clients. You have a solid 3 clients right now and you’ve actually hit your monthly income goal, but you know you need to make sure clients are always coming in—just in case some decide to move on.

Month 5

Can you call it? Or can you call it? Client number 2 hit a snag and they need to cut their expenses—a.k.a. stop working with you.

That’s fine. You’ve kept your eye on the prize and continued to get on the phone with new potential clients. To be fair, you didn’t talk to as many as you’d have liked. There just doesn’t seem to be time between the clients you already have and the effort it’s been taking you to schedule more appointments. Maybe you should hand some of this off to your assistant, too.

Either way, you’re confident another client is going to sign before the month closes.

Now you have to ask yourself: do you hire another person to help with some of the work (things a little above your assistant’s pay grade) so that you can stay ahead of client work and bring in new clients at a steady pace? You look at the numbers you’ve set and you make your decision.

Month 6

You put the feelers out for someone who can help you with some of your work and you found a gem! Because you’ve been so clear about what you do and what your goals are, it wasn’t hard to identify those who might be a good fit from those who were never going to be an asset to your budding team. They came on board just in time! Client number 4 signed on and, client number 5 is signing as we speak.

Sound too good to be true? If you aren’t trained to grow your consulting business this way, then it is too good to be true.

Here are the three biggest differences between example 1 and example 2:

  1. In the first example, you’re imitating what you think other consultants are doing, without knowing why they’re doing any of those things. You don’t have a strategy and don’t truly understand how to make people interested in what you have. This is why you’re depending on friends to share your posts. In example 2, you trained for these kinds of conversations—online and offline—so you’re attracting people to work with you and don’t have to sell so hard.
  2. In example 1, you’re prepared to settle for clients who don’t meet a specific criteria. This creates a dynamic where you scramble to keep the client happy. You’re working with such a variety of needs that you’re attempting to solve problems outside of your wheelhouse for clients who think they’re doing you a favor by working with you. In example 2, you understand your clients’ problems better than the clients do and you’ve designed your service for that specific type of person. So, by default, your service is going to keep them happy.
  3. In example 2, you have a system in place to bring in new clients smoothly and help your clients solve specific challenges. You also have a system for measuring how successful they your business is financially, so you know when you can afford to bring on help—which is usually way sooner than anyone living example 1 would think to hire someone. That’s because, in example 2, you’re building a business that’s designed to grow and you know that there’s a limit to growth as a one-woman-show. People who live example 1 don’t understand that it’s usually better to do less work and take a slight smaller salary, per client, while working with several clients, than getting the entire salary that comes with working with only one client.

Getting the results described in the second example takes understanding and clarity that we don’t just naturally have. It takes experience and/or education. Without those:

  1. You’d never know where to look for clients in the first place. So, you wouldn’t be signing people at this speed.
  2. You wouldn’t know how to sell people on your services, so you’d be on the phone for hours without getting people to commit.
  3. You’d still think social media is the silver bullet to getting people to buy from you, without a strategy for saying anything other than “check out my new service!” No one cares until you show them why they should.

This probably all sounds harder than it is, but really, most people just need a cheat sheet for doing this the right way.

I’m going to do a free talk / webinar / online speaking thing where I discuss what you need to build your consulting business plan I’ll talk you through everything you need to build the kind of plan that keeps you on track to meeting your income goals, creating a criteria for who you’ll work with, landing clients that meet your criteria, and finding those clients in the first place.

I’d encourage you to bring a pen and paper so that you can write down real notes, because, if you have any interest in consulting, you’ll want to grab these gems.

Request an invitation here.

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