I'd never describe myself as an expert in consulting. Most of what I know, I've picked up from some incredibly generous friends in the profession, a few books, notably a couple by Alan Weiss, and a lot of trial and error. Even so, I'm regularly asked by friends and ex-colleagues how they should go about setting themselves up in consulting. Increasingly, I find I'm asking six simple questions of them to help them decide if it's really what they want to do.
1. Do you mean consultant, or do you mean interim?
I tend to enjoy both types of assignment, but there are big differences. An interim works for the organisation, usually on a day-rate in a well defined role, bringing in-depth relevant experience, often picking up line responsibilities while delivering to a flexible brief. A consultant works with the client to a defined scope, as a peer, and brings specific knowledge, resources and expertise with them, to help a client move forwards in a specific area. Some personalities and CVs lend themselves more to one market than the other, the main practical difference, in my experience, is the need for selling.
2. How well do you sell?
To be a good consultant you have to be very good at what you do. But in order to be a successful consultant, you absolutely need to be able to sell. Most people can learn to follow a sales process, but as a core part of the business model, if you can't enjoy it and get passionate about finding ways to help those prospects you meet, then you're not going to enjoy, and be passionate about a life in consulting. In contrast, as an interim, there are some fantastic interim agencies and networks (start with those members of the IIM) whose job it is to find you opportunities in the market, where the client need is usually well defined, well understood, and the only thing you need to sell is your track record and personality at interview.
3. Do you like to network?
To make it as a solo practitioner, your network is essential. A real network isn't just names on Linkedin, it's people who know you, trust you, understand what you bring, and wouldn't think twice about asking your advice or offering you help. You need to nourish and grow your network continually to be successful. If you're uncomfortable asking family and friends to make introductions for you, you either need to get over it, or get a more conventional job.
4. How do you take rejection?
No sales process is flawless, certainly not when you're first starting out. Through practice and study you can learn to improve your conversion rates, but I don't know any consultant who gets 100 percent (in fact, I don't know many that get much over 60 percent). Is that going to be an issue for your self confidence? Likewise, even the most seasoned interim will relate tales of assignments that have finished early, been canned part way through, or even the occasional one that has just gone really well, leaving them feeling a bit rejected when it came to an end. Going from one assignment to another means lots of endings as well as lots of beginnings, and often lots of anxious gaps in between. That doesn't everyone. Would it suit you?
5. How much money do you have?
Some people leave a corporate job, with lots of contacts, a strong line into their previous business, and a diary full of work. But many don't, and most of those lucky ones will, at some point, find themselves coming out of an assignment with 'nothing immediate, but a few things on the horizon'. In the mean time, you need to live. My advice is that you need to have at least nine months', if not 12, of cash cover to be secure enough to walk away from the wrong kind of work, and give your start-up every chance to succeed.
6. Why do you ask?
Asking successful consultants why they became consultants can be quite insightful. Nine times out of 10, it's because they were pushing away from something, or being pushed. In fact some of the most successful and highly regarded consultants I know started out in consulting because they were made redundant, or given the boot by their employers, and they thought they'd give it a go. Why you choose to go into solo practice seems to make absolutely no difference to how well you'll do.