How to Become a Consultant: Building the Professional Foundation

It's a dream for many professionals – striking out on your own. The bedrock of independent consulting is a confluence of technical mastery, extensive networking, and perceptive judgment. By laying this groundwork, you'll be better poised to tackle the dynamic and competitive world of independent consulting.
Written by
Kim Le
Published on
March 9, 2024

Striking out on your own, wielding the full vastness of your expertise like a sword to carve your destiny -- it's the allure of operating outside the confines of office politics and the autonomy of setting your own schedule and rates. But behind every glamorous consulting venture lies a strategic, deliberate foundation. Lay the groundwork for a thriving freelancing or independent consulting career.

Mastering Your Craft: How Much Experience Do You Need Before You Can Consult?

It takes 10,000 hours of domain experience to become a consultant

Becoming an independent consultant isn't a whimsical career pivot made overnight. It requires time – a significant amount of time dedicated to accumulating both technical skills and, crucially, the soft skills of working within a domain. Here's why a minimum experience level is essential.

The Magic of the 10,000-Hour Rule

If you're familiar with Malcolm Gladwell's theory in 'Outliers', you'll already understand that expertise isn't overnight – it's the result of roughly 10,000 hours of dedicated practice. For consultants, this means at least 250 working days per year, chucking in 8-hour days, in the same domain. Roughly equivalent to 5 years of full-time work, this milestone is where you should aim to establish your deep-rooted professional knowledge.

Why Expertise Matters

Clients don't just pay for solutions; they pay for the confidence that the consultant knows what they're doing. Years of experience bring insight into recurring patterns, the nuances that books can't teach, and the network of professionals that buttress your knowledge with collective wisdom.

Leaping to 10,000 Hours Faster

You don't need to start at ground zero and work your way up for five years straight. You can accelerate this timeline through intense work environments (like hyper growth start-ups) or willingly work an extra few hours each day. Pulling 12 hour days is reasonably sustainable as you start out. If you don't have enough work to fill those hours, take on a side gig, join professional events outside of work, create a project at home, or take additional online classes. Each five-year chunk adds another 10,000 hours in your domain, which means more expertise that sets you apart from other consultants and, theoretically, better rates for your services.

Crafting Connections: Networking to Build a Client Base

Building your network to get clients

"It's not what you know, it's who you know"

The cliché resonates deeply in the world of consulting. Your professional network is your lifeline. Here are ways to craft a strategic one:

Cultivate Long-term Working Relationships

Networking isn't about casting a wide but shallow net. It's about cultivating deep working relationships with individuals likely to be decision-makers within your domain. This means assisting the careers of peers who are on the trajectory of leadership early on when they're just like everybody else.

Trust your judgment, or a trusted mentor's advice, in selecting the projects and teams that align with your long-term consulting goals, so you'll meet the appropriate people along the way. If you're unsure, lean into established networks with high success rates such as employees of prestigious or high-performance companies and universities.

Partnerships Over Cut-Throat Competition

Your peers aren't competitors; they are your future clients. By supporting and collaborating with them, you're investing in your own professional ecosystem. Their success translates to a broader, more interconnected client base for you. When they win, you win.

Exponentially Expand Your Network

If you can get both quantity and quality in terms of professional contacts, then your odds of success as a solo entrepreneur increases significantly. There are multiple ways to exponentially expand your network: job-hop if you're at a small company with low turnover every few years, join a fast-paced start-up with rapid expansion plans, or move internally every few years at a large corporation.

Your career trajectory is a reflection of the choices you've made and the skills you've developed. That comes with constant exposure to new people and new projects. Expanding your network intentionally also forces you to become resilient in the face of constant interpersonal changes, a must have skillset as an independent consultant.

Build Your Personal Brand: Sell Without Selling

When you are providing services as your business offer, clients are paying to work with you. Your personal brand is the company's brand; and a brand isn't built overnight. A person's reputation is built over years of showing up and doing the job, demonstrating consistent value and impact, and being a great person to work with, especially during hard times. Your brand is what sets you apart from your competitors.

Amassing a Reputable Track Record

Your career trajectory is a reflection of the choices you've made and the skills you've developed.  A string of successes is your greatest selling points for when you strike out on your own. If you're uncertain about where to start or how to pick the up and coming winners, opt for the current leaders in your domain, follow their lead. Building a brand based on existing market leaders in your domain is a solid bet for success.

Create and Continually Refine Your Elevator Pitch

An elevator pitch is 30 seconds to a minute overview of who you are, what you offer, and why what you're offering matters. The elevator pitch focuses on developing how you present yourself to potential clients and to other professionals. Your pitch doesn't have to be perfect, but you have to have one. Start with whatever comes to mind, and refine it over time. Use every chance to practice your pitch to someone. As an entrepreneur, whether you like it or realize it or not, you're constantly pitching yourself, your services, to anyone who will listen, even your pet.

Your pitch will evolve over time as you get better at what you do. This ties in to the initial point in this article: to amass 10,000 hours of experience in a specific domain as quickly as possible. Those hours will shape your unique personal brand.

Escaping the Corporate Ladder, Embarking on the Entrepreneur's Path

Both traditional career paths and consulting careers incorporate similar elements, diverging after several years of accumulation. You decide whether to keep climbing the corporate ladder – or to forge your own path, leveraging your domain expertise, relationships, and judgment to build a successful independent career or start-up.

Striking out on your own requires a focus on expertise, relationships, and strategic decision-making. The bedrock of independent consulting is a confluence of technical mastery, extensive networking, and perceptive judgment. By laying this groundwork, you'll be better poised to tackle the dynamic and competitive world of independent consulting.

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