I left my corporate job to become an independent consultant more than 10 years ago. The first morning of my new working life, I woke up and realized I’d entered a brand new world and I wasn’t entirely sure how to get started.
What I learned over those first few days and months was that I needed a specific, tactical plan to move my fledgling business forward (and make sure I could pay the bills). The nitty-gritty of the set up isn’t as fun as the dreaming and strategizing, at least not for me. But these practical elements are essential to getting everything in motion so you can get back to the exciting things like making your first sale and reaching your goals.
If you’re ready to strike out on your own but aren’t sure how to start, here are three steps to get you going.
Set Up Your Business Basics
Determine how you’ll structure your business. You’ll need to decide whether you want to operate as a sole proprietorship, partnership, corporation or limited liability company. Each structure has its benefits and drawbacks, so it is important to get advice upfront about the best way to establish your business.
Every independent worker needs a few key partners. When I started working solo, I relied on my attorney, accountant, and my insurance adviser.
My attorney helped me create my business entity, along with the basic contracts I’d need to work with clients. I needed a way to outline an engagement — the services I’d provide, how to protect myself and detail out the payment terms I’d expect from clients. Some clients will ask you to sign their contracts, but you need your own too.
My accountant helped me think through how I’d manage taxes and financials. There’s a huge benefit to working proactively with an accountant so that you set up your taxes correctly up front and don’t get hit with a big tax bill later in the year. An accountant can also help you think about how to classify business expenses such as networking coffees, meals with clients, mileage on your car as you drive to meetings, insurance, computer and your cell phone.
Insurance might not seem critical right out of the gate, but many clients and partners may require that you’re covered before you start working together. And you don't want to figure this out at the last minute when a client requests proof of insurance. Ask your insurance partner for advice on what types of insurance you'll need.
Setting up these crucial partnerships will ensure your ability to quickly engage with interested clients. And, more importantly, you will immediately give your clients a feeling of trust and confidence that you take this seriously.
Refine Your Story
Once your business is set up, it’s time to tell people what you’re all about. Here’s what I’ve learned about new solopreneurs and consultants: They often fall into the “generalist” trap. They’re eager to get any work under their belt, so they pitch themselves as an “I can do anything” person.
But your prospective clients don't want you to do just "anything." They're thinking about their specific needs and challenges. For example, if you’re an all-around handy marketer/management/consultant, it’s harder for clients to make the mental jump and figure out how to use you.
When you leave a meeting with a prospect, they should know exactly how and when they should call you. If they don’t know what’s unique about you, you’re not going to get a phone call.
One other common mistake I’ve seen: Your real story for clients isn’t your "why." It’s about your "how." Don’t spend 20 minutes of a 30-minute coffee meeting sharing why you’re starting a business. Instead, focus on your how — your expertise and how you can make an impact on a client’s organization in a very specific way.
Make A Sales Plan
Sales! Networking! Two words that make every person I know jump up and dance.
I’m definitely kidding. In my experience, selling is what gives independent workers the most angst and hesitation. Building a sales plan is where the rubber begins to meet the road. It’s scary, especially if you’re transitioning from a job at a big company where you didn’t have to focus much on building your external network.
I felt the same way my first few months working solo. Here’s how I got over my fears: I stopped thinking about “networking” and “sales” and started thinking about how I could connect with people authentically and provide value. In my early days as an independent, I focused on telling my story, meeting new people and listening. That’s a great way to spend a workday, and once I stopped trying to make a hard sale at every meeting, I started building more authentic connections that paid off over time. I also started listening for ways I could help and thinking about how I could be a connector for others. When you pay it forward, the work will come.
When you first start out, your goal is to get the word out, test your message and meet with a broad range of people. Over time you start honing your message and moving towards the right people who can make decisions about engaging your services.
End every meeting with one question: Who else do you think I should meet? Ask for a connection to someone else who could help you learn, build community and refine your message. This will likely result in a warm introduction to a new contact.
To get your business moving in the right direction, your first 30 days as a solo worker need to be structured and strategic. Get a game plan in place, set up your business basics, polish your story and start talking to as many people as possible. Building an independent practice and new revenue stream is a long game and takes not only ambition and creativity but dedication to detail. If you start with discipline and due diligence, the sky's the limit.