10 things you must know about how to become a consultant

By Neil Patrick

My mailbox is a constant source of inspiration for this blog. And this morning was no exception.

I received a LinkedIn invitation to connect with a chap I knew at university. I was delighted to reconnect after so long, accepted immediately and messaged him to ask what he was up to.

In his message back to me he told me that he would be leaving his employer in a few weeks’ time where he’s been the Managing Director and intended to become a self-employed consultant.

This isn’t an unusual aspiration for senior professionals. After all those years’ experience and rising through the ranks on merit, it’s tempting to think we are well equipped to take on such a career pivot.

I know. I have done it myself. And I learned the hard way that very little of the experience we acquire in a management career actually counts for much when we switch from being an employed executive to a self-employed gun for hire.

But this communication prompted me to think about the things I learned in the process. If you are or are considering becoming a freelance business consultant, these are the 10 things I think matter and which you must address in your plans:

No-one cares what we have achieved in the past. They only care about what we can achieve for them in the future.

Rebranding ourselves as a freelance version of what we were before is a non-starter. Clients don’t value us because of the breadth of our experience and previous seniority. They want one thing (at least initially) and they want an expert at it.

Simply changing our Linkedin profile to show us as a consultant will not get us any attention. We must have a personal media strategy which enables us to be found when people are looking for the skills we have.

What we did five or ten years ago is mostly irrelevant. If we’ve not done exactly what people need in the last few years, that experience is considered pretty much  redundant.

We may think we have transferable skills, but clients do not. Most clients or prospects I have encountered believe that relevant experience of their sector is vital. They may or may not be correct, but few will be persuaded otherwise and they call the shots. So sector specialism is a very wise choice.

We must specialise despite our wide experience. When we have wide business experience, it’s tempting to market ourselves as a jack of all trades. This is fatal – we will be perceived as master of none.

We must be able to solve a problem that is hurting our clients every day. Not a problem we think they have, or the type of work we most want to do; a problem that they know is stopping them achieve their aspirations.

A wide and appropriate network which has goodwill towards us is an essential prerequisite. Just having a website is not enough if no-one ever goes there. The explosion of online content in recent years means that we will never be found by search engines unless we have invested in online content and built social media networks which enable us to be found online. Moreover, the social web and its peer to peer nature means we are judged not so much by what we say about ourselves as by what others have to say about us.

The internet isn’t as clever as we might think. It’s a paradox for sure, but the internet is not yet very good at perceiving fine nuances about people. It’s powered by big data and algorithms. These are good at counting but not so good at interpreting subtle qualitative information. If you or I have 500 LinkedIn connections with really great people who have active goodwill (i.e. they will voluntarily help us) towards us, that’s powerful. If we have 5,000 who couldn’t care less, it’s actually a liability.

We need to have a funnel strategy. Actors and sales people know this well. They accept that one positive result is the normal outcome of perhaps 50 or even 100 auditions or sales calls.

So transitioning from senior executive to consultant is a conundrum. Such a pivot is possible, but it takes time and an effective strategy. Who we were previously and our experience is usually much less valuable than we’d like to think.

I know a ton of other consultants. Some are doing well usually because they have managed to transition from a ‘normal’ job to a freelance/contractor version of the same job. This is not real freelancing in my view – it’s actually a degraded job contract more than anything else.

This isn’t really what I am talking about here. I am talking about those of us who want to create our own true consulting businesses from scratch. Hunting and securing our clients and earning our living based on the success of our work for them.

The harsh reality is that most other consultants I know are finding it extremely difficult to secure good clients, good rates of pay and assignments which last more than a few weeks. The labour on demand model which is becoming the new normal, is making freelancing a very precarious career choice.

Success as a freelance consultant has very little in reality to do with our previous career experience. It has everything to do with our ability to network effectively, build awareness, acquire goodwill. And critically being able to solve a problem that our clients cannot solve themselves. Recognise this and develop a strategy that creates these things and we are half way there.

But half way will not pay the bills. And in my experience this transition takes years not weeks or months. Today I have long standing regular clients that I love working with. They are happy and I am happy. But in almost every case, the initial contact took 3-6 months to evolve into an arrangement whereby the commercials were finalised and the work was underway.

It’s a hard path to follow, but the satisfaction I get from seeing my clients succeed as a result of my involvement makes it more rewarding than anything I have done before.

Better still, because my clients are happy, they recommend me to others and so finding new assignments is never a problem for me.

And I indulge myself in a way I could never do when I had a normal job. Today if I don’t like a prospective client for any reason, I don’t work with them. Period. And that was a luxury of choice I never had before.

I just wish I had known what I know now when I started out.

P.S. Guardian Careers have published some further comments on the subject here. (Although I hope my views are a bit more actionable and insightful!)


  1. Neil,
    I really appreciate your advice based on proven experience and found your blog informative and interesting reading. Thanks again Jack

    1. My pleasure Jack. It all seems so obvious today...but it wasn't to me when I started out...;-)

  2. As a client of Neil's, I can attest that Neil delivers as he has written. He is first rate and weekly finds ways to help me grow my business in a reasonable, manageable manner.

    1. Thank you so much Marcia. Your two sentences are more valuable than my 2,000 words! Now where's that Guide to Concise Writing I just put down...;-)