Ten keys to building a successful consulting business

In my 35 years as a professional in human capital-related roles, I have found a strong correlation between those who are employed “intrapreneurs” and those who are successful consultants.

One definition of intrapreneurship from Wikipedia is, “…refers to employee initiatives in organizations to undertake something new, without being asked to do so. Hence, the intrapreneur focuses on innovation and creativity, and transforms an idea into a profitable venture, while operating within the organizational environment.”

In my experience as a consultant and watching other consultants, key success factors for starting and growing a successful consulting business include the following basics:

  1. Planning and preparation – Consulting should not be a knee-jerk decision. One needs to give it careful consideration and if he/she decides to pursue such a pathway, they need to plan and prepare before they leave employment. There are contacts that can be made and other preparations made without compromising or conflicting with one’s current employment.
  2. Reputation and existing and new networks – As you move into consulting, keep in mind how important your professional reputation is. Don’t burn bridges as you leave employment. Leverage all the successes and experience of your past employment. As part of key factors below, document a comprehensive list of your network – categorize them by how well they know and can testify to your work and by the market(s) they work in or may be able to influence. Identify any that may be potential clients, references, or referrers.
  3. Starting with strengths – One needs to do an honest inventory of their strengths: skills, knowledge, experience, expertise, etc. This should direct the market analysis – one should start with strengths in which they may have competitive advantage. Diversify and broaden the work you pursue as you develop a track record as a consultant.
  4. A market analysis – Based on your strengths, identify what types of consulting services, industries, organizations, regions, etc. are your best bets as markets to pursue. Keep focused on your strengths and the markets in which you would have the best competitive advantage. Based on your strengths and best opportunity markets, identify key existing and new contact and organizations you need to connect with.
  5. Working hard – Lazy, non-self-motivated employees make for unsuccessful consultants. Expect to work hard, put in extra hours, be flexible, and have the capacity to respond fast and nimbly to opportunities and client requests.
  6. Customer service – Good communication skills, customer service skills, tact and professionalism go a long way in making a good impression when developing new business and when executing a consulting project. The opposite can limit repeat business and hurt your chances of developing new business.
  7. Repeat business – As you start to take on and successfully complete consulting projects, do not under-estimate the importance repeat clients – they will be your bread and butter, a solid base of continued work, and will also lead to referrals to other potential clients/projects.
  8. Self-promotion and marketing – As you get projects under your belt and have satisfied clients, leverage those to promote yourself to past and potential clients and others. This shows confidence and starts to brand you as a “go-to” contractor.
  9. Clear Mission – Don’t under-estimate the importance of a clear mission statement for your business – if you cannot tell someone the essence of what you do and have to offer in a sentence, you are not clear on your mission. Your mission may evolve and change over time, but as part of your market analysis, come up with a clear initial one.
  10. Have a clear business model/financial plan – Talk to experienced consultant friends; do some research; make sure you are competitive within your market; consider small discounts due to being new in the business, but remember your perceived value is related to your price.

Keeping in mind my original point, creating and building a successful consulting business is a lot about the basics. If you have reflected the above traits as an employee, you should be able to capably translate them into a successful consulting role. Good luck!

Kerry Jothen is CEO of Human Capital Strategies, a successful human resource consultancy in its twelfth year of business. For more information, see