(Updated December 2017 to reflect how my strategy for finding new consulting clients has evolved in the past few years. Sorry if some parts feel disjointed.)
I love consulting. I make a good living, I’m rewarded by seeing companies succeed—I’ve seen clients go through two acquisition exits, multiple million-dollar funding rounds, 10x growth in revenue, and more—and I get enough inquiries through this blog and referrals that I don’t face pipeline droughts.
But getting to this point wasn’t easy. It took over a year to learn what works and what doesn’t, and I’m still improving my acquisition strategy five years on. In this article I’ll share practical tips I’ve learned along the way about finding consulting clients.
First, a reminder that there’s an alternative:
Alternative to Finding New Consulting Clients
Although the focus of this article is finding new consulting leads and clients, remember that the best way to get new consulting business is from existing clients.
Can you find ways to be valuable to your clients even after the first project? Are clients satisfied enough that they want to keep working with you? Are you charging a consulting fee that’s proportional to the value you’re providing?
If you can answer “yes” to those, then there’s less pressure to constantly find new clients to remain at capacity, earn enough money, and have your choice of projects.
If you answer “no” to any of those, then work on fixing those things while you’re also looking for new projects so that you’re not constantly looking for new work.
Now, let’s begin…
There was a long winter after I quit my job. Nevermind that it was summer—what followed was three months in which my savings depleted like the fat of a hibernating animal. I was to become an independent consultant.
I spent those three months doing what I thought one does to find clients: network. I went to meetups every week and gave my elevator pitch to anyone who’d listen. It didn’t occur to me at the time that everyone else was there for the same reason. I was pitching marketing services to a lawyer who was pitching legal services to an MBA “ideas person” who was there to pitch ideas to a… It went on and on, and it was ridiculous.
After three months, my savings were running low and I dreadfully considered going back to a normal job.
Then, a friend I made at one of these meetups referred me to a startup that could use my help. A few calls and a meeting later, we had a deal.
It didn’t lead to other clients, but I got two important things from that project: cash and confidence. It was enough money for another three months of runway.
Maybe that was the formula, I thought; meet smart people and take time to form relationships. I spent the next two months taking that approach and it failed, too. The issue is painfully obvious in hindsight: founders don’t have time to schmooze at random meetups.
Major progress doesn’t happen gradually, it happens in sudden leaps.
The next leap came from an inconspicuous comment I made on Hacker News, which led to an email inquiry, which turned into a project, which turned into a long-term consulting relationship.
Things were looking better (in that I had a monthly income), but I still needed to find a consistent and predictable method of getting clients.
The positive outcome of my comment taught me two things:
- Busy people—founders and CEOs—may not have time for meetups, but they sure as hell read Hacker News (or their industry's equivalent).
- Sales pitches are repulsive, but helpful information is attractive.
Thus my next experiment: blogging. Specifically, writing content that could be interesting to prospective clients.
By the way, I write an article like this every month or so, covering lessons learned on B2B startup growth. Get an email update when the next one is published:
To my surprise, it received enough votes to get onto the front page and proceeded to receive ~7,500 unique visitors over the weekend. I thought to myself: If I can bring enough people to an article, some number of them may click through to the homepage, and a small percentage of those might become prospective clients.
Although the majority of Hacker News readers are not in a position to hire consultants and therefore would not convert (ie, contact me about consulting), I only needed a handful of good prospects for this to be a success.
That initial post had nothing to do with marketing, so I don’t think I got any consulting inquiries from it, but the volume of traffic was encouraging. I set out to write at least one new post per month.
Getting to the front page of Hacker News is part substance and part chance, so I didn’t give up when my next two articles flopped, and kept writing.
In June of 2014—a full year after I quit my job—I wrote about a lesson I learned from running an A/B experiment. It received 10,000 unique visits over 3 days. Two weeks later I published another post; it received 15,000 unique visitors over 3 days.
A small percentage of those readers clicked through to my consulting page, and a small percentage of those contacted me for help. Within two weeks I was fully booked for the next six months. I broke through.
Lesson Learned from My First Year Consulting
The strategy of blogging to fill the top of the funnel continues to be effective, for me and my clients.
But the conclusion isn’t that you should blog. The actionable lesson here—for companies, marketers, and consultants—is there’s no magic formula, so experiment faster until you find what works for you.
How I Get Consulting Clients Now
Over the next four years I continued to learn how to get more consulting projects and my strategy has changed slightly. Here is what I do now to grow my consulting business:
Now that I get a steady stream of referrals, I focus on exceeding the objectives and expectations of every project I take on and then I make sure the person who made the introduction knows how well it went.
This results in a win-win-win situation where all three parties involved have a positive outcome: The client gets a solution to their most pressing problem, the person who made the introduction gets credit for helping that company find a solution, and I get a fair compensation plus a great success story to tell.
This creates a snowball effect: The next time the person who made an introduction meets someone with a similar challenge, they can refer me again and feel confident the problem will get solved. Meanwhile, the original client will call on me the next time they encounter a similar problem at their company or elsewhere.
This approach results in fewer leads, but a significantly higher quality of each lead. That works perfectly for me because I’m not an agency and do not need more than a few projects at a time. Plus, because my clients are satisfied with my work they usually renew the contract, so turnover is low and I only need one or two new clients per year to remain at capacity.
Things I Don’t Do
I find the following to be a poor use of time and effort for getting new consulting clients, especially now that I have a referral flywheel and because I look for quality of leads and not quantity. Your results may vary.
- Networking Events - All the networking events I’ve been to are full of people who are just starting out in something or are there to sell their professional services. Everyone else is too busy running their business to spend two hours exchanging business cards and listening to half-baked elevator pitches.
- Participate in marketing or consulting communities - I don’t sell to consultants or marketers, so I know I’m not going to find clients in these communities.
- Partner with agencies or other consultants - Whenever I used to chat with an agency owner, consultant, or freelancer, the topic of reciprocal referrals always comes up. It sounds great in theory—you refer clients to me and I refer clients to you. In practice, this never happens or I haven’t been satisfied with the quality of leads.
- Hound people - The best projects happen when both sides are invested and the project is solving a critical challenge for the company. I follow up at most 3 times because emails get buried in inboxes, but after that I assume there’s no interest or no critical (“hair-on-fire”) problem they need solving.
- Cold outreach - There’s a very low likelihood of finding the right person at the right time, which means this will take a lot of effort to find a good lead let alone a client. Also, sending cold emails reeks of desperation and puts you in a weak position if you ever get to negotiate terms of the consulting engagement.
- Advertising - Why pay for leads when I don’t need to?
- Hand out business cards - If I meet a prospective client or just someone I’d like to keep in touch with, I ask for their email or tell them mine. If one of us can’t be bothered to save an email address and follow up, then why pretend we care.
Getting Consulting Clients from Writing
Writing is still helpful but less for attracting new consulting leads and more for building trust and credibility with people who were already referred to me. The usual scenario is that someone is referred to me, then they find my site to learn more about me. They’re mainly looking to answer two questions:
- Can this consultant help me solve my problem?
- Will I like working with this consultant?
I write articles that are instructive and include examples from past projects so that a) I can help more people (more than I can help at any given time through consulting projects) and b) prospective clients see that I have experience with companies and challenges similar to theirs. If so, they can approximate the high likelihood that I’ll be able to solve their problem.
To help prospective clients determine if they’ll like working with me, I project my working style and personality onto my site and my writing. For example, I value clarity and substance over fluff, so I keep my site simple and my writing to-the-point.
I hope that reading about my process for getting new consulting clients helps you grow your own consulting business!
If you have any questions send me an email or post them in the comments below.
PS - Liked this article? I write one every month or so, covering lessons learned on B2B startup growth. Don't miss the next one:
If you need help with marketing and revenue growth, get in touch.