5 stupid things I did to get clients when I started my consulting business

5 stupid things I did to get clients when I started my consulting business

Apparently I hit a nerve with last week’s 3 Huge Mistakes post: a lot of you said you’ve been wasting time on busyness instead of business, and as a result haven’t been able to get clients. In today’s post, I’ll share 5 stupid things I did to get clients when I started my consulting business.

We all make stupid mistakes, and few “gurus” and self-proclaimed “experts” talk about their failures. Why not? Well, who cares whether an “expert” talks about their failures? What you care about is how YOU can achieve your dreams, your goals, your “secret plan”. (Yes, I bet you have a secret plan. For many of you, that may be quitting your day job.)

I’m not afraid to talk about how I’ve failed, because I know that many of you have experienced the same things. Yes, it can be embarrassing. But it’s also liberating, because we ALL fail sometimes.

And failure is actually a step toward success.

So long as you don’t crawl under a rock in abject shame after failing, you dust yourself off, and figure out what the lesson was. Then you go out and do things a bit better.

5 stupid things I did to get clients when I started my consulting business

Yes, there were a lot more than just 5 stupid things I did when starting out, but I’ll limit this post to the top 5.

Here they are:

Stupid thing #1: wasting time on marketing materials

I had some pretty novice ideas about how to get clients when I started out, and I pursued them in earnest.

I created a brochure, a business card, and a website. But I didn’t draft anything quick and start getting feedback. Nope.

Instead, I spent about 3 MONTHS drafting copy for them, and hired a graphic designer to help with the layout. I revised the copy, the wording, the layout, the fonts, the colors, even what the bullet points looked like.

I showed it to handful of close friends, got feedback, and kept revising and tweaking. (Never mind the fact that no one who I showed these things to were in my market, and therefore had no idea what my prospects cared about).

So, yes, I spent a solid 3 months on these things.

And those brochures? I only sent out a couple dozen, and of those, I never called to follow up.

Completely stupid.

I had no idea about marketing channels when I started out.

Now that I’ve learned from my mistakes, I’d ask my newbie self questions like:

  • Where were my prospects? 
  • How can I systematically reach them? 
  • Which are the most promising channels? 
  • Which have the best likelihood of sourcing high-value clients?
  • What do my prospects actually care about? What value can I provide them right now?

Stupid thing #2: building a list of prospects, but taking virtually no action

Building a list of prospects sounds like a good idea, and it is. But I actually did 2 stupid things here:

  • I spent a shit ton of time building this list. I’m talking somewhere in the neighborhood of 40-60 hours over a period of months.
  • I didn’t DO anything with this list–except to delude myself into thinking I was working on my business.

Yes, a prospect list is a great idea, but not when you spend all your free time doing it, and especially not if you don’t do anything with it.

How many prospects did that list include? About 70.

How many did I actually contact? 4.

Stupid.

How did I expect to get results?

And yet when I sat down to “work on my business,” I gravitated to that damn spreadsheet, adding new prospects, and adding details for each.

Why didn’t I call more prospects? Because it was hard.

Calling prospects made me anxious, and I didn’t want to get rejected. Besides, I wasn’t sure what to say, how to have a conversation with them.

And I certainly didn’t think of myself as a salesperson. I had no idea how to sell.

So, the thought of calling prospects (even though I actually knew many of them) was scary. And instead of doing something outside my comfort zone, I stuck with something that felt safe.

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Stupid thing #3: creating a menu of services

You might think that drafting a list of services you can offer is actually a good idea. It can be, but again, I spent an enormous amount of time on this task. I’m talking 20-30 hours. And this was while working the day job, being married, and having kids, so I already didn’t have a lot of free time.

And yet I chose to spend a crapload of hours and weeks on this thing.

Wasting time was the first stupid thing about this.

The second stupid thing about this was that I was focused on my SKILLS instead of what prospects and clients would be interested in.

It was an example of “look at all the cool stuff I can do!” without thinking what my market desperately WANTED.

Look at it this way: Imagine you’re walking down the street, hungry, and see 2 restaurants. One has a chef who’s telling you all about how they can chop, filet, sautee, broil, season, marinade, and julienne the food. From the other restaurant, your mouth literally waters from the smell of juicy grilled meat (apologizes to the vegans out there). You’d think, “Fancy chef or not, I want a friggin burger.” And you’d go to the burger place.

Give your market what they desperately want, not a boring CV or resume.

Stupid thing #4: agonizing over which business entity to choose

Yes, this was another thing that consumed far too much time when I first started. I read damn near every article I could find online, weighed the pros & cons of each for my situation and where I thought I might be 5 years down the road, then re-read all the advice, bookmarked sites, took notes, and agonized some more.

So what kind of business entity did I eventually choose? It doesn’t matter!

Did it get clients? Of course not.

No client cares whether you’re an LLC, s-corp, c-corp, or sole proprietor.

When you start consulting, keep in mind that you need clients to be a consultant and have a real business that brings in cash to your bank account.

No clients = no cash and no real business.

The stupid thing was again spending way too much time on something inconsequential.

LLC or s-corp, talk to an accountant for 30 minutes about your specific situation, make a decision, and move on.

Stupid thing #5: targeting ineffective marketing channels

Truth be told, I had no idea about marketing channels when I first started out. I meticulously:

  • made my prospect list,
  • called virtually none of those prospects,
  • spent 40-60 hours on brochures and business cards,
  • then was discouraged that I had no clients.

For the few prospects I called and, later, some additional prospects I called and/or emailed, who did I target? Decision makers who could green-light consulting projects?

No.

I talked to lower-level people and ineffective “consultants” who were struggling to get work themselves.

Stupid…

Why didn’t I talk to the kinds of people who could actually sign off on projects or refer business to me? Frankly, I was intimidated, and didn’t know how to talk to these people. Again, I didn’t think of myself as a salesperson, and hated the idea of selling, and it felt safer to talk to lower-level people.

Key takeaways

What was going on here? I was wasting time, getting no results, and feeling discouraged and anxious.

TRUTH #1: What feels safe won’t move you forward: Basically, I was doing what felt safe instead of pushing myself outside my comfort zone. Creating the prospect spreadsheet felt safe. So did drafting the copy for my brochure. To get beyond my current situation (day job + desire + secret plan to do consulting), it required doing things that, at least for a few moments, felt scary. Not scary like BASE jumping, but scary like calling a prospect.

TRUTH #2: Finding the shortest path to your goal maximizes your chances of success. Yes, I eventually figured out how to get clients, and built a profitable consulting business, but it took a long time. I was discouraged and frustrated a lot, and there were lots of times I didn’t think it was realistic, like it was just stuff I was doing that wouldn’t amount to anything. I’ve seen lots of people give up on consulting because they couldn’t get clients. They did some of the same stupid things I did when I started out, got discouraged, and went back to their day job. 

All these stupid mistakes were like a long, winding road instead of a straight-line path. Would you rather take 2 years, 3 years, or 5 years to be able to quit your day job, and likely get frustrated, discouraged, and give up along the way? Or would you rather reach your goal in 6 months, 9 months, or 12 months, steadily building your orchard of clients along the way (where each client is a pipeline of consulting work)?

TRUTH #3: Getting help from experienced mentors puts you in the fastlane. For nearly every stupid mistake I made, I didn’t seek out help. Can you imagine if you had someone in your corner giving you guidance and coaching me along the way? How much faster and easier would it be? Even Michael Jordan had a coach. We ALL need help.

When I started, I was like a typical guy who got lost on a road trip: I didn’t bother looking at a map or getting directions. I tried getting useful info about starting a consulting business, but it was so generic, and nearly always by some “expert” who hadn’t actually struggled and created their own thriving consulting business. Those “experts” couldn’t tell me, step-by-step, what I needed to do to get clients. And they couldn’t tell me I was wasting my time on busywork.

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7 Responses to 5 stupid things I did to get clients when I started my consulting business

  1. S Ramani says:

    Hi Greg.

    Very insightful comments.

    The problem we usually face is in selling value. Most of the clients settle for offerings of lower price – usually falling for promises of ‘value’ from competitors. It does make sense for the clients who have severe budget constraints to go for the lowest price.

    Many of such clients felt let down subsequently as they perceived the delivered quality was poor and the promises were not kept . But the damage is already done to the market by such ‘phoney’ consultants.

    Any thoughts on this? Brand building is one thing we could think of – but it takes time.

    You could also write to me in ramani_s@hotmail.com on this.

    Thanks

    Ramani

    • Hey, Ramani, great question. You mentioned that your clients settle for lower-priced offerings, and if that’s typically the case, then you might consider shifting your niche slightly so that you aren’t targeting prospects who are solely focused on budget.

      Top players know that getting value is an investment, not a cost.

      My hunch is that those clients who are lured in by lower prices are NOT the clients you want–they’ll likely want to haggle over YOUR pricing too.

      On the upside, now that other consultants have let them down, there’s opportunity to pick up these prospects by showing them you can actually deliver. Look at how you can provide value to them BEFORE they even engage/pay you for it, and they’ll follow up by giving you more work that you can then bill them for.

  2. Jen G says:

    ah ah a sounds like me when I started. And sounds like me as I’m starting a new venture.. Although I skip business cards, website, spreadsheets, I procrastinate over a sales funnel and finding cash flow 😉
    ACTION action action.
    thanks. This post made me smile (and it’s good reminder)

    • Hey, Jen! Yep, no matter what the new venture is, there are LOTS of time-waster tasks that don’t directly contribute to getting clients or generating cash.

      Typically, the time-wasters are easy and/or familiar, so they’re attractive compared to difficult, unfamiliar tasks and tasks that create anxiety.

      • Martin says:

        …..anxiety that leads to a dead end.Frustrating as it is,this is the true fact of start ups.This article has given me food for thought.

        • Thanks for your comment, Martin! Like you mentioned, anxiety is a dead end. It’s a lot of energy tied up in useless hand-wringing and mental anguish over what-ifs, when we should instead focus our limited energy on deciding what next action to take, and then doing it.

          • Jen G says:

            Agree. Actually my mind is now totally empty and free of agitation, which is just perfect 🙂 I just do what needs to be done. Strangely, at a very slow pace (new to me 🙂

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