Starting A Consulting Business

So you’re an experienced search engine marketer at an agency or working as an in-house SEO or Google Ads expert. Thinking of taking the plunge into independent consulting? Consulting on your own can be a lucrative venture and you will learn a ton of things about business that you never expected.

Getting Your First Client

Many new consultants start out emailing colleagues or contacting local agencies looking for work. Getting your first few leads through friends and past connections is a great way to start your freelancing career or launch a small business. At some point in growing your new consulting business, you will need to go beyond your network and seek out new business contacts. There are, however, a few rivers to cross during your journey.

Accounting & Incorporating

There are some pretty obvious basics you’ll need to create a business structure and accounting software. I’m going to skip over most of those basics about getting an LLC created and focus specifically on prospecting and growing your business.

Growing Your Business Prospects

Working part time with a couple local digital agencies or helping a small business is a great way to get your feet wet in consulting. You can start building up your cash flow and billable hours while you seek out bigger business opportunities. There are some obvious limitations to working part time with agencies and businesses with small budgets. You can only bill out so many of your own hours at a lower than market rate.

At some point in your new business, you will be faced with the challenge of continuing to grow your billable hours and lead pipeline. To grow your business, it will often take communicating with several people you have no prior relationship with or connection to in your personal life. Take off your “expert hat” and put on that “sales hat”! Speaking from experience, I can tell you it is no easy task. Convincing a new prospect you hardly know they need to spend $1,000s of dollars with you over several months can be a real challenge.

An even bigger challenge is selling services to a new prospect that has never worked with a professional firm and has never invested in search engine marketing services, Google Ads, social ads, or any other form of digital marketing. Perhaps they “heard from a friend” that social media is the next best thing. That business owner has a pretty steep learning curve and may not truly grasp the value of what you are providing. They’ll likely have difficulty determining what their budget should be and how much they can or should budget for your services.

How Much Free Consulting is Too Much?

Most business owners are smart people. Many are well educated and make decisions with careful evaluation and consideration. With good reason, the success of their business and future is on the line! There are, however, some business owners looking to “beat the system” by paying less than market value for professional services or perhaps even getting professional expertise for free. Tread these waters carefully. If you feel as though you are being taken advantage of with little or no compensation, you probably are.

“…some business owners looking to “beat the system” by paying less than market value for professional services”

Here are a few red flags when talking to a prospect about your services:

  • Turns a 30 minute free consultation meeting into a one hour plus conference call
  • Can’t give you a budget for what they’re looking to spend for the year
  • Suggests there is more business down the road if you take on their small project
  • Doesn’t give you any business goals
  • Vague about company revenue, margins, or other helpful metrics used to determine ROI
  • Schedules more follow-up non-billable meetings with specific questions like “how do you do X” or “how does Y work”?
  • Not interested in signing basic agreements or contracts

Gaining Trust

To gain the trust of a new prospect, consultants will often give away an initial consultation or a free audit with the hopes of winning more work. The thought here is that showing the new client you are capable of handling their campaign and willing to give away some services for free, you are a worthy hire. The question becomes, how much consulting services should you give away for free before establishing an agreement in writing?

The Free Consultation Meeting

I have been in a few client prospect meetings where the prospective client asks you to provide detailed recommendations about their website you know little, if anything, about. Should we disavow our links? Would this (insert black hat tactic here) help us rank higher? Did Google ban my site forever? They assume that just by taking 30 minutes of your time during this meeting, they come away with many or all the answers to their problems. It just doesn’t work that way folks!

“by taking 30 minutes of your time … they come away with many or all the answers to their problems”

Even the very best experts can’t make reliable recommendations to a website without knowing a business better or the history of a client’s website. There are several factors that come into play that can only be found during a deep dive, spending several weeks or months working with the client, and doing a full SEO audit. Some issues may only be discovered through research or after several discussions with a web development team.

Knowing Your Boundaries

As a consultant or freelancer, your time is valuable to you and your business. It is very important to establish boundaries to what you are willing to give away for free and what you must bill. Perhaps keeping that initial client call to 30 minutes is a good start? Perhaps it is providing that prospective client with some homework of their own before going to the next step? If a client isn’t taking time to provide you with more background on their business, they’re not really serious or are just looking for the cheapest provider they can find. Any boundaries you set early will help your working relationship down the road. In the end, the client will be happy and you will be happier.

Difficulties On Day One

If a prospect is unwilling to fill out a simple one page questionnaire or provide you with read only access to their website analytics reports, that is a clear red flag! They could be just checking on the work of their current vendor (and really don’t need your long term help) or they have contacted 20 other consultants and will eventually pick the cheapest one. Beware prospects that take several days or weeks to respond to your emails or simply ask for one-off recommendations via email with no clear strategy. Promises of future work if things “go well” is a clear sign this client has a small budget or isn’t willing to invest what is needed to get their desired results.

Good Luck!

I hope the experiences I have shared will help budding freelancers and consultants just getting started or looking to grow their business. You will encounter one or all of the challenges above at some point in your new consulting career. It’s best to know what to expect and pay attention to all of these signals in order to reach your own goals.

More Resources

Thinking of starting your own digital marketing agency or consulting? Below are a few great resources from Moz that should help. Moz has been a great resource for my career and their community is a great starting point.

Starting an Internet Marketing Agency
How to Build Credibility as a Start-Up SEO Agency