Once upon a time, I spent many years building up a nice consulting business that was consistently putting 6 figures in my pocket every year. I was very proud of myself.
- I wasn’t working too many hours.
- The company wasn’t too big to manage.
- I didn’t have to book an unreasonable amount of work to make my nut.
- I liked my clients.
- I had a great team.
Sure, the workload was a little bit treadmill-y and sure, there was some degree of ebb and flow with receivables, but both of those are pretty typical in consulting, and neither was significant enough to be a real problem. Overall, life was pretty good.
“I’ve made it” I thought. “This is exactly the career I’ve always wanted to have“.
Then I began to notice that many of my peers were moving away from consulting and launching products instead. These peers saw varying degrees of success with branching out of consulting and into selling products, but pretty much everyone who was doing it appeared to be doing so profitably. Some sold books. Some sold software products. Some sold courses. Some sold coaching.
None of it looked like anything I couldn’t do, too. After all, I was just as successful at consulting as many of them, so why wouldn’t I be able to duplicate their success with creating and selling products?
“Why not me?” I thought. “I can do this, too – I’m smart and I’m not afraid to work hard“.
As I watched these consulting colleagues becoming more and more successful with their products, I began to resent the very consulting practice that used to be a source of pride. It felt like a whole new world was taking shape, and I wasn’t a part of it. Taking on new projects began to feel like a chore. Being answerable to my clients started to chafe.
“Sure, my consulting business has put millions in my pocket this past decade,” I thought, “but now this consulting is just stopping me from doing even bigger things. I have to launch a product. I. HAVE. TO.”
So, I plotted a course to take me away from doing client work and all of its related headaches. Focusing my long-term ambitions firmly on becoming A Product Guy™, I began consuming every bit of information I could on the topic of building & marketing products.
3 Years Later…
About 36 months into my new line of business, I came up for air and re-evaluated my career. I wasn’t sure exactly where I stood, but I knew something was off.
My product line of business wasn’t yielding the ROI that I had expected. As a long-time business owner I knew that was a possibility – after all, I had seen numerous clients of mine struggle to gain traction with their own product lines – but it was still frustrating. Even worse, splitting my focus between my consulting work and my product work had led to a massive decline in my billables.
On the eve of launching the marketing campaign for my 2nd book, I hit the pause button on everything – and I do mean everything – that had to do with selling product. Giving myself permission to just do nothing for a couple of weeks, I quietly thought about my product line of business.
After some consideration, I decided to treat the situation like I’d treat any other investment that didn’t yield an ROI – it was time to stop investing time & money into product. I’m a big fan of the investment mindset, but that’s only helpful when the investment actually yields something that indicates continued investment is warranted. That wasn’t happening here, so it was time to invest that time & money elsewhere.
I stopped promoting my first book, cancelled my beloved podcast, and cancelled the impending launch of my 2nd book (which ended up becoming available for sale anyway, but that’s its own weird story, best saved for another day).
The next morning I bounced out of bed, having decided to focus 100% of my time and attention back on my consulting practice. Full-focus consulting was something I knew I could get a return from.
After 3 years of focusing on a different line of business, my consulting practice was in pretty raggedy shape.
- I still had 2 solid devs, long-time friends with whom I’d worked on countless projects going back to my days as a W2 developer in Santa Barbara.
- My reputation was still positive amongst both the local business community and the freelancer community at large.
- I still had my anchor clients feeding my team steady work.
- I had 3 years worth of marketing education that I didn’t have before.
- I had only onboarded 2 new clients during that entire 3 years.
- Most of my recurring clients had moved on; a few had left unhappy, due to so much of my focus being on my product line of business.
- My team was at its smallest in 10 years.
- My local SEO presence – once at the top of the SERPs – had virtually vanished.
- Over a dozen new local competitors had emerged.
- My contacts at numerous old clients had retired or left.
- Company revenues were about 33% of what they had been.
Although hanging on to those anchor clients was a huge deal, I had been keeping things afloat by continually selling new projects to old clients, a practice I strongly recommend for any consultant. Revenue wasn’t bad, mind you, it just wasn’t anything like what it used to be.
If I was going to get this business humming like a well-oiled machine again, I had a LOT of work to do!
Feeding The Beast…
It’s been said that revenue fixes everything. So, step one of my consulting rehab plan was to seek revenue as directly as possible. To do this, I turned to the most-effective, highly-reliable, easily-relatable, day-in-and-day-out business tool there is for communicating with prospects and clients alike…
You thought I was going to say e-mail, didn’t you? Don’t lie, you totally did. But no – my first go-to was the telephone. I didn’t want to send sales emails to all my old contacts; if you’ve seen my sales copy, you know why – my sales copywriting stinks. But here’s something you may not know about me: I’m pretty good on the phone.
Still, the plan that first day wasn’t to reach out and pitch deals. I just wanted to put myself and my team back on the radar after operating with a much lower profile for so long.
- First, I called clients who had been infrequently active, to let them know that my team and I had made some changes and now had increased availability.
- Second, I called clients who were straight-up inactive and just had a chat to get back on their radar. This was a lot like catching up with old friends.
- Third, I called old contacts from old clients who had moved on to new jobs at different companies, again just to get back on their radar. Again, this was a lot like catching up with old friends.
Without really trying to, I sold 3 new projects during that first day of phone calls, for a total of about $5,000. I also scheduled 3 lunch meetings to discuss potential projects. This “full-focus consulting” thing was off to a decent start!
Wary of becoming complacent, I decided to chalk these results up to first-day luck and threw myself into further lead-gen. On top of the steady trickle of work already being supplied by the anchor clients, I sold an additional $18k of small projects during that first month of working the phones. That’s not much by the standards of many consulting shops, but it was the first time I’d seen sales numbers like that in a while.
For the first time in almost 1,100 days, I felt competent again. “I can do this,” I thought. “I’m still good at this“.
A Matter of Perception…
With efforts to drive revenue under way, I turned my attention to rehabilitating the public presence of my little company. Things weren’t looking so good in that regard.
My company website hadn’t been updated or redesigned since 2010. It was already due for an overhaul when I shifted gears to launch my product line of business; 3 years later, it seemed absolutely archaic. The design was out of date and it wasn’t even CLOSE to being responsive or mobile-friendly. I feel embarrassed just talking about it.
Out on the web, after checking the various listing sites I discovered that no 2 listings for my business had the same info.
- Some had the old office address, some had the new.
- Some had the old phone number, some had the new.
- Some had old portfolio images, some had…slightly less old portfolio images. We had no Facebook page.
- We had no Yelp listing.
- We had no Google+ page.
- We had a Twitter account that been used precisely one time, to test a twitter integration we were doing for a client.
It was an absolute mess.
To top it all off, my company was virtually invisible on the search engines. Searching for a term that my company used to rank #1 for now revealed a slew of new competitors, all with more activity, more relevancy factors, more current citations, and more modern sites than my company had.
Cogeian Systems was showing up 35th in the search results, for terms we previously ranked #1 for. THIRTY-FIFTH.
Having been in the building-things-for-the-web business for so long, I knew a lot of what needed to be done, and I knew how to do it. But there was a lot that I also didn’t know needed to be done, or didn’t know how to do; certain things had changed in those 3 years.
It turns out that “I get by with a little help from my friends” is more than just a song, it’s good advice. So, taking the same advice I dispense to my clients, I reached out to an expert – my friend John Locke from Lockedown Design. He, too, operates a small consulting shop not too dissimilar from mine, so he knew where I was coming from.
Our skillsets and experiences complemented each other nicely and we were able to work together to clarify the things that I was unsure about, and illuminate the things I was clueless about. Little by little, I rehabilitated my company SEO profile by cleaning up listings, establishing a social media presence, getting some mentions in the press, and even giving my website a quickie upgrade, moving it to WordPress in order to get it modern-looking and properly-responsive. Sure, I used an off-the-shelf theme, but I needed to get rid of that old design in a hurry.
SEO is not something you set and forget; it’s an ongoing everyday process. Four months later, it’s still not where I want it to be, but it’s waaay better than being the #35 result; with SEO, appearing on any page past page 2 effectively means you’re on page “infinite”. There’s more work to be done and I expect to continue to make changes and see improvements. Tools like Moz Local and Varvy have been invaluable during this process – Moz Local in particular has been worth at least 10x what it cost, in time-savings alone. So good.
If You Want To Get Different, You Have To Do Different…
SEO rehab was under way, and so was revenue rehab. I probably could have stopped right there, satisfied that I was doing enough to take my business from anemic back to outright healthy.
If you’ve been following my exploits for any length of time, though, you know that’s not my way. I didn’t want more so much as I wanted different.
In the very first paragraph of this article, I mentioned that when my consulting practice was thriving, the workload was a little bit treadmill-y and receivables had a little bit of ebb and flow to them, but not enough to really complain about.
As I was rehabbing the business I thought, why return to full-focus consulting it with those issues baked in? Why not rebuild it differently? Why not rebuild it in a way that avoids – or at least mitigates – negative cashflow and dry spells?
In service of that, I made 5 decisions that people close to me thought were crazy, but that I knew could work:
0) I immediately raised our standard hourly rate for new clients by 30%. Existing clients stayed on their old rate; they’d stuck by us during the years that weren’t ideal, and I decided I’d bring them along slower, and later. But Joe-Off-The-Street? He’s paying the new rate.
I know that raising rates scares a lot of freelancers out of their wits, but since I had spent so long sustaining the business solely on existing clients, I wasn’t scared. There really was no downside; if new clients came in at the newer, higher rate, that’s gravy. If not, we still had good dealflow with the existing clients at the older-but-still-healthy-rate. Win-win.
1) No new client project was to be booked any sooner than 3 weeks out, ever. In reality, we often couldn’t accommodate new projects any sooner than that anyway, but by making it an actual policy I ensured that we always spaced out the workload by default. During busy times, this helped keep projects from crashing into one another. During quiet times, this helped avoid the impression of being desperate.
2) Standard parts of our consulting engagements that could be broken out into fixed-scope, fixed-fee “productized consulting” solutions and sold like products, must be. For example, every project – every single one – starts with a Discovery Phase. So, I broke the Discovery Phase off of a standard engagement and set it up as a fixed-price standalone offering. Every website redesign project starts off with an SEO Audit, so I broke that off and productized it, too.
I did this with several discrete sub-services that were usually hidden within the larger scope of a consulting engagement. After years of not really understanding “productized consulting”, I finally got it. My company sold $6k of these small standalone services the first month we offered them; again, not much by some standards, but I considered it a triumph.
3) Requiring 100% payment-up-front on any project where it made sense to do so. This one was unexpectedly controversial. Slapping a fixed price on the “productized consulting” offerings and asking for purchase-before-service wasn’t too hard. But asking for 100% payment prior to starting work on, say, a custom software application? That was something else. The world defaults to “hourly billing, paid Net 30” and anything that challenges that will freak some clients out.
However, when handled reasonably, when trust exists, when value is clear, it turns out many clients are OK with this. It also turns out that collecting 100% payment up-front – even if it’s not done on every project – goes a long way toward resolving negative cashflow cycles.
4) Defaulting to electronic payment. For whatever reason, I had always stuck with the “send an invoice & wait for a paper check to show up” model of getting paid. But as I rehabbed my consulting business with a particular eye toward improving cashflow, I decided this had to change. It’s trivial to accept credit card payments online, so I set up my Freshbooks account to allow online payment. Additionally, I used the WP Simple Pay Lite plug-in to allow clients to purchase my productized consulting services directly from the website without needing to be invoiced first.
I’m well aware of the various downsides to accepting payment by credit card, but it was the “low-hanging fruit” and I’m all about optimizing for progress at the moment. ACH and wire transfer will be added to the mix soon enough. There are a couple of clients who still send paper checks, but they’re in the minority and eventually they’ll embrace electronic payment, as well.
These 5 decisions, small as they may seem, were huge for my business because they required me to operate my business in ways I had not operated it before. At one time or another over the years, sure, I had raised rates, or throttled bookings, or sold standalone project management, or taken payment in advance, but I had never made these things policy. I had never optimized my workflow for these things. I had never made these things a priority. Committing to full-focus consulting helped me to answer questions and make decisions. These things changed from being things we could do, under the right circumstances to this is just what we do here. These things became the default.
Now, the uncertainty and discussion revolves around when to not do business this way.
Luck, The Universe and The Secret…
Generally speaking, I never believed in luck – at least, not until I failed at something; then I became convinced that the people who succeeded at it must have gotten lucky! Oh, ego…you’re so rational.
Seriously though, I am not a superstitious man, like, at all. I’m not a big believer in luck. I do not believe in karma. I absolutely do not believe in the Law Of Attraction, made unfortunately famous by that ridiculous book back in 2006.
That said, I do believe in what I see with my eyes and hear with my ears. Here’s why this is important – before I ever said anything in public about re-focusing on consulting full-time, when I had only decided upon it in my heart but hadn’t yet done anything about it, things started happening.
- Old colleagues suddenly started calling and emailing, asking about project availability for my team & I.
- Friends who were starting new firms started calling and emailing, asking about project availability for my team & I.
- 2 clients who hadn’t referred anyone in years suddenly referred leads to me, both in the same week.
It. Was. Weird. I have no explanation for it. And I’m 100% OK with that.
Those of you who are the believer-y type will say “SEE?!? That’s ‘The Secret’ in action, you changed your intentions and different things started happening“. Those of you who are not the believer-y type will shrug and say “Dude, those are just coincidences“.
Me, I’m inclined to call it coincidence, too. Or maybe – and I suspect this is more likely – a close confidant with loose lips!
Whatever it was that caused such perfect timing, I’m not terribly inclined to pick it apart. I’m just thankful for it. I hesitated to even address it in this article, but since I know a significant number of people who believe this sort of thing means something, I include it here for you to ponder one way or the other.
I can hear some of you already – “This is all well & good, Chris, but where are the results?!?“, and I’m right there with you. None of this full-focus consulting is in aid of anything without results, right? So let’s talk about that.
By far, the biggest and most important results I’ve experienced since being back to full-time-focus on consulting are related to quality-of-life, not finances:
- I feel competent again.
- I feel confident again.
- I enjoy my work again.
Those alone are huge. Even if my billables remained at their reduced, post-product levels and I had to go back to being a solo consultant without a team, those benefits alone would be worth it. Sounds nuts, right? I would have thought so too, a few years ago, when my mercenary sensibilities were 100% in control of my career and daily life. But one of the unexpected benefits of the past few years is that I’ve cultivated more of a focus on quality of life, but not in a material sense; I’ve come to value serenity and the quality of my inner life much more so than I used to.
This is related to a whole slew of happenings in my life that were coming to a head during the same time period during which I was trying to get my product line of business up & running, and it’s easily one of the best takeaways of the whole experience.
Now, let’s talk about direct business results. I mentioned some numbers above, but I’ll bullet-point them here:
- Booked $5k in new projects that very first day doing phone outreach.
- Booked $18k in new projects (over and above already-booked work) that first month.
- Sold $6k in productized services during the first month I offered them.
- Average monthly billables are now at 150% of what they were prior to returning to full-time focus.
- I’m negotiating to acquire a local competitor.
- Made nearly two dozen new, local, in-person contacts.
- Onboarded 8 new clients.
Those of you who run big huge agencies may shrug at these results. But for a single-owner, small-team, sub-$1 million shop that spent multiple years coasting in terms of sales & marketing, this is all very healthy stuff, and every indication is that the business will keep growing back into its old footprint.
Which begs the question…
You Can’t Always Get What You Want…
…is re-growing the business back into its old footprint what I really want? It might seem like the obvious, inevitable answer is “Yes, of course!” but since I feel different and I’m trying to do different, I find that I also want different things than I used to.
- The entire point of starting my consulting business in the first place was to have a better life.
- The entire point of creating a product line of business was to have a better life.
- The entire point of shutting down that line of business and returning to full-time consulting was to have a better life.
Are you detecting a theme yet? So…what if maybe, juuust maybe, re-building the business back into its old footprint is NOT the way to have the better life I really want? Let’s unpack that.
Over the past few years, my goals have changed. I have no doubt that by being committed to full-focus consulting, I can grow Cogeian Systems right back to where it was, but there’s a reason I wanted to get a product line of business up and running in the first place, and I can’t forget that. Because of this, I’ve been experimenting with ways to mitigate the downsides of consulting.
Even in a healthy consulting operation, there are certain realities that may be more or less appealing to the consultant. The most obvious are:
- Scalability is limited
- Even with a healthy pipeline, some ebb and flow happens (and without a healthy pipeline, outright feast-or-famine happens)
- Each month starts at $0 sales
- Outsized answerability to large clients
What do these mean in practical terms for a consultant, though? And how have I managed to mitigate these downsides?
Scalability is limited
What this means: This means that in consulting, we usually can’t benefit multiple times from doing a piece of work once. Note that this isn’t necessarily billable work – it could be administrative work or marketing work. But the real takeaway here is that I want to have more free time and do less repetitive work.
How I’m mitigating it: First off, I’ve recently switched from ConvertKit to Drip, and am building out a more automated marketing workflow for my consulting services (the workflow visualizations are an absolute godsend for consultants, I can’t recommend Drip enough). I anticipate it’s going to save me quite a bit of daily effort and I plan to write an article about that experience in the future. Second, those productized services I mentioned earlier are a big time-saver. I don’t write individualized proposal or pitches for these services anymore; if a prospect indicates a need, I just send a pre-written e-mail and direct them to a page on my website where they can purchase the service, after which I reach out to them via e-mail to schedule it.
Ebb and flow in lead-gen and sales
What this means: I used to just book work until my team & I were overwhelmed, and then neglect lead-gen for 2-3 months until I could come up for air. And this, despite me being legendary in my pickiness and willingness to walk projects that sounded red-flaggy! But to be clear, I managed to build a healthy business in spite of taking a “book now and market later” approach, not because of it.
How I’m mitigating it: I book just a bit less work than I could each month, and focus on being more diligent about visibility & relationship building. I write more. I make more phone calls to inactive clients. I respond to more media pitches. I send more mailings. I network with colleagues more. Whatever it takes to keep me and my company in front of potential clients, I make sure to do just a bit of it each day, and it adds up.
Each month starts at $0 sales
What this means: With something like a Saas app, on the 1st of the month you see $50,000 in credit card transactions plop into your account. In a consulting business, on the 1st of the month you stare, dead-eyed and soulless, at the big fat goose egg labeled “billables this month” in your favorite accounting software, as your coffee goes cold in your hands.
How I’m mitigating it: Although it’s too early to report any results yet, I’m in the process of developing a retainer offering for new clients. I don’t need to sign many of these for the steady cashflow to mitigate the hard zero that a consulting firm starts the month with.
Also, how you structure your payment terms can make a big difference. We’re seeing delivery payments every 4 weeks or so around here for fixed-scope project of a certain size, which takes a lot of the uncertainty out of equation when some of the billed-by-the-hour projects are running a bit late in paying their invoices (hey, it happens to the best of us). Recurring revenue is the big draw with Saas apps, but it is possible with consulting, too.
Outsized answerability to large clients
What this means: very often, an anchor client can become an 800-lb boss client who can dictate the destiny of an entire consulting firm. No bueno!
How I’m mitigating it: This one is a little fuzzy, because it’s a training issue for both the consultant and the client. I’ve taken the idea that “No is a complete sentence” much more to heart than I used to – and again, I already had pretty strong boundaries! The few clients who tried to throw their weight around were politely referred to a local competitor. Yes, you heard me right – in the course of rebuilding my business, I’ve actually gotten rid of some clients.
Note that I refer to how I’m “mitigating” these issues, not how I’ve “solved” them, because I don’t believe them to be solvable – I believe them to simply be factors that are part & parcel of consulting work. If I can manage to mitigate them to a comfortable degree, great! If I can’t, well…that’s going to suck. But so far, so good.
On a more personal note, these changes are important because they make my business more manageable. I don’t want my business to own me, which is a very common – and easy – place for a consultant to end up. The business should serve me, not the other way around, and in order to assure that, I’m maintaining a high state of intentionality in everything I do during this business rehabilitation project. There’s no hands-off-the-wheel, just-let-the-business-grow-into-whatever-shape-it-wants-to-be going on here. Rather, I’m actively managing – even micro-managing – everything that happens, as it happens, until things take on the shape I want. That’s what full-focus consulting is about, to me.
That may sound exhausting, but in reality it’s been liberating.
So, here’s the highlight reel of what I did to rehabilitate my consulting practice via full-focus consulting:
- Eliminated distractions
- Took inventory of the business
- Reactivated old clients for fast revenue
- SEO & website rehab
- Increased rates
- Throttled the schedule
- Created productized consulting offerings
- Implemented 100% payment-up front (where possible)
- Implemented electronic payment by default
- Didn’t question good luck
- Implemented automation where possible, to mitigate scalability
- Implemented marketing diligence to mitigate lead-gen ebb and flow
- Implementing retainers to mitigate cashflow ebb and flow
- Holding strong boundaries to mitigate large-client influence
To do all this, I had to implement a variety of tools. If you’d like to use these same tools to improve your business, submit the form below and I’ll send you a free report outlining the 5 most important tools.