You, Inc.: Part 2 in the Training Entrepreneurs Series
Starting a training related business is appealing because it is much less complicated than other business ventures. Startup costs are relatively low; there is no building to buy, inventory to stock or staff to hire, at least not initially. Because you provide the knowledge and talent, its success is dependent solely on you and what you bring to the table. Many successful training consultants begin the process with a side gig or a small job that can be done in addition to their day job. Academics in our field often combine teaching and consulting, finding that consulting work informs their teaching by keeping their skill set relevant. Others who work full-time for organizations may use vacation or personal time to take on gigs, but should only do this with employer approval. Still, others begin with volunteer projects for a local non-profit organization creating a win-win by giving back to their community and demonstrating expertise.
In Part 1 of this series, you learned about the role of timing, niche, and expertise in entrepreneurial readiness. If all is in alignment and either circumstances or desire drives you to strike out on your own, there are aspects of the business start-up process to consider:
- Identify your niche, mission, and business goal. Craft an “elevator speech” to quickly and clearly describe what your business is about how it adds value.
- Think about marketing. Identify a name for your business, register a domain, and start to think about a website and social media presence (LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, etc.). Consider your client base and think about how to reach them.
- Hire professionals. At the very least you should consult an attorney about incorporation and contracting, an accountant about business taxation, and a designer to create your website.
- Update your portfolio. Clients want to see work samples, tools, and templates when they interview consultants. Make sure your portfolio is professional and ready to share. References are also a plus.
- Get social by joining business organizations in your community, writing articles for LinkedIn or popular blogs, holding webinars, speaking at conferences, and in general, getting your name out there.
One of the most commons questions I receive from budding training consultants it what should I charge? If you overcharge, especially early in your business startup, you may lose clients that could benefit your portfolio. If you undercharge, you run the risk of appearing unprofessional or giving away your talent. One way to set fees is to reach out to other consultants to learn what they charge. Another is to identify a necessary annual income and calculate a daily or hourly rate based on this amount. Most training consultants charge by the hour but provide an estimate of the time they expect the project to take. It is difficult to predict the timeframe accurately, so I suggest specifying a range to allow room for error.
Flawless Consulting by Peter Block: Although this is an older book that is more about organization development than learning, the strategy for connecting with clients is timeless.
The Start-up Checklist by David Rose: A comprehensive summary of everything to consider when starting a business.
Platform by Michael Hyatt offers strategies to promote yourself through social media.
Questions for Discussion
- How can novice trainers gain expertise before starting an independent consulting business?
- What are the most important things to consider before starting a consulting business?
Great article! I am lucky enough that I get to do training as a part of my full time job and I do additional training for non profits outside of work hours. That is how I have gained my expertise. I love training! However, I am not sure if I will ever use my training business to solely support me. My biggest concern is…can it support my lifestyle? Also – how will I get clients? If I pursued this seriously, I would get a mentor and definitely do more research. Jokingly, I say that I will start my business after retirement from corporate America because I know that I will need something to do with my time.
Thanks for this Kathy. As a T & D student, I’m constantly thinking about the opportunities and what the future may look like. Although I’m not drawn to the idea of self-employment due to past experience, I do appreciate knowing all my options.
The idea that at some point in the distant future I may consider going it alone requires thorough planning and forethought and a willingness to take a huge risk. Right now, I’m trying to take it all in and put the pieces of the puzzle together and this blog helps as it gives me many perspectives.
It is very important to have support from people in the training field because ultimately it will improve learning and provide assistance when it comes to resolving business issues. Very beneficial article
Thanks to all for the detailed comments! You’ve added useful and valuable information to this post. In, fact, many of the comments you’ve posted can also apply to those in the corporate world, particularly those that pursue a “portfolio career,” not to be confused with the profession portfolio students develop in 499. Portfolio careers are usually built around a collection of skills and interests, though the only consistent theme is one of career self-management. With a portfolio career you no longer have one job, one employer, but multiple jobs and employers within one or more professions. I think this idea is is particularly applicable in the field of training: in a sense we are all entreprenuers.
This comment is from Karolyn:
Novice trainers can gain expertise before starting an independent consulting business by:
Join an industry association that your future clients attend. This is one of the best opportunities to network and build relationships, understand client “pain points” related to their industry (compliance, business culture, staffing, operations, sales, etc.) to uncover and discover how you, a TD practitioner can potentially help them resolve their “pain points” at their company.
Find a mentor. Shadow them often on projects they are currently working on for their clients. Ask to attend meetings and be part of the TD process.
Seek internship opportunities. This a perfect entrance into any organization and is a win-win for both the company and you. What a better way to get one foot into the door as an intern, so that the other foot can eventually lead into a permanent position.
Shadow and observe other trainers leading either a classroom or virtual training program. Take notes, meet with the trainer after class, and ask the trainer to explain the “how -to replicate” the best practices and classroom experiences you observed.
There are several important things to consider before starting a consulting business. Here are just a few things to think about for starters:
Know Your Why. Ask yourself the question “why do I want to start a consulting business and why would potential customers want to establish a business relationship with me”?
Ask Yourself “Who are You”? Brand recognition becomes the differentiator that separates you from all other like and skill-minded TD practitioners and TD consulting businesses.
Be Different. Solve problems, don’t create them. Find the need before the customer recognizes it. Be flexible and fluid to support the customer’s needs. Customers want everything but don’t necessarily understand why they need it.
Lead with the Customer and Success Will Follow. It all is about building rapport, establishing credibility and trust.
Who’s Your Target Market? Will you be an expert for everyone, or only a select few? Focus on industries or a passion that you are most familiar with and expand into other vertical markets in the future.
Obtain a Business License with the State. Most consulting companies are registered as an LLC. This will legitimize your business with customers who are seeking to do business with you.
Purchase E & O insurance. This protects you and your clients.
Be Visible. Establish a website, use social media platforms such as LinkedIn to promote your business, network in associations that your customers are involved in to understand their pain points and problems their industry is challenged with.
Service Agreements. Use them. It’s the “playbook” that outlines the agreement between you and your customer, scope of project, costs associated and payment for services rendered.
Budget. Know your out of pocket costs for marketing and promoting your company. If you need to hire subject matter experts, understand the cost associated with hiring contractors and what their payment terms are for the project at hand.
Reserves. If you’re working on a customer project and have no staff, then you’re not selling. If you’re selling for new customer projects, then you’re not working. Know the cycle of your immediate and long-term cash flow. Have reserves available for periods of time when cash flow is dry.
Go Back to Your Why. On the days when you just want to give up, remind yourself why you started this consulting business in the first place.
The lists created under each answer to the two questions are by no means comprehensive or complete. Based on your own experiences, what can you add to these lists?
When I was early on in my marketing career, one of the first jobs I had was at a start-up company. I was employee number 3. I lasted 6 months because my manager/owner always just left me to my own devices (zero training) to what he said was “come up with my own processes and documents, ways of doing things, etc” for my department. It was a lot of responsibility and frankly I was just out of school and barely knew how to use excel. From this position I moved into an entry level role at a global company where I was able to work alongside industry leaders on household name brands planning and executing their media buys. The training, knowledge and skills I learned during my time at these agencies was invaluable. The amount of talented people I was around inspired me daily however I wasn’t able to really take on the amount of autonomous leadership I craved. There was a lot of red tape working at large companies too. After working the long hours and started to get burned out I decided to try working at a start-up again and this time around it was a completely different experience for me because I knew exactly what to do with my time without being told and I had naturally moved into a leadership role with opinions of my own who my clients started to trust me for and I was able to build valuable relationships. I think once you have the ability to believe in yourself, your knowledge and skillset of the business you want to consult in is sharp, you will be ready to “be out on your own.”
What can novice trainers do? Seek out roles at companies that will let you work on large projects with lots of budget, big teams, etc. Often these type of roles are difficult and demanding, but the experience you will gain will be invaluable. Stay at a company long enough to show a progression of roles/promotions to demonstrate that you had success within your career. Give managing others a hand as it will give you leadership skills you will need once you’re out on your own. Also build a book of business with relevant case studies you can share with clients to demonstrate your knowledge of the subject area and to build their trust.
You will have to have confidence in yourself and be your own salesperson and champion to attract clients. Having experience working with large clients and budgets will only make you more attractive to other clients. Being able to quantify that success with data (example: “I was able to help client XYZ achieve a 10% ROI) will give you the proof that you’re the right person for the job. Then it will be up to you to deliver!
Things to consider before going out on your own, ask yourself these questions:
Are you comfortable leading a conversation on your subject area matter and do you consider yourself an expert in this area? It will be hard to attract clients if you cannot demonstrate an authoritative voice and having real world examples of your work to back up your claims.
Are you OK being a sales person and cold calling to build your pipeline of business? You probably will have to hear many “no’s” until someone finally says “yes.”
Are you confident in your own skills to perform the job? Confidence is key as most likely there won’t be anyone else around to ask for help if you’re out on your own managing you’re own business.
I hope to be a consultant someday and it’s taken my many years to finally believe in myself and stop second guessing myself. I hope these suggestions help someone else who is thinking of doing the same thing!
A novice trainer could seek out non-profits in which they can volunteer their services, as well as partnering with a firm that maintains a list of independent contractors. For me, the transition to non-steady income would be the greatest concern, especially at this stage of life with a mortgage, etc.
Working your way up from an entry-level position is one way you can get experience before becoming an independent consultant. I think working for another organization from the ground up provides a good template. I have seen others do just that they work in a sales role knowing that they can manage it. They then work into leadership. Next, they move into L&D. I have seen this process take a minimum of 3 years. The other option is going to school and building a portfolio. I have done both! It was really the only way to make a name for myself in an industry that has veterans with 20 plus years of experience.
The most important thing to consider before starting a consulting business would be, in my opinion, overlap in utility. There are other consultants that may be doing exactly what you are doing. You would want to get a good grasp of the unique value you could add. If it is not saturated in your market go for it!
There are some great places for data to help you find out if your skills provided are in need or in surplus. LinkedIn publishes a monthly report with that data. Just one source you could use: https://economicgraph.linkedin.com/resources/linkedin-workforce-report-february-2019
You can drill down to a geographic area too.
Becoming an entrepreneur is something that I would definitely love to do. I never really considered starting a business as a training consultant, but with the startup costs being relatively low, this is something I may look into in the near future. Thank you for shedding light on another great aspect of training and development.
This is a great idea for beginning as a consultant. Finding out what the rates are for similar professionals sets a good baseline for a new company or individual looking to start their business. I have been considering consulting work in the future once I have more experience and finish my degree, and these posts are very helpful for me to get an idea of how to get started. Thank you!
I think this read is interesting due to the fact that people can support one another in the training field. And of course with any new business venture, you are going to be learning along the way but having the support from others in the field and some guidance can help make that transition much easier.
Thank you for the great advice for those considering starting a training related business! While you have outlined several areas to consider, I would like to add 3 more: balancing the marketing function with completing the actual work, avoiding scope creep, and dealing with dead-beat clients. Why have I selected these three? Having spent a portion of my career as an entrepreneur (albeit not in the L&D function) I found these areas to be those that someone considering self-employment must deeply consider. More importantly they must be willing to deal with each proactively.
You could be immensely talented, produce astonishing work and delight your clients. Unless you are carefully balancing your time working on current projects with time invested lining up your their next several projects (AKA building a pipeline) you are likely going to experience periods of low or no income. Moreover, many a would-be entrepreneur has found they’re a highly skilled instructional designer, for example, but hate to network. Unless someone is marketing your services, self-employment is probably not for you.
Avoiding scope-creep? I think we all know how easily this can happen. Say you’re in an L&D role in a company right now, and you’re told that a SME can provide you all the detail for an instructional design. You start working on your design and you find that you have to interview (or identify!) many more people than you originally planned for. You likely will miss the training due date, but you won’t lose another client, or income. Scope creep when self-employed becomes a real problem when you have a fixed priced contract and no-recourse for being paid for a bigger or longer product.
The third and last area I would encourage anyone considering this route to reflect on, is your ability to insist that you are paid on time and in-full. Frankly, this became very difficult for me with one of my “biggest” clients; a client who provided me work I really enjoyed delivering and whose promises to pay me always sounded so sincere. I was unable to separate my heart from my head so to speak, and ended up producing a great deal of work for which I was ultimately paid pennies on the dollar.
As I am completing my MATD, I am once again considering self employment. Having the opportunity to discuss them here has once again raised the specter for my own consideration; a very good thing!