Another in Our Continuing Series on Consulting After 50
One of the best-kept secrets about consulting is that independent consultants don’t get their work by responding to Requests for Proposals (RFPs) or by using social media, they get their work informally. Some of the over-50, independent evaluators I interviewed recently began marketing more than a year before they left their full-time jobs. Others had no time at all. The boom dropped, and they were suddenly out. What’s interesting is that no matter how they got there, none of these independent consultants looked back! So how did they get work so quickly?
A recent survey on Marketing for Consultants asked over 10,000 business consultants what type of marketing had the best result (i.e., brought in the most money). Referrals had the greatest return for 36% of the consultants and networking was next at 34%. However, my interviews also uncovered another good strategy—strategic alliances. While only 4% of business consultants found it had the best return, several of the evaluation consultants I talked to said it was a great way to break into the market.
Let’s take a closer look at these proven marketing strategies.
Referrals or word of mouth is beyond your control, yet you can help to frame the message. Start with your elevator pitch. Practice it until it rolls off your tongue, revise it to fit your audience, and try it out on everyone. Explain what you do and what you are looking for. Be excited about your plans because if you aren’t excited, they certainly won’t be!
The magic of marketing is that you never know what will happen, when it will happen, or who will be involved. If your name is out there, work will come to you. Policy and evaluation consultant, David Shorr described his amazing good luck. It all started with a luncheon—and he wasn’t even there! He said:
What really got the ball rolling was a lunch between three people, two of whom are friends and have known me for a really long time, and the third is centrally placed [with a large foundation.].
His first independent contract was the result.
Everyone knows someone who is looking for the skills you have. That’s why the urban myth of six degrees of separation continues to have traction and that’s why networking is on everyone’s marketing plan. Start a spreadsheet or database of the networks you know—people you work with; project stakeholders; colleagues and other professionals; members of the evaluation community and adjunct fields like academia, government, and policy studies; and friends, relatives, and neighbours. Gather their contact details, email addresses, and social media links. Now you can begin to contact them.
Join professional organizations and volunteer for leadership positions to build your profile and name recognition. And just show up! As evaluator Marcia Nation commented:
I'm always surprised about how important it is to just show up at things. It's kind of a bizarre thing, because you think, ‘Oh, people, they get opportunities because they are really intelligent, or they are rich, or they have connections.’ Yes, in many cases…but also, I think people get opportunities because they actually show up. They show an interest, and they are just there. Something just came to me yesterday…. It was because I just showed up, and I showed an interest, and so someone reached out to me….”
3. Strategic Alliances
If you quail at the thought of working on your own, two types of strategic alliances or joint ventures may assuage your start-up anxieties. The first is by sub-contracting to large firms which often need specialized expertise like yours. There are lots of advantages. You don’t have to do the marketing, you can work on more complex projects than you would get on your own, and you can work with a team. Another more subversive benefit is that you get to see how other consultants work—both the good and the bad. You may conclude that you don’t like this route; however, along the way you have been sharpening your consulting skills.
David McDonald, well known for his expertise in criminal justice and substance abuse in Australia, began his consultancy by sub-contracting to large firms. He explained:
They gave me their insurance cover and did some quality control work on my reports, while I overcame some of those areas of anxiety…in the first couple of years. I was quite grateful to them for helping me through that transition.
Eventually, though, he branched out on his own. Now he finds more satisfaction sharing his skills with small grass-roots organizations.
The second strategic alliance strategy involves partnering or collaborating with other independent consultants. Working together, each member contributes their specialized skills to produce stronger proposals and more effective projects. You also gain moral support, so important when you are starting out. As evaluator Marcela Gutierrez explained:
I knew that I wasn't going to be able to do it all alone, and that I didn't want to work alone. I'm mostly a qualitative researcher, so that's my strength…. I knew that I had to partner and that's why I said…if I can't do it alone, I'm going to look for others to do it. And so…I've done a lot of partnering with other independent consultants. They say, "Marcela, I have this project. Can you work with me on this?" And if I have the same situation, where I need someone else, I reach out to other people.
Whether you are moving out on your consulting adventure now or planning to do so in a couple of years, start developing these powerful marketing strategies right now. They work!
Next up: Transition Issues
 Quotes in this blog are with permission. The source is the recent series of interviews I conducted for my study, Barrington, G.V. (2018). Consulting After 50: Redirection and Reinvention for Career Evaluators.
- Written by Gail Vallance Barrington