The Consulting Detour: Does It Pave the Way to Entrepreneurial Success?
Updated: Sep 14
1 Year In: Candid Account of Career Pivots, Defining Success, and Learning on the Go
I've taken some time to reflect on what I want from my career moving forward. I consulted a few businesses over the last year. I learned a lot, but not earned a lot. I also doubted my goals and steps towards the goals, at every step of the way. Did consulting pave the way to my entrepreneurial ambitions? Or was it a detour? Do I need to course correct?
As I review my journey, likes, and goals, I wrote them down here.
In this article, I’ve focused on my consulting journey over the last year.
Why the leap into entrepreneurship? Why did I resign from my job?
Why start a consulting venture?
What did I enjoy about consulting?
What challenged me most in consulting?
What were some irritants about consulting?
What motivated me and what drained my energy?
After 1 year, what can I do next in consulting?
But, do I want to do more consulting?
What Is My Ideal Definition Of Success Over The Next 10 Years?
A mentor asked me about my ideal outcome 5 to 10 years from now. I realized my ideal success is leading a successful product startup. The other extreme question I asked myself is what would I regret. I would feel the most regret if I never attempted to establish a product startup. Other paths like running a consulting business or being employed full-time in a company might fall somewhere in between my spectrum of ideal success and regret.
But, What Are The Different Ways That I Can Consider Myself Successful?
Being successful to me means having financial stability and a good measure of professional autonomy or independence.
Whether that comes from working as a full-time employee in vibrant company culture, running my own consulting business, venturing solo as an indie hacker, or leading a product startup, each has its merits and drawbacks.
I'll dive deeper into that in future blog entries, but not this one.
Why The Leap Into Entrepreneurship? Why Did I Resign From My Job?
I had always wanted to be an entrepreneur.
The drive to become an entrepreneur pushed me to resign from my role. I found it challenging to juggle my entrepreneurial aspirations with the demanding responsibilities of a full-time ownership-heavy staff Product Manager job. I wrote more about my 4-step framework here.
I thought of Jeff Bezos’ regret-minimization framework. I didn't want to look back a decade later with regret, wishing I had made more time to pursue my dreams. If 10 years from now, I don’t have a successful business, I would be sad. But, if I tried it on the side, I would also have an excuse ready. I would say - it was on the side! If I had gone all-in, it would have succeeded! I couldn't bear the thought of using lack of time as an excuse for not building a successful business.
While I'm aware that most startups don't see the light of day – with 95% failing within their initial three years – I would much rather give it my all than regret never seizing the opportunity.
I was inclined towards a product startup from the onset of my entrepreneurial journey. But, I wanted a co-founder. Not just a co-founder, but a technical co-founder. This wasn't just a whim; having a co-founder statistically improves startup success rates. It seems this data is under question now, but it continues to be YC’s recommendation (and my guiding light). And since my dream was to create tech-driven products, I needed a technical co-founder. I did not have the technical skills myself.
My Journey In Searching For A Co-Founder
Finding the perfect co-founder felt like solving a puzzle. I had to find someone at the intersection of a venn diagram. This person had to possess technical expertise, be located in or near Ireland, share my enthusiasm for some idea, be interested in quitting their job at the same time in their life, and we both like working with each other.
I did not know of anyone who fit this bill. So, I wanted to get into the entrepreneurial communities of Ireland.
Why Start A Consulting Venture?
Paul Graham's advice resonated with me: "Do things that don't scale." By engaging with various businesses, I hoped to identify recurring pain points. How do I engage with many businesses? Consult them. Some call consulting “paid market research”. I aimed to use these insights to conceptualize a product that addresses these issues.
There is also an intersection of B2B software products and tech consulting.
1 - v1 of B2B software products often evolve from a consulting relationship with early clients. The clients view you as a subject matter expert.
2 - The competencies needed to establish a consulting business and a B2B product startup overlap.
So, I wanted to foray into consulting as a learning move, preparing me for a product startup.
In hindsight, I was also operating with risk aversion. I was willing to quit my job, yes. But, I was not willing to work on a technical startup idea without the know-how, market understanding, or an anchoring idea.
What Did I Enjoy About Consulting?
I found navigating multiple projects, different industries, and varied challenges invigorating. I felt a new sense of fulfillment at applying the bits of know-how I’d picked up over many years of work. For example, I didn’t do pricing calculations, content creation, or social media use at my full-time job. So, I didn't get to build those skills on the job. But, in my consulting work with clients or on my own business, I got to use all those skills.
I found a symbiotic relationship between my business endeavors at Spark Creative Technologies and client projects. Often, I would test a strategy for my business and later implement it for clients.
What Challenged Me Most In Consulting?
Defining my niche and filling my sales pipeline were pressing challenges for me.
I had inertia to prospect for clients. I hesitated to seek projects that seemed mundane.
The intersection of companies with intriguing projects and companies willing to engage a consultant with my skills was narrow. Though I had the privilege of working on a few exciting businesses over the year, I hindered my opportunities because I did not do any proactive outbound prospecting.
Product-management-on-demand is not a skill in demand.
When I did some conversations, I realized I am not clear on my value proposition. What services can I offer? I talked to 40+ service business entrepreneurs and 20+ businesses to understand the services in demand that I should offer. I went through a multi-part framework to identify my niche.
I still didn’t feel satisfied. I felt my offerings only showcased a fraction of my capabilities. I felt it may not resonate - the businesses with these needs may not have the budget and the businesses with the budget may not hire a consultant (hire full-time instead).
What Were Some Irritants About Consulting?
I’ll take a step back and think about my full-time job.
I relished product discovery and building products with diverse teams in my full-time job. I enjoyed working with engineers, designers, sales, support, customer success, marketing, technical writers, and more. I loved launching products and gathering metrics.
I did stakeholder management, but it did not energize me. Neither did managing up. Consulting reintroduced this hurdle. I could not deliver a rational objective recommendation and move forward. I had to persuade and align teams, even in startups with just 20 members.
As a solo business owner, every week brought administrative tasks. They were like persistent pinpricks. I often consoled myself, thinking they were startup teething problems. Yet, each week, the list seemed endless. I delegated some tasks every week. But, it was impossible to delegate most of these new, one-off tasks, adding to the stress.
After 1 Year, What Can I Do Next In Consulting?
I have several ideas to expand the consulting business. This is partly because I have done little business development. I’ve identified avenues to find projects, but I have not executed them.
Image by Freepik.
1 - Niche services
Earlier, I offered broad consulting. I called it product consulting, business consulting, or growth consulting services interchangeably. I recently revamped my website to highlight my niche in customer journey mapping and a few more deliverables in customer experience consulting. I will need to refine my niche more, based on more prospective conversations.
2 - Marketplaces
I became aware of multiple platforms where companies post consulting job requirements. I saw Michael Lin’s recommendation to explore platforms like Upwork and Fiverr, to bid on projects and gather experience working with diverse companies. I also noted a list of platforms in my previous article. Here was that list: Catalant, BTG, Talmix, Umbrex, Veritux, and GLG. I learned about the Irish government tender system, where they release requests for proposals from consultants and agencies.
3 - Meeting People
Some people talk about serendipity in finding clients. I can increase my surface area for serendipity by going to more meetups like Dublin Tech Summit, using Lunchclub, using VirtualBON, or virtual coffee through consultant slack communities like Rands leadership group.
4 - Accelerator
I came across David Field’s solo consultant accelerator, which helps solo consultants build their business by identifying a niche, building a client pipeline, and more. I heard about Vixul from Michael Lin.
5 - Outbound Prospecting
I've ideated on a v1 approach for outbound prospecting within my former colleagues and classmates. I need to share about my services with them and they might know someone else who needs those services. I also found a newsletter, FinSME, to get leads on small companies that got a funding round, so might need immediate help but not be able to hire full-time immediately. I can also apply to remote + contract-only opportunities on LinkedIn or Indeed. When the platforms have very few such job positions, I can apply to full-time opportunities, then clarify in the application and with the recruiter about my business offering. I learnt about this by talking to another budding consultant from the Netherlands.
But, Do I Want To Do More Consulting?
These 5 things make me reconsider doing more consulting.
Conflict Between An Ownership Role And Outsourcing
The Opportunity Cost
I hoped the revenue from consulting would give me a runway to try product ideas. I’m not making a lot of money as a consultant in the short term. In my ideal long-term scenario, I have a successful product startup. Instead of exerting energy to generate incremental revenue as a consultant, why not channel that effort into a product startup?
There is a good overlap in skills between building a consulting business and a product business. But, I am now at a point in my consulting business where my attention is required on parts of the business that do not overlap with building a product startup.
Conflict Between An Ownership Role And Outsourcing
My research tells me that companies often hire external help for engineering, marketing, and web design jobs. However, they rarely seek outside assistance for product skills, user research, and project management. These roles require someone who understands the context. Some of these roles are not clearly defined, demand responsibility, and are challenging to prove their return on investment (ROI) for each project.
Companies that know the value of these skills might hire them full-time, instead of hiring a consultant as an interim expert. Whereas, companies that do not know the value of these skills would not consider hiring or outsourcing these tasks, even though they might need it.
As a full-time product manager, I could offer my expertise to one product team in one company. I started consulting to offer my expertise to not just one product team in one company but to multiple products across companies. But, I sense that is not how it is perceived.
When an entrepreneur starts a product venture, I feel they are perceived as wanting to “make the world a better place”. Whereas, when an entrepreneur starts a consulting venture, I feel they are perceived as not having a job or as “money-sucking vampires”. Yes, I’ve used hyperbolic descriptions, but I’m sure you understand my perspective beyond the hyperbole. These are my perceptions based on the questions or expressions I’ve faced from friends or former colleagues. My takeaway from online community discussions suggests the same.
Some popular hyperscaling companies were built by folks early in their career or early in their family life, maybe before they were married, had a mortgage, or had kids. That let them live frugally while they experimented with startup ideas.
Some successful consultants started their solo consultancy later in their career. Pretty much close to retirement age. That makes it seem like consulting is a retirement plan. They are not keen to hustle everyday to find their next gig.
I’m at neither of those ages. I sometimes feel I don’t have enough expertise to consult, but I have a higher opportunity cost and ties to hustle for 80 hours weeks to build a product startup.
If Not Consulting, What?
My next article shares more about other projects I tried in the last year and continues thoughts on upcoming priorities. I write about:
What other projects did I try over the last year?
What motivated me and what drained my energy?
Another aspect I loved as a solo entrepreneur
Do I still want to develop this product?
What do I want to do?
How can I be more intentional?