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  • Writer's pictureHarshal

Here Is The Advice I Got From Consultants With 236+ Years Of Experience Collectively

Updated: Jun 5, 2023

I interviewed 40 consultants worldwide to learn about their projects and know their advice.

Have you considered offering consulting services to businesses? Maybe offering career counseling?

You are a subject-matter expert. Now all you need to do is set up your business and start work on client projects. Right? But what service should you offer? What problem can you solve?

I talked to 40+ consultants who collectively had 236 years of consulting experience. What kind of projects did they do? What approaches work well for them that they would recommend to a new consultant?

This is the third part in a multi-part series. You can find the first article here and the second article here. I split my learnings into multiple articles to reduce the delay in publishing parts that are ready. Illustration credits to Dall-E 2.

illustration of two consultants pointing to the 236+ years of consulting experience they’ve unearthed in cave paintings
illustration of two consultants pointing to the 236+ years of consulting experience they’ve unearthed in cave paintings

Whom Did I Talk To?

My research was possible thanks to the generosity of these experts sharing their experience in

  • Building a solo consultancy,

  • Offering freelancer services,

  • Working in an established consulting firm,

  • Running an agency, or

  • Building a service business.

Thanks to these entrepreneurs, consultants, and freelancers for sharing their experiences for me to read and share with you. The order is not relevant for any purpose, so I’ve kept it a bulleted list instead of a numbered list.

  • Randy Silver runs Out of Owls product consulting form. He also is an author, a podcast host, and runs the product community Pita Social. He helps build high-performance product teams and cultures, and helps product teams to ask better questions, faster.

  • Gavin Fox is a director/partner in Martinsen Mayer Technology Recruitment & Founder of Dublin Tech Talks; a leading meetup and podcast series. He is a specialist in technology hires, focused on Product centric roles and strategic hires to help scaling companies grow.

  • Sonya Waitman runs Chilco Strategies and provides holistic marketing and sales consulting. She is skilled at translating technical jargon into customer stories and sales value propositions.

  • Dan Pariseau has been a freelance consultant and a consultant for about 7 years at Deloitte.

  • Lynn Compton Seay is an independent management consultant at Arcos Group with experiences as GM at Kaplan and consulting at McKinsey. She consults middle market companies through end-to-end enterprise transformations.

  • Shankar Sahai helps businesses achieve the best possible CX by aligning people, tools with a future-ready strategy. His consulting firm InfoIvy provides consulting services to customer success and customer service orgs.

  • Bharat Gulati runs Crownstack that provides engineering services to organizations with clients in USA, UK, EU, India, and Middle East, with an engineering team in India.

  • Nadia Tosheva provided product consulting through Practice Makes Product in the areas of product strategy, user experience, team building, full software development lifecycle and delivery using Agile methodologies. She is also a product leader at Teach Your Monster.

  • Serghei Spelciuc founded infologiQ in Toronto with offices in the UK and Ukraine. Their team of software developers help in enterprise digital transformation projects for large companies, including healthcare organizations.

  • Meenakshi Jain provides photography services and has 10+ years of experience as an entrepreneur. She graduates with masters in Digital and Content Marketing with Data Analytics from Technological University Dublin this year.

  • Robert Kokais passion is business coaching, helping individuals and teams reaching their business potential. He has 24+ years experience in the IT industry.

  • Brett Ungashick founded OutSail and provides advisory services to buyers of HR software services.

  • Simon Bergenroth helps inspire professionals to develop their current and future career progression aspirations successfully.

  • Kaylee Mitchell-Draisey is a seasoned marketing professional with over a decade of experience leading marketing strategies, designing marketing materials, and creating websites. She crossed multiple revenue thresholds over the last several quarters at her business Lazy Lemons.

  • Roberto Puente freelances with various clients in web development, product design, marketing, and content creation/editing.

  • Francesco Cesarini founded Erlang Solutions, specializing in soft real-time systems with high scalability and availability requirements.

  • Nuno Curado worked in engineering services companies and has created solutions for various industries and government agencies.

  • Cherian Thomas has provided privacy and security consultant services to comes like Twilio and now works in security engineering at Workday.

  • Sanket Patel runs Hi-Lab Solution, a UI/UX and web design agency with clients across countries.

  • Anthony Main founded a UK-based mobile app agency, The Distance, which provides mobile app development services.

  • Jake Lizarraga has spent the past five years creating content for seven and eight-figure SaaS companies. His work has been published on Jotform, PandaDoc, Userpilot, Chanty, and more.

  • Vaibhav Sharma is a technical architect at Bearing Point, a consulting firm headquartered in Europe.

  • Viktor Muller provided product consulting services to startups with experiences at BCG and Twilio. He is now the head of product at AIMS Innovation. He writes about his experiences here.

  • Cormac Cullen is an instructional & presentation designer and provides his services through Interactive Media.

  • Nathan Arant helps businesses and teams optimize through processes and software. He provides consulting services through Upwork.

  • Erika Webb has a background in research methodologies including a PhD. She recently led UX research in Twilio and Docker but has been a UX architect and consultant for many years earlier.

  • Siobhan Maughan founded IntegratedThinking to provide her product consulting services. She helps provide strategic marketing and strategic product management help to companies to drive market opportunity-focused conversations.

  • Udit Chaudhry consulted through Nayana Capital and The Red Pen.

You’ll find some excerpts below attributed to consultants but others without attribution. Some of this is random, some my laziness, and some to keep anonymity.

Q: What Projects Do You Work On?

I found 36 project types from my conversations but grouped them into a few here. You can see the Wordart word cloud below for the aggregate themes.

common projects from the consultant excerpts
common projects from the consultant excerpts

1 - Agile Transformations And Digital Transformations

Some consultants worked on agile transformations or digital transformation projects, helping companies become more efficient and adaptable. Most examples of digital transformations required engineering/technical expertise, whereas agile transformations required Agile, Scrum, and project management knowledge. Both required expertise in change management, stakeholder communication, and project management. Digital transformations included engineering services to build or integrate with ERP, CRM, or ASM systems. This category of projects was very pervasive. I found it interesting that sometimes the work involved no-code solutions.

Some excerpts are below.

  • At consulting ex-employer, 70% of projects were agile transformations. Technology-enabled project.

  • Digital transformation in healthcare companies.

  • Some projects are about digitizing a paper process.

  • Engineering to build a field management system.

  • Nathan: Airtable, Zoho, et al. app integrations and automations

  • Enterprise transformation work e.g., setup ERP system for a PE portfolio company.

  • Security product integration including SSO, audit, provisioning.

2 - Engineering For Website, Web Apps, Or Phone Apps

Engineering support was a common consultant project type. They created software, including websites, web apps, and smartphone applications to help businesses establish a digital presence and offer online services to their customers. Sometimes the consultant company would deploy a team of contractual engineers to the client to join the client scrum ceremonies.

Some excerpts are below.

  • His niche was websites and web apps. He makes React Native apps for both iOS and Android at the same time for every client.

  • Majority of clients come for website development.

  • Provide Contractual developers. They join the client's scrum.

  • Vaibhav: mobile apps and software development projects.

3 - Usability Studies and User Research

Consultants conducted extensive research and gathered insights to improve user experience, helping businesses better understand their target audience and enhance their products or services. This included user research, understanding the customer journey, and conducting usability studies.

Some excerpts are below.

  • Extensive study to redesign a hi-tech system. Got out and went on a literal roadtrip for user research.

  • B2C company wanted to create an online presence. Research who their users were. What are their business process.

  • One project was of needing to fix or improve the customer journey.

  • Identify and address persistent challenges and untapped opportunities. Look at market segmentation.

4 - Interim Product Leadership and Product Coaching

Consultants sometimes joined startups as interim product managers or product leaders, stepping in to provide leadership during periods of transition or change. Product consultants split their time commitment in two ways - either an interim or a fractional product manager. They helped companies maintain momentum, offering guidance and support until the company found a permanent replacement. A related project type was to coach the product team of a business while helping them reach a goal. Some consultants focus on coaching and staff training. This was to equip employees with the skills and knowledge needed to excel in their roles. Consultants helped companies by sharing best practices and offering tailored guidance.

Some excerpts are below.

  • Company struggled to figure out a direction, so they hired a senior product consultant to act as interim CPO/VP product.

  • Interim product leadership roles to hire PMs or backfill product leadership temporarily.

  • Projects are a blend of coaching and consulting. Have to change people to reach a project outcome, so have to help people reach that stage of understanding where they can continue the project.

  • Coach staff about best practices at a company.

5 - Content Creation

Consultants and freelancers offered content creation and editing services. This included writing blog posts, editing videos, creating presentations, and creating visuals. This type of work helped their clients save time engaging with their audience.

Some excerpts are below.

  • Content marketing articles for SaaS. E.g., “all about NPS” for a SaaS product that enables customers to run NPS surveys.

  • Corporate training curriculum developer. Slides designer.

  • Video, audio recording, editing.

  • Recycle video content to help content creators monetize.

  • Design and send holiday cards.

  • Graphics for a sales training course or an ad agency.

  • Designing the slides for corporate training.

6 - Marketing

Although marketing is a broad topic with 100s of consultants, content marketing work was the majority of this group. Consultants also covered the next step of content, including content marketing, SEO research, and social media management. This work helped their clients establish online credibility, gain eyeballs, and engage their target audience.

Some excerpts are below.

  • Managing social media of tattoo artists.

  • Hosting webinars and building communities.

7 - Startup Go-To-Market Or Advise

Consultants also assisted startups in go-to-market, product pricing, rebranding, and securing funding. They helped increase the chances of success of startups. But many of these engagements were pro-bono. I heard from some consultants not to target startups as they don’t have the finances to pay for expert services.

Some excerpts are below.

  • Helping an early-stage startup for 4 years in rebranding and acquiring seed round funding.

  • Strategic work of helping a hardware startup with VCs.

  • Coaching early-stage startups on their pitch decks, GTM strategy, and product strategy.

  • Pricing project as an interim VP of product for a startup.

8 - M&A Due Diligence Or Execution

Consultants worked on many aspects of M&A. This is because M&A is on a project-by-project basis, as each acquisition requires a different skill set. I heard examples of M&A by PE firms and the resultant work. The work includes due diligence before the acquisition and post-acquisition execution to integrate or revamp the company.

Some excerpts are below.

  • Did M&A for PE firms. For example, they wanna acquire a startup that is stuck, so help in reviewing the startup’s status. A few years ago, B2B SaaS had a lot of opportunities.

  • Their primary client base is PE portfolio companies. For example, a carve-out project that included splitting one company having 3 brands into independent enterprises. Setup ERP system for a company. Enterprise transformation work.

9 - 1-1 Career Coaching

I also talked to solo coaches who specialized in career coaching.

I recollect a prospect who contacted my career coaching business requesting help to learn PM skills and grow as a PM. That made me update that side of my business to "job hunt" instead of "career" coaching. Another prospect asked me for similar advice and I wrote this article about career growth.

My understanding from talking to career coaching consultants was they helped individuals upskill.

Some excerpts are below.

  • Coaching based on a 1-1 relationship with clients. But was not as profitable.

  • Robert: Corporate career development or business coaching.

Other types of projects not in the 9 groups above include:

  • Cherian: security and privacy consulting

  • Siobhan: Strategic marketing review to identify and address persistent challenges and untapped opportunities that are impacting the business's rate of international sales growth. Look at market segmentation and value prop. How to do outcome-focused roadmaps.

  • And more that you might see in the Problemeter below

Applying the Problemeter

I earlier wrote about the 3 ways to identify your consulting niche. This is one of the 3 ways. I reviewed each response and marked it on the Problemeter as explained by David Fields. I overlaid this with my skills, marking my skills as High, Medium, or Low in each segment. I haven’t included that part in this article.

Partial Problemeter of business problems rated subjectively on 3 scales
Partial Problemeter of business problems rated subjectively on 3 scales

Q: Any other advice you have for me?

I got a lot of valuable advice. But, some consultants implied, “Do as I say, not as I do.” Some others shared advice that they would’ve followed in hindsight. So, keeping hindsight bias in mind, I realized I should value the advice that was followed by the speaker much more than the advice they wish they (or I) followed.

I have split the advice within each function I’d set up in Spark Creative Technologies in an earlier article here.

7 functions in the company with directional lines between the functions
7 functions in the company with directional lines between the functions

First, let us look at advice related to customer research and positioning your offering.

1 - Positioning and Business Model

Some consultants stressed the importance of refining the business model to ensure that services align directly with the client's revenue generation rather than being seen as overhead. Consultants also advised that product management is not a fractional or interim role but an ownership role. Another point was it is hard to connect the benefit from customer research or customer experience improvement to revenue or profits. This advice aligns with some of the statistics from the earlier article (p2) and the word cloud in article 1. There were many consultants (or agencies) that offered engineering and marketing services. But not as many offered product or user research consulting.

Some excerpts are below.

  • If a company views something as overhead, they tend to engage in free services, such as workshops, rather than pay for them. Companies generally prefer to hire full-time employees rather than external contractors for overhead roles like project management, product management, and product marketing. Companies do not see these roles as directly revenue-generating, unlike sales. On the other hand, engineering is not considered overhead. To ensure the sustainability and profitability of the business, I advise pivoting the business model towards direct, rather than indirect, revenue generation.

  • Brett: Early on - have more conversations with prospective customers. Learn from those.

  • Lynn: The right clients are the clients you have access to. Create CRM for yourself. Go through your contacts - assign them 2 dimensions - how willing are they to pick up the phone? Do they have P&L ownership?

  • Lynn: Perform expert interviews as a crucial part of diagnostics, which should not be given for free. Establish a strategy that is backed by these expert opinions. Following this, the execution of the strategy could potentially lead to benefits for the company, although it is not guaranteed.

  • Siobhan: Understand geographical conditions. If your country has government support for businesses, you must find out. For example, if the government will pay for 80% of product consulting when a business goes through them, it is very hard to compete with that if you go direct to a business. Easier to work with organizations that are funding businesses, e.g., such governmental initiatives. else you are a high cost to the business.

  • Steer away from getting too involved in the agile product owner role. A lot of training and consultants in that area.

  • Siobhan: Do not take on only long-term projects. Balance your portfolio so that you are not engaging with just 1 large client. If their business needs change, it could pull the rug out from under you.

  • Sanket: The F&B industry in Europe is huge, especially wine.

  • Some sectors of the economy won't be easy to work with. Think of sectors like utility or energy.

  • Simon: Take note of trends. team coaching is a growing trend. another is the combination of therapy and counseling.

2 - Specialization and Niche

Consultants suggested finding a niche where one’s expertise could be maximized. Then aligning services with the needs of businesses in that niche. An example of a niche is B2B SaaS product-led growth (PLG) consulting, whereas an opposite example is growth consulting. This aligns with recommendations from David Fields and part-2 of getting one’s first consulting client. Looking at the type of projects consultants do (in the earlier sections), this advice was followed by many consultants. I don’t have as many excerpts for this because it is the most common advice that I didn’t need to write it down.

Some excerpts are below.

  • (Everyone) Find your niche.

  • Anthony: Find your origin, mission, and vision.

  • Cormac: Find your niche through organic conversations to know what businesses need.

  • Gavin: Listen to founders to see what’s going wrong and see if you can advice. At the same time, the scalability of listening to founders individually and solving problems is low.

  • Once you’ve executed a project with a business, go to a competitor and offer to execute a similar project.

I wrote more about finding a niche in this article.

 three colorful roads converge at a roundabout, each representing businesses (or customers), consultant peer (equivalent to competitors), and consulting project marketplaces
three colorful roads converge at a roundabout, each representing businesses (or customers), consultant peer (equivalent to competitors), and consulting project marketplaces

Next let’s look at the Sales function.

3 - Networking and Relationship Building

Consultants emphasized it is essential to build connections and establish relationships. Nurture existing relationships, as your former colleagues could provide opportunities when they move to new companies. This aligns strongly with the approaches that helped consultants get clients.

  • Niall: Networking is critical. Friends should be part of your marketing department and they should be equipped to be able to recommend you.

  • Erika: Use existing relationships. People keep moving around to new companies.

  • Sanket: Let your network refer you, as that warm intro will be more open to listening to you.

  • Nuno: Selling through connections is easier than cold calling.

  • Meenakshi: You don’t want to do in-your-face marketing, but it is beneficial to build awareness amongst people. When she joins communities or Whatsapp groups, she messages hello and a brief introduction, which allows people to click on her profile and view more details about her business.

I wrote more about cold outreach, although in the career perspective, here.

4 - Client Acquisition

Consultants suggested having a lot of conversations. This resonates with Fanatical Prospecting from Jeb Blount. They suggested participating in conferences or associations as that increases the chances of serendipitous conversations. Seneca said, “Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity”. Not all of this aligns with the approaches that helped consultants get clients. Maybe there are niche ways folks found clients or ideal ways they didn’t get to explore.

  • Viktor: Always be open to a 30min coffee or doing a free workshop with someone. Don’t expect to have a client immediately from each conversation but build up your network and credibility.

  • VCs are not helpful as they are terrible at knowing their portfolio companies. Small boutique VC firms might still be ok and know about the needs of their portfolio companies.

  • It is better to work with big companies, although they may be legacy companies. They often have 1,000s of full-time contractors.

  • Shankar: His mentor advised him to have a thick skin and continue outbound conversations.

  • Kaylee: Recommend join associations once you find your niche.

  • Lynn: Join Platforms for independent consultants.

  • Sonya: Volunteer your time to help others learn and grow.

5 - Working with Startups

Consultants advised tracking investment rounds and partnering with startup accelerators to find potential clients. At the same time, they advised caution when hoping to work with small businesses or young startups. Although startups can benefit from consulting services, they may not have the means to pay for them. Although some consultants worked with startups, I understand many of these engagements were pro-bono.

  • Viktor: Track investment rounds relevant for your service (Seed, Series A / B, or late stage) so that you can reach out to the right set of startups. They already have the money but haven’t hired their full-time employees yet.

  • Randy: Find companies that got funded. e.g., series B

  • Startups are too immature to think they should spend money on UX.

  • Nadia: Work with a startup accelerator. They will refer you to portfolio clients.

  • Early-stage pre-PMF startups need help to prioritize, experiment, and build their product. All of this with limited resources. You can give them a very limited time as that will match their means to pay. At max, do one and a half days per week for a startup. You will deliver more than what a full-time PM could.

  • Kaylee: Startups may start with a freelancer consultant. For example, a business hired consulting services to figure out the user journey and flows. That pattern of hiring may run for 5 years before the business hires a marketing team.

  • It is really hard to make the financial numbers work. Hard to have a consistent long-term business. The acquisition is hard. And once a startup is successful and grows to series B, they'll hire CPO. Not work with you any longer.

  • Dan P: Reach out to friends with smaller businesses and try to get contracts that way.

  • Don't focus on small businesses as they don't have the budget nor do they understand the importance of marketing & sales.

  • Most startups fail in 1 to 2 years. So look for businesses that have been successful and are growing.

Next, let’s look at the Marketing function of the business.

6 - Portfolio and Content

You want to showcase your skill to build your credibility. You also want to get more prospective calls, so you want to generate interest and awareness. You can achieve these goals by creating content and building a portfolio. This extends to maintaining an active presence on professional platforms and attending conferences for industry engagement. When you review how consultants or agencies got clients, this was important to showcase one’s credibility but not as a lead generator.

Some excerpts are below.

  • Create more content for people to read. If you reach out to someone, they'll click on your profile to see the content.

  • Anthony: Build your credibility as a key person of influence in your industry. Create content. Post on LinkedIn.

  • Jake: Creating a website and hosting a portfolio there is valuable because seeing the portfolio on your website is much easier than scanning through google drive. Even though most people don't read testimonials or all portfolio pieces, their presence signals your credibility and skill.

  • Serghei: Be active on LinkedIn. Posts your thoughts in your domain on LinkedIn.

  • Lynn: Spend one day a week in business development. Look at ways to establish thought leadership. Speak at and attend conferences.

  • Viktor: Writing helped him showcase his approach to prospects. He suggests writing and creating a portfolio of relevant content. It takes a lot of patience and 1-2 years to build up enough content for a successful inbound marketing or SEO strategy.

  • Cormac: Look for speaking opportunities. Put your name out there so that people associate your name with your consulting practice.

  • Sonya: Look for speaking opportunities. She has seen consultants speak at user groups, local events, or global events. This is powerful. Her consulting team ran a community with local events like Super Saturdays. Anyone could submit an abstract to speak, but a lot of the speakers were consultants. In such cases, some audience members became leads for the consultants.

  • Sonya: Consider whether your current client would write you a referral. Also, prepare a pitch deck even if it is not longer than 5 slides as long as it covers the services you specialize in, your bio, and client testimonials.

  • Roberto: Content on Youtube can be evergreen whereas TikTok Instagram will disapper later. His screenshare videos from 3 years ago still give him traffic. Try to create 1 video every 15 days up to 100 videos, the consistency and the volume will help you figure out. Start with 1min videos for TikTok if longer videos for YouTube is daunting. Recycle videos from one platform to the other.

Next, let’s look at consulting project execution.

7 - Project Management and Client Relations

Consultants also had advice on ensuring successful projects. It requires managing the project successfully. Ensuring transparency, documentation, and managing client expectations were key to successful project management. They also suggested offering a paid support or retainer plan post-project to prevent clients from becoming too reliant on the consultant.

  • Francesco: Write things down when managing a client project. Then you can show them the spec doc they have agreed upon. It will help keep everyone on the same plate.

  • Ankur: Consider what support plan to give as people will otherwise become reliant on you.

  • It is hard to do more than 2 projects at a time due to the context switching and diversity of background info. So, look at more intensive engagement per project instead of several parallel projects.

  • Once you get a client never let go. Be on retainer.

  • Try to get on retainers.

  • Bharat: There is always maintenance work. Even if you are doing SEO or product development. The engagement with a client does not end with the first project.

At last, let’s look at the scaling-up responsibility of the business.

8 - Outsourcing and Team Building

Consultants’ suggestions varied from hiring and building a team to starting solo and focusing on demand generation before looking at the supply side. Although those are opposite perspectives, they still align with the growth of businesses. I saw a common thread amongst the consultants, freelancers, or agency owners was they started out on their own (or a founding team). The founding team proved product-market fit, and found a way to find the demand. Then they templatized and hired employees.

  • Don't do the consulting on your own. Hire people.

  • Ankur: Do not start with a team. Start on your own. Do not oversell the benefits of having a team to prospects. First, generate demand. Then look at the supply side (team).

  • Instead of hiring one off on Upwork, hire a full-time content writer in India for less expense.

  • Come up with templatized deliverables so that you can delegate.

  • Meenakshi: There are a lot of talented students pursuing Masters in marketing or other relevant fields who will be open to work during winter holidays. Identify the roles you want to hire part-time help. The benefit is a longer-term engagement with an intern vs. short-term projects with different freelancers.

Another way to group the above advice is along the 3 phases of building a consulting business, as we discussed in identifying a consulting niche here. Understand the market, define your niche, and prospect for clients.

 sequential 3 steps and similarity between a product startup and a consulting venture illustrated with 2 parallel chevrons
sequential 3 steps and similarity between a product startup and a consulting venture illustrated with 2 parallel chevrons

What would you like to know?

Based on topics I did not cover, is there something you wish you could ask these consultants? Is there anyone you would like to get introduced to?

Let me know if I can help in any way!



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