What can 236+ years of consulting teach you about getting clients?
Updated: May 27
I interviewed 40 consultants worldwide to know how they get clients and the story of their first client.
Have you considered offering consulting services to businesses? Maybe offering career counselling?
You are a subject-matter expert. Is there anything more to it? Now all you need to do is set up your business and start work on client projects. Maybe you need to do sales? What would sales look like for expertise consulting?
Most people who are experts in their fields but want to start consulting have an incorrect worldview of how to get clients, which unfortunately leads them to a financial loss. I talked to 40+ consultants who collectively had 236 years of consulting experience.
How did they get their first client? What worked for them to get clients over the years?
This is the second part in a multi-part series. You can find the first 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 Image search.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Nuno Curado worked in engineering services companies and has created solutions for various industries and government agencies.
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.
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.
Q: How did you get your first client?
Getting the first (few) client(s) is tricky for a consultant. This is similar to a product startup's difficulty in getting a lead investor or their first few customers. Clients or customers are likelier to trust those with a good track record than someone new. Here are the top 5 most common strategies the consultants used to find their first client. The first two are the most common.
1 - Network Of Former Colleagues
40% of consultants I talked to mentioned obtaining their first clients through their existing professional networks, referrals from ex-colleagues, or friends. This strategy's effectiveness is rooted in the trust and credibility that come from personal connections.
"Got clients via referrals from my ex-employer for cases too small for them."
He was an expert in a niche programming language. He quit his job because he moved to a different country. His former company hired him as a consultant.
“Got all my gigs from ex-employer. I reached out to them as a former employee and was brought on as a freelancer. Pretty seamless transition as I know how they operate.”
The quote demonstrates the importance of maintaining good relationships with former colleagues and supervisors. My memory was that many of them got their first client through family. However, reviewing my notes, I realized only 2 got their first clients through their family.
He got some of his early clients through family and friends. Building websites and apps for them or their contacts.
2 - Network Of Former Customers
If not the professional network of colleagues, it was their network of customers. 16% consultants knew their first client from their full-time job before becoming a consultant.
“I was working with those clients from my full-time job.”
1 client of his employee wanted to work directly with him.
Had a network through her job where they taught best practices of Agile to others. So, had that network before she started consulting.
Got client from his earlier job where he was in a coaching network.
3 - Proactive Outreach And Networking
16% consultants used proactive outreach methods, such as outbound prospecting or attending networking events, to find their first client.
“I approached 600 angel investors, which led to booking 20 face-to-face meetings. Out of 20 I got 1 prospective client. Sometime later, one more came through from the same pool.”
He went to a bunch of networking events at early stages.
One consultant approached companies looking to hire full-time data analysts and offered their services as a freelancer instead.
“I applied to jobs where companies are looking to hire data analysts, but offered to work as a freelancer with them. Also, I circumvented recruiting companies.”
4 - Online Platforms And Marketing
This includes some unconventional ways. Some consultants utilized online platforms like Upwork or Google AdWords to find projects related to their areas of interest. This strategy can be effective because it allows consultants to showcase their skills to a broader audience and access various opportunities.
"My experiments have mostly been in getting jobs on Upwork that are loosely related to what I want to do."
He used Google AdWords for his niche and attracted his first client.
One consultant got in touch with a web publication to feature her as one of the first few female professionals in her area. This method might have been successful because it leverages media exposure to create buzz and generate interest in her services.
Got in touch with a web publication to feature her to be one of the first female professionals in her area.
12% of consultants I talked to got their first client through online platforms or marketing..
5 - Partnering With Others
Working with other professionals or agencies led to referrals for 8% of consultants I talked to. One consultant freelanced for an agency to work on web development for non-profits. This work led to several projects from the contacts gained from here.
Freelanced for an agency to do NPO work. That led to 5-6 projects a year from their contact that led to a growing network.
6 - Unconventional Or Unique Approaches
8% of consultants had an unconventional approach to get their first client. A freelancer began their freelance content writing journey by accepting a below-market-rate gig to write an entire article for $10. It helped him understand the area and build a portfolio, which led to more significant opportunities.
Someone asked whether he will write an article for $10. He wrote half of it and then made this new field his focus.
Another consultant was a tinkerer. A customer came back to him to build an iOS app for them. This was a confluence of an existing client relationship and a niche skill.
He was tinkering with iOS apps and built an iOS app prototype. Apple had just launched the iOS app store. An existing client business came back to him in his agency. Can you build an iOS app for us?
Here is a visualization of the commonality of these approaches.
Q: How do you get your clients?
I heard these methods to acquire new clients from consultants. In hindsight, I should have asked, “How did you get your previous client?” and asked follow-up questions. Starting with an emotional memory would’ve been better than an aggregate memory.
1 - Proactive Networking
Attending networking events or conferences was a standard method for 43% of consultants to find new clients. These events provided valuable opportunities to meet prospects (a.k.a prospective clients or potential clients), showcase their expertise, and establish connections. Networking events resulted in successful client acquisition by facilitating face-to-face interactions, which created lasting impressions.
He runs local meetups and conferences.
Got all clients through personal connections. e.g., He knew the founder from a dinner 8 yrs ago and kept in contact.
Networked within her client, which was a large company. She will meet someone in meeting, or reach out to different groups to do her assigned project. Make connections on the way.
Very people person. Always connecting with people she meets apart from the ones she is working with.
2 - Proactive Outreach
10% consultants proactively contacted prospects by cold emailing or using LinkedIn. This method was effective when targeting a specific audience or industry niche. While it may require more effort than other methods, proactive outreach helped consultants expand their network and increase their visibility among prospects.
“90% of the reason I became successful was I was consistent with outreach. Grind of finding new contacts. Reaching out. Tweaking messaging.”
"I had sales conversations via Linkedin. are you buying any software? can we help you out?"
“All clients are via outbound. We target clients with $100M+ of funding.”
3 - Warm Introductions Through Network
Utilizing personal connections was an effective way to secure clients for 33% of consultants. This method allowed consultants to build trust and rapport with prospects, as they got warm introductions. This includes network of former colleagues and clients too, but that network could be used to get warm introductions or a more structured partnership.
"I got some of his early clients through family and friends. Building websites and apps for them or their contacts."
He and his partner have been in the industry so long, so they get referrals from 3rd party businesses, earlier clients, or marketing. Very few inbounds.
Through connections. Lean on her network. Letting friends and acquaintances know she is accepting clients. e.g. neighbor is in marketing and works for dad's company.
They got clients through 1st-degree people first. Later partnerships.
4 - Partnering With Others
30% consultants found clients by establishing partnerships and collaborations with other organizations. This approach helped expand their reach by gaining access to prospects with an existing relationship with the partner organization.
Collaborations were effective because they leveraged the reputation of the partner organization, making the consultant's services more attractive to prospect. The partner organization’s referral came from a trusted source for a prospect.
"Our client come through partners or referrals. not through ads."
"Partner had connected with a marketing firm. Sometimes the marketing firm needed UXR."
"After exhausting prospects from 1st-degree connections, I partnered with software companies to offer the service of integrating software for their customers."
He worked with so many sales folks at ex-employer. He asked them to recommend small and medium businesses (SMBs) to him.
“My friend in NYC helped me get 3 clients, and I gave him an affiliate bonus.”
He knew a friend who was a UI/UX designer. They used to share leads with each other.
What worked = partnering with people. e.g., on the preferred vendor list for their country's government. Another friend is a marketing lead. Another is execution-oriented.
5 - Thought Leadership and Content Creation
20% consultants attracted clients by establishing themselves as thought leaders in their respective fields. They achieved this by sharing their knowledge through blog posts, books, and public speaking engagements. This positioned the consultant as an expert in their field, making them more attractive to prospects who sought reliable and knowledgeable service providers.
One of the 3 ways he gets clients is organic through his blog
he followed his passion in one niche programming language. he wrote books and gave lectures. So he was known as the expert. So people came to him.
“Very few inbounds. Mostly it is from what people know about you so talking to ppl and them trusting you. Did more content for ppl to read.”
As David Fields teaches, emphasizing your unique skills is effective because it allows consultants to stand out in a competitive market. It makes them attractive to clients seeking specialized expertise. Although I imagine every consultant had a niche, it came across specifically in only a few responses.
6 - Utilizing A Platform
23% consultants utilized a platform to search for work.
"My experiments have mostly been in getting jobs on Upwork loosely related to what I want to do."
"Took up jobs on reddit for_hire subreddit. Looked at Upwork"
Most consultants got clients through networking, followed by partnering. Many consultants had more than one approach. The count or percentage in the column chart is not mutually exclusive and has overlaps.
My upcoming articles will cover my findings on:
What projects do you work on?
Any other advice for a new consultant?