When I walked away from my startup in late April of 2013, I had reached a major crossroads. More than two years of my life had been invested into Habidy.com, a struggling social media company. I was in a place where many entrepreneurs had been before me: zero business prospects, zero income and a bucket full of obligations (including supporting a young family and paying NYC rent).
I had some decisions to make. I could continue eking it out in the startup world or turn back to the corporate drumbeat that I had walked away from in 2008. Startup life meant stress and uncertainty and an emotional barometer that boomeranged between elation and disappointment. On the flip side, a day job could provide a steady paycheck and a modicum of fulfillment. But it would also mean a departure from a lifestyle that allowed me to chart my own course for success.
For me, the choice was easy — I stuck with startups.
However, this time I chose to consult with startups, taking what I had learned through trial, error and misdirection and applying it to other early-stage founders with big brains and even bigger ideas.
Here is an overview of how I built and scaled a consulting business over one month’s time — and went from zero to four incredible startup clients in the process:
Step 1: Define Your Brand
What services are you selling and why will people choose you as an expert provider? Defining your brand means first defining yourself. Determine what you can do for people that they can’t (or don’t have time to) do for themselves.
Given my marketing and PR pedigree, my niche was easy to pinpoint and articulate to others. I help early and mid-stage startups hone their content and their market. I ensure that their messages, delivery and product are all singing from the same songsheet.
Find what sets you apart and what promise you can fulfill for your customers and get to work.
Step 2: Hone Your Message
Once you’ve found a niche and feel comfortable selling your services to others, you need to develop easy message points that clearly communicate your reason for being.
Defining a brand and nailing your message may seem relatively easy, but your business’s first, powerful impression is the most important thing for any company. Get it right the first time and you’ll be well on your way.
Step 3: Activate Your Network
You can never understate the importance of a great network. And no matter your background or your field, you’d be surprised with how far your base network will get you.
Reach out with personalized messages to everyone you know and close with a specific “ask.” To whom can your connection introduce you? Can you meet for a 10-minute chat or coffee to discuss the next steps you’re making in your career? If you don’t ask, you’ll never receive. You’ll never fail to be surprised at the generosity people show with their time if you show interest and gratitude.
But don’t sell yourself short — networks can be built and buttressed every day. Start small, be consistent with your outreach, and good things will follow.
Step 4: Price to Move
Consulting is a tricky business — especially in the startup world. While ad agencies where I worked in the mid 2000s charged clients $150 an hour for my time, at cost-conscious startups it’s more realistic to make around half of that.
Start low, offer discounts and work in cash-stock ratioed plans to send the message that you have some skin in the game. Also, keep in mind that an important but low paying role at a small startup could lead to a more enriching long-term relationship if your efforts open doors and on-board customers for your client.
Step 5: Execute on the Work
An early mentor once told me, “Create reasonable expectations for every client and then vastly exceed them.” This has served as a mantra for me throughout my professional career.
Value is the name of the game for any owner. If your value shines through, your own successes will follow. In my case, it lead to an early referral that was a major boost to my practice. While two of my first clients came as referrals through my network, the third was passed on at the suggestion of a client I had worked with for just two weeks.
If you do great work, the results will speak for themselves.