By Ryan Panzer
How does one start a successful training consulting business?
What skills are needed, what attitudes are required, what challenges should one expect? Elaine Biech, author of The New Business of Consulting, and Halelly Azulay, host of the TalentGrow Podcast, discussed these questions and more in a December webinar with the ATD Madison Area Chapter. Biech, who now lives in Virginia, is a native of Portage, WI and was formerly a member of the ATD-MAC board. During the webinar, Biech and Azulay shared several insights from their 50+ years of talent development consulting.
Elaine’s latest book, The New Business of Consulting, is an approachable and authoritative resource for learning and development professionals. The chapter sequence aligns to the entrepreneurial journey: from converting an idea into a business plan, to acquiring one’s first clients, to scaling the business and refining one’s niche. Each chapter begins with anecdotes of challenges for new consultants. Biech then describes specific practices for engaging those challenges and leaves the reader with actionable tools and resources. Not to leave out tenured consulting professionals, sections conclude with advice for the consummate pro. Throughout each chapter, Biech’s assessment of the consulting business is grounded but decidedly positive. She never shies away from describing the challenges: long hours, lots of travel, occasionally difficult clients. But she is resolute in her position that consulting is rewarding, fulfilling, and personally meaningful - especially for those in the talent development industry.
I found three pieces of advice to be particularly intriguing. The first: hire an accountant. Given the complexity of business structures, bookkeeping, and tax law, a trusted accountant is a must-have. Second: be honest about start-up expenses. From equipment to marketing and professional dues, new consultants face a wide range of potential expenses. While Biech shares that a “consulting practice can be surprisingly inexpensive,” it’s important to know where the money will come from - and where it will be allocated. Finally: be realistic yet assertive while pitching clients. Biech encourages new consultants to pitch to enterprise clients, who require more consulting services than small businesses or non-profits. She also shares that charging too little is one of the most common mistakes made by new consultants.
The New Business of Consulting is an important and thoughtful read for the transition to the gig economy. All training development professionals, even those who are not currently considering consulting, would do well to read it.
After the webinar, I had a chance to sit down with Elaine to discuss the book. Biech offered several meaningful pieces of advice to prospective consultants in the Madison-area.
Before one launches a consulting business, she recommends an intentional focus on building the skills that lead to consulting success. These skills aren’t directly related to training and development, in which many would-be consultants are already strong. Rather, these are the skills of networking, communication, and customer focus. “Most people who think about consulting are already skilled in what they want to consult on - like talent development, design, or delivery,” said Biech. “What you need to have is entrepreneurial skills… You absolutely have to be customer-oriented, all of the time.”
After one launches the business, Biech encourages consultants to be comfortable with not knowing an answer. “You can’t fake it until you make it when your name is associated with the business,” she said. “Be familiar with what you do not know, and be willing to look into a situation before providing a client with an answer.”
And for those in the Madison-area, Biech advises consultants to consider the industries for which Wisconsin is a hub. “If you consult in an industry with a large presence in an area, clients are more likely to refer you. Wisconsin is a hub for many things, and increasingly for healthcare.” Biech added that the small yet approachable Dane County airport offers a convenience factor for those who choose to build their niche in other regions.
The New Business of Consulting and The New Consultant’s Quick Start Guide are available now on Amazon.com.
Ryan Panzer (@ryanpanzer), the Co-VP of Professional Development for the Madison-Area Chapter, is a Senior Instructional Designer with Zendesk.
Disclaimer: ATD-MAC is proud to have a blog that features local ATD-MAC members as authors and contributors. We’d like you to know that the views and opinions expressed in this article or by any author/contributor in publications outside of this article do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of ATD or ATD-MAC.