How to Start a Consulting Business After 50: 6 Tips You Need to Know
Before I retired from my corporate career, I thought that starting a business meant finding a big idea, developing a product, hiring staff and setting out to “make the world a better place.” Like most people, I saw the stories of companies like Facebook and Google and believed that starting a company required a hard-to-find combination of business and technical skills.
Even the idea of starting a small business like a coffee shop or retail store seemed out of reach. After decades of managing teams in the corporate world, I simply had no desire to work with anyone. In addition, I didn’t have a big savings account to dip into to cover any startup costs.
So, for the first few months after I retired, I felt paralyzed. I knew I wanted to take my financial future into my own hands, but, I didn’t know how I was going to do it.
A Life-Changing Conversation with My Son Set Me on the Path to Consulting Success
Then, I had a conversation with my son that changed my life. You see, my son had left his own career in corporate several years before to start a consulting business. Along with his wife, he had travelled the world, doing project work from the comfort of coffee shops in Brazil and beach huts in Bali.
Over the course of several hours, my son convinced me that, even though I no longer worked in corporate, the skills that I had acquired over the decades still had value. In fact, he argued, it would be much easier for me to set up a consulting company doing what I already knew how to do than to take off down a completely new path.
In the years following our conversation, I did exactly what my son suggested – I leveraged my skills, contacts and drive to build a thriving consulting business. It wasn’t all ice-cream and sprinkles, but, I managed to make more money as a consultant than I ever did in corporate. Best of all, I had the flexibility to work where, how and when I wanted.
Best of all, my work as a consultant gave me the money that I needed to start Sixty and Me, community of half-a-million baby boomer women.
The more I think about it, the more I believe that consulting work is perfect for many older adults. After all, we have spent our entire careers building valuable skills. Most of us also have a good reputation in our industry and a strong contact list to work with. So, why not give it a shot?
As someone who has successfully made the transition from employee to consultant, I wanted to offer some advice for those of you who are just getting started. If you have any of your own suggestions, please add them in the comments section below.
If Possible, Start Planning Your Consulting Business Before You Leave Your Day Job
How many times have you received a LinkedIn request from someone that you haven’t worked with for years? It may sound cynical, but, after receiving such a request, I immediately prepare myself for a request.
Some people are looking for a job. Others want to sell you something. Regardless, it usually becomes clear fairly quickly that they aren’t really interested in helping you reach your goals.
If you are going to start a consulting business, especially after 50, your contacts are your most valuable assets. So, don’t wait until you need them to start engaging with them.
If networking doesn’t come naturally to you, set yourself the goal to start warming up your LinkedIn contacts list at least a year – and preferably longer – before you leave your job. Here are a few ideas for staying in touch with your business contacts so that they are there for you when you need them:
- Set up Google alerts and congratulate them when they are in the news
- Send genuine birthday greetings – make it personal
- Go to conferences – yes, they’re a pain, but, your company is paying for you to network
- Look for opportunities to introduce people
- Set aside 20 minutes a day to look for opportunities to help people
- Read “Never Eat Alone,” by Keith Ferrazzi for more useful networking suggestions
If you think that you might want to start a consulting business one day, it’s never too early to start networking. Plant seeds now that you can harvest tomorrow.
Even Better, Convert Your Day Job Into Your First Consulting Gig
Since I started consulting, two of my biggest clients were companies that I had worked with in the past. Not only did I know who to contact, but, I had a deep understanding of their needs, culture and people. In short, I knew where I could add value.
I know people who have taken it a step further. Knowing that, for one reason or another, their careers were reaching its end, they converted their day jobs into their first consulting gigs.
This may be a slightly provocative statement, but, if you are on the way out, don’t be in a rush to make everything easy for your employer.
Do your job and complete the tasks that you are assigned, but, also make it clear that there are plenty of areas of opportunity in the future. In other words, be professional and complete the tactics, but, leave the strategy unfulfilled.
Then, once you are ready to leave, do what other people don’t – give plenty (even months) of notice, tell your manager that you would love to continue to support the company as a consultant and try to get a plan in place before you leave to do exactly that.
Be Everything that Corporate is Not – Personal, Flexible and Dynamic
There are many reasons that managers choose to work with outside consultants. Sometimes they are looking for someone with a skillset that they do not have access to inside their own company. Sometimes their team is overworked and they don’t have headcount for another employee. Occasionally, they just need flexibility and outsider thinking.
Over the course of my time as a freelance consultant, I did my best to cultivate a reputation for flexibility and creative thinking. Among other things, this meant looking for opportunities to start “pilots” that allowed managers to test new ideas without wrestling with corporate bureaucracy.
Let me give you a quick example. One of my clients wanted to launch a content marketing strategy. At the center of this strategy was a new blog. Unfortunately, their IT department said that they didn’t have the resources to develop the blog, so, the project sat on the sidelines for over a year.
After being hired to help the company with their social media strategy, I asked my contact to tell me about some of their biggest pains. What did they wish they could if they had more time, resources or money?
They mentioned the blog and the challenges that they were facing getting the IT resources to support it. One quick conference call later, the IT team, my customer and I had agreed that I would help the client to launch a content marketing “pilot,” at the center of which would be a new blog, managed outside of the company’s official infrastructure.
After the project became a success, the blog was officially consumed by the IT department, but, for 2 years, I had a great gig and a very happy client.
Become a Publically Recognized Expert
The key word here is “publically.” The people who have worked with you in the past may know that you are an expert, but, if you ever want to expand beyond your core group of LinkedIn contacts, you will need to build a public brand.
If I were starting my consulting business from scratch, one of the first things that I would do would be to launch my own content marketing strategy.
Don’t like to write? No problem! Try video.
Don’t like being on camera? Don’t worry! You can always launch a podcast.
Don’t know what to say? You can always interview other people at the beginning.
It always frustrates me to know end when people complain that they can’t find any business. After exhausting their outreach efforts, they give up and either look for another job or retire early at a dramatically lower standard of living.
My questions are always the same: “If you have extra time, why not use it? Why not get up every day and start doing instead of talking? Why not make yourself into the ultimate expert in your field? What do you have to lose by putting yourself out there?”
Be Flexible AND Structured – Don’t Be Someone Else’s Scapegoat
When everything is going well, being a consultant is a dream job. You can work from wherever you want. You choose your own hours. To a certain extent, you even choose your own clients.
The flip side is that, when everything hits the fan, you are often the first person to be blamed. This isn’t fair, but, it is natural. Employees have every incentive to protect themselves when a PR disaster strikes. When this happens, the consultants, temporary employees and freelancers are often the ones to take the blame – whether they deserve it or not.
Let’s just take one small hypothetical example. You have been hired to write articles for a large tech company and post them to their official blog. You have been working together for years, so your contact tells you to “just go ahead and write the social media posts. I trust you.”
Trying to be flexible and make your contact’s job easier, you accept.
Unbeknownst to you, the company has recently settled a lawsuit with one of their competitors. As a part of the settlement, certain claims should no longer be made in your client’s marketing, including on social media.
Your latest post goes viral in completely the wrong way. Twitter lights up, TechCrunch picks up the story and your boss starts receiving angry emails from his chain of command. The next thing you know, you receive an email from the company’s HR department informing you that they have terminated your contract.
Who is to blame? Well, in this case, there is plenty of blame to go around. But, ultimately, the entire situation could have been avoided if you had kept better documentation.
One thing that I learned early on in my consulting career is to never do anything without signoff. It only takes 60 seconds to glance through a page of social media posts and respond with an “ok.”
Be friendly. Be flexible. But, also protect yourself.
Get the Scope of Work and Any Contingencies in Writing
One of the hardest conversations we have as consultants is explaining why certain tasks are out of scope and require additional budget. In my experience, these issues can be avoided if you are just clear about the scope of work up front.
You don’t need to have a long legal contract. You’re almost certainly not going to sue your client anyway. But, you should have the scope of work and terms of your contract down in writing.
One section that I started adding to my contract several years ago covers tasks outside of the original scope of work. I basically state my hourly rate and ask the client to agree that any tasks that are not covered by the initial agreement will be billed on an hourly basis unless a separate agreement is set up. This takes the pressure off of everyone.
I hope that you found these tips for starting a consulting business after 50 useful. If you have any questions for me regarding how I set up my own consulting business, please leave them in the comments.
Have you ever thought about starting a consulting business? What are the biggest fears that you have? If you have already started a consulting business, what advice would you give to the other people in our community who have not yet taken the plunge? Please join the conversation.