Four questions you must ask before starting your own consultancy

Work out whether you’re ready to go it alone with help from L&D consultant Joe Bell

You’re probably reading this because you’re thinking about starting up your own business – or are already actively planning to do so. A few years ago I was in the same position as I prepared to start my independent L&D consultancy.

Now, six years on, with experience in mentoring three HR start-ups and some awards nominations under my belt, here are the fundamental questions I think you need to answer before striking out on your own.

1. What do you want from this?

One thing that is guaranteed when going solo is uncertainty. So before you start, consider: are you wired to handle this? I began by writing down everything I could gain and everything I could lose. I also received some coaching to help me focus on what was important. Why? Because the risks  – both financial and emotional – are real. Losing sick pay and a pension. Setting everything up. Working in isolation. Hunting for new business. Handling the numbers. Recognising these realities are essential to enable you to zero in on all the meaningful stuff. Self-actualisation. Being the boss. Doing what you love. Creating a lifestyle.

Set out your success measures clearly, but do not dismiss your fears – these are useful emotional data.

2. What is the point in you?

In my previous role as head of L&D for a global organisation, I was wary of consultants and trainers, because not all of them are worth the money. As with any organisation, there are some good, some bad and some excellent.

You may come up against such suspicion, so be prepared. I resolved to become invaluable for my clients in how I delivered my service. I assumed that other potential customers would also possess a level of scepticism, so I worked hard on my proposition. As well as offering outstanding service, I wanted a reputation as honest and straightforward in terms of cost, delivery and expectations. The content of delivery may be transformational – but the exchange of services is transactional. Be clear in what you are delivering and how it will be measured. 

3. What are your beliefs, and how will they shape you?

This is really where it starts. Having met a lot of people in HR, I value pragmatism and a sense of humour. HR can take itself too seriously. Here’s an example: I believe that people aren’t ‘human capital’. I really dislike the idea that, for HR to be considered a serious discipline, it has to become commercialised and brittle in how it speaks about people. People aren’t neat and tidy, and do not roll along a production line – they are messy and complicated. But I do believe that most people want to belong to something meaningful, and often long for that connection. When they feel valued, involved and empowered, they are impassioned to deliver great work. I believe HR is there to help enable that: whether that’s developing the emotional intelligence of its leaders, improving organisational communication or whatever.

Your beliefs – about yourself and others – will likely shape your brand. What are those beliefs? And how might they help or hurt you? How do they shape the service you are offering?

4. Are you ready to make this decision on your own?

You will need support to succeed and I cannot stress this enough: listen to everyone, from friends and acquaintances to colleagues, online bloggers and industry specialists. Speak to potential clients to understand how they contract work. What is the going rate for the kind of work you offer? In the six months leading up to going it alone I sharpened my credentials, attended courses and upgraded my membership of professional organisations. I was absolutely determined to give it my all and this gave me the focus I required.

But only you can make the final decision. I advise creating short, medium and long-term plans, and then jump in with both feet. Own the decision and trust in yourself.

Joe Bell is director of Evoke People Development, which was shortlisted in the best L&D supplier category of the 2017 CIPD People Management Awards