Meeting new people at industry conferences is something I've always enjoyed. I love hearing about the projects they’re involved with, what brought them to the conference, what they’re hoping to take-away from it, and what their short and long-term goals are. And I share the same type of insight from my life.
Last week I attended my very first MozCon (which was absolutely incredible!); and as I connected with all my new friends across Twitter, LinkedIn, etc. and recalled the meet and greet I had with each of them, I noticed a trend with many of the women, especially under the age of 30, in what they shared with me. Are you ready for it?
The number one thing I heard from young women at MozCon is they want to start their own business or independent consultancy. And I really can’t put into words how happy this makes me!
During these conversations, I was asked numerous times about how I got started, how I find clients, and any advice I have for making the move. A couple of these young women even asked if I would mentor them. While flattering, I don’t think I’m far enough into this whole 'run-your-own-biz' thing to really mentor anyone, but I’m always happy to share insights from my experience, as well as tips and tricks I’ve developed along the way. So that’s what I’d like to do here, with the hope of affirming in these young women that their dreams are possible.
PRACTICAL TIPS FOR STARTING A CONSULTANCY
Plan your launch far in advance.
This should be a given, and really it’s about giving yourself enough time to prepare. For me, I started planning my move to sole proprietorship about one year in advance.
Define your brand before launch.
This one was tricky for me. After spending the better part of a decade at very brand-centric publishers and agencies, I felt as though I had to have a clever brand name before anything else. Talk about a roadblock! My solution was to treat myself as any other branding project I might be involved with. Identify exactly what it is that makes you stand out from the rest, look at search data and trends, analyze what your competition and/or role models are doing, and especially, find ways to be unique.
After a good amount of resistance to the idea, I accepted the fact that I already had a brand - it was my name. My clients and colleagues all knew me by my first and last name—and I would be relying so much on their support, endorsements, and referrals—so it made sense to stick with what was already established and build on it. The other plus is that I’m the only Sheena Atlantis Schleicher. I know, quite the mouthful, but I can’t foresee anyone else ever competing with me for my brand name. Since I chose to go with my name as my brand, I was sure to work descriptors into my logo and tagline:
Whether you stick with your birth-name or come up with something new and clever, I suggest you go through a full brand strategy - including name, logo, colors, and tagline - before launching your website to the public.
Start contributing to industry sites and/or publishers.
This one is about building legitimacy and industry recognition, although these weren’t the reasons that spurred me to start contributing (I really just love helping wherever I can). I have been an avid reader of a few main publishers in the SEO and inbound marketing world for the last 7 years and a frequent commenter for the last few years (primarily within the Moz Blog and Q&A forum). What I’ve noticed through the years is that the activity on these sites turned out to be a form of “barnacle SEO” that secures your brand search results - meaning that your participation within Moz’s community (for example) helps your community profile rank for your branded search queries. So now, if someone does a Google search for Sheena Schleicher (and almost any misspelled variation, which is expected with a name like that!), the first page of Google will have a variety of listings I own:
Prospective clients can click-through to my website's homepage, LinkedIn, Moz community profile, Twitter, and a number of other properties and get a feel for the projects I’ve worked on, client/colleague reviews of working with me, and the frequency/quality of my industry contributions — all these things, my friend, are your brand. Other benefits of contributing include building relationships with key influencers and, most importantly, keeping your skills sharp.
Align with thought leaders and get your name known.
I touched on this briefly in my point about contributing, but let me share how I went about this.
Step 1: Find a few people in your space that inspire you and follow their work closely. Read everything they publish.
Step 2: Leave intelligent comments/feedback that show you’re paying attention to their contributions. Even better, respond in a way that spurs a conversations — ask a question or for their opinion about something that matters and is relevant to their area of expertise. If you don’t have one, find a way to show your appreciation and share what type of impact it might have on your projects. Be genuine and do not, I repeat, do not use flattery.
Step 3: Start Tweeting. I admit I’m late to the party and have only recently invested more time to Twitter - but let me tell you, it’s one of the easiest ways to build brand awareness, as it’s one of the only platforms where it’s perfectly acceptable for complete strangers to connect with you. Again, follow those key influencers, engage with their Tweets, and post content you find interesting and think others will appreciate. The idea is to gradually build these online relationships, so don’t go overboard - you don’t want to seem like a stalker.
Step 5: Take a risk and ask for something directly. Again, for me this wasn’t really a planned strategy (just being my sometimes overly-assertive self), but it was effective! This will not work 100% of the time, especially with high-profile individuals, so be smart about who you choose, give it a try, and build relationships with those who receive and respond well to you. Be memorable.
Step 6: Repeat steps 1-5.
Attend industry events and influencer speaking engagements.
Attending industry conferences is great for sharpening your skills, networking, making friends, and discovering vendors, but it’s also the perfect opportunity to introduce yourself to the key influencers who, since you’ve already sparked conversations with them on Twitter (or other industry communities), already know who you are. For many, including myself, this means getting over any shyness or worry about them not recognizing you — ideally you’ve somehow made a memorable impression on this person prior to walking up, but if not, here’s your chance!
Last week at MozCon, as well as the last few SMX events, have been exceptional when it comes to finally meeting in-person and getting to know many who have greatly influenced my career over the years. And it was easy because, in my mind, we’ve already met.
Find a role model and a mentor.
They say imitation is the greatest form of flattery, but I don't buy it. In an age where everyone is striving to be unique, the last thing you ever want someone to think is that you're copying them. Instead, identify people with characteristics you admire -- hardworking, focused, genuine, humble, kind, assertive, funny (to name a few I admire) -- and challenge yourself to adopt those characteristics in your own way. This is what I mean with 'finding a role model.'
Finding a mentor is a bit more challenging, as ideally this is someone who already knows you (don't ask strangers!) and is willing to invest time and energy into working with you. I think it's important to note that your role model and mentor can be one-in-the-same, but you wouldn't want your mentor to be someone you don't consider a good role model. That makes sense, right? After all, your mentor will act as your professional (and sometimes personal) advisor, so their ethics need to align with yours.
For me, finding a mentor happened unexpectedly after talking very candidly with a former agency-life client contact and (now) good friend. This person believed in me and knew I had what it took to be successful with my own business - and he shared this with me many times before I finally made the move. Beyond being one of my loudest cheerleaders, this person actively checks in on how business is going and provides direct recommendations for ensuring continued success.
While the "mentor/mentee" relationship sometimes goes unlabeled, I want to point out how sharing with this person how much you value their watchful care and interest in your success, followed by actually saying that you consider this person a mentor is, in my opinion, the greatest form of (the good kind of) flattery.
Healthy growth is steady, ideally with limited debt, so my best advice is to start saving now, learn to live with less, and be frugal (it's kind of like planning to buy a house!). The more cushion you have in your bank account pre-launch, the less stress you’ll encounter when payments are delayed or client engagements change.
Learn about taxes.
As an independent contractor or sole proprietor, you do not have taxes deducted from paychecks, so you need to educate yourself on self-employment taxes and underpayment penalties - both of which can be brutal come April 15th if you're not prepared (learn from my year-one mistake on this one!). Most likely you'll need to make quarterly tax payments to avoid underpayment, but everyone's situation is a unique, so be sure to talk with a CPA. Also consider setting up your consultancy as an LLC (Limited Liability Company) to protect your personal assets.
Plan for replacing employer benefits.
One of the major perks of working in-house or at an agency is the benefits package of 401k contribution matching, health/life insurance, and PTO - all of which are on you as a sole proprietor. To avoid any penalty charges or gaps in coverage, you need to have a plan before you make the move; and I highly recommend you talk with a trusted financial advisor to discuss all of your options. To give you an idea of what might go into this, here's a look at what I ending up doing:
- Transferred 401k to a Roth IRA and set up monthly deposits (up to $5,500/year, tax-exempt!)
- Set-up stock and mutual fund investment strategy to make up for losing employer 401k contributions (& because I've put it off for years)
- Signed-up for health insurance through the Health Insurance Marketplace (HealthCare.gov) - Thanks, Obama! ;)
- Set-up Health Savings Account (HSA) - all funds added to the account are tax-exempt
Again, everyone's situation is different, so talk with a trusted CPA and/or financial advisor to determine what's best for you.
Have a dedicated office space.
This is one that, without a doubt, is critical to my success. There is just no way I could set up office in my living room or on my dining room table. Instead, I dedicated a room in my home as my office - and I literally open the doors each morning to start the day and “close shop” at the end of day. I’ve found this to be invaluable for work/life balance, as it’s easy to just keep working through the night. There’s also a tax benefit of having a dedicated office space within your home that you’ll want to get educated on.
If you don't have space in your home, consider renting an office or desk space - there are some cool new "coworking" options like Co-Merge that might make sense for you.
Plan for travel.
Okay, so you work in digital marketing and can effectively do your job remotely. Great, isn't it? But even with all the tools we have for communicating with people across the world from you, it's critical to understand the value of shared, in-person experiences. Making the effort to visit the brand location not only gives you invaluable insights to the organization (leadership, priorities, culture, etc.), but it shows you're vested in the brand's success and facilitates a trusting relationship and bond essential to a great client/consultant relationship. The planning portion of this includes:
- Financial preparedness - Is the client responsible for travel expenses or will you account for a portion of the expenses in the contract amount?
- Client expectations - Are on-site visits in the agreement? How often?
- Ease of travel - Does the visit require a flight/hotel or is it just an hour drive away?
Invest in yourself. And your appearance.
Start creating habits aimed at taking care of yourself physically and mentally. The goal is to find something that keeps you energized and focused throughout the day, on and off the 'clock.' For me, this meant creating and doing my best to follow a personally-set nutrition/fitness/work routine each day. I strongly believe that the majority of health problems in America could be resolved or prevented by simply eating less and moving more. And I know I work better when I feel good, so really my 'routine' is to make sure I eat thoughtfully and be active every day.
In business, presentation is everything. We know this as marketers, so it's all the more important to invest in your appearance as a marketing consultant. This includes the obvious hygiene upkeep, but also the old adage of "dressing for success." And I think this is especially important as young women entrepreneurs. I used to really love the saying "You can never be over-dressed or over-educated" - and while I think it holds some truth, I've found neither to be pivotal to my success. I'll take dressing with class and being extraordinarily experienced over either of the two.
When it comes to business apparel, it would be a terrible oversight to not emphasize how much demographics matter. Business casual on the west coast, for instance, is hugely different from business casual on the east coast. And while you don't have to be the very best dressed, you certainly don't want to show up underdressed. You want to be respectful and memorable - remember, this is part of your branding. My advice is to invest in a wardrobe that's age-appropriate (it's okay to show your youthfulness!), has more classic / fewer trendy pieces, and reflects your style and personality. Bottom line, think quality over quantity.
Prepare to work more than ever.
As Shark Tank's Lori Griener pointed out a few years ago, "Entrepreneurs are willing to work 80 hours a week to avoid working 40 hours a week" for someone else. This is spot on for me. In addition to hours put directly towards client projects, you have all the hours that go towards running a legitimate business, as well as non-client hours dedicated to professional development and industry contributions. The hours add up quickly, but I wouldn't have it any other way. I'm passionate about what I do and I care tremendously about my clients' success, so the 'over-time' often doesn't even feel like work. I should add that work hours may not always be a set 8-5, which can be a major perk, but it also means you'll need to pay close attention to keeping a healthy work/life balance.
Create a network of resources.
If there's one thing that caught me off-guard when I launched my consultancy, it was how eager some brands were to go 'all-in.' One brand wanted to transition their entire digital marketing partnership from an agency to working with me. I also noticed how some brands needed services beyond my areas of expertise (like web and app development) - so I quickly learned that my role with some brands was to simply point them in the direction of good-hands that could fulfill their needs. Sometimes this meant turning down projects I didn't feel were the right fit, and then other times it meant reaching out to subject matter experts I've worked well with in the past and bringing them on as contractors.
I created a sort of coalition of other highly-experienced digital and search marketers, designers, programmers, and developers who are all trusted and ready to jump into projects as needed, or who are willing to take on projects I do not have the bandwidth for. My clients greatly appreciate this network of resources, I become a more valued player, and my friends/colleagues get to work on some fun projects - everyone wins! Especially if you've worked within or with agencies, it's likely you have a network of diversely-skilled friends and colleagues who would love the referral business.
Have lofty goals.
Setting realistic growth goals can be tricky, but it's crucial to any business. You may already have some ideas of what these goals might be, but it's important to write them down and/or share them with your mentor. For me, evaluating my growth on a quarterly basis has worked well, giving me ample time to either adjust goals (sometimes to be more realistic & sometimes more aggressive) or adjust my workflow to reach those goals.
I have also set growth goals that are not based on monetary profit. These include things like client diversity (brands in unique industries), pro bono work for projects I believe in, and industry contribution goals (like speaking engagements and published work). It's an incredible thing to reach lofty growth goals, but you have to set them first.
Make generosity part of your growth strategy.
You may have noticed one of the goal types I set for myself is to work pro bono on projects I care about. Think about your interests, hobbies, passions - the things that get you excited outside of work. I would bet there's something out there, some business or charity, that could benefit from your expertise! And in an industry so focused on monetary ROI, being able to focus your skills on something greater is a remarkable thing.
For me, this meant connecting with a local organization that has had a direct impact on my life and providing a complimentary site audit and deck of SEO and UX recommendations/instructions/support for boosting their digital presence. I also had a very rare but serious neck injury (from surfing) last year and found only one website with the information I needed throughout a few very scary months of my life. Once I recovered from the injury, I reached out to the site owner and offered my services pro bono - my only goal was to help others who encounter this injury find the information they need before they end up on a site like WebMD (that completely misrepresented the injury).
Making generosity part of your growth strategy can come in a variety of forms, so don't feel pressured to take on a full project free of charge. Maybe you invest in helping others by speaking with students at a local university:
Or, like I'm doing with this article, maybe you share insights from your experience that will help others succeed. Just remember, "No one has ever become poor by giving." - Anne Frank
Be patient and humble.
I want to be clear that being patient in no way equates to sitting back and letting things happen as they may. In fact, I'd argue that having a tenacious 'whatever it takes' mentality is one of the greatest characteristics an entrepreneur can have. One of my favorite sayings is "hustle beats talent when talent doesn't hustle" - let that sink in.
Good things come with time and, as I hinted at earlier, healthy growth is steady growth. Being patient means knowing that everything you're doing now will lead to something great in your future, so stop comparing your beginning to someone else's middle and ignore those tempting quick-lift shortcuts.
As digital marketers, we're accustomed to highlighting greatness, whether in performance reporting, sales pitches, marketing material, our LinkedIn profiles, etc. And while these are all fine and good, being humble leads to far greater things than boasting every could. Not only does humility help you be more likable (online & in-person), but people actually want to help you succeed! I've encountered this time and time again, so don't be afraid of saying you don't know something or asking for help. Like selecting a mentor, genuinely seeking someone's advice shows respect and creates a bond like no other.
Get your family and friends on-board.
When it comes time to leave your day job and throw 1000% of yourself towards a dream, things can get a bit scary. My emotions were all over the place - excitement, joy, freedom, fear, doubt, regret. Leaning on my family and friends for encouragement and affirmation really helped get me through the lows. These were the same people I sought advice from before I made the move, which ended up creating an incredible team to support me post-launch. So get those closest to you on-board with your plans - you'll need their support throughout this journey and their referrals are great, too!
Know your values.
"It’s not hard to make decisions once you know what your values are.” - Roy E. Disney. One of my all-time favorite quotes to live by, personally and professionally. From the moment you start your business, you'll encounter situations that challenge what you believe is right. From the brands you choose to work with to truthful performance reporting, time-tracking/invoicing, and tax filing. Know and commit to your values before launching your business and decision-making will be much, much easier.
One thing that kept me from launching my SEO and digital marketing consultancy sooner was feeling like there were already so many people doing it - too many SEOs, too many agencies, too much competition - that I could never match up. While it's true job descriptions with "SEO" and "Digital Marketing" in them have blown up over the last few years, don't let this deter you. A few people woke me up from this spell by pointing out the simple fact that I am the only Me. And you are the only You. Nobody else on earth has your heart, your mind, personality, your story, or your experiences. And it's all these things combined with your knowledge and expertise in your field that make what you offer so desirable to brands.
I probably wouldn't even be sharing all this if I felt I was helping my competition; but instead, I don't really believe I (or You) have direct competition because we all offer something that's completely unique. So as you prepare to launch your independent consultancy or, further in, begin meeting with potential clients, remember how much of the engagement is dependent on the client/consultant relationship and be (the best) you! I've found that the freedom of being yourself, without the constraints of agency management or department silos, is one the most wonderful parts of working as an independent consultant.
So there you have it.
What began as friendly conversations with young women at MozCon 2015 turned into a 4,000 word brain-dump of what I think are the most important and most practical tips for starting your own SEO and digital marketing consultancy (or any business!) - all pulled from my personal challenges, failures, and successes. While my original intention was to respond to the women I spoke with at the conference, this article is full of insights and tips useful to anyone, regardless of gender or age. I truly hope this inspires you.
Have anything to add? Inspired to get to work on your own thing? Let me know in the comments below!