So, you want to start your own business…

This was the thought going through my head about five years ago when I left the corporate and non-profit worlds to start my own consulting business.  We were now “free” to live wherever we wanted and it didn’t require a lot of work to convince my family that we should turn our backs on the cold winters in Chicago and head South to the Carolina sunshine.

The honeymoon period was great: new house, new neighbors, new school. Lots of things to explore. And the fun part was that we were experiencing all of this as a family. Even our cockapoo, Bobby Jones, had no complaints with his new, southern smells.

Soon after establishing my LLC I began to realize that this wasn’t going to be as easy as I thought it would be.

The first hiccup was that we were having real problems selling our house in Chicago. In retrospect, it might have been better to rent a home in Charlotte before taking on a second mortgage. But of course we couldn’t resist the great house that we found and why pay rent when you can invest in a new home?  Two and a half painful years later we finally unloaded the 400-pound gorilla on our back and found some financial normalcy.

Southern hospitality is great but that doesn’t make it easier to get onto someone’s calendar, especially when you are trying to generate new business. To make matters worse, I wasn’t selling some “must have” new piece of machinery or a software program that transforms a business.  No, I was selling the expertise that was resting between both ears.

I was now visiting all kinds of networking events and collecting lots of business cards. That was exciting, but it wasn’t turning into any paid consulting.  And yes, I did fall into the trap of doing a lot of unpaid consulting, thinking that once they learned of my skills and know-how, they would surely pay for my brainpower.

Months went by and not much happened. I was burning through my stock options, reading a lot of interesting business books and looking for business connections on the golf course, but my business was going nowhere.

Not being a very good salesman, I decided to enroll in a sales training course. I’ve been doing this for the past two years and I’m making progress. Here are a few of the things that I’ve learned and am putting into practice:

  • Cold calls don’t work (for me): In order to have a successful consulting practice I need to focus my attention on referrals. The best are warm introductions, where the person making the introduction really wants to help you. They’ll not only make the e-mail introduction but also set up the lunch appointment for the three of you!

And, what I found super hard to do, but have learned that it’s a must, is ask people to refer you.

  • Take “no” for an answer: Early in my consulting work I’d get a lot of prospects who seem interested in what I had to offer but I never was able to get them to commit. They would say things such as: “That sounds interesting, could you send me a brochure”, or: “Why don’t you send me a proposal and I’ll think about it.”  This was music to my ears. I thought they were really interested and soon I’d have a sale.  What they were really saying, in a polite way was: “I’m really not interested in what you have to offer.”

I’ve learned the hard way for me to be successful is to go for “no”.  I’ll surely take a “yes”; what I won’t settle for is a “maybe”.  If the prospect gives me a “maybe”, I’ll take that as a “no” and move on.

  • Money: I’m not really sure why, but I never enjoyed talking about money, as in what I charge for my services. I’d put it off and hope it never came up. Well, sooner or later the prospect will want to know how much he has to shell out for your service. Why waste time and keep this for the end of the discussion, especially if it’s going to be a deal breaker? Now, I get it on the table very early and ask if they have a budget to pay for my consulting, if they in fact do decide to move forward. If not, that’s ok, life goes on. Adios.

I’m in year 5 of my consulting business. It hasn’t always been easy. Often times it was very lonely and frustrating.  I could have thrown in the towel many times and looked for another corporate job. But finally, things are starting to happen. My phone is ringing and I’m getting referrals.

What does it take to be successful running your own business? Persistence. Not giving up. Pushing yourself every day to make some progress, even if the wind is blowing against you.

And sometimes you’ve got to step back, take a break, reflect on the progress that you have made, regardless of how much or how little.  In the end, whether I’m successful or not, I understand that I’m extremely blessed to have had the opportunity to go out on my own and try to build something.