What's the best way to launch your career as an independent training consultant? The right credentials, a strong marketing plan, and sufficient cash flow are all essential, but before you devote your attention to these matters, the first step is to know exactly what it is you're setting out to create.
Here, three seasoned training entrepreneurs weigh in with their advice for forming a game plan to guide you along your new career path.
1. Business of one or business of many?
When Diane Elkins and project partner Desiree Ward decided to go out on their own in late 2003, they faced a crucial decision: Should they hang out their respective shingles as independent consultants, or partner up and launch a company together? "At the time, I realized I could do it all on my own, but if I chose that path, I wouldn't have accountability to another person, and I wouldn't enjoy the benefits of camaraderie and having someone to bounce ideas off of," says Elkins.
Forming a company, she reasoned, also would allow her to approach the market on her terms. "At the time, e-learning technology was evolving to the point where it was becoming much easier to develop. Yet prices weren't in line with this new reality." Elkins and Ward both wanted to offer the industry a more cost-effective solution and to help companies make "big, strategic e-learning-related decisions." To do that, says Elkins, they needed scalability. "There were things we were passionate about in the industry, but they weren't things any one person could do on her own. We didn't want to be part of a solution, we wanted to be the solution. To do that, we needed to be able to rally the resources of a company."
The two opened shop in January 2004, forming Alcorn, Ward & Partners Inc., an e-learning consulting company based in Jacksonville, FL, that specializes in "getting companies up to speed" with e-learning. Thus far, the venture has been a success—it experienced 50 to 60 percent growth in both 2007 and 2008—but Elkins notes the "company" route isn't for everyone. "You may love training, but you have to know going into it that the bigger you get, the more you'll be called upon to do other things. When you own a training company, training is about 50 percent of what you'll be called upon to do. For many people, staying independent makes sense, particularly if they aren't passionate about the business side of things."
2. Got vision?
If you decide to go solo and you're good at what you do, there's a good chance you'll end up with more work than you can individually handle. That's exactly what happened to Elaine Biech, president and managing principal of Ebb Associates Inc., an organizational development firm in Norfolk, VA, that helps organizations work through large-scale change.
The problem, says Biech, was that when she launched her business several years ago, she didn't develop a business plan that laid out a vision for what she wanted to be doing two to five years or more down the line. "Instead of referring to the plan whenever I had a big decision to make, I grew by accident. I'd have a big project and hire someone to help, and when that project would near an end, I'd go out and find more work, and then hire more people."
Before Biech knew it, her company had grown significantly. "At one time, I had 25 employees, and I found myself unhappy because I was spending most of my time supervising employees as opposed to doing the work I love to do." Determined to make a course correction, she developed a business plan to guide her future decisions and scaled back her employee ranks considerably—choosing to rely, instead, on a network of long-term contractors to meet the ebb and flow of the business.
The lesson? "Think about what you really want upfront and develop a plan," says Biech. "And know that the plan shouldn't be about how much work you want to have on your books. It should be about you and your vision. What do you want in your work and in your life?"
3. How will you scale?
If you become an independent contractor and forgo hiring employees, have a specific plan in place regarding how you'll scale your business to meet client needs. Elkins and Ward, for example, added "& Associates" to their company's moniker for a good reason. "For years, I worked for custom e-learning shops with big offices and teams of Flash programmers and graphics people on staff," says Elkins. "They had all of these fixed costs and all of this manpower, but their project load was never fixed, so they always had more work than they could handle or not enough. That's one of the reasons they had to charge so much."
Intent on avoiding this trap, Elkins and Ward invested in the internal infrastructure necessary to support a contractor model, and the two currently work with a large base of subcontractors who are located throughout the U.S. The model, says Elkins, offers numerous advantages, such as allowing the company to ramp its ranks up and down in alignment with project requirements, remain flexible and responsive to client needs, and hire the best people for each project.
Trusting one's name and reputation to others—be they employees or contractors—does require a leap of faith, she notes. To ensure the risks don't outweigh the rewards, Elkins and her partner rely on rigorous behavioral interviews to screen potential contractors and ask applicants to create work samples based on the firm's unique criteria model. As added insurance, they also give new contractors smaller, easier assignments at first, and assign more challenging tasks only after they have proven themselves.
Biech, who uses a similar model and currently has a "staff" of 35 to 37 contractors who she taps for help on a regular basis, says if you want to be able to meet client needs without scrambling to find suitable subcontractors at the last minute, it's just as important to network for subcontractors as it is for clients. "Early on, figure out what skills you need, which types of people you'll need to work with, and what the industries are that you'd like to target, Once you've narrowed all this down in your business plan, keep your network active by staying in regular contact with people. Go to conferences, meet people, and look for those who possess the skills you need. If you don't come home from every conference with business cards from at least 50 people [be they potential clients or potential subcontractors] and then follow up with a note to each one, you haven't done your duty."
4. What's your specialty?
It can be difficult to leave money—and work—on the table, particularly when you're starting out, but that's exactly what you need to do if you want to create a niche for yourself in the industry, says Anne Thornley-Brown, who is president of Executive Oasis International, a Toronto-based consulting firm that offers executive retreats, teambuilding, and incentive travel in Canada, Dubai, Jamaica, and Asia. "One of the problems in our profession right now is that people try to be all things to all people. They say, 'Yeah, I can do that,' no matter what inquiry comes in the door, instead of referring it to someone who is a true expert in that area." Doing so, she says, "waters down your value proposition and makes you a generalist instead of an expert figure."
"The more specific you can be, the better off you are," adds Elkins. Alcorn, Ward & Associates, for example, specializes in helping companies get up and running with e-learning. "That doesn't mean we also don't help those who already are up and running," says Elkins. "But if you start with something tangible, people usually will ask if you do other things, too. Before they can do that, however, they need something to hang their hat on. They need to know how to refer you and how to think about you."
Once you've developed your core differentiators and refined your pitch accordingly, make sure everyone in your network understands your value proposition—especially your friends and family, notes Thornley-Brown. "Quite a while after launching my business, I realized my close friends and relatives had no idea what I did; even my own mother didn't really understand what I did. Yet, these were the people who were in the best position to recommend me because they wished me well."
Thornley-Brown remedied that problem by meeting individually with those who were close to her and clearly explaining what she did and the types of referrals that would be most helpful to her (including specific examples). She also provided those in her inner circle with links to her Website and invited them to join her mailing list so she could keep them up to date. "It wasn't about hammering and hounding people; it was all done in an informal and humorous way," she says. "I simply let the people who care most about me know a little more about what I do and what I am trying to achieve."