My journey from working at Google to running my own consulting business has been a challenging but rewarding experience. Here is my story and the lessons I learned.
As corporates go Google was pretty good: three meals a day cooked by talented chefs, market-leading financial benefits, 1-hour massages, free yoga, extravagant overseas conferences and the company encouraged a work life balance! Starting in 2007 I worked at Google over the most exciting period of product development, where the internet literally transformed how we live our lives. Many businesses were turning to us for guidance and thought leadership. This kept my sales roles at Google interesting and I enjoyed being at the forefront of the digital revolution.
But after five years I felt an itch — Google Sydney became larger and more corporate and I was finding my sales role unrewarding as it increasingly revolved around schmoozing agencies and navigating politics. But where do you go after Google?
Having seen clients struggle to get their heads around digital and agencies delivering subpar services I saw the opportunity to offer completely independent advice where I could essentially fill the knowledge gap for clients to help them create and execute an optimal digital strategy.
With one client under my belt I left Google to start my own consulting business providing independent online marketing advice.
Starting a consulting business is relatively straight forward and with the online tools available today it's also very cost effective. I used Freelancer to create my logo for $300 and found an affordable overseas developer to work on my Word Press theme which I purchased for $30. Along with some web hosting from Go Daddy and Google Apps I was ready to go!
But this is only the beginning of the journey. Here are my key learnings and things you may like to consider before you take the leap:
Have a clear vision of what you want to get out of consulting
Consulting can take many forms but at the end of the day you are charging for your time. It's like creating your own job but there are added benefits and challenges. You need to know exactly what business model you're creating and make sure this is something you're excited about. For me I had a vision for some key benefits which made consulting attractive than getting another job:
- Flexibility to plan my work around my lifestyle. On average I work four days a week and when I like, enabling long weekends away and allowing me to fit in all the outdoor activities I am passionate about.
- The ability to choose which clients I work with and focus on the work I enjoy most. I personally love learning, so I enjoy working across different types of clients. I find it very rewarding getting involved in strategic discussions which can have a big impact on clients.
- The opportunity to network and build my personal brand. While working under the Google brand is a stamp of credibility I have built my own brand around my knowledge and expertise. I have also grown my network 20-fold which is proving invaluable. I now own the Google page when you search for my name with credibility-building links to articles I have written and events where I have presented.
Ultimately, I saw consulting as a stepping stone to bigger business opportunities, both through networking and by providing the flexibility to jump on these opportunities. Currently I am working with a number of start-ups and one which I would consider as a big bet.
Understand your unique value proposition and be prepared to pivot
You will go out into the market with one idea but soon learn that your value proposition needs to be adapted based on the actual needs you identify when working with clients, so it's important to be flexible. In the start-up world they call this pivoting. It took me 12 months to refine my value proposition and understand the key challenges I addressed for clients.
The market is flooded with agencies selling online marketing services. I knew my service was unique in that I was independent but what did this mean for my clients? What I realised was the real issue for a business was that they lacked the digital expertise increasing the risk they would not have the optimal strategy, get sold the wrong solutions and execute poorly resulting in poor outcomes. So my pitch focused on helping them understand the risks and how I can fill this knowledge gap to drive better outcomes and increase their return on investment.
After six months I changed my business name from "Online Retail Consultant" to "Jasper Online Consulting" with the tag line "Online Strategy by the [ex] Google Guy". I realised two things. Firstly, I could add value to businesses within any industry not just retail and secondly, the one thing that engaged people the most was that I used to work at Google. Being ex-Google was my unique point of difference and so I have become known as 'the [ex] Google Guy'.
What is unique about your work experience or clients you have worked with which can help you stand out and add value to clients in ways that others cannot?
Network, network, network...
I get most of my clients from referrals and this is off the back of all the networking I do. But there is an art to networking well.
When I started I went to any event I could but soon realised this scatter-gun approach was not time effective and the novelty soon wore off. Most networking events are full of other people selling their services and while this can be a good opportunity to identify partnership opportunities I generally found them not to be effective. Attending industry events and conferences can be far more effective. Generally the smaller and more intimate they are the better.
You then need to build quality relationships. Meeting someone once will go nowhere, but if you able to identify ways you can help each other or have a common interest to warrant further engagement. This is how you can build trust and remain top of their mind when someone asks that person "do you know someone who . . .".
I have personally enjoyed expanding my network outside corporate life with real business people and entrepreneurs. Who knows how these contacts may help you in the future.
Become a writer
Writing a blog is a powerful marketing tool but the quality of content is key. Having not written creatively since school I found this challenging and also was worried what people would think. My only advice is to get over it and write! The more you write the easier it becomes as you develop your writing style. I became better at identifying hot topics and also killer headlines to get engagement.
Your blog plays a number of roles. It's what people who have heard about you often read when they are scoping you out, so it's a great opportunity to showcase your thinking and expertise. Selecting relevant keywords and topics to focus on can help you be found on Google and is a good way to engage people who are searching for the solutions you provide. Sharing your blog on social networks and through a newsletter also helps keep you top of mind with your network.
Writing articles which are published in industry press can help you drive awareness and provide valuable backlinks to help build your websites authority to improve your search engine rankings. I now rank in the top Google links for 'Online Marketing Consultant' but only after a year of writing — so be prepared to get your storytelling hat on.
Be persistent and patient
People always told me it would take 18-24 months to really start to get traction in building your client base and income. And it's true. 18 months in it is just starting to get easier! All the hard work of the first year of networking, writing, presenting and the value you deliver to your first clients all help drive referrals. But yes it takes time!
You need to be prepared to take an income hit for that first 18 months and learn not to stress out too much. This is easier said than done, especially when it's just you at your home office always feeling you can do more. I wrote a blog post about some of these challenges. It's important to have realistic expectations and I encourage you to make the most of the non-monetary benefits mentioned in point 1. Take advantage of that first year when you're not so busy with client work to refine and automate processes. But enjoy the journey and hitting the surf when everyone else is at work.
Should you go into consulting?
Leaving the security of a full time job to go into the ambiguity of consulting is not for everyone. It needs to fit in with your goals in life and your financial situation. I have been lucky to have a wife who works full-time and no mortgage, and without kids it's been easy to get work done from home. If any one of these was not the case it would have made it more challenging and potentially more stressful.
I feel the key to success is being passionate about the purpose of your consulting business to have the motivation and persistence to stick with it for long enough to get traction. For me I realised I was more passionate about adding value in the work I did rather than selling to hit sales targets so have found consulting very rewarding.
Finally, don't just base the decision on financial benefits. As I have discovered the flexibility, learning opportunities and the value of building your network can have a far bigger impact on your life.