“When I grow up, I will be a 1-person consultant” said probably no child, never.
Up until recently, the idea of operating as a single economic agent was unthinkable, and for a good reason. It was certainly so for me before I became one as well.
As social animals, we win or lose based on our ability to perform our role in greater society. How much we contribute to others’ lives determines the size of material and status returns we generate. That’s one of the many doors of the human psyche that allows the theory of the firm to root its foot in society.
The neoclassical take on the theory is that firms exist to maximize profits and in most cases, they are the most effective way to allocate society’s resources. Needless to say, that has changed dramatically over the years with the advancement of technology, the ease of operating service businesses, and changing social stratification.
A well-geared 1-Man Consulting business can now deliver the same or even greater value to society in comparison to a traditional firm. It is still a firm but more nimble and agile. I experienced this firsthand as part of my transition to the solopreneur world. The unfair advantage of a freelance consulting business is the opportunity to think case by case and truly personalize each engagement.
For freelancers, this nimble decision-making enables impact maximization and commitment to the right type of opportunities. It also helps to minimize “waste engagements”. While a large firm can accommodate hit & miss engagements now and then, the affordability of an error is much smaller for single-person businesses.
Therefore, it all comes down to knowing where, how, and when to deploy the resources and engage in value creation. Having all of this in mind, here are 5 key criteria I use to qualify my clients along with the questions I keep at the forefront of my conversations:
1. Alignment of the Core Value Set
Like most 1-man consultants out there, I take pride in my craft. For what it's worth, it is pretty personal. Over time, I built a situational fluency that allows me to qualify whether a client is a right fit for me or not accurately at first glance. In this context, my definition of a fit is softer; it revolves around the way people treat each other, expectations, and culture.
I have a few additional red flags:
- Shark businesses: Organizations that see their clients as nothing but breathing wallets.
- Blind leadership: Founders/executives who are closed to the internal feedback of their teams or making data-driven decisions.
- Lack of clarity & vision: Companies that lack movement toward a shared objective or waste too many resources.
Customer-centricity, leadership style, and goal orientation are very important for any business to thrive let alone a consulting engagement.
I certainly don’t have to share the same political view with the client. We do not have to be best friends. We certainly do not have to support the same football team. Again, I never look for a perfect world scenario (it does not exist!) but there has to be a common denominator.
In my case, a no a**hole policy coupled with a healthy dose of progressive mindset is that denominator. From experience, I know that if one of these is missing there is a high chance that the client engagement will go astray or deliver only mediocre results.
Whenever I engage with a new client, I know that the onus is on me to gauge this fit and qualify/disqualify accordingly. Not every conversation has to convert.
I love the sensation of seeing clients achieve business results following my guidance, and to get there, I believe we need the alignment of core values before anything else. It may sound idealistic but hey, what better place to apply your values than your very own business?
2. Relationships Matter
Relationships make or break all businesses. When I engage with new client contacts, I pay particular attention to how they treat their co-workers, clients, suppliers, or investors.
I employ social norms as a proxy. No employee is life-bound to a client organization (nor they should be) or no investor has endless capital to support a fledgling startup. Therefore, market norms explain the underlying quality of relationships only up to a certain point.
I like working with people who take a vested interest in the well-being of their staff, clients, and suppliers alike. Not in a textbooky way, but in a genuine way. I can live with not building an extensive relationship with a client who is only interested in small tactical advice. However, if my services are required to deliver organizational change that’s where I lean into the relational aspects more than anything.
Homo sapiens are an irrational bunch. They tend to be even more irrational in groups. Relationships govern the way human groups perform together. Poor relationships often lead to low performance, safety concerns, and complacency in an organization. This is the reason why I always ask the below questions during my qualification conversations:
- How do people react to change?
- How do you rate your organization (from 1–5) in terms of accountability, collective action, and customer centricity?
- How do you describe the culture within your company?
- What are the shortcomings of your current team setup?
There are no right or wrong answers to these questions. However, the way they are answered often paints a telling picture. It shows how people relate to each other in any given organization. If I come across a client with visibly dysfunctional relationships, that is a strong sign for me to avoid an engagement at all costs.
3. Vertical Impact
No volume of consulting can help if a business does not have a compelling value proposition. In other words, a 1-Man consultant can help to sharpen an ax but by no means create one from scratch.
Moving beyond the soft fit, I do qualify my clients based on their ability to define their category or impact their verticals as a whole. Any business strives on the simple premise of making things cheaper, better, or more effective.
Having this in mind, I always lean into identifying the distinguishing factors of a business.
- What is their secret sauce? How do they generate a competitive advantage?
- What are the things that they do 10 times better than their industry peers?
- Why do they lose deals? What bleeding problems do they solve for their customers/partners?
- What are their impediments? How do they deal with the pressures and challenges?
Again, I never look for perfection. In most cases, it is sufficient for me to see the existential angle that justifies the raison d’etre of a business. This helps me to understand the specific areas I can help and make our engagement that much crispier.
4. Upside & Growth Opportunity
Some consultants love one-off engagements. I am not very transactional when it comes to my preferred way of doing business. Therefore, I always like to invest in engagements that can lead to even more meaningful opportunities down the line.
This does not necessarily have to be more consulting opportunities for me. It can be anything from future investment opportunities to co-creating content. I ask the below questions to validate the upside and the room for growth in a client relationship.
- How much can we deepen this relationship?
- Can I back or invest in this business?
- Is there an upside to career or business opportunities that we can create mutually?
- How can I create synergies between this client and the rest of my portfolio?
I believe there has to be an exciting upside for a client engagement to compel me for that extra mile.
At the end of the day, unless self-productized, a 1-person consulting business lives on its ability to maximize the utility of manhours.
While any project is likely to have a series of exciters and inhibitors, it is imperative to identify the scenarios where the current relationships may evolve into something much more substantial. It is easy to lose sight of what is truly possible in client engagements while dealing with the nitty gritty of a tactical task. This line of thought helps to keep that forward-thinking active.
In conclusion, no client engagement can succeed without an alignment in checks & balances, objectives, and expectations. You need strong foundations to put up a proper pebble tower. This qualification list is not exhaustive. It represents my operational thesis & core values. Like any other piece of content on the world wide web, take it with a grain of salt and apply it by appropriately modifying it to your values and business.
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