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How to Get Consulting Clients – An Interview with Steve Blank

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Executive Summary

How to differentiate yourself in a crowded market
  • Make your clients smarter.
  • Engage in client discovery—ask a lot of questions.
  • Create a repeatable, successful process through the use of best practices.
How to get clients to see that differentiation
  • Give your thoughts away for free.
  • Amalgamate your past learnings into the medium where you think your client resides—slide decks, blog posts, etc.
  • Clients always need customization, so giving it away for free will not mean less money for you but will provide you with more opportunities in the long run.

“Give it all away for free.” That was the response from Steve Blank, the father of modern entrepreneurship, when I asked him how to get consulting clients.

My brain hurt a little. I’m a consultant trying to get people to pay me for my ideas. Why would I give them away for free?

According to Steve Blank, creating a brand—for you and your ideas—is the most important part of your marketing strategy. Thanks to the web, the fastest and loudest mouthpiece we have as consultants is right at our fingertips. And Steve says we should be putting our work out there as much as possible—for free.

Steve Blank, of Lean Startup fame

In this blog post, I’ll take you through some of the “big ideas” that Steve and I discussed and how someone who has worked with dozens of consultants and helped hundreds of companies get a better product to market faster (Steve is the founder of the Lean Startup after all) thinks consultants can (1) differentiate themselves in a crowded market and (2) get clients to see that differentiation.

What Makes You a Unique Snowflake (Consulting Value Proposition)?

First, Steve suggests, you need to figure out how you’re different. “Every consultant should be creating a brand—why they’re special—not just ‘why I have these skills.’ If all you can say is ‘I have these skills,’ stand in line with the other thousands of people with those skills. What is it that you know that your clients need? What are the insights that you have? It might be that you don’t have any, so okay. You’re going to be behind the men or women who actually are able to articulate what it is that they know or what have they done.”

So, how does a consultant differentiate themself?

Steve Blank suggests the best way to stand out is by making your clients smarter: “Sure, you can simply take the client’s check, but great consultants actually make their clients smarter,” he says. “People know about me because of the stuff I share, and I’m the first to admit there’s no math involved. It’s not genius. I describe myself as ‘the master of the obvious’ where you put together best practices in a way that’s understandable and repeatable and other people could figure out how to do it.

“I think consultants need to tell potential clients, ‘Let me teach you how to do X and Y. I’ll do it for you, but you know what? I’m happy to share with you my expertise and make you smarter at the same time you’re paying me.’ Even if they don’t want to know that, that’s a pretty unique positioning: You’ll make me smarter as well as get the job done? Wow.”

Truly becoming a partner with your client is integral to standing out from the crowd.

Steve has said, “As smart as you are, there is no way you’re smarter than the collective intelligence of your potential customer.” In the case of remote consulting, Steve noted that, “Sometimes what you think is the problem is just a symptom of a problem. Even if you’re in the building, you may not be able to find the problem. Being remote makes it even harder. Do a little customer discovery so you understand the context of the problem you’re trying to solve. Even if it seems like you’re just given a task. Context makes it much easier… In the Customer Discovery process, which is part of Lean, you need to cover basic blocking and tackling. Instead of understanding this as a job, try to find what they’re trying to accomplish.”

At Toptal, I’ve heard this time and time again from our best consultants. They ask a ton of questions—and most importantly, they ask them early and often. During my discussion with Jeffrey Fidelman, one of Toptal’s most hired consultants, he repeatedly referred to his question and discovery process as one of the secrets to his success (check out more of Fidelman’s tips here: How to Be an Amazing Financial Consultant). In the language of Lean, Steve calls this “customer discovery”—the process of figuring out what your client’s problem by talking to all stakeholders—really is and what they need to solve it.

Steve explained how to deliver work that actually gets used: “The difference between your work not used versus your work contributing to the end goal is understanding the context of where your work product fits and what success for the client looks like. And figuring out who success is for? Is this a piece of code that needs to work for X? Is this something that’s useful on Thursday, but if I don’t get it to you by Friday I shouldn’t have even started with the task?”

Steve also noted that effective consultants ask questions early: “Most people are just happy enough early on in their careers to just get the job. ‘Nice, I got the order. Look. They’re paying me how much?’ They’re afraid that if you ask questions, it’s going to scare people off or make them think you don’t get it. But after a while, people on both sides tend to learn that the people who ask a lot of questions early on are the ones who are most efficient in delivering something that’s needed and wanted.”

Once you figure out what makes you different, Steve believes it’s key to document your process and create a set of best practices in order to create repeatable success: “What are the things that happen all the time? Having a set of best practices of what to do as a remote consultant can help achieve better outcomes consistently.” This means you can tell clients you have a repeatable process that you have executed many times in the past and gives them confidence that you will be able to solve whatever problem they have.

You can see an example best practices worksheet below:

Toptal Finance Consultant Best Practices Example

How to Get Consulting Clients? Give Away Your Ideas (Yep, Free)

So, now you have your set of best practices and you have a well-defined repeatable process that you are ready to execute. But how do you get clients to see how you are different? By creating a personal brand.

Steve Blank has done this by sharing everything. He has 1,120 presentations on SlideShare. He gives away a free Lean Startup course on Udacity. Every thought he’s ever had on successful entrepreneurship is on his blog (or at least it seems that way). Again, this is all free. You can see a snip of Steve’s simple website below, just packed with free resources that convey his expertise.

Screenshot of Steve Blanks' website

As consultants, this is one of the hairiest areas we deal with: How much of our hard-earned, proprietary knowledge do we give away for free? On this, Steve Blank has an enlightening perspective: “You are one of 12,000 people with that skillset, and the problem is that you need to create a brand.

“That’s why I open-source all my stuff. I think I have some good ideas, but there are clearly people with much better ideas in universities or somewhere else who consult, but they don’t share their stuff so no one has ever heard of them.

“I laugh all the time going, ‘You know, my ideas are pretty good but they’re certainly not the best, but everybody else is so closed off.’ I see this in the universities where I teach. There are smart professors who have some great ideas, but oh my god, they’re not going to share that. ‘That’s my intellectual property.’ I kind of go, ‘Well wait a minute. There’s plenty of intellectual property to go around. Why don’t you use it to create a brand and then use it to drive the brand to you?’”

If you’re a consultant, you might be thinking, “Ok, this sounds like a nice brand-building exercise but when do I start making money?” The answer lies in customization according to Steve. Every client has a problem type you’ve tackled before, but tailoring the solution to a client’s very specific issues is what makes the difference.

Steve Blank on why it actually pays to give your insights away for free: “Could somebody get everything I know from stuff I’ve read and written? Sure, but it’s certainly a lot better to hear it from the source and more importantly, to understand the nuances. I hear all the time after I give talks or I’m in giving a workshop, ‘Yeah, we read it but it makes a lot more sense when you’re here.’”

How to Implement Steve Blank’s “Give it Away for Free” Marketing Strategy

So, how would we implement this in practice? Take a week and create some content, and then spend 30 minutes (set a timer so you don’t get off track) every day on some small marketing nugget (e.g., emailing five publishers, tweeting your unique insights).

If your wheelhouse is valuation, create a slide deck and a model company with common problems you’ve come across and outline the basics as well as how you would tackle issues. Then, decide where your audience is and use that medium to get your message out. You don’t need to be everywhere—just where your clients may find you.

How to get consulting clients

Some options include publishing on SlideShare, writing an accompanying blog post for your own website or finding an outlet that already has a large following to publish it for you, signing up for speaking events, using social media (Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, Reddit) and/or reaching out to podcasters you follow and update them on what you are publishing. Find the top ten “big name” experts in your field—watch what they do and begin to forge real relationships.

And in whatever content you’re creating, Steve calls out one very important point: “Messages need to be memorable—‘sticky.’ Why? Because the more memorable the message, the greater its ability to create change.”

Parting Thoughts

The notion of “giving it away for free” is certainly not new in marketing. However, in consulting, it is a bit more counter-intuitive than in other sectors. Amalgamating your key learnings from various specific projects and creating a platform for yourself to stand out is a great technique to generate more client interest—and, in the process, become a better consultant.

Understanding the Basics

How do I find my first consulting client?

Establish yourself as the authority on a subject. Do small projects first that you know you can execute flawlessly and see if you can use those customers as references for your next projects.

About the author

Elizabeth J. Howell Hanano, CFA, United States
member since August 15, 2017
As an equity analyst, Elizabeth carried out stock selection for $1 billion of assets and was part of an equity research team that was awarded Wall Street Journal’s "Best on the Street". After a successful corporate career, she is thrilled to help companies achieve their strategic, operational, and financial goals in a more hands-on manner. [click to continue...]
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About the author
Elizabeth J. Howell Hanano, CFA
Finance Expert
As an equity analyst, Elizabeth carried out stock selection for $1 billion of assets and was part of an equity research team that was awarded Wall Street Journal’s "Best on the Street". After a successful corporate career, she is thrilled to help companies achieve their strategic, operational, and financial goals in a more hands-on manner.