Setting up as a self-employed consultant has become a popular move for people in a broad range of industries and sectors. But becoming a consultant is not as easy as just getting business cards for very little money at Vistaprint or your local office supply store and saying you are a consultant.

The very term consultant denotes someone who is authoritative and knowledgeable on a particular subject, and that experience and know-how are something that other organizations need and are willing to pay for. In fact, the dictionary defines a consultant as “an expert in a particular field who works as an advisor either to a company or to another individual.”

You can find hundreds, if not thousands, of Internet citations and articles about becoming a consultant with a few simple Google searches. But knowing what a consultant is and why you should consider becoming one will not help you with what you really need to know. What most of those articles will not tell you is that, as a consultant, you also have the responsibilities of a small business owner – managing finance and cashflow, planning marketing strategies, and handling paperwork. Does not sound as easy any more, does it?

How easy is it to find and win contracts in a crowded and highly competitive freelance consultancy marketplace? You could be ten times more skilled than the next guy in your field, but if you are not known or have a body of freelance work, you will still have to work much harder to get your first contract. Even after you get that first contract, you will need to really wow your client enough to be willing to give you a recommendation for future contracts with their organization or other companies.

Thousands of professionals have dreamed about starting their own consulting business. When it comes time to getting started, consulting, as it turns out, isn’t sexy, glamorous or easy. In fact, it is downright hard – harder than you might think! Do not make the mistake of deciding to become a consultant in a “hot” field of interest, just because there is a demand right now. You need to carefully think about where your interests and expertise lie, and how dedicated you believe you can be in serving your clients’ needs.

The first step in starting a consulting business from home is to do your homework about what your skills are and what problems you can solve for another organization. Sometimes you might be trying to solve a problem that a company or organization does not even know exists. This makes your job of securing a contract harder. You need to approach that client with as much data about the problem, and present your data in a way that will make them see the problem that you can solve as one that merits fixing.

Before you start approaching companies with your solutions or expertise, you need to identify those companies. A large part of identifying potential clients is by networking both with personal and professional contacts. In other words, you need to get your name and skill set out there and let people know who you are and what past successes you have had while working for an employer or on some freelance jobs. Joining networking groups and attending trade shows and seminars for the industry you are looking to serve, can be a great way of getting to know who the main players are. More important they will know who you are.

Letting potential customers know that you are working from home is not the most professional image you want to put out there. Your clients want to see that you are successful enough to have a professional business address, and you are not just some fly-by-night self-proclaimed expert. Even if you are not ready to take full-time office space, there are a few options available. While working from home and at clients’ facilities, you can engage the service of a Virtual office provider that can provide you with a professional address and a live receptionist to answer your telephone calls – without you actually having a physical office there. When the time comes that you need physical office space, that same office business centre can rent you shared office space or semi-private office space (without having to change the address or phone number on your business card). They can even just rent you a day office to meet with a client.

So now you have been active in networking yourself and you have a professional business address. What is the next step?

First thing that you need to realize about being a consultant is, you are NOT your own boss. Yes, forget why you thought becoming a consultant would make you your own boss. The reality is your boss is the current client you are working for, and your job is to deliver the results that they hired you for. The only way that your are your own boss is in choosing who your next boss will be, and what you expect them to pay you for what you will deliver to them.

What is your worth to your client? Your knowledge. Your deliverable is knowledge. That is why a consultant is hired. While pursuing a contract and while doing the work, you must continually assert your knowledge in the area of expertise for which you were hired. Remember that a client selects you to work on their behalf because you know something that they don’t. This means that you have to tell it like it is, and not back down or placate them. Deliver the knowledge that they have paid you for. If they don’t like it, so be it. If they disagree, so be it. If you did your job right, the next consultant will confirm your findings and recommendations. This is why you truly need to deliver that best knowledge you can. Because if you deliver it in a half-baked way, you’re losing the quality of your service.

One of the biggest mistakes made by new consultants is to under-price their knowledge and try to offer a deal to get their foot in the door. This is largely due to being inexperienced – and tells the client that you don’t know how much they should charge because you do not have the experience. There’s no magic formula for fee-setting, but there is a general rule: Charge more than you think you should and be prepared to negotiate. You want your client to know that they are getting a return on their investment, so it is your job to prove ROI. You’ve got leeway to charge a healthy percentage of the client’s profit.

When you are meeting with a potential client, it is important to keep in mind that you are not just selling your knowledge and experience – you are selling yourself. You need to be prepared to “dress to kill,” meaning that you have to also look the part of being successful. You could be the number one expert in your field, but if you show up in a wrinkled shirt and trousers that look like you have slept in them, it will be hard for clients to take you seriously.

But you also need to prove your worth. You can’t just look the part’ you’ve got to actually be it. You need to be able to deliver what you promise. Having a track record of accomplishments will help you prove it. You need to think of yourself as a brand. The better results delivered by the brand, the more successful you become.

Finally, when deciding to become a consultant, it is important to know what fields of expertise are in demand. If your niche is too small, then your potential client base will be small too. Our next blog will focus on what consulting jobs are in demand the most.