No one succeeds alone. Whether you are a sole practitioner or part of a small consultancy, you need — and deserve — a back-up team of professionals who are there to help you and your practice move forward.
You can’t assemble such a group overnight any more than you can assemble a winning sports team in the same amount of time. The trick is learning to spot and secure key “utility players” when they cross your professional path.
Who are these folks?
1. A friend or relative who provides you with unconditional support for your career choice (even if they don’t understand what you do). If married or attached to a significant other, ideally this would be that person. You both need to understand that consulting — on one’s own, no less — is a taxing choice of profession. There will be periods of self-doubt, financial strain, extreme overwork, and worse. Trust me, you will need someone who will never let you down in terms of affirming your choice and your capabilities.
2. Banker. Your banker should feel like your business partner — someone who knows and understands your business plan, a financial professional with whom you can be completely honest, an advisor who can offer options and solutions when unique opportunities or challenges present themselves. For a small businessperson, you are most likely to find the kind of banker you need in an independent or community bank rather than in one of the mega-branch, mega-state banking conglomerates. Make an appointment to meet with the branch manager and introduce yourself –then make a follow-up appointment to outline your business plan. Don’t wait to arrange for a first meeting when you need or want something.
3. Attorney. Establish a relationship with an attorney specializing in small business representation. You will want this professional to be in your corner to review contracts and agreements, write “lawyer letters” to clients or suppliers who are mucking with you, and offer general legal advice when unanticipated situations warrant. Again, interview several and line up an attorney before you ever need one. If your plan is to publish, produce, or “sell” items, you may also wish to recruit an intellectual property lawyer for your team.
4. Accountant. A good CPA who is fluent in small or home-based business issues is worth their weight in gold. Not only will they keep you apprised of the most appropriate form for your business as it grows (e.g. sole proprietorship, Sub S corporation, limited liability partnership, etc.), but they will educate and advise you on how to maximize your deductions throughout the year.
5. Printer. A good neighborhood printer can be an enormous asset when you are thinking about any printing needs — business stationery, portfolios or brochures, etc. They can show you how to keep costs low while looking like a million bucks, and can also be a good link to other related professionals such as cost-effective graphic artists, photographers, etc.
6. Fellow nonprofit consultant. An allied professional serving the same sector can be a great sounding board, brainstorming partner, referral resource, and cheerleader. CharityChannel is a great place to develop relationships with a broad spectrum of colleagues, but those of us who have been consulting for a long time know the value of having one or two friends in the business who challenge us to stretch and grow, and who also are there to kvetch with on-line when you’re doing a damned proposal at 1:00 (or 5:00) in the morning. Ideally, this individual is not selling the same services you offer, so there is no concern over competition.
7. One or more “big business” advisors. These are high-powered people who may have no knowledge of your field, but who understand “big business” thinking and can advise you when big opportunities or big new ideas come to you. In the best case, they are also personal friends with whom you can be completely candid — as can they. And they will be bluntly honest with you about your strength and shortcomings. Ten years ago, I invited three very different individuals (from different parts of the country) if they would be willing to serve as my informal advisory board. There is not a significant strategic opportunity or issue concerning my practice and long-term business plan that I have not taken to them for input. Their “big picture” perspective, financial savvy, and knowledge of my style and capabilities has been the source of tremendous advice. Again, recruit your own advisory board members before you need them – they’ll be flattered.
8. “Manual” laborers. Identify a neighborhood college kid, at-home mom, or retired individual whom you can call on with short notice to help you when you’re swamped with “idiot work”: filing stuff, preparing a mailing, sorting bills and receipts at tax time, colleting contact information over the phone, etc. The paper monster can overwhelm you and kill your enthusiasm for your business. You may not be able to afford permanent, part-time help, but you can arrange for someone in the neighborhood to come in periodically and help you burrow out from under the mess or move a labor-intensive project out the door.
9. Three references. Before you ever need them, identify three great client-friends who will praise you professionally to the high heavens on a moment’s notice, and who are smart enough to know what to focus on when a prospect calls them to check you out. By client-friends, I mean past or current clients whom you can bluntly solicit to say marvelous things about you and your work now and for years to come.
10. Technogeek. This is a friend or professional who knows computer stuff inside out — hardware, software, networks, the whole nine yards — and does not mind what seem to be idiot questions. This is someone you can call before approaching tech support hell, who knows and loves you well enough to ask “Is your CAPS LOCK on?” when your password keeps getting rejected. Someone who will tell you why an e-machine may not be the best computer for you, without trying to sell you something else. That special someone who will talk you in off the ledge when you attempt to upgrade to XP on your own.
Putting your team in place is akin to assembling a good map, a gallon of water, a full tank of gas, and great CDs before starting a journey across Death Valley. Would you probably make it without all that? Yes. But wouldn’t you feel a whole lot more comfortable and confident on the journey if you knew you were ready for any eventuality? Absolutely.
Fare well, and fare well for this week …