How To Start & Fund A Consulting Business: The Step-By-Step Guide
Do you have a tendency to share your knowledge and experience with others? Do you enjoy giving advice that helps others better their businesses … or their lives? Did you know that you could get paid just for sharing your expertise?
While it may sound too good to be true, that’s exactly what a consultant does. A consultant is an expert that provides knowledge, expertise, and training to others for a fee. Consultants advise their clients on a variety of topics, from how to implement the latest technology to how to create a successful marketing campaign.
Becoming a consultant does not require special training, credentials, or education. You simply need to be an expert in your field. You also need to have passion — not just for your industry but for helping others truly find the right solutions for their problems.
Consultants are organized, know how to network, and are always willing to learn more about their field to provide the best services to their clients.
If this sounds like you, becoming a consultant may be your new career path. The great thing about consulting is that anyone with knowledge and expertise can do it. Starting your own consulting business has low overhead costs and doesn’t require a lot of capital from the get-go. In fact, you can even start your own business from your home office.
But maybe your goals are much bigger. Maybe you want to have the top consulting firm in your area. It doesn’t matter if you want to simply be your own boss and make a decent income or if you want to grow your business to epic proportions — this guide is for you.
We’ll explore the steps you need to take to get your business off the ground. From finding your niche to funding expenses and spreading the word about your business, this guide explores what it takes to open and operate a successful consulting business. Let’s jump in and get started!
Table of Contents
Pick Your Niche
We’ve all heard the saying, “Jack of all trades, master of none.” When clients are seeking a consultant, they don’t want someone that knows a little bit about everything. Instead, they want to work with a consultant that knows everything about one thing. This is why it’s so important to pick your niche.
To get started, consider your skills and knowledge. What industry are you familiar with? Clients are looking for an expert in their field, so identifying the industries you already know is important when selecting your niche.
Next, you need to consider what problems and pain points your chosen industry is facing. You can do online research to find out what challenges are common in this industry. Check out blogs and industry forums to get an idea of common complaints and problems. You can even talk directly with people in the industry to find out what obstacles and setbacks they face.
Once armed with this information, you need to identify your own skills and knowledge that could be applied to this field. For example, let’s say you’re knowledgeable about the construction industry. One of the common pain points in this industry is a lack of communications. Are you familiar with mobile and cloud-based software? Great! You could use this knowledge to help businesses streamline communications and improve efficiency.
When you start your consulting business, your goal shouldn’t just be something generic like, “I want to help other business owners.” Instead, you should have a more specific purpose in mind. “I help businesses in this industry find and implement the newest and best software solutions to grow their business in just 3 months.” This also serves as your value proposition. In other words, this is the value you offer; something that sets you apart from other consultants. Remember to effectively communicate to your clients what you can do for them.
Still unsure of where to get started? Consider one of these niches for your consulting businesses:
- Cannabis Business
- Customer Service
- Food Safety
- Grant Writing
- Human Resources (HR)
- Information Technology
- Project Management
- Real Estate
- Social Media
- Supply Chain
After you’ve selected your niche, do your research to find out what certifications and licenses you need to legally operate your business. In most instances, you’ll find that a business license in your state of operations is all that you need to open your consulting business.
One last thing to remember is that even if you’re knowledgeable about your niche right now, industry trends and changes can occur in an instant. Make sure you stay up-to-date on what’s happening in the industry to ensure you’re always qualified to assist your clients.
Make Your Business Plan
Even if your consulting business seems pretty straightforward, it’s still necessary to have a business plan. There are a few reasons you need a business plan. The first is that your plan maps out your goals and how you plan to reach those goals. A business plan is also necessary when you seek funding through banks or other lenders.
Because every business has a different vision, no two business plans are exactly alike. However, there are a few common components that should be included in all business plans. Those components are:
- Executive Summary: Highlights what will be discussed in your plan and summarizes what your business hopes to accomplish
- Company Description: Includes key information about your business and the customers that you will serve
- Competitive Analysis: Who are your competitors, and what are their strengths and weaknesses?
- Organization & Management: An outline of the setup of your organization and names and summaries of the job responsibilities of your management team
- Market Analysis: An analysis of your industry now and in the future
- Marketing Plan: An outline of the marketing strategies you will use to draw clients to your business
- Financial Projections: Your expectations for future revenue based on market research
Register Your Business
Before you launch your business, you have to register with federal, state, and local agencies. You will need to register your business name with the state in which you operate. In addition, you must register with the Internal Revenue Service to get an Employer Identification Number (EIN) if you ever plan to hire employees. It’s imperative to obtain licenses and permits to operate your business based on state and local regulations. You must register your business if you plan to seek business funding now or in the future — or if want to open a business bank account. Establishing a business is legally required, but it also makes you look more professional and legitimate to your clients.
One important step to take when registering your business is choosing your business structure. Your business structure will be important in determining what you’ll pay in taxes. Your business structure may also offer protection from personal liability for the debts and obligations of your business. The different types of business entities include:
This structure is the easiest to form and does not require filing with the state. With a sole proprietorship, profits and losses from the business are reported on the business owner’s personal tax return. The major drawback of this business structure is that the business owner – you – are held personally liable for the debts and obligations of the business.
A partnership is established by businesses with two or more owners. There are three common types of partnerships: general partnerships, limited partnerships, and limited liability partnerships.
- General Partnership (GP): This type of partnership has the fewest ongoing requirements. These are also the easiest to form and don’t require state filing. The drawback is that partners in a GP are personally liable for the debts and obligations of the business.
- Limited Partnership (LP): In a limited partnership, only the general partner(s) has unlimited liability. The other partners — known as limited partners – have limited liability. This simply means that personal assets can’t be used to cover the debts and liabilities of the business.
- Limited Liability Partnership (LLP): In a limited liability partnership, all partners have limited liability. However, partners may be held liable for their personal actions. This structure is reserved for professional service businesses.
Limited Liability Companies
A limited liability company, or LLC, is independent of its owners. The personal assets of the owners are kept separate from business debts. An LLC is taxed similarly to sole proprietorships and partnerships.
If a corporation is the right structure for your business, there are two options to consider: C corporations and S corporations.
- C-Corporations: C-corporations are independent of their owners. There is no limit on the number of shareholders in a C-corporation. C-corporations are taxed on shareholder dividends and corporate profits.
- S-Corporations: An S-corporation is also independent of its owners. Owners report their share of the profits and losses on their own personal income tax returns. There are limitations to the number of shareholders with this structure.
When choosing your business structure, you need to keep a few considerations in mind. If you have multiple owners, a partnership is a good route to take. If you want to protect your personal assets but don’t want a higher tax rate, consider establishing an LLC. If you plan to raise large amounts of capital in the future, a corporation might work best for you. You can learn more about what business structure best fits your needs by consulting with an attorney or accountant.
Get Business Insurance
Business insurance is critical for the protection of your business. From property insurance that protects your office building to liability insurance that safeguards you from lawsuits, there are a few different types of business insurance to consider for your consulting business.
General Liability Insurance
If you operate a brick-and-mortar business, you need general liability insurance. This protects your business in the event that something happens to a client on your property. For example, if a client slips and falls in your office, they could file a lawsuit against you. With general liability insurance, you won’t have to pay all associated costs out-of-pocket.
Professional Liability Insurance
Professional liability insurance is also known as errors and omissions (E&O) insurance. This type of insurance protects you from lawsuits that may be filed by clients. Let’s say that you consult with a client on a project, and the project ultimately ends up failing. The client believes that the failure of the project was your fault and files a lawsuit. If you have E&O insurance, attorney’s fees, settlement expenses, and court costs will be covered up to the full amount of your policy.
If you have employees, worker’s compensation is another type of insurance your business needs. Worker’s compensation covers the medical expenses, wages, and legal fees of an employee that is injured on the job or suffers a work-related ailment. Most states require all W2 employees to be covered under worker’s compensation insurance, but laws vary by state.
Commercial Property Insurance
If you have a commercial property for your consulting business, consider getting commercial property insurance to protect your assets. This type of insurance protects you from losses that may occur from burglary, fire, or natural disasters.
Separate Personal & Business Expenses
It may be tempting to simply use your own personal bank account and credit cards for your business. Since the business is yours, there’s no harm in mixing your business and personal finances, right?
Actually, the wisest move is to keep your business and personal finances separate. One of the most important reasons for doing this is because it will make filing your taxes much easier. Imagine that the deadline is ticking to file your return with the IRS, and you (or your accountant) are stuck spending hours separating business and personal records. If you’re audited after filing, having separate records for business and personal income/expenses will make the process go much more smoothly.
Keeping your business and personal finances separate is also helpful in limiting your liabilities from creditors. If there is no clear separation between you and the business, creditors could potentially use your personal assets for unpaid debts and obligations, even if your business is structured as a corporation or LLC.
Separation of personal and business expenses is also important for building your business credit. If you’re using your own personal credit cards, you may increase your personal credit score. However, this won’t affect your business credit history. If you plan on applying for business loans in the future, boosting your business credit profile is critical to qualifying for higher loan amounts and the best rates and terms.
The first step to separating your business and personal finances is to open a business checking account. This bank account can be used for depositing money, writing checks to vendors, making online payments, and keeping an eye on the expenses and income of your business. To open an account, you will need your EIN, Social Security Number, business address, and business license. You may also need other documentation, such as a copy of the articles of incorporation on file with your state.
Even though you can keep an eye on your finances through your business bank account, it’s also important to set up a dedicated accounting system for your business. This will allow you to closely keep track of the money coming in and going out of your business. You may opt to hire a bookkeeper for this task, or you can use accounting software to track everything yourself. We’ll go into more details on this type of software a little later.
Finally, you can apply for a business credit card to cover recurring expenses for your business, such as your lease or utility payments. Using and paying off your business credit card responsibly will help strengthen your business credit profile.
Unsure of which card is right for you? Start with these recommendations.
Chase Ink Business Cash
Chase Ink Business Cash
15.49% - 21.49%, Variable
The Chase Ink Business Cash card rewards you just for using your card on business expenses. You can receive 5% cash back on internet, cable, phone services, and purchases from office supply stores. However, this is capped at the first $25,000 spent each anniversary year.
You can also earn 2% back on purchases at gas stations and restaurants. This is also capped at the first $25,000 spent per anniversary year.
For the rest of your purchases, you can take advantage of unlimited 1% cash back rewards. As a new cardholder, you can receive a bonus of $500 cash back if you spend $3,000 within 3 months of opening your account.
This credit card has a 0% introductory APR for the first 12 months. After the introductory period, interest rates are 15.49% to 21.49% based on creditworthiness. There is no annual fee associated with this card.
Additional benefits for Chase Ink Business Cash cardholders include free employee cards, purchase protection, and extended warranty protection. You must have excellent credit to qualify for this credit card.
Spark Cash Select For Business
Spark Cash Select From Capital One
15.24% - 23.24%, Variable
Capital One’s Spark Cash Select for Business is designed for borrowers with excellent credit scores. One of the standout features of this card is the unlimited 1.5% cash back you receive just by using your card. You can cash out your rewards at any time.
If you become a new cardmember and spend $3,0000 within the first 3 months of opening your account, you’ll receive a $200 cash bonus. (Offer expired.)
You’ll also be able to enjoy a 0% introductory APR for the first 9 months. After the introductory period, your APR will be from 15.24% to 23.24% based on creditworthiness. This card does not have an annual fee, and you can receive employee cards at no cost.
Seek Business Funding
One of the best things about setting up your consulting business is that you may be able to get started with very little capital. Ultimately, though, this depends on the goals of your business. For example, if you plan to only consult with clients online, you can work right out of your home office. This eliminates the need for a dedicated commercial office, which comes with expenses such as monthly rent and utility payments.
On the other hand, you might want to open a brick-and-mortar business immediately. This would require more capital from the start. Even if you start small, you may later expand your business by purchasing or leasing a larger building and hiring employees.
Whether you start off big or you plan to grow in the future, you’ll need capital. In some cases, you may be able to use your revenue to fund your expenses and growth. In other instances, you’ll need a financial boost from a business lender.
Fortunately, there are many financing options out there if you know where to look. Let’s explore the types of funding available to you, along with our lender recommendations.
If you would prefer to not work with a lender, using personal savings is an option available to you. If you use your own money, you don’t have to worry about making payments to a lender. You’ll also save money because you won’t pay interest or fees that are charged by a lender. On the downside, if your business isn’t successful, you risk losing your savings.
Friends & Family
Have a friend or family member with cash to invest? Pitch them your business idea and let them know why investing in you is a great idea. Have your business plan in hand and present your ideas to them just as you would any other lender. If they decide you’re worth the investment, make sure to get everything in writing to protect all parties.
There are two ways to get loans from someone you know. You can choose debt financing, which means that you’ll make payments toward your principal balance plus interest on a regularly scheduled basis, just like a traditional loan. Or you can receive money in exchange for ownership in your business – also known as equity financing. While you won’t have to repay immediately, your friend or family member will collect a share of the profits over time. Depending on your agreement, they may also have some level of control in the decision-making process of your business.
Unsure of which route to take? Learn more about debt vs. equity financing to determine which option is best for your business.
Rollovers As Business Startups (ROBS)
What if there was a way to get the capital you need to start or grow your business without taking on debt? Sounds too good to be true, doesn’t it? But with a rollovers as business startups (ROBS) plan, you can do just that. The only catch? You have to have a qualifying retirement plan.
Early withdrawal of your retirement funds results in penalties. However, a ROBS plan allows you to leverage your funds without having to pay these penalties.
With a ROBS plan, you set up a new C-corporation. Then, you create a retirement plan for your newly created corporation. Next, you roll over funds from your existing retirement plan. These funds can be used to purchase stock in your new business, providing you with the capital you need to start or expand your business.
The best part of a ROBS plan is that you’re using your own funds. This means no debt, no interest or fees, and no repayments to a lender. However, you are putting your retirement funds at risk if your business fails.
Recommended Option: Guidant Financial
Many small business owners that get capital through a ROBS plan hire a ROBS provider to do the heavy lifting. Guidant Financial is a ROBS provider that can help you get started.
To set up a ROBS plan with Guidant Financial, you need to have a retirement plan or pension account with at least $50,000. Most plans qualify, including:
- Traditional IRA
Guidant Financial can help you roll over up to 100% of your account balance. In addition to having a qualifying plan, you must also meet these requirements:
- Must be an employee of the business
- Must have a business to fund
You can use your funds for any business purpose, whether you’re buying an existing business, funding startup costs, or paying expenses related to expansion.
To get started, you must pay a $4,995 startup fee. Since this isn’t a loan, you won’t have to make debt repayments. However, you will have to pay a monthly administration fee.
If you don’t qualify for a ROBS plan or you’re seeking other types of funding, Guidant Financial offers other options including Small Business Administration (SBA) loans, unsecured business loans, and equipment leases.
Lines Of Credit
A line of credit is one of the most flexible forms of financing. This is a type of revolving credit (similar to a credit card) that allows you to make multiple draws. As you repay your principal balance (plus fees and interest), funds will become available to use again. Fees and interest are only charged on the borrowed portion of funds.
With your line of credit, you can initiate draws as needed. Once you draw funds, they’ll be transferred to your bank account and are available to use in 1 to 3 business days in most cases.
You can spend up to and including the credit limit set by your lender. Most lines of credit can be used for any business purpose but are particularly useful for unexpected expenses, filling revenue gaps, or covering extra expenses due to a seasonal increase in business.
Recommended Option: Fundbox
Fundbox is a lender that has lines of credit up to $100,000 for qualified small business owners. The lender charges set draw fees starting at 4.66% of the borrowing amount. You can choose to repay Fundbox over terms of 12 or 24 weeks, and payments are automatically deducted from your linked business checking account.
You can be approved instantly and put your line of credit to work for you immediately. Once you initiate a draw from your account, funds will hit your bank account within 1 to 3 business days.
Qualifying for a Fundbox line of credit is easy. The minimum requirements are:
- Must have a business checking account
- Must have a U.S.-based business
- At least 2 months of activity in accounting software or at least 3 months of transactions in your business bank account
- At least $50,000 in annual revenue
Your credit limit will be based on the performance of your business.
Whether your consulting business is home-based or you operate out of a commercial property, you will need some equipment to get started. Some equipment you may need for your business includes a computer, printer, office furniture, and computer software. If you don’t have the funds available in your bank account, consider applying for equipment financing.
Equipment financing is a type of funding used to purchase equipment, furniture, and fixtures for your business. Equipment loans can also be used to purchase a commercial vehicle if one is needed to drive to meet your clients if you don’t want to take out a business auto loan. There are two types of equipment financing available: equipment loans and equipment leases.
With an equipment loan, you’ll make regularly scheduled payments to a lender over a set period of time, such as five years. Each payment will be applied to the principal – the amount you borrowed – as well as fees and interest charged by the lender. Once you’ve made all payments as scheduled, the equipment belongs to you. You can continue to put the equipment into use or sell it.
With equipment leases, you also make scheduled payments to a lender. However, your lease terms are typically a few years shorter. Once you’ve made all scheduled payments, you return the equipment and sign a new lease for new equipment. You never truly own the equipment, but this is a good option for anyone that wants to update their equipment every few years.
Recommended Option: Lendio
Lendio isn’t a direct lender. Instead, it’s a loan aggregator that can connect you with its financing partners to help you get the best financing offer for your situation.
One of the financial products offered through Lendio is equipment financing. You may qualify for funding of $5,000 to $5 million for the purchase of your equipment. Loan terms are 1 to 5 years with interest rates starting at 7.5%.
Your funds can be used for almost any equipment purchase, including software, furniture and fixtures, and even appliances and HVAC units for your office.
To qualify, you must meet these minimum requirements:
- Time in business of at least 12 months
- At least $50,000 in annual revenue
- Personal credit score of 650 or above
If you don’t meet these requirements, Lendio may still have an option for you. Just fill out a quick application to find out what you can qualify to receive. Lendio also offers additional financial solutions, including SBA loans, lines of credit, term loans, and startup loans.
Personal Loans For Business
If you’re a brand-new business, you may not qualify for other financing options. This is because lenders look at annual revenue, business credit profile, and your time in business to determine if you’re a risky borrower. If you don’t meet these qualifications, you won’t be able to get affordable small business funding.
However, there is an alternative solution. You can apply for a personal loan to use for business purposes. With this type of financing, a lender considers your personal credit history and income to determine if you qualify.
In most cases, you can use a personal loan for business for any purpose, from purchasing needed equipment to hiring new employees, using as working capital, or paying startup costs.
Recommended Option: Upstart
Upstart personal loans are available in amounts from $1,000 to $50,000. APRs range from 7.54% to 35.99%. Repayment terms are 3 or 5 years.
Upstart’s lending partners consider more than just your credit score when determining whether to approve your loan. Your years of credit, education, area of study, and job history are also considered during the application process.
To qualify for an Upstart personal loan, you must have:
- Personal credit score of 620 or above
- Solid debt-to-income ratio
- No bankruptcies or public records
- No delinquent accounts or accounts in collections
- Less than 6 inquiries in the last 6 months
Business Credit Cards
We’ve already discussed business credit cards earlier as part of keeping your business and personal accounts separate. Business credit cards are great to have on-hand for unexpected expenses or recurring expenses for your business.
You can even score rewards just for using your credit card. Look for a rewards card that offers cash back or points to use toward perks like travel to get the most out of your card.
Recommended Option: Spark Classic
Capital One’s Spark Classic for Business card is available to business owners with average credit. This card offers a 25.24% variable APR and no annual fee. Using your card responsibly helps build your business credit profile so you can qualify for other cards and financing offers in the future.
You can earn unlimited 1% cash back on all purchases with no minimum required to redeem. Other benefits include fraud coverage and alerts and employee cards at no additional cost.
Choose Business Software
Choosing the right business software can help you run your consulting business more efficiently. The first type of software you should invest in is accounting software or an online bookkeeping system. This allows you to keep track of your income and expenses, run financial reports, send invoices, and access your financials for tax purposes. As your business grows, you may opt to hire a bookkeeper or accountant, but in the beginning, you may be able to tackle this task yourself using the right accounting software.
New to accounting? Download our free ebook, The Beginner’s Guide to Accounting, to get a handle on the basics.
You’ll also need software that’s used for managing clients — from keeping updated contact information all in one place to setting and tracking appointments. There are programs designed specifically for consultants that offer client management, project management, tasks, and other features.
To accept payments other than cash, you’ll also need payment processing software. This software communicates between your bank and the bank of your client, allowing you to accept debit cards, credit cards, and other forms of payment. If your business is going to be based solely online, you can sign up for an online payment solution.
Finally, if you plan to do online consulting, you must invest in video conferencing software. There are multiple options available — some at no cost and others that charge a monthly fee.
Set Your Rates
In order for your business to be successful, you have to have revenue. Without revenue, you won’t be able to pay your expenses or the salaries of yourself or your employees. Without revenue, you also won’t be able to grow your business.
To make sure your business is successful and profitable, you need to set your rates. This can be a balancing act for most consultants. If you set your rates too high, it may scare away potential clients. If you shortchange yourself and set your rates too low, clients may not take you seriously or you might not bring in enough revenue to cover your expenses.
To set your rates, first decide how your pay structure will look. You have three options: per project, hourly rates, and retainers.
If you charge per project, you will need to figure out how long the project will be, what expenses may be incurred, and other factors. You may choose to bill for the entire project or break it down into monthly payments.
You can also charge an hourly rate. Take a look at your expenses and determine how much you would need to charge to be profitable. Also, be aware that the higher your rate is, the more your clients will expect from you. If you have the credentials, training, and education to justify charging $500 per hour, your clients will have high expectations of what you’ll provide.
Finally, you can also work on a retainer basis. With a retainer, you will work a specific number of hours for one set monthly fee.
When calculating your rates, make sure to list all of the expenses of your business. You will need to make at least enough revenue to cover these costs.
You also need to find out what your competitors are charging for their services. You can do this by going online to their websites, checking out their brochures, or making a quick phone call. Unless you have an obvious advantage over other consultants in your area, you want to make sure that your fees are competitive.
Bolster Your Web Presence
Prospective clients are going to have a difficult time finding you if you don’t have a web presence. This doesn’t mean that you have to invest thousands of dollars in setting up a fancy new website. However, you do need to have at least a basic website and social media profiles to provide clients with critical information about your business.
You can get started by setting up free social media pages on sites including Facebook and Twitter. Your pages should include your contact information, the services you offer, and office hours. As your business grows, you can post news and updates, videos, photos, and other media to draw in clients.
You also need to set up a company website. You could pay a web designer, but at this stage, you can certainly tackle the task yourself. Easy website builders make it simple to set up your website in just minutes, even if you’ve never created a website before. Make sure that you include your contact information, areas served, and the services you offer. If you have any credentials or training, add that information to your website, as well.
Later, you can add additional features to your website, such as videos, online appointment scheduling, and client testimonials.
If you want to learn more tips and tricks, check out our article on creating and maintaining your online presence.
Market Your Business
Building your web presence is one way to get your name out to the public, but you should also implement a marketing and advertising campaign to further boost your business. The strategy you choose is based on a number of factors, including your marketing budget and your goals for the campaign.
One great way to market your business is through Facebook ads. You can easily set your budget and select your target audience. It only takes a few minutes to get your Facebook ads up and running. Learn more about social media marketing for your business.
Another advertising method you can use is a newsletter. Your newsletter doesn’t need an over-the-top design. Instead, a simple newsletter with important information is most effective. Use your newsletter to discuss current industry trends, current news about your business, and other relevant information. You can send a physical newsletter by mail, but this comes with costs including paper and envelopes, printing, and postage. A more affordable option is to offer an email newsletter. Make sure to include a sign-up option on your website and social media pages.
Another idea is to print up brochures for your business. Your brochure should include your services, your value proposition, the industries you serve, and biographical information, such as your credentials or training.
You can also take your knowledge and leverage it as a guest speaker at an event. You can speak at dinners, luncheons, and other functions for industry events or service organizations. If you don’t want to be a public speaker, you can attend industry events and network with potential clients. Networking is key to running a successful consulting business.
Cold-calling is also a way to attract new clients. Prepare your script before calling local businesses that could use your services. The goal of cold-calling is to get a meeting with the decisionmaker to sell yourself and your services to gain a new client.
Finally, word-of-mouth advertising is one of the easiest ways to bring in business. Satisfied clients that tell their friends, family, and colleagues about you or who take the time to write a referral or testimonial that you can use on your website can help drive more clients to your business.
Sharing your knowledge and expertise with others can be extremely lucrative if you know how to set up your consulting business. With careful planning — selecting your niche, setting your fees, and effectively marketing your business — you’ll have a better chance of reaching new clients and meeting your financial goals. Good luck!