You’ve decided to take the plunge and start a digital marketing and ecommerce consultant practice. Your decision to go it alone might have been the result of months of deep soul searching or some sagacious advice from those you know and trust. Or perhaps you’re there because you lost your last job due to downsizing or a merger, or because the dream job you thought you had turned out not to be, and you’re having second thoughts about returning to corporate life. For those of you who have fantasized about being your own digital marketing or ecommerce consultant, this article is for you.
Many dream of the benefits of going it alone, such as the freedom to work whenever you want, the lack of hiring headaches, and no tedious commute. But going the solo route also has its drawbacks: No steady paycheck, no employer-provided benefits, slow-paying clients, and working long hours alone. As a leading ecommerce consultant recruiter, I’ve watched many digital and direct marketers take the leap into “solopreneurship.” They tend to fall into one of three categories: Some try and fail, usually within 12 months. Others defy the odds and succeed long term as consultants. Finally, a very select few in digital marketing and ecommerce consulting will go on to enjoy a level of success they could only have dreamed about as a salaried employee.
What is it that makes some succeed and others fail? I have plenty of insight to share as a ecommerce consultant recruiter. Deep subject matter expertise only gets you into the game. To win it, you need to take many actions would-be consultants often overlook. Here are a few:
Give it everything you’ve got. The most successful poeple I know as a digital marketing or ecommerce consultant dream big and have an intense passion to succeed – and for their subject. They actually enjoy keeping up on the latest developments, rather than viewing doing so as a job requirement. Launching a successful independent digital marketing consultant business should be a 24/7 effort, not something to try out while you’re looking for another job. Picking up some freelance or contract work along the way will certainly help pay the bills if you’re unemployed, but those projects will only get you so far if that becomes your singular focus. When someone tells me they’re going to try to launch a digital marketing and ecommerce consulting practice while continuing to look for full-time, salaried work (which is a full-time job just by itself), I know the odds are very much stacked against them.
Never stop marketing. One of the most important hats you’ll wear as a one-man or one-woman band is chief marketing officer. Like any business, you need to build a value proposition and create a brand based off your specific strengths and what you have to offer. I have done this to establish my practice as a ecommerce consultant recruiter. I typically set aside “off hours” to do my marketing, allowing me to focus on my clients during those all-important business hours from 8 to 5. This time is essential: The lack of marketing and brand building is a major reason why consultants struggle and eventually give up. They get so caught up with projects and client deadlines that when work goes away, their business goes away. It’s a huge reason why consultants contact my office to inquire about full-time opportunities. They tell me they don’t have time to do their own marketing and new business development, and they don’t particularly even care to do it. The ugly truth is that clients will not always come to you, and when they stop coming, believe me, you’ll be wishing you had done more marketing. But, hey, this shouldn’t be all that difficult. After all, if you already know something about marketing, you’re off to a good start!
When building your brand, networking is key. This one is pretty obvious, but it’s no less important. Make yourself visible. Go to conferences (here is a list of conferences I have attended that have been good for networking), write articles, make yourself available to reporters (especially trade reporters, who offer exposure to decision makers in your market), create videos, and give presentations. If business isn’t knocking at the door, networking will help build one.
Hone your relationship development and communications skills. The importance of effective communications skills cannot be overstated. There is a lot of sloppy communication out there: Your ability to effectively influence others through speaking and writing will greatly increase your chances of success. When clients come to you – regardless of whether they’ve found you on their own or you’ve reeled them in – you need to be prepared to present your unique value proposition. You need to be able to answer the question, “What makes you different from all of the others in digital marketing and ecommerce consulting who are out there?” Generally speaking, when it comes to digital marketing the more specialized you are, the easier it will be to define your unique value proposition.
Develop the ability to work alone. Being a “chief home digital officer” certainly has its share of perks, but being alone most of the time is also a major consultant-killer. How do you avoid the isolation blues? One way is to establish a daily plan. That will help you stay focused all day long. I came up with great way to avoid lonely thoughts: Keep extremely busy and you won’t have time to think them. The other thing I’ve done is establish relationships with a select few of my peers. Since we specialize in different areas, we don’t directly compete against each other and we’re free to share our experiences, successes, and failures. We even work on executive searches together. I know many people as a digital marketing or ecommerce consultant who’ve created a sort of “inner circle” of peers who they can work with and trust.
Make a business plan. You wouldn’t interview for a digital marketing-related job without a resume, would you? You’d be amazed at how many consultants began their business without drawing up a plan. A business plan is somewhat like a resume for your proposed business. While it’s used to explain and illustrate your vision to others, or perhaps to apply for a bank loan, the actual process of developing a business plan for digital marketing and ecommerce consulting will help you to clarify what it is you want to accomplish and exactly what you need to do to successfully establish your digital marketing consulting practice. The best way to accomplish this is to create a marketing plan and set aside time every week to execute on that plan. Part of that marketing plan should include knowing what you’re good at. Draw on your general marketing knowledge, and showcase your specific areas of expertise.
Know your strengths and weaknesses. Stick with the stuff you’re good at and outsource the rest. Do not let your ego get in the way. Know when you need to learn new skills or take other steps to improve your business, but don’t get bogged down working on tasks that you can pay someone else to do for a fraction of what you charge your clients. Letting go of duties you perform less efficiently than others is one of the most difficult things for those in digital marketing and ecommerce consulting to do, because solo entrepreneurs tend to be control freaks. It’s in their DNA. They want to be involved in every little detail of the business, and sometimes lack the self-awareness to know when they should be doing the work themselves and when they should turn to other experts. Develop the self-awareness to know when to let go.
Strengthen your time management skills. To be a successful as a digital marketing or ecommerce consultant, you need to view yourself as a business owner. You must be disciplined enough to take consistent action on the critical aspects of your work and focus on those tasks that will drive revenue, and minimizing those tasks that don’t. The best way to do that is to develop a daily plan. Even after 25 years of working independently, I still use a daily planner that lists my daily “must-do” activities right there in front of me on the computer screen.
Cultivate a positive attitude. Perhaps the most important attribute of them all. I have this quote from German author Johann Wolfgang von Goethe hanging on the wall in my office: “Whatever you can do, or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it.”
One other piece of advice: Business partnerships are great to have, particularly in the world of digital marketing which has so many different specialties that intersect. You’re bound to pick up some work that will call for expertise that you just don’t have. But as I have discovered as an ecommerce consultant recruiter, you can’t depend on others to build your brand and your value proposition. Working partnerships are what I call a “nice to have.” They can be productive, but no one else is going to market your expertise better than you.