Consulting Tipping Points

The path from skilled freelancer to expertise consultant has two tippping points

What do these two paths have in common?

  • Freelancer (solo) -> Expertise consultant -> Strategy consultant
  • Agency/Shop owner -> Expertise consultancy owner -> Strategy consultant

Obviously, they have the same concluding point. But they also share two key tipping points.

More Specialized Knowledge Than Clients

The first and most important tipping point is having more valuable industry knowledge than most clients. Through work and study, freelancers and agencies begin to know more about an important aspect of their client’s industry than most of their clients do. This is about more than technical skills.

For example, I worked in fundraising and marketing for universities, hospitals and other nonprofits for a total of about 13 years, both for a large software and services firm and for an agency/consultancy that I co-owned. At some point in that 13-year period, it became clear I knew quite a bit more than my clients about the technical aspects of nonprofit marketing and fundraising. Later though, it also became clear that I better knew the strategy behind that. 

The ‘more knowledge’ tipping point happens organically, mostly through doing the work over and over, but also through self-directed study, such as reading and writing about books (like Dan Pallota’s Uncharitable, in my case) or writing about your work. As a rule, for each major engagement, you should read one book and 5 articles corresponding to it. The study part is essential for grasping how your domain knowledge is related to the industry’s bigger issues.

Of course, fundraising and marketing are just two facets of managing the success of, say, a university. You don’t need to know more than your clients about every part of their business, but you need to know more than they do about at least one or two important aspects of it.

Different Mindset than Before

That by itself isn’t enough though; you need a change in mindset too, among other things.

When you own an agency, this mindset shift can be a little easier because you naturally assume the role of advice-giver. Sometimes clients will even try to pay you for your advice, “we just want to pick your brain for an hour; we know you’re busy so we’ll pay you”.

Of course, clients may try to acquire your advice without adequate compensation. This is especially true if you are mired in the tarpit of hourly billing. But that’s a separate issue; the point is that someone will pay you for your advice.

Then the spark happens, “what if I did a bunch of these brain-picking sessions each week, could that be my entire business?”. The tipping points of acquiring more knowledge than clients may happen gradually but this one usually happens in an instant.

The problem with that business idea is that most clients actually want your advice coupled with your ability to deliver some execution on it. Or the problem might be that you enjoy running an agency or even doing the work yourself if you are solo. Or maybe you find that you can’t even generate insights without at least approaching the problem first from the perspective of the skilled services solutions provider.

This is why it’s tough to jump from a highly-skilled freelancer or agency owner to a Strategy Consultant overnight. And almost impossible without either (a) an established publishing practice or (b) an Alan Weiss-style credentials (Ivy League-ish MBA and/or prestigious brand name work history, etc.)

Which is just fine because the in-between point, that I define as Expertise Consulting (“valuable services backed by strategic insight about industry/market/audience”), might be the place you want to stay for now. 

Have a great week ahead (:



PS. I think you’ll agree that the word “consulting” is so fraught with negative associations and over-use, that it’s almost impossible to define? That’s why I find it useful to break it down into certain categories of consulting. If any of these resonate with you (or don’t), I’d be curious to hear why or why not.