€0 To €84k As A First-Time Consultant: Here’s A No-BS guide To Do The Same
I haven’t written a blog post in more than a year. It’s been a busy year.
In one year, I went from a one-man show with €0 in revenue to a great team of 3 with €84k in revenue.
I have a newfound respect for you entrepreneurs. The people who have been doing this for years or decades.
A confession: Writing scares the shit out of me. I’m not afraid to speak in public (I love it). But writing does. It’s time to conquer this fear.
I wanted to write a letter to people who are in the same situation that I was in just before I left my job. I was miserable. I always wanted to do my own thing. Even my mom was saying that I should do something on my own. That I wasn’t made to receive orders.
I’ve posted my progress on Reddit a year ago. I used the questions you guys asked then to create this post.
This letter is for people who are struggling to get started. Who have this itch about doing their own thing. It’s also a letter for me. To realise how much I’ve done and what I’ve become.
It makes me sad to see all those startup events or free entrepreneur meetups. I don’t know about where you are, but in Dublin you’ll see always the same people. They never seem to make any progress.
It’s fake work.
This letter is for you. The wantrepreneur. The guy who always thinks and never does.
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- I went from €0 to €84k by contacting my network and speaking at events. There was no silver bullet. It was painful (and it still is).
- I had €20k in savings and burnt half of it in a few months. I didn’t take any loan and own 100% of the company.
- I believe that consulting is the best way to start as a first-time entrepreneur. Build products later.
- Work hard, don’t give up, focus on a few things.
- Pick a vision and a fight.
- Talk to people. Follow-up like a modafucka.
- Avoid fake work.
- Sell value.
First, here’s some context
Born in 1988. Great childhood.
- I went to a good high school in Clermont-Ferrand, France.
- I studied hard the last year to go to a school of engineering in France (so I could build wind turbines). But I didn’t get in.
- I went to another school of engineering in 2006 to 2009.
- Went to Kansas for a year as part of an exchange program. I saw another side of the World. I realised how lucky I was.
- I was lost. I decided that marketing and business was much more interesting to me than mechanical engineering and found a business school that would take me.
- I did a Bachelor Degree back in my hometown for a year.
- I had to find an internship abroad. With the little bit of experience in mechanical engineering and my good english, I landed in Dublin.
- As an intern, I was a prick. I was still very unsure about my future and myself.
- I didn’t want to go back to France so I pushed hard to be hired. I found a weakness in the way the company was reporting data. I proposed to my boss to take care of it. He agreed.
- I got a contract job in Dublin on something I barely understood. They gave me some budget and I managed to get a solution off the ground.
- I thought hard about my future one weekend, and somehow I connected the dots. I always have been fascinated by the internet. I always had a computer in my room. The sound of my first 56k modem was a delight to my ears.
- Marketing was also something I liked. But not the bullshit marketing. Not the shitty ads. What I really liked was trying to understand people. The psychology. How do people think? Why do they behave this way?
- So I started a blog about entrepreneurship and marketing (in French). I spent my evenings (and days) on Twitter, connecting with people and I wrote a few blog posts. They were mostly research from reading books. They weren’t really me.
- I managed to land a permanent full-time job with the same company. I replaced my boss who was leaving. For the first time in my life, I had a very decent salary (around €28,000 a year). I also had a company car.
- It’s an important year. This is when I met Jen. She changed my life. She really did. She put me back in touch with my family. I got closer to my siblings and parents thanks to her. And it gave me confidence. Confidence that I could do whatever the fuck I wanted.
- I earned a Professional Diploma in Digital Marketing.
- I found a job in the industry I wanted — a job with a mobile marketing company. I put everything I had in this business for almost 2 years. I learned so much about marketing and sales. I was involved in everything. The problem was: I learned by myself.
- The product we were selling wasn’t good and customers didn’t want to pay for it. I was involved in business development at the end and I thought I was a bad salesperson. Turned out I wasn’t. The product just wasn’t good enough.
- I also started to attend a few Startup Weekends. At the time I didn’t know much about the startup scene. Going to those events made me realise that it wasn’t that difficult to launch something. I just had to stop finding excuses.
- I started a few side projects here and there but none of them were truly interesting to me. I just gave up very quickly.
- I started to work on yet another project in December 2014, while I was still working full-time. I got the idea at a conference I was attending.
- I started to blog about it. I was planning to help eCommerce retailers to retain their customers with smart emails.
- The idea wasn’t better than the previous ones. But this time I decided to go for it and stop finding excuses. I had €20,000 in savings and just said “fuck it”. I left my job.
- I felt it was the only way for me to actually do it. To be in front of a cliff and jump. I had to build a plane on the way down. Going back to work for something I didn’t believe in wasn’t an option.
- The idea moved from a product to consulting. I didn’t want to raise money and I had to make money. I even got some financial help from the state for a few weeks to avoid making a big dent in my savings.
- We are a team of three, working remotely. Serina is based in Seattle. Marco is based in Barcelona. I’m based in Dublin.
- We help companies make their website better so they can sell more.
In term of money…
- €0 revenue
- €20,000 in savings
- 0 client
- No team
- No real idea of what I wanted to do
- €9,000 in revenue
- €15,000 in savings
- 2 paying clients
- 1 employee (myself)
- Working from my living-room
- A vague idea of how to grow the business
- Lucky enough to give myself a salary of €1,200
- €84,000 in revenue
- €12,000 in savings
- We are a team of 3
- We are 100% remote
- Working with 5 clients
- Around €14,000 in recurring revenue now
- We have a much clearer idea on how I’ll grow the business
- Salary of €3,000
I’m white, straight, living in Europe. I’ve never experienced discrimination. I’ve never experienced poverty. I’m well educated. I have a fiancée. Siblings I love more than anything. Parents who love me. Good friends.
I know that some of you have a way tougher life than me. Use it at your advantage. What you’re going through will probably help you to be tougher than most.
This is what I would have liked to read before I got started. This is a letter to you if you always wanted to create a business but never did. Or if you feel like the business is going nowhere.
There are no hacks and no easy way to achieve this, so if you’re looking for a quick way to make money without working for it this guide is not for you.
Your vision board
Before starting anything you need to know why you’re doing it. Why exactly do you want to have a business? To do it because it’s trendy? To follow your inspiration? To be able to be “your own boss”? Dig deeper.
“Why?” is the most important question. It took me a while to realise what was my “Why?”. I had to dig deeper than “having enough money to live”.
I’m lucky to have a lot of siblings that I love very much (my parents got remarried). I’m based in Ireland and they are in France. My first objective was to be able to visit them as many times as I wanted, without being wary of money or time off work.
My second objective was to live a happy life with my soon-to-be wife. To be able to take time off when I wanted to and travelling. To be able to afford a nice house, and a nice car.
In one word: Freedom. I wanted my freedom back.
What are you fighting for or against?
Your vision for yourself is slightly different from the fight you should pick up.
Many people start with a business model or an idea. I believe that you should start with a fight.
Whatever your industry and what you want to do, what are you fighting against? What pisses you off the most? What do you want to change?
I’ve never liked bullshit. I’m a straight-forward person. I’ve been involved in marketing for while, and its bullshit always pissed me off.
A few examples:
- Internet is polluted with popups, clickbait articles (“You won’t believe what happened next!”), or spammy, irrelevant, content.
- Some companies lie and manipulate people to make money. Think about Enron or, at a smaller scale, all of those brands with lock-in contracts, fine print, etc…
- Most businesses focus on short-term gains rather than making an impact. Shareholder capitalism isn’t working, let’s face it. “The harder a CEO is pushed to increase shareholder value, the more the CEO will be tempted to make moves that actually hurt the shareholders.”
What’s your fight?
How much do you have in the bank?
Do you have enough money to run for 6 months without any revenue? This is the question you need to ask yourself.
I burnt through €10,000 in 6 months without overspending at all. Just surviving with rent, food, and some entertainment. If you don’t have any savings, keep your job and put some money aside.
If you’re lucky enough to be able to come back to your parents’ house, do it.
Work during evenings and weekends but don’t quit your job.
Where are you going to work from?
I worked from my living room for a few months. I was on my own for most of the day.
If you have the luxury to be able to work from home, do it. Do it until you get your first paying customers.
Working from home got to me sometimes. It is tough not to have many human interactions. Even being surrounded by people you don’t know feels better than being alone.
I was able to move to a co-working space after a few months. My productivity went up.
Who can you talk to when you’ll feel down? Yes, you will like shit some days. You need to be able to talk to someone.
My dad, my siblings and my fiancée have always been very supportive. I know that I wouldn’t have been able to do it without them.
Mental health is really important if you want to make money. It won’t happen overnight. You need to rely on other people.
You might feel isolated even with a support system. It is difficult for people to know what you’re going through if they’re not going through it themselves.
You just can’t come with a good idea if you don’t talk to people. Talk to people.
People won’t steal your ideas. They don’t care. They have other stuff to do.
Other good books I recommend :
Problem(s) you’re solving
Don’t focus on what you do. Focus on the problems you’re solving. Look for the struggle. What prevent people from doing what they would like to do?
Let’s say your original idea is to launch a cake shop. What are the potential problems for your potential customers?
They need to get a cake for a special occasion, but:
- they don’t have time to make it,
- they don’t know how to bake.
Validate that with people. Ask them about their problems. Make them talk.
Solution you’re providing
Once you’ve identified problems, you can look for a solution. Don’t think in term of services or features. You’ll start to copy what’s around instead of coming up with your own stuffs.
Isolate each problem and focus on its solution.
- Problem 1: They don’t have time to bake one.
- Solution: A shop where they can buy cakes right now, without having to wait.
- Problem 2: They don’t know how to bake.
- Solution: A shop where they can buy cakes without having to bake.
- Another solution: A series of courses where people could learn how to bake themselves.
Understand if your problem is painful enough
Your job is then to understand if the problem you’re solving is painful enough. If your problem is not painful, people won’t look for a solution. They won’t pay for it either.
If your problem is painful enough but your solution is bad, they won’t pay for it either.
Here’s how I went about it:
List all the people you know
Create a new Google Spreadsheet and start typing the names of all the people you know:
Don’t list only the people that you know related to what you’re planning to do.
List everyone. Your uncle who lives on the other side of the World, your friends from high school, everybody.
Make sure to look at your email contacts, social network contacts, “real life” connections, so you don’t forget anyone.
Add a way to get in touch with each of them: their email, their phone number, their postal address, etc…
Contact them one by one
Then contact them one by one.
In three sentences, tell them about:
- Who you are
- How you’ve met
- What you’re planning to do
Then ask them for one favour: an introduction.
You should ask them to introduce you to people you want to talk to: potential customers.
You want to learn from them. About their day-to-day, their problems, the current solutions they’re using, etc…
Make it clear that you’re not trying to sell anything. Think about yourself as a researcher, not a sales person. You want to learn.
Follow-up like a modafucka
People don’t care about you. Even your own uncle doesn’t care. They have other things to do. You can’t blame them for that.
That’s why you need to follow-up. If you don’t get an answer after the first contact, get in touch again.
Once every week should be enough.
You wouldn’t believe the number of times I had to contact people before I got an answer. Don’t give up.
Add a few columns on the right of your contacts. Every time you get in touch with someone, enter the date.
People don’t care about you
Did I say you should follow-up?
If it was easy, everybody would do it. Most people give up after one try. Don’t be like this. Keep going until you hear something back.
Vary the ways you get in touch with them: two emails, one call, one tweet, one message on LinkedIn, two emails…
Your objective is to learn. To validate what you thought was a good idea. Your initial idea will change, I can guarantee it. Don’t fall in love with it. Fall in love with the problem(s) you’re solving.
If you’re on your own, record the conversation. Take notes. You will forget key insights after a few minutes if you don’t.
I used Google Docs to record my notes in the past. You can use Evernote, pen and paper, whatever you want.
Just make the calls. Send those emails.
After talking to a few people you WILL learn a lot. Chances are, the solution you were thinking about has already changed.
Don’t try to convince people that your idea is the best one. Just listen.
Refine your business model.
Update your problems and solutions.
Ah, finding your niche. How many times have I read this about Internet marketing? Too many to count.
Don’t be stressed about it. You don’t have to find a niche right now. Just talk to people. Refine your idea.
It took me months to find “a niche”, and even know I feel that we’re still tackling too many problems at once.
I’ve started trying to sell a solution for eCommerce to retain their customers. By talking to my first people I ended up focusing on conversion (making website visitors do what I wanted them to do) rather than retention (making them come back). I switched from a product to consulting.
I can’t tell you what will happen to you. What I can tell you though is to look for patterns. Follow your guts and say no.
There are three good ways to start:
- Focus on one industry, solve many problems with many services. For example, marketing consulting for the pharmaceutical industry.
- Focus on many industries, solve one problem with one solution. For example, Trello. It’s a tool that help you get organised. Whatever you do, whoever you are.
- Focus one industry, solve one problem with one solution. For example, Winterhalter, selling dishwashers for hotels and restaurants. Inspired by this post from my friend Connor Keppel.
Many people talk about starting a startup. They think that creating a startup means creating a product in 6 months with money that isn’t yours, sell that a year later for $100M, and get rich.
If it’s your first business, take it slow. Fall in love with the problems you’re solving. Start with a very simple solution.
A solution that doesn’t require €100,000 in investment to get off the ground. A solution that you can tweak and change as you please. A solution that you can start from your home, with a laptop and a lot of grit.
I believe that freelancing or consulting is the easiest way to go about making money.
You will be able to learn from your clients, change your offerings very fast, pay yourself, and build the foundation to create products in the future.
I started by trying to talk to eCommerce companies only. I then moved to any businesses selling products or services online.
My very first client was somebody I already knew (I was lecturing a bit at his college). He was paying me €500 a month.
The second client was a referral from somebody I knew. I worked as a consultant with them for 3 months to bridge the gap between their digital agency and their team. They were paying me around €2,000 a month.
The third client came from a referral from my accountant. They were paying me €1,200 a month.
Do you start to see a trend?
My first clients came from my network. From more than 300 people I contacted, people started to refer me.
We got 23 interesting leads in one year and closed more than half of them. Services varied from a 30-minute training session to large retainers.
Here’s the breakdown:
- 9 leads came from speaking at events.
- 8 came from referrals.
- 4 from cold emails.
- 2 from networking events.
As you can see, the vast majority of clients came from speaking (more on that later) and referrals.
Many founders try to do everything at once. You HAVE to focus on one or two channels to get your first clients.
As a solopreneur, you simply can’t focus on more than two. I would advise you to focus on contacting your network and get referred.
Don’t waste money and time on Facebook Ads or SEO when you’re starting. Sell directly. Talk to people.
Yes, it’s not easy. Some people will say no. Some people won’t have time to talk to you. But you have to do what others don’t want to do.
I also managed to get clients from speaking, at a later stage. I spoke at a few events in my last full-time job and I liked it. I actually paid to speak at a big marketing event in Dublin (that deserves its own article).
Set up a routine. This is so important.
I wake up every week day at 6.45am, go to work at 8am, and leave at around 5pm most days. I cycle to work. I eat a healthy breakfast (2 eggs, porridge, fruits).
This is a marathon, not a sprint. You will be full of energy at the start. Don’t burn it. Eat well, sleep well.
I remember reading this advice before I started. I found it to be over the top. It isn’t. Your brain is your most important asset. If you feel tired, you won’t be productive. If you’re not productive, your morale will be low. If your morale is low, you won’t achieve much.
Are you ready to keep up this routine for years? I’ve been doing this for more than a year. Every week day.
Some entrepreneurs have been doing this for decades. This is what it takes.
Reflect about your business every month. Think about its strategy. Read the book Good Strategy / Bad Strategy by Richard Rumelt. Here’s a free video version of the book. I also used the SOSTAC Framework for that.
Write a weekly todo list and a daily todo list.
That’s also something I used to hear a lot. You have to say no more often than yes.
Focus on the problem you’re solving and the battle you’re fighting. Those two things shouldn’t change much.
However, be flexible when it comes to the solution you’re offering.
If you help companies to get more traffic to their site, don’t start offering web design services. Focus on one problem at a time.
Don’t be afraid to say no.
By then, you should have one or two paying clients. They will most likely friends of friends. This is great. They trust you because they know you.
Others won’t trust you just yet. Once you’re making a bit of money, you can start focusing on your business.
Those actions are from the book Get Clients Now that I found quite helpful at the start.
It makes you focus on what’s important.
Description of services
This is what you do and how you do it. You should have a clearer idea of the services you offer once you’ve started working with a few clients.
Some of your clients might start referring you to others. This is when you can invest in a simple website. It won’t be perfect, don’t spend too much time on this.
We haven’t talked about your brand name yet. It’s because it doesn’t matter.
If you’re planning to be a solopreneur, your own name would do just fine. If you’re planning to create a company and hire people, think about a name.
I came up with Slices in less than an hour. I took the idea of “slicing and dicing data”, looked at domains available, and picked one. It’s not perfect but nobody ever told me that they didn’t want to work with us because of our name.
You can always change name as you grow. Most of the time, spending weeks on picking the perfect name is just fake work.
It’s an excuse to avoid doing real work (making money).
Closing clients is tough. I always have this adrenaline rush just before I send a proposal.
Learn not to be afraid of it.
We use a specific template for our proposals. They are not the prettiest but they are simple to understand. They are also focused on the client, not on us.
We’ve tweaked it a bit, but the idea remains the same:
In this part you should answer the following questions: Who’s the client? What problems and challenges are they facing?
What does your client want to achieve by using your services? Does she want to increase sales by 20%? Get more visitors on their site?
The more specific the better. Before sending a proposal, make sure that you know this information.
Make them talk.
How to get there
This is where you present your solution as way to solve their challenges and reach their objectives.
You can get more specific about exactly what you’re offering.
How much is it going to cost? Always a burning question. This is where you can answer it.
Compare your cost with the the benefits you’re providing: time savings, revenue growth, etc…
We price our services monthly or sometimes weekly. We never talk about the number of hours we’re planning to spend on a project. This shouldn’t be relevant to a client if you provide value.
Always quote more than what you’re comfortable with. €5,000 might seem like a lot to you. It might seem very little for your client.
Don’t be afraid to negotiate. This is the good part. It means that your prospect is interested.
Don’t bend under pressure. Keep focusing on value.
If you’re able to extract the value you’re providing for clients, you’ve almost made it.
This is why competition becomes irrelevant at this point. It’s not about being the cheapest. It’s about delivering value.
Don’t be obsessed with your competition. It’s a good thing. Get interested only if you lose many proposals from the same competitor.
At this stage you should have a few customers. You might barely break even. But who cares? You’re not under pressure to give money back to investors.
I’m planning to write more about the next part of our journey: how we grow, how we hire, how we organise ourselves, etc…
A few things to remember when you’re at this stage:
Take care of your brain: exercise, eat well, talk to your friends, go see your family, spend time with your partner.
Who cares if you don’t have an office or business cards? Be yourself, don’t follow conventions.
Cashflow is king. At the start what matters is the amount of money you have available in your account. Don’t worry too much about making profits. You can tweak that later.
Track this daily.
Hire people smarter than you and fire yourself from each position. This is the key if you want to grow.
Damn. It feels good to finally finish and publish an article.