UF Innovate
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UF Innovate

Consulting for Profit

Photo by Adeolu Eletu on Unsplash

Now that I have your attention…

by Mark Long, director of incubation services at the University of Florida

In the business incubation world, I often am besieged with requests for introductions to my resident clients from “consultants.” What is a consultant, you ask? Anyone who is 50 miles or more away from home carrying a nice briefcase.

That’s the old joke about consultants, actually, and I’m allowed to tell it because I am an incubation consultant. The joke is a variation of “a prophet has no honor in his own country.”

Basically, it implies that

  1. consultants aren’t always respected on their own turf (hence the distance from home), and
  2. they need to impress clients to get work (therefore, the nice briefcase).

While neither of those two observations is always correct, they do hold some truth.

So what’s the point of today’s posting? First, it amazes me that consultants continually want to work with startup companies! Of all the markets that you could target, startups seldom have discretionary funding (or any funding, for that matter) for consultants.

Most startups don’t need marketing help, social media help, manufacturing advice, logistics support, etc. — because they don’t have a product yet! Sure, it’s essential to know your market from the beginning; it’s also important to characterize your potential customer base, understand pricing, and have some basics in place (name, logo, brand identity, etc.). However, paying for a consultant for such advice isn’t a top priority.

Second, the type and level of experience that many “consultants” claim to have also are confounding to me. (I use the word “consultants” in quotes when I’m being sarcastic; sarcasm doesn’t always translate well in text).

I’ve been contacted by “consultants” in “marketing and public relations” who are, well, relatively inexperienced in marketing and public relations. I’ve been contacted by “startup CEO consultants,” “market identification consultants,” “business planning consultants” — and on and on — who have little direct experience with startups, or in their particular chosen field, or in a given market segment.

One such “consultant,” when told all our companies were in the biotech field, explained to me that his experience in food production was exactly like biotech! Uh-huh. That’s not exactly true — in fact, that’s not even close to being true — and, obviously, I passed on recommending this individual to any of my clients.

The moral here: Don’t call yourself an “expert” if you don’t have the expertise.

Third, both sides have an attitude problem. Seriously, I’ve heard CEOs say that “Those who call themselves consultants are just out of work and can’t find a job, so they resort to consulting!” That is definitely not true. I have some good friends who are amazing consultants, and they have been extremely helpful to many companies in their area of expertise.

Conversely, many consultants introduce themselves and proceed to tell me I know nothing about startup company growth — not a good way to get introduced around my incubator to my clients! It helps if you get me on your side and convince me you can be helpful; it doesn’t help if you take the time in our first discussion to explain how inadequate I am. That isn’t a winsome way to convince me my startups should hire you!

So, do you want to consult for this market? I know you didn’t consult me, but let me offer you some sage advice:

  • Know your own market.
  • Target growth companies who have significant investment dollars to spend.
  • Be an expert in your field; know it well, know your competitors, know how to present what you have to offer.
  • Understand what incubators do and how they do it. Every program is different, but most of them offer many, many services and programs to assist companies. Most important, the majority of companies in an incubator do not have the money to hire you.
  • Be gracious. Maybe you are a genius, a world-renowned expert in your field, and maybe I don’t know as much as you do, nor will I ever, but I do hold the keys to the front door, and I can make introductions or NOT make introductions.

My clients know me and trust me. That means my opinion carries a lot of weight. In fact, in most incubators, the director/manager/board can actually specify who to use and can advise companies that they need or don’t need consultation in that specific area.

The formal contract most incubators have in place with clients is much more than a “space lease.” It is an agreement to accept advisement, to set milestones, to work together for growth.

We want consultants to succeed (and to make money!), so let’s collaborate (when appropriate) and cooperate (always!) and evaluate (carefully) the opportunities for profit and benefit.

Originally published at incubatorblogger.wordpress.com on October 3, 2018.

Mark Long has long experienced the intricacies of business incubation, acceleration, coworking spaces, makerspaces and other entrepreneurial assistance venues around the world. He shares his experience, outlook, background knowledge, studies, and observations in regular posts at the IncubatorBlogger. Feel free to follow him there — or follow him and UF Innovate right here.

University of Florida Innovate supports an innovation ecosystem that moves research discoveries from the laboratory to the market, fostering a resilient economy and making the world a better place. Based at one of the nation’s leading research institutions, UF Innovate comprises four organizations: Tech Licensing, Ventures, The Hub, and Sid Martin Biotech. Within the UF Office of Research, the four organizations form a comprehensive system to take technologies from the lab to the public, bringing together the five critical elements in the “innovation ecosystem”: facilities, capital, management talent, intellectual property and technology-transfer expertise.

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