Phillip Smith

Kickstarting your consulting practice, Part II: Saying "No."


Continuing on the theme of kickstarting your consulting practice, I was reflecting back and remember that one of the best exercises I undertook in the early days of my consulting practice was creating a “client & project fit checklist.”

A client & project fit checklist, just like it sounds, was a simple list of criteria that I could review after an initial meeting with a potential client that would help me determine if there was a fit for working together. If the checklist told me that there wasn’t a fit, I didn’t pursue the project. It may seem counter-intuitive to turn away business in the early days of your consulting practice, but – I assure you – it is the most sound business decision that you can make (and it will also help to maintain your mental stability too!).

Opportunity costs

Turning away work can be a scary experience when you’re trying to kickstart a consulting practice, because you often don’t know where the next project will come from or when it will arrive. But it is precisely that unknown that makes it so important to not take on projects or clients that are not a good fit. The reasoning behind this is simple: the opportunity cost.

For example, every time I would be in the scenario of having to decide if I should take a project that didn’t feel like a 100% fit, I would ask myself this question, “if I commit to this project today, knowing that it’s not a perfect fit, and next week a project comes across my desk that is a 100% perfect fit, would I need to turn down the perfect fit project?” If the answer was “yes” – perhaps because of other existing committments, workload, travel, or what-have-you – meaning that I would have to turn away a “perfect fit” project because I’d taken on one that wasn’t, then the decision became much clearer in my mind.

And, you know what? Most of the time a project that was a better fit did come along shortly thereafter. That may seem a little fairy tale like, but it’s mostly true looking back through my retrospectoscope. On the flip side, what is true for certain, is that every time I went against my better judgement and took on a project that wasn’t a good fit, without fail, a project would come along shortly after that would have been great, just as a way of reminding me of the opportunity cost of taking on a project, which is, simply, that you might not have the capacity to take on another one.

Finding the clients you want

In my experience, one of the reasons that some people never really get off the ground with consulting is because they choose the wrong clients. I use the word choose intentionally, because most people who are in a position to consider the path of consulting are also in a position – whether they know it or not – to choose who they work with, and who they do not.

The tricky part of that choice, in the early days at least, is determining how to make that decision. The example client and project fit checklist below is one approach that I’ve found useful. However, the alternate approach that I’d like to propose – the slightly more adventurous approach, and the approach that I wish I had committed to more fully in my early days – is winning the confidence of the clients that you want to work with.

Perhaps more important than thinking about opportunity cost or determining the project or client fit upfront, is the idea that you don’t have to wait for projects and clients to walk through the front door. Seems obvious, I know, but many early-stage consultants I’ve spoken with over the years, almost without fail, spend a lot of time on what I would call “untargeted marketing,” and not enough time identifying their “perfect client.”

Untargeted marketing is a long list of things that we do to fill up the time when we don’t have client work to attend to. For example, fretting over a Website, banging our heads over what to write for today’s blog post, keeping the social media profiles updated, and the more traditional business cards and other dead-tree information delivery systems. Take my word for it: all of these are distractions (for the most part) that keep you from actually taking a step toward identifying and engaging the perfect client.

If I were to do it all over (and it is how I try to work now) I would:

  • Take some time to identify what I imagined to be the ideal client
  • Request an interview with someone in the organization that is likely to be a decision maker
  • Conduct a brief, targeted, interview with that person that answered the questions “Is my image of this client the same as the reality in terms of fit?” and “Are the challenges this organization is experiencing a good fit with the consulting products I offer?”

From here, hopefully the next steps are obvious. If the answer to either question is “no,” then you refine what you’re looking for and move on to the next possibly amazing client. If the answer is “yes,” then you stop wasting time on untargeted marketing and projects that are not a good fit and start investing in a relationship with this client so that they are convinced that you’d be the right person to contact when the next project opportunity comes along. How to do this is a post unto itself, but we’ll get there – don’t worry! :)

Until then, let’s start with the checklist…

Client & project checklist (looking for red flags)

I may have to dig into some older backup drives to find that original checklist, but from memory it was something like this:

  • Is the client in crisis, i.e., are they reaching out to you because the project is already struggling?
  • Has the client tried unsuccessfully to move this project forward with another consultant?
  • Is the deadline for the project imminent and inflexible, even though the requirements are not clearly defined?
  • Does the client have an unsupportive team, or a lot of bureaucracy to work through to get decisions made?
  • Has the project been unsuccessfully attempted before?
  • Is the budget for the project contingent on some other factor, like funding, that is not secured?
  • Does the client insist on onerous contracts or non-disclosure agreements?

(No doubt, you have some of your own items to add to this list! Why don’t you drop them in the comments, or shout at my on Twitter?)

These are all obviously red flags. If I was able to check off more than one of these items, I could tell myself with some confidence that the project, and possibly the client, was not a good fit. With that determined, the next step is to communicate the decision not to continue the relationship in the context of this project.

I’ve found two very useful approaches to communicating this possibly bad news, while leaving the door open to re-explore a working relationship in the future:

  • “This project requires more attention that I am able to commit to it at the moment. If you have a project in the future where X, Y, and Z (factors from the list above that are red flags), I’d be happy to have another conversation.”

  • Or, the more direct, “Based on our conversation and the information that you have provided about the project, the timing, the context, the budget and so on, I don’t believe that there’s a fit here right now.”

Conclusion: Take risks & be proactive

Looking back at the last decade and a half of consulting, it’s easy for me to say “I would rather work at 20% of my capacity with clients & project that are an 80% fit, than the other way around.” There’s lots of time in life to be “busy,” but not nearly as much time as most of us would like to do truely important work. That’s true because most of us, including me, make the realization about the difference between being busy and doing important work far too late in our careers. The invitation I would offer to all of you who are early in your career or consulting practice is to avoid the busy trap entirely.

So, go ahead, take some risks. Spend 20% of your time working on projects that you love and with clients that inspire you. Then invest the other 80% of your time identifying more inspirational clients, improving your skills, and living a balanced life.

There’s only one thing that you can’t get more of in life, and that’s time. Use it wisely.


Hi, I'm Phillip Smith, a veteran digital publishing consultant, online advocacy specialist, and strategic convener. If you enjoyed reading this, find me on Twitter and I'll keep you updated.


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