#10 The Business Plan: Information Interviews
Time for coffee at last! Maggie already has a table reserved for us.
Gail: Maggie-great to see you. How’s the consulting life?
Maggie: Just about to wrap up one project, another one about to start, and it’s soccer season—the twins are really into it this year. Here’s George!
George: Ladies! Time to put our heads together again.
Chris arrives, smiling broadly.
Chris: Hey, everyone, have I got news! I have a gig! No kidding. It just dropped into my lap. Now I really need to decide what to do.
George: Good for you! So you’ll like my question for Gail too. Someone said I should have a business plan if I am going into consulting. Do I really need a business plan?
Gail: Yes, George, you really do. Your business plan is your proposal to the world. It’s the declaration of your intentions as an independent consultant and in the process of developing it you are going to become a lot clearer about your goals, how to reach them, and how to measure your success.
George: Well, I wouldn’t start an evaluation project without a design. I guess it’s sort of the same thing. It’s just harder when it’s about me!
Gail: You know the old saying, Fail to plan, plan to fail. If you’re going to invest your own time, money, career, and family support into this activity, you want to succeed.
Maggie: [smiling] Actually, George, it’s really fun. You’re doing research on yourself and your own plans for a change. When I made my decision to be an independent consultant, I took two of my friends up to the cabin for the weekend and we had a retreat—flip chart paper, yellow sticky notes, felt pens, the whole workshop thing.
George: How did it work out?
Maggie: We talked for hours, drank a little wine, and took time to dream a bit. I came back with a list of things to do and haven’t looked back since. Now I’m in the middle of Year Two of my three-year plan. I’ve made lots of changes along the way but I feel pretty confident because I’m meeting my objectives and I know what I want to do next.
Chris: (laughs) Well, now I need to take a leave of absence from the City while I’m doing this. My fiancée is pretty anxious about it. Still, I’ve already got a client, so why worry about a business plan?
Gail: What happens when this project is over? When I went into consulting full time I already had one on-going project. Because I had some money coming in, I was able to spend a bit more time on my plan and I felt more realistic about what was possible.
George: How long does it take?
Gail: Probably a couple of months, spending anywhere from 5-10 hours a week. Even half a day a week is good but you need to work at it consistently.
George: Now I’m in trouble! I knew it would be a lot of work.
Gail: Well just set up a template for your plan and then fill in the gaps as you go. It should be about 10-12 pages long but each topic is very concise. The biggest focus is on your marketing plan.
Maggie: There’s lots of information on the internet on preparing a business plan. I liked doing the information interviews. They helped me clarify my thoughts.
George: Well, I’m a pretty good interviewer so it might be a good place to start. How do I go about it?
Gail: You need to identify some potential clients. Make a list of the organizations you want to work for. Ask around—friends, colleagues, people you meet through networking. Then search on the internet to get contact names. Send them a very polite email explaining the types of services you’re exploring and attach your resume. Be genuine. You aren’t looking for a project, you’re asking for their advice about your business plan.
Maggie: When I tried to set up my interviews, some people were willing to meet with me and some weren’t, others referred me to someone else, and—sorry, Gail—but one person actually said, “Can we get together on Friday?” I got advice and my first project at the same time!
Chris: Lucky you. What kinds of questions should I ask?
Gail: Well for example:
- How are they meeting their research and evaluation needs?
- Are they satisfied with the services they have received?
- Do they see any service gaps in your geographic area?
- Do they currently have any unmet research needs?
- Would their organization be interested in the services you plan to offer?
- What are they looking for most in a consultant?
- Who else should you talk to?
And don’t forget to send a thank you afterwards.
George: Well, lots to think about. Maybe we can talk some more next time about other key parts of the business plan. Meanwhile, I’ll get busy and see who I can talk to.
Chris: (His cell phone rings) Got to run. Wish me luck!
Gail: You’ll do a great job, Chris.
All: Bye. See you next time!
Barrington, G. V. (2012). Chapter 7 Your Business Plan. Consulting Start-up and Management: A Guide for Evaluators and Applied Researchers. Los Angeles: SAGE. pp. 76-86.
Government of Canada, Canada Business Network provides links to sample business plans and templates. http://www.canadabusiness.ca/eng/page/2752
U. S. Small Business Administration provides lots of information:
Next up: The Cash-flow Wars
#9 Double-loop Learning for Consultants: Moving Beyond the Quick Fix
Consultants have short attention spans. We like to get in, get it done, and get out again so we can move on to the next project. This is in part because we bore easily and the grass looks greener in our next project but it is also due to our continued need for new business. Unless we return for a repeat performance, we get limited feedback from our clients and can neither judge the full effect of our work or nor learn what happened afterwards.
Because our skills are technical in nature, as time passes we develop a repertoire of assumptions, methods, and techniques which make it increasingly difficult to be open to the complexities we face. The mental models that guide our actions become more rigid and can result in what Schӧn calls a parochial narrowness of vision. We find ourselves offering solutions in search of a problem.
As Patton has commented, evaluators tend to go with a short-term quick fix rather than moving beyond surface issues to the deeper understanding essential for systemic change. We rely on single-loop learning to detect a problem, correct it, and improve immediate outcomes. This means-ends approach has no lasting impact on our practice and can even cause us to do the wrong things very well.
In contrast, double-loop learning not only allows us to correct the problem but also to question the assumptions, values, norms, and structures that underpin it. By turning our skills of observation and analysis on ourselves, we can use critical incidents and past mistakes as catalysts for change. Through reflective practice we can expand our assumptions, change our behavior, and bring our practice more in line with our values and beliefs.
But how are we going to do this? It’s easier to motor past our traumatic episodes and pretend that they never happened. Instead, we must use emotional intelligence and critical self-reflection to confront our technical errors, mistakes in judgment, and conflicted interactions. We must shift our frame of reference and deepen our understanding of the substance, forms, and patterns of our experience. We can ask reflective questions like the following:
- What am I concerned about?
- What does this say about my assumptions, values and beliefs?
- Where did I get these ideas? Why do I maintain them?
- Whose interests are being served?
- What constrains my view of what is possible?
- How might I do things differently?
- Going forward, how can I embed this change in my practice?
Reflective practice is double-loop learning in action. By thinking creatively about better outcomes, we can allow ourselves to experiment, innovate, and refocus, expanding our skills and adding value to our business in the process.
Here are a few ways to move beyond a quick fix mentality, to strengthen our reflective skills, and to foster innovation in our practice:
- Foster personal thought. Develop the habit of journal writing. Read widely to learn more about the human condition. Explore new genres such as literature from another country, or try fantasy, biography, or history—whatever you have not read before. Schedule creative times out. Whether it’s a concert, speaker, play, race, rally, or nature walk, do something every week to refill the well of your inspiration. By actively not thinking about a problem, creative solutions present themselves unannounced.
- Incorporate playfulness. Work and play are not mutually exclusive. A fun work environment can actually be more productive. How long has it been since fun was on your agenda? As von Oech has suggested, it may take a whack on the side of the head to get you thinking creatively about ways to enjoy yourself at work.
- Structure feedback. De-brief with your team and record lessons learned. Encourage your clients to reflect on their experience. Build a feedback survey into your project. Schedule a luncheon date with your client several months after project end to find out what happened after you left. Take a risk, be open, and ask, “What could we have done differently?”
- Seek peer support. Have a regular coffee date with other consultants and discuss common issues. Develop an informal learning circle to explore a new topic or book. Sponsor a think tank at your next professional conference and use the power of the group to solve a specific problem.
- Integrate knowledge translation. Moving beyond your final report, work with your client to understand how the knowledge generated by your project can best be disseminated and applied. Plan a KT phase as part of your proposal.
- Share your learning. Don’t wait until your solution is perfect. Share your emergent reflections through conference presentations, articles, and blogs. Attend webinars, courses, and other learning events and apply this information to your current problem. Mentor and teach others about your new-found skills and passions. Always seek out clients who love innovation.
QUESTION: What strategies for reflective practice have worked for you? How did your practice change as a result?
Barrington, G. V. (2012). Consulting Start-up and Management: A Guide for Evaluators and Applied Researchers. Los Angeles: SAGE.
Greenwood, J. (1998), The role of reflection in single and double loop learning. Journal of Advanced Nursing, 27: 1048-1053. Doi: 10.1046/j.1365-2648.1998.00579.x
Oech, R. von (2008). A whack on the side of the head: How you can be more creative? New York, NY: Hatchette Book Group.
Patton, M.Q. (2011) Developmental Evaluation: Applying Complexity Concepts to Enhance Innovation and Use. New York: Guilford.
Schön, D. A. (1983). The reflective practitioner: How professionals think in action. New York, NY: Basic Books, Inc.
Next up: It’s coffee time again!
Photo: Getty Images
#8 So What Makes a Good Proposal?
When you write a proposal, you want to show off your knowledge, your creativity, and your cool technology. Clients want something much simpler. They want what they asked for, in the order they asked for it, using the language and terminology they used in their Request for Proposals (RFP). While this seems like a no brainer, reviewers have told me over and over that at least 70% of proposals do not follow instructions and do not address the criteria outlined in the RFP. Sadly, all of these end up in the reject pile. The good news for you is that you can cut your competition to 30% in a single blow by giving the clients what they want. Behind the scenes a committee will be reviewing your proposal with a checklist and a rating scale so make it easy for them.
Your challenge is to work within the structure provided and still demonstrate your competitive edge. Whether you are writing a brief letter proposal or responding to a full-fledged formal RFP, the type of information you provide is basically the same; only the amount of detail varies. Make sure you cover the following ten topics:
1. A cover letter or paragraph thanking the client for the opportunity to respond. Provide relevant points about your track record, an overview of what the proposal contains, and why you are interested in this study. This functions like an executive summary so write it last.
2. Your experience or corporate background, special skills, relevant studies that highlight the requirements of this RFP, and your approach to working with clients. Sometimes details about former projects are required such as skills used, total project value, duration, and completion dates. Provide references and don't forget to ask their permission. Contacting former clients is a good marketing opportunity anyway because you can remind them about how much they liked your work.
3. A short description of the study purpose and objectives. Some tweaking may be possible here but make sure the objectives are still recognizable. Demonstrate your understanding of the clients' needs and issues but don't drown them in technical jargon.
4. A detailed description of study methodology. This is where you can get fairly technical but you should match your language to the clients' interest and knowledge level. This is not an academic treatise. Build a logical pathway from their problem to your solution explaining how you will implement each method. Identify any potential limitations or risks that you see at this point and indicate how you will address them. Mention the particular strengths of your approach as well as any ethical considerations, data security needs, confidentiality requirements, and other research considerations.
5. Team members in decreasing order of responsibility. Refer to brief, targeted CVs that are appended to the proposal. If you are working alone, highlight some of your most relevant skills in the context of recently completed work. Take the time to tailor your CV for this project and keep it short.
6. A brief task analysis and a schedule of activities. Indicate specific project tasks, the individual responsible for them, the number of days for each task, and timelines. Use a table and a Gant chart here.
7. The budget, presented last but done first. Don't be distracted by the project's interesting literature, the fascinating client, or the new methodology you are dying to try. By grappling with the cold, hard reality demanded by a spreadsheet, and by enumerating project tasks, staffing, number of days, and associated costs, project feasibility will become startlingly clear. Why spend time on a proposal for a project that you can't afford to take on? Do the budget first.
8. A schedule of payments specifying your financial expectations. Indicate that you will submit regular invoices supported by status reports. If appropriate, consider asking for larger payments for key deliverables and more modest ones for monthly milestones. Remember your cashflow needs. You have to stay in business.
9. A list of deliverables as stated in the RFP. Describe each briefly. You may want to provide "value added" deliverables such as a detailed work plan or an evaluability assessment. Offer a PowerPoint presentation in conjunction with your final report. Present a draft version of the report's Table of Contents.
10. Technical requirements will vary by client. They are particularly onerous for formal RFPs and can take a lot of time to compile so prepare them early. Make sure you have read all the fine print. You don't want to run around at the last minute trying to find some elusive, misfiled document. Requirements may include certifications, proof of insurance, and declarations related to conflict of interest, rate confirmation, use of sub-contractors, or assignment of copyright. Your tax identifier or business number will be required as well. Be very clear about the bid closing date, time, and destination and follow any special conditions. For example, is an electronic version acceptable or are physical copies required? If so, how many? If you need to use a courier, have a couple of different delivery options in mind. Try as you may, you could still be working against the clock as the courier pick-up time approaches so give yourself a little leeway. Worse, you never know when a major weather event or a computer glitch could intervene. Your proposal's destination may be a huge mail room so ensure that your package gets the attention it deserves. Address it according to instructions to ensure it has a quick trip to the appropriate client's desk.
Winning proposals persuade the client that this consultant will give them exactly what they need. From your perspective, having proven yourself by surviving this arduous proposal preparation process, you are now pumped to take on this new challenge.
Next up: Double Loop Learning for Consultants
See: Barrington, G. V. (2012). Consulting Start-up and Management: A Guide for Evaluators and Applied Researchers. Los Angeles: SAGE.
#7 Networking Favorites with a Little Help from Julie Andrews
Some well-established consultants told me recently that they still get most of their work through networking. As the government bidding environment seems to be less and less welcoming for independent consultants, this is good news indeed. So let me tell you why networking reminds me of brown paper packages tied up with string and why Julie Andrews seems to run breathlessly across my screen caroling the name of my next favorite contact.
In the 1960’s Stanley Milgram chose random people from the Kansas and Nebraska phone books and asked them to forward brochures through a chain of acquaintances to an individual in Boston. The brochures that made it took about six referrals to get there; hence the urban myth of six degrees of separation.
New consultants often tell me that they don’t know where to begin marketing their services but it may be that the best place to start is with individuals you barely know. Your brown paper package or portfolio of skills, training, experience, and competencies is tied together with your availability and desire to work. Marketing is all about forwarding that parcel through your network to the door of a potential client. Once there, you can build a relationship and make the case for why your services are just what they need.
Here are eight fabulous networks to explore.
Key contact networks. Many business organizations facilitate networking. For example I belong to groups for business owners, women executives, management consultants, applied researchers, adult educators, and high-tech innovators. Whatever your interests, there is a circle for you. When you attend an event sponsored by one of these groups, articulate your competitive advantage and explain what type of work you are looking for. Be a good listener and a resource for others. Remember the 48-hour rule. If you haven’t responded by then, you have probably lost a good opportunity.
Professional networks. Every discipline has a professional network so become an active member and attend their workshops, lectures, and social events. Go to a national conference and present a paper or poster that highlights your recent work. It’s a good place to meet like-minded colleagues and update your skills but for the consultant, the key attraction is marketing. Look closely the next time you attend a conference and see how many connections are being made all around you. Plan to do it too.
Mentor networks. You may need a mentor for advice and support. Ask professors, business leaders, clients, and family members for potential names of someone who has excellent communication skills, inspires trust, and is willing to act as a role model. Mentors may need to be encouraged to share their knowledge and experience so think about what you can offer in return. They may enjoy regular contact and receiving fresh new ideas from an energizing colleague. Set up an exploratory coffee date but don’t overwhelm them with time-consuming demands. If no one perfect individual can be found, look for several with different skill sets to help foster your development. And don’t forget, a mentor may have important marketing contacts as well.
Dynamic networks. These constantly changing networks emerge from what you have been doing recently. For example, if you attended a workshop, your co-participants are a short-term group with common interests. Follow up to explore possible collaboration or share useful resources. Present a workshop yourself or be a speaker at an upcoming event. Build your reputation by being out there, being knowledgeable, and being available. Sooner or later, someone in one of these dynamic networks will need, or will know someone who needs your services.
Partner networks. Many professionals have complementary skills to yours. Collaboratively you can offer a wider array of services. For example, I joined a market research group and met people I later hired as interviewers. Since then I have collaborated on several projects with a colleague I met there. Whatever your own expertise, there are many adjunct professionals who can partner with you so think about repackaging your skills.
Resource networks. Market intelligence can be gained from reviewing databases sponsored by governments, foundations, and non-profits. While your main goal is to get on a list of approved consultants, you can also find out who else is bidding on a project. Competitors can be a source of work. Contact them directly to explore opportunities, if not on this contract, then on one down the road. Being a sub-contractor can provide you with work you could not access otherwise and working with others is a great way to learn.
Client networks. Your clients have networks too and with a little ingenuity you can access their world. At the end of a successful project an effective approach is to co-present a paper at a conference selected by your client. Be willing to do most of the work if they will cover your travel costs. You will access a different professional network and should meet some interesting potential clients.
Social networks. You probably know more about social media than I do but it is easy to see how your acquaintances can be a bridge to your next important contract. While your strong ties may be few in number, your weak ties can easily be in the thousands. Social media like Facebook or LinkedIn connect individuals who have at least one thing in common. Twitter, YouTube, Google+ and blogs can advance your consulting success. Link all of your communications to your own website and provide interesting and ever-changing content there. It is all about having a web presence these days.
There has never been a better time to share your skills and expertise using all of these great marketing networks. Move over, Julie, I see a herd of consultants at the top of the hill!
Next up: So What Makes a Good Proposal?
Cramer, G. (n.d.). The magnificent seven: Manage your business network contacts. Actif Communications.
Also see: Barrington, G. V. (2012). Consulting Start-up and Management: A Guide for Evaluators and Applied Researchers. Los Angeles: SAGE.