How to build a successful consulting business?
The Contrarian Marketing Podcast, Episode #10
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Today we talk about building and thriving a consulting business based on our combined SEO and consulting experience of over 10 years.
In this episode of Contrarian Marketing, we cover:
How to transition into a consultant role
What makes one a good consultant
Why Neil Patel Digital works as an SEO brand
Many people do not understand SEO and accept mediocre work as ‘quality output’. Thus, real SEO experts can use this gap as a good opportunity to grow in the SEO industry.
Focus on gaining experience in-house or at an agency before venturing out as a consultant.
Work on creating a strong referral network by building a trustworthy personal brand among your peers and clients.
Learn to pitch and sell your expertise with confidence
The best way to get promoted is to make a switch
There is potential in consulting for the SEO industry
Eli shares why there is a huge untapped potential in the SEO industry for talented experts and where the opportunity lies:
“I don't know him (Neil Patel). I don't know his practices. I've never worked with him. But I do think that Neil Patel and Neil Patel Digital, in particular, demonstrate the massive upside there is in this (SEO) industry. He was recently on the My First Million podcast, and I think he said they do over a hundred million dollars a year in revenue – most of it from SEO. That's the potential.
There are so many companies out there that don't understand SEO.”
He also shares his experience with PRNewswire on how people accept not-so-great quality output, and true experts can tap onto this potential to deliver great work:
“I remember PR Newswire approached me pre-Covid about this webinar and they were charging $900 to go to this webinar and – they sold it to their customers. There are so many people out there that don't understand marketing. They don't understand SEO.
Then, they look at Neil Patel, PR Newswire, and all these other agencies who may not do the kind of work that we think is of high quality, but everyone else thinks it's of high quality. And to me, that's the potential of this industry.”
The key is to build a strong personal network
Kevin shares how his 12+ experience in the SEO industry via his job, speaker opportunities, and personal branding efforts helped him successfully transition into an independent consultant role:
“How people perceive you, whether you're an agency or a consultant, is incredibly important, and I have never thought about it more than right now. I have been active in this industry for 12-13 years now. I've worked even at Shopify and did things outside of SEO, but I'm still recognized as an SEO (expert).
But having the blog, having spoken at conferences and all that kind of stuff has contributed massively. I was lucky to get a full portfolio of clients before I even announced that I am a consultant now.
So, a strong network helped immensely. People were so kind to connect me with clients and all that kind of stuff.”
Eli agrees by sharing his personal experience about the power of sales and having a strong network:
“There was a company I talked to recently, which I was referred to by someone I sat next to at my very first job 16 years ago. So the longer time you spend within companies, the bigger network you'll build, and some of the best deals that I have signed have come from my former coworkers – they've referred me, and they've been at these companies. You have to build that expertise within your network.
I don't have a blog, but I wrote a book, which really helps in closing deals.
But it's so much more important that you have a network that can refer things to you, whether it's investors or friends, or past coworkers or past clients – that's where you're going to get so many things. And I've met some terrible consultants who do just fine because they have that network.”
First, get hands-on experience in the industry
Kevin also advises that its crucial to get legit experience in your industry before getting into consultation:
“You and I were both fans of Alan Weiss's Million Dollar Consulting and how he approaches this practice. One of the things that he preaches is to be out there to build a brand, put content out, and demonstrate your expertise.
I think that's something that you need to do to send out, and build a reputation, and this is also something that needs to be built on (top of) experience, right?
So if somebody would really ask me – Hey, I'm a college grad, should I become a consultant?
I would actually say, – No, that's a stupid idea. You need to gain experience first. As somebody new to the industry, I think you need to learn from others first – for which an agency or in-house is your best bet.”
Be confident about yourself and your work
Eli shares his experience of an encounter with a confident consultant and how being confident helps build trust and close deals.
“I have seen some fantastic consultants and I'd say the thing I learned the most from is a guy named Aaron Sheer, who unfortunately passed away many years ago. So I was working at this startup and Aaron Sheer was our SEO consultant.
He did well – like he was a consultant for eBay and Zappos. The one thing I really learned from him was his level of confidence.
So he would come in, and the team would say – should we do ‘A’ or ‘B’?
And he would say – you should definitely do ‘A’, and they would say – how do you know?
And he'd say – you're gonna do ‘A’, like, this is my experience. He was super confident about it.
And then it failed. ‘A’ totally didn't work, we got less traffic.
And he'd say, – well, there was a 99% chance it would. Unfortunately, it fell into the 1%. I'm super confident my recommendation was right. I'm never wrong, but it happens to be that I don't know everything. I'm not Google. And I learned that confidence from him.
And that's what people look for in consultants – an external expert who's not doing what those internal experts are doing for them, or they don't have an internal team, and they're looking for an expert to really weigh in and give them a point of view and not someone who's just going to be doing busy work.
The real upside is saying – I will solve your SEO problems.
I learned that from Aaron Sheer – he was super confident. I don't know whether he helped us grow or didn't help us grow, but everyone certainly thought he helped us grow.
I think the most important thing for building a successful consulting career is really understanding sales. And it's not just about whether you can close the deal, but can you continue to have that confidence and direct your clients that they want to keep working with you because you know what you're talking about.”
Build a good reputation among your peers
Kevin shares how your reputation in the industry is important for making it as a consultant:
“I think putting yourself out there is a critical element.
As you said, the network, and sales (are important), but then being visible in the industry and being perceived as someone in the industry who is good (is crucial too). I think it's often underestimated, but SEO is actually a smaller industry than most people would think – people know each other and people are getting asked.
So, you have to make sure that your peers respect and appreciate you.”
What can you learn from Neil Patel's brand?
Eli thinks that the SEO industry’s black-box nature makes it necessary to build a reputation that instills trustworthiness and expertise:
“I don't think SEO's that hard or differentiated – it's pretty basic.
I think if you were to do SEO for CNN, or if I were to do SEO for CNN or Neil Patel would do SEO for CNN or Rand Fishkin – the results and the recommendations would be very similar. The problem with the SEO industry is that it's hard. You have to trust. It's a black box.
We really don't know exactly how this is going to work. It's not like paid marketing – I spent this money, I returned this amount, should I spend more? I don't know, but I will spend more and I'll find out.
You don't have any of those insights (for SEO), so it comes across as how confident are you in the ability of the person hired to give the right recommendations.”
Kevin adds further about Neil Patel’s ability to retain clients:
“I think the art is to not only get in through a really good pitch but then also keep clients and keep delivering. That's always where, where I would love to just peek behind the scenes for once.”
Eli also mentions how the SEO industry mostly re-packages data from SEO tools as recommendations, and how Neil Patel’s ownership of tools like Answer the Public, and UberSuggest act as trump cards in sales pitches:
“There was a company I talked to last week that raised this insane amount of money and they're using an agency. I showed them Ahrefs, and they said – oh, our agency uses it. We don't have access to it.
I'm like, why wouldn't you just buy a trust for $120 a month? You don't need to spend $5,000 a month with a kid doctor. So, the data's there – their agency is packaging it and telling them what a fantastic job they're doing because they're using Ahrefs. There are basic tools within our industry – Ahrefs, Semrush, SimilarWeb, etc, and everyone else is just packaging and representing it.
Neil Patel Digital owns some awesome tools, like, he has UberSuggest and they bought Answer the Public. So they have some of their tools, but they bought them, they didn't create them. I'm certain that when they go into a pitch, they are like – these are your keywords, this is your content gap.
So the whole industry is relying on the same tools and the same data, making the same recommendations – it's just how you sell it.”
The best way to get a promotion is still switching companies
We asked you via our LinkedIn post to share what you think is the best way to get a promotion. Interestingly, switching companies was said to be the most effective method to make your way ahead on the ladder.
Eli supports this insight by sharing his example of getting promoted:
“I tried to switch companies when I was moving to Singapore and I got a new job. I was at Survey Monkey at the time, and when I went to give notice, they convinced me to stay and I got a 40 raise. So, I got a 3-level massive promotion, and it was completely unintentional. I wasn't trying to negotiate it for it, but I do think this is valid.
I think that companies don't necessarily appreciate their employees until they're gone and you could threaten to leave and get that promotion and you force them to really say – oh, we do appreciate you, and are willing to pay you more, willing to promote you. Or we could just go to another company who will appreciate us – I think that's the sad reality.
With the layoffs, people might be scared to ask for promotions, but the truth is, the employees that are still within a company, they're even more valuable.
I also always looked at other people and watched them rise in the company and they went from junior to senior pretty quickly. They seemed to have it all together. And the thing is, they were good at positioning how to do what they're doing.”
Kevin adds further how one should work towards being ‘seen’ by their managers:
If you think that you have proof to back that (your promotion) up, it's totally fine to go and ask for a promotion. As you said, you might not get a big promotion as you did in 2019, but I also agree that just because layoffs are happening, that does not mean that no one should get a promotion or that you should not get a promotion.
I think the art is in making the case well and having proof and having a fit with your manager. Meaning knowing what your manager wanted in the first place and then delivering.
You also don't want to just do stuff, but you want to make sure your manager sees it, your manager's manager sees it, and other people see it too.”
We discuss a few more views shared around getting promoted in our previous episode 9: Marketing predictions for 2023.
Million Dollar Consulting: The Professional's Guide to Growing a Practice by Alan Weiss – the book shares a time-tested model for creating a flourishing consulting business, while incorporating and focusing on the many dynamic changes in solo and boutique consulting, coaching, and entrepreneurship.
The Trusted Advisor by David Maister – learn how to build credibility, respect, and trustworthiness with clients and prospects.
Trillion Dollar Coach: The Leadership Playbook of Silicon Valley's Bill Campbell by Eric Schmidt – the book shares management lessons from legendary business executive and coach Bill Campbell. He mentored some of the most successful modern entrepreneurs and has played an important role in the growth of several prominent companies, such as Google, Apple, and Intuit.
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Eli and Kevin