Starting a Consulting Side Hustle: Getting Off the Ground

Starting a Consulting Side Hustle: Getting Off the Ground

Adam Cebulski

Senior Director, Office of Research & Strategic Initiatives, Campus Labs

Part II: Getting Off the Ground

“What do you mean you’re not making any money consulting? Why are you wasting your time?” I remember one of my colleagues asking when I had initially started taking on projects. My response was “I’m building my brand.”

This is the second of a four part series on starting a side hustle as a consultant in higher education. Getting your consulting business off the ground can be a challenge because there are many decisions you have to make upfront – often before you ever take on your first large project.

Even though it’s a side hustle, you really need to think of your consulting as your business. I highly recommend making the decision early on regarding whether or not you are going to establish a LLC, sole proprietorship, or to work as a contractor. While this is important for anyone independent, it’s especially important for those working with educational institutions. There are important tax and liability implications in consulting so you need to make sure you research the options and fully understand the difference.

Personally, I encourage individuals to go the LLC route to ensure your personal and professional taxes and accounts are kept separate. We also work in a field in which (for right or wrong, better or worse) status and perception tends to drive business decisions. The perception that having LLC or Inc brings is something to note because it makes you look more established and can seem more “legitimate” in the eyes of an institution. The corporation model also allows for future expansion which we’ll discuss in the next post. Ultimately you have to make a decision that you are comfortable with financially.

Once you decide what your business type is, it’s time to start consulting. So how do you that? I’m probably going to say something that some people will wholeheartedly disagree with from a conceptual level but from a reality standpoint, I believe it to be one of the best ways to build your brand. That is, you may need to start taking on some projects for little to no pay.

Many times we tell our students to specifically not do this but the way I think of it is that we are preparing them in a lot of cases for entry level positions. A consultant is not entry level. You need to build your portfolio of projects and accumulate a solid book of references. When you’re just starting out, it’s hard to market yourself because you may be known in your circles, but outside of that there may be little name recognition. If that’s the case, start with your circle. See what projects colleagues have which may be in your wheelhouse and fall under your niche expertise. Exchange the project for a guaranteed reference for your website or for a potential prospect to call. Don’t be afraid of setting this expectation – especially if you are doing a project for free.

The hardest part of being an independent consultant is finding projects. Your network will be incredibly important. Your references will often times be your best lead generator because as soon as they hear about a project in your area, they’re likely to either recommend you or pass on the information to you. Consulting projects in higher ed sometimes go through a bid process but it’s often hard to be invited to bid unless you have connections at an institution or are registered as a vendor for them. I recommend signing up for institutions (through their procurement website) in which you’re interested in working with on the off chance they may release a bid.

In my experience, the vast majority of projects I have worked on came through references and word of mouth. Today, social media is an amazing tool to find out about opportunities as well. Join the Facebook and LinkedIn groups and watch the discussions. Occasionally someone will throw out a line asking for recommendations for a consultant. But how do you get to be known for something? Think about launching a personal website for your consulting or contribute to a popular blog in that area. Make sure you’re getting your name out there often but in a meaningful way. Show you are contributing back in the field and have the knowledge to get things done. Don’t just post saying you’re open to consulting opportunities.

Eventually, as you establish your reputation you increase your rates and now you can become selective about the projects you want to take on. Once you have that portfolio and as you start to get more projects than you can handle, it’s time for yet another decision that we'll discuss in the next part of this series: deciding if your side hustle could be a full-time possibility.

Missed a post? Read the entire series here.

Adam Cebulski

Senior Director, Office of Research & Strategic Initiatives, Campus Labs

Dallas, TX