(Notes: All opinions are my own)
I had been introduced to my first startup client through a friend who thought I would be capable of delivering a solid output to the two-people founding team of an aspiring e-learning startup from my home country, Italy.
He thus proceeded to connect me with the prospective founders, who I met in the following days to discuss the project’s scope, requirements and final deliverables.
The two co-founders were aiming to gather seed capital for their venture by having a few angel investors run over a pitch deck as well as a detailed financial report. The two documents would have to expose the market opportunity and the viability of their business model.
I had 3 months to submit the above deliverables to the team, which had no time to dedicate to the task since they were busy with the day-to-day operational activities of running their venture.
I learned a ton during the experience, and in the end the work enabled the team to get the seed capital they needed to finance the product’s launch.
Independently of the result, this article aims to share the key takeaways anyone who is about to consult for a startup for the first time should keep in mind.
Put domain knowledge and passion above the reward
As you are put in front of the project’s proposal, you may feel an urge to accept it, especially as you see the activity as a first and important steps towards building your personal brand and consulting portfolio.
You also may perceive the excitement of the client and their pressure to get the project started. Before fully committing to the task, always ask yourself:
- Are the industry and business domain aligned with topics I am genuinely passionate about?
- Are the project’s activities in line with my best skills and competences?
These questions allow you to shift your focus from being oriented on the reward for completing the project to seeing the activity as an opportunity to grow by helping a company launch a product/service close to your inner passions and skills.
If you do this, you are going to be driven towards projects which are going to be much more in sync with your core skills, and the probability of you delivering at-or-above expectations will likely increase.
At this point, the reward will be a natural consequence of your great work, and not something to laboriously strive towards.
Develop a relationship with the founding team that goes beyond the project’s scope
Understanding your client well is critical in any project. I would argue that doing so when your client is a startup’s founding team is even more critical.
When consulting for a startup, especially in their earliest stages, building rapport is essential to really grasp where the team is coming from in terms of the deepest motivations that get the founders excited about building and scaling their venture.
This is going to help you tremendously, as it may allow you to even move from being viewed as merely “the external consultant” to an active member of the team, able to introduce new ideas and perspectives to the project.
It is a win-win situation as the team is going to enjoy working with you and leveraging your expertise and viewpoints, while at the same time you are going build a more positive working collaboration which may lead to further work down the line.
In essence, moving the project’s relationship from simply transactional (“you pay me and I will put the financial report together”) to deeply collaborative in nature will benefit all parts and have positive spillover effects on the output.
Therefore, never pass on an opportunity to get to know your startup clients better, whether that means having coffee with them, understanding the relationships and teamwork between founders and their team, etc.. , as all of this “meta information” is really going to enhance the overall experience.
Be ultra-clear on pricing terms (upfront!)
During my first project, I had a bad experience not following this advice. I was vaguely told by the two founders I was going to be rewarded based on the quality of the output, and that the reward would have been decided by then as we went along.
At the time, I did not think much of this and verbally agreed to the very general terms, as I was very excited to play my part in the launch of an e-learning platform whose business model and mission I was definitely in support of.
At project’s end, I ended up being very happy about the experience but not so much in terms of the compensation for the hard work put into it.
Do not repeat my mistake! Always put pen on paper, so to speak, and clarify how much you are going to be compensated by, and in what form (cash, equity in the startup, etc..).
Being transparent on this step right from the start will save you a ton of bad surprises and time wondering how you are going to approach the founders and discuss compensation at project’s end.
You will also avoid exposing yourself and give leverage the your client, whose circumstances might change 3/4 months down the line, especially in the ever volatile startup environment.
Consulting for a startup is exciting and will get you exposed to all sorts of interesting ventures and people working on exciting and potentially very innovative ideas.
To get the best out of the experience, make sure you:
- Align your passions and interests to the project’s core work
- Relate to your client in a professional yet engaging manner, to develop a deeper and more satisfying project relationship
- Put transparency first when it comes to discussing the project’s compensation, thus avoiding running into negative surprises down the line.
Not all startup consulting projects are born equal, but hopefully these tips will be useful for starting off your first one in the right way. Thanks for reading!