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How to build a professional practice from scratch

I don’t have to tell you that the world of professional services is changing fast. And, as new business models, new cost pressures, new technologies and new ways of doing business emerge, more and more of us are taking the plunge and starting new practices too. So, if you’re thinking of doing the same - or if you just want to overhaul your existing approach - here’s what you need to do if you want to set yourself up for success.

1. Start with a strategy

I’m a big believer in the idea that before you take your first step you should always have a vague idea of where you’re heading. Or, as some more famous than me put it; begin with the end in mind. That means working out why it is you’re doing this in the first place.

I think the answer to that should almost always be to get more enjoyment out of what you do. So ask yourself, what is it about your work that gets you out of bed in the morning? What kind of projects have you enjoyed working on in the last year? Make sure your strategy at least partly focuses on getting more of this kind of work.

2. Define a niche

As part of defining your strategy you should also work out your niche, or what you want to be known for. I say this because it’s almost always easier to launch a practice if you’re synonymous with an area, whether that’s being the specialist for a particular industry, business type or something else altogether. The main reason for that is that niche’s are easy to market to (find out why and how here). They also give you the chance to charge a premium. 

3. Find out where your work is coming from

Now that you know where you’re headed, work out how you’ve been getting there so far. So the next step is to make a list of every single piece of work you’ve done matching the description of what you want to do and to work out how you got it. For instance, was it a referral? If so, who referred them? Did they approach you out of the blue? If so, what was their trigger?

I think the easiest way to find this out is to ask the client themselves. Call them or meet with them and ask how they got hold of you. While you’re there, ask them what their pain points are and how you helped solved them. Because this is perhaps the most vital part in the next step, which is...

4. Get your hygiene right

In the earliest stages of any business you’re going to have to spend at least a little bit on marketing. At a minimum, that means having a properly designed website. But it also means knowing what you offer and why people choose you, and making this clear on your website too. There may be a temptation to cut corners at this stage, and I get that: you don’t have a lot of spare change just yet. But scrimping on the fundamentals here can set you back in a major way.

5. Tell the world

Beyond that, it’s time to tell the word you exist. And there are marketing methods that let you do just that without costing an arm and a leg. Get onto social media and start blogging. Write articles for publications focused on your niche. Speak at events where you can position yourself as an expert. And, so long as you’re complying with any restraints you’ve signed, tell clients, colleagues and everyone you can what you’re doing and why you’re doing it (without dissing your former employer, of course). Don’t be shy in contacting former peers to let them know what you’re doing. For any professional, other professionals are almost always the number one referral source.

6. Blitz

Professionals tend to hate selling. But when you start out, you’ll probably need to hit the road, rattle the can, and let people know that you want their work. The secret to doing this well is to do it in an organised and systematic way. If you’ve put in place number 5 above, people will already have an idea about what you’re doing and some might approach you without prompting. However, if you really want to accelerate the process of bringing in work, nothing beats a good old fashioned sales blitz. I’ve written about how to set up a 90-day sales plan right here. You can speed this up if you need work sooner, but just be wary of cutting too many corners.

7. Outsource

Starting a new practice is usually a rollercoaster journey. One moment you’re wondering where your next work will come from; the next you have more work than you can poke a stick at and you’re wondering how you’ll get it all done. On top of that, you’re suddenly faced with all the paperwork and obligations that running your own show entails. The key to success though, is consistency. You need to be doing a bit of BD and marketing all the time, even when you’re busy, just to make sure the work keeps coming and you’re not locked into a constant feast or famine cycle.

Usually, the only way you can do this and still keep your sanity is by outsourcing tasks that get in the way of you doing other stuff you really need to do (you will have to sleep at some stage.) So let someone else take care of payroll and admin. Find someone who can look after your human resources and practice management. You can even get people who’ll do your blogging. And, bring in the experts when you need help with your BD.    

8. Stay the course

When you go into business for yourself, some people will always be quick to fill your head with doubt, “Oh, you’re much braver than I am”, or misleading statistics, “You know two-thirds of new businesses fail”. When you’re in one of those periods where work is hard to come by, it may be tempting to start believe them. Don’t.

There has never been a better time to start a specialist practice and even the best businesses take a while to flourish. So concentrate on getting the fundamentals right and then keep plugging away, adjusting things slightly if and when you have to. It will take time but if you do things right, chances are you’ll succeed. And the journey to getting there will be a rewarding one.

Want more?

If you’re just starting a new practice or you’d like to overhaul your BD in an existing one, get in touch.

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