By Monica S. Flores
Set Up Your Digital Consulting Business
You’re working on your education and you’re also looking for a way to build up your portfolio and get paid for doing what you do best. As a digital native, you know your way around Instagram, Facebook Business pages, Snapchat, and other emerging social tools, and luckily for you, these skills are in-demand for traditional and brick-and-mortar businesses, e-commerce entrepreneurs, and lifestyle brands that seek better ways to reach out to their audiences.
Follow this 12-step checklist to build your digital practice. As you organize your thinking about how you will best be of service, consider that you have an opportunity to build a business that continues to sustain you through summers, breaks, and beyond graduation. Commit to earning more and flexing your mental muscles in support of the people, causes, groups, and businesses you’re interested in supporting.
Before You Begin
Money is an exchange that reflects on the value you bring, through your unique combination of skills and talents, to match the world’s needs. Think about the overall amount of money you desire to earn through your endeavors: write down that amount and commit to it. Is it related to a particular object that you’d like to purchase, or to an experience such as a trip you’d want to take? Elevate this as your goal for the next 12 months: clearly mark down the amount so it’s visible and reminds you on a daily basis.
Furthermore, identify your core mission, vision, and values: these become increasingly important to help you as you navigate your growth.
Step 1: Figure out how much time you have for extra work
Given your limited availability because of studying for midterms, hanging with your suitemates, and basics like eating, sleeping, and hitting the gym, you’ll carve out a fixed amount of time per week, and use those hours wisely as you advance.
As you build more infrastructure, gain your first customer, earn referrals, and develop products and services, you’ll be able to count on that time being available. In this beginning phase, expect to spend approximately 8-10 hours each week on thinking, planning, coordinating, and building up your money-making endeavor.
Determine your ideal customer, in as much detail as possible. Do you have a passion for dogs? Perhaps you’d like to work with a local pet store, or a dog rescue organization. Do you love baking? Perhaps your best customer is a bakery or a café. Develop a clear sense of who exactly is your customer, then build a list of local businesses or mom-and-pop stores that match your criteria (pull from Yelp or Google). Build that “lead list” by identifying organizations that benefit from a better web presence, need improvements to their social media, or have something you’re interested in for trade or collaboration. Start with ~50 potential names and begin reaching out.
Non-locally, you may connect with customers and clients from all over the world. Develop enough of a reputation and testimonials to work with people who feel comfortable hiring you solely online.
Step 3: Determine what you offer
What is your “menu” of options? When you go to a restaurant, on the menu are typically 4-6 entrées, a few sides, drinks, and dessert. Similarly, your task is to create an instantly understandable list of offerings, in “packages” that break down manageably. Consider offering “packages”, such as “Monthly Social Media Outreach” or “Quarterly Blog Posting – 6 blog posts”. Once you get a sense for your time and level of effort, you’ll be able to encapsulate your ideas into specific products/services for a customer to pick from.
Play to your strengths. Are you on Facebook all the time? Do you tweet regularly? Consider building a posting schedule that is similar to what you already do anyway, in this case you will offer it on a paying customer’s behalf.
Step 4: Package up digital products
Consider offering something that is easy-to-sell as a “taster” of your services. For example, instead of selling “30 days of LinkedIn Posts”, consider offering a PDF file with “30 Days to Improve your LinkedIn Company Page” that lists your tips and tricks in calendar format, but is available as a digital download. A customer might purchase the PDF as a stand-alone, but you retain the opportunity to upsell by taking over the actual posting process, which frees up the busy business owner.
Step 5: Market yourself
Plenty of tools exist for you to set up a beautiful one-page portfolio or landing page that showcases you, your mission/vision/values, your offerings, a way to pay online or book online, and contact information.
- One-page Website Hosting: Strikingly or Wix has tools to set up a free and easy-to-edit page. If you’re more comfortable using a content management system, consider setting up a WordPress.com account for easy access to pages and posts in blog format, that you may then periodically update.
- Domain name: Consider purchasing a domain name for your business name or your full name, through GoDaddy or Namecheap. Your chosen domain name will “point” to your hosting and you’ll also be able to set up an “info@” email account.
- Phone number: Google Voice has a VOIP number you could set up, if you don’t want to use your personal phone.
- Business cards: Moo.com or Vistaprint.com have great deals on business cards.
Step 6: Set up payment processing
For taxes for self-employed contractors, set aside at least a 30% of each payment you receive. Make sure to keep a separate account at your bank, or determine how you’ll keep track of income, for tax reporting purposes.
Step 7: Keep up-to-date with paperwork
Depending on your city and state, you may need to register as a business, which entails different steps based on specific laws in your region.
If you’re an independent contractor (also known as being self-employed, contracting, doing temporary contract work, or being “in business for yourself”), payments are made directly to you. You’ll need to keep abreast of local laws, so look online for “doing business in” your location.
If you’re starting an actual business entity, payments are made to the business. You’ll need to pay for any licenses, advertise in the local newspaper, and share your articles of incorporation. You’ll also need to set up a bank account. Review LegalZoom for more in-depth advice.
Step 8: Market, get feedback, rinse, repeat
Marketing your new business endeavor happens in three different ways: through your own efforts, through word-of-mouth referral, and through structured conversations. You’ll generate buzz and signal availability for your work by talking it up with potential customers from your lead list. As soon as you gain your first customer, offer them a discount based on any new client they bring; alternatively, offer a referral fee to friends or other business professionals for referring to you. Formal networking often goes through organizations like BNI.com, which offers a local group in your area that meets regularly to exchange business leads.
Step 9: Take care of business
Keep scrupulous records of income received and expenses incurred for your work: you may be able to deduct expenses on items necessary for your work (business cards, graphic design, mileage). When you file taxes, take as many eligible deductions as possible. Use accounting software such as Quickbooks to keep track of income and expenses, invoicing, and your balance sheet.
Step 10: Do the work
You’ve landed a customer: Congratulations! Use your time blocks to fulfill client needs. Build in as much pre-planning as possible such as posting schedules, editorial calendars, pre-built blog posts, and news items: automate some of the tasks, fulfill custom work, and also schedule availability for your customer’s questions, feedback, or issues. Investigate IFTTT.com as an automation tool.
Focus on generating measurable deliverables such as increases in donations, signups, or website traffic. Balance your time so you fulfill client obligations and also have time to build additional tools and work “on the business” instead of solely “in the business”.
Running out of time? Raise your rates and decline potentially bad clients.
Not filling your hours? Lower your rates or join a barter such as Simbi to book up completely.
Step 11: Ask for feedback
After your engagement, or mid-way through your client process, ask for feedback on how the process is going, including how you may improve. If your customer knows that their feedback makes a positive difference to their own bottom line, they’ll be truthful about what needs to get better. Accept feedback and explain how you’ll integrate feedback into your operations.
Step 12: Ask for referrals
Ask your first customer for a referral to your next one: in business no one exists in a vacuum, so there are potentially 50 more introductions your first customer may make. Keep on asking for referrals from your customers, allies, friends, and others in the business community.
Your work is directly tied into your reputation: represent yourself and your offerings as well as possible, charge a fair fee, and carve out time to do the best work possible.
If all goes well and you’ve established yourself through your first 5-10 customers, congratulations! You’re truly in business!
Continue re-tooling and refining your marketing, product and service offerings, and continue to share your internet savvy with those who benefit from your knowledge.