How to become a consultant

How to become a consultant

Karen Solomon
By Karen Solomon
May 29, 2024
1 min read

If you want to learn how to become a consultant full-time, you’ll need a strong foundation for how to get into consulting in general, and the logistics of how to start a consulting business.

The learning curve can be steep, but if you’re knowledgeable in your field and there’s market demand for your skillset, being a successful consultant could be both rewarding and profitable.

Jump ahead to learn more about:

What is a consultant?

Consulting means giving expert advice in a specific field. Anything that you have a passion for — and expert-level knowledge and work experience in — could become the basis of your consulting services.

What all independent consultants share in common is a need for soft skills such as organization, good communication skills, problem-solving skills and building real client relationships — and sustaining them.

Once you have your consulting niche, you need to identify your target audience and market to them to get clients. When you land a client, they pay you for the time you spend helping them with the area in which you specialize.

By sharing your expertise, you help people solve business challenges or take the next step in their careers or personal lives, which often makes consulting a very rewarding field.

Types of consulting

Consultant roles exist in numerous fields, but these are some of the most common types of consultants:

1. Business consultant

This is consulting work where established business-savvy professionals help large or small businesses and startups manage business administration, operational strategies, acquisitions and mergers.

For this type of consulting, you will usually need a business degree, the right connections and an impressive resume of cross-functional business expertise to forge your career path.

Once you establish your presence, the work can be lucrative. You typically need at least 10 years of professional experience listening to client needs and achieving measurable goals to start as a business consultant.

2. Information technology (IT) consultant

An IT consultant can help an organization build, assess and maintain its technology systems and networks. They’re often brought in to research and implement IT updates and transitions, as well as maintenance and repair. Critical thinking, problem solving and hardware and software knowledge are a must.

To excel in this role, clients will want to see that you have at least a bachelor’s degree in something related to tech, such as computer science or software engineering. A client might also look for real-world experience gained solving problems and leading transitions for other companies.

3. Education consultant

If your background is in education, higher learning or working with students, work in educational consulting could be the right match for you. Professionals in this field work with learners, teachers, parents and caregivers, and educational institutions to help improve learning experiences and educational outcomes. Some focus on college admissions or students with special needs.

Consultants tend to have an educational background and teaching credentials. Many also earn their Master’s degree in a specialized subject or field.

4. Marketing consultant

Many business owners and senior leadership decide to bring in marketing help during the launch or transition of a business. Some feel comfortable scoping the project and creating campaigns for themselves. Those that don’t bring in marketing consultants.

Workers in this profession can offer expert analysis and a plan for research, marketing strategies, positioning and tactics to help build brand awareness and/or sell a product or service. They can also help their clients measure the results and efficacy of their efforts. Some may provide training and support for in-house staff to help keep the marketing machine in motion after their consulting engagement has ended.

While professional accreditation is not a necessity for the role, some marketers choose to earn a certification through the American Marketing Association or specialized platforms marketers use such as Google.

Consultant licensing and certification

Depending on state, county or municipal rules, you may need a general business license to enter the consultant industry and ensure you operate legally.

Accreditation rules can also vary depending on your profession. While a social media or sales consultant may not require official certification, many other professions might. As such, make sure to do the research based on the state and municipality where you live and your area of expertise.

There’s no such thing as an official consultant certificate or license. But some fields or industries  will require proof of your expertise, such as:

  • If you’re a business consultant, clients will want you to have earned a relevant bachelor’s degree, if not a Master of Business Administration (MBA).
  • If you consult in accounting, you will need to prove you’re a certified public accountant (CPA) in your state.
  • If you’re a human resources (HR) consultant, clients may want you to have a university degree to back that up.

The same can be said for many types of consulting businesses. The point is, to be hired as a consultant, you will need at least the same level of professional licensing or education that you would need to be hired for an in-house job.

Consulting business insurance

All consultants, regardless of their niche, face some amount of risk and liability. For instance, you could accidentally cause an injury or damage someone else’s property in the line of work. Or, a client could allege that your advice (or absence of it) caused them to experience a financial loss.

This is why many consultants protect their business with consultant insurance. Business insurance can help cover costs so you’re not footing the entire bill yourself. Some of the most common types of policies and coverage for consultants include:

Professional Liability insurance

Professional liability insurance, also known as errors and omissions insurance (E&O insurance), can help shield you if you’re accused of making a professional mistake — whether it’s true or not.

Coverage from your insurance company could help defend your business if a client sues you for damages.

General Liability insurance

A general liability insurance policy can help protect you from expenses related to accidental damage to property you don’t own or an injury to someone who’s not an employee.

This type of liability insurance could provide financial help for medical payments, legal fees and judgments.

Workers’ Compensation insurance

A workers’ comp insurance policy can help make work-related accidents and injuries easier. Coverage can help pay for medical bills, lost wages while recuperating and more.

It’s required in most states if you have employees.

Commercial Property insurance

Commercial property insurance for consultants can help protect business equipment, furniture and the building itself. If your business property is damaged due to a covered event, such as a burst water pipe or fire, property insurance can help with replacement costs or repairs.

Commercial Auto insurance

If you own or drive a vehicle for work, personal auto insurance doesn’t usually provide coverage if, say, you cause a collision on the way to a client’s office.

Most states require a commercial auto insurance policy for business-owned vehicles to help pay for medical expenses and property damage after an accident.

Consultant vs. contractor

“Consultant” and “contractor” are sometimes used interchangeably, but they mean very different things.

A consultant assesses a situation and makes recommendations for improvement. A contractor is hired to provide a product or service.

For example, if you’re a marketing consultant, you might be hired to assess a company’s marketing plan and make suggestions to improve it. If the company then asks you to write the new marketing plan, that would be contract work.

When you start a consulting business, make it clear if you will also offer contractor services.

Business operations to start a consulting business

To get your aspiring consultant business off the ground, you need specialized skills and a deep network of potential clients and referrals. But you also need to work out some logistics to make your business look legitimate and professional.

Get ready to make decisions on:

Creating a business plan and foundational documents

You’ll want to write a business plan and a marketing plan for your consulting company — particularly if you are going to seek any kind of financial assistance in launching your business. Additionally, these documents are a road map for your organization’s growth.

You’ll also need to create organizational documents and systems such as contracts, accounting and invoicing systems, and project management plans.

Choosing a business structure

Choosing the right business structure is crucial for long-term success and accurate filing of documents. Follow the IRS checklist for starting a business, and consider working with a startup attorney and/or a tax professional to make sure you choose the right structure and file everything properly.

Small businesses can choose from three common types:

  1. Sole proprietorship. A sole proprietorship is the easiest option and allows business operations under your personal name and social security number.
  2. Limited liability corporation (LLC). An LLC separates and protects the personal assets of the company’s owners in the event that the business is sued.
  3. S corporation. An S corporation offers tax benefits like deducted payroll taxes and dividend distributions at lower rates but requires additional annual paperwork.

Learn more about which business structure is right for your small business.

Filing taxes for consultants

Like any small business, you will need to pay taxes. You can file on your own or hire an accountant or bookkeeper to do it for you.

Marketing your consulting business

You will need new clients. Work contacts, family members and friends can get the balling rolling with referrals and you can take every networking opportunity available. But most business owners will need to market their consulting business and build their personal brand.

A website tells people who you are, what you do and proves your credentials. A few basic pages describing your services and experience, along with some samples of your work, are a great start. Don’t forget to include your contact details on every page and add some client testimonials once you have a few projects under your belt.

Think about how and if digital marketing and social media are right for your business. For example, a gardener would likely have beautiful pictures of finished work that would work well for Instagram. But a tax consultant could write a compelling article on little-known tax deductions that would perform best on LinkedIn. Use social media channels wisely in a way that makes sense for your target audience and business goals.

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How NEXT helps protect your consulting business

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We’ll ask a few questions about your business and give you a quote. You can select your coverage options and purchase your policy — all in about 10 minutes. Your certificate of insurance will be available immediately, and you can access your policy 24/7 via web or mobile app.

If you have questions, our licensed, U.S.-based insurance professionals are available to help.

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Karen Solomon
About the author
Karen Solomon is a Senior Content Marketing Editor for NEXT. Her writing and editing has been serving small business owners and startups for several years.
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