Ultra-specialization: the secret to being a successful consultant

We sit across from each other, broad cups of peppermint tea cupped in our hands, oblivious to everyone else.

I am seduced by his wavy blond hair and blue eyes, easy smile and rich vocabulary. Earlier that evening, he told me about graduating from the world’s top university, and his new job in the capital city, with a large, sort of bureaucratic and slow organisation.

“Doesn’t seem like you,” I say. “Wouldn’t you rather do something else?”

“It’s a 9 to 5,” he says. “I want to do something after five p.m., something more flexible.”

“What are you thinking of doing?” I ask him, totally jazzed to find a kindred spirit in entrepreneurial passions.

Obviously, I want to launch right into a sales pitch for becoming a consultant, but the moment is not quite right.

“Well, they have the best hot pot at my favourite restaurant in Shanghai,” he says, face full of nostalgia. “I thought about opening a hot pot place, maybe make it fusion cuisine.”

I lean back, slowly sipping my tea. All previous sentiment evaporates immediately; I am unimpressed by his silly business ideas.

“What do you think of that idea?” he asks with his boyish grin, and I wonder, do they teach them this charm at the Ivy Leagues?

“It doesn’t matter what I think,” I say in a flat voice, setting down my cup. “Go ask your clients. They are your buyers, it’s what they think that counts.”

“I’m still curious to know your opinion,” he insists, and I think, damn, he’s good.

“I don’t want to play in the $2 sandbox,” I say. “I’d rather play in the $200 sandbox.”

He looks a little nonplussed. I decide to try a different tack.

“Think about what you’re already good at,” I tell him, trying to also say, ‘Dude! Forget the Chinese restaurant!’

That brilliant white smile reappears: “I’ve done tennis coaching at $50/hour!” he says. His face lights up, and it’s immediately obvious that he is more than very good at tennis, not least from his rate.

“But just I don’t know how I’d scale that,” eyes turn towards his now-empty cup.
“Just record lessons on the fastest backhand ever,” I tell him, “And then put it online. That’s your scaling-up strategy.”

“Yeah, but nobody learns tennis online,” he counters swiftly.

“My brother learnt the breaststroke from YouTube videos,” I respond, slowly. “And everything I know about classical dance is from watching videos of the New York City ballet.

“What about those kids in Belarus, who can’t play tennis outside most of the year? Or the ones in Egypt who love the game but can’t afford to rent a court for an hour?” I say, remembering the hours batting the fuzzy green ball against the walls of our tiny city apartment as an eight-year-old.

“That’s true,” he says, eyes distant.

The conversation moves on to travel and growing up in a country in which your parents no longer live; like me, he spent his influential 13 years in a place where education outranks entrepreneurship, with parents who pushed learning from books over lemonade stands on the street, and an expensive education that makes you think, I should have a LinkedIn-worthy job title.
Who would he be if all he did was teach tennis on the internet?

But consulting is counter-intuitive, in that, even in the NGO world where everyone is obsessed about getting that prestigious position at the U.N., it’s not about playing the prestige game, it’s about high-quality service to tightly-defined, “niched-down” clientele that you want so much to succeed, they feel it instantly. Think less “climate change and sustainability” and more “project management for five-year projects run by certification schemes in Southeast Asia. After two full months studying the consultancies published every day, 33 conversations on Skype and in person with my colleagues and old friends, to learn what most bugged them about their projects and where they really needed help, and endless hours perusing the websites of the organisations that interested me, I knew my clients so well, I could even predict which projects they would not invest in.

To my own surprise and delight, my clients – people passionate about improving livelihoods, just like me – have been a joy to get to know. Interview after interview, my heart swells with feeling; I want so much for their projects to succeed, I’d happily work for free. Instead, thanks to gentle goading from my mentors, I’ve worked on asking them to pay me the rate I believe is fair, and they say, “Fine, of course, no problem,” or “Yeah, sure, totally.”

Thanks to a relentless focus on what my clients need (rather than what I’m most passionate about this month), my consulting business has grown from a restless desire to do more into a business serving large international orgnisations poised at the forefront of anti-poverty work, and phone calls from old friends to say, “We’re looking for someone, do you think you could help us with this project?”

Start from what you know how to do in your sleep, remember that studying your clients never stops, and let the people you want to serve guide you to your first (and second and fifth) contract.

Because there are some things they don’t teach you at Harvard.

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