Do you ever find yourself so busy that it sounds unfathomable to take on more work? The hectic, high-stress lives of most academic professionals can make time itself feel like a luxury. For many people, the crazy pace of everyday life makes the sheer idea of doing consulting on the side or starting a small business seem at best a future plan or a far-off dream.
Yet getting into business does not have to be a life or schedule interruption. While most entrepreneurs admit to working 24/7 to get their vision off the ground, it really doesn’t have to be that hard. In fact, when you’re new to business, taking baby steps and working around or within your current schedule is what it’s all about.
The only problem, of course, for many of us is that the simple act of getting started is difficult. Books and sites on time management often do not provide much help or solace, particularly as they usually assume you’re just trying to juggle what you’re doing, not add to your current workload. Indeed, multitasking within an already busy professional schedule is one thing; adding a new dimension through consulting or a new business is entirely another.
As a formerly voracious reader of business advice columns, I must confess that I did not follow a set method or strategy when building my marketing and brand strategy consulting business. Like many academics, I’m an individualist. So, when starting my company, I ignored most advice and did everything my own way, which basically meant allowing things to take shape organically. While I formulated a business plan, it was under continual evolution, as I figured out the types of projects I preferred.
Yet, over the course of the past year, I have found a few tactics that worked to start things off on the right note and that, in turn, also prevented me from getting completely overwhelmed. This is not to say that I don’t have moments of feeling snowed under, but rather that I have figured out ways to get out from under this feeling and, sometimes, to stop it from occurring in the first place.
Start-up guides frequently state that you shouldn’t jump into business until you’ve done your research, solidly locked down your ideas, and created a strategic plan, usually for the first few years. All I can say is that if this advice were true, then no one would ever start a small business or dare try consulting alongside a full-time job. It would simply be too daunting.
The best thing I ever did for my business was to start modestly with one project and then move onto the next. Working with only one client permitted me to get a taste for the consulting environment and discern the types of work that I wanted to do without rushing into anything. This approach also helped me develop a solid relationship with my client, and made me more comfortable in taking on more projects.
The idea of going slow may seem counterintuitive to the ruthless pace often associated with business. But taking your time is a trustworthy way to get your bearings in a new environment and improve your chances for success. Indeed, while there are many things out of your control as a consultant or business person in a deadline-driven environment, you do have something to say about your project workload. If you’re new to business, beginning with a single project or a handful of clients can be a useful method to keep your schedule and sanity under control, particularly if you’re balancing a full-time job and family commitments.
In addition to not rushing into work, it is equally important to allow yourself to be choosy about the work that you take on. Before beginning any new projects, evaluate the project specifications, required time commitment, and client expectations. Take a hard look to see if you have the interest in the work at hand and the time to complete the work on the client’s desired schedule. These points seem obvious, yet are surprisingly hard to remember when you’re staring at the potential for revenue.
Whether you’re taking on consulting on the side or starting your own business, be strategic about the work that you do and with whom you do business. Everything that you do, from posting messages on Facebook to having lunch with a friend at a local café, can affect your business because you’re out in the world talking to people and thus representing yourself. The fact that you’re offered a project doesn’t mean that you should feel obligated to take it.
Indeed, turning down projects is frequently a sensible business decision, particularly if your plate’s already full or if the work isn’t precisely in your area of expertise. Every project you take on becomes part of your portfolio, which, in turn, helps establish your “brand” as a professional. In this way, saying “no” is an important element of business and can help you focus more on doing work that both interests you and is lucrative.
Build on Connections
As I mentioned in my last column, winning projects and clients involves a large degree of self-marketing (“Sell Yourself ”) to interest people in what you have to say. However, a perhaps more fundamental facet of getting work and building clientele is identifying the right people with whom to connect in the first place. This is where networking becomes essential.
When launching a consulting career or new business, connecting with potential clients does not need t
Jessica Quillin  is owner of Quillin Consulting, LLC, a consulting firm in Washington, and author of the forthcoming Shelley and the Musico-Poetics of Romanticism (Ashgate). She has a Ph.D. in English from the University of Cambridge.