Podcast

Episode: 15 |
Will Bachman:
Setting Up Your Firm:
Episode
15

HOW TO THRIVE AS AN
INDEPENDENT PROFESSIONAL

Will Bachman

Setting Up Your Firm

Show Notes

In this in-between-isode, Will Bachman offers suggestions on 27 action items to consider as you set up your firm.

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Will Bachman: Hey there, podcast listeners. Welcome to Unleashed, the show that explores how to thrive as an independent professional. Unleashed is sponsored by Umbrex, the world’s first global community of top-tier independent management consultants. I’m your host, Will Bachman.

Our show today is an in-between-isode, and the topic is 27 Practical Steps to Set Up Your Firm. The focus of this episode is on administrative tasks, and I’m not gonna talk now about building your virtual team or business development. Those are important topics that I’ll cover in separate episodes. If you are currently at a big consulting firm or in a corporate role and thinking about setting up your own practice, this episode is for you. And if you have been running your own practice for a few years, but you think there might be some additional steps you could take to get fully set up, this episode is for you as well. It isn’t absolutely essential that you take all of these steps on day one, or even month one. It’s taken me nine years to get some of these knocked off. So, I’ve tried to create here the checklist of action items that I wish I had available on day one. This list is not definitive, and I’d love to get your thoughts on what is missing.

Number one, write the strategy of your firm. I’ve done a whole separate episode on this topic. So, for here, I’ll just say that you should answer three questions: what is my definition of success? Where do I play? And how will I win? And if you wanna hear more, check out the other episode on determining the strategy for your firm. 

Number two, pick a name for your firm. So, we do strategy as step one, since the strategy ought to influence the name you select. Please spend more than five minutes on picking your name. Pick a name as if you’ll be in business for a while. I’ve seen a dozen or so cases in which a consultant creates an LLC using just his or her name, the equivalent of ‘Will Bachman, LLC’, or ‘W.H. Bachman, LLC’. From a legal perspective, those names do the job of creating an entity, but from a marketing perspective, the underlying message is, ‘One day I needed to set up an LLC to get paid, and I didn’t give the name of the LLC any thought at all. I’m not planning to do consulting for very long, so it’s not a big deal. If you want a firm that you can depend on to be around for a while, look somewhere else’. Okay, so, don’t just use your initials.

The next option for your firm that some people choose is to use your last name in some configuration, such as ‘The Bachman Group’, or ‘Bachman and Company’, ‘Bachman Advisors’, ‘Bachman Consulting’, ‘Bachman Partners’. These show a somewhat limited range of creativity on your part, but at least they convey some sense of stability and provide the opportunity to grow your firm by adding people at some point in the future. A drawback of this type of firm name is that most people will assume, rightly, that you are the only person in your firm. Not necessarily a bad thing, but considering what your firm’s name will look like when it is abbreviated, which sometimes happens in a contract or other document. I’ve sometimes considered that if I named my firm ‘Bachman International Group’, it would be abbreviated ‘BIG’, which would be kind of fun. 

So, let’s say you decide not to use your own name. Here are a few suggestions. A, avoid a name that is so generic that it will never show up in a Google search, e.g., Strategy Consulting Group. B, avoid a name that is so specific that it boxes you into a particular type of project. That might be your specialty now, but someday your client may ask you to work on something else, and having a name like ‘Pharma Marketing Spend Optimization Partners’ might not serve you well. 

C, avoid a name that some people will be uncertain how to pronounce. If people aren’t sure how your firm’s name should be pronounced, they will avoid saying it because no one likes to look silly and pronounce something wrong. And if they are afraid to pronounce it, they are also not likely to remember it, or tell their friends about it. D, do find a firm name for which the domain name is available. You can check the availability by doing to the website of any domain registrar, such as GoDaddy. E, do test your name. Not only with your closest friends, but with a few people who resemble your ideal clients. Hand them not just your chosen name, but a list of four or five names, and ask them their impressions of each one, what each one means to them. 

Alright, so you’ve picked a name. Step three, get a domain name. As part of the process of selecting a firm name, you have already checked to see if the domain is available. So, once you’ve picked your firm’s name, your first step should be to buy to domain name for your firm. If you have not bought a domain name before, relax. It is simple and you do not need to be a technical wizard. Just go to any domain registrar, I use GoDaddy, just set up an account on any website, and you buy the domain. And you can worry later about setting up the email.

Step four, get an LLC or an s-corp. And this applies to folks in the United States. Alright, I have not researched the legal structures for other countries, but independent professionals in the US, in my informal polling, about 20 percent go with s-corp, and about 80 percent go with LLC, and I’m gonna do a separate episode on making that choice. In some cases, it is possible to do independent consulting without an LLC or s-corp. If you do go without an LLC, your revenue will just get reported to your Social Security number. But there are a number of things that will require you to have an LLC, so you might as well get one right away. Things that require an LLC include getting a business checking account, getting business health insurance, and paying a subcontractor. Getting an LLC does not require an attorney. Just Google ‘get an LLC in’, and insert your state. It should not cost more than a few hundred dollars, and it only takes a few minutes online, and you’ll get your LLC within a few days. 

When you get your LLC, make sure that you, not the company you’re using, gets listed as the ‘registered agent’. The registered agent receives official mail for the company. You might as well have that mail come to your home or your office. When you pay a company to register the LLC for you, as a default, they might make themselves the registered agent, and then they’ll try to charge you a hundred bucks a year for the service, and there’s no sense in paying for that. I fell for that trick, and it was a hassle to change the registered agent to my own home address. So, don’t fall for that.

Step five, get a business checking account. You’ll need your LLC paperwork, which will probably take a few days to arrive. You wanna have a business checking account separate from your own personal checking account, which makes it easier to keep track of your revenues coming in, and what are business expenses, and also help to preserve that clear separation between your limited liability company and your own personal financial life. It is probably easiest to set up the business checking account at the same bank where you already have a personal checking account, and then you can usually do same-day or immediate transfers back and forth. 

Step six, get a professional email address. I see plenty of consultants using a personal email for work, and it creates an impression that the person is not serious or committed. Using a personal email address suggests that you aren’t trying to run a professional operation, or that you aren’t sophisticated enough to set up a branded email account. Using a personal Gmail account is not great, but if the professional is using an aol.com, hotmail.com, or yahoo.com account, that makes it even worse, suggesting the person is technologically unsophisticated and slow to adopt the best tools available. If you use one of those accounts, no offense, I’m telling you what some clients are gonna think, and they might not tell you. So, maybe aol.com has a perfectly good email product. I can’t say for sure, but fair or not, using aol.com suggests that the person operates at the speed of dial-up.

So, yes, it is a bit of a hassle to set up an account, but really you can do it in under an hour. Once you’ve got your domain, I strongly recommend using G Suite with Google. It’s cheap and powerful. It currently costs 50 dollars per user per year, and you can have up to 10 aliases, and it works just like Gmail.

Step seven, set up an email signature without any images. The first thing you might consider after setting up your email is to create an email signature, which so many people neglect to do. Through G Suite, you just go to Settings, I recommend including your signature on outgoing emails from both your browser and your phone. So, if you’re on your phone, you’ll have to go into Settings and set up there as well. I encourage you to include your phone number in your email signature. You wanna make it easy for potential clients to call you, and it so often happens that, at least personally, I’ll be trying to call someone up, I’ll search through my email, I’ll find their email, and if there’s no phone number, I may end up calling someone else. I’m sure clients have the same experience.

I also encourage you to include your email address in your email signature, which might seem redundant since the person clearly has your email address if they received an email from you. But some people like to copy and paste contact info from an email signature into their Outlook or other contact management system. So, make it easy on them. Do not include an image even though it looks fancy. Some email systems receiving your email detect images and send those emails to junk mail.

Step eight, set up Dropbox or some other backup solution. The question is not whether your hard drive will fail, but when, so back up your files automatically.

Step nine, get a high-end business laptop. You’ll be using it every day, so pay the extra money for the extra memory and extra speed.

Step 10, get a second business backup laptop. Keep it fully synced with your primary laptop with all your files on it. Someday, your primary laptop will suddenly die or get stolen, and you don’t wanna interrupt client work for two days while you go get a new laptop and get it set up. 

Step 11, get a place to work. If you’ve got space at home to set up an office, you’re set. Treat yourself like a professional and invest in setting up a proper workspace that fits your style. Get a professional-quality printer. I’ve got two desks in my office, one for my computer and one with no computer, where I work on paper. On my computer desk, I’ve got two large monitors, which provides a massive productivity boost over just one. And I use a hundred-dollar keyboard, the Das keyboard. Maybe a hundred dollars sounds like a lot for a keyboard, but it is totally worth it. A regular keyboard feels like mud after you’ve been typing on a Das. The keys click and have actual resistance, and my fingers get far less tired when I type. Get yourself plenty of office supplies, a proper filing system, wall space to post all your work in progress. So, whatever your particular needs are for an office, set yourself up like a pro and spend some money on it. 

If you don’t have space at home, the good news is that more and more options are becoming available for independent professionals to rent space on a part-time or full-time basis. There’s Knotel, K-N-O-T-E-L, and WeWork, and plenty of other coworking spaces are great options.

Step 12, get health insurance. So, one option, obviously, in the US is Obamacare or whatever it may get replaced with. I also recommend finding a health insurance broker who works with small businesses who may be able to help you find the policy that is not available to purchase directly. And you can find a good broker by asking around.

Step 13, get term life insurance. Even if you don’t have a family at the moment, you don’t have a family now, you might end up with one at some point in the future, and term life insurance gets more expensive the longer you wait. So, get that knocked out. You are your own HR benefits department now.

Step 14, set up an SEP IRA. Again, this is US-specific. SEP IRA stands for ‘simplified employee pension independent retirement arrangement’, and it allows business owners to provide retirement benefits for themselves and their employees. With an SEP IRA you can put away, pre-tax, up to 25 percent of compensation, or 53,000 dollars, whichever is less, per year for retirement. 

Step 15, get a health savings account. Again, US-specific. With an HSA, you can put away, pre-tax, about 6,500 dollars per year into an account you can use for any medical expenses. 

Step 16, get a logo. You have a name for your firm, now get a logo. If you happen to know a great graphic designer, you might choose to give the job to that person. I used a crowdsourcing site called CrowdSpring for a half-dozen logos, and I have been pleased with the results. You post the job and invite the creative to do a design, and 50 or 100 people might submit designs. You select the winning design, and only the winning designer gets paid.

Step 17, get business cards and correspondence cards. You could get business cards at Staples and they will look like you got business cards at Staples. You have a premium firm with premium pricing, get some premium business cards. When you give your business card to someone, your goal should be that they think, and maybe say, “Wow, nice business card.” You aren’t giving away thousands of them, so go high-end. moo.com does a very nice job. While you are getting business cards, I suggest you also get printed some correspondence cards. It makes a very nice impression when you send a handwritten thank-you note on your letterpress card stock. And if you have a stash of correspondence cards, you might get in the habit of regularly sending out handwritten notes, which not only makes a nice impression, but also feels great when you experience some gratitude and send a thank-you card to start your day.

Step 18, get a good headshot. You are a serious professional, no headshots taken with your computer’s webcam, please. Don’t get it from your friend, go to a real photographer. Get a professional headshot. It will cost you a few hundred bucks, and you are worth it. Use that headshot on LinkedIn and all of your other online profiles.

Step 19, update your LinkedIn profile. Now that your firm has a name and you have a headshot, and you’ve committed to this path, update your LinkedIn profile. It confuses potential clients if you are still listed as ‘the director of strategy at XYZ Company’, but you are out presenting yourself as an independent professional. So, add your new firm as your new employer, and add a title, and update your profile.

Step 20, update your other alumni profiles. So, update all your alumni profiles with your contact information and your new job, and your new photo. That includes the alumni profile for your college and your grad school, if applicable. And if you previously worked at a consulting firm or other employer with an active alumni website, update that one, too.

Step 21, prepare a bio and a resume. Prepare a one-page bio in Word or PowerPoint and a one- or two-page resume. Even better is to prepare a practice overview document that describes the type of clients you serve and your range of services.

Step 22, prepare a project list. The project list can be much more detailed than your resume. Mine lists every project twice, organized once by industry and a second time by function. For each project, you might write the situation you faced, the actions you took, and the resulting impact. This project list will be a handy resource when you want to quickly pull together a few relevant case examples of your experience for a project opportunity.

Step 23, prepare a PowerPoint template. With some clients, you’ll wanna use their PowerPoint template so that they can easily use the document internally. But in many cases, you’ll wanna have your own template, and you can get a PowerPoint template designed via a crowdsourcing site like I mentioned before, or you can ask friends to recommend a designer.

Step 24, get some branded gifts. This is totally optional, and maybe this doesn’t fit the branding of your firm, but it is nice to have a gift branded with your firm’s logo. For years, I have given out hefty mugs with my firm’s logo, and sometimes I’ll return a couple of years later and find the mug still front and center on a client’s desk, keeping me top of mind. 

Step 25, get a NDA, or non-disclosure agreement, and two contract templates done, one contract for clients and one contract for engaging subcontractors. Some clients will have their own contract boilerplate that they want you to sign, but some clients will not have one, so you should be prepared, and you might collaborate with other independent professionals to have one drafted by an attorney. For example, the Umbrex community invested in having an attorney draft up a sample contract to use with clients, and another one to use with subcontractors, and provides these templates to its members. You also should set up an invoice template or system, which doesn’t need to be very fancy. Some people use QuickBooks, and some people use a simple .xl file. 

Step 26, set up business apps on your devices. Spend some time, periodically, researching online and asking friends for tips on the best productivity apps. Some of the apps that I find most useful today are probably not very surprising: Skype for international calls, Evernote for syncing all my notes across all my devices, Scanner Pro, I use almost daily for scanning some multiple-page document into a single PDF with my phone, LinkedIn, Expensify. With Expensify, you can forward emails to an inbox for your expense reports, or you can snap a photo of receipts with your phone, it all syncs to the web and makes expense reporting a lot easier.

Step 27, website. A really well-designed website that highlights your publications and services can certainly help. Most consultants believe that a website is not likely to generate many leads, but it can be useful to validate you and give you credibility when a client checks you out once they do have your name. But a website is not absolutely essential, particularly if it doesn’t have anything more, really, than your LinkedIn profile. 

Okay. So that is a set of practical steps you can take to get set up with your firm. Please let me know what I’ve missed. I hope that you found this useful. 

Thanks for listening to this episode of Unleashed, the show that explores how to thrive as an independent professional. Unleashed is sponsored by Umbrex, the world’s first global community of top-tier independent management consultants. The mission of Umbrex is to create opportunities for independent management consultants to meet, share lessons learned, and collaborate. I’d love to get your feedback and hear any questions that you’d like to see us answer on this show. You can email me at unleashed@umbrex.com. That’s U-M-B-R-E-X dot com.

If you found anything on this show helpful, it would be a real gift if you would let a friend know about the show and take a minute to leave a review on iTunes, Google Play, or Stitcher. And if you subscribe, our show will get delivered to your device every Monday. Our audio engineer is Dave Nelson, our theme song was composed by Gary Negbaur, and I’m your host, Will Bachman. Thanks for listening.

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