Earlier this week, the New York Times’ “You’re the Boss” column asked whether small and fast-growing businesses should hire consultants.
The author, Clifford Oxford, opined that consultants should mostly be kept away:
“This is the human factor of growth, and quite frankly, most consultants contaminate the whole place. Keep them out of this part of the business. Think about snakes in a wood pile. In fact, go back and find that 10-foot pole and grow without them.”
As a consultant who provides marketing services to startups, I think Oxford is wrong because it doesn’t reflect the value that consultants can offer at the right time for the right price.
One of the crucial considerations for startups, especially early-stage ones, is they need to be strategic and selective about how they spend money. There are parts of the business that demand a full-time employee because they’re core to the company’s operations. At the same time, there is a lot of stuff that needs to get done but doesn’t necessarily need a full-time, part-time or contract employee.
Instead, a startup can look to a consultant to fill an important gap on a project basis to achieve a key deliverable or milestone. In hiring a consultant (or hired gun), the startup can tap into someone’s experience, expertise and network to get exactly what it needs when it’s needed. It does not have to be a long-term or expensive relationship but it can provide both parties with what they need.
So when should a consultant be hired by a startup?
For many startups, the interest in a consultant begins when they have a problem to solve or a task that has to get done. At this point, they can try to have someone internally do it or look to hire someone if the position needs to be filled right away. Another option is finding someone (aka a consultant) who can come in for a set period of time (let’s say one to six months) to provide strategy and tactical assistance.
The key is determining what kind of help is needed, and then finding someone who has the experience and track record to fill that need. And you have to find someone who shares your values, passion and vision. That’s the first big step.
Next, a startup has to find a consultant who thinks strategically and performs tactically. A startup does not, under any circumstances, need a consultant who puts together fancy strategic recommendations, and then leaves the startup to execute. To me, that’s a half-ass job that provides little value, and gives consultants a bad name.
Third, a consultant needs to drink the Kool-Aid. While they don’t work for the startup, they need to feel like they’re part of the team, even if it’s for a short period of time. As well, the startup has to feel and know the consultant has a vested interest in their success, not just getting paid for consulting services.
So what about fees?
The image of consultants is they’re blood-sucking, money-hungry wolves. That may be true for some but it’s a sweeping generalization. A good consultant who wants to work with your startup should recognize the budget limitations and accept the reality that working for reasonable fees is part of the opportunity cost.
If a consultant wants to make large hourly rates, they should work for a big corporation. If they want to work with startups, they need to take a different approach – one that takes into account a startup’s potential and the buzz around their business and sector.
Truth be told, it can be hard for a startup to hire a consultant who meets the above criteria. The reality, however, is there are a lot of good consultants who can meet the needs of startups and, in the process, deliver a win-win proposition.