My 5 Start Up Tips for Any Small Business or Consultancy After 3 Months of Going Solo

Yesterday marked exactly 3 months since I kicked off my foray as a start-up by setting up my small business as a consultancy specialising in social media, digital PR and personal branding.

In those 3 months I have learned many things, so thought I could give a little back by jotting down 5 tips based on my experience.


Long and Winding Road

1 – Believe in Yourself

Sounds obvious right? But you need to have the courage of your convictions during the first three months because it isn’t going to be smooth sailing. You have to get your head around a ton of new stuff from accounting, to invoicing, to marketing, to sitting in a café on your own, to the highs of getting a proposal accepted, to the lows of not having phone calls or emails returned.

You shouldn’t be going solo unless you really think you can do it, and really thinking you can do it means you have to have done lots of research and have psyched yourself up into a frenzy of self-belief.

 2 – It’s OK If You Fail

Really it is. I had a lot of self-belief when I left Microsoft, but what has also kept me going is that friends and family have admired my courage and helped me understand that if I gave it my best shot, if I was truly prepared and gave it everything I had and it didn’t work out, then at least I could say I tried.

How many people do you know have started their own business even though they have had a slew of lucrative job offers waiting in the wings? I bet it’s not many. So to branching out on your own is a pretty unique escapade in the grand scheme of things, so if you fail, you fail, but people will think more of you for having given it your best try, and you will think more of yourself.

3 – Know Your Value

When you start your own business a curious thing happens. People get a whiff that you’re just starting out and try and get your services for free or at radically reduced fees “because you need the experience right?”

My advice is to stick to your guns and know your value. If you truly trust your experience and worth then charge accordingly and don’t do free stuff as it sends you on a spiral you’ll find it difficult to get out of.

I don’t charge by the hour. I charge by the project or on a retainer basis because if you charge by the hour, there are only so many hours in the week that you can bill for. You’re restricting your potential and your value to time.

With 12 years experience in digital marketing, companies are paying for that experience and my connections. That doesn’t translate into an hourly rate. It translates into a fee that adds that experience and value into that client’s company and people.

Know what you’re worth and know that you’ll respect yourself better if you turn down work because it cheapens your value.

4 – Keep It Small

After I left Microsoft, I must have asked 50 people for their opinion on what I was about to do. Many had small businesses, agencies or consultancies themselves and most of them them asked if I had grand plans for Delightful. When I said I did, I was repeatedly warned to keep it small. It might sound awesome to be heading up an agency of 25 people with hundreds of clients being billed tens of thousands of dollars a month, but how much of that money is actually going to go into your pocket? How many of those clients are you actually going to interface with? How much of your experience and value will actually be used on real work?

Chances are you’ll be the CEO and buried in payroll, tax disputes, legal wranglings, HR issues and marketing conundrums, instead of actually doing any of the work you love to do. Chances also are that, unless you plan on selling the business, you could earn as much, if not more by being a one man band with a couple of contractors on hand for busy periods.

Keeping it small reduces headaches I’m told and I’ve not had to reach for the professional Advil once in the last 90 days.

5 – Know Your Niche

When setting up your business really try and research your market to find a niche. I knew setting out that if my business specialised in something I could potentially charge more. It would be crystal clear exactly what I did and (sometimes more importantly) what I didn’t do, and it created talking points with potential clients that built trust because I was demonstrating I understood their business problems and could really, REALLY help.

I’ve hung my consultancy on three specific pillars: Social Media Integration, Digital PR and Personal Branding. I tell the story that these were the three areas I had the most success with during my time at Microsoft and it’s true that businesses struggle very often with these channels. I’m not a catch-all marketing agency. I won’t set up your Twitter account or Facebook page. I won’t manage your social online reputation on an on-going basis, but I will set you up and teach you how to do that. I know my niche.

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P.S. Also, read “Million Dollar Consulting” by Alan Weiss. The book sounds ghastly but was recommended to me by Jun Young, so I thought I’d pick up a copy. It’s a remarkable read packed full of advice from how to market yourself, how to write a killer proposal so it gets accepted and how to navigate the minefield of fees and what to charge.


  • R. Townshend

    Hey Mel, great article. I would add a couple of things to your list though… Even though we’re involved in different spaces I think it’s true across the board.

    Even if you’re not involved in the same business, having other people to bounce ideas off of, working on cross-promotional things, even sharing in expertise is important. I shared a creative space in Hong Kong where I got a lot of moral support from my office mates, I helped them with their websites, they referred clients my way, we drank bubbly together on hard days. Don’t go it alone – find ways to work with others. Even if it’s meeting with a support group every two weeks to update each other on your progress.

    Lots of people are more than willing and happy to help out when you have your own business – you just have to ask. Better terms on purchases, referring friends and family, etc. People like to feel needed, and will step up to the plate if you ask.

    Asking your customers for a honest opinion about your service/product is really helpful. It allows you to work on the things that need improvement, but also helps you see parts of your niche market you probably didn’t know you had. Some of our best ideas came from client feedback, and it also makes them feel valued.

    Look at your longterm goals and stick to them. Short term gains might really hurt you in the long run and not all opportunities are worth pursuing. Remember that you went into business for yourself for a reason, whatever that reason is, write it down, frame it and put it on your desk. It helps on the dark days.

    Anyway, that’s my two cents. Good luck with your endeavors!

    Reply Posted 11 years ago
    • Mel Carson

      Nice work on those R. I limited myself to just five in this post, so thanks for fleshing out with your great insight!

      Reply Posted 11 years ago
  • Marketing Day: December 12, 2012

    […] My 5 Start Up Tips for Any Small Business or Consultancy After 3 Months of Going Solo, […]

    Posted 11 years ago
  • Mary Bowling

    Great advice, Mel! I totally agree with you and R. Townsend in his/her comment. I’ve also found that you need to trust your instincts when taking on new clients. If they’re difficult at the start or if things just don’t feel right, it’s only going to go downhill from there.

    Reply Posted 11 years ago
  • Rick Noel

    Nice post. I would add #6, stay focused. As an Internet marketing consultant, it is very easy to get distracted, but staying focused is key. #7 might be to have a plan, any plan, and write it down on paper. Both of these are on my personal 2013 hit list. Shared as requested on twitter (@eBizROI). Thanks for sharing.

    Reply Posted 11 years ago
    • Mel Carson

      Rick you’re totally right re focus. It’s easy to randomize yourself, especially if you’re working away in coffee shops or you’ve taken on a bit too much. And I’m all about planning. It was something infused in me through 7 years at Microsoft. Can’t be without a good plan to add some clarity to a project.

      Reply Posted 11 years ago
  • Simon Burgess

    Interesting post, I’ll read the book too. You’re very clear and focused and articulate the value you add in your niche very well. I floundered a bit when I started Consulting.

    Some comments on Know your Value and Keep it Small

    Know your value
    I have tended to charge on a project basis too. It’s generally easier due to its opacity but you’ll notice that when you’re in the 4th week of a project you costed on 2 weeks+IP the fee doesn’t get any bigger. It’s swings and roundabouts. If you are the type who are forensic in briefing, excellent at managing an evolving expectation and dare occasionally to “push-back” the project fee route is wholly preferable. Particularly at the start.

    Over time though a day-rate can be a more valuable route. You can bundle into it’s pricing all the value-add you mentioned, experience, contacts etc. If you can charge a lot you are Scalable! Management Consultancy as a practice has demonstrated a methodology and a day-rate is enough to build a big, successful global business

    Keep It Small.

    Well I think this is ultimately driven by your own ambitions and needs. Yes the headaches will multiply as you get beyond, well, yourself. But I consider 3 things.

    1) I’m better with other people
    2) If you have an ambition to do something Big or you have a Big Idea you want to make happen, it’s gonna involve becoming a team
    3) If you build a substantial business with all the headaches that might entail you do get the opportunity of substantial rewards if you pass on what you built to a buyer

    These are obviously personal choices to a degree. if like me you are at some point absolutely compelled to follow through an idea to execution all Keep It Small advice goes out of the window

    Reply Posted 11 years ago
    • Mel Carson

      Thanks for chiming in Simon. I’ll keep my options open regarding expanding, but from a consultancy point of view it makes sense to stay fiscally slim. If I was a start up with a fab idea for an app or software product, then sure, growing would make sense. I’m a pretty cautious guy, so I’ll keep going as I am for another few months and then see where we go.

      Reply Posted 11 years ago
  • Jerome M

    Great tips you have here, Mel these are very helpful in a startup business. I believe that tip# 4 is one of the things that need to be consider in a startup. It is a smart way to start a small business. When hiring for someone, hire the person you need than the person you like. Hiring employees is very crucial and your business success will rely on the person you’re going to hire. One of the best ways to hire employees is to test drive candidates first, which helps you find the right person for the job. Here’s another great article that could also help your start up.

    Reply Posted 11 years ago
  • Simeon Howard

    If you do it right, knowing your niche will take up more time than just about anything that you do while you are creating your business. If you do it right, however, a lot of the work will be done for you—because you will have picked an under-served market where people are desperate for your product.

    I also agree that you should keep it small. Most new businesses probably don’t even need an office. Better to create a virtual office at home, or rent a small space in a shared office.

    Reply Posted 11 years ago

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