How Boutique Consultancy Owners Can Reclaim Their Quality of Life
Here is a typical story of how boutique consultancies get started.
You have consultants who are outstanding experts working for a large consulting firm. Over the years, they have acquired deep expertise. Their clients are happy. They’ve established strong connections in the industry and earned an excellent reputation for their excellence in work.
Some of these consultants decide to take control of their schedules and client work and start a boutique consultancy firm.
In their pursuit of growth and quick wins, they start ‘hassling’. They take on almost every project or opportunity that comes their way. They just started a new business, so securing as many clients as possible for them makes sense!
They start hiring people to help work on all these different projects. However, it seems that the ‘hassle’ and the ‘grind’ never stop. Instead of working on the business and setting up strategic goals, these boutique consultancy owners are constantly working in the trenches of the consultancy business. I get that. I’ve been there.
They do client project delivery, business development, manage the project pipeline and the CRM, prepare client contracts and invoices, put stuff on social media, hire and train new consultants, join calls with prospects, attend events, and dozens of other things.
After a couple of years, they feel burned out. What initially was the desire to take control over their schedules and consulting business has now turned into a never-ending cycle of putting out fires and trying to keep the business afloat.
Their quality of life is at an all-time low.
How did this happen? Why did these consultancy owners get stuck in this vicious loop? And is there a way out?
The allure and the trap
The reason I’m writing this article is because I’ve been there. I was ensnared in the whirlwind of my boutique consultancy in my early consulting years. The excitement of saying yes to every project that came my way was exhilarating. Word had spread that I started my own consultancy and was getting requests left and right. How thrilling!
Unfortunately, my ego was also my demise and, in hindsight, a blessing as it forced me to take a step back and radically change my approach.
Recommended reading: How a Consultancy Can Get Crushed by the Ego of Its Owners
However, I took on every client that contacted me for a while there. It was the allure of being able to pick my clients and being in demand, the allure of running my own business and thinking I’ll have all the freedom in the world.
But that’s where the trap lies. I wasn’t really picking my clients. I was saying yes to every opportunity, irrespective of how neatly aligned it was with my immediate area of expertise. I justified it by saying that I love the variation in consulting work – every day is different, right? Nothing is boring about that!
Here’s the thing. After a while, the joy of variation fades. The stress that comes with constantly juggling a hundred different tasks for dozens of clients without a possibility of a more balanced life on the horizon stays.
It’s a trap!
"I hear this ‘I love variation’ almost every week. And that’s why most consulting leaders and their consultancies go unnoticed. Their generic and uninspired approach fails to connect with prospects and/or leave a lasting impression."
Unfortunately, many boutique consultancy owners come to me when they already spent a few years in that trap – overworked, overextended, disillusioned.
Fortunately, there is a way out.
The power of narrow positioning
One of the first things I do in my work with boutique consulting firms is audit their positioning. What is their place in the crowded and highly competitive marketplace? What problems do they solve for their clients, and how do they communicate that?
It is no surprise that there is almost always a correlation between positioning and the consultancy's success. The wider it is and the more varied the work, the more the consultancy struggles.
“Luk, why narrow? I love solving diverse problems in my work”.
That’s the ‘official story’ that I hear a lot. These consultancy owners and leaders are fooling themselves. This variation is a distraction that comes at the expense of their quality of life (and their margins, you bet).
The wider the range of services a consultancy offers and the wider its target audience, the more unknowns there are. Variation means that each project is different. The resources required to deliver on this variation become unpredictable. So does the schedule. There is no efficiency. How could there be? When the demands of each project are different, there is no possible way to achieve a high level of efficiency!
That’s the incredible power of narrow positioning.
- It enables consultancy owners to optimize processes. When there is minimal variation in work due to the consultancy solving the same types of problems for the same types of clients, the leaders can set up processes and systems that get optimized for maximum efficiency over time. I’m talking about every aspect – from onboarding clients to tracking progress to recruiting new consultants.
- It provides parameters for decision-making. Narrowing down positioning and sticking to it gives consulting leaders and owners a robust framework for determining which opportunities to say yes to and which ones to refuse. It allows boutique consultancies to eliminate distractions and focus on maximizing the value they deliver to clients within the narrow field of expertise, allowing them to increase the pricing.
- It gives back the quality of life many boutique consultancy owners aspire to. I’m talking about control over schedules, client work, and business growth. It may seem counterintuitive that limiting options leads to increased freedom, but the mechanism behind it is pretty simple. Ultimately, narrowing down positioning allows consultancy owners and leaders to step back from working in the business and have more time to work on it.
- It enables consultancies to build proprietary data sets. Narrowing down the positioning and focusing on project repetition allows companies to narrow down the range of data points that they aggregate from various clients over and over again. This, in turn, allows for the creation of exclusive, proprietary data sets, which add significant monetary value to the firm and help achieve premium pricing.
"Strive for the narrowest possible positioning of your consultancy! Control your ego, you don’t need to crush everything. If you go to market trying to crush everything, the consultancy will play in the pricing rat race. And that’s the end of your quality of life."
Recommended reading: Why High-Performance Consultancies Are Obsessed with Specificity
Deep expertise – the superpower in the world of consulting
Narrow positioning enables consulting firms to develop deep expertise. That’s what repetition does. The more a consultancy works on addressing the same types of pain points for the same narrowly defined target audience, the more knowledge it acquires about every aspect of those pain points. It can now see patterns, predict outcomes, and deliver truly transformational work for clients and their businesses.
And that’s what clients want! That’s what they are willing to pay premium fees for. They want exceptional experts who can see what the clients and their teams don’t and who can diagnose the root cause of their problem instead of working on a superficial level addressing symptoms.
Deep expertise is a superpower. It's energizing and fulfilling. The basic formula here is as follows:
- Narrow focus is the path to repetition.
- Repetition is the path to expertise.
- Expertise is the path to value.
- Value is the path to premium pricing.
- Premium pricing is the path to profit.
- Profit is the path to quality of life.
Recommended reading: The Golden Triangle of Success High-Performing Boutique Consultancies Swear By
And isn’t the quality of life the ultimate goal? The freedom to confidently make business decisions, take a vacation and disconnect, enjoy time with loved ones, read a book/engage in sports/devote time to a hobby – so many consultancy owners are striving for that balance in their lives!
I only work four days a week. That was my intention when I started my consulting business. My goal was to do meaningful work that would have a positive, transformational impact on my clients while, at the same time, having the time to enjoy all the other things I love – writing, cycling and mountain biking, for example.
I knew the only way to do that was to eliminate distractions and make my work as efficient as possible. I’ve already experienced for the past decade what it feels like to run a consulting business when you say yes to every opportunity and overload yourself with variety, and what it’s like when you stay focused and develop deep expertise. I knew which path I didn’t want to repeat.
Protecting my freedom and mental health is the foundation of my consultancy business model.
And it works.
That’s why I’m adamant in my message to boutique consultancies. They should strive to narrow the consultancy's focus, specialize, and develop deep instead of broad expertise to break out of the vicious loop of unpredictability.
A consultancy must take bold and unconventional actions to build a reputable name. They must be willing to shake things up, take risks, and push themselves out of their ‘I-love-variation’ comfort zone.
Rather than blending in with the crowd, a consultancy should strive to stand out with its focused, deep expertise by igniting a spark and burning brighter than the competition.
Variation is tiring. And it doesn’t sell.
Conclusion: Embracing the new narrative and state of mind
As consultancy owners and leaders navigate the challenges and opportunities of running their boutique consultancies, my advice is clear: They should embrace narrow positioning, develop deep expertise, control their ego, cherish their craft, streamline and standardize processes, and prioritize their well-being to build a sustainable, profitable, and fulfilling business.
By aligning their operations with their core values and passions, they can create a consultancy that thrives in the marketplace, enhances their quality of life, and contributes positively to their teams and clients.
I didn’t invent this blueprint for success. I merely followed the path that so many other experts before me have already paved. It’s the path that was created by the market – deep expertise has been a game-changer for me.
When we focus on working smarter, not harder, everything starts to fall into place. And when we focus on quality of life first, our work becomes more meaningful and fulfilling.
Interested in receiving all my learnings to build a better consultancy?
Subscribe to my newsletter.
Hello, I’m Luk Smeyers, and I’m helping mid-sized consultancies become high-performing consulting firms. I have been in the consulting businesses for more than 20 years, in very different roles: as European CHRO in a global consultancy, as a founder of a mid-sized analytics consultancy, and as a leader in a 'Big 4' consultancy, post-acquisition of my consultancy. I had the privilege of achieving global visibility as a consulting leader, and I never had to sell, persuade, or negotiate as a result. I have now bundled all those experiences, expertise, know-how, research, reading, successes, struggles, and failures from managing and advising consultancies in the past years.