On Needing Some Clarity – for Myself

I think a lot of us see the holidays as a time, not only for rest and celebration, but also for reflection and planning.

I certainly do. And right now, I’m feeling both encouraged…and, truth be told, perplexed.

Need ClarityEncouraged, because my mission has become very clear (help individuals and companies gain clarity and direction). I absolutely love helping others discover their “fit” and be more refer-able, and I’m told I’m great at it.

However….I’m also perplexed, because after 8 1/2 years as a solopreneur, I’m still stuggling with my current business model. I love the fact that so much of my work is referral- and network-based, but here’s the problem: the work (and therefore the revenue) is quite uneven.

(in fact, my Pharma client/vendor matchmaking service has the same issue – a great referral/consulting model, yet producing uneven revenue flow).

Both are very valuable business approaches, meeting genuine needs – but the inconsistency is a real struggle. When I think of the potential value that I know I can bring, it’s frustrating.

Fellow consultants/solopreneurs – can you relate?

> I yearn to do longer-term work, at a deeper level, for companies that need help in their growth plans. I’ve sometimes occupied the role of strategic advisor for small businesses – 3-12 month part-time consulting engagements – and that is a real sweet spot. But how do I get to that model consistently?

> I’ve also done corporate and public workshops on being Refer-able – how to express your marketplace “fit” clearly, while effectively using digital networking tools. This is another valuable offering with good revenue potential – but is it a viable business avenue to pursue? Will enough companies pay for this?

Here’s the conundrum – I’ve got the track record, and the testimonials, but I’m running out of ideas on how to reach next level of consistent work and revenue flow. Grrrrrr!!! Maybe you can help me figure it out?

I do plan to reach out to some of you in my inner circle for advice in the coming weeks. Yes, I really do believe that “You can’t read the label of the jar you’re in” – and I need some clarity here! And, my reader – if you feel like you have some ideas or insight, please don’t hesitate to reach out (steve at stevewoodruff dot com) – I would truly appreciate your help.

P.S. – I have to believe that many consultants have similar struggles. If you’ve made the transition from uneven to consistent work, what actions did you take to “get there”? Please share with all of us!


  1. Consulting and consistency is an oxymoron, my friend. I wish this wasn’t the case, but the truth is we all see ups and downs continuously. And yet we lie to our friend’s faces when we exclaim, “Business is great! It couldn’t be better!”

    I think a 2015 intimate mastermind group is in order. If you’re interested let me know please.

    Happy Holidays. Keep your chin up. The work is out there, it will come.

    • Dave – totally interested in working together on a local mastermind. Let’s talk. Well…let’s talk when I have more time, because “business is great – couldn’t be better!!!!” ;>}

  2. Wow, Steve. That is a powerful post. I truly feel your pain. I think the majority of solo business professionals feel like this a lot of the time. I am struggling with very similar issues. I am looking for some more writing retainer work that will cover my overhead so the “lumpy” revenue stream of the consulting work (that I love and am really good at!) doesn’t affect my finances so much. I also find myself thinking about what Les McKeown said about the fact that you more than double your chances for success as a small business owner if you have a partner. I always thought I wanted to build a solo business – but now I am even rethinking that. Let’s chat offline about this. I’ll look at your jar if you’ll look at mine 🙂

  3. Steve – I feel your pain. As a former business partner used to say, you always have to keep the funnel full. Something that is easier said than done, especially at certain times of the year (like December). I had the same issue when I had a bigger company with partners and employees, so it is not only soloprenuers that experience it. I’m also happy to talk offline about this.

    • Aileen, I know I could live just fine with the spottiness of some of my consulting work, if only I could put it on a more secure foundation of a certain level of recurring/retained revenue. I have to believe that it’s do-able – I can add that longer-term value – but haven’t been able to “get there” yet. Will reach out offline…

  4. Kudos Steve for saying out loud what many of us (can’t be just me!!) go to bed worrying about. I love the idea of a Mastermind..of reviewing others to help them and perhaps oneself…count me in…..how can I be of service???

    Just re-looked at a really great TED talk on Inspiring Action fromSimon Sinek (2009) has me re-thinkiing my WHY!

    To 2015..our most successful year EVER!


  5. Steve,

    I appreciate your candor and courage. I too face these same challenges and find I am tweaking my business model slightly to try and address the need for recurring revenue. Happy to chat offline. Thanks for starting the conversation.

  6. I agree with the other comments here – independent consulting is lumpy 🙂

    I use to work for PwC, and back then workflow was generally only predictable 3 months out. The size of the business, number of people selling and the mix of products/services/markets helped to even out the lumpiness, but even then individual consultants had ‘lumpy’ utilisation.

    To limit the lumpiness you need to:
    a) embrace it and get good at riding it – price yourself to cover the gaps
    b) keep networking and selling even when you are working
    c) create a product and market mix, so you are not relying on one product and one market

    That means you need multiple jars and multiple labels. The mistake I see lots of consultants make is to say “I’m really good, I can do lots of things, I have great tools, I’m really flexible, buy me”. That’s what I call a ‘complex purchase’ – its hard to define, hard to understand, and hard to buy. If you really want less lumpiness, you need to offer some ‘simple purchases’. To be more specific, people don’t buy missions – they buy tangible benefits/value. Helping people/organisations get clear is needed in today’s busy, messy world, but it could mean almost anything e.g.
    – you could do market research and competitor analysis to help people get clear on gaps and targets
    – you could do financial value analysis of existing operations or product lines to see where the focus should be
    – you could do data analysis and analytical tools to help people monitor their business better
    – you could coach senior individuals or teams to help them make better decisions and commit to aligned action

    It could be a longer list. Everyone could benefit from being clearer, but that’s not generally what people search for when they search for help.

    As a start, ask the people who have already bought to you to tell you why:
    – what were the situations they faced?
    – what did they need help with, specifically?
    – why did they buy you? What did you bring that alternatives didn’t?

    And to expand it, ask them
    “If you were to recommend me to other people/businesses, who would you recommend me to, in what kind of situations, and how would you say I could help?”

    It’s a second slice at the same data, but has the advantage that they might just think of someone they could recommend you to 🙂

    Happy to explore further!


    • Alan, that is truly great input. In fact, I am planning to have this more structured “interview” with some of my clients and partners in the pharma realm, and these are some great questions to use. Thanks so much for taking the time to outline your thoughts!

  7. Hi Steve, great honest post! I think we all know the answers but we do not always do them consistently. It is important to have a small percentage of “bread and butter” work – the work that comes easy and is easy to do – to smooth out the revenue stream. The other part is to make business development a regular part of your activities so that your pipeline is full. Your website can do help with this but for me it also means a calendar of regular good old fashioned, shaking hands, meeting for coffee and phone calls to keep a steady stream of leads. As you know your target audience, that sweet spot for you, may work through your pipeline at varying rates so you have to keep topping it off so they work through at a steady drip. I would also check to make sure that you are targeting to the right departments/types of companies/industries. Finally, have you done a third party survey of current and past customers? It is surprising how these surveys can deliver info you may be missing that can help improve how you market your services.

    • Karen, I know you have lots of years of experience doing this, and I appreciate your wisdom. I actually don’t have an issue (I think?) with doing a lot of consistent business development activities – though, I confess, it does get tiring at times. I just want to DO more DOing with longer engagements. Does that make sense?

  8. Steve,

    Feel your pain my friend. Think it really comes down to focus (but then you know that) if you want to move your business from project (short term income) based work to long-term, ongoing engagements you have to focus your attention on the kinds of clients that buy the latter.

    While you’re great at helping smaller folks figure it out and pointing them in the right direction you have to ask yourself if by default you aren’t actually your biggest problem. The very offering you sell is by definition a project — because it has a final deliverable (direction). The only difference is how long will it take you to help them find it, point them, ensure they stay the path and then declare the project a success.

    So it would seem to me, you either need to alter the product you sell — moving to open ended, ongoing engagements which IMO tend to be execution based engagements or build up a very strong project based pipeline of the kind of work you have now — so much so that you’re plotting engagements 6-8 weeks before they’ll actually start.

    That way, as you’re halfway through one project, you already know that you have one or two teed up to start as soon as the current one completes. Of course, this approach requires a lot of discipline to ensure your clients allow you to keep on schedule….

    If I was looking at your jar (and based on knowing you) you’ll end up delivering both kinds of work…. so the trick will lie in scheduling…. maybe some baseline execution level work to “keep the lights on” overlayed with higher margin project based strategic consulting work.

    That’s what I’d do if I were you.

    Happy to chat more over bourbon buddy.


    • Tom – you’re spot on. I have deliberately designed my key offerings (thus far) as more transactional-based, in order to make it easier for people to do business with me. I’ve put a lot of time into making my offerings tangible so that more people can “get” it – but with the exact downside you mention. I know that my clarity-discovery abilities, my biz experience, and my strategic marketing instincts can provide value long-term – but I’m struggling to package it. And, as you are implying – what would an “execution” model look like? This might require a few sips of Buffalo Trace to sort out…let’s talk soon.

    • Damn you Tom for saying what I was going to say — pretty much word for word. I think you owe me a drink.

      Steve — you get project clients because your clarity sessions are built/sold like a project. What if you packaged it in a:

      1) Discover your focus/brand
      2) Introduce focus/brand to internal audiences over the course of X months
      3) Infuse focus/brand into all messaging/marketing over course of X months
      4) Build metrics/feedback tools to measure success at seeding the brand
      5) Etc.

      I think if you start to sell branding as an on-going process (which I believe it to be) then you’ll get clients who want to engage in that longer term relationship.

      The truth is — discovering your brand is step one. And you’ve been brilliant at letting people know you’re good at that. You just need to help them see the more complex process of actually weaving into their culture so it is actually the truth to all who interact with them.

      You’ve got this!


  9. Steve,

    I have felt exactly the same many times over my near 11 years in business. I share this with you to pay forward what someone shared with me. Someone advised me to build a capacity model to see if what I was building was even possible let alone sustainable.

    I didn’t know that a capacity model was a fancy way of listing out all the buckets of how you need to spend your time. For example, business development, consulting with clients, admin work, education, vacation, etc. Then figure out what percentage of your time (2000 hours per year) should be spent for each bucket. Take your possible billable hours times your hourly rate and see if your desired living is even possible with your business model.

    I did this exercise a few years ago and learned that it was impossible to make my desired level of income (let alone the stability I needed) with my then current business model based on how many hours were really required to run my business. I set about changing my business model and how I make money. While I haven’t yet achieved my ultimate financial goals, I’m well on my way. At least I’ve stabilized my income and I have confidence that my big goal is possible!

    I hope this helps you and the rest of us who are struggling in just the same way. Thanks for sharing!

    • That’s great input, Jennifer. And it opens up a whole other interesting discussion, about billable hours (i.e., whether we make calculations about billable hours only for our own private purposes, vs. working with clients on a billable-hour basis). I need more billable hours – but I tend to shy away from quoting hourly rates when proposing client work (I use packages/defined projects). Which means I’m probably a bit sloppy about my model behind the scenes.

  10. Hi Steve,

    I have figured out how to do this for my own business, because to be honest, prior to figuring out a sustainable business model, I was a complete mess of anxiety and worry about money. In fact, I am now teaching others how to do the same. It’s not easy. There is no magic pill. BUT it can be done. I would be happy to chat with you sometime about it. I will send you a friend request on FB and we can setup some time to chat. Happy to help, because really my mission is to keep people from throwing in the towel and going back to being employees (I believe that model is broken). I am also friends with Catherine Morgan – so she can put you in touch with me as well.

  11. Steve, I get it. For me, being self-employed is a spiritual journey of riding the up and down waves and having faith in my abilities to handle it and get creative. I also base my rates on having only 10 months of income so that during slow months, I can just say “Oh, I planned for this gap so no need to panic.” It’s not a perfect system but it helps me. I also try to keep my spending on the low side so I don’t get hooked into a particular lifestyle that isn’t sustainable. When I spend on my business, I make sure it’s related to getting support that I know will pay off, even if it’s a gulp at first.
    And of course I still have my panic moments and have to turn up the dial on self-care (breathing, meditation, letting in support, calling friends), and turn up the dial on outreach. I have to call myself back to the things I tell my clients to do, such as Do the thing you love as your marketing. Such as offering some free coaching, or speaking on a topic I’m passionate about, or writing more.
    Ultimately, I spend a lot of time journaling to get super clear on what I really want, down to how much money, how many clients of what kind, and what they’re like in detail. When I do that level of clarity, it kinda shows up!
    And forget the idea of “SOLO.” No one succeeds at being purely solo. It’s about letting in support and strategic partners. And you know I’m available for a Clarity Session too. 😉 I love helping people get back into the flow.

  12. Steve, my guess is that you’re caught in The Artisan Trap:


    Take look. Use it if it’s helpful. Discard it if not 🙂

    – Les

    • Ah, yes, THAT trap. It partly describes the issue – but in my case, I simply don’t have enough consistent “Operator” work, so I’m over-weighted on biz dev mode. I have unused capacity for executable work – I’d love to fix that enough to FULLY struggle with the Artisan Trap! :>}

    • Haha Les, did you see I referenced you in my response above? And I think I may be caught in that trap as well. Hmmm.

  13. I’ve been a solo independent consultant since 1989 and have gone through periods of nearly puking with anxiety because I could not predict — accurately or even inaccurately — my clients and income stream. To make matters more interesting (read: worse), I consciously cut down and back on my healthcare and pharma gigs to work with nonprofit and mission-based (primarily church) organizations.

    I know, crazy! Those organizations are even more retro and resistant to change than healthcare, plus they basically have no money. Still, that’s what I did. To reduce my panic, I’ve: significantly downsized my lifestyle (from when I held a senior mgmt position in an ad agency); made sure that I’ve sustained a financial cushion to cover a year of expenses; and stayed in conversation with anyone who could possibly refer business.

    I’ve also had to get real about what’s possible, given what I say I want to do. In fact, I’ve had to ask myself whether I do want to work as much as I’ve claimed I wanted to. I’ve also learned that I simply must check in via prayer and meditation with the Almighty. Over the years I’ve prayed, “If you’re calling me to do [whatever], then howz about providing the resources to make that possible.”

    FWIW, I’ve done the coaching thing and many of the practical exercises recommended by top management consultants, plus used my own good marketing and sales sense. In the end, I’ve had to walk by faith and not by fright but again, I’m not supporting a family, so please ignore any/all of this if I’m not making sense/being helpful. Meredith

    • Meredith – I love your thoughts. I can articulate a parallel struggle – my most profitable work has been in the pharma realm as well. Yet my heart is actually with individuals and small businesses – where there is less revenue, and smaller potential for retained consulting. Shorter-term Clarity Therapy engagements are my mission and one part of my business – but I need longer-term revenue to fuel and build up my practice of helping people find their purpose and “fit”. I increasingly believe that the “mission” can take off and be self-sustaining – but needing “the resources to make that possible.”

      So, I figure it’s walking by faith, AND leaning on the expertise of very smart people like you to help get this rocket flying higher!

  14. I suppose I’m an anomaly here. My clients pay me monthly and some have been with me for over 5 years. I haven’t experienced the up and down income from consulting. That’s one of the reasons I love it.

    I used to own a business where you could make 5 figures one month, and zero for the next 4 months. That wore me out, stressed me out, and made me a have a bad attitude.

    Your business means it’s your rules. Don’t set it up the way other consultants do. If you can consistently deliver more value than they are paying (and Steve I KNOW you can) then you’ve done the hard part. The model becomes what you want it to be.

    Another part of this is lead generation. If you know how to get new business (most consultants wait for it to fall in their lap) then you win. Income won’t dip when you have a funnel of leads coming to you.

    Also, clarity is a wonderful thing 🙂 if you don’t know how to articulate your value and worth then don’t expect the clients to figure it out.

    My business has some income streams that bounce up and down, such as speaking and book royalties. But the consulting side stays consistent. If I lose a client, I crank up the lead gen and fill the gap.

    Steve, I’m happy to answer any questions you have or help in some way.

    All the best my friend.

    • Yeah, I definitely need to brainstorm with you over coffee. I need to evolve my offerings toward the direction you’ve moved to. Actually, I have another idea that I’ve been noodling that I’d like to run past you…will reach out.

  15. Like most of the others have said here, solopreneurship and consistency do not go hand in hand. Here is an andecdote that has helped me.

    One time during a playoff game, the ANgels got a really bad call, and obvious muff from an umpire, At the pst game news conference, I thought Mike Sciosia the coach would be furiious and was prepared for a rant. But he wasn’t. He simply said, “that is the game and we have to be good enough to overcome problems along the way if we are to be a champion.”

    I thought that was a classy reponse and how i have learned to approach things too. I get bad breaks but to succeed as an entrepreneur, I have to figure out a way to play though it. Besides, what is the trade off for steady income? Being strapped to a company desk? Not any more!

    • Love that anecdote, Mark. Ultimately, I’m much happier figuring it out as I go along (even with the stresses and uncertainties), rather then being enslaved to all the corporate uncertainties. Of which there are many!!

  16. Hi Steve,

    Thanks for being open and willing to share your thoughts on this. It’s definitely a courageous thing to admit that you need help. The truth is – we all do! We can’t see the forest through the trees, as much as we’d like to.

    I think most have already said things I would add, but I agree with John Morgan here – 90% of the work I do is based on a monthly retainer. After the first year in business, I realized that the project-focused work wasn’t going to work. Not just from a revenue standpoint, but from an “adding value” standpoint. I think you can absolutely do what you’re suggesting, you just have to set up the model for that. I also can’t help but wonder if there are some partnerships that might make sense for you.

    Who knows, there might be even be ways we could work together. If you build a great network of partners, you could fill that funnel with people who know to bring you in for your sweet spot. Just something to consider.

    I could add a lot more, but let’s meet up. I would be happy to have coffee and swap ideas. I’m confident we could find ways to help each other out!

    • I’m totally into partnering and networking – we small biz and solo consultant types need to create bigger-than-the-sum-of-the-parts offerings. We’ll talk again soon, Laura…!

  17. Steve, I can’t believe the similarities this post has with a conversationI was having with my wife just last night.

    As a “solopreneur,” I love the autonomy, the networking, and Ive even become quite adept at new business development. But productivity suffers every time I have a surge in either direction (Sales v. execution) – e.g. – sales opportunities are up so productivity and billable are down – and vice versa. And in the conversation with my wife, the stress that it causes (evident on my face, my hair, my disposition and general attitude toward EVERYONE), is the crux of the issue. How can I (we) balance out the roller coaster ride of self employment? It not only affects our business with tremendous peaks and valleys, but (at least on my end) my family, friends and colleagues suffer from almost hourly mood swings and chaotic thrashing about.

    I paint a pretty frightening picture, but that’s where we are. So what do we do?

    Community: Empathy and support go a long way. I find (when I get the time) networking with peers to discuss this exact issue helps tremendously. When I’m feeling the throws of business getting out of control, I try to set the reigns down and sound off to a friend. I call. I email. I have coffee. I get out of my head, if just for an hour or so.

    “Forced” Growth: Like you, IF I could just outsource myself to … well, myself for a day, I could get the boat to stop rocking. But who, besides me is like me? I (we)’ve built a business on a personal brand and not a replicable model that is transferrable to another – without time.

    I’ve tried to outsource the day-to-day (billing, account management, even production), eventually to bring it all back in house (my head) because I’m unable to properly train someone how to be ME. But eventually, I’m going to have to establish systems to grow the business – or get out (my wife’s option).

    Onboarding (nifty buzzword) is where “Growing” becomes a challenge for me, and I assume MANY solopreneurs. We’re good… no GREAT at what we do. We’ve built efficiencies that move a client from a-to-b in a blink. But watching someone else is like swimming in molasses. And documenting what we do takes time… (there’s that word again… time).

    SO… what to do? Stop working hard and start working smart. Build systems that can be delegated. Work on creating systems for:

    • business development (new person or yourself?)
    • account management (new person and/or yourself?)
    • business administration (new person – COO)
    • production (new person – Manager)

    Thus, leaving YOU, the BRAND, available for consulting, growth, and management – CEO.

    There, I just outlined 2015 for both of us. Hope that helps. 😉

    Andrew B. Clark
    The Brand Chef

    • Eureka! We’ve reached the end of the rainbow at last, Andrew!! ;>] It’s an ongoing struggle, my friend. And for me, I’ve determined that I don’t want to manage people (though I will outsource functions as needed) – because people-management would sap my soul. I believe that network collaborations are going to be key to sanity, and I’m just trying to figure that out as we go along. One step will be a local Mastermind group in the Nashville area starting in 2015. I think there’s a lot of other potential – I’ve long wanted to have a conference/retreat/networking meeting for solos/consultants to help ignite collaborations and ideation.

  18. Hey Steve,

    This is the first time I’ve come to your blog. As a fellow practitioner (28 years and counting) I’ve learned two things… 1) Seasons of plenty and dearth come and go in our businesses as sure as the sun rises and sets. I’ve tried not to freak out when I have found myself in the doldrums because new opportunities abound when we are open to them and 2) When ever I find myself perplexed, I just pick up the good ‘ol telephone and start calling people I know. It gets my juices flowing!

    • Jim, thanks so much for stopping by. I’ve actually been on the phone over the past week with a number of great people in my network, and their brainstorming input has been most helpful as I ponder new ways to “package” what I do. Having an awesome inner circle of smart people is one of the most valuable parts of my business (well, and life…)

  19. Here are a few follow-up thoughts, as I look ahead at 2015: http://www.stevewoodruff.com/letting-loose-a-reflection-on-2014/

  20. Well, here’s the end result of this collaborative brainstorm (thanks so much to all of you who have been helping me get some clarity!)


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