Does It Pay to Hire a Business Consultant?
Hiring a consultant shouldn't take the place of your own understanding of your business plan.
If you've managed to partially write a business plan but lack some crucial elements, do you need a consultant to help finish it up? It's a very tricky call, deciding which parts (if any) of your plan should be delegated to a consultant. When push comes to shove, you will be the one running the business. When it's time to write the paychecks, your signature will be on those checks. When buying supplies, you are committing to payment. Even if you're not the person who creates your financials from scratch, it's essential that you understand them and understand the assumptions behind the numbers.
You'll also need to understand the rest of your plan: Who your market is, how to reach them and what you expect them to buy are all part of your marketing plan. A consultant may help design the plan, but you'll have to make it come to pass. If you get six months into things and the business isn't materializing, the consultant will be long gone, and your best chance at adapting will be knowing what assumptions underlie your plan and revising them based on reality.
If you've never managed a contractor before, it can be a lot of work. Check in often with your consultant, and make sure you're both working off the same set of expectations. Have a written agreement that details the deliverables, timetable and payment schedule. You'll almost certainly decide on changes when you see intermediate results and drafts. Save yourself hassles later by agreeing upfront on how you'll handle the need for redoing parts of the plan.
I recommend doing as much as you can on your own. There are many great books out there that can help you look at your business's attraction to investors. One of my favorites is New Venture Creation by Jeffry A. Timmons. The book is pretty dense, though, so be prepared for a hefty read.
There are also software products that will lead you through many parts of the analysis that you aren't familiar with. Business Plan Pro by Palo Alto Software Inc. comes with several sample business plans, a manual to help you understand what goes into a plan and software to walk you through the writing of each section. While it can't do your research for you, it can help you figure out what questions to ask and where to find the answers.
If you really want to hire a consultant, keep in mind that it often pays to spend extra to get the very best. When you're paying for someone's knowledge, you want assurance that what the person has to offer is high-quality. There are several websites where you can find independent consultants, including Bplans.com, eLance and Vfinance.com. You may want to consider hiring two low-cost consultants to do the same part of the plan and then comparing/contrasting what they each give you, in the hopes that you'll get a far better value than you would hiring only a single person.
For market research, you can try MarketResearch.com.
For help in hiring a consultant, the Institute of Management Consultants offers several resources, including a list of their members, a downloadable guide to hiring a consultant, and the code of ethics enforced by the IAMC. Visit their site for businesses here.
Even if you find a consultant who can help you come up with the answers, do yourself a favor and make sure you understand what those answers are and how he or she reached them. You deserve as much control as possible over the business--plan goals you'll be expected to meet.
As an entrepreneur, technologist, advisor and coach, Stever Robbins seeks out and identifies high-potential start-ups to help them develop the skills, attitudes and capabilities they need to succeed. He has been involved with start-up companies since 1978 and is currently an investor or advisor to several technology and Internet companies including ZEFER Corp., University Access Inc., RenalTech, Crimson Soutions and PrimeSource. He has been using the Internet since 1977, was a co-founder of FTP Software in 1986, and worked on the design team of Harvard Business School's "Foundations" program. Stever holds an MBA from Harvard Business School and a computer science degree from MIT. His website is a http://www.venturecoach.com.
The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author, not of Entrepreneur.com. All answers are intended to be general in nature, without regard to specific geographical areas or circumstances, and should only be relied upon after consulting an appropriate expert, such as an attorney or accountant.
Stever Robbins is a venture coach, helping entrepreneurs and early-stage companies develop the attitudes, skills and capabilities needed to succeed. He brings to bear skills as an entrepreneur, teacher and technologist in helping others create successful ventures.