1 year ago, I excitedly stared at the paper before me: a certificate from Companies House confirming that I was now founder of Cybility Consulting Ltd - my very own cybersecurity consultancy company!
Reflecting upon the past year, I thought I'd share some lessons I've learned on my journey, things I'm glad I did and others I wish I had done sooner.
First, why did I decide to start my company?
I had been leading information governance and security programmes in the not-for-profit sector for over a decade. In 2020, I left my job at a nationwide charity for both mental and physical health reasons. I took the time to recover from burnout, thinking that, when I was ready to work again, I'd apply for a full-time CISO role somewhere. However, thanks to fair challenge from my coach, Tim Sims, I took the opportunity to redesign my life and working for myself felt like the natural choice. I realised I could help more organisations improve their information governance and increase their cyber resilience in this way than I could whilst working in-house.
So, here are some of the lessons I’ve learned this past year...
Preparing to run your own consultancy
🎯 Vision and Mission - The process of burnout recovery included finding a new sense of purpose for myself. Take the time to clearly articulate your vision of what the business could look like in the future, the mission driving you to achieve it, and your rationale for both.
- Motivation - Your 'why' has to be sufficient to motivate you when things aren't going how you expected (and nothing in life ever goes exactly how we expect).
- Values - These will inevitably reflect personal values when you run your own business. However, they are not necessarily identical. This is especially true as you start to employ other people. Which leads me to…
- Behaviour - What is acceptable? How do we demonstrate and 'live' the company values?
📄 Business planning - do your research
- Talk to other entrepreneurs and found out what working as a consultant really entails.
- Run ideas past different people, e.g. friends, family, former colleagues, people working in your target sector.
- Get lots of different views and evaluate for yourself.
- There are also a lot of public resources and courses for budding entrepreneurs.
- Check out at local business hubs including the chamber of commerce.
- Use your local library as they have access to all sorts of current information about trends in different sectors.
🤳 Know yourself - If you weren't already, it's time to get real with yourself.
- Inventory - Do you have the skills, traits, abilities and knowledge to achieve your goal? If not, can you live with the level of risk that remains due to the gaps? Do you need to find ways to fill them or do you accept that it may not be for you?
- Professional expertise and knowledge - Whilst this will be primary reason that prospective clients need your services; it's unlikely to be the thing that differentiates you.
- 'Soft skills' (which in my view are harder than hard skills) - are crucial to working as a successful consultant.
- Credibility - the ability to quickly take the pulse of an organisation and adjusting your approach sufficiently to fit within it is key to this.
- Be open - you will learn new things about yourself. For example, I never would have imagined that I'd start 'Cybility Savvy', my own podcast and YouTube channel!
🛌 Look after yourself - as your own boss there is no one else that is going to be looking out for you.
- Making connections - It is really important to connect with people you trust that you can speak to in a professional capacity that know the challenges you face and can share how they have dealt with them. It can also afford you opportunities that you wouldn't have otherwise.
- Keep learning - protect time for your own professional development. Your clients pay for your expertise; they expect it to be current and reflective of good practice.
- Have fun - Engage in your hobbies and with your friends; you are more than your job.
- Protect your time - For whatever and whosoever is important to you; actions trump words.
- Sleep - Get enough; it's that simple (yet so hard for some of us).
🤹 Jack-of-all-trades - Inevitably in the early days of running a business, you can't afford to take on staff or outsource tasks to others finding yourself as both manager and staff of each department. Be prepared to wear different hats, and be willing to learn things beyond your area of specialty.
That said, it is important to know what you can and cannot do, and what you should not do even if you think you can. Sometimes spending the money to engage a specialist is the right option.
💰 Finance - It all adds up…
- Accounting software - Don't do like I did and start using a software package before getting a good accountant. Most will have a relationship enabling you to get a discount; then there are always the free options via decent business bank accounts.
- Grants - Initial research suggested the availability of grants for me as a black woman in cybersecurity. What I found was that often I didn’t meet all the eligibility criteria.
- Lines of credit - I found that as a new business starting up in the throes of the pandemic, banks weren't really lending. Trying to get an overdraft to help manage cashflow; funnily enough customers like to leave it until the last possible day to help with their own cash flow! 😂
- Beyond a team of one - Making the decision to employ staff is never an easy one when you're on a budget. However, as I said above, it's important to recognise what you can and cannot do (both in terms of knowledge and skill as well as having enough hours in the day) and what is needed to progress towards that vision.
- Tone from the top - as the owner this comes from you. No longer can you say something about the importance of senior management buy-in; the buck stops with you.
- Learning - I find it important to reflect on my own behaviour as a manager.
- Email and Website domains - Whist I had no intention of creating a website yet, one of the first things I did on choosing the name was to purchase the domains for email and future use.
- Business v Personal - Whilst overkill for someone people, it's always been important for me to have clear separation between my personal and work. This applied from applications, devices, systems, and phone numbers.
- 💡 If like me you can't have 2 SIMs in your phone, there are services that allow you to pay as you go or pay monthly for additional numbers. Cybility has a landline and I have a work mobile.
- Cloud-native - I had no desire to setup and maintain servers at home (space is at a premium). You can get a decent deal from Microsoft with their business premium offering; in my case I also added some security addons because, you know, I work in cybersecurity!
- IT support and Cybersecurity - Going from working in a large nationwide organisations with large IT and separate cybersecurity team going back to hands on was a shock. I'd forgotten how long it can take to deal with things which took me away from billable work. This was one place I opted to outsource.
⚖ Legal - Unless you happen to be a qualified solicitor, I strongly recommend that you look for a service to support you.
- Advice - Benefits of professional industry and trade bodies such as the Federation of Small Business (FSB).
- Contracts - I found Rocket Lawyer and FSB to have reasonable options for starting templates.
- Don't underestimate how long it takes to think through the different scenarios and ways things can go wrong that is key to choosing applicable provisions.
- Getting a good solicitor with experience in working with IT / management consultancies. Intellectual property and commercial contracts will pay for itself when things do go wrong.
- Insurance - From employee and public liability to professional indemnity, and so on. Establish what is the level that your clients expect to see in contracts and ensure you have the appropriate cover with a reputable provider.
- It takes time - a focused marketing effort is more effective to win new custom than working the traditional sales pipeline. However, it takes time to create and review content, add graphics, post to different channels, and so on
- Branding - Define the company brand.
- As the front face of a business, get someone experienced to assist if you can afford to do so.
- Also consider whether to trademark the name and logo or not (will depend upon services).
📈 Sales - People buy from people.
- Know (and believe) the value you have to offer. Be clear on what makes you different from others.
- Define your ideal customer's profile and, contrary to what one might think, be narrow and specific.
- What are their pain points? How and why can you help them better than anybody else in your competitive space? Where do they hang out?
- It is better to get a handful of quality customers that appreciate you, than lots that don't.
- That said, it's also important to diversify your customer base.
📥 Service Delivery
- Business Model Canvas - this is a great technique for looking at the business from a high level
- I've found them to be so helpful whether running IG & Cybersecurity in-house or as an external consultant; both for clarity for myself and as a tool to explain to others.
- Business Processes - Ensure that you identify and create streamlined processed for onboarding and offboarding clients; think about customer service reviews, invoicing, and so on.
🛒 Products and Services
- These don't magically appear. Don't underestimate how much time it takes to create a product or service. What is it? Who is it for? Why will they buy? How much will it be? How will you deliver it if you are sick? Consider partnering with other consultants, subcontracting and white label work (working for another consultant yourself).
- Remember that your friends are also likely professionals in their own right; whilst I don't advocate for freebies (as professionals they deserve to be paid) - do invite their input; they may be opportunities to work together that you hadn't realised.
💲 Pricing Strategy
- All the books (and mentors) said, 'don’t charge for time, charge for deliverables'. Rookie error, I learned that the hard way.
- Don’t price yourself too cheap to start; you can always shift prices down. It's harder to increase them - even accounting for inflation.
👨👩👧👦 It takes a village - Take opportunities to shadow professionals you admire, find mentors and learn from their mistakes so you don’t need to make the same ones. In my experience, everyone was so giving of their time, and happy to share what they learned. I’m very thankful to the following people in particular (in alphabetical order by first name):
- Carol Stewart
- Christopher Tait
- Elizabeth Curry
- Graham Walden
- Ian Andrews
- Ian Henderson
- Ian Shorten
- Ivan Delany
- Jackie Freeman
- James Pearson
- Jon Ashford-Clark
- Kane Sterling
- Karl Goatley
- Les Pritchard
- Lisa Ventura
- Mark Rivera
- Peter Dawes
- Phil Puddefoot
- Rob Horne
- Runli Guo
- Stephen Massey
🙏 My final thanks go to:
- Jane Frankland for her crash course in sales and marketing and suggesting that I start my own podcast which was way outside my comfort zone. From fear and trepidation, to learning new skills and the excitement when I get the notification that there is a new episode of 'Cybility Savvy'.
- Peter Sharpe for expertly extricating information from my brain and teaching me (and Ana) how to turn it into a powerful value proposition, and his unwavering support over the past year.
- Tim Sims for accepting the daunting challenge of working with me in my darkest days, helping me to rebuild my confidence, encouraging me to be open to opportunities, asking thoughtful questions, posing challenges, and sharing his wealth of experience with me. In our journey from the depths he has, metaphorically, held a mirror up for me, asked what I see and told me what he sees - gradually reframing how I see myself (the scene from Cool Runnings with Yul Brenner and Junior Bevell at the mirror comes to mind). I feel truly blessed to have him guide me up this stretch of the mountain.
- Each of our guests on Cybility Savvy - Jackie Freeman, Laura Dawson, Amy Tarrant, Hannah Nacheva, Ket Patel, Sarah Harriott, and Barry Moult. Could you be next?
- Ana Garner - for believing in my vision; bouncing things around with me, you know the rest... I love working with you 😊
There are many others that I learn from every single day via fellow professionals on LinkedIn, twitter and other professional networks such as WiCys.