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  • Writer's pictureSusan Tatum

Starting Your Own Consulting Firm

with Sara Sheehan, Executive Consultant and Coach

With an impressive pedigree and extensive background, Sara Sheehan has taken her consulting expertise out on her own. Sara shares her personal journey as a new business owner. How she has grown visibility, managed her online presence, and connected her network.

Notes from the Show

Like many individuals, the Post COVID era shifted Sara Sheehan's career. Looking for her next opportunity, she decided to create her own path to productivity. Sara is an Executive Consultant and Coach with expertise in human capital. Her experience comes from an extensive and impressive background with large global consulting firms and Fortune 100 companies.

During the creation of Sara's firm, she joined a Business Development Accountability Group, with esteemed mentors. This helped her align tasks and key activities to drive visibility and marketing discussions. She mapped out her calendar and structured how these key tasks would impact her network and conversations. These elements guided important aligning questions for her business:

Am I talking to the ideal client?

Am I focusing my products and solutions on the right market?

Are there other people I can talk to?

Who are my best referral partners?

In January of 2021, Sara zoned in on consistent posting to LinkedIn and she has more recently begun working with a publicist to increase visibility through written word and other opportunities like podcasting, to show her personal side. Sara discusses a hallmark shift from reactive to proactive, for the first 11 months, she worked independently with day-to-day posting. Now she attacks her online presence with a proactive, strategic, and structured approach… mapping out content at least a month in advance.

Sara shares her advice on execution, remaining connected to her network and referral partners, and what she would change or recommend to other consultants going out on their own. You can find out more about Sara Sheehan by connecting with her on LinkedIn or checking out her website!

What's Inside:

  • Transitioning from large corporations to starting your own business.

  • Tips for business development on your own.

  • Shifting business strategy from reactive to proactive.

  • Advice for potential consultants and coaches.

Mentioned in this Episode:

Transcribed by AI Susan Tatum 0:38

Hi folks, welcome back. I'm your host, Susan Tatum. And today I'm talking with Sarah Sheehan. And Sara is a an executive consultant and coach, and I'm really happy to have you here. Sara, welcome.

Sara Sheehan 0:49

Thank you, Susan, I'm so glad to be here. And with you and the listeners,

Susan Tatum 0:56

what we're going to talk about, this is gonna be a little bit different from some of our other episodes. And I'm, I'm really happy about that we're going to focus mostly on your journey as a new business owner, having been a highly regarded expert in your field previously, and then you have moved over to doing your own thing. And we're going to talk about what that's been like. But before we get into that, do tell us a little bit about exactly what it is that that you're doing now.

Sara Sheehan 1:29

Absolutely. So I have my own business where I am working with clients from a consulting and coaching perspective, I bring almost 30 years of experience working with the large multinational consulting firms, the big ones in the world, and fortune 100 clients, and I pivoted during the pandemic, as a matter of need literally, after getting impacted, and at the time, I was not finding my next opportunity. And so I decided to create my own path to productivity, and literally started in earnest doing business development on my own business, on both sides in consulting, and in executive coaching,

Susan Tatum 2:30

the coaching

Sara Sheehan 2:31

my area of expertise is that I help clients from a human capital perspective, and I help them through big business transformations. And having that expertise really does set me up to work with a client on both sides of my offerings.

Susan Tatum 2:54

So your clients call you in or they come to you when they're, you said, big business transformation. So that would be like maybe a merger and acquisition, a change in leadership, major change in leadership? Maybe a new product introduction, was that does that get up into that area as well?

Sara Sheehan 3:11

Um, not not as much. But your first two examples are excellent examples. I would say other options for creating a business need for an expert like me would be doing a digital transformation of some kind, doing outsourcing of a major function, redesigning the organization in some way, all of those situations need an expert like me.

Susan Tatum 3:43

So do you get involved in change management?

Sara Sheehan 3:47

Yes, yes, I'm deeply have a lot of deep expertise that change management

Susan Tatum 3:53

and keeping the people the people plates in the air?

Sara Sheehan 3:55

Absolutely, yes.

Susan Tatum 3:56

I was having a conversation several months ago with someone who was was also in change change management. She was saying that, anytime you change something, whether let's just say it's a piece of software that you're using, or application that you're using, there's a 30% reduction in productivity as you go through that change. And and her job was to keep that as small as possible. And I hadn't really thought about, I mean, that's a pretty big upheaval

Sara Sheehan 4:27

I would argue it would, it could be more depending on what you're changing, and the amount of things that the person would have to do differently in the future. Which is why you know, documenting business impacts is so important, and determining, you know, what mitigating actions need to be in place, so that people need so that people know what they need to start, stop and continue doing in the future.

Susan Tatum 4:55

Yeah, yeah. So you came from, you have a very impressive pedigree, and your background of the companies that you've worked for these gigantic global consulting firms as a consultant. And I think that I assume that you did human capital, consulting in that in that capacity. I think that in starting your own business gives you the It's not instant total credibility, but it certainly helps that you've got that level of experience. And in that particular area, but you went from managing big teams involved in projects with big teams, companies with huge resources, you could probably put your fingertips on any kind of research you needed. And you had people running around helping you to all of a sudden being Sara all by herself.

Sara Sheehan 5:55

That's exactly right.

Susan Tatum 5:59

And all of this was driven by COVID. In the in the up here

Sara Sheehan 5:55


Susan Tatum 6:03

So what did that feel? I mean, here you are, and you're doing quite well. And you obviously survived it, how did it? How did it feel?

Sara Sheehan 6:14

Well, um, there was definitely a seemingly overwhelming amount of uncertainty and ambiguity at the time. But I had the wherewithal and the drive, and the experience at this point in my career to just put one foot in front of the other and keep going. And I knew that, you know, I have enough experience, from all the firms that I've worked with, you know, I know what I'm doing.

Susan Tatum 6:43

So confidence in being able to deliver these services was not a problem.

Sara Sheehan 6:44


Susan Tatum 6:45

So you mentioned that the business development, I guess, was one of the first things that you addressed. How did you do that, Sara?

Sara Sheehan 6:56

Well, um, I did a number of things I got involved in what I would call a business development accountability group, with a very trusted mentor that works with business and executive coaches. And that program had a lot of structure that helped me think in a new way about business development. From my days of being in a very traditional, firm environment. I hadn't even thought about the number, thinking about posting on social media, or getting myself visible in other ways in the marketplace, as an individual. And this program really helped me to think about how I want to craft my expertise and thought leadership as a professional on my own. In addition to that, there was a lot of key activities that I would map out in my calendar every week, from making market research conversations. The first thing that I would do and catching up with a friend and running my program and ideas by them to get feedback, doing things like this helps you to get more aligned with Am I talking to the right ideal client? am I focusing my products and solutions on the right market? Are there other people that you'd recommend that I talked to getting referrals from those market research conversations? Having all this high level of activity? Definitely increased my visibility in the marketplace?

Susan Tatum 8:59

Well, I think it's interesting that you're you're talking about and I applaud you. You you got out there well, figuratively out there, you got in front of the computer and started talking to people and learning from them. And you worked your network?

Sara Sheehan 9:15

Absolutely. And I developed several offerings that I tested with people that are also experts in the industry, and you know, others that are in key industry roles.

Susan Tatum 9:31

So they could be like potential buyers that you'd say what you know, would this help you solve a problem? What would you think of that? I think that consultant should be doing a lot of that now. Because regardless of how long we've been in business, because there's so many changes, just economically, changes leftover from COVID are continuing from COVID and how we do business and how we communicate with each other is one of my areas of interest, but I think I think it's a brilliant thing to be doing now I certainly do it myself and advocate other people doing it.

Sara Sheehan 10:07

Absolutely. It's a highly, it's a great use of your time and the more people that you're talking to, the more likely you're going to be to find your next great comment.

Susan Tatum 10:20

So did you. Yeah. So for either either you happen to be talking to your next great client, or they are, you're talking to somebody that can refer you to them. And at the same time, you're learning what makes an ideal client for you or where you think you want to focus it first?

Sara Sheehan 10:35

Well, I had a very strong idea of what my ideal client looked like. And over time, I've definitely confirmed that I believe my sweet spot is businesses that are $100 million or more in revenue, up to $5 billion. That is considered the mid market. And I am not trying to compete with my old firms. If a large fortune 100 company wants to work with me, by all means my doors open for the conversation. But I've had a couple of clients that are in that range. And it has definitely proven that anyone that's over $100 million really has a need for a human capital expert.

Susan Tatum 11:30

So that's the 100 million. Is that the high end? So is that the high end or the low end of your range?

Sara Sheehan 11:35

That's the low end.

Susan Tatum 11:37

Okay. Okay. So, in your, you've got trigger events that you've identified, it sounds like, for when they might be okay. Yeah, I know

Sara Sheehan 11:46

who my best referral partners are, you know, like, a, someone that works on mergers and acquisitions. You know, a business attorney, a private equity guy or gal, an investment banker, you know, those kinds of people are great referral partners for me.

Susan Tatum 12:04

And then what kind of what kind of schedule? Do you keep Sarah with? How often you contact people?

Sara Sheehan 12:12

Oh, gosh, I mean, I, I'm not, I'm not contacting too frequently. But I stay in touch with people that are in my network in a warm way. You know, people, it doesn't surprise, good contacts of mine, when I reach out to them. Maybe I reach out to them every six weeks or so. But, you know, I have a solid group of contacts that I've worked with, because I've done large projects for so long. You already have a good group of people that I can chat with. And I'm developing the marketing structure where I'm going to have an email list and all that good stuff that I can nurture.

Susan Tatum 12:56

So is that what you're focusing on now? Like the the marketing side of it, and build I

Sara Sheehan 13:02

was, I am building all that out right now. For sure. I'm well, well into the process of developing all that.

Susan Tatum 13:10

But you started, you've been working on your online presence for a while, I think you you said the posting that you're doing on social media,

Sara Sheehan 13:19

I mean, cuz I really started in earnest in January of last year.

Susan Tatum 13:23

Okay, so you've been doing it about a year and a half the posting.

Sara Sheehan 13:28

Yeah. And I can, in addition to that, you know, all of the conversations that I've had, and, for example, I've also started working with a publicist to expand the things that I'm doing, where I'm actually showing more of my personality through the written word or podcasts just like this. So I'm showing more of who I am. In addition to that, so I'm really expanding what I'm doing.

Susan Tatum 13:57

And it makes us we're all different, because we are who we are, and that, that that expands that. The differentiation and also the know like and trust factor, because that's so important in consulting where high ticket, high risk, high trust services that we're selling that, you know, they can't test drive it and send it back if they don't like it. So the other I think the more that you can talk to them and the more visibility that you have, the more they come to feel like they know you, even before they know you.

Sara Sheehan 15:28

Absolutely, yes.

Susan Tatum 13:29

So what else are you? What else are you focusing on? So you're the business development in the marketing side of it?

Sara Sheehan 15:36

Well, executing, of course for, you know, current work, you know, and making sure that I'm delivering on all cylinders there as well.

Susan Tatum 14:45

Do you use a similar framework of what you were using with your former employers.

Sara Sheehan 14:52

Not, not from a traditional business development perspective, I'm definitely doing it the way that I've been doing it since January of last year where I am reaching out to people that know me, and fostering new relationships with people that could be good strategic referral partners. You know, I'm having those kinds of conversations,

Susan Tatum 15:18

right. What about in there, your service delivery? That's what that that was where I was going with that one with, you're using the same the framework that, you know from having having done all this work with these other companies?

Sara Sheehan 15:34

Sure. Well, I'm at the point where I'm so I'm automatic pilot, in my carry in my zone of genius, you know, I'm super. Press a button, I'm ready to go. Like, I have a very deep set of knowledge there. But like, for instance, if I were in a business development conversation, do I have a structure put together that I could use in that meeting? Absolutely. You know, could I help a client with a pre developed diagnostic that I have ready? Yes, you know, I have a lot of things in my back pocket that would facilitate a meaningful conversation with the client.

Susan Tatum 16:11

Did you? Did you have to make a lot of changes or adapt a lot of things? For working by yourself, as opposed to working with a large team? Were you doing business development at these other big companies too

Sara Sheehan 16:27

gosh all the time yes, I mean, 10s of proposal work, you know, pounds of it

Susan Tatum 16:31


Sara Sheehan 16:32

I've done it for years.

Susan Tatum 16:34

So you do it with your eyes closed?

Sara Sheehan 16:36

I mean, this is I mean, I can tell someone what I think the staffing model should be. You know, it's very second nature.

Susan Tatum 16:43

Yeah. Yeah. So in your business, what other aspects of it we've got the the, the service delivery, and the marketing and sales? And business development, we'll call it. What about? Well, you know, so what bores the heck out of me is things like accounting, all administrative stuff.

Sara Sheehan 17:07

I think it's true for a lot of people. So I definitely understand it, um, you know, it's a necessary evil. I use QuickBooks to make it simple.

Susan Tatum 17:17

yeah. You see it hit you. Do you? You've held on to that yourself as opposed to outsourcing it?

Sara Sheehan 17:23

I haven't outsourced it. You know, could I you know, yes. But right now, I still do it.

Susan Tatum 17:30

So what, when, when you're looking back on it, and so you, you've been actively running this business for a year and a half now? What would you have done differently?

Sara Sheehan 17:39

Well, the things that I would say about what about my trajectory? I would, I would have liked to have had a virtual assistant early in 2021, if not midway through 2021 that was working on setting up appointments for me. With people I don't know. That would be excellent economic buyers. You know, that's something that would have been a great thing for me to do about a year ago.

Susan Tatum 18:09

Do you have someone doing that now?

Sara Sheehan 18:11

I do not. But that's definitely something that's in my it's in my plan for sure.

Susan Tatum 18:20

It's on your list.

Sara Sheehan 18:21

Yeah. And I see how you know the visibility part has created some momentum. You know, now that I'm, you know, more than 18 months in, I can look back and go, Wow, if I'd had a VA, setting up meetings for me with people, that would be great economic buyers, a year ago, I would have had a lot of additional conversations with people that I don't know. And I go, wow, that was great.

Susan Tatum 18:51

I think there's a lot of there's, there's a lot of work that goes into that, that you may have been able to bypass because you knew your market so well, and you knew who you wanted to talk to. A lot of people are, are figuring it out. And you it's hard to just hand something off to a VA, and you've got to be very specific about who you want to talk to, or you end up having conversations with people that you're like, why are we doing this? So don't feel too bad about waiting?

Sara Sheehan 19:18

I mean, that's something that I wish I could have done.

Susan Tatum 19:21

Yeah. Did you do your web? You have a website?

Sara Sheehan 19:25


Susan Tatum 19:26

When did how did you get that right away?

Sara Sheehan 19:29

No, it took some time. I want to say that I had it up and we had to look at when I actually had it up and running to be totally honest.

Susan Tatum 19:43

That's okay. I was just the reason I was asking was that I was having. I was talking to a marketing consultant recently, who firmly believes that new business, new businesses should not invest in marketing much until they have been in business for a year or two. Because things change.

Sara Sheehan 19:59

Well, and I am depending on what that person's doing, what their actual business is their service product, you know, yes. And I did not stand up a website immediately. I did not

Susan Tatum 20:15

it will look like a snake a big snake for a minute. He's just very happy girl.

Sara Sheehan 20:21

She's very happy. But um, I did not stand it up immediately, because I wanted to test out what I was wanting to do. And, you know, I did not get a single person that told me, I think that's a horrible idea. And so I just kept going. And then, because of the visibility that I was doing on social media, I did get consulting work it just started coming.

Susan Tatum 20:48

It's a great way to a great place to test to test what your positioning might be and how you might talk about things. I think that you know, I think when we were talking earlier, I mentioned that, for you to be able to get people that are coming to you so quickly is, you know, is, you know, pat on the back, you've got you found a niche that was underserved. Or you're good, really, really good at what you're doing, or you've got a wonderful network that is supporting you. Because it often takes quite a bit longer than that. So that's great, that you're that you're able to do that. And now you and now you've got what I didn't ask you this, what social media are you using? Besides LinkedIn?

Sara Sheehan 21:30

Only LinkedIn.

Susan Tatum 21:31

Yeah. I think that's smart, too, is I see people that split their resources and split their attention trying to be everywhere, mostly in places that they don't need to be. In my opinion, anyway. So you mentioned in earlier in the conversation, or the first conversation that we had about moving from being reactive to proactive?

Sara Sheehan 21:53


Susan Tatum 21:54

Tell me about that a little.

Sara Sheehan 21:55

and so in my business, I did everything initially. You know, I did all of my own posting. All of it, like I did everything for a very long time. So the first year, like, let's say, it was probably about 11 months, I did everything. I did have my logo and branding developed by the team that does my social media visuals, and they developed my website design as well. But for 11 months I did it, I did it all and it wasn't scheduled or anything so I was fine. A little bit by the seat of my pants a little bit. Not totally because I have a planful approach to living. But I wanted to make the transition from being reactive, and planning my posts for a week, I wanted to get to where I was doing a month in advance

Susan Tatum 22:54


Sara Sheehan 22:55

Okay, where I was writing everything, I had a structured plan, everything hangs together months to month. And so after November of last year, that's when I, you know, made that wonderful switch where I'm able to be more strategic. And so I started, you know, working with my provider in writing things a month in advance. And then they worked with me on the visuals. And so I was able to get much more strategic about what I was talking about. And I was able to plan over time, so I'm not tripping over myself.

Susan Tatum 23:36

I think that's really important that you that you have time to be more intentional and strategic and thoughtful in what you're doing. Because you're a good planner, and you obviously follow your plans.

Sara Sheehan 23:47

Right, like I execute too

Susan Tatum 23:50

Yeah. Oh, that's cool. Well, is there anything I should have asked you about that I didn't, that you can think of?

Sara Sheehan 23:57

Is there anything that would be helpful to you and your business? For me to focus on?

Susan Tatum 24:02

Well, just what you oh here, here's a question that I meant to ask, what advice would you give to someone that is starting a solo consulting business today?

Sara Sheehan 24:14

I would test out your area of service or expertise to make sure that there are people that need what you have to offer. And I would get really clear on what your ideal client is.

Susan Tatum 24:31

That makes total sense. Well, Sara, thank you so much for sharing all of that with us that that is I think very helpful to folks and I appreciate it.

Sara Sheehan 24:41

Fantastic. Thank you so much, Susan,

Susan Tatum 24:45

if if anyone wants to follow up with you, what's the best way to do that?

Sara Sheehan 24:49

They can find me on linkedin at slash in i n slash Sarah SRA dash she n sh e h a n or they can check out my website at Sarah W she

Susan Tatum 25:11

All right. Well, thank you again and have a wonderful rest of your day.

Sara Sheehan 25:17

Thank you so much. Bye bye


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