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Episode 196: How to Make Decisions About Your Consulting Business—with Julie Ballard

Deb Zahn: Hi, I want to welcome you to this week's episode of the Craft of Consulting Podcast. So on this episode, we are going to talk about decisions. You know, all of those decisions you need to make about your consulting business that will help you ultimately get the results that you want. And the trick with decision-making about your business, is you don't want to get overwhelmed by it so that you get paralyzed. But you also don't want to just do random things because that means you're not going to get the results you want.

So Julie Ballard has come on. She's a consultant who's gotten excellent results as she started her consulting business. And she is going to walk through a series of decisions that she had to make and she's going to share with us how she approached it, how she thought about it, what she considered, and what decisions she ultimately made that would get her the results that she wanted. So let's get started.

Hi, I want to welcome to my show today Julie Ballard. Julie, welcome to the show.

Julie Ballard: Hi Deb. I'm so happy to be here.

Deb Zahn: So start off, tell my listeners what you do.

Julie Ballard: I am a clinical lab consultant. For folks who don't know what clinical labs are, clinical labs, they're the labs that do the medical testing that help to prevent, diagnose and treat illnesses. A lot of these laboratories are in hospitals and in independent reference labs. The area I focus on in particular are biotech startups. So with a biotech startup, it usually comes from a great scientific or medical idea or technology. The founders and the scientists involved in it can create a really novel and helpful test. The thing is though, that they don't necessarily know how to put the test into a lab, what a clinical lab requires. So with a clinical lab, there are regulations to consider. They're making sure that you put in a quality system so that the tests that you're performing are accurate and you're not harming patients. And then also taking into consideration just the operations and the business needs and making sure that all three of those work in harmony. And so I help organizations with building and maintaining their clinical labs.

Deb Zahn: I love that. And I love that you started with the folks who don't know what they are because they have this cool thing, but they don't know all of the other stuff that goes around it that they need to in order to offer it safely and wisely to the public. That's fabulous.

Well, we're going to talk today because one of the things that has always very, very much impressed me about you is how thoughtful you've been about the decisions you've made as you've been developing your consulting business. And so I thought that would be tremendously helpful for other people to hear who maybe have no idea how to make those decisions or they feel overwhelmed by them. But let's start off, now that you're a consultant, what do you like about it?

Julie Ballard: I love being my own boss. That was not something I was expecting. So even though it's obvious that starting your own company, you are in control of everything, it didn't sink in until I actually started consulting and I was responsible for everything, including who I worked with, how I worked with them, and most importantly in all of this, when and how much time I was spending. Because previous to this, I was working so much. With the consulting business, I could decide what hours to work and how much.

Deb Zahn: Yeah, isn't that glorious?

Julie Ballard: It is.

Deb Zahn: Goodness. No, that's what I love about it. Well, you also have a really cool name and you know that I'm jealous of how cool this name is. But tell people what the name of your company is and what's the story behind that name.

Julie Ballard: OK. The name of my company is Carrot Clinical. When I was going through the process of trying to figure out a name, I didn't necessarily want something with my name in it. And because I'm in the lab industry, which tends to be more serious and could be perceived as sterile, I didn't want a name like that either. If I came up with a name such as Ballard Clinical Lab Consulting, it's clear what I do. But when somebody saw the name, I wanted the name to evoke an emotion, to convey a feeling. So I was thinking of all these different names. One of the names that was a possibility was Peace of Mind consulting, Peace of Mind Clinical Lab Consulting, OK? I talked to a couple of friends about it because I wanted to get feedback on what they thought. Some people right off the bat said, "It's too long. You can't have a name that long." One person loved the name, but another person thought when I said Peace of Mind, instead of P-E-A-C-E, she thought it was P-I-E-C-E, OK?

Deb Zahn: Uh-Oh!

Julie Ballard: Yes. So right off the bat we nix that. I mean, I was just having such a hard time finding a name that I liked. One day my husband and I were out walking the dog and we just started throwing out all kinds of words there as possibilities. It was like nothing was off the table. We were throwing words out like coffee, pencil, mushroom, whatever it may be, just to see what stuck. And I threw out carrot. And I loved the word because you think of a bright orange vegetable, something that's bright, happy, sweet, good for you. But I thought, "Well I can't name my business carrot. It's too whimsical for this business." If I were doing something else like a bakery or a yoga studio or something, it might be more appropriate. But I can't go into a meeting with a CEO or somebody who's about to open the lab and call it Carrot. I was concerned that wasn't going to be professional enough.

Then I read an article about how to name your business and they talked about using metaphors and going back to conveying a feeling of what I was thinking about earlier and thinking... In the article with the metaphor, they mentioned using it to convey something that you're good at. So I went back and I thought, "Well what am I good at?" And the feedback that I got from colleagues over my career was that I am good at translating laboratory regulations, making it easy to understand and putting practical solutions into place. And so that's when the light bulb went off and I went back to the word carrot. Carrot, which represents improved vision, represents the insight and clarity that I bring to clients.

Deb Zahn: Oh my goodness.

Julie Ballard: That's how Carrot came to be. I ended up adding the word clinical just to make it clear what business, and what field I was in.

Deb Zahn: Yeah. So there was so much, I'm going to use a metaphor, juicy stuff in what you just said. I'm jealous only because I grow carrots, so I thought, "Well, how come I didn't pick a vegetable?" But what I love about your approach and I want to highlight is, one, you thought about your market and you thought about who your market is, but you also thought about how to stand out in your market. And a name is one of the ways that you position yourself in a market. I love that you went and asked other people to get input.

I mean, I don't think a lot of consulting businesses do that enough. And my feeling is early and often, early and often, go ask people who know you and in your market for their feedback because you're going to make better decisions. And then I love that you ended up using it as a metaphor, so it stands out. You have the word clinical, so you dressed it up a little bit, but it stands out. The graphic is nice and easy and it has meaning. I remember when you told us and those of us in the membership what it meant, everybody was kind of like, "That is so great." So it immediately, the story also really was a wow for people. So I love all of that.

Julie Ballard: Well, thank you Deb. Going into this, naming it Carrot Clinical, I was actually not expecting the response that I have been getting from it. With both like the website, the name, the logo, I was already working with a couple of mentors as I was starting to think about the business. I got feedback from them just because they know what I do and I trust them. In addition to their feedback, I also ran it by folks who didn't know what I do just to get their impressions and to make sure that the message they were getting wasn't something that I had not thought about. So that was really important. And since all of the names and the logos and the website has been put in place, when I meet new people now and they see the name and the business card, the thing that I hear very often from them is that it's memorable. They remember. They end up remembering me because of the Carrot name, which I had not anticipated, but it's been great.

Deb Zahn: Yeah. Well you can imagine if somebody meets a whole lot of people, nothing stands out because a lot of people are using the same language, it's the same sort of boring language, but somebody's going to say, "Hey, what about that Carrot person?" So you gave yourself something that essentially will stand out in ways that I would imagine a lot of other folks in your industry are not. That's what's brilliant.

Now, your website was the next thing I wanted to talk about because as you were developing it, you shared it in the membership, and you got oohs and aahs from me and from other people. But more importantly, everybody kept using the same words, clear, crisp, things where it was just they instantly were able to get who you are, what you're about, what you offer, why you're valuable. It was so immediately clear. It was one of the best examples of I think how to put together a consulting website that I had seen. So even when you said, "All right, I'm doing a website," what are some of the things that you thought about before you started to actually put it together?

Julie Ballard: So the first version of my website, this was before I actually started consulting, it was a very simple one-pager with three sections with just the name of the business, a little blurb about me and some of the services I offered, OK? Over time, as I started working with folks and was able to get testimonials and client logos and be able to put case studies together to describe what I do, I thought I have to update the website with this new content.

And so as I was thinking through the design of the website, going back similar to the experience with naming the company, I didn't want anything too stodgy or sterile. Oftentimes with lab-related websites, you often see pictures of the lab, OK? Which is great, it was just an approach that I didn't want to take with my website. I wanted something clean and modern and that was clear in what I do because not everyone is familiar with what clinical labs are and the different requirements that are involved.

Deb Zahn: That's right.

Julie Ballard: And with the first website, I asked some marketing folks who I met to take a look at it and I got feedback. I also got additional feedback from folks who didn't know anything that I do to see if they understood what services I actually offered. And the feedback I got was generally positive. The one thing that really stood out as far as feedback was reframing the content so that it was for the customer and coming from their perspective. So the original list of services that I had where it was I do A, B, C, D, E, F, G, I reframed it so that the first thing they see when they go to the website is I'm asking them questions. "Do you need somebody to help you explain what clear regulations are? Do you need somebody to help you do an audit in preparation for an inspection?" so that it's coming from their perspective. And if they say yes to any of the questions, they know that I can help them.

Deb Zahn: That's right. And I adore that. So again, so much good stuff in what you just said. I just want to point out a few of the things. So one, that you were thoughtful enough to know that some of the clients you would go after created a cool test, but that doesn't mean they know what a lab looks like or should look like. So you didn't just default to, "Oh, lab. And so let me show pictures of lab." You were much more thoughtful about who is actually your buyer and "What do they know today versus what they're going to know after they have the privilege of working with me." So I love that you did that. Again, you asked for feedback, you asked for feedback from people who knew you, and people who didn't know you. All of that I think is just beautiful. And yeah, you know I love the switch to your website, social media, anything is about the client and it's about having them go through and say, "Yes, yes, yes. Oh my gosh, I need to work with this person."

And mwah, just the case study, when I saw that you had a case study up there, I was so excited because what a way to establish social proof that you achieve results that matter to the folks that you ultimately want to work with. So I just got to give kudos to all of that stuff.

Julie Ballard: Well, specifically with the case study, I really have to thank you for that because it didn't occur to me to include that type of content until I heard you talking about it.

Deb Zahn: I'm so glad. I didn't know that was me.

Julie Ballard: Yes, it was.

Deb Zahn: So I'm very, very glad. That's fabulous. And so the next thing is, so you've got this cool name, you got a great website, you know your stuff, but you still have to get clients. And that's a whole new thing for consultants when they first start is, "Oh my gosh, how do I do that when I've never had to do that before?" So how do you approach getting clients and what are some of the things that maybe you had to overcome until you now got more comfortable doing it?

Julie Ballard: So I was fortunate when I started. When I was just even thinking about doing this business and talking to mentors and colleagues, there was already interest in hiring me. So when I started, I was lucky enough to have a couple of contracts signed already. And I started in October of 2020. October 2020 and 2021 were great years. It was so busy to me.

Deb Zahn: Why? Were people testing things?

Julie Ballard: Yes. Yes. Right. So one good thing, if you can call it good coming out of COVID, there were a lot of people and companies interested in opening COVID labs and they didn't have the expertise. So 2021 was very busy. Most of the work that was coming was through referrals. When 2022 came around and some of the work died down, I was lucky enough to again continue... I still had business, but the volume of business decreased quite a bit, OK? It decreased enough that it made me start thinking about the pipeline and what am I going to do to get business. Because the business I had gotten up to that point really was all through referrals and word of mouth, I really focused on how do I continue to do that. I thought about, for example, doing more engagement on LinkedIn. Posting more, trying to get more views and likes. When I thought through that whole process, in the end doing something like that would get me more views and followers, but I didn't think that it would necessarily get me more business.

Deb Zahn: So once you figured out that LinkedIn was not necessarily going to get you business, then what did you do instead?

Julie Ballard: I started focusing on meeting more people at networking events. Luckily in 2020, events that were previously online and virtual were now in person again. And so one of the first events I went to was a Women In Bio networking event, OK? And it was the first networking event where I didn't know anybody who was part of the event planning and I didn't go with a buddy, OK?

Deb Zahn: Wow. You were so brave.

Julie Ballard: Yes. And being an introvert, that was a big deal for me.

Deb Zahn: Oh, yeah.

Julie Ballard: It took so much energy to get myself psych up for the event. The whole time when I was driving there, I was so stressed out.

Deb Zahn: Oh my.

Julie Ballard: Once I got there though, the women that were part of the organization were so friendly and opening and approachable and supportive that for me doing it the first time, they made it really easy.

Deb Zahn: Nice.

Julie Ballard: I was able to meet new people, some that I keep in touch with now, one that I've become very good friends with. I also learned about volunteer opportunities with the organization. And as I talked to a member, an existing member of the organization, she told me the different committees that I could volunteer on. When she said programming, which was about events, I thought, "Oh, this is something I can do and something I'm comfortable with." But she also mentioned sponsorship, and I thought, "This is something I don't want to do. I have to go out and ask people for money." And on top of that, being an introvert, it was just something I wasn't comfortable with. So I decided to volunteer for the sponsorship committee because I thought it's a good way to develop a skill that I wasn't good at, didn't have much experience with and needed to develop as part of growing the business.

Deb Zahn: Wow. I'm so impressed.

Julie Ballard: Diane, who's the chair of the sponsorship committee, again also made it very easy for me. She was very supportive and gave me tips on what to do and really guided the process. And so now I am co-vice chair of the committee and I'm learning a ton.

Deb Zahn: You know I'm an introvert too. So yeah, I will only go to parties if I know that there's a dog or cat that I can go sit in the corner and hang out with if I get too overwhelmed. So I'm impressed that you did all of that. Networking is one of the skills of a consultant. And so figuring out how to do it even as an introvert is critical. I don't know about you, but I have found being an introvert can be a superpower when networking because we notice things other people don't notice. And so often if I ever go to networking events, I can see who else would rather die than be there.

Julie Ballard: Yes. Yes.

Deb Zahn: And I go talk to them because now we've got something that we can talk about.

Julie Ballard: That's exactly what I do as well. If I go in there... Because I mean, it's so hard walking into a room where you don't know anybody, right?

Deb Zahn: Oh my.

Julie Ballard: Because they're already people in groups. I mean, I don't know, we don't know what they're thinking about, how they're feeling. They could be just as mortified as we are, but-

Deb Zahn: That's right.

Julie Ballard: ... from what we see, it looks like they're having a great time. They're fitting in, they're blending in, they know how to have a conversation and make small talk. It's hard walking into a room like that. And so often I will look through the room, see who might be feeling the same way I am, and then it makes it much more easier to approach.

Deb Zahn: That's right. That's right. And then you're not doing that weird hovering thing where there's a circle of people and you try and hover on the outside and see if anybody knows, which is like the third ring of hell. That's not fun. So I love that approach and I love that you pushed yourself to do it and pushed yourself to do even more than that because those are skills that you're going to look back. And I have found this, you're going to look back a year or two from now and things that used to be hard are now going to be easy. And then you can conquer the next hard thing. And then that'll eventually be easy. That's fabulous.

So I also know that you also do some marketing. So you didn't go all in on LinkedIn because you recognize some of the limitations of that. But I recall you being very, very thoughtful once about some legislation that was in play and you knew folks in your market sort of had different feelings about it, but it was an opportunity to start some new conversations, but you had to be very skillful about. Can you describe a little bit of how you approached that situation when you were going to go into your market and talking about something that everybody didn't love?

Julie Ballard: Sure. So with LinkedIn, while I didn't think it would get me new business necessarily, it was a forum, a way for me to show and demonstrate my expertise on all things clinical lab by posting, OK? So posting was another new thing I had to get comfortable with because prior to consulting, I probably post it once or twice a year. And it was mostly just what I needed to hire someone.

So when I started thinking about posting more often on LinkedIn, it was right around the time when there was a piece of legislation that would affect the clinical lab industry. It was pretty controversial. People were either for it or absolutely against it. I recognized the merits of what was being proposed. I wasn't necessarily in agreement though with how to implement it. It was a good opportunity. While controversial, I thought to demonstrate to folks that I'm keeping on top of what is happening in the industry. So when there was news about it, I would read up as much as I could, understand what the issues were, understand the folks who were for it, why they were for it, and the folks who were against it, why they were against it. And when there would be news about it, the post I made was generally neutral in tone. I wasn't necessarily saying I was for or against it, but I was presenting news about it. "So it's currently in this step of the process, it just got out of the committee."

You're giving updates so that even though I wasn't necessarily advocating one way or the other, the audience knew that I was paying attention to what was happening.

Deb Zahn: And what a great way to build authority without alienating anyone. So you approached it almost like a journalist, but fabulous way to build authority. I know in my market there are some legislative things for one of the sectors that I work with where pretty much everybody's like, "This has to happen. This is so important.' And I do tend to agree. And so it's OK for me to voice support because the folks I want to work with I know are aligned with that. But if you're in an in-between place, I think the way that you handled it was great because the other choice would've been to avoid it because there was a risk attached to it. But if you avoided it, you missed this amazing opportunity to establish yourself as an authority.

Julie Ballard: Yes, that's well said, Deb.

Deb Zahn: Oh, thank you. Well I'm just watching from afar, loving it. So I know that now that folks have watched you become a successful consultant, you've had colleagues who are like, "Hey, wait a minute." I also want to be my own boss. I want to be a consultant. What types of questions are they asking and what types of things are you telling them?

Julie Ballard: The questions that I get from colleagues who are interested, they often have to do with operational things. "Should I do sole prop versus LLC? What do I do for accounting? Do I need a lawyer? Do I need insurance?" A lot of it is related to infrastructure for building the business.

One of the things I tell my colleagues and my friends who are interested is, if you're even thinking about it now, even if you're not going to actually do this for a couple of years, the one thing I suggest doing now is start thinking of a name for your business, OK? The reason I say that is because every time I thought about starting the business, I would look at the form for a business license and the first field on there was name of the business. And I didn't have a name and that would just stop me in my tracks and I wouldn't do any more work. And so I didn't make any progress on it. So that's like the one piece of advice I always tell people.

... systems in place if you can. Don't let not having something in place though stop you from starting your consulting business. So most recent systems in place if you can. Don't let not having something in place though stop you from starting your consulting business.

So most recently, a friend was... She had actually started working as a consultant and we were talking and she was asking, "What do you do about invoicing and bookkeeping? Should I open an account with QuickBooks or I guess some other software?" And what I told her was when I started, the bookkeeping part was probably the part I understood the least. I knew the basics were. You have to balance the checkbook and you needed to keep track of things and keep track of what you can deduct, what you can't. But I really didn't know how to do bookkeeping. Until I started reading books and Youtubing it, I didn't know the difference between cash accounting and accrual accounting.

Deb Zahn: I didn't either.

Julie Ballard: When I went down the road of, "OK, maybe I should invest in QuickBooks." I was doing research and I thought, "I'm really not comfortable going into and starting using QuickBooks." And I just started with an Excel sheet and did basically a checkbook. And it worked for me. Having gone through almost two years of it now and seeing all the different types of invoices and expenses, I've learned the different nuances and some of the outlier situations and how to handle it in an Excel format where if I had to do it in QuickBooks, I don't know that I would know how to categorize certain things and it would've made the books a mess. So going back to talking to my colleague about it, I said, "Don't feel like you need to do that now." And I shared my spreadsheet with her and she was so grateful and she was able to stop worrying about that and focus on actually consulting.

Deb Zahn: Yeah. And focus on getting the business and doing the business. Yeah, when I became independent, I did set it up in a financial software. Not QuickBooks, something else. And then I eventually even invested in a bookkeeper because I thought, "I have enough business. This is not a good use of my time." And I suspect I'm doing it wrong. And then when her response was, "Wow," but not a good wow, I knew "OK, this is a time to bring in a specialist." Just like with mine counting, this is the time to bring in a specialist. Legal stuff, that's a good time to bring in a specialist. But what I've seen people do is they delay being a consultant because they don't have all the bells and whistles in place. It's helpful to have things in place that are going to support you and create a good client experience, but don't wait. It's OK to figure some stuff out as you go.

Julie Ballard: Yes. I mean, sometimes the old school way is the best way.

Deb Zahn: Yeah. It works for you and gets you to the next step. I love that. The website is often a big one too I see, where I remember talking to somebody who she said, "I'm on my way to be a consultant." She already had a couple clients. She already had someone who was interested in hiring her and I said, "So why aren't you calling yourself a consultant?" And she said, "Oh because I don't have my website done." And I said, "You could boldly declare right now on the phone to me that you are a consultant. And guess what? You are a consultant. It's OK. A website does not make you a consultant. Having all the bells and whistles doesn't make you a consultant." So I love that. But eventually, you want to have a cool one like you. So if you're standing in front of someone talking to one of your colleagues who's like, "Ah, I really want to be a consultant," is there anything else you would tell them to avoid? So don't wait, but what else would you tell them? Just skip that?

Julie Ballard: I don't know if there's anything else. I can't think of anything off the top of my head right now about what to avoid. What I would say to do is commit. Once you decide to do it, commit and go all in. That will help overcome fears and doubts that you may have. Because when I decided to do this... So when I started thinking about consulting, the plan originally was not to go all in. It was, I was still employed at the time there and then I can focus on the work. It wasn't until I was doing all of this and there was interest that I decided to just... there and then I can focus on the work.

It wasn't until I was doing all of this and there was interest that I decided to just quit my job and decided to become a consultant full time. And when I decided to do that, that's when I started going through the checklist of all the things I needed to do and wanted to do to become a successful consultant. And while yes, the doubts and the questions came once in a while, focusing on the business and the commitment to make it succeed was so much more than the doubts and the imposter syndrome feelings that I was going through.

Deb Zahn: Yeah because if you treat it like a side salad or treat it like a hobby…

Julie Ballard: That's what it becomes.

Deb Zahn: So where can folks find you? If somebody develops a cool test, where should they come looking for you?

Julie Ballard: So I can be found on LinkedIn. So Julie Ballard. Also my website, And if you don't remember all of that, you can also just Google Julie and Carrot or Carrot and CLIA, OK? Because again the carrot is so unusual for it to be associated with labs and CLIA and clinical labs that I will come up in your search.

Deb Zahn: I did search Carrot Lab and you came up. I mean, talk about something that stands out that is so fabulous. So let me ask you this. And we'll have all of that in the show notes. Let me ask you this last question. So you became a consultant to be your own boss. How has that helped you have more balance in your life and how do you have that?

Julie Ballard: I don't know that I have it yet. I work hard at it. It, I'm not successful at completely being balanced yet. I am still spending a lot of time doing work. Not as much free time to do fun stuff, although it is still more time than it used to be. The difference though is that the work that I'm doing now, I'm focused almost completely on the type of work that I love and that I'm good at. So that has made a difference. So even though the hours maybe hasn't changed that much, the quality of the work and how I feel when I'm doing the work has changed. It's so much better now.

Deb Zahn: Oh my goodness. I love that. Well Julie, I want to thank you so much for coming on and sharing this. For anybody who's thinking of being a consultant, sometimes they can feel like they're the first person that has ever had to make any of these decisions, so you walking us through how you do it, I think is just so valuable.

Julie Ballard: Thank you so much for having me on, Deb. I started listening to your podcast right around the time when I started thinking about consulting and it helped me so much. I am such a huge fan of you and the podcast. I'm so honored to be able to be a guest and to talk with you.

Deb Zahn: Aw, thank you so much.

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