top of page


Episode 72: How Did You Get Your First Client Mash-Up—with Deb Zahn and Guests

Hi folks, this is Deb with the Craft of Consulting. I want to welcome you to this very special episode. So this episode is going to be very different from some of the other ones I've done or what I usually do, and that is, I'm going to answer the question: how I got my first client. But then I'm going to have four other successful consultants who I've had on my podcast before. I'm also going to have them say how they got their first client. And this is so critical because, first of all, getting your first client is such a glorious moment because that's how you know, "Yeah, I can actually do this," and your confidence goes up a little bit. But you also learn so much about how to get other clients and you form the foundation for what is ultimately going to be a successful business. So this question is really key, and I'm going to actually have on this episode, there'll be four responses that I've gotten from four past guests. And then I'm going to tell you mine.

So my first client was actually someone that was the CEO of an organization that I had worked within two previous jobs in very different ways. So one of the jobs, we were part of a coalition of entities and we worked together quite closely so she had a sense of what I could do and what my skills and abilities were. And then the next time was actually when I worked at an organization, it was a foundation that gave away money, and she was one of my grantees. And I made sure that we had a really good relationship because I like to treat people fairly and I didn't have a power trip or anything like that that can often happen. And so we had a good relationship.

Now, keep in mind, I had gone out and had tea with her or drinks or dinner multiple times before I actually secured an engagement, but because I didn't know how to talk about it and pivot the conversation and I didn't show up in the right way to be able to actually get business, we had the lovely time, but nothing actually ended up in engagement.

So the next time I was going to meet with her, I did something very different than what I had done previously, and that is, I did a bunch of homework. I didn't think I needed to do it because I knew her, I knew her organization extremely well, I knew who they served extremely well so I thought I didn't really need to prep. Well, I was so wrong. I always encourage folks, "You've got to prep. You've got to do your homework. Even if you know who you're going to be meeting with."

So what I did is I stopped and I talked to other people, and I looked at things that were happening in the industry. I looked at things that her organization were publicly releasing so that I could get a sense of the things that they cared about. I could get a really good sense of the things that they were potentially worried about, things that they need to just solve, things that they were trying to strive for. And I spent the time to actually write it on a piece of paper, and I spent the time to come up with three or four options of what I could potentially do to help them based on that initial research. So the next time I went in and I think we had a lunch date, I had that ready to go and we talked and it was good and we had our typical good rapport.

And then I pivoted the conversation to say, "Look, here's what I see that's actually happening in the industry. Here's what I imagine you folks are dealing with. Does that sound right? Oh, what else are you feeling in terms of pressure for what you're doing?" And we got into the things that they were trying to solve, their pain points. We got into their gain points, the things that she actually wanted the organization to accomplish, the things that her board members were telling her. And then, based on that, I was able to think, OK, of the four solutions I came up with, two are really relevant to that. So let me tell her what those are. So I pivoted the conversation and I said, "Here are the things that I'm thinking would be really helpful, and here are the things I think I could help you do to solve that."

And then we got into that conversation. So just because I did my homework, I went at it in a very different way. And I went at it with this strong desire to help them because in the past the meetings I was having with them were largely focused on, “Oh my gosh, I need to get a gig!” I flipped it and it became about what the client needs and what is going to make their lives better. And when I made that switch and I did my homework, by the end of that lunch, I had a gig in my pocket. It was simply a matter of putting it on a piece of paper, giving her a contract, and boom, we were off racing. So that's how I got my first client, and it was so great because my confidence was a little higher than it was before and I really got the sense that, "Yeah, I can do this, and now I know better about how to do it."

And then, of course, I got better over time so that enabled me, based on that one experience, to perfect and experiment and do other things to get more clients. So that's how I got my first one.

So now I want to switch and you're going to hear four different answers to the question: how did you get your first client? And hopefully, this is helpful because this is a pretty good representative sample of how a lot of consultants do it. So let's get started.

From Episode 46: Building a Super-Niche Consulting Business—with Reuven Lerner

Reuven Lerner: So the story is that when I was in college, I interned at HP over the summer and every so often they would hold a staff meeting and there were two people not invited to the staff meeting. One was me because I was a student and there was this other guy and I said to him, "So why aren't you going to the meeting?" He said, "Oh, I'm a contractor." I said, "What's a contractor?" He said, "Oh my God, it is the best." And he described to me how consulting work, which I'm sure the HP managers would that have been so thrilled about. And this always sort of stuck in my mind as, hmm, this sounds like an interesting way to do things. And so in 1995 when I moved to Israel from the U.S., I sort of took advantage of the opportunity of the sort of upheaval in my life anyway. And I said, okay, I'm going to try consulting.

Fortunately, my previous employer at Time Warner said explicitly, they wanted to be my first client. And they sort of, you can think of them as the investor in my consulting firm where they gave me the cushion I needed to slowly but surely learn what it was like to run a business. And to slowly, very, very slowly start focusing on a particular topic.

From Episode 49: Helping Clients Navigate High-Risk Decisions—with Linda Henman

Linda Henman: It was really hard because I had these great relationships with these big companies that I had been working with, but I also had a two-year non-compete. And so for the first two years, it was really hard for me to get clients. But now I would say 90% of my business comes from referral and repeat business. The other 10% is the one-off that I get, like for example, from a podcast like this, somebody might call me to get my help. Or from a marketing piece that I have put out or from an article that I've written that something will come trickling in. But it's a referral business. It's a relationship business and you just have to meet...First of all, you have to do great work so that your clients want you to come back. And I do a lot of repeat business. In fact, probably in 2019, 95% of my business was repeat business. I mean more business within the same client and then them renewing their proposals and then the other 5% I say come as the one-offs.

From Episode 52: Helping Companies Achieve More with Technology—with Graham Binks

Graham Binks: My first client? It was through my network. All my clients essentially early on came through my existing network. So I had connections in a whole bunch of companies. I've worked in some capacity inside of over 250 businesses. A small handful of those, I should emphasize, I was employed at. But for the majority, they were customers of mine. So I had a pretty good network. And as an early adopter, I was already using social media to stay in touch with people at a business level, specifically LinkedIn.

And so I got out my virtual Rolodex, and I called up a few people, most of whom I tended to keep in touch with anyway. I didn't just call them when I needed them as it were. So, that was very helpful. And I think everyone recognizes that's a best practice in networking now, you don't just call people when you need them. And a few opportunities came up that I knew them well enough, they knew me well enough to know there was a match and we got started on some projects. So since that time, I've built a fairly significant client base, and in almost every exception is just been repeat business, which means I must be doing something right.

Episode 65: Preparing to Take the Leap into Consulting—with Veronica Sagastume

Veronica Sagastume: My first client was actually...You are in the consulting world, as well, and I'm sure you hear this a lot, it is my last corporate employer. I went and spoke to the CEO and I sort of explained to him where I was at. I knew that me leaving, or giving two weeks, was going to put the company in an uncomfortable position, let's just say that. No one is irreplaceable. We're all replaceable, but it was not the best timing. So, I give him a proposal on how I could transition from a full-time employee to a part-time consultant. My proposal included that I would stay on long enough to help him find my replacement and make the transition however long that took. But that last full-time employer became my very first paying consulting client in a part-time basis so that I could then go out and seek other consulting work and with other clients.

Deb Zahn: That's so smart. I've seen other folks who have been wise enough to do that they already know how good you are, so why wouldn't they be your first client.

Veronica Sagastume: They could see the benefit of help me staying on long enough...It's also how you position it, right? You could serve it up in a really disgruntled, or “I'm done I don't want to do this anymore” way. Or you could say, “Hey. I'm making some changes and I would like to do the right thing by the business, by you, and here's how we can do it so it's a win/win for both of us.” It's always how you present it.

Thanks so much for listening to this episode of the Craft of Consulting podcast. I want to ask you to do actually three things. If you enjoyed this episode, or you've enjoyed any of my other ones, hit subscribe. I've got a lot of other great guests that are coming up and a lot of other great content and I don't want you to miss anything.

The other two things that I'm going to ask you to do is one is if you have any comments, so if you have any suggestions or any kind of feedback that will help make this podcast more helpful to more listeners, please include those. Then the last thing is, again, if you've gotten something out of this, share it. Share it with somebody you know who's a consultant or thinking about being a consultant, and make sure that they also have access to all this great content and all the other great content that's going to be coming up.

So as always, you can go and get more wonderful information and tools at

Thanks so much. I will talk to you on the next episode. Bye-bye.

bottom of page