Making the jump from top-performing consultant to tech startup founder requires both sound planning and good fortune. Since I know that information overload is a daily challenge, I have narrowed it down to my top 5 essential steps to make this exciting career shift now or in the future from consulting to startup founder.
But before I outline my top 5 takeaways, let me quickly share some of my background. I graduated with a PhD in Chemistry from Yale, was a BCG Project Leader, and ultimately, founded my Silicon Valley tech startup, Phrame. My journey to becoming a startup founder wasn’t typical, so I know you’ll find at least one of these steps helpful as you work to forge your own career path. Let’s get started!
5 Essential Steps to Progress from Consultant to Startup Founder:
Step 1: Start your career development as early as possible
Regardless of your major, it is important to build an interest and curiosity in the business world as early as possible. In my case, I focused on business plan competitions, consulting case competitions, and voluntary consulting work. Since every university has consulting clubs or entrepreneurship centers these days, you can easily find a fertile starting point.
Whatever it ends up being for you, feed your interest and grow your knowledge from day one. Reading as much as possible about business is also important to start early. If you’re interested in consulting, you should be focused on content like the latest New York Times bestseller, publications like The Economist and Wall Street Journal, a niche blog discussing intricacies of the finance world, and, of course, Management Consulted articles like this one or this one. Your reading list should also include publications from the major consulting firms: BCG’s Perspectives, and McKinsey’s or Bain’s Insights.
Most of the reading doesn’t have to be overly serious or time-consuming. In fact, most of the books I read for leisure back then were directly building my understanding of the business world. Starting early also involves meeting and talking to a lot of people through informational interviews, networking, or coffee chats. Which leads me to my second step…
Step 2: Find and foster strong support among friends and like-minded people
Join your school’s consulting club early – sophomore year for undergrads, as soon as possible for MBA students, and up to two years before your graduation as an Advanced Degree Candidate. Then, be actively involved in the parts that interest you most and as time allows. Meeting students with similar mindsets is indispensable for a successful transition into consulting.
I joined the Yale Graduate Student Consulting Club at the end of the second year of my PhD. I was an active member of the club and even served as its President. The people I connected with as part of this club became my new circle of friends who ultimately ended up at top firms like BCG, Bain, or McKinsey.
Your networking should also include leveraging your school’s alumni network. This will not only help you reaffirm your intention to go into consulting, but also significantly improve your understanding of the cultures at the various firms. Focusing on alumni at firms where you want to work will provide you with invaluable tidbits of information that will prepare you for the “fit” part of an interview.
I cannot say enough about nurturing relationships with like-minded people because it is very important both personally and professionally. In fact, it’s a key tenet of our startup Phrame and it allows us to discover experiences tailored to a user’s taste and build itineraries from the resulting trust.
Sharing a connection with others builds trust, both in consulting, and when planning vacation travel.
Step 3: Plan ahead before making the jump from consulting to startup founder
Planning ahead is crucial for any major endeavor in life. After all, as the saying goes: “Failing to plan is planning to fail”.
Making the jump from consulting to a startup requires thorough planning, especially since headhunters will try to pull you into different directions with various, enticing job opportunities.
Your first decision is therefore whether to take those offers seriously or to focus on your own thing.
If you’re like me, focusing on your own thing is your goal. Before making the jump, you should make sure to have at least three things in place. These are:
Make sure you have enough saved so that you can focus solely on your startup for at least a few months. You don’t want to be distracted by your personal finances while pursuing your dream.
2. Proof of concept
It’s important to have tested your idea sufficiently with early testers. Validating your initial hypotheses will make the jump less risky.
3. Pitch deck
Make sure you have an early pitch deck ready. You never know when you will run into potential investors, especially as many early investments are conducted by angel investors from your immediate network.
This is also where starting your career development early (aka Step 1) comes back into play. Planning ahead means you constantly follow and learn about the latest trends regardless of whether you’re ready to make a role or career switch.
On the flip side, though, don’t get lost in analysis paralysis. Even though it’s important to give yourself ample time in this step, it’s equally important to work against deadlines. Too many of my friends had plans to start their own thing and most of those plans ultimately got side-tracked.
Having internal deadlines means you keep yourself accountable.
Step 4: Build a team you can trust and don’t burn bridges
Building a team you can fully trust is by far the toughest part in the early stages of a startup. One of my favorite quotes is, “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, bring a team.”
The best way to achieve this is by finding co-founders with similar personalities and complementary skillsets. For me, this was finding co-founders with sufficient drive, ambition, self-awareness and willingness to make the jump.
Not burning bridges applies to any stage and every facet of life. If you know well ahead of time that you want to do your own thing, announce it to your team accordingly. When you give the project’s Partner sufficient time to prepare for your departure it will minimize the impact on the project and client relationship.
This is particularly important for managers, as you’re typically staying on projects longer and leading multiple senior client relationships.
In my experience, making the actual decision and then actively sharing the news with colleagues was much easier said than done, because many colleagues were close friends at that stage. In the moment, the decision feels more like a decision against friends than one in favor of a new career step. It’s a necessary step, however, in taking the plunge.
I was fortunate enough that after I told my colleagues about my plans, a few of them introduced me to friends of theirs who were interested as beta users, advisors, or even potential investment leads.
Step 5: Find balance & prioritize everything
Finding balance and prioritizing is easier said than done, right?
To succeed long-term, however, it’s imperative to be aware of your top priorities and to balance your daily grind around them. It becomes even more important as you are promoted within a consulting organization or as a startup founder.
So, take some time to think about what balance is to you and ask yourself if you are sufficiently prioritizing the things that make you happy even when things get busy.
I have stayed on track by using this approach. My choice activities for keeping balance? Working out and meditating. Even if things are busy at work, I always push my teams and myself to take time off for personal activities. It results in a happier and more productive team, even if it is only 20 minutes of gym time or talking to your family for 30 minutes on the phone.
You can find the time by assessing where your time is best spent. If a meeting isn’t necessary for you to attend, don’t join it. If a call is not going anywhere, end it. Otherwise, you end up being very busy without results to show.
Of course, there will be days where this simply doesn’t work; those days, however, should be exceptions. Too many times I’ve seen professionals not paying attention to their personal wellbeing only to burn out and eventually quit. Don’t become one of them!
It’s not always going to be smooth sailing, whether you stay in consulting long-term or start your own company. The squeeze, however, is definitely worth the juice. We only have one life and should make the most of it, whether at work or outside of it.
This mindset is what will drive you to your ultimate career goal. Your time in consulting will lead you down the right path as you see your preference crystallize.
I chose to leave corporate consulting to pursue building Phrame. Strangely enough, it was when I was traveling for work that I realized how difficult it is to plan my travel around experiences and activities that are truly tailored to my tastes. We decided to launch Phrame because, in the 21st century, finding personalized experiences or your ideal vacation should be as easy as booking an Uber.
I truly wish you the best of luck in your pursuit of your career goals – be it in consulting, startups, or elsewhere.