By Elizabeth K. Briody

I started Cultural Keys, LLC (culturalkeys.us) in 2009. At that time, I had a PhD and 24 years of work experience as an anthropologist at General Motors Research & Development.

The mechanics of setting up the consulting practice were relatively simple; it included such steps as registering my LLC with the state of Michigan, creating a LinkedIn profile, and purchasing a domain name and email for my (eventual) website.

However, I soon discovered that building and maintaining my professional/personal networks were among the most valuable aspects of building a consulting business. I retrospectively examined my connections with prospective clients between 2009-17. A large majority of my field projects have come from preexisting relationships. Interestingly, several of my field projects, as well as short-term consulting engagements, resulted from my relationships with anthropologists – particularly business anthropologists! Other field projects were based on connections with personal friends.

To date, in all those years, only two clients have contacted me cold. The first was a physician and principal from a medical start-up who heard about me through a university colleague. He indicated that he called me because I was a “cultural anthropologist.” The second was a senior leader at a financial marketing firm. She stated that she was attracted to particular wording on my LinkedIn profile related to “cultural influences on behavior.” In both cases, it helped that I had developed a clear mission and focus for my consulting practice. In a conversation with her, I was able to articulate my organizational culture and change expertise, my ethnographic skill set, and my willingness to speak further with her and her colleagues.

What do I do for a typical project? It’s never the same, but overall it often involves discussing the client’s needs in detail, understanding the client’s stated “problem” or issue, engaging in some form of research, and offering relevant recommendations. The research involves conducting interviews, focus groups, observations, and sometimes surveys, analyzing this data as well as available documentary data (e.g., organizational mission and values, printed materials)—in short, applying skills from the anthropological toolkit. I usually discuss preliminary findings with the client on several occasions, and prepare PPT presentations for them at key points in the consulting engagement. My projects involve both domestic and overseas travel. The duration of a project varies from several weeks to several months or more.

But again, the key to success is building a strong network. Here is a list of summary points of selected relationship-building and maintenance techniques I have learned as an independent consultant:

  • Seek advice from those already doing what you want to do
  • Get and keep a mentor or two
  • Figure out your value proposition (i.e., what you can offer a client) and be able to talk about it easily
    • Provide relevant insights about a past or current project in 2-3 sentences
    • Lose the anthropological jargon!
  • Create a LinkedIn page
  • Design a website
  • Network within your various communities, passing out your business card
    • Tell friends and family you are open for business
    • Attend local, regional, and other gatherings to meet and promote your business
  • Have conversational probes in your back pocket so that the client talks about his/her organization
    • “What’s on the horizon for your organization?”
    • “What are some concerns that your employees have?”
  • Spend time getting to know a prospective client (e.g., conversations, Internet searches)
  • Look for a potential fit between what the client is talking about, and your own skills and approach
  • Keep in mind that, sometimes, the client approaches you
  • Follow up with prospective clients several times per year
  • When appropriate, float the idea of a pilot project.