Build experience before jumping to consultancy

Understanding the failures of the past is key to having success in the future.

Q: I graduated from college with a degree in entrepreneurship from a Nigerian institution. Thanks to my course of study, I have generated several of my own business ideas. However, friends and colleagues often ask me to assist them in developing their own ideas, or they ask for advice in determining the feasibility of potential enterprises. To my knowledge, this sort of advice is best given by business consultants. So, rather than focusing on being an entrepreneur, should I become a consultant?
- Charles Aduloju
A: I’m always startled to hear about young people going into consulting right after school, without having a lot of real-world work experience under their belt.
Making this sort of jump is unparalleled in most professions. Imagine boarding an airliner and learning that the pilot at the controls has only ever flown a flight simulator. You’d be more than uneasy! Similarly, there is a reason that aspiring heart surgeons spend years in operating rooms assisting and observing other surgeons before they operate on their own.
Yet every day, we place the fates of thousands of companies, large and small, into the hands of people who have never successfully run a business (let alone crash-landed one). To make matters worse, anyone can call himself a consultant nowadays - no qualifications are required.
Before you take the plunge and enter the world of business consulting, consider these four questions that I would ask if a consultant knocked at my door looking for a client:

1. Have you ever run a business?
After launching hundreds of ventures across four decades, I know firsthand that there isn’t anything like hands-on experience when it comes to running a business. When starting out, the learning curve is steep, since you have to master a variety of fields all at once - from supply-chain management to marketing, to accounting, to customer service. I don’t think any course of study can truly prepare an entrepreneur to successfully handle all of these important aspects of an enterprise.
So as a consultant, unless you are an expert in a niche field relevant to a very specific consulting need, I would expect you to have an abundance of entrepreneurial experience. And this sort of experience doesn’t come down to merely understanding the nuts and bolts of the business world - it’s also about having fundamental people skills. Show me that you understand how to inspire, motivate and lead others; this is the single most important factor for success in business.

2. Do you know what failure feels like?
Failure is simply indispensable to the entrepreneurial experience. At the Virgin group, I don’t think we’d be where we are today if it hadn’t been for the many small and large ventures that didn’t do as well as we had hoped. Remember Virgin Brides? Or Virgin Clothes? These ventures feature prominently on our list of epic failures - yet they helped us to build better businesses.
The reason is a simple one: There is more to learn from mistakes than from successes. Understanding what went wrong, where instincts failed, or what internal and external factors were responsible for taking an enterprise off course are all vital lessons in business. Understanding the failures of the past is key to having success in the future.

3. Can you call a bad idea a bad idea?
In the case of Virgin Brides, our failed entry into the wedding and bridal wear sector in the 1990s, we jumped into a highly competitive, crowded market that we knew little about, and our product failed to attract customers in the same way that other Virgin brands had managed to.
We learned that when people are in the market for a wedding dress, tradition prevails over Virgin-style, red-hot disruption, so we weren’t the right fit (so to speak). In many ways, we hadn’t done our homework - and we also allowed our overblown expectations to get the better of us.
In this situation, a good consultant might have raised some red flags early on. But it takes courage to rock the boat, and many consultants tend to shy away from confronting their clients with painful truths.

4. Are you hungry for knowledge?
Businesses, markets and societies are constantly evolving. When we started Virgin Records in the early 1970s, we were living in an analog, fragmented world, selling vinyl records that catered to niche musical interests.
Fast-forward four decades, and we are in a globalised, inter-connected business environment that has very little in common with the world that Virgin was born into. Global supply chains, electronic commerce, the arrival of social media and changing demographics have radically transformed the way that we do business.
For a consultant to be successful in this quickly evolving world, he needs the ability to adapt frequently, a zeal for lifelong learning and a willingness to embrace an even greater degree of specialisation than ever before. Just think about the armies of consultants who have found ways to make a living by working in search-engine optimisation, social-risk assessment or stakeholder management, to name just a few of the options.
So, Charles, by all means, give your friends a helping hand in starting their businesses.
Mr Branson is the founder of the Virgin Group. Email: [email protected].