The Upside

It’s not all bad. These savvy consultants are thriving during COVID-19

Mollie Fehlig of Fehlig Advisory

It seems like companies are slashing their teams more and more each day. As sales drop and unemployment numbers go up, we’re left to wonder, is anyone doing well right now?
In the world of independent consultants, solopreneurs and freelancers, it’s every man and woman for themselves. They are responsible for their own business development, high-level strategy, communications, marketing, operations, finance and HR. These responsibilities are a lot to handle even in good times. And today, more than ever, these solopreneurs are having to reevaluate every aspect of how they conduct business.
But it’s not all doom and gloom in the world of independent contractors. In fact, I spoke with eight Upside members who wanted to share their stories of surviving and thriving in business, in the hopes that it will help give others ideas for how they too can stay relevant and weather this storm.
Here’s a roundup of who is doing well, and tips for how they are doing it:

1. Consultants who are providing critical services that help companies stay alive.

Mollie Fehlig, a former Wall Street executive who recently launched her own fractional CFO consultancy for startups has shifted her focus from strategic planning to financial triage.
She advises that when working with small businesses, providing services that are timely and critical for their survival in today’s uncertain atmosphere can stabilize and even grow your client base.
“Providing cash flow projections, debt schedules, short-term ‘crisis’ financial plans and strategies including funding sources and options has been extremely valuable to my clients and has kept my business thriving during COVID-19.”
Mollie’s adds, “Be that person someone needs and wants to talk to from their home everyday. Revisit your offerings even for just temporarily.
“I cut my base package in half, but also spending 50% less of my time per client, which seems much more digestible for smaller businesses. I also am offering payment schedules in thirds vs half upfront.”
Mollie’s takeaways:
  • Provide need-to-have services vs. nice-to-have services.
  • Be someone your clients need and want to talk to from their home everyday.
  • Revisit your offerings and make temporary adjustments.
  • Cut your packages into bite-sized programs that clients can easily digest right now.
  • Adjust your payment schedules to help with client cash flow.

2. Consultants who are helping companies build brands that will endure.

Meredith Rigdon of Narratives Strategic Communications

Meredith Rigdon, marketing expert and founder of Narratives Strategic Communications, acknowledges that typically marketing and public relations professionals–and their budgets–are the first to get cut in an economic downturn. However, this time it’s different.
“Prior to the crisis, our economy was robust by most measures and consumer credit was stronger than in previous economic downturn periods. But this downturn is different in that companies and brands realize they cannot go dark and, even worse, they cannot speak out of turn.
“The voice of a company is more important than ever, and the marketing and PR professionals behind those voices are in greater demand than ever.”
The moral that all leaders and business owners are learning very quickly is that brands are being built right now, even when sales are not being made. Consumers are viewing everything through a very different lens and it’s critically important for brands to be human, empathetic and appropriate. Brands can no longer shout at the market. This shift requires a conversation, as well as brands that listen as much as they talk.
Meredith’s takeaways:
  • Remember that brands are being built right now, even when sales are not being made. That creates opportunity for consultants to provide value.
  • Consumers are viewing everything through a very different lens and it’s critically important for brands to be human, empathetic and appropriate.
  • Brands can no longer shout at the market. Providing marketing expertise that advises brands on timely, appropriate marketing strategies is in high-demand right now.

3. Consultants who have become a partner that their clients can lean on.

Amanda Tarplin Kirilov, a consultant providing outsourced investor relations for private equity firms, echoes that this is an unprecedented time, even compared to the global financial crisis in 2008.
“Some clients, unfortunately, have lost staff for a variety of reasons and just need ad-hoc additional support, which is where I’ve been able to step in and step up.
“But for most of my clients, they are focusing on and prioritizing the need to be communicative with investors in the right way. That means helping them create a plan for enhanced reporting on their underlying portfolio companies, a plan for personal outreach to their investors and, most importantly, helping them document their response during this time.
“For most businesses, documented response during this crisis will be imperative for businesses to look back on. Think about what this means in the context of your clients and your services and see if it is something you can help with.
“Also, think about how to offer support to your clients and prospects in whatever way you can, especially if you have a good pre-existing relationship.
“Put yourself in their mindset and what they are grappling with (it’s likely a lot) and step up as a resource and a partner to them–someone they can count on and lean on.
“And don’t try to sell them too hard during this time! This may mean loosening our controls on how much ‘free’ advice we give and time spent on the phone as consultants. Bottom line: unprecedented times call for unprecedented measures.”
Amanda’s takeaways:
  • Don’t try to sell too hard during this time
  • Loosen up and be more open than usual about how much free advice you give out
  • Put yourself in their mindset and what they are grappling with (it’s likely a lot) and step up as a resource and a partner to them–someone they can count on and lean on

4. Consultants who employ empathy in their business development and service offerings.

Tara Bradford, CEO coach and advisor

Tara Bradford, a former ICU nurse turned entrepreneur, CEO coach, and advisor, shared that both new and past clients are coming to her right now requesting her help with online visibility which she provides through her program called The Total Package™, a blueprint for helping businesses create, promote, and sell an online offer.
“Many of them have built successful brick and mortar companies and have been considering going online for a few years, but have been overwhelmed by the information that’s out there and they just don’t know where to start. Providing clients with the exact tools and processes they need that are simple to follow helps them to start moving forward, one step at a time. “Your existing clients may not be sharing their stress and fears with you because they’re still in shock. If you want to provide a ton of value to your existing clients, ask them what they need and be prepared for them to tell you they don’t know what they need. Then offer one or two options for how you can help them right now.
“Offering more than two options will overwhelm them and in times like these, your clients will have a harder time making decisions. They want to know you have their back and that you also have a plan for supporting them. Make them feel heard and taken care of and that will go farther right now than any product or solution you propose. “Now is also a great time to offer to be a guest on podcasts and to be vulnerable and share your origin story (the story about why you started your company and how you got here) to remind your network about what you do, stay top of mind, and to invite them to support your journey as a small business owner.
“Your first degree connections may not be the ones who become your clients, but they are the ones who already know you, love you, and trust you. People feel really great when they’re helping others and by inviting them to help you, you’re creating a win-win-win situation. When they refer you new business, they win because they’re helping you and they also win because they’ve solved a problem for their other friend by introducing that person to you. When you provide exceptional value to that friend and word gets back to your connection who initially made the introduction, that person becomes the hero for both of you.
“Also, if you haven’t thanked your referral partners or checked on your past clients yet, now is a great time to just say ‘hello’ and let people know you’re thinking of them without asking for anything. Set the intention to be of service, not to get clients and people will feel that and want to work with you even more than if you try to scare them into working with you now when they are already scared.
“The old ways of getting clients such as creating scarcity and urgency are not going to resonate with people in times like these. We may even see that after this pandemic ends, consumers will be wiser and avoid those tactics if they become negatively triggered by them as a result of the fear that is spreading right now.”
Tara’s takeaways:
  • Don’t overwhelm your clients further. Help clients move forward one step at a time.
  • Make your clients feel heard and supported by you.
  • Use this time to market and tell your own personal story and share vulnerabilities about how this is all affecting you.
  • Use podcast interviews and blog posts to remind your network about what you do, stay top of mind, and to invite them to support your journey as a small business owner.
  • Set the intention to be of service, not to get clients, and people will feel that and want to work with you even more.
  • The old ways of getting clients such as creating scarcity and urgency are not going to resonate with people in times like these.
  • Referrals will go a very long way right now.

5. Consultants who have quickly pivoted their offerings.

Hillary Senko Cullum, a long-time Neiman’s executive and Amazon alum who recently launched her own retail consultancy says, “In normal times I help brands and retailers optimize profitable sales growth. Right now, I have shifted to triage mode to help my clients determine immediate steps to best survive their business closures, cancelled orders, and devastating drops in sales.
“I have been offering merchandise planning services to understand the go-forward impacts and implications on sales, inventory, and margins. My clients are using this analysis to guide decisions regarding immediate expenses, on order reductions, production cancellations, and adjustments to future planning.
“You can provide great value just by reaching out to your clients to check in and listen. You know your clients’ businesses in a unique way and can offer less emotional, unbiased advice on how to navigate this storm.
“Until you have the conversation about what headwinds they are facing you will not realize in which ways you can help. Do not assume what their priority will be.
“When working on generating new clients, it is time for genuine communication and transparency. Be sincere with what value you can add and where you can help. Make yourself available for ongoing discussions as right now it will take more time for a business to commit any cash outflow.
“And be honest. If you can’t help with the problem they need, then recommend someone in your network who can. This also means it is very important to talk to other service providers in your network. It is good to know what they are doing so you can make the right referrals and likewise they can refer business to you.”
Hillary’s takeaways:
  • Pivot your services into triage-mode, helping clients survive this storm.
  • Listen, listen, listen. Don’t assume you know their priorities.
  • Communication and transparency are more important than ever.
  • Be sincere about the value you can add.
  • Be more open and available for ongoing discussions leading up to closing a client.
  • If you can’t help them, recommend someone who can.

6. Consultants who help drive appropriate content for their clients.

Danielle Yannotta, former longtime Toys “R” Us executive who recently launched a growth strategy and marketing consultancy in the Mom & Baby space, has been driving revenue by creating digital content strategies for her clients.
“I have a deep retail marketing background, which spans product development, brand strategy, marketing management and digital engagement. These areas are typically where I drive value for my clients.
“However, with the current volatility and uncertainty in the economy, I am partnering with clients to respond appropriately to coronavirus concerns by pivoting content marketing plans and executing strategic business plan shifts where necessary.
“Brands should reevaluate marketing campaign activations, as social selling is a better activation point than push marketing (for the time being), and getting creative on social media is an effective way to stay connected with audiences and potentially generate sales.
“Here are 5 content ideas for how consultants and freelancers can help clients demonstrate leadership now and in the future weeks to come:
1. Human connection
Use social media to enhance human interaction during this social distancing time period, including an increased use of Facebook Groups, social video, live streaming, etc.
2. Leverage reducing stress and anxiety entertainment and relaxation ideas
For kids: provide ideas (such as slime making, play dough painting, etc) to help manage and express their emotions when they are having trouble understanding what is going on. For adults: Share ideas on relaxation and self-care while social distancing.
3. Back to basics
Bring back nostalgic entertainment activities such as board games and puzzles for quality time and family fun.
4. Embrace virtual events
Find alternatives to live events, whether its birthday parties, baby or bridal showers, or conferences. Provide ideas for how to create memorable celebrations with family and friends while still at home. For retail brands, offer virtual shopping by FaceTime or Zoom.
5. UGC tips and tricks
Encourage audiences to share tips and tricks on how they are managing through this turbulent time to help others.
“Most importantly, remember to help your clients stay authentic to their brand and avoid being gimmicky when offering content. Respond to audiences with empathy and only share content that identifies who the brand is, to avoid coming off in a phony way.”
Takeaways from Danielle:
  • Content is more important than ever right now if brands want to survive this economic dip.
  • Help clients reevaluate their 2020 marketing and content plans for immediate added value.
  • Helping clients with empathetic, relevant and sensitive content will set apart the winners and losers.
  • Help clients stay authentic and avoid gimmicks.

7. Consultants who focus on the relationship over the sale.

Michaela Taylor, Business Development Leader

Michaela Taylor, business development and operations expert for Shipmonk, shared, “On March 9th I left for a business trip to Florida to show one of the e-commerce brands I work with a warehouse and an operations site for fulfillment of their orders. I packed my suitcase for 3 days.
“4 weeks later I am still in Florida hunkered down in a house with the ShipMonk founding team working day and night. The set-up reminds me of the early days of the company, before there were hundreds of brands I work with and a sound business model providing stability and security.
“We are now operating under extreme pressure and in an environment of great uncertainty. And I love it. My brain (and phone) is on fire. Relationships I’ve been building for years and thought wouldn’t lead anywhere, suddenly came to fruition.
“When I started to build my book of business, I had one goal in mind: to not only sell what I have to offer but to create value, with the sale being secondary. It is extremely rewarding to see I’ve done exactly that.”
Michaela’s takeaways:
  • Expect the unexpected right now.
  • Build your client base with the intention of creating value, with the sale being secondary.
  • Use this time to build relationships and add value, above all else.

8. Consultants who are helping clients lead remote teams and prepare for a comeback.

Stephanie Blair’s consulting firm, Know & Flourish, helps modern leaders successfully navigate to the next phase of their career and coach them to effectively lead in modern workplaces, often through times of change. Others leverage her former Sales and Customer Success leadership experience when looking to fill gaps and build operational know-how within their sales and customer success organizations.
“On the enterprise level, the leaders that I am currently working with find themselves tasked with leading large teams in an unprecedented time of uncertainty and disruption. They’re navigating layoffs, accelerating new product launches, overhauling forecasting and earning projections and learning to motivate and lead in 100% remote environments for the first time.
“They’re also juggling their home realities and intra-personal challenges in the office. They’re operating at 300%, their peers and leaders are maxed-out and they need someone to confide in who isn’t their best friend or spouse.
“On the 1:1 advisory level, for leaders who were already looking for new roles or who were actively displaced, they want to be armed and dangerous when things turn around. I’m helping these individuals better understand their unique strengths, clean up their resume and LinkedIn profiles, and develop strategies to effectively navigate the job search process.
“Taking action is so important for our well-being right now. While a lot is outside of our control, we can work to improve our own mindsets and take more intentional actions, even if we’re only able to make small steps right now. Hiring in certain industries is still happening, and while they might need to wait for a period of time before they start something new, it’s never too early to start preparing for a strong comeback.”
Stephanie’s takeaways:
  • Be someone your clients can confide in.
  • Be a problem-solver and solution provider.
  • Help clients start thinking about a comeback, and help them prepare and plan for it.
  • With so much out of our control. helping clients to take action, even if it’s in small steps, is good for their well-being.

Other consulting and freelance niches that are thriving right now include:

Health and wellness
Consultants who work in health and wellness–online workouts, virtual acupressure workshops, health and wellness products and anything that helps people feel their best at home–are doing well right now.
Medical and healthcare
This spans all functions across this industry, including the need for new collateral to address health and safety procedures for patients.
Mental health
People need and are consuming these services more than ever right now.
Pretty much the only way to buy anything right now, if your clients’ customers have any income left.
Instructional design
There is huge demand for designing online courses and giving training on learning management systems.
Tech and automations
Most companies didn’t plan for their entire workforce to be remote all at once. Consultants providing support to help migrate companies online, set up communications platforms and train remote teams are doing well right now.
Digital marketing
Experiential is dead, but digital is still alive. And it’s pretty much the only way to advertise and market a product or service right now.
Sexual wellness
Apparently, vibrators and period underwear are recession-proof.
This specifically includes COVID-sensitive content for email blasts and any and all promotions.
Paid Search
Shopping campaigns are actually performing well overall right now.
SEO Audits
SEO on all platforms is more critical than ever. Brands are making sure they are super targeted.
Social Media Management
Time to create new and more relevant strategies, content and plans. Social media marketers are staying busy.
Web Design
Small business owners are using this time to work on their businesses or to quickly pivot, and they need web design work executed quickly.
Thank you to Upside members for sharing their wisdom here!
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