How I launched a productized consulting service in 2 days that brought $15,450 worth of work in the first month.
“Productized consulting” is the all the rage in the product and freelancing communities. You might be tempted to pass it off as merely a buzzword.
I felt the same way, so, as an experiment, I launched one of my own. What I learned is going to surprise you.
That somewhat confusing term refers to a freelancing service with a fixed length, scope, and price. For example, I offer a “landing page in a day” (LPIAD) productized consulting service, which includes copywriting, design, and front end code for a 1-page website at $1000.
Regardless of what you call it, the benefit is that the client knows exactly what they will get and for what price—up front—which is attractive when freelancing projects have notoriously unpredictable structures.
This strategy isn’t new. As with so many of the best strategies, 37signals, before they built and became Basecamp, pioneered it. They offered a fixed-length and fixed-price design service. It was called 37express: pay $2500 and in 1 week 37signals would redesign a single page of a client’s website.
According to Matt Linderman on SvN, 37express was one of the ways that 37signals built up an audience before they launched Basecamp.
More recently, other talented consultants are offering similar fixed services. Nick Disabato offers long-term site optimization and A/B testing strategy for a fixed monthly fee. Jane Portman offers monthly creative direction for software businesses. Adam Clark offers wordpress theme customization and deployment in 1 day. Brian Casel is even teaching a course on how to start a productized consulting service (Disclosure: he interviewed me for the course but I have no financial incentive to link it).
With all this buzz about productized consulting, the natural question is: why? Why are all these talented folks offering tiny, fixed consulting services?
If you’re cynical like me, you assume the answer is simply money. It’s an easy way for consultants to make a lot of fast income. But the truth is, this is good for the client too.
Let’s start with why this is good for you, the freelancer (hint: it’s more than just money). Then I’ll address the criticisms.
The most exciting part of productized consulting, to me, is that I don’t have to search for leads on job boards. No cold calls.
Instead, I got to announce LPIAD like a product, and because of that, get the word about my services out in a completely different way and to completely different people.
A fixed consulting service is easy to position as a product. “Landing page in a day” is immediately understandable, and I don’t have to pour as much effort into selling it as I would a 2-week consulting project. I can cast a wider net.
This has some interesting side benefits.
While a broadcast method like this might not drive thousands of sales (I hope not: help me I’m drowning in landing pages, oh god, help), it does get my name out in front of thousands of people. I can post it to Hacker News, and thousands of people I’ve never met, people who I’m so far removed from that maybe no one in my immediate network has met either, will learn who I am and that I offer consulting.
Clients post projects to job boards because they don’t know anyone who can do the work. But if they’ve already heard of someone, what will they do? They’ll reach out.
Even after I shut down my productized consulting sales because I had too much work, people kept emailing me to ask if I was available.
Let that sink in for a moment. I didn’t have to go looking for work. It was finding me. That’s the single best reason to start productized consulting right this very second.
Maybe this is unfair, but before I launched my productized consulting service, I thought the price would attract penny pinchers. The types who mean well enough, but don’t understand that I can’t design a brand new Pinterest clone for them in 2 hours.
I was completely wrong. The people who emailed me interested in the service were respectful of the price and my time. Those who hired me are even better—not a single one has crossed the line by asking for free, extra work.
However, a few of those emails turned into leads for larger projects. Three nice folks emailed me saying they’d like to purchase several 1-day projects, inquiring how they should do so. I responded by explaining my process for standard consulting work. So far, two of these have booked paid projects (accounting for slightly more than half of the total above).
Thus, offering a lower-priced fixed consulting service didn’t cannibalize standard consulting work. In fact, the opposite is true—it served to get my name out in front of clients with regular-sized budgets too.
The other fear about launching productized consulting was that existing clients would see it and immediately fire me, after seeing that I offer a service for so much cheaper.
One client saw my productized consulting service launch, and mentioned it. The only reason he brought it up was to congratulate me—he wasn’t phased by it at all.
I think that launching this type of service carries little risk, so long as you’re smart about explaining it. Existing clients aren’t going to fire you, especially when they see that a fixed consulting service provides something different than what they need.
I have no data to support this yet, but if clients from my LPIAD service do well, there’s a good chance they’ll return and hire me for a bigger project. I’ve already established a relationship and trust, so why would they hire someone else?
Even if they don’t return, it’s still a new connection. If they’re building businesses, they certainly know others who are too. That means more leads through referrals.
Either way, as a consultant, there’s a strong incentive to do a good job.
After I launched my “landing page in a day” (LPIAD) service, through some fluke it reached the #2 spot on Hacker News for the better part of a day.
However, the questions and criticisms began pouring in. Numerous HN commenters posed that the price is too high and the result too unpredictable. I received lots of email from potential clients, asking “Can you really write and design a website in 1 day?”
I absolutely can, but not without a strict structure. Let me teach you how to do the same.
A strict process ensures quality results
Calls, meetings, contracts, proposals, and onboarding take a lot of time and drive up consulting fees. To make a 1-day project realistic, I had to strip out as much process as possible but still ensure I get the information I need in order to do the work.
I automated my onboarding process to limit the amount of time invested before the project starts. After the client pays up front, they automatically receive an email questionnaire. They reply with answers and a date to schedule the project. I confirm over email. On the day of the project we talk on Skype for 15 minutes. I run this call very strictly to ensure I get all the information I need to do the work—unfortunately, there’s no time to chew the fat.
The other way I save on time is that I use my design framework. It’s a set of tools, such as color schemes, font pairings, and other base styles, that I’ve built on top of the Bootstrap framework. It allows me to produce custom results very quickly, and without it, there’s no way I’d be able to finish these projects in 1 day.
Every single person I know who offers productized consulting has a similar limit to make it realistic. I my case, it’s using a framework. Others use a specific tool or technology, or set a hard limit on monthly hours.
As a client, there’s less risk because of these constraints; the entire process is engineered to be predictable. We consultants couldn’t sell a productized service if it wasn’t. However as a consultant, it’s a major test of your project management skill. If you don’t plan well, you’ll end up spending way more time on the project than you get paid for. That also means there’s no downside for the client: if the project goes as planned, they get what they paid for, but if the project plan goes wrong, they get more than they paid for!
To offer a productized consulting service, it’s important to add constraints and manage time well. But if you’re confident in your project management skills, the rewards can be substantial.
The requirement to pay up front filters out window shoppers and leaves more time for clients
Completely automating the lead-up to a consulting project has a side effect: what do I do about window shoppers?
If you’re a freelancer, you know what I mean: those people who email you, talk to you on the phone, and ask you to send a proposal, but who probably never intended to hire you.
Reducing window shoppers is obviously good for the consultant, but it’s good for the clients who do hire us too. As a consultant, if I can reduce the amount of effort I put into finding work, I’ll have more energy for my clients. Nothing is quite so soul-sucking as sending proposals to job board posts. If I can do that less, the quality of my creative work will only be better.
With the 1-day projects, I was especially concerned about people taking up time but never hiring me because there was a potential to reach a much larger volume of people. The easiest way to filter out these (certainly well-meaning but still time-draining) folks was the price.
If a client pays me $1000 up front, they are serious. I can’t think of a better way to chase off window shoppers.
The truth is, $1000 is a not a large budget in the broad sense. My consulting fees average higher, and I’m sure yours do too. That’s cheap to a serious client who might be accustomed to projects with 5-digit price tags. To those clients it’s also a fairly low-risk way to begin a relationship with a new consultant.
However, most people purchasing my 1-day projects are launching new businesses. For most of them, it’s their first business and/or it’s a side project.
You’d think the price would scare them off. But for these clients, $1000 is a steal for what I deliver. I don’t just design the page: I write it, give marketing advice, and code it. Finding freelancers to complete all that work would certainly price well beyond $1000.
(Frankly, at the end of a landing page in a day project, I’m exhausted. I put a lot into these and could never manage to do two in a row.)
But from talking to my clients, I’ve learned the value isn’t even those deliverables. It’s the opportunity to get advice—and frankly, to have an experienced person do the hard part of marketing or launching a business for them.
Let’s be honest with ourselves: consultants of all types and industries have probably experimented with varied fee structures for as long as consulting has existed. This is nothing new.
An iron-clad price and product are a simple way to explain the benefit of hiring a consultant. There are a hundred comparisons, but here are a few: financial advisor order fees/commissions, realtor fees, and Roto-Rooter (extremely popular, productized plumbing!).
Fixed consulting earns all types of experts more reliable income and better-educated customers. It has a strong history, and that’s just one more reason why you should try it.
Design's Iron Fist is a collection of essays with advice for both design learners and professional designers. It's been featured as one of the best free design books by the Creative Bloq and the AIGA.
Enter your email address and I'll send it to you along with my newsletter. You'll get 1 email per week on average. More details here.