Starting a Consulting Company

Interview with Cerebellas Founder Beth Zimmerman

If you are thinking about starting a consulting company, pay close attention to the lessons learned by entrepreneur Beth Zimmerman. Her consulting firm, Cerebellas, is doing well in a niche market by doing great work for clients.

Cerebellas LLC, located in Long Beach, New York, is a strategic consultancy with a unique approach.

We asked Beth Zimmerman, founder of Cerebellas, to tell us a little bit more about her entrepreneurial experience in opening a consulting company.

Beth, tell us about your current business. What are you doing exactly?

At Cerebellas, we help B2B companies improve their business performance by providing them with the market intelligence, strategy and smart execution to achieve their business goals. Think of it as a combination of the best of a management consultant, researcher and strategic marketer—all in one.

Clients come to us for a range of counsel, including how to grow their business; enter new markets; test the viability of new products or services; plan, price and launch new products or services; 'diagnose' their internal systems, functions and processes relative to serving the customer; developing objective customer insight—among other things.

Sounds like a great offering. When did you start the business and what were you doing before this? By the way, is this your first business?

We started the firm in 2003. In fact, we just passed our five-year anniversary.

Previously, I was a senior strategist for a global strategic marketing firm, and prior to that a practicing architect in New York City for about ten years.

When I was twelve years old, I started a dog-walking service, but this is my first business as an adult.

Where did you get the startup money to launch your company?

It was a combination of savings and home equity, judiciously tapped.

The first year I ate a lot of PB&J. I barely went out to dinner or lunch, unless it was to take out a client or prospect. Everything I had went to building the business. Fortunately, I still like PB&J; now I eat it because I want to, not because I have to!

Who are your main competitors? How do you compete against them?

In some respects, large marketing agencies often say they do the same thing that I do—but they don't.

I'm a business strategist, not a marketer. But to clients who might not necessarily distinguish the two, these agencies can sound like they offer a similar result, even if the services are different.

In reality, I never think of myself as really competing against them, just the perception of them. I never describe myself as a marketer and will usually give a couple of examples of work I've done for clients to paint a real picture for prospects, or networking contacts, about what Cerebellas does. This quickly dispels any notions they might have that Cerebellas is another agency.

My biggest competitive challenge is clients choosing to do nothing at all.

Interesting. How has your experience in running the business been different from what you expected?

There are a lot more administrative demands that can just kill your day if you're not careful, and the process of developing business is longer and more time-consuming than I initially envisioned.

It's also been far more gratifying than I imagined—and believe me, I imagined!—in spite of the occasional 7-day work weeks, long days and ebb and flow of business.

Is there anything you wish you had done differently?

I think whatever little bumps along the way or mistakes I might have made were all for a reason, and I learned from them.

But if I had to choose something, I'd not have taken some of the work I took in the first year or so because it took me off focus. It's hard to turn away work—especially when your business is young—but it's an important skill to learn if you're going to be strategic about developing your company, not merely opportunistic.

That's a great point. So, in terms of things that have been effective for you, what have you done that has played a significant role in helping you to grow the business?

It sounds cliché, but I always try to deliver exceptional service to my clients.

It includes more than simply doing excellent work—which isn't always so simple to achieve—but involves developing deep, trusted relationships with clients such that you become a 'go to' resource for them.

Get to know them as people. Don't be afraid to share a little bit of yourself as well. Not only do you get more opportunities with that client, but they become willing participants in growing your business by providing referrals, which are the lifeblood of a small business.

What advice would you give to somebody else who wanted to start a consulting business?

Never stop selling, no matter how busy you get.

And don't listen to your mother or your brother or your neighbor or the guy who cuts your hair or your old cube mates who tell you you're crazy. It takes a little craziness to venture out on your own.

I'd also caution against waiting until you feel totally ready, because in reality—you'll never be totally ready for being on your own. Be smart about it and make sure you have responsibly set the stage for starting your business, but if you wait for all the stars to align, they never will.

Well said, Beth. Thanks so much for sharing your entrepreneurial advice with us. It sounds like you are doing the most important things right, and we'll be sure to track your progress as a rising star in the strategic consulting world.

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