When I found my first client for consulting work, I wasn’t even looking for any. I did not even know that I had any services to offer. I was just a little unsuspecting law student in the third year of my law school. Only half way through the law school, I couldn’t even imagine that anyone will want to hire me for my legal skills.
In any case, I came to know of an event called Startup Saturday mentioned on my Facebook feed one afternoon after class. It sounded interesting, so I decided to turn up at the event even though it did not feature in my plans at all. I consulted a senior before leaving as to whether I should go. This was a person who had already started up – and he made a face and said that such events are rarely worth the trouble of attending.
I decided to find out for myself. By the time I arrived at the venue, the event was already underway, and a speaker was talking about how he was building his start-up. His name was Vikram and he was running a software start-up after graduating from IIT Kgp. As I listened with rapt attention, I realized that there were data protection law elements which would be very important to his business. I decided to talk to him after the talk was over. However, after finishing and sitting down for 2 minutes, he got up and left the auditorium as another person went to the mic to share something. For a minute I thought I have lost the chance to share my idea with the entrepreneur. However, then I decided to follow him.
As I caught up with him, he told me he was going to get himself a smoke and invited me to join him. For the next ten minutes, I exuberantly shared my ideas about data protection laws with him. He gave me his card and told me to stay in touch. That’s it.
Over the next month, every once in a while, whenever I will come across any article related to data protection or some other legal issue that I felt could be relevant for Vikram, I would send it across to him. By the end of the month, Vikram invited me to his office and made me an offer to join his start-up as an employee. He even offered me some equity in his company. I rejected.
Then he offered me some legal work. I had to draft a Non-disclosure agreement. As I continued to engage with Vikram and his company, that summer I also worked on an investment transaction of a significant value (I can’t disclose the amount) for the first time. I had no clue how do work on such a transaction. Vikram knew this, but he was fed up of trying to work with traditional lawyers in Kolkata who did not value his time and made him run around in circles. He showed confidence in me, and told me that it was while he was still in IIT Kgp that he started building his company, and he sees to reason why I being from a top law school could not handle documentation and negotiation of an investment contract.
That was incredibly brave and supportive of Vikram. And guess what, I didn’t let him down. I worked extra hard, got advice from seniors on how to run a transaction like this, and pocketed a significant fee. Let’s just say that it was more than starting salary of most law firms in India. When Vikram exited this company 6 years later, I wasn’t practicing anymore. He still insisted that I represent his interests (by this time he had become a great negotiator himself and he can school any average lawyer on corporate governance or investment laws) as his exit from the company was finalized. I am also involved in his next project. If any of us visit the city where the other person is, we make it a point to catch up. I always bounce new ideas off Vikram and acknowledge him as a great inspiration behind me starting up a product company. Perhaps, seeing him in his early stages of his company made me reluctant to take funding in the early stages of my own company iPleaders.
Why am I telling you about the relationship I have with Vikram? Some of you think about business networking as a sleazy activity of soliciting work and exchanging business cards. That doesn’t work. At best of times, such networking will only produce mediocre results.
Take genuine interest in the people you meet. Take a stand for their success. Understand what they need today and tomorrow. Lend a helping hand. Make a difference in their life. You will never be without work and your professional success and level of energy will baffle others.
Why did Vikram give me his work, that he could easily give to a law firm or people much more qualified than me?
He knew I have taken a genuine interest in his business and his success. He saw it when I was emailing articles to him. He saw it when we met and I asked him questions about his business. He will still see my interest and care for him when we meet next time. That is why he still wants me on board on any of his projects.
This is not an one off incident though. Whenever I had great success in developing long term, productive relationships with clients, partners, vendors – it has always been like this.
If you want to forge strong professional relationships that will make your practice thrive, start taking real interest in the business of other people.
Bonus: my interest in legal issues entrepreneurs face led me to explore this area for the next two years, and culminated in creation of a course called Diploma in Entrepreneurship Administration and Business Laws.
My first paying client, however, was found in my 2nd year in college. More than one and half years before I met Vikram. That wasn’t really a consulting project prima facie, though consulting was involved in every step of what I did. The story of how that happened is very interesting as well and I will share that before I wrap up this post.
I was at this time preparing for my end semester exams. Rajneesh Singh of IMS Learning Solutions, a giant in CAT coaching at that time with hundreds of centres all over the country approached me for my opinion on the study material for a law entrance course they were about to launch. I was very passionate about law entrance having cracked the formula myself couple of years back. I was guiding a couple of my friends to crack some law entrance exams informally as well.
I took a look at the study material, then sat down and wrote detailed comment on each pages, and then I emailed the file to Rajneesh. Next day I got a call from him asking me if there is anything I can do to improve the study material keeping in mind that the launch is very close!
There was a moment of hesitation as I tried to decide if this will harm my prospects for the upcoming semester exam – but I took it up. And boy, did I do the right thing. I am quite sure now, with 20/20 hindsight that a few more marks, or even topping in those exams would have done nothing for me compared to what I gained over the next few years. It was completely unforeseeable. However, with my first paid gig, that paid me INR 9,000 for a few days of work transforming 50 pages of boring study material to something I will love opened a flood gate of new possibilities for me. Next month, I submitted a proposal to create one more new module and eventually I would go on to create many things from all the legal modules of IMS that have been studied by thousands of students ever since, to hundreds of test papers, instructor’s notes, class planning, hundreds of hours of classroom training and a number of other things that will change the course of my career and even life in the next 5 years.
Opportunities are almost always knocking on your door. However, are you even ready to take advantage of them? Have you been preparing yourself for that moment in some way? Maybe the opportunity that seems to be taking you off your immediate goal is going to change the course of your life for better.
Say yes to opportunities, even when they come disguised as work.
How to find your first client? It starts from knowing that you got to be professional in your general approach to people, that you have to add value to the people who come across you even when there is no expectation of any returns and then you should also become really good at something. After that, you got to put yourself in the way of opportunity.
Every person you speak to has some opportunity for you, and you have something for them – the only problem is that neither of you yet know what that opportunity is. It would take some imagination and openness from both of you to find out what you could do together.
Keep at it. Most people will come across clients and never know that they did, and walk past. You could be different. Even if you are a student, or a full time employee, you can easily develop a supplementary stream of income. Earn your first income on the side, and see your life change from there.
If I get a good response to this post, I am going to write next on how to identify a good consulting opportunity, a service you can offer on the side and how to amaze your client so that they come back for more.