Taking the leap: how to build a small, successful consultancy

Frances Brown

Girl leaping into a lake from a wooden platform.

Photo by Erik Dungan on Unsplash

It’s now a year since our rebrand from Fowlam to Nightingale Design Research and it’s approaching five years since my husband Michael and I decided to start our own consultancy. I thought now would be a good time to look back over what we’ve learned from building a small but successful consultancy and to document how we managed to keep going through the weirdest, most unpredictable year any of us is ever likely to experience. 

At school, I never considered running my own business - it wasn’t one of the career choices presented to me and there were no business-owning role models in my life. As an adult, I vaguely considered it, but I still lacked any knowledge of how to go about it. It seemed too much of a leap into the unknown.

In 2014, my husband Michael was invited to be a co-founder of a user research consultancy. Because he could fulfill the role alongside his permanent job, it gave us a relatively risk-free way to gain some insight into what running a business involved. When that business was acquired in 2016, I suggested that he and I set up a consultancy together. Both of us were at the point of needing to make some important career decisions and so the time seemed right to give it a go. There was some risk involved - we had two small children, a mortgage and bills to pay - but we figured it was now or never.

In the nearly five years since we took the leap, I’ve learned about ten times as much as I did in the previous twenty.

It’s the classic ‘sink or swim’ scenario - once you’re in, you have no choice but to get to grips with everything you need to survive. There’s no one to hide behind, no one to pass the buck to - if you don’t do it, it doesn’t get done. There’s nothing like that sort of pressure to stop you from shrinking back from a challenge.

So what have I learned? Of course, there are lots of technical and practical details that I’ve had to get comfortable with - dealing with finance and hiring for example - but the more important things I’ve learned are about how to trust myself, make decisions and move forward even when the way isn’t entirely clear. 

If you’re a designer, developer, researcher or IT professional thinking of going it alone or setting up your own business, our webinar (on May 12th 2021) set out some practical advice on what you need to consider before making a change.

A recording of the presentation is now available to watch.