a consultant going over documents with a group of people

Running your own business is a complicated endeavor, but one feature business founders share is that they often enjoy taking on many different roles and tasks. This is a great quality and one that’s important in the very early days of any company. But as you begin to scale up, your time becomes more valuable, and you might find yourself considering bringing on a small business consultant.

Small business consulting is a broad term that captures many different skill sets. It can include accountants and bookkeepers, marketing strategists, security experts, database administrators, HR experts, and more. Basically, anyone who knows how to set up and run a basic business system could have expertise you’d want to draw on.

Figure Out What Kind of Consultant You’re Looking For

As you begin to scale your business, there’s likely to be a number of areas where you could use some outside expertise. The key is to figure out which areas fall under your core competencies and which ones are better left to an expert. Here are some common areas where growing business owners turn to consultants:

  • Marketing. It’s sometimes said that a good product sells itself but in reality even great products need help finding their audience. A marketing consultant can help you identify your target market and develop a strategy for reaching it. If you’re considering bringing on a marketing expert, you should make sure they have experience in your particular industry as marketing tactics and best practices can vary widely between industries. A digital marketing strategist with consumer tech background is going to bring different skills to the table than someone with a background in B2B sales and traditional media.
  • Accounting and bookkeeping. It’s common for growing business owners to handle their own books at the outset, but as your company grows this can become both a major time suck and potential liability. That’s why freelance accountants and bookkeepers are some of the most common small business consultants. These professionals can help set up scalable invoicing and payment systems, get your books in order, and help you prepare for taxes.
  • HR. Similar to accounting, HR often gets folded into the owner’s responsibilities. But as your business grows, you’re going to want to create more formal HR structures. An HR consultant can help advise you on how to set up those structures to make sure benefits are properly administered and to help mediate and address issues that may arise between team members. These things may not seem like problems right now, but the point of a good HR expert is to make sure they don’t become problems in the future.
  • IT and security. As a growing business, you may not think you’re vulnerable to outside attacks, but you’d be wrong. In fact, hackers often specifically target SMBs because they’re less likely to have solid security protocols in place and are more likely to pay ransom demands. At the same time, SMBs can often act as backdoors to get into the systems of larger enterprises that they contract with. To avoid this kind of situation, it may be a good idea to consult an IT security expert to make sure your systems are safe and scalable.

Ask the Right Questions Before You Hire

The more information you have at the outset, the more likely you are to find the right kind of expertise. Many business owners know vaguely that they need help in a particular area, but they don’t know enough to know exactly what their challenges are. Sure, a good consultant might help you identify those areas, but you can often save time and money by doing a little research beforehand.

Once you know what area you’re looking for help in, ask yourself what particular projects you need help with. For instance, do you need help planning a marketing push around your first big product launch? Do you need someone to get your server set up and secured? Do you need help just getting your receipts in order? The more specific you can be here, the better.

After that, ask yourself how much time you expect your project to take. Do you need someone to come in and devote a lot of time for a few weeks to get some major initiative off the ground, or are you looking for someone you can call upon semi-regularly? Again, your overall business goals should help guide you through these questions.

How Much Is This Going to Cost?

Because small business consulting encompasses so many different fields and skill sets, exact costs are going to vary depending on what skills you’re talking about. On top of that, you should also expect consultants with more experience to charge substantially more than someone who’s just starting out. On Upwork, freelance startup consultants charge rates that can range from $50 to $150 an hour. In general, marketing consultants tend to charge somewhat less, while freelancers with expertise in security and finance tend to charge somewhat more. That said, it may make more sense to negotiate a fixed project fee based on the scope of your project.

Below we’ve put together a table with some relevant skills and hourly rates charged by some small business consultants*.

Type of Consulting Relevant Skills Average Hourly Rate
Marketing Digital marketing, campaign planning, market research $25-100
Accounting and Bookkeeping Auditing, accounts payable and receivable, tax preparation $30-100
HR Management Administering benefits, mediating disputes $35-175
IT Security Establishing security protocols, penetration testing $40-140

*Reflect rates charged by freelancers on Upwork in North America with over 1,000 hours and 90% success rate.