Small Business 101

Angelique Keenley -- President, sappHiRe consulting
Angelique Keenley -- President, sappHiRe consulting (Arianne Starnes for washingtonpost.com)
By David P. Marino-Nachison
washingtonpost.com Staff Writer
Friday, November 4, 2005; 12:00 AM

It's not uncommon for human resources professionals -- the behind-the-scenes people who help companies by creating and staffing payroll, benefits, recruiting and other systems -- to crave independence at some point in their careers.

Still, when Angelique A. Keenley quit her job as Arrowhead Global Solutions' director of HR, facilities and administration in July 2004 to start a one-woman HR consulting company, she worried that her seven years of corporate experience (plus prior work as a trainer in the U.S. Navy) wouldn't be enough to impress potential clients.

To counteract that, Keenley first focused on creating a marketable brand -- then embarked on an all-out networking blitz to let the marketplace know she was open for business as McLean-based sappHiRe Consulting. Four months later, she landed her first job.

How did you get your first customer?

My first customer was a referral. The old chief operating officer of the company I had been working for had moved to another company that needed a centralized recruiting function -- they needed hiring processes, contracts and a recruiting manager. They called and said, "We need you to do this. Can you come in and help us?"

My answer was, "Absolutely." Tons of relief -- finally, I could work!

My second client was a referral from a friend of a family member who happens to be the chief operating officer of a government contractor who had a subcontractor who needed some help -- I put in a benefits program, then an incentive compensation program, then an employee handbook.

That's kind of my ideal client -- someone who's small, can't really afford full-time in-house HR, and needs somebody who understands the culture of his company and will work directly with his employees on an as-needed basis.

But things change from what you had in mind at the start to what you end up doing. I'm working for companies of all sizes who bring me in various specific roles and find out after I've been there for a couple of weeks that I can do lots of other things for them too.

It's important, especially when you're getting started, that you don't turn down an assignment because it wasn't exactly what you had in mind. Once you're established, then you can start picking and choosing.

How should people starting their own consulting businesses approach those early days when they may not be working right away?

If you're going to get into independent consulting, make yourself look professional from the start. Lots of people who hire me or meet me don't even know I'm an independent consultant. They think I'm a business. I went out and got really good cards, a logo, letterhead, envelopes and a Web site. I looked like a company.

For the first four months, I had no work, so I was networking constantly. Breakfast, lunch and dinner I was at some sort of networking event. I was going somewhere almost every day of the week, talking to people, finding out what they were looking for, and getting my name out there.

Recently I attended a function and someone said, "I've seen your name everywhere!"

How do you budget your time among doing administrative work, looking for new customers and actually serving the ones you do have?

The most important thing I would say is to set your client's expectations at the beginning. A lot of clients you'll get as an independent consultant want to treat you like a full-time employee.

I tell them, "I can't be in your office 40 hours a week." I do a lot of work for clients at night and on the weekends, but I'm not going to be in the office 9 to 5.


© 2005 The Washington Post Company