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Want to Join a Boutique Consulting Firm? Read This First!

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Published:
January 6, 2022
Reading Time:
11 minutes
Leo
Experienced copywriter who spends a lot of money at restaurants and regrets it later.

Are you finding it difficult to get into McKinsey, BCG, Bain & Co., or other top-tier firms? Or maybe you’re just not sure whether you want to work with big firms or go for the rather simple ones? Truly, career choices can be hard to make sometimes.

Decades of success and a powerful client base have made MBB and Big 4 firms the most sought-after destinations for aspiring consultants. Many ambitious and hard-working candidates try their luck every year, but only a handful succeed to get their foot in the door.

However, candidates often forget that they can still become successful consultants by working for a boutique consulting firm. Even though these firms are small, the opportunities can be big if you know how to leverage them.

In this article, you will learn what you need to know about a career in a boutique consulting firm and by the end of this article, you’ll be in a position to make a more informed career decision.

What Exactly Is a Boutique Consulting Firm?

Boutique (noun): A business or establishment that is small and sophisticated or fashionable. That is the dictionary definition of the word boutique.

However, in a consulting context, a boutique consulting firm refers to a firm that is small in size and offers a limited amount of niche-based services to its clients. There is no particular definition of a boutique consulting firm as such, but there are certain features that you can look for in a firm to identify whether it's a boutique firm or not.

Smaller offices and limited branches: A boutique consulting firm may only have one small office, but some may even have ten to fifteen branches in different cities or countries. But how does having fifteen offices worldwide make a firm small? You see, when you are considering the size of a boutique firm, it must be compared to MBB or the Big 4, which have thousands of branches and lavish offices in high-rise buildings all around the world.

Services in a narrow range of niches: While top-tier consulting firms that own the majority of market share can offer services in a wide range of niches—from strategy consulting to digital transformation and everything in between—boutique consulting firms cannot afford to do that. These firms have to stick to narrowed-down niches, for example, asset management or risk advisory, due to smaller budgets and a modest clientele.

Smaller teams: Again, small doesn’t necessarily mean that these firms only have 1-10 employees. The best boutique consulting firms may have up to two hundred employees, which is still very small as compared to the big consulting firms that may have hundreds of staff members working in just one of their many buildings. The culture in smaller consulting firms is also likely to be very casual and you may not see a very strict hierarchy that is prevalent in MBB or Big 4.

KEY TAKEAWAYS

  • Boutique consulting firms have a smaller number of branches, hire a limited number of employees, and usually offer services in one to three niches only.
  • Even though they’re smaller compared to MBB and Big 4, they still offer nearly the same amount of salary to employees.
  • Boutique firms may be under pressure to close more projects and find new clients, so, you, as a consultant, will be expected to put your best foot forward all the time.
  • Career advancement in boutique firms may be faster due to a lack of strict hierarchy and lower competition.
  • Working for a boutique consulting firm as a consultant will help you specialize in one particular area and this expertise may be a useful asset for future growth.
  • Exit opportunities are not as exciting in boutique firms as they are in big firms with established brands.

Six Things to Consider Before Joining a Boutique Consulting Firm

Whether a boutique consulting firm is right for you or not ultimately depends on what you want out of your career. However, we can make your decision a bit easier by discussing a few points that you should keep in mind before signing that contract.

1. Financial compensation

There is a common myth that boutique firms cannot afford to pay like big consulting firms. However, it is simply not true. You see, there are different types of consulting firms and a lot of them pay more or as much as the big players. So, technically, when it comes to salary, you can still earn $80K-$100K at a junior position in these firms. But wait, there’s a catch. Generally, smaller firms may not be prepared to handle a major financial upheaval in the market. So, tough measures may be taken to take the financial burden off the company and this may affect your job, too.

2. Innovation

Big consulting firms have rigid structures and robust processes that have kept them in business since the end of the previous century. Although this may look like a blessing, it can also be a major hurdle because an age-old way of working could restrict innovation. Smaller firms, on the other hand, feel free to be creative and come up with disruptive solutions. So, if you’re a creative thinker and have an entrepreneurial mindset, you’ll love flexing your brain muscle in a boutique consulting firm. It will also be easier for you to suggest and implement innovative solutions because of the lack of a stern hierarchy.

3. Career advancement

In big consulting firms, there is no moving through the ranks like a freight train. You will have to wait and excel in each role for years to be promoted to the next one. No matter how talented you are or how much of a pull you have with the senior decision-makers in the company, you will have to be patient. On the contrary, boutique consulting firms may assign more responsibilities to you early on in your career—given that you are qualified and motivated to handle them. Since the size of the team is small, you will likely work directly alongside clients and more experienced consultants on a daily basis.

4. Specialization vs Generalization

Since boutique consulting firms offer services in limited areas, you will get the opportunity to get really good in one area, which may be much better than being a jack of all trades. However, this doesn’t mean that working for big consulting firms won’t teach you anything. You see, larger consulting firms usually offer a broad range of services (which is necessary to take the revenue to ten figures). So, even though you probably won’t master one particular subject, you will still learn a lot about various consulting specialties by working with top-tier consulting firms. Then, you will have the option to choose the area that you love the most. For instance, if you find out that operations management is your key strength, you could offer freelance services in this niche later in your career. Simply put, whether you work in a boutique firm or MBB, you will leave with lots of practical hands-on skills and experience.

5. Work-life balance

Again, there is a myth that working for a boutique consulting firm means a lot of free time and flexible hours. Unfortunately, there are no free rides and you will have to put in the same amount of work in any firm—regardless of its size. In fact, sometimes, boutique firms are under more pressure to upsell existing clients or increase the project scope for continued work. To achieve this, you will be expected to walk the extra mile. However, every boutique firm is different and you will surely find the ones that offer the right work-life balance and an upbeat positive workplace culture.

6. Exit opportunities

This may well be the biggest con of working with boutique consulting firms. The thing is, if you work with McKinsey or BCG even for just four-five years, then you can always write “Ex-McKinsey” or “Ex-BCG” next to your name and earn respect from clients and consultants instantly. However, since boutique consulting firms don’t have such huge brand names, you will have to build your own brand with your expertise and hard work in case you choose to start your own firm or become a freelance consultant. The bottom line is, exit opportunities for consultants from big firms are way better as compared to the ones who have only worked for boutique consulting firms.

Final Thoughts

Hope these factors help you choose whether you should join a boutique consulting firm or tough it out and join MBB or other top firms by hook or crook. However, remember that if you have the right motivation and training, you can still have a very successful consulting career even in a boutique firm. And don’t forget that you can still work for a big consulting firm after working in a smaller one, although, if you switch to a bigger firm after working for a boutique one, you may get a position that’s on the same or lower-level.

Alright, that’s a lot of information to process so fast, right? So, take some time and think about it deeply. Good luck.

, Want to Join a Boutique Consulting Firm? Read This First!

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