The second full year for Asamby Consulting is in the books. It has been a hell of a year, starting with the move of Asamby from Toronto, Canada to Stuttgart, Germany. Over the course of the year, we found new great clients, added people to the team and worked on a large number of projects, both internal and external.
Asamby today is a far more sophisticated “thing” than it was at my last post around the same time last year. But at the same time, it is still very similar. Before I get too philosophical, let’s dive into my 10 learnings from year two of building a consulting firm.
#1 TRANSITIONING FROM A ONE MAN SHOW TO A TEAM IS A PROCESS
Transforming a successful consulting freelance gig into a firm really is a process, from a variety of perspectives. There is the team, there is the way in which you approach sales and then there is how you manage operations.
Regardless of how well you prepare it (I’d considered myself to be well prepared): The step from doing things alone and for yourself to having others in the team that perform the same or similar tasks takes time. And not a few days or a couple of weeks like I expected, but rather months.
I believe that this is particularly true for a service-based company. Growth here means to add other people that do similar work as you do. In that regard, they’re not taking tasks off your plate, but rather doing more of the same.
The consequence is that it really doesn’t make your life easier at the beginning, but introduces the requirement to find a unified approach to things (where you have been free to do what you want before).
In contrast, a product-based company grows by selling more products and bringing on people that take over tasks, literally taking them away from the founder.
However, I must say I like the process and am happy to have great people around me for the ride.
#2 REMOTE WORK OPENS UP GREAT POSSIBILITIES FOR NEW TALENT
We live in amazing times. Let me explain.
When I laid out the first growth plans for Asamby and put together a strategy, I divided the areas of focus into three fields:
- Finding smart and capable consultants (people)
- Finding clients or having them find us (sales & marketing)
- Executing on client projects well (operations)
I thought that out of these three things, finding smart and capable people would be the hardest part. I was wrong.
Modern technology and a new understanding of how work can be performed and organized (accelerated by Covid-19) have made it possible for people to work from anywhere.
Breaking out of traditional life models and linear CVs, there’s a growing number of super smart people with outstanding profiles and tremendous experience that pick the spot they want to work from around the world.
And these people are looking for a smart mix of salary, flexibility in their working hours as well as the opportunity to work from anywhere. They’re not only money-driven, but want their work to pay them in monetary and non-monetary assets like the above.
Additionally, there’s an ever growing number of companies that are comfortable with hiring a remote consulting firm. For them, it’s no difference whether the firm’s call participants sit in one room or on different continents.
These two facts combined allowed us to search for and find great people all over the world, more skilled and fun to work with than I have ever believed to be able to acquire for Asamby. I am very grateful for that.
If I think back about how I started my work life in the late 00s years, it still amazes me how the world and work has changed since then.
#3 SALES ARE THE SINGLE MOST IMPORTANT THING TO WORK ON; AND YOU CAN’T OUTSOURCE IT
Following up the three different areas of focus above (people, sales ops), sales has turned out to be the hardest and most critical for us.
There’s a variety of reasons for this:
- We haven’t niched down a lot, just because it is my deep belief that in small business you can’t separate the owner from operations from the people from the tools they use from the financials etc. It is all connected. If you really want to generate value for a client, you gotta tackle these things together.
- Referrals don’t work the same way they did before with the new kind of online entrepreneur that makes up half of our clientele. They’re often not as heavily embedded in entrepreneurial networks, also random chit chat doesn’t take place in the same way. So we need to rely on other, more formalized and more intentional channels.
- On a similar note: We don’t have a geographical focus so we don’t gain momentum in a particular area. Not particularly clever from a marketing standpoint, but then I just love the variety in our client base.
- Our service is far more complex to explain than other services like lead generation or paid media management.
We have working sales channels, but with the upcoming team growth I was looking for new ones. We decided to hire a lead gen agency. These are companies that will charge you, say, 3,000 EUR per month to book a certain number of qualified leads in your calendar.
We did that for a couple of months and the promised outcomes were non-existent. The reasons might be similar to the ones mentioned above. Regardless, there were two problems with that for us specifically:
- The cash-out hurts a small company like ours. Of course.
- During that time, I neglected further developing other sales channels.
So not only did we end up with very few leads, but we also had to rewarm other sales channels. My fault. My learnings out of this episode are the following two:
First, you can’t outsource the grind. There’s no way around doing the hard sales work. Every iteration makes you better, lets you learn more about your clients and helps you in the long run.
And especially for a bootstrapped startup like Asamby, not losing money is key. So we decided to go back to what works, and get better at it.
Secondly, I finally understood the difference between sales and business development (luckily I don’t run a sales consultancy ;-))
While sales is an active process to contract customers or clients, deal by deal, bit by bit, business development is the process of finding new channels, partners or collaborations that enable the business to grow more rapidly but still organically.
Focusing on smart business development, rather than a short-sighted attempt to outsource the hard sales work, feels like an obvious choice now. It wasn’t then. Lesson learned.
I think the key for sales development for smaller firms is to find the right balance between doubling down on what works (your established channels) and doing business development work as well as experimenting with new channels. If you get that balance right, your sales will grow sustainably.
My recommendation would be
- 70% focus on the sales channels that you know work well
- 20% business development
- 10% experimenting with new channels
Everyone has to find their own mix, but this is what seems right for us at this stage.
#4 A TEAM ADS SO MUCH VALUE TO ANYTHING
This is not really a new learning, just something I had the pleasure of experiencing again this year after being a one man show for the first year: A team just adds so much value and meaning to everything you do as an entrepreneur.
Be it strategic discussions and decisions, operational problems or complex problems to be solved for a client: Having outside views, different perspectives and experiences just brings such a wealth to any type of task and decision-making.
The main benefits of sparring ideas with the team for me are:
- Adding new and better decision options to choose from
- Refining and improving evaluation of the existing options
- Questioning the reasoning or motivator behind decisions
- Tapping into existing knowledge that’s based on experience
- Someone asking the difficult questions, the ones that you tend to ignore or just use to rationalize a decision you’ve already made on an emotional basis
I love working with a team of smart and capable people!
#5 BUILDING A BRAND IS HARD – BUILDING A SERVICE BRAND IS HARDER
I had laid out Asamby Consulting to be a stand-alone brand right from the start. I didn’t want to put my person before the company, but rather build a strong reputation for the two yellow squares.
What I learned this year, especially in the course of building a team and trying to expand the offering under the roof of Asamby: People don’t buy brands, they buy people. That might not be true in the product space. In the small business consulting space, it certainly is.
What this means for building a consulting firm is that your team needs to reflect what you want your brand to be like. People still don’t care about Asamby itself; maybe they care a bit about certain approaches we use under that roof and the convenience of a broad offering. But what they really care about is the person that’s going to deal with their problems.
That also means that building a strong personal brand is mandatory to push your service brand. It won’t work the other way round.
On the same note: I am still very determined to build and grow a service business that helps small businesses and remote-first companies solve their operational problems.
Not one week passes without a person telling us to productize what we do and to niche down. We believe in the power of truly caring for our clients, serving them human-to-human and offering everything they need to overcome their operational and organizational challenges.
Niching down and productizing can be promising strategies for marketing or business development purposes, or for add-ons around our core-business – but Asamby stays a management consulting firm. From humans for humans.
#6 SCOPING CONSULTING PROJECTS FOR SMALL DYNAMIC ORGANIZATIONS IS DIFFICULT AND OFTEN USELESS
During our contracting, we walk through a set of exercises with our clients to scope our potential collaboration. This helps us to understand the business, the relevant problems and the desired outcomes. The client gets a first high-level analysis of their business.
We also use the outcomes of this scoping phase to build out a project proposal, complete with timelines and deliverables. Our clients like that, understandably, as it gives them some form of safety on what deliverables to expect for which budget.
However, our learnings this year are very clear: Our clients are usually evolving way too fast for a traditional project, scoped for three or four months, to be completed as planned. There are just so many moving parts and variables that change the importance of tasks or make some tasks obsolete altogether.
We made changes to our offering structure to accommodate that.
#7 FOLLOW A RIGID RECRUITING PROCESS AND RELY ON PAST JOB SUCCESS
In the majority of projects, we also support our clients with recruiting in one way or the other. Is it setting up processes, fine-tuning job postings or really getting involved in the actual interview process, one learning stands and I am very firm on this for our past projects:
If you want to have a good predictor for future job success of an applicant, look at past job success.
This idea is neither new nor mine, but it just holds true. I started following that after reading the book Who – the A-Method for Hiring. And while the full approach from this book is often too much centered around corporate C-Levels, the philosophy has proven to be successful for us and our clients over and over again.
Additionally, deviating from this process has shown again and again to dramatically increase the likelihood of bad hires.
Therefore, I also firmly disagree with the LinkedIn Influencer wisdom to just hire for attitude and ignore the CV – it might be that big corporations can afford that, small business certainly can’t.
We recommend our clients (and follow this recommendation ourselves) to use a highly standardized interview process that really drills down into past jobs of the applicant. Check out the book for details.
Back that up with calling up references provided by the applicant and you have a pretty solid understanding of what you’re buying when hiring someone.
#8 BUSINESS SUCCESS IS A FUNCTION OF YOUR GOALS AND THE WORK YOU PUT IN
I’ve seen it many times this year: Set your goals right and then put in the work and success will come as a function of these two parameters.
Don’t get me wrong, there is a luck component to everything. But if you set the right goals, and then work on them every single day, you will accomplish things that move you closer to the goal.
To give you an example, throughout this year I can see exactly how much work I have been putting into sales – with a three month delay on our revenue figures.
Also the goals you set determine the questions you’re trying to answer throughout the year. An example: If your goal is to increase revenue by 10% each year, you might reach this by just becoming more efficient and slightly increasing your sales.
However, if you plan to 5x or 10x your revenue, you’ll have to answer totally different questions that cover all areas of your business.
The right goals, combined with hard work can go a long way.
Lastly, and I know this is a common place, mindset is everything. You can follow the same process working on the same tasks, but if your mindset is different, your outcomes will be.
So above all the necessary work on your processes, people and tools, don’t forget to work on your own mindset. And despite all the goals: Enjoy the process 😉
#9 THERE’S A SEASONALITY TO CONSULTING SMALLER COMPANIES
When you have ever worked in or for a larger corporation, you know that there is a seasonality in their spending. At the end of the year, each business unit and department is trying to spend the remaining budget.
Where they have been mindful of spending throughout the year, the goal at year end is to bring unused budget down to zero. On the one hand, this displays that the department or business unit has planned well and delivered on these plans. And on the other hand, it sets the baseline for next year’s budget (at least it still does in some companies).
So when you’re working for larger corporations as clients, the last quarter will often be a strong one.
With our smaller organizations, it’s different. (At least for our field of operations consulting.) The last quarter is often weaker than other quarters, and we believe this is due to the more people-centric spending dynamics of smaller companies.
Most strategic and executive decisions are made directly by the owner of the company. Budgeting might be in place, but still without the dynamics typical for larger organizations.
This leads to spending behaviour that’s comparable to an individual: January is often quite strong, as the CEO and owner “finally” takes on this operational issue that has been nagging for months (“New year, new you” for operations).
In contrast, the last quarter is characterized by acquiring some last business for the year, closing down work and projects and preparing for the year end. This busy season leaves no room to start projects that are more long-term.
I could be wrong here, but that’s my interpretation of the ups and downs in new business for the past years that I can’t tie to any other reason.
#10 I STILL LOVE REMOTE WORK
I have set up Asamby Consulting to be remote-only from the start. I work from home and usually meet neither clients nor team members in person.
And while I hear friends complain about the ongoing work-from-home induced by Covid-19, I can’t share that sentiment.
I must say, I still love remote work. The variety of people you meet is mind-blowing. I have learned about so many immensely successful businesses I would have never been able to in a regular, local setup.
It might be that this different assessment of working remotely really is a matter of mindset, because I was never deprived of anything (like someone who has worked in an office before). For me, it just is what it is.
Additionally, the flexibility it brings in your day-to-day life, especially with regards to family, is just amazing. You can plan your time much more granularly than having an 8-14 hour block (office + commute) in the middle of the day.
I am grateful for the opportunity to work like this, with amazing clients and a capable and fun team that’s starting to grow.
We have a lot on our agenda for 2022. Stay tuned.
Thanks for reading.
Share your experience in the comments if you like.