I thought I’d start the New Year with a case study and lessons learned. Those who have followed this blog had read countless articles here on the importance of strategic planning, strong implementation, results reporting and analysis. Some readers might not be aware of this but 2014 was actually the first year of my consulting practice. I thought it might be of interest to take readers through the process of creating my business, developing a plan, implementing it, and seeing some of the results. I’ve also highlighted some of the lessons learned along the way.
Lesson One: Take the time to think…and dream.
In November of 2013, I was given a nice package by my previous employer. I began to get calls about possible job offers but was non-committal. Aside from two short maternity leaves, I had worked full time and in stressful roles for 25 years straight. I decided it was time to take a well-needed break to determine my next steps. For the first month I slept in, exercised, caught up on reading, made repairs around the house, and connected with friends and family. It took over a month for me to get far enough away from my “old life” that I could truly calm down. It wasn’t that I had hated my old job; I had worked with some wonderful people and I had found much of the work challenging and rewarding. But there were negative and even toxic elements to it as well. Time and space allowed me to eventually stop worrying about my lack of productivity (actually, I was very productive but the “old” me wouldn’t have seen it that way). I let go of outside influences and judgements, and truly started to think for myself. As a result, I began to re-evaluate and reconnect with the things that were most important in my life.
My next step was to open my mind up to the possibilities of my next step, but as soon as I started to problem solve, I fell right back into my old habits and belief systems. To get out of this trap, I indulged in various creative outlets such as pottery, oil painting, knitting and singing. This wasn’t filler time, but an important part of my process. By pushing myself to explore creativity through artwork, I forced my thought process in the cerebral cortex area of my brain – the only area where we can really do creative problem solving and envisioning. There, I could finally open up my imagination to future possibilities. Through these efforts I learned that I didn’t want to work for a company again, and that I also didn’t want to work full-time anymore. When I considered the type of work that had made me the happiest in the past, it was when I was strategising, and when I was helping people to improve their work lives through greater productivity.
I felt that building a consultancy focused on these skills would likely be viable, but I wanted to test out that theory in the marketplace. So the month of January was spent in research. I asked everyone for their honest opinion about my ability to make a go of consulting, and asked for their advice on how to proceed. I also assessed the available marketplace, and any potential competition.
In February, I summarized my research and the advice and suggestions I had received and then wrote out my business plan. Then I quickly developed marketing collateral, which included a website, and various brochures on my services, focussed by certain industries. In some instances, I pre-determined sub-services I thought would be most useful to various client bases and I organized my materials to highlight those areas. With this support material in hand, I began to approach my defined marketplace.
Lesson Two: Be flexible with your plan.
I launched my new business with friends and family, sent a message out to business colleagues, and conducted a very small and carefully targeted mailing of my materials. In short order I found that my services were in demand, although not necessarily for the sub-service areas I had anticipated. This surprised me because I know my market well and that includes its weaknesses and areas where it can receive the greatest return on investment for improvement. But ultimately I was running a business, not a school. My job is to credibly and proficiently provide services within my areas of expertise that the client wants to purchase. In time and as I build their trust, my intent is always to seek out ways to provide even greater value to them through new programs and services. But patience is key. My initial focus has been on demonstrating value in the areas in which they first seek me out.
Lesson Three: Set assertive yet realistic goals.
My 2014 plan called for achievement of certain financial targets which I hit within three months, causing me to set a new financial target. I was required to do this a total of three times before the end of the year. Could I have simply declared a more aggressive goal at the beginning? That would have been unwise. Goals should be assertive, but not so over the top as to make us feel the target is impossible to achieve. My ultimate goal might have seemed overwhelmingly distant in the early days, causing me to give up or lose momentum. It is much better to set aspirational but reasonably achievable goals, and then to amend them throughout the year if need be. You aren’t going to lose points for exceeding your dreams. At the same time, ensure that the goals you have to strive for. Don’t make your objectives so low that you could trip over them.
Lesson Four: Ask for referrals.
At various times throughout the year and when I’ve felt it was appropriate, I’ve asked clients for referrals. In fact, I’ve never advertised my services. For the most part, my marketing has been passive (website, blog, speaking engagements, writing). This is in part due to my commitment to maintaining a smaller practice where I have more free time, and can be responsive and focussed on my existing clients. But I also believe that referrals attract like clients. When an existing client refers me to a colleague, that colleague often has a similar temperament, set of values and feeling of expectation. This allows me to work with people who are honestly a joy to work with: ambitious, demanding (in a good way), with high expectations, with a good sense of humour and a great personality.
As suggested by the number of times I had to reset my financial objectives, this has been an incredibly good year for me. I have a wonderful client base. I have developed some great relationships with symbiotic service providers. I have learned that although I have some competitors out there, virtually no one else does what I do in my marketplace. It’s difficult to quantify (and to share) non- financial successes as they are so personal in nature, but I can report that my clients have had some remarkable financial success stories this year. Here are some examples:
- A client increased billable hours by 40% and revenues by 73% over the previous year;
- A client went from 25% under revenue target in the first quarter to 30% over target by year end;
- A firm won an RFP worth $100,000 + but even more importantly, brought them immeasurable credibility in a new service area;
- A client doubled their anticipated revenue target in 2014.
The Final Lesson:
Life is short. Too often, we delay in taking steps that we know will better serve our health and spirit because of our fear of negative financial impact. We believe that we must operate in certain ways, in certain conditions, or life as we know it will end. In fact, life works the other way around. We cause our own happiness or pain by our daily decisions and actions. When we take action to make shifts to improve our life, then the world around us will start to shift to accommodate that positive change. I’m not suggesting this is automatic: it must be done thoughtfully, carefully and perhaps even with a bit of guidance. This is why I coach. But positive change (and business success) is possible for those who have the desire, patience and courage to pursue it.