Since the purpose of my blog is to share my learning experiences as I live them, let me share with you my experience with “consultants”.
The thing with consultants is that you either get one end of the spectrum or the other. Over the past few months, I’ve had the fortunate opportunity to experience both!
As an associate friend of mine likes to say, “consultants in the restaurant business are either unemployable, lazy, or they happen to be great consultants, but many are not the latter.... but the title "consultant" has become synonymous with "unemployed" in this business.” Basically, many “consultants” are looking to step into your company, point out the most obvious cost-cutters and request their five-figure check and look for someone else to sucker. They don’t care about your brand, or the quality level of your product. They’re cost-cutters and that’s it.
That’s one end of the spectrum. Now for the other. There are some consultants out there (although these may be more rare) who become a part of your team. They dig for as much information as they can and they truly strive to know your heart and your passion. They know and understand that your company is essentially an extension of yourself and your team.
We have recently hired a marketing consultant out of Dallas who came into town yesterday and picked my brain until it hurt. She played the best devil’s advocate ever… putting myself and my team into a position where we were faced head on with our biggest dilemma as a young start-up company: an identity crisis. And, to her credit, we have no “real” agenda for her. No “project” is mapped out. She’s working with us as a clean slate, which is often much more difficult. As it turns out, we’re at a very uncomfortable fork in the road where we’re debating who we’re going to be when we grow up. It’s adolescence all over again! It wasn’t really fun the first time I went through it as a teen. I think it’s even worse now as a company because there’s a lot more people involved.
Perhaps a good benchmark for what makes a good consultant is that they often provide more questions than answers during the early stages. They challenge everything you’ve done thus far and they force you to face issues that are easy to overlook as an insider. They also know and appreciate what YOU find important… instead of trying to convince you to buy into what they think is important. They act not as “yes-men”, but as devil’s advocates because any real consultant knows that in order to do their job effectively, they must force you to think like an outsider.
Buyer beware, however, if they attempt to charge you based on savings they can bring you. Cost-cutting is not a bad thing, per se… but when someone is brought into your company who cares nothing about your goals and philosophies, they will easily suggest cost cuts that can and will damage your product and, therefore, your brand. If you need to cut costs, start where customers won’t be affected (like a cheaper phone service provider or a credit card merchant account provider who charges a lower rate). Or negotiate lower rates from vendors without switching to "cheaper" products like off-brands.
But before you go on a cost cutting rampage, learn who you are first. Knowing who you are and what you stand for will help dictate what you’ll be willing to cut costs on.
As always, my consulting advice (aka, this blog) is free for all.
It's Not Personal...
Sure, we've all heard it. "It's not personal, it's business." Or, if you're a Jerry Maguire fan like I am, "It's not show-friends, it's show-business."
So, earlier today I was hit with inspiration for a blog entry and wrote the entire thing... THEN it all got erased due to an "error" on the server. I had to then leave Starbucks (where I usually do most of my writing) and go pick up my wife from work. From there it was home to change, then out to eat, then back to Starbucks so I could re-write my earlier blog, which I felt was going to be the best one yet!
But instead of writing, I ended up spending a few hours talking with two of my most valuable employees... a young married couple who seem to have as much heart and passion for the company as I do. We talked about a lot of things... just brainstorming as it came to us with no agenda. It was one of the best conversations I've had regarding work in quite sometime. This came after two weeks of some very tough decisions for me - one of which included letting go one of our key employees because there was no longer a need for his specific position and also having to restructure some of my previous business and growth plans. And as a side note, the employee we let go was a very close friend of mine.
So, needless to say, I was sidetracked from my "blog duties" with one of the most encouraging, inspiring, and reenergizing conversations I've had in recent days. And not only was I OK with that, it completely changed my inspiration for this entry.
I've been pretty discouraged these past two weeks or so with the thought that a company as young and as small as we are has already had to "downsize" by slowing down some growth plans and laying people (OK, one person) off. It's a feeling of being stuck and not knowing what exactly is the key issue to focus on. Or in our case, like many start-ups (I assume), having far too many "things" that are contributing to the feeling of being stuck and not knowing which ones to devote the most time to.
But after tonight, not only do I feel a HUGE sense of renewal, but I feel as though there's been a lot of clarity on my end as far as the things that may need my attention. Perhaps not things I have been ignoring per se, but things that simply needed some guidance and direction from my end so that they can flourish and "trickle down". Little things... but from which come BIG changes. Paradigm shifts not only in the mind, but in attitude as well.
I guess to bring these thoughts to a head... start over. Many times I get so caught up in the evolutionary process in the growth of a business, that I overlook a lot of what inspired me to get into this gig in the first place. It's like any sport... you can't neglect the fundamentals. If you do, stop and start from the beginning.
Granted, this is tough (as I'm learning now) for those of us who are running a business. I think most of what us entrepreneurs do is very much underestimated. Think about it... employee issues, policies and procedures, training, hiring, firing, financial (running on a profit AND managing cash flow well), branding, marketing, advertising, operations, raising capital, planning growth and expansion, and always trying to be a beacon of light to every single person who counts on you and you alone for their paycheck. Damn, I get tired just thinking about all that. But the fact remains, we must focus on the basics, while still allowing ourselves to evolve and growth in knowledge and understanding. It's a tough balance. Tougher than I thought it would be. Lucky for me, I have some amazing employees who help me remember the basics and who inspire me to become a better "boss". We all need to be inspired. Even though most employees look toward their bosses and other leaders in the work force to inspire them and yet someone's got to inspire the guy at the top.
At any rate, that's my point (to stay focused on the fundamentals... in case you missed it amongst all the rambling). And, seek out those who inspire you. It's so easy to get burnt out in this type of gig... and it's so easy to feel alone and isolated at times.
Sometimes it's not business, but it's personal. And that's not a bad thing... especially when it inspires you to keep going and do great things.
(Thanks to Shane and Katie for inspiring me tonight at Starbucks)
Ask, seek, and knock
I've always had this drive to do big things in life. I'm not sure where it comes from and if something of this nature is a good fit for everyone, it's just the way I turned out, I suppose.
To me, however, doing big things in business, life, or whatever simply is not all that difficult. In fact, one of my good friends likes to poke fun at me quite often for how simple I make things. Just prior to signing a deal to purchase my current business just over a year ago, I was reading a book on how to buy or sell a business. Even before that, when I needed to write a business plan to secure financing for this company, I read a book called "Business Plans Made Easy."
But this post isn't about what to read... or reading at all for that matter. It's about the simplicity of doing great things. Things that most people would veiw as "big." Keep in mind, however, that big and small are all based on your perspective in life.
Many people (entrepreneurs and "normal people" alike) take themselves out of the running to do big things. They never fail because they never TRY. So, therefore, they never win either. They don't ask or seek or knock because they think that it's not that simple to accomplish big things. Call it the fear of failure or art of being lazy... either way, doors aren't being opened not because they're locked but because there's no one turning the knob.
While working in the music industry, I was managing an artist name Matt Wertz (who's on my Good Tunes! list). Matt was in the process of looking for a producer for his next independent album. He had someone in mind, but jokingly told me that if John Alagia would do it, then he'd go with him. John Alagia is best known for his work on most of Dave Matthews' albums and more recent artists like John Mayer and Jason Mraz. Well, without really knowing how "big" of a name Mr. Alagia was, I found his contact info on the internet and contacted him via email. He responded within the hour and allowed me to send him Matt's stuff. He ended up loving Matt's stuff but never worked on Matt's 2nd album, twentythree places. Nonetheless, it was a huge contact to make on my end and taught me a very valuable lesson... doesn't matter how "big" they are, they're still people and it never hurts to ask. (By the way, Matt's stuff can be found on awarestore.com and on his site at mattwertz.com).
And that brings me to some bigger contacts I've made based on the same practice. If I ever read a book that I really enjoy, I email the author. Without fail, I always get some sort of reply. This has worked for Seth Godin (author of Purple Cow, Free Prize Inside, and others), Alex Wilmerding (Deal Terms) who graciously gave me some valuable feedback on my business plan, and Scott Bedbury (New Brand World) who corresponds via email with me from time to time.
In fact, I once called a Fortune 500 company's 800 number asking to meet with the CEO. It was a shot in the dark, but I figured it couldn't hurt. The girl who answered the phone was no doubt someone they paid to do just that... probably a college aged person sitting in a cubical. I told her I wanted to meet with their CEO and "pick his brain" and even offered to pay for his time (hey, he's a busy guy... gotta give some incentive). She asked me a question or two and then said "let me put you through to his voice mail." I thought "No way is it this easy!" As I began to get nervous (since I never thought it would actually work), another lady picked up the phone. This time, it was the CEO's personal assistant.
She gave me the same interigating-like questions (mainly based on who I was and my motives for calling and wanting to meet with this high-profile exec) and then told me that she would look into setting up a meeting between us. Granted, I'm not sure if this meeting will ever take place, but his assistant and I have corresponded a few times this past year. And, the point is, you'd be surprised at the results you get from simply asking.
So while this isn't a conversation starter of a blog entry, hopefully it will encourage others who are in a position like I am to seek to connect with "big" people. I'm sure that those people had some help along the way and many of them are willing to lend a hand from time to time to those who ASK for it.