The older I get, the more philosophical I become. Success I increasingly realise comes in subtle – and often unexpected – form. It is perhaps easier to summarise this by saying what success isn’t. Success is not achieving huge professional and financial success only to realise fifteen years into a balance-crushing role that your relationships with important others have all eroded to minimalist levels – or – your health is on the floor.
Rather (and this is not a smug point: I have had some close scrapes also), success is about autonomy in the moment, balance over a self-determined period of your life (before you retire!) and the everyday companionship of brilliant others.
The last point deserves emphasis. I have written a reasonable amount on the topic of building professional service firms over the years (five short books and hundreds of blogs). This all based on my experience of building a great professional service firm (from singleton start-up to a c. £20m valuation in under five-years) and the subsequent, privileged advisory conversations I have had ever since with hundreds of leading firms in this broad sector. A topic I find myself oft returning to – and most intellectually engaged with – is that of the team: how to genuinely build high-performing teams at the heart of any business.
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When all’s said and done, not only is the challenge of building a team the real determinant of success (more so than your strategy and plan: as important as these aspects are) it is what gives human substance to our lives. My dominant emotion on reflecting on the incredible journey of founding and building my old firm (still going great some ten years + later) is not about the commercial and financial milestones (as satisfying as they were) but the companionship, banter and mutual learning experienced on that path. There is no finer entitlement in life than being part of a collective where anything feels possible as a result of the talent on your shoulder – and – where social companionship and humour is as dominant a force as professional output and development.
As such, this blog series starts deliberately with the journey metaphor. For me, it is the most apt when transcribing any entrepreneurial venture.
There are two journeys relevant to this post.
Firstly, let me describe the journey I propose to take you on via this blog series.
Over the course of coming weeks, I seek to impart advice, reflections, practical “top tips” and case studies to the professional service firm entrepreneur or senior leader. Such musings will be based on my own personal experience but also the insights gained from speaking regularly to many leading companies in this sector: particularly those successfully climbing up the slopes of Mount Audacity.
By way of emphasis, I should say up front that such advice will seek to be grounded and pragmatic. First and foremost, I know what it is to be a practitioner in this space … treading the hard miles from lonely start-up (nothing more isolating than solo-authoring that first business plan) to a team that is regularly winning national awards for its work. I am not a journalist or professional blogger. If a future blog goes a little towards the theory it will only be because it is theory that I learnt that had real-world practical implication and relevance.
My focus will be on professional service firms; that is all those businesses that sell professional services (business consulting, engineering, financial, technical, project management, creatives etc.) to other businesses. There is something unique about such ventures that requires special attention (a future blog will explore this point); that said, if you are entrepreneuring in a different space (say, software development, B2C product sales) don’t turn off completely … much of what I will post will still have crossover relevance … it’s just my focus is important.
What you will learn
Why Mount Audacity?
First and foremost, this blog post will be about entrepreneurship. Be that the solo practitioner taking first tentative steps, the established SME pushing for the next growth boundary or, even, the employed manager taking some professional risk to try something different in an established corporate.
The common feature is personal and professional risk taking. Setting out to climb your own personal Mount Audacity. I have boundless respect for such individuals. Entrepreneurship fundamentally involves taking risk and putting some personal skin into a future game that is truly unknowable (despite all pseudo-rational devices we employ to convince us otherwise). Read some of Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s excellent books to have this point beautifully articulated.
In final analysis, entrepreneurs are the primary agents behind successful economies – in turn, the bedrock for any successful, civilised society. So, if this blog series can help one such agent on the journey from dream-to-reality with even a small tip, or a small pick-up when times get tough (they invariably do), then that will be ample pay-back.
And, the second journey?
The second journey is that of this new venture … Method Grid. This blog series heralds a small milestone moment as we move from private (by invite) beta testing to a public beta phase.
It is – therefore – worth a few lines on how this project all came about.
In the context of building value into professional service companies, I often find myself talking about investing in the ongoing development of proprietary intellectual property (IP): such as your service methodologies, operating procedures and processes. Firms that do so harness a number of benefits: they deliver their services consistently to a common standard (a de minimis requirement), they induct and train new joiners more efficiently (hence going from hire-to-revenue faster), they win more work (deep toolboxes = specialism = premium rates) and they increase their firm’s valuation (IP being an integral asset in any knowledge-based business).
If I have this conversation a hundred times, … it started to intrigue me why so few firms (all of whom get the point made above) actually manage to do much about it cf. just developing a few Powerpoint slide decks – or – some hastily thrown together folders in Sharepoint.
With some reflection, it dawned on me that my personal professional experience was uniquely well-fortuned. The first professional engagement of my consulting start-up (2004) involved supporting one of UK’s major transport authorities in developing a programme and project management methodology. A methodology that hundreds of staff would need to reference and use everyday in the delivery of a £12 billion capital programme. This fascinating project involved grappling with how best to capture complex processes such that many people of mixed experience could easily reference and harness such standard practices. Having explored multiple approaches, the one that worked best (and stuck – still being used today) was the simplest: this design ethic sits at the heart of Method Grid.
Fresh from this intellectual quest as to how best to share methodology amongst large and disparate teams, we decided next to turn it on ourselves. We hired a software developer to sit in our offices and for the next three months build us a platform on which we could then codify and capture our own professional services. This wasn’t cheap but the value was immense. The platform that we built was then continuously developed – new ‘best practice’ content added when we rolled off another client project. Over time, the toolbox really did become one of our ‘crown jewels’: a facilitator of our fast team growth.
The reflection, however, was that this reaped benefit was hugely circumstantial – we had been lucky that the first project took us down this path – and expensive (not everyone has the reserves to kick-off such a bespoke software development).
It got me thinking. Is there a market for a platform that super-facilitates this challenge for ambitious firms? A platform which allows users to focus on methodology development within five minutes of sign-up.
Next step. Bringing together the (quite brilliant) early team at Method Grid: Tom (UX/Designer), Jody (Front-end development) and Ian (Back-end development).
After many hours of design-develop-test iteration, the first prototype was built in late 2016 for a private (by invite) beta.
The results were mixed. Conceptually we were on to something (definitely a user need to address) but the overwhelming feedback was of a design that was just too-clunky, too obscure. With a heavy heart (cognitive dissonance kicking in), we completely re-designed Method Grid from the bottom-up and launched Beta v2 early summer 2017. The ensuing feedback justified the complete overhaul – validating all the effort. The dialogue with our brilliant beta companies was no longer about glitchy-process but “wouldn’t it be great if we could also do X” type suggestions.
Which brings us to the here and now. As of the launch of this new site (and blog series) we are at Beta v3 (public launch). We are still away to go on the journey; indeed, not even out of the foothills arguably. We are, hopefully, however moving closer to that elusive market/product fit milestone with every additional beta client request developed, every additional client use story. This remains our unrushed focus currently; no point talking about the next stage until we are confident we have built a great product that our beta test partner companies truly value and advocate.
We would love for you to join this journey with us. We have got to this mountain viewpoint purely as a result of this dialogue with our beta community – and – know that our future steps will only happen as a result of hearing what uses you can make of Method Grid and what enhancements you would value most in future versions.
So, there you have it. That is the second journey. Tom, Jody, Ian and myself are setting off on our small expedition: with huge amounts to learn en route (software-based entrepreneurship = new + scary!). We will make sure to pepper the blog series with travel updates, reflections on our stumbles and general musings in this hopeful-ascent also.
So, what’s next?
Next up in the series, we will look at the most fundamental of questions. How to value a professional services business and – therefore – how to start building value in your own (and the areas to avoid!).
Hopefully, you’ll join us on this journey. It’s totally free, and you don’t have to be a Method Grid customer (though you’re more than welcome to sign up for a free trial here).
We’ll be releasing a new post each week, starting with the one outlined above. To get each post emailed to you as soon as it’s published, sign up for the Climbing Mount Audacity mailing list below.
Climbing Mount Audacity…
From Startup to Scaleup!
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