Collective 54 founder Greg Alexander discusses why the size of your market is most accurately measured by your ability to reach the decision makers in your niche. Growing a boutique is hard and the size of the prize needs to be worth the level of effort.
Sean Magennis [00:00:15] Welcome to The Boutique with Capital 54, a podcast for owners of professional services firms. My goal with this show is to help you grow scale and sell your firm at the right time for the right price and on the right terms. I’m Sean Magennis, CEO of Capital 54 and your host. On this episode, I will make the case that the size of your market is most accurately measured by your ability to reach the decision-makers in your niche. Growing a boutique is hard, and the size of the prize needs to be worth the level of the effort. I’ll try to prove this theory by interviewing Greg Alexander, Capital 54’s chief investment officer, Greg has an incredible war story to share with you today. You’re in for a treat, listeners. Greg, great to see you, and welcome.
Greg Alexander [00:01:15] Hey, Sean, good to be with you today.
Sean Magennis [00:01:16] So, Greg, today we’re going to discuss a really common mistake made by founders of boutique professional services firms. And this mistake is not accurately sizing their market. The consequence of this mistake are below-average growth and subpar owner income. Why does market sizing matter?
Greg Alexander [00:01:38] It matters because to grow a boutique, the founder needs to know where to play and how to win. I mean, that’s the essence of strategy and sizing. The market falls into the where to play bucket. If the founder goes after a tiny market, she will get frustrated because at maturity, the firm will not amount to anything more than really just a lifestyle business. If the founder goes after a huge market, the founder will also get frustrated because he will be a shrimp in a big ocean constantly fighting for survival. This makes market selection a mission-critical item on the founder’s strategic agenda. And step one in market selection is sizing your market.
Sean Magennis [00:02:17] So Greg, this might be new to some of our listeners when asked what market they’re in. Often small business owners do not fully understand the question and might respond with something like marketing and advertising or IT services. As you know, this is inaccurate. Can you give the audience a simple example to illustrate what we are discussing today?
Greg Alexander [00:02:41] Sure. I will share how I screwed this up in the early days of SBI. My war story will do a nice job of describing this. So my firm SBI was a sales consultancy. Back then, if someone asked me what market I was in, I would say sales consulting, which I now know is not a market, but a description of a service. This was of no strategic value because this phrase could mean many different things. Later, I learned I was in B2B sales consulting. This is still not great, but adding B2B told me I was not interested in pursuing the Miller Brewing Company, for example. With time, I got a little wiser and determined I was going to focus just on the United States, this was insufficient still. But by adding geography, I knew I was not going to spend marketing dollars in Germany. I began using market selection to make strategic decisions, B2B and geography told me where to go, where to play. With a little more time, I learned there were 12 and a half million B2B companies in the United States. Now, I was getting somewhere because I had my first number. As time passed, I realized my average engagement was about three hundred thousand dollars. I studied role models and learned that at maturity, most boutiques penetrate about one percent of the market. I figured if I could do the same, so at maturity I could get to thirty seven and a half million. Back of the envelope math was one percent to twelve and a half million companies, a 300K a piece, which equaled thirty-seven point five million. This gave me confidence because the size of the prize was worth the level of the effort. Then someone taught me that a single company had multiple buyers in it, for example, we often got hired by the head of marketing in addition to the head of sales. So this doubled the size of my market to 75 million and continuing on with my war store here. I then learned a very important piece of information. I learned how to think about market selection like an owner, not an employee. This was revealed to me when I learned about the concept of enterprise value. Enterprise value is what a firm is worth at exit. At my space, this was calculated by multiplying a firm’s EBITA by eight. So in my case, our EBITDA was 50 percent. So in 75 million we would earn thirty-seven point five million. And EBITA, when I multiply that by eight, that proved to me that I had a chance of creating 300 million dollars in wealth for myself. At that point, I committed my whole self to the business. It was crystal clear that the size of the market was worth the level of effort I had put into my firm. And as luck would have it, multiples crept up to 11 times EBITDA so my initial estimate of market size was conservative. That was a lot that I reviewed with you there. But did that make sense to you?
Sean Magennis [00:05:47] Yes. Yeah, Greg, it did. This is a great story and with great sort of intrinsic educational value. You spoke about some of the decisions this marketing, this market sizing exercise allowed you to make. Are there any others with sharing?
Greg Alexander [00:06:02] Yes, there’s one big lesson that changed everything. That lesson is the most important variable to consider when selecting a market based on its size is your ability to reach the decision-maker. I learned very quickly that my target customer was very hard to reach. I mean, their gatekeepers and gatekeepers. So a one percent penetration rate was a pipe dream. So after lots of wasted time and money trying to get these people interested in our services with very little success, we changed everything.
Sean Magennis [00:06:36] Oh, my goodness. What did you do, Greg?
Greg Alexander [00:06:39] We focused all of our attention on a subset of the market. We concentrated all of our resources on the early adopter segment. You see, we were pioneering, applying the science of benchmarking to the art of sales. The people who were interested in this crazy idea were the kind of people who loved pioneering new approaches. These people are called early adopters. We had to get our services in front of them. So our marketing money went into content marketing. This allowed the early adopters to self-identified themselves by subscribing to our content. I wrote my first book followed by a blog, a podcast, a video series and an old school print magazine. The early adopters found our content because this is what they do. They look for bleeding-edge ideas. They began subscribing to our media products. This resulted in a database of about 250000 early adopters. These 250000 were reachable. That’s the keyword. The heck, they were our fans. They came to us. So in the end, back in those early days, our market was really two hundred and fifty thousand early adopter B2B sales and marketing leaders in the United States who subscribe to our content. That, my friend, is a tight description of a market. Let me repeat that. So here was our description of the market back then, our market was 250000 early adopter B2B sales and marketing leaders in the United States who subscribe to our content. One can make a lot of strategic decisions with that type of description. And with that niche, we exploded. A close rate went above 50 percent. The sales cycle length got cut in half. And given our brand affinity with these people, we were able to charge more. This made us without this move, I wonder what we would have become. This is why selecting a market by sizing it correctly is mission-critical.
Sean Magennis [00:08:56] Greg, this is an incredible story that teaches a hugely important lesson. Reach, as in your ability to get in front of decision-makers with budget, is the number one attribute of market selection and it determines the size of the prize more than anything else. My goodness, Greg, this episode will save our listeners years of frustration. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.
Greg Alexander [00:09:24] And this is why I’m here. I’m glad my war stories are useful.
Sean Magennis [00:09:26] Greg, they are. And now a word from our sponsor, Collective 54, Collective 54 is a membership organization for owners of professional services firms. Members joined to work with their industry peers to grow scale and someday sell their firms at the right time for the right price and on the right terms. Let us meet one of the collective 54 members.
Ryan Gales [00:09:57] Hello, my name is Ryan Gales, CEO of Jenkins/Gales & Martinez, Inc, an architectural and construction management firm. We serve public and private clients specializing in education, transportation, medical and civic projects around the country. These clients turn to us for help with implementing their vision and ensuring their projects are completed on time and within budget. If you need help with envisioning and building projects for your future, come visit us at www.JGMINC.com.
Sean Magennis [00:10:28] If you are trying to grow scale or sell your firm and feel you would benefit from being a part of a community of peers, visit Collective54.com. This takes us to the end of the episode, let’s try to help listeners apply this. We end each show with a tool. We do so because this allows a listener to apply the lessons to his or her firm. Our preferred tool is a checklist and our style of checklist is a yes-no questionnaire. We aim to keep it simple by asking only 10 questions. In this instance, if you answer yes to eight or more of these questions, you have sized your market correctly. If you answer no too many times you have size your market incorrectly. Let’s begin.
Sean Magennis [00:11:25] Number one, are there thousands of targets to pursue? Number two, are they reachable? Number three, when they are reached, will they consider you?
Greg Alexander [00:11:40] You know, that’s a subtle thing. Sometimes you can get a referral and get in front of somebody, but they’re really not going to consider you.
Sean Magennis [00:11:46] It’s a key. Number four, can you win your fair share of opportunities?
Greg Alexander [00:11:52] So is your product good enough?
Sean Magennis [00:11:54] And you want to exceed 50 percent.
Greg Alexander [00:11:56] That’s right.
Sean Magennis [00:11:57] Number five, can you win your fair share consistently? Number six, when you do win, is the amount of money spent worth the pursuit?
Greg Alexander [00:12:09] So let’s pause here for a moment.
Sean Magennis [00:12:10] Sure.
Greg Alexander [00:12:11] So when I’m working with boutiques, they say they always want to give me the exception. You know, look at this one deal I did with this one big company. But they can’t do it consistently, consistently, or they win the one big logo for like six grand.
Sean Magennis [00:12:26] Yeah.
Greg Alexander [00:12:26] It’s like, who cares? It’s not worth it.
Sean Magennis [00:12:28] Right.
Greg Alexander [00:12:28] Anything worth pursuing has to be done at scale.
Sean Magennis [00:12:32] That makes a lot of sense. Number seven, is the market large enough to support your boutique, assuming modest penetration rates? And you went for one percent.
Greg Alexander [00:12:42] I know, which was a pipe dream.
Sean Magennis [00:12:44] Amazing. Number eight, are they new targets to pursue every year? That is is the market growing?
Greg Alexander [00:12:51] Very important.
Sean Magennis [00:12:52] Very important. And number nine, can you drive up the engagement size of the time? And number ten, will there be a reasonable rate of repeat purchases?
Greg Alexander [00:13:04] So that’s often overlooked, right? If you work your tail off to reach these people, once you have their attention, make sure you can continue to sell to them.
Sean Magennis [00:13:12] Yeah, I absolutely agree. So in summary, Greg, we’ve recorded 48 episodes of the show. I think this is my favorite. Listeners, please be sure that the size of the prize is worth the level of effort you put in. And for heaven’s sake, don’t forget to factor in reach. If you enjoyed the show and want to learn more, pick up a copy of Greg Alexander’s book titled The Boutique How to Start Scale and Sell a Professional Services Firm. I’m Sean Magennis. Thank you for listening.