Scaling a boutique professional services firm requires a strategy. Yet many owners have a collection of tactics and call it a strategy. Learn about how firms should approach creating their strategy.
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 to scale the boutique requires a strategy and that a collection of tactics is not a strategy. I’ll try to prove this theory by interviewing Greg Alexander, Capital 54’s chief investment officer, Greg is considered by some as a master strategist and has a lot to share on this topic. Greg, great to see you. Welcome.
Greg Alexander [00:01:08] Thanks, Sean. This is very timely. I was looking at it from the other day who was trying to raise capital, and I asked them for their strategy doc. They sent me a spreadsheet populated with business plan assumptions. And as you know, that’s not a strategy. And this reminded me of how much work we must do in this area.
Sean Magennis [00:01:24] Yes. You know, for some reasons, there’s a knowledge gap in this area. Why do you think that is?
Greg Alexander [00:01:30] I think founders of boutiques know they need a strategy, and I feel as if they want one, yet when they look for help, all they run into is how to materials for product companies. And this leads them down the wrong path. Strategy for a professional services firm is very different. And unfortunately, there’s just not a lot out there on this topic.
Sean Magennis [00:01:50] Well, Greg, that’s what we are here for. And maybe this podcast will help. Heck, maybe there’s a new book in this for you.
Greg Alexander [00:01:57] I’m still recovering from the heavy lift of writing my last one, so maybe someone else can take that on.
Sean Magennis [00:02:03] Well, the boutique is fantastic, so let’s hope. OK, pick up on the thread on how strategy for product companies is different than strategies for services firms.
Greg Alexander [00:02:14] Sure. So here’s our strategy. And a product company gets built. The executive team builds a list of attributes that make a market attractive. These are items such as organic growth rates, number of companies, target trends and so on. This produces a list of vertical industries to pursue. This list of industries gets further segmented into a list of companies to pursue. And ultimately the data gets cut to names and accounts who might want to buy the products, including an estimate on spend potential. A debt gets created that says some version of the following. Our strategy is to target this list of clients in these industries. With these products, everybody nods in agreement. The Excel formulas are double checked and the and the goals get cascaded down to the department heads. This is a what exercise as in what are we going to do? This does not work for a professional services firm.
Sean Magennis [00:03:08] Why not Greg?
Greg Alexander [00:03:10] A strategy for professional services firms must be a how exercise. It starts with, how are we going to become more valuable to clients? Pro serve firms are better served with a how based strategy because of the nature of competition. Pro serve firms do not have the advantages present in product businesses which allow product businesses to get away with what based strategies. For instance, does Google have to ask how questions? No. How come? They have huge barriers to entry by controlling 60 percent of the search traffic. Pro serve firms do not have these types of advantages. For example, McKinsey is a top consulting firm in the world and they only have three percent market share. If they stop becoming more valuable to their clients, they are easily replaced. They do not have an install base locked into their firm. Does this make sense?
Greg Alexander [00:04:02] It does. Professional services firms need a different strategy development process built on how questions with the ultimate how question being how do I become more valuable to my clients? Can you give me some other How strategy questions that should be addressed in a boutique strategy?
Greg Alexander [00:04:23] So here are a few big ones that probably you could really think through and write many sophisticated answers to. So, for example, how do I raise client satisfaction? That’s a big macro question, huh? How can I elevate the skills in my team so I can raise prices? You know, oftentimes boutique owners don’t realize is a relationship between skill and price. Next, how can I redesign the work to improve utilization rates, you know, when’s the last time you broke out your work breakdown structure and reengineered the way you deliver the service?
Sean Magennis [00:04:57] Yes.
Greg Alexander [00:04:59] Or let’s say, how can I specialize in new ways of further differentiating us from the competitors? Because if you’re a boutique, you’re competing with generalist. So the more specialized you are, the more likely you’re going to win. So these are just a few. And they link back to the key macro question. How do I become more valuable to my clients?
Sean Magennis [00:05:19] Greg, is that it? Just switch from what to how?
Greg Alexander [00:05:25] I wish it were that easy. Each how question needs an answer and the answer must include another how. This is the how to part of the strategy, the action plans. This means a goal timeline, budget project team and accountability owners, deliverables and key milestones. This cuts through all the bullshit and gets to the action to be taken. And it is this style of strategy that that takes a pretty scale firm and scales them to a dominant player and their niche.
Sean Magennis [00:05:58] Greg, this is so different and and so clear. This is not a budgeting exercise. I love it. 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.
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Sean Magennis [00:07:34] 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. OK, 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, your strategy is working for you. If you answer no, too many times, your strategy is more than likely getting in the way of your attempts to scale. So let’s begin.
Sean Magennis [00:08:36] Number one, does your strategy outline how the firm will develop new capabilities that the competitors do not have?
Greg Alexander [00:08:45] And of course, this assumes, you know, what the competitors have.
Sean Magennis [00:08:48] Precisely. Number two, does your strategy detail why the competitors cannot match them?
Greg Alexander [00:08:55] Yeah, an often overlooked is because you develop something. If it’s easily copied, that’s a tactic. It’s not a strategy.
Sean Magennis [00:09:01] Right. Number three, does your strategy specify how these capabilities will be pushed into the market? Number four, does the strategy, explain how your resources are going to be deployed? For example, money, people and time. Number five, does the strategy specify how this resource deployment is different than your competitors? Number six is the strategy supported by enough clients sourced evidence?
Greg Alexander [00:09:36] This is a big one. So oftentimes, you know, our founders who we love envision themselves as master strategists and they say the clients don’t know what they need. Let me tell them. That’s a big mistake.
Sean Magennis [00:09:49] Number seven, does the strategy specify who oversees each program?
Greg Alexander [00:09:54] Got to have an owner for everything.
Sean Magennis [00:09:56] Number eight, has the team been properly incented to execute the plan? Number nine, does the strategy detail how the competitors plan to beat you?
Greg Alexander [00:10:07] Yeah, so a good tool there is a SWAT. Understand, where you’re weak and how you might get attacked.
Sean Magennis [00:10:15] And number 10, does the strategy specify how to respond to competitor attacks? So in summary, a collection of tactics is not a strategy, nor is a financial model or an annual budget, a strategy outlining what is not as useful as a strategy that outlines how. Scaling does require a strategy, and it should be focused on making you more valuable to your clients.
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. Thank you, Greg.
I’m Sean Magennis and thank you to our audience for listening.