Episode 92 – How a Financial Services Firm Is Scaling Beyond a Lifestyle Business by Building a Sales Engine  – Member Case with Hamid Akbari

There is an inflection point that all boutiques run into head-on. This is when sales generation happens by the employees and not by the partners. On this episode, Hamid Akbari, President & CEO at Blanc Labs, shares how the firm built its internal sales engine in 18 months and his key takeaways.


Greg Alexander [00:00:15] Welcome to the Boutique with Collective 54, a podcast for founders and leaders of boutique professional services firms. For those that are not familiar with us, Collective 54 is the first mastermind community dedicated exclusively to helping you grow, scale and exit your pro search firm. My name is Greg Alexander. I’m the founder and I’ll be your host today. Today, we’re going to talk about scaling beyond a lifestyle business by building a sales engine. What I hope to accomplish today is to give those listeners the courage to make the investments required. To go beyond a lifestyle business, particularly by investing in sales. It takes a lot of courage to do so, and it’s a big inflection point. And getting through that inflection point requires lots of courage and skill, and hopefully we’ll be able to share some of that with you today. And we’re very lucky to have a fantastic role model who is in the middle of this. His name is Hamid Akbari, and he is going to share with us a little bit about his journey. And he’s a member of Collective 54, and he’s in the middle of this right now. So welcome, Hamid, and would you please give a proper introduction to the audience? 

Hamid Akbari [00:01:30] Hi, Greg. Thank you so much for having me on this show. This is Hamid, my company, Blanc Labs is serving mid-size enterprises, typically defined around 500 and higher. Employees primarily market in the financial service industry. Typically, you know financial services company at about $10 billion assets under management and their boss and we started a few years ago at around five years ago and view their technology boutique so we’re serving our clients by helping them the technology helping them reimagine the future, transform themselves and grow from there. 

Greg Alexander [00:02:11] Okay. Very good. All right. Let me set this up a little bit before I jump into to the questions that I have. So start ups become boutiques by having the founder of the partners generate referrals and then boutiques become market leaders by building a commercial sales engine. That’s when they go beyond being a lifestyle business. And then someday when you go to sell your firm, a potential acquirer is going to want to see this in place. They want to see that the sales process has the ability to scale. And there’s an inflection point that all boutiques run that run into head on. And that’s when sales generation happens by the employees and not by the founder or founders. The old Preskill firms do not invest in building a professional sales engine because they don’t have to. The founder of the experts said, got large personal networks, and his personal networks expand as they gain more exposure to their niche. And then they can harvest these networks for business. And successful projects lead to happy clients, be clients lead to more word of mouth and word of mouth leads to more referrals. More referrals leads to more business. And this virtuous cycle, so to speak, produces enough business for quite a long time. The founder model can carry the firm through, let’s say, the first five years or so, but then sales flatlines. And this is the inflection point that we’re going to talk about today. Now, why is this? Well, there’s only so many hours in the day and the founder or co-founders are either selling or delivering work. And there’s a constraint. There’s a time constraint. And when when an A founder reaches this point, there’s really two options. So option A is that the is the founder led model. And this means really adding more partners to the equation, recruiting expensive partners who bring with them their own personal networks. And then you repeat this cycle over and over again. The problem with that is that to recruit partners, you’ve got to dilute your equity pool and profits get distributed to the owners. So there’s a price to pay for that. Option B is the opposite, and that is don’t recruit more partners, equity holders with personal networks, but rather build a professional sales model. And this has its own pros and cons. The biggest pro is you keep all the equity. And once you get through this expensive investment and you get on the other side of it, things are really good. But the process of doing it can be difficult. So we’re going to talk to Hamid today about how he’s going through this right now. And it’s a really interesting role model. So, I mean, would you maybe expand upon what I just shared and tell everybody exactly where you are in this journey and and how you got to this point? 

Hamid Akbari [00:05:09] Absolutely. Exactly. As you’ve said a few years ago when you started it primarily kind of like promoted our services to our network. So we landed on and the first client to people who knew me, know myself or know my senior member of your team, or they’re a friend of their friends or to referral line of the first few client. It was obviously very expensive to build a commercial sales and marketing team. They’d not have enough revenue and profit to invest in a commercial team. So I took it on myself as well as my senior team, to reach out to netball, to learn. And the first few clients, once we landed, the first few client really entire focus but deliver significant value to those clients because there is no point to bring your client if you cannot maintain your existing client, keep them happy. So they invest a lot of time and effort and then invest a lot of capital in, you know, like making sure they get most value from our technology services. And then from there, we start expanding our services because landing on a major client is noisy. And once we landed, not only we wanted to keep them happy, we wanted to understand what are their pain points. They have an amount of pain points for the pain point. We can serve them better than anyone else. That allowed us to expand our business. Be those client on churn, say a treatment contract where a longer term contract and you know, let’s let’s say a $200,000 contract to a million and so forth that gave us the scale and the team size and the capital to think beyond the next level. And that was about how to bring more client like this one, as you said. Each of us email kind of like out of our existing referral. Our next book is only a finite number of people. I can know personally, obviously, and my team can know personally. So that’s that about the time I started to think about and also engage my senior team, think about how we should escape, how we kind of scale beyond what we are today. And obvious that you could not only expand as expand your business with existing clients, but also acquire new clients. And I cannot operate fair to Greg on my journey they took on to be able to attract new clients. 

Greg Alexander [00:07:32] That’s a great set up and thank you for sharing that. As I understand it, you’re about 18 months into this journey of trying to bring on these these next set of anchor accounts, if you will. So what have you learned in the last 18 months? 

Hamid Akbari [00:07:48] So one of the things I’ve learned is that from process prospecting, there’s a process pressed on team perspective. From a team perspective, obviously it’s no easier team to to build a commercial team. I define commercial team by a sales team. People can be relational instead of directly a marketing team, but that also required to make sure the client see the value product clearly and in our case, our partners. My last name. Because in technology you can do it alone. You need to rely on big as well as niche size partner to offer the best value to the client. So the first thing I learned is that to build a team as a good fit for our culture and that would be like external hire is noisy team. You can’t really talk to definition of job description type full definition of KPI, but it’s about by takes what this took to be successful. Because then you hire someone you want to, you want to make sure you set that person up for success that doesn’t hit the quota take home drive contrast for for and that color experiment experimentation as well as a lot of that a lot of working after that you have to write higher. Obviously the second kind of process I learned that landing on you will measure a client is no easy thing as well. And to break down that big problem for smaller chunks, for example, one of the things we did is that you know how to focus on the first asset to find, bring in those new leads, how often those leads to the next stage of the funnel so that we have a discovery side to showcase our value to the next client. And then it’s about, you know, how to close and how to once you landed on that account at that new client, how to how to actually expand the business with that client. But other offering they can put on the table to really expand our business because the client as well and so forth. So really it’s a team on the team. Sighs. I learned a lot about how to build a team. Austin I’m learning because they’re growing our team as well in the process as well. I learned a lot by look at that complex problem of sales, which is really not an easy team to sell to many similar clients. Break it down to Chong’s. I’m kind of trying to conquer each stage of that process quarter at a time so that we nail it and we can escape iyon at least twice this time. 

Greg Alexander [00:10:04] So I want to probe on the team a little bit and also ask for further commentary regarding experimentation. The reason for my line of questioning here right now is when I speak to members of Collective 54 who are on this journey. They they have the initial courage to try to scale beyond a lifestyle business. And they know that to do so, they got to build this commercial sales and marketing engine, and they have the courage to invest the dollars and then they run into some trouble. You know, the first hire isn’t the right one or the second hire is the right one, etc., and they give up too early. And that’s a mistake because most of our members are domain experts, as you are, and maybe they didn’t grow up in sales and marketing. So it’s it’s realistic to think that you’re not going to get it right the first time. So in thinking about this as an experiment, my question for you would be what advice would you have for the members to set up the experiment correctly so that if they don’t succeed the first time, they don’t quit? 

Hamid Akbari [00:11:13] So that’s a very good question. I think it has two parts. Number one is the mindset. So I think building a commercial team for scale is not a quick thing. So we need to set our mindset that it’s going to it’s going to take like quite a bit of time. So we need to be patient around it and to trust the team, and it will give it some time for it to actually like fight on all cylinders and get to breakeven and also generate significant amount of profit. So if we’re fixing fixing our eyes on it very, very quick or quick out and be very quick sells. They may not get there if you’re building a new team, if you’re building it for the first time. That’s our own mindset, obviously. The second thing on the team size and experimentation is the first part of the challenge is that find the right people and honest is not easy to take. So if you had that role in the past that has worked, replicating that high and similar, that may not be that difficult, but building a self esteem for the first time, building marketing team for the first time require record not only being thoughtful, but some experimentation because we need to make sure these people join our boutique for the right motivation. It’s very different from joining Microsoft for a massive enterprise. So do they have the right motivation? Do they understand the KPI? Do you understand why takes to succeed kind of set them up or succeed? Or are they the right fit for the culture? And most importantly, do they have transferable skills that you know, because they have never broken a particular like this? Each of these particular kind of like my boutique, for example, to kind of like a unique. So do you have enough transferable skills and smarts to task? Forget a skill set and grow from there? So I think that’s that’s one part. And as thoughtful as the person is in trying to select the right person because you can’t afford for the first time for sales or marketing team or partnership team. That’s an experiment, right? And if it’s not working, obviously. So it’s in a ways, it’s a paradox. On the one hand, we’ve all heard it hardest, slowly, if it’s not working out to to a very, very quick in terms of the right person. The other part of this paradox is that you also need to trust trust the team, give them time to prove themselves. So. So how do you how do you manage this paradox? What are the KPI or the leading KPI? So that be not this is walking down the right track, you’re making progress and to give it more time and to keep learning versus this specific high of a never make it in this company. Obviously the decision not always is trivial and easy. 

Hamid Akbari [00:13:52] So that’s on the team side now on the process side, to build a scalable sales process, being the right tool, right process to qualify leads and so forth. That second process there, that’s quite of learning. If you haven’t done step on marketing before, like I haven’t haven’t done it before. It’s new stuff that you open to learning. Obviously you can go to college and I suspect, but there are certain best practices that you can follow so that the learning becomes organic learning and become better at kind of like building a sales funnel. And maybe it’s very different from every like from farm to farm by really the idea at least my idea is that like minute to minute to tackle it one at a time, right? You need to tackle the big problem, sell break, break it down to smaller part. And every month, every quarter is a piece of the puzzle until I find out you finally make it. And that’s how we did it. I built a sales team initially, the first hire, and I made it really neat for that salesperson. I did not give him the mountain. I give him like a piece of the offering. And I keep building and expanding on the sales team, on the marketing team, on the partnership team and learning so that they make incremental progress towards our goals. 

Greg Alexander [00:15:09] I love the emphasis on building the process and the experimentation. And you know, for those that are listening that are in the IT services space as a meet is sales and marketing is a process just like developing a piece of software is a process. And if you can break it down to the fundamental tasks and think about gating the process and leveraging the body of knowledge that’s out there right now, it can get a lot easier. It’s very well-worn territory. Building a commercial sales and marketing team inside of a process boutique that’s been done over and over again. So if you haven’t done it before yourself, you know, don’t go it alone. Tap into those that have done it before. I want to come to the next obstacle that I hear, which is let’s say that I’m a father of a boutique and I’ve got myself to some success and I’m making a lot of money. I like what I’m doing because I enjoy the, you know, the practice of my craft, if you will. Where’s the funding come from? How do I invest in this? Do I take it out of my pocket? Do I use operating profits to fund this? Do I go raise capital? How did you fund this? 

Hamid Akbari [00:16:22] That’s a good question. So it really depends on the offering. So if what you’re selling the offering is service offering, the solutions you have is not very profitable. It might be difficult to generate the fund to justify to invest in sales and marketing. In my case, we the VA, we made our offer and sold our offering at a price point and we made our offering of value to the client so attractive for the client that we could generate like a reasonable amount of profit to invest and grow it. And then we keep investing on more solution offering to existing clients. That means that the total contract value, the length of the value, the length of the length of those contract, the value of those contracts and the customer lifetime value are significant enough to justify investing, says our marketing team. It also means that those contract bought size and value on profit gave us the oxygen to be able to invest in our own growth, investment and our growth. But investing in that in IP new offering said they serve the customers better as well as the dollar value available to invest in a commercial to number one. It gives us cash to invest in our growth, including investing in a commercial team. And number two, it justify our eye on that to invest in the commercial team because we know the lifetime value of a new client is very significant. So as expensive it is to invest in a commercial team to try to justify your choice. 

Greg Alexander [00:17:56] Yep. So the lesson for those that are listening is you’re probably asking, well, when do I do this? Will you do this? After you’ve established a service offering in an ideal client profile that allows you to earn a substantial amount of profit so that you can redirect that profit, that earned profit towards an investment in building out a commercial sales engine. If you have not done that yet, if you’re still struggling with profit margins or maybe the lifetime value of a client is not where it needs to be, it’s going to be tough to do this. So tackle that first, as Amit has done, and then use those dollars to invest in the commercial sales engine. Okay. I mean, I have one more question for you, and that is this issue of temptation. I know that’s a strange term to use on a business podcast such as this, but the temptation of the founder who’s running a highly profitable lifestyle business is to pull all the money out of the business and stick it in the bank account. The temptation is to not reinvest those dollars into building a commercial team. And when that happens, when we fall victim to that temptation, we get trapped in a lifestyle business we never break through to become a boutique at scale and to build that asset that someday we might be able to sell for the real dollars. So how did you resist the temptation? Where did your courage come from to scale beyond a lifestyle business? 

Hamid Akbari [00:19:23] So it does start with a vision. All of us. Then we found a company. We have a vision. And if you don’t have one, that’s a problem. We need to go back to the whiteboard and build that vision, be there single handedly, or with the team and the vision to paint a picture of the future they want to be. What do you want to achieve? And that’s like guiding a staff for us to make the decision. That’s number one. Now, if the vision is to have a fairly small lifestyle company, well, then that’s okay to have a drive to profit. But if the vision is build something more scalable, then it’s then it’s questionable to big draw a profit potential lifestyle. Then when we have to have the vision for skinny the second the the other side of the coin with the vision is that the confidence it’s easy to have a vision but be very scared and frightened that we can’t achieve it. We also need faith and confidence in our vision, obviously, and the faith and confidence I need to be a bit more data driven, need to be with more market, do that. So if I, if I or any founder have a vision to achieve a certain outcome in a certain number of years, then the hard work of building that confidence if actually doing the hard work of seeking out how we can realize that vision, like you said a few minutes ago, like who is the ideal customer for five? Like, how do we serve them by their pain point? How do we differentiate once we have confidence that this idea of Customer five have a true pain point for which they’re keen to pay and we have a real value prop that we can serve them better than anyone else along those offering. Then we have the confidence, and then we can communicate that the team can communicate that to the client, and then we can overcome the temptation of withdrawing money because simply they’re scared that if you say or be scared that the vision didn’t deliver, realized. Because I’ve figured out it’s easy to have a vision. But you don’t have the hard work the. Build a road map toward achieving that vision. Then it’s become hard to have that confidence. Then it’s easy to get tempted by just like short term opportunities. 

Greg Alexander [00:21:31] Yeah, well, this is fantastic. I could go on and on forever. I got about ten more questions to ask you, but we’ll will save those for the live Q&A session when we get together with the other members. But I mean, I wanted to make sure that I publicly thank you for your contribution today, the way these collectives work as we make deposits into the knowledge bank so we can all benefit from that. And from time to time we’re able to make withdrawals as well. So today you made a big deposit and knowledge back on a subject that is of particular interest to most of our members. So on behalf of the members, I mean, thank you so much for being here today. 

Hamid Akbari [00:22:06] Great for having me. 

Greg Alexander [00:22:08] Okay. So for those that are in professional services and want to belong to a community and learn from great people like me, consider applying to Collective 54 you could find as a Collective54.com. And if you want to read more about this subject and others like it, pick up a copy of my book, The Boutique. How to Start Scale and Sell a Professional Services Firm. You can find out at collective54.com or on Amazon. Thanks for listening and I look forward to our next episode.