Scaling a boutique professional services firm requires raising capital, and not all capital is the same. On this episode, we interview Josh Miramant, Founder and CEO at Blue Orange Digital, to learn about the three sources of scale capital. When scaling a business, these are the sources of scale capital to be mindful of:
Sean Magennis [00:00:15] Welcome to the Boutique with Collective 54, a podcast for founders and leaders of boutique professional services firms. The aim of this show is to help you grow, scale, and exit your firm bigger and faster. I’m Sean Magennis, Collective 54 Advisory Board member and your host.
In this episode, I will make the case that to scale your professional services firm requires capital and that not all capital is the same. I’ll try to prove this theory by interviewing Josh Miramant, Founder and CEO at Blue Orange Digital.
Blue Orange is a data science and machine learning, consulting and development firm. They build modern data warehousing to support machine learning, and A.I. Blue Orange helps companies integrate these insights to drive data driven decisions. And the decision making. You can find Josh atBlueOrange.digital. Josh, great to be with you. Welcome.
Josh Miramant [00:01:24] Thanks Sean, it’s great to be here, thanks for having me.
Sean Magennis [00:01:26] Hopefully, I did justice to that explanation of all the great things you do.
Josh Miramant [00:01:30] Or how many buzzwords in our space. You couldn’t have nailed it better, Sure.
Member Case: How to Raise Capital When Scaling a Business
Sean Magennis [00:01:35] So, Josh, let’s start with an overview. So why do professional services firms need capital when trying to scale is the big question. Scaling a business usually means entering new markets, launching new service lines, adding more headcount and many other strategic initiatives. These things all take money.
So can you briefly share with the audience an example of how you raise capital to scale your firm or how you think about raising capital when scaling a business ?
Josh Miramant [00:02:05] Sure. Yeah, so I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this and just a little background. I’ve actually started to venture back companies prior, so I actually came out of SAS product and a large equity-reduced background. And this is my first professional services firm, and it’s quite a different beast.
And in many great ways, like high profit generating types of business initiatives that you can use things like cash flow to reinvest in growth all the way over to, you know, the challenging pieces that they’re very cash hungry business models.
To be honest, they’re going to take a lot of efforts like investing and resourcing and staffing and having a bench and resource allocation and all these things that are very, quite expensive. And these have to be very well forecasted when you’re thinking about a financial backing. So we’ve taken a pretty holistic approach to our financial backing for this, and actually luckily enough, I sold my last company, and so I was able to, fortunately, do some self investing.
But we quickly wanted to move to more institutional as we’ve grown along. So, I opened up and started with friends and family debt around the world who lived in debt for our organization. And in the early days, I was able to personally back just under a half million dollars of the total, personally backed notes through successive orders of friends and family.
It’s more institutional, the different tiers of raise. And then we even looked at some other side of… We had discussions with investment banks and private equity firms about potential acquisitions or investments based on the equity side. And that starts to move seats around equity raise and even some interesting partnership model equity raises that we’re even currently talking about. So it’s a pretty interesting range of options that we’ve explored in total so far.
The Three Different Sources of DIY Capital to Consider When Scaling a Business
Sean Magennis [00:03:54] You know, I love that, and your experience is so uniquebecause you’ve come to me to share with our listeners from the perspective of having, youknow, started to venture back more tech firms. This is your first professional servicesfirm, so you bring all of the knowledge there and then you know you’re in this sort of
reinvention mode, and yet you’re still leveraging these unique sources of finance.
So this is going to be great for our listeners to get your insights. So Josh, what I thought I’d do is, you know, at the top of the show, I suggested that not all capital is the same. And these days now, and I don’t know if you’re finding this, but certainly I am, that capital is abundant in the market, and there are very, very many different kinds. So I’d like to get your thoughts on what we call a do-it-yourself approach.
I’ll illustrate three types of capital. And yes, I know they are more so if you want to throw out some others that you’ve got personal experience in, that would be great too. So the first one I’d like your input on is free cash flow from operations.
So this comes from increasing revenue, driving down costs, using the spread between those to scale a business. And scaling with free cash flow preserves the owner’s equity and does not add a debt service burden to the PNL. What are your thoughts on this, Josh?
1. Free Cash Flow From Operations
Josh Miramant [00:05:21] And this is one of the absolute magic parts about
professional services agencies that you’re able to have a lot of control and a lot. It puts youin an interesting position. I love that. That’s the name of a professional services agency.
I mean, you summarized that I think is an absolutely beautiful part about cash flow, which is owner equity and not having to dilute too early in your growth phase. And my philosophy on when I entered into professional services, my philosophy was that our profit, our dividend would be the measure of our success, and that’s controlled. But I would show how successful we were in the market.
And I think that was something that allowed us to think about our growth planning based on our cash flow. And that was truly as we got in and developed more client base and showed more market adoption and how to sell better. We were able to expand our growth, and I think that was a nice guardrail-controlled mechanism. And once we got our sea legs under us and take over 10 million topline this year, we will be able to start thinking about taking on more debt burden, or now you’re in the other options at the top.
And a bit about that growth, that controlled growth to getting that point with a lot of capital reinvestment was incredibly helpful for planning, aka not growing too quickly. Yes, having some of the scale constraints, but also being very thoughtful with where you’re making a capital investment.
One thing I would say that we’ve learned and learned late and became a major challenge for us in the early days because our monthly invoices were pretty modest and so we can afford to cover a lot of how we’re doing. And so you have your cash flow is usually not like a 60-day window, we do a month at work. We would bill and have a net 30 payment. And I’ve heard a lot of different firms and colleagues do it differently, but that was a 60-day cycle. If everyone pays on time and at end of billing.
Sean Magennis [00:07:13] Yes.
Josh Miramant [00:07:13] We have started moving heavily into reducing down that cash flow cycle, going into lower net 15 or even upfront invoicing on net 30. So you’re really reducing under 30 days and quite candidly with very little pushback. And from a cash flow perspective, we shipped about 80 percent of our current clients, which we have a pretty long client lifecycle in almost every new one onto that with very little exclusion, and that movement to that shorter revenue cycle is actually massively increased the amount of cash flow we’ve had.
It’s amazing to even grow quicker and have to take on less your interest for equity release or dilution really steps of an option. So it’s, I think, controlling your cash, obviously just goal to get cash in and spend it, not to think about that later and then planning. But I would say even more thoughtful ways of having a discussion with our client upfront.
We’re pretty candid. “We’re a small boutique, and we want to get to cash flow so we can invest in your team to make sure we have good management.” And they were right alongside us, supporting us on some tighter cash flow cycle. So love cash flow, and obviously like to keep and reserve equity. So at the end of the day, that’s the cheapest money you’re going to get out there.
Sean Magennis [00:08:22] You know, I love what you’ve said and everything you’ve
said, you know, I totally agree with. One of the interesting things you said, and I don’t want
this to be lost on our listeners, is that you were surprised at the ability to get paid upfront or
get a shorter payment cycle on your AR. That is fantastic. And I think a lot of owners of
boutique firms don’t have the courage, or they fear asking for that.
So give me a little bit more on that as to how you went about it, because I think our listeners if all they do is get from this the shortening of the AR or getting prepayments upfront that will leapfrog
their ability to use free cash flow for other things.
Josh Miramant [00:09:05] Yeah. This is easily one of the most important thing that’s happened. We’re really still growing this year. Our growth was big, and so every dime counts right now. For us, we’re doing multiple types of financing plus we’re hiring like crazy .
We have larger amounts of, you know, resource allocation like unallocated resource between projects, all the things you expect from the management of our company. But the thing that’s amazing was when we tried these conversations. First off, understanding what’s right for your business, how is it logical for your clients to pay you appropriately. You want to make sure you consider, but not every conversation was about what the risk was the company taking for giving us money.
And I think that was important to have that conversation. So our business. We actually had a message that was thinking about how they would consider it. So saying, you know, “Hey, we’re going to invoice the upfront, we’re going to keep it at net 30. So we’ll be completing all of the work that we’re offering this revenue for. It’s a really it’s not payment upfront, it’s invoicing upfront and you just align the end of payment to work the most recently completed.” And everybody love that we’re asking for payment upfront.
Accounting teams freak out. They’re like, “Oh, we don’t want to put risk of giving you our cash and not sure how the work would be done.” None of that risk was there. It’s like, “Hey, if we’re doing such a terrible job on delivery, your cash is still sitting in.” The bank knew all the leverage, and we stand by our great work. There is zero risk here, and you’re just helping us with keeping control of our cycle.
The narrative thinking about what our clients worried about completely changed our messaging. And so the second thing that once there was any pushback, and we did have a couple of clients, you know, very friendly, say, “Oh, we don’t like it, it’s kind of like a retainer site or deposit. We never talked about that, right?”
We can then say, “Hey, let’s get rid of this. It’s no problem. But could you help us out instead of a net 30, which is pretty industry-standard, let’s do a net 15 or net 10. And they are like, “Oh, of course, that’s no problem.” So now we’re in this discussion where we just decreased our AR by twenty-five percent.
Sean Magennis [00:11:03] Twenty-five .
Josh Miramant [00:11:04] Yeah, yeah. We started that conversation, yeah, 20 percent, excuse
me, but we started the conversation instead of just being like, “Oh, it’s 60, and hopefully
they pay on time,” and now I’m scrambling cash three payroll cycles later. And so it’s just
having a conversation with them and thinking of the messaging.
You’re bringing it out to clients the way that safely risks their position and ultimately, deliver good work and have no problem with the payments close to cycle. That’s the kind of the cardinal rule here.
Sean Magennis [00:11:30] It’s so smart and it’s so good and you’re both at the same time. What you’re doing is you’re educating your team to operate on that basis and you’re educating your client, you know, so it’s a really good and it and if it’s positioned, as you’ve said and messaged, well, it’s a win win for both.
And I know that’s a trade statement, but thank you for sharing that because underneath your original comments were these two very specific tactics which if a boutique firm can do that, it’s going to be golden.
So let’s get to number two. So the second aspect is debt. So debt typically would come from a bank. It would come from a private lender. It may not be cheap, but it is reasonable as lenders charge modest rates on loans and it’s also readily available in the two to three times EBITDA range is what we would typically see. What’s your opinion on debt?
Josh Miramant [00:12:23] Yes, I loved it. Personally, I always like to start with my best and the worst but, I would love to help you frame this. And there is this spectrum of a professional service founder. That’s the greed fear spectrum. And I love how he thinks about this.
On the greed side, you don’t want to give up your equity. This is the thing you’re building. That’s the compounding value. And candidly, particularly with when you’re investing cash flow, investing your earnings back into the business. These are cash-hungry machines that take a lot of it, and it’s part of your investment can be tied up pretty heavily in the ownership of a firm.
That’s always a concern of the owner of not being too tied into a single, you know, having some diversity in a portfolio, not just a company. And so I think it’s an interesting on the greed side you want to keep that compounding engine because they can take out your salary and whatever disbursements are that you choose.
But the angle there is just coming down to the fear side, which is not making payroll. It’s not being able to hire. It’s not being able to grow quick enough. And I think that’s always this dichotomy that exists that I always take this metric on. Debt is this wonderful piece that’s kind of, you know, stepping partially into the equity, I think will get a chance to talk about my thoughts there in a minute.
Sean Magennis [00:13:39] Yes.
Josh Miramant [00:13:40] The debt is a wonderful play.. I think there’s a couple of things to consider. What you’re spending it on is crucial. So I think it’s always focusing on, you know, it’s like, I think that debt should be considered on the opex experience. Never capex, I think that’s a little later in my rules.
There’s other thoughts there, but like on there is that you can service and keep revenue coming when you’re looking at that. I think there’s angles of debt being made notes two to three, but I think that’s a reasonable starting point, depending on personal liquidity or other factors that you have for backup.
But I think I also think taking on debt with consideration of a repayment calendar like based on your projections and knowing what worst case is and best case is, and keeping it modest until you have a pretty confident projection into your repayment calendar. And then surely just I think you’re right, like apples pretty cheap right now in general has been more expensive. Some pretty, really very, very favorable interest rates, but very tangibly looking how much that money’s costing you.
Sean Magennis [00:14:37] Yes.
Josh Miramant [00:14:37] And I think that’s a big piece of how much are you are losing out on future revenue and is that is it smarter to keep cash flow and grow slower or smarter to take that, capture that revenue and turn it into more accountability. And I think that at the right point that is absolutely something you should do.
We’ve raised our friends, and family around. I took out a line of credit from the traditional bank, Chase is our banking partner in a quarter-million line of credit, which was really friendly to, you know, have this beautiful, beautiful debt option there. Because it’s only paying and you’re using it, which is lovely. It’s right at your fingertips.
And then we’ve gone and got another $400000 debt financing round, which is pretty good for our books right now. On a more traditional note and still pretty favorable interest rates and the interest on it is pretty modest. So it’s a very nice opportunity for us to have, you know, feel very comfortable on our AR cycle and tied with upfront billing amount in a really strong cash position, even with this large growth factor, which is so nice to see.
Sean Magennis [00:15:45] And I would assume that you’ve also got some good forward visibility on contracting that’s coming forward because that helps you manage your greed fear component that you just spoke to, right?
Josh Miramant [00:15:58] Couldn’t be more apt there, and I think honestly, the
amount I would be sensitive to take out as much debt as I have unless we had contracts in place. We have even things that I was sensitive to. I’m not taking extending my debt financing options until we had a diverse set of contracts that were pretty far.
I don’t want just one big client, or a couple, a few small ones that are kind of tailing in cycle with low visibility. It was, you know, we could lose a good chunk of our, you know, any individual client has no impact on our financial stability. That took a while to build, for sure. Toyour point of forecasting and de-risking alone actually was less about being able to service, you know, a few thousand dollars a month of interest, which is not in…the percentages are tiny. Yeah, but it’s actually coupled with a repayment schedule and projections against that with their contracts, we can stick to that calendar. Either way, it just means other future growth constraints, but still better offer market opportunity with clients, which took off.
Sean Magennis [00:17:00] You know, brilliant, and you’ve also hit on a couple of additional key things like client quality. So the ability of the client to pay, which is critical. Diversification of your client group, so you’re not anchored. You know you don’t have all your eggs in one basket, and then you’ve got your backlog in the quality of your contracting. So fantastic.
I mean, this is exactly what we want listeners to really get a handle on because when using a debt instrument, all those factors should be in place, and you need to be able to feel comfortable and go to sleep at night. You know that you’re not going to wake up one morning and not be able to service the debt, right?
Josh Miramant [00:17:40] Yeah. So just a note to add. I think that in the early days, and I’m getting some questions that are on, fortunate enough to have some pretty decent-sized loans, personal back loans. And I think that’s best. I think what is also very exciting when we can move beyond me not having personal back loans, that was great money.
And that’s where certainly takes a lot more to build a business to that point. But I do think that was a healthy risk appetite that I was willing to a smaller scale to then show repeated receivables and show a consistent client base. But that transition from I would certainly say that if debt is where you’re looking to go as you’re building a company up to 100 employees, which is our top line, but the size that we’re building on.
I certainly get meaningful amounts of money or large enough amounts of money just on the business alone until we got a little bigger. And then it became something where that was because of the combination of cash flow and this just being not as much of covering the percentage of our MR. And it’s interesting how that became a really good solution on the company’s books.
Sean Magennis [00:18:44] I love that, and you know, it works right in the early stages. You
take the personal guarantee in the middle. I saw you don’t need to do it. You know there’s an appropriate time to take on personal risk, and then there’s a time, as you’ve just illustrated, where the company can take on that risk on the balance sheet.
3. Equity Partners
So let’s flip to the third aspect, which is equity partners. So this is when an investor puts cash in exchange for a piece of the business, and then the owner’s stake is diluted as a result. What do you think about equity for a boutique professional services firm?
Josh Miramant [00:19:24] Yes, I got a little more sensitive when it comes to equity with a company like a professional services firm. First off, as I mentioned in my background, I think equity raises are really important. I think it’s just when and what you’re looking to build your firm. I think those are two questions that you need to understand here.
So let me share my thinking around that. So unlike a SaaS product, where you just think high multipliers. High multiples and valuation are the expectation. If you are successful on strategy, whatever X your thinking about right, your projection on a professional service depends on a little variability of your space.
And how much tech work or how much automation is inside of the way that you do what you do, when is or what the product is understood, what you’re building,you’re looking at 2.5 to 4.5 range multiplier. Those are rough numbers that are going to be different for every one of your listeners here. But that’s kind of where our sector fell, our cutting edge buzzword tech stocks, or a little bit more depending on how strong your sales team and all these factors are not getting the details.
Sean Magennis [00:20:29] Yes.
Josh Miramant [00:20:30] So it’s interesting to think about when you look at those multiples, what are you looking to build? You’re really looking to scale a business. You need a lot more money. You need to invest in bigger sales organizations, but that comes once you make it to the next stage. Like, I always look at our objective and goals as a company is to move into that 25 to 30 million top-line revenue company as we scale-out.
And I look at that is what my investment team talks about is the platform layer of a professional services agency. That’s their terms. I like it. If you’re looking to scale a business, it’s like when you become a platform that things like taking on, you know,an equity raise and acquiring other companies you can actually absorb into you.
If there is an option, there would be not typically a lot of business selling you to other firms, which I’ve actually done some other interesting areas around equity partnership equity, which is an interesting area that we’ve been talking about with a few of our partners lately.
Yes, it’s very compelling because it actually reduces some of the equity dilution or my owner dilution along with the and while still getting pretty good terms, some capital. But the biggest factor is you are trading control, and it’s usually in a very good way. If you’ve got a good partner and you take on a good relationship with the firm because that’s expertise and all the things that come with a high or higher opportunity in addition to cash.
So lots of good. But that control factor is important when you start thinking about what you’re looking to execute. So I think that equity when a founder and how I feel about it, when a founder feels really confident in their business model and can sell it well and they should know how much equity they’re going to give up for capital.
Sean Magennis [00:22:09] Exactly.
Josh Miramant [00:22:09] We did a full two-term sheet equity raise and I didn’t feel comfortable of the evolution at the time. And they were generous terms, that I think, appropriately valued our company. But it just the dilution meant was more of a control consideration on one side. And candidly, if it was done now, I think it might be below a margin where my control factor would be given up.
So it’s a little bit to the founders role, like we’re looking to scale quite large and leaving up 50 percent of our equity right now. So when we’re being raised too much dilution down the road, but it can get a little bigger, have more receivables, are valued more competition or have more staff, the value of the company starts giving you competitive options. It’s a little individual, but I love equity. I just think the time, and the goals are crucial to be considered.
Sean Magennis [00:22:52] I love that. So the time and the goals are crucial for consideration. This is excellent, Josh. Really. So I can’t think of a more important, high-stakes strategic decision for our listeners to get right. As we’ve gone through these three, there are others. So this takes us to the end of this episode.
Scaling a Business: Questions to Ask When Raising Growth Capital
And by the way, we’re going to have plenty of opportunities to discuss this, particularly in Collective 54 going forward. So this has been extraordinarily valuable. As is customary, 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.
Our style of checklist is a yes-no questionnaire. We aim to keep it simple by asking only 10 questions. So in this instance, if you answer yes to eight or more of these questions all three of these capital sources are available to you.
If you answer no to questions one to three, don’t pursue funding to scale with free cash flow. If you answer no to four to nine, don’t rely on debt. And if you answer no to question 10, don’t take on an equity partner. Josh as graciously agreed to be our peer example today. So,Josh, I’ll just ask you these 10 questions. Give us a simple yes or no.
Sean Magennis [00:24:08] And here we go. So number one, are you generating enough
free cash flow to fund scale?
Josh Miramant [00:24:17] Yes.
Sean Magennis [00:24:19] Number two, do you know where to deploy this extra free cash
Josh Miramant [00:24:25] Oh, yes.
Sean Magennis [00:24:26] I love it. Number three, are you willing to go without today for
Josh Miramant [00:24:34] Yes.
Sean Magennis [00:24:36] Number four, have you been in business for at least five
Josh Miramant [00:24:41] Yes, we have.
Sean Magennis [00:24:42] Number five, are you generating stable EBITDA every year?
Josh Miramant [00:24:51] Beside COVID, yes.
Sean Magennis [00:24:52] OK. Oh, that’s good, I mean that listen, that’s real, right? You’re being honest.
Josh Miramant [00:24:55] It’s exciting years.
Sean Magennis [00:24:57] Exciting years. Number six, would two to three times EBITA be enough to fund scaling your firm?
Josh Miramant [00:25:04] Yes.
Sean Magennis [00:25:05] Yeah. Number seven, can your PNL handle the debt serviceburden of a loan?
Josh Miramant [00:25:11] Yes.
Sean Magennis [00:25:12] Number eight, are you willing to personally guarantee a loan?
Josh Miramant [00:25:18] Yes.
Sean Magennis [00:25:18] Yeah. You’ve done it.
Josh Miramant [00:25:20] Done it in the trenches on that one.
Sean Magennis [00:25:21] Absolutely. Number nine, do you have enough personal assets to secure the loan if open to a guarantee?
Josh Miramant [00:25:29] Yes.
Sean Magennis [00:25:30] And number ten. Are you willing to dilute your ownership, take for
the right equity partner?
Josh Miramant [00:25:37] Yes.
Sean Magennis [00:25:38] Outstanding, so in summary, it takes money to make money, scaling a boutique takes money. There are different funding sources, each with its own pros and cons. All can work well, which is best for you is highly situational. And Josh, you’ve said that.
So take your time, listeners, to consider this very important strategic decision. Josh, a huge thank you today for sharing all of the real-life examples. I love your enthusiasm. I love the fact that you’re in Manhattan. I could hear the traffic, which we haven’t heard a lot in the last six months. It’s brilliant and makes me feel as if we’re in the real world.
And for our listeners, if you enjoyed the show and want to learn more, pick up a copy of the book “The Boutique: How to Start, Scale and Sell a Professional Services Firm”, written by Collective 54 founder Greg Alexander
And for more expert support, check out Collective 54, the first mastermind community for founders and leaders of boutique professional services firms.Collective 54 will help you grow, scale and exit your firm bigger and faster.
Go to Collective54.com to learn more.
Thank you for listening.