Episode 164 – From Client to Founder: The Journey of Building a Boutique Professional Service Firm – Member Case by Dave Makerewich

In this episode, we delve into the remarkable journey of a founder who transitioned from being a client to establishing a thriving boutique professional service firm. Discover how his firsthand experience as a client shaped his understanding of the industry’s needs and fueled his entrepreneurial spirit. Through insightful anecdotes and lessons learned, uncover the unique challenges and triumphs of building a business from a client’s perspective.


Greg Alexander [00:00:15] Hey, everybody, this is Greg Alexander, the host of the Pro Serv podcast, brought to you by collective 54. If you’re not familiar, collective 54 is the first. And to my knowledge, the only mastermind community dedicated exclusively to the unique needs of a unique audience and that unique audience are founders and leaders of boutique professional services firms. In fact, the number 54 is the industry code for professional services. So if you’re somebody in consulting or a marketing agency, a law firm, accounting firm, architect, you know, you name it, some of that market sells and delivers expertise for a living and you’re a boutique, which is kind of post startup but pre scale. Then this is the place for you. On today’s episode we’re going to talk about how one leaves industry. And starts a boutique professional services firm by taking advantage of. The previous experience in the industry, and how that can lead to correctly selecting a niche to operate in, and how that can lead to accelerated success in the early days of being a boutique browser firm. And with that, I have a member of collective 54. I’m going to give him a chance to introduce himself. So, Dave, it’s good to see you. Would you please introduce yourself to the audience? 

Dave Makerwich [00:01:41] Yeah, my name’s, Dave Makerwich. I started, Maven about eight years ago, and as Greg mentioned, I’m coming from a different industry. I used to work in a big corporate, sort of setting at, a large pharmaceutical company and worked with a lot of professional service firms in the marketing and advertising space, and kind of just saw a unique opportunity and, decided to jump in. 

Greg Alexander [00:02:10] So, Dave, when you were in industry, you were in a pharmaceutical company. Is that correct? 

Dave Makerwich [00:02:16] Yeah, I was working as a brand manager in the marketing department. 

Greg Alexander [00:02:20] Okay. And then you would hire. Marketing agencies as the client, as I understand it. Is that accurate? 

Dave Makerwich [00:02:28] That is accurate. Usually, you know, the job of a marketer in that is many fold, and one of them is managing all of your advertising materials for your Salesforce, for customers, for, you know, patient materials and all of that. All of that work is generally, you know, given out to a third party agency to help assist with all of that. 

Greg Alexander [00:02:52] So you had a very unique perspective, having been the client. And then you went ahead and decided to start a firm that would serve you or others like you. Do I understand that correctly? 

Dave Makerwich [00:03:05] That’s correct. 

Greg Alexander [00:03:06] Yeah. And this is the thing that I really want to circle and highlight, because I don’t know if you know this day, but you and I share that in common. When I started, my boutique was called SBI, which stood for Sales Benchmark Index. I was you. I was, well, I should say I was similar to you in that I was the client. I was a sales executive in a big tech company, and I hired business to business sales effectiveness consulting companies. And because I was the client, I really understood the client. So when I mustered up the courage to become an entrepreneur, I started a consulting company that would serve people like me. And that gave me an unfair advantage, because all the work that somebody has to do to kind of understand the ideal client profile was really easy because I was the client. So I had to understand myself, which I guess in some cases isn’t easy. But in this case was. So, and I want to highlight that as a great opportunity for, for many, if you were once the client and you now serve the client, you have a huge advantage today. Why don’t you share with me your perspective on what that advantage is and how you leverage it here in the early days of Maven, and how that has led to what’s now an eight year success. 

Dave Makerwich [00:04:31] Yeah. Great question. I mean. I think when I first started working in the area and working with these third parties. It didn’t take long to realize that the con. There was a few things missing. Like, I feel like, you know, pharmaceutical advertising was such a specific thing with with such a detailed regulatory environment, a lot of rules around what you can and cannot do. And at the end of the day, I just I kind of felt as the, the person hiring these agencies, I was never really happy with the level of service or the quality like, I, I felt like for the the amount of money being spent on things and the amount of time it was taking to happen, there was just something I was like, this is something’s got to be wrong here. Like, why? Why is this so inefficient? Or why am I so frustrated all of the time? And so, you know, so yeah. Is that was that just me or was that kind of, you know, was there actually an opportunity? And I think I think when I started to ask around my peers and talk to others, it was just like a similar feeling, like a lot of other, you know, marketers were saying the same thing, like it was just this kind of accepted reality that that this is the way it is and this is how much it costs and this is how long it takes. And yeah, it’s frustrating. You got to kind of do the work yourself. And I think, I don’t know, it just it just led to this idea that I didn’t know anything about how to do the other side of the business, but I knew absolutely, as the client what I wanted and what I needed. And I think that’s all that I really needed to kind of drive me to take that next step and just jump in and try to figure it out. 

Greg Alexander [00:06:16] You know, so you you backed into the right way to do it. And I want to highlight this, which is very often people think about the service first and the problem second. So therefore they run around with a service or a product looking for a problem to solve, and they never really get off the ground. In your case, you had great clarity as to what the problem was, the frustrations that the clients had, which was a huge advantage. And then you could kind of back into, okay, so if if this is what I was looking for and the current providers didn’t offer it, you know, I can engineer that, I can figure out what the service needs to be to make the clients happy. And that is the basis upon which I’ll differentiate myself and I’ll win business. And it’s, it’s a nuance thing, you know, it’s not it’s not so obvious, but it is a huge advantage. And I think that’s why you’ve had the success that you’ve had. Which speaking of which, just for context, for listeners, what types of services do you provide clients? 

Dave Makerwich [00:07:21] Well, again, our clients are very niche and very specific. And so, you know, generally, if they’re marketing managers of pharmaceutical brands and those brand managers are looking for assistance on the entire portfolio of, of marketing and advertising tools that they need to to drive growth of their own brands and their own business. So it’s, you know, it’s kind of like, the services, there’s a series of services that are kind of typical and, you know, bread and butter and there’s sort of an extension of can you be innovative on top of all of that, and can you be a strategic partner with them and make them feel like, you know, you’re a part of their brand team? So it’s both, I guess. I don’t know, it can be very diversified yet. Also sometimes simplistic in in what you’re providing. 

Greg Alexander [00:08:18] Okay. So again, just for context, maybe like one example of a bread and butter service that everybody that might not know pharmaceutics could at least conceptually understand. 

Dave Makerwich [00:08:27] Sure, sure. So. So you’ve got a sales team there going out there speaking to physicians. They need materials when they’re speaking to physicians okay. You’ve got to give them a like a detail that has here’s the information doctor. You need to know about my product. 

Greg Alexander [00:08:41] Okay. Perfect. Yeah. That’s very helpful. So so when you were the brand manager on the other side of the desk, and you were hiring somebody to produce that for you, you were frustrated with how long it took, how much it cost, etc.. And then recapping the words. Tell us a little bit about that frustration. 

Dave Makerwich [00:08:59] Well, I think one of the pieces, you know, my I have, my my educational background, I. My, my, I have, my mother and father were both in healthcare. My father as a physician, I thought for the longest time I wanted to be a physician. I have a strong science background, didn’t go to school for business, didn’t go to school for marketing. Got into, sort of pharmaceuticals. I realized, you know, going down the physician route wasn’t for me. Got exposed to marketing that way. But, you know, you’re became the brand manager for, a very large product in Canada. It’s a very complicated monarch, you know, monoclonal antibody. And you’re in this market where you’re competing against other monoclonal antibodies. It’s very, very nuanced. There’s a lot of specifics of it. And you kind of need to have people on your, I guess, your account team that you’re able to have conversations with that even understand what it is that you’re trying to do. And so one level of that frustration is just, I feel like I’m talking to people that aren’t really getting it. Like, I feel like I’m talking to people that are simply taking what I’m saying and relaying it back to some other group of people. And and at the end of the day, the materials that are coming back to me are not what I asked for. There’s a lot of broken telephone, there’s a lot of rework and fixing and trying to get people back on track. So I think that’s one element. 

Greg Alexander [00:10:31] Yeah, that’s very helpful. What ends up happening in that case is you, the client, you hired somebody to do the job, and you end up doing the job yourself anyways because you’re redoing the provider’s work over and over again. And that could be a very frustrating pain point. And it’s a great example just to highlight what we’re talking about today. And that is, you know, when you were once the client and you are now the service provider, you have a unique advantage over the competition who were not once the client in Dave’s case, you know, he is the son of a physician. He understood that, you know, he thought about being a physician himself, so he wasn’t, you know, this, I guess generic horizontal marketer. You know, he was this highly niched specialist, and it was through that specialization that allowed him to launch his firm and differentiate himself versus the competition. So speaking of the firm, so you’re eight years in. You know, I know that, you have read my book, The Boutique. Thank you for that, by the way. And I know that one of the things that you mentioned to the team was just the appreciation for having vocabulary around these things. So using our vocabulary, you know, you would technically now at eight years, you would be in the scale stage. You had graduated from the growth stage, which is the first stage, those first five years. Now you’re in the scale stage, which is the next five years at least on average anyways. And then at some point, you know, you’ll graduate towards the final five year period, which is the exit period. So you know your experience. Do you do you feel like you’re in that kind of middle scale stage? Do you feel like you’re still in the growth stages, or is it a little bit of both? How far away from the exit stage are you? You know, kind of what are your thoughts? 

Dave Makerwich [00:12:18] Yeah, it’s a great question. And I think I may have even asked, you know, your team, like where am I? Is I definitely, you know, when I started Maven, there was definitely some solopreneurs ship. It was there’s definitely some time of me figuring it out on my own. I think my ambitions, at the beginning, were different than what my ambitions are now. Like. I was just trying to do something different. I was enjoying the work, and the most important thing to me at the time was just figure this problem out and see if I can get a few other people on board and to try to figure out the problem and just try to change the game a little bit. But then, you know, at some point something changed, like we started to get some really great people, some extremely talented employees. We started to build a really great culture. And now, you know, I know that you talk about this, in your books, and I’ve actually read both the boutique and the founder. They’re both great. And you talk about this, that we’re in the business of both, you know, not only serving our clients, but also our people. And at some point, the the internal people piece became. And I wouldn’t say more important, but just as important, making sure I’m retaining the right people, making sure I’m keeping them happy and just their well-being became just as important to me. So. I don’t know. Getting back to your original question, like I think there’s. I think your books have provided a lot of clarity on, you know, what? I think we’ve done well up until now and but but also more clarity on what are the next kind of hurdles that we need to do to get us to the next step. I’m definitely not in my mind thinking about the exit stage like that’s I still think there’s so much opportunity in terms of what we can do and in terms of how we can grow the company and and give our people the opportunities that they deserve. And it’s a big market. So I’m still very much excited about that part and sort of finishing figuring it out. And and I guess opening the doors a little bit because I think we’re, we’re definitely in the stage where we just, we don’t do a lot of business development. We still get a lot of referral work. And it hasn’t been something that we’ve had to do. But again, I know there’s going to be a point where we need to change that and do that. So so I don’t know. I think it’s fair, you know, where we are. 

Greg Alexander [00:14:44] But so in listening to you, I would suggest that you are in the scale stage. And I’ll tell you the reason why I believe that, it’s the expanded ambition. So when I, when I talk to founders and I experienced this myself when I went through it, you know, when you launch your firm as the solopreneur, you know, you’re really just trying to prove to yourself that you can replace the income that you walked away from when you left corporate America. And it’s very much a lifestyle business. And then all of a sudden you have some success and you start hiring some people. You start caring about those people. You start thinking about creating, you know, high paying careers for people. That expanded ambition is the sign that you’ve moved into the scale stage because it’s it’s more than just you, you know, it’s it’s a firm it’s not a practice. There’s a big difference there between those two. I would also suggest, however, that, you know. I like to bring clarity to these situations by suggesting it’s very linear, but it’s not. It’s messier than that. So there’s elements of your business like yourself as a founder, I think you’ve matured to the point you’re in the skill stage. However, if you’re still only generating business from referrals, which is great because that means you’re doing great work and you’re getting referrals. But that would suggest that on the sales and marketing side of things, you’re a little less mature in that part of your business, that function, it might still be in the growth stage. And that’s what happens is parts of your business are in scale, parts of your business are in growth. You know, you might launch a new service and that might even be in the startup stage, parts of your business, for some of our members that are that organization is owned by partners, co-founders. You might have one co-founder who’s in the mid-sixties, and they’re in the exit stage because they want to retire. And you have another co-founder who’s still in their early 40s with kids getting ready to go to college, and they don’t even want to think about retiring. Right? So it’s it’s you always have one foot in one stage and one foot in the other stage. And Dave, I think you’re a great example of that. And I appreciate you coming on the call today. Share a little bit about your story. We’re going to double click on a lot of these things when we have the member Q&A session. I particularly want to talk in greater depth about what it means to start as the client and then become the service provider. That was the reason why I really wanted to speak to you. But I’m also going to talk about, you know, your own expanded ambition and your own journey on the lifecycle. So on behalf of the members, I appreciate you coming on today and sharing sharing part of the story with us. 

Dave Makerwich [00:17:09] Yeah, thanks for having me on board. It’s great. 

Greg Alexander [00:17:12] Okay. All right. A couple calls to action. So, if you’re listening to this and you’re not a member and you think you might want to be because you want to hang around with people like Dave, go to collect a 54.com and fill out an application, and we’ll get in contact with you. If you are a member, and you want to learn more about Dave story because you can probably see yourself in him quite a bit. Look for the meeting invite that will come out, and we’ll have a private one hour Q&A session with him on an upcoming Friday session. And if you’re not ready for either of those two things, you just want to learn more. I would point you towards my book. It’s called The Boutique How to Start Scale and Sell a Professional services Firm, written by yours truly, Greg Alexander. And you can find that on Amazon. But until next time, I wish you the best of luck as you attempt to grow, scale, and exit your firm.