The composition of the founding team must be carefully considered. Boutiques are often formed by a group with overlapping skills which makes it hard to scale. Learn about how the team may need to change over time if a boutique is to reach its full potential.
Sean Magennis [00:00:16] 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 composition of the founding team must be carefully considered. Unfortunately, many boutiques are formed by a group of friends with lots of skills overlap, which makes it very hard to scale beyond a lifestyle business. I’ll try to prove this theory by interviewing Greg Alexander, Capital 54’s chief investment officer. Greg has a point of view on how our founding teams should be put together, and he will share it with us today. Greg, great to see you. Welcome.
Greg Alexander [00:01:16] Hey, Sean, good to be here today.
Sean Magennis [00:01:18] OK, Greg. So today we’re going to talk about the composition of the founding team and how it might need to change over time if a boutique is truly to reach its full potential. Why is this worth the listeners attention?
Greg Alexander [00:01:32] Hmm, that’s a good question. Let me see. How about I answer that with a cautionary tale?
Sean Magennis [00:01:39] Please do. I love your stories.
Greg Alexander [00:01:42] OK, so a buddy of mine a few years back was a leading provider of jury consulting services. He is a social scientist and helps clients with jury selection, a brilliant guy in a fascinating field. Anyway, he and four of his coworkers quit working for the man and opened up their own shop. They went belly up at the end of year two. He took me out for ribs to ask me for some career advice. I waited for a few beers to be in him and then asked what the heck happened? I mean, he is a bona fide expert in a well defined niche with lots of demand for services.
Sean Magennis [00:02:15] What did he tell you, Greg?
Greg Alexander [00:02:17] So it turns out he made a rookie mistake, a mistake lots and lots of founders make. He founded the company with his coworkers who were all alike. For example, these guys all love doing the work. They were geeks of a sort and kicked out about the technical aspects of the job. In this case, this meant they loved trial strategy, pretrial research and especially witness preparation. However, none of them, and I mean not even one, enjoyed selling the work. The word sales was beneath them. And for the first year or so, they did not need to sell their personal networks, generated enough referrals to make a go at it. However, this eventually dried up, a low hanging fruit had been picked and soon there was not enough work to survive
Sean Magennis [00:03:00] Geez, yikes. I’m sure that made for a bad dinner date. What advice did you give him now?
Greg Alexander [00:03:05] A night eating dry rubbed ribs at the smoke and roast is never a bad evening.
Sean Magennis [00:03:09] Love it.
Greg Alexander [00:03:11] The advice I gave him is the advice I will give our listeners. First, he had too many founding partners. Five is just too many. The perfect founding team to take you through the first ten million or so in revenue is three. Second, the three need to be very different people with very different skills. No overlap. In the early days, resources are constrained. You cannot afford to be suboptimized with redundant skills. You need a partner who is a true rainmaker, a person who can bring in clients consistently and professionally, meaning beyond harvesting a referral network. Next, you need a partner who is excellent at service delivery. This partner could not sell weed to a Jamaican on holiday, but boy, he can deliver on time, on spec and on budget every time he or she can move around a project plan like Travolta moves around a dance floor and the third partner needs to be a process engineer who can quickly turn snowflake projects into standardized offerings, which can be sold and delivered repeatedly and profitably. So in other words, one plus one plus one equals ten.
Sean Magennis [00:04:14] This is a great reminder. I think the mistake made by this jury consultant is made by a lot of funders in the opening. I told the listeners that the founding team also morphs over time. Can you elaborate on this a bit?
Greg Alexander [00:04:29] Sure. My commentary here is directed at our listeners who are between one and 10 million in revenue to break out and get beyond 10 million often requires that reassignment of the founder, reassignment of the founding partners, or in some cases the termination of a founding partner or two. So why is this? Sometimes mistakes we have discussed on this show have been made, but it is a few years into the journey and there is a reluctance to change relationships run deep. However, if this poorly constructed team is allowed to continue, it will become a true obstacle for growth. A roadmap to consider as one possible solution to this can be described as follows. Over time, the biggest department will be the delivery team. This is where the largest number of employees will set. Assign the leadership of the delivery team to the partner who is the best people manager. Even if this partner is not a master project manager, that is OK at this stage because the critical competency is people management. Assign the responsibility for creating services to the partner who is most like a lone wolf. This department will be a one man shop for some time. The partner who likes to work alone could lead this part of the business well. His or her job is that of individual contributor creating things for others to use. Assign the responsibility for marketing and sales to the partner who can manage egos the best, this department will be smaller than the delivery team in terms of number of employees. However, salespeople are your biggest pain in the butt, these guys and gals are divas and require lots of care and feeding. It is best to not be in the position of having to fit a square peg in a round hole. Prevention is preferred. However, if you’re living with a legacy structure, this is a framework to find a compromise.
Sean Magennis [00:06:22] Perfect, Greg. So my hunches, many of our listeners will find themselves in this pickle. 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 [00:07:50] 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. We’re going to try and 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 team composition is working for you. If you want to know too many times your team composition is likely getting in the way of your attempts to scale. Let’s begin.
Sean Magennis [00:08:51] Number one, does your founding team consist of three or more partners? Number two, is there no overlap in skills among the founding partners?
Greg Alexander [00:09:04] and remember the three big skills to start as someone who sells the work, someone who delivers the work and somebody who builds a service offering.
Sean Magennis [00:09:11] Got it. Number three, is there a loss in capacity due to confusion over who is doing what?
Greg Alexander [00:09:18] Yeah, all hands on deck is actually a bad thing.
Sean Magennis [00:09:21] Yeah. Number four, do you have a partner responsible for acquiring clients? Number five, do you have a partner responsible for servicing clients? Number six, do you have a partner responsible for developing service lines?
Greg Alexander [00:09:39] Bright line distinctions.
Sean Magennis [00:09:41] Number seven, can the partner who owns the service department scale to dozens of employees? Number eight, can the partner who owns the marketing and sales department handle big egos? Number nine, is the partner who owns the service development effort, comfortable being a lone wolf? And number ten, do the partners complement rather than compete with one another?
Greg Alexander [00:10:11] Now some listeners might be saying, well, I don’t want any partners, I just want to do it myself. Well, you still need to have those skills. They got to fill the void. Right. But you can’t do it all yourself. Right. Right.
Sean Magennis [00:10:23] Greg, thank you again. And in summary, it takes a team to realize the dream. The composition of the founding team must be carefully considered and it will morph over time. Pick your partners very carefully.
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 the Professional Services Firm. I’m Sean Magennis.
Thank you for listening.