Coping With the Transition from Management Consulting to a Startup

I wrote the following post (edited slightly here) in response to someone on Quora who indicated that they were having a hard time coping with the transition from management consulting to a startup in terms of the more experimental nature of the startup world and feeling like they were not using their past skills and knowledge.

When I first left a traditional management consulting firm, I went to a startup. The modes of working are quite different. Here are some things to consider for making the transition to the startup world from consulting:

  1. As opposed to focusing exclusively on the 80/20 principle and working on things that will work, use your experience to try to avoid the things that won’t work. Often this can be of significant help in a startup because startups cannot afford to make too many errors of large significance.
  2. In consulting, one has usually built up a lot of endurance to work hard. Use this trait to your advantage for working within a startup.
  3. Consulting teaches one to be systematic and to measure results. One often needs to do the same thing in startups in terms of measuring sales processes and figuring out what is working and not working (e.g., in operations or product management). If you haven’t read The Lean Startup by Eric Ries, dovetail the concepts of cohort measurements and startup accounting in that book with the stuff you probably learned in consulting.
  4. Often in traditional consulting, one has been trained to put in lot of processes in place for mature companies. Don’t overapply these concepts to a startup. Rather, think about how the startup is discovering its business model and how the organization might mature over time to include more formal processes often implemented by consulting firms (the “startup learning curve”).


A Couple of Perspectives for Consultants on Startup Consulting

Startup consulting is a challenging thing to do. Some considerations:

  1. Think about which startups have enough money to be able to afford consultants. They may have raised some significant venture money (say post Series B or C round).
  2. If partially going with some sort of securities compensation, then track record of the management team and strategic attractiveness of the company play a role. All said, as a consultant, depending on how many deals you can do and the stage of the venture you many run up against constraints. Just as an example, as an early-stage venture capital firm with a $50 million you may be able to do 25 deals, have 50% of them go under, 25% be flat, 15% be good, and 10% become rockstars, and that is after culling through thousands of deal opportunities with a team before getting to closing the portfolio vintage. As a consultant, it is hard to do anywhere close to that level of investment portfolio management and due diligence when selecting startups to do consulting with.

Note that there are some emerging shops that seem to blend venture investing with entrepreneur-in-residence models and consulting-like project phases. Purposes are to find viable business models rapidly and then fortify the team.

I’ve done some startup consulting in the past (but only as a fraction of my client base) and generally require a mix of cash an equity (and sometimes commissions for sales or deals). I sometimes also require holding an interim management position within the company. All said, I have generally found it easier to do “startup”-like consulting with carve-outs or new ventures and business units of larger companies that have more financial capital.

A Peek At The Difficulties of Incubating New Initiatives Within Large Companies

Entrepreneurial situations in large companies differ from that of startups, yet one thing that they seem to share is that they often represent “hope” in one way or another. In the case of large corporations, these new initiatives can not only turn out to be profitable “ventures” but also boost morale and reward key employees through growth opportunities. Yet many of these new initiatives have difficulty getting off the ground. Frustration is common. This post provides a peek at some of the situations, complexities, and steps to resolution that I have seen.

First, here’s a picture of a common situation in a large company faced with the prospect of starting a new initiative or business line:

  • Perceivably significant yet amorphous business opportunity
  • No money committed / no budget
  • No or limited organizational resources
  • Established products and sales & marketing channels
  • Mature and complex business and product approval processes.

What adds a level of complexity to the situation (and sometimes leads to insanity for those working directly within the environment) is that:

  • Venture requires substantial investment to ultimately succeed
  • Finance cycle of start-up opportunities (opportunity timing) does not align well with the long, finance planning cycles of large companies (sometimes can be 14+ month delays!)
  • Star players in the current organization have limited availability for the new organization
  • Articulating and aligning on a business opportunity requires collaboration by many functions, and these functions are separate and overloaded in the current organization
  • Sales and product development processes often need to be understood at more than the surface-level.

Here are some ideas for addressing many of the above issues:

  • Recognize that it’s not usually possible or desirable to speed up the process by cutting corners
  • Break the process into smaller pieces to get rolling
  • Search for the right sponsor and core team
  • Secure a portion of time for each of the star players
  • Give the employees a real chance to make things work 
  • Consider getting a commitment for small amount of money to get rolling
  • Start to articulate what the business opportunity looks like and document it
  • Consider using a facilitator that can pull the pieces together, help layout program plan, and frame strategic issues and options
  • Paint the vision for the org structure and build emotional attachment to the cause
  • Involve those from sales and product development that will be eager to provide input and testing grounds
  • Aim for pioneer sales and business development deals with lighthouse accounts (concrete wins)
  • Rinse, refine, increase committment, and repeat.

It may take a leap of faith to get things started. But the leap of faith can be smaller than the temptation of the opportunity as a whole. Sometimes the keys are to look for forward motion and to take some initial steps as opposed to wanting to knock it out of the park too soon.

Let me know your thoughts and experiences!

The Business Plan Is Alive And Well But It May Not Be What You Think

As many times I have written a “business plan”, it seems the flavor of it can vary quite substantially. I think the notion of this catches a good number of people by surprise. And why shouldn’t that be the case? Many textbooks and templates seem to cover business plan outlines with relatively similar structures. My suspicion is that the perspective that gets lost in the mix is intent. The intent of a business plan affects its format and content dramatically (more than outline). For this post, I thought it would be good to share some perspectives on why the process and plan should vary.

Business plan as a process – The process of vetting ideas, getting buy-in, and achieving alignment is most important in these situations. Example situations are new business launches in larger companies (e.g., intrapreneurship). Business plans can often take the form of workshop sessions and Powerpoint documents as opposed to a traditional textual Word document. See a popular post of mine, “In Consulting The Process Is An Essential Part Of The Deliverable“.

Business plan as a sales document – This situation is particularly appropriate for fund raising (e.g., angels, VCs). Key goals of the document are to establish trust with prospects, enable the investment idea to be shared via networks, and persuade people of the merits of an investment opportunity. Often need a mix of instruments here (Powerpoint & Word docs, napkin drawings, demo), depending on the team, industry, and phase of product development (e.g., technology feasibility, commercial feasibility, ramp-up).

Business plan as a hypothesis test or investigative framework – An entrepreneurial way of looking at a business plan is more as a framework or series of hypotheses tests. Questions may be: do customers really want product aspect A, do customers prefer this variation over that one, do customers perceive me as Y relative to my competitors, and will the dog eat the dog food? The business planning effort can be more organic than written and involve focus groups, customer prospect interviews, etc. But the framework process should be systematic in determining which hypotheses are true/false to prove out aspects the business over time.

Some other ways that come to mind are viewing the business plan as a communication tool, a dissertation (that must be closely inspected), debate tool, product development stage gate requirement, and RFP response requirement (e.g., for government grants).

How do you view you business planning efforts? To what extent could you benefit from new ways of thinking about them?

Using a “Frontier Chart” to Evaluate and Plan Project Portfolio Strategy

The introduction of new product or service lines into an existing customer base is a challenge that companies often face with new business development. Sometimes the opportunities can be readily quantified using traditional financial analysis (e.g., using net present value, scenario, and waterfall buildup methods). At other times, there may be hazards of trying to quantify an opportunity too early in the process before conceptual alignment of the stakeholders. For example, people can simply get stuck “in the weeds with the numbers”.

In this post, I share a method that I have sometimes found useful as a first step in framing and getting alignment among parties (especially when looking at new product development situations involving platforms upon which multiple products or product lines can be built). To be honest, I am not sure if there is a name for the type of chart I describe below, but I call it a “frontier chart” (which is derived from investment portfolio theory from finance).

The basic idea is that there are a set of lower risk projects out on the left side of the chart which have more known (potentially lower) expected returns. In contrast, projects on the right side might have higher risks but also higher, expected returns. So as an example of a project on the left side, a software company may have early customer engagements with a straightforward, add-on product that it directly developed (say a GPS mapping tool). As an example of a project on the right side, that same software company may be looking to introduce new platform capabilities such that indirect, 3rd parties can develop applications (e.g., Apple’s “there’s an app for that”). The later project venture is more risky, but the payoff could be larger than the former project.

Frontier Chart and Project Portfolio Strategy

A key benefit of using a frontier chart is that it can help to get buy-in on the high-level things and projects that people tend to agree with. There will be plenty of time later to put on our “propeller hats” and get bogged down in detailed numbers and execution tactics.

The ability to facilitate a company’s management team to move forward is priceless, and sometimes facilitation can be more difficult when introducing new products or services (which is outside of the core, day-to-day business). Consider using frontier charts and thinking about platform strategies (the latter which may be topic for another post).

Perspectives on Facilitating a Consulting Engagement Related to Business Development and Innovation

One of the projects I have been working on recently with a partner involves helping an incumbent software vendor explore new business opportunities and facilitating strategy direction with the leadership team. The project involves research & planning with culmination of a key phase being a go/no-go and a commitment of money for development. Innovation and business development engagements can be tricky to facilitate due to the cast of characters and specific nature of innovation problems, so I wanted to share some experiences with facilitating these types of situations.

First, here are some examples on how these projects can die out (e.g., before getting funded):

  • Innovation is more radical and not incremental, and the primary decision-maker needs "numbers" as a first step to prove out the case for innovation (too much analytical, left brain early on)
  • The team is diverse but cannot effectively develop a set of innovative solutions that range from incremental to more innovative (on either or both dimensions of technology and end-user meaning and associations)
  • If the team can develop a range of solutions, the method of managing the portfolio is ineffective or mismatched with the type of innovation area (e.g., incremental innovation areas not researched in enough detail versus radical innovation areas not given enough breathing room)
  • The method for more fully developing the innovation solution does not balance (based on the type of innovation) gathering information from current end-users versus a larger, ecosystem of industry players and participants beyond end-users

So we have the following as potential backdrop: a mix of left-brains and right-brains and a diverse team that may address primarily incremental innovations but that recognizes the need for more radical, game-changing innovations. Wherein lies the risk tolerance of the leadership team, we cannot yet articulate in concrete terms. Yet the goal is to get everyone on the same page and committed.

A common method of attack that I use for facilitating these types of engagements is to work from common ground to more specific ground and from right-brain (creative) appeal to left-brain (analytical) appeal and then back to teamwork. So the storyboard presentation for getting on the same page with respect to an innovation project may be:

  • Review industry trends (facilitation strategy: develop common ground)
  • Get on the table the high-level, company situation (e.g., via strength, weaknesses, opportunities, threats -> SWOT matrix) (facilitation strategy: develop common ground)
  • Portray the potential innovation projects on a canvas that shows the current situation versus the potential future (facilitation strategy: develop common ground, but more targeted to right-brain)
  • Portray the innovation projects on a conceptual frontier of risks versus returns (e.g., like here), sort of like an investment portfolio (facilitation strategy: develop common ground with segueway to left-brain)
  • Provide deeper-dive summaries (e.g., ROIs where possible or at some more numeric info if that's all that can be done) on specific projects (facilitation strategy: develop more targeted to left-brains but provide offshoot points for open discussion with right-brains)
  • Provide summary on the roadmap for tying everything together, identifying unknowns and open issues, and providing governance for individual innovation projects (facilitation strategy: develop trajectory for people to start working together before passing judgment on all projects)

In a prior post, I talked about the importance of articulating and rearticulating problem statements. That principle still applies, but in many strategy projects, there's also an element of facilitating a diverse set of people that cut across left- and right-brain problems. As consultants and managers, we need to think about that aspect as well.


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Musings On Winning and Losing Moves Within Startup Situations Within Larger Companies

Though anecdotal, I've seen a slight rise in activity with companies looking to incubate new businesses or start-up climates within a larger company. These are challenging situations to get off the ground. Based on a mixture of consulting to a number companies in these situations and being involved with at least one of these situations as a manager within the company, here are some thoughts on winning and losing moves:

  1. Structure: Having a start-up sponsor in name or position only (losing move) – Successful, external startups have managers that will fight to win, pave new ground, work out kinks, get the best resources, etc. If the sponsor is a senior executive that provides only oversight, does not push or provide guidance, and does not empower delegates, this could be a warning sign for an effort that will not bear fruit. If you have a start-up sponsor that provides political and boundary management only, then it might be a good idea (winning move) to get a powerful delegate that answers to the sponsor and can help to "fly cover" in the organization. Situations where cover may be needed include designing new marketing material, getting special access to the sales team, breaking new ground in the legal contracts area, and getting financial budgets approved outside of normal (overly conservative) control mechanisms.
  2. Strategy & Goals: Failing to clearly articulate the ultimately goal and problem statement of the startup early on (losing move) – I guess an addendum to this might be making the strategy too complicated. For example, when faced with the startup options of creating new revenue, helping cross-sell other services within the larger company, reducing customer churn, or all of the above, I would tend to advise leaning away from trying to knock down too many of these at once. All options can be on the radar and should be part of early brainstorming & strategy sessions, but viewing the startup as a standalone business may be the best option of getting traction first.
  3. Core Team Makeup: Failing to bring in new blood when new blood is needed (losing move) – At risk of disrespecting both large company employees and entrepreneur-types, these groups often don't understand one another. For example, entrepreneurs-types can lack respect for large company bureaucracy, but this is dangerous because buy-in and tapping into the resources (people, structure, assets) of a large company can be tremendous. On the other hand, large company employees can become accustomed to the culture, pace, and processes of existing businesses - these may be incompatible with aspects of a new venture. Bringing in new blood for a start-up within a larger company is often a winning move, and the resources need to be different & complementary.
  4. Extended Team Resources and Horse Trading: Failing to capitalize on resources of the larger entity (losing move) – If entrepreneurial types are brought into the new business, there needs to be complementary intrapreneurs (winning move) that understand the structure of the large company and can help get things like data from business units within other areas of the company, identify potential A-team resources already within the company that can help (e.g., marketing, business development, project management, finance), or tap into key channels and partners external to the company (e.g., lighthouse accounts).

There are many more winning and losing moves to create startups within larger firms. What are your experiences? Where do you see pain points?


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Helpful Versus Hindering Lawyers – True Business Lawyers

Yesterday while getting some minutes on the elliptical machine, I was re-reading George Lois' advertising book, "What's The Big Idea". Two of the stories really cracked me up, and they led to write this perspective post on lawyers, more from a startup, venture, or new business initiative point of view.

The first story related to the incredible ad success surrounding Naugahyde (a synthetic, leather-like fabric or material), which had a fabricated, Nauga monster persona as part of the campaign. Click here for some pictures of the Nauga. George Lois, in true storytelling form, relates the whole positioning and art behind the Nauga solution. To make a long story short, he relates something to the effect that late in the game when the whole campaign is ready to roll, one of the lawyers raises a point to the effect of (off the top of my mind), "We're concerned that people may think the Nauga is a real animal … as a consequence, people may be misled into thinking we are selling real leather."

To put things fairly, some forms of advertising (e.g., TV) must definitely be run by lawyer. But who in their sane mind would think that the Nauga was a real animal? Baffled, George relates conducting some primary interviews with regular people, and that the research turns up no one who is confused that the Nauga is a real animal. They think he is crazy for even surveying them. The Nauga goes through, and everyone is lucky that George was there.

The second story has a similar flow. It is related to the logo by Jiffy Lube (see here) and how at the last minute one of the lawyers raises the point that the logo might look like a phallic symbol (and be a showstopper). George disarmed with the laywer with a statement to the effect of, "I don’t know what your peepee is shaped like, but my peepee sure don’t look like that!”. The rest is history, and the logo went through.

I've worked with a number of lawyers, and I definitely prefer the types that help the business development, entrepreneur, & creator-types come up with solutions as opposed to finding every roadblock that will stop a deal. Just finding knowledgeable lawyers that can find holes and weaknesses isn't good enough. The great lawyers, in my mind, are pragmatic problem solvers and solution creators, in addition to being definitive experts in the law. The great ones can engage in a working dialogue and help to calibrate the business risk of pursuing different options.


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Consulting and Management Method: Finding And Relieving The Bottleneck

When thrust into a situation where either resources are constrained, there are competing management choices, and paths forward are unclear, I often find a consulting method of "finding and relieving the bottleneck" useful.

For example, suppose a startup is trying to figure out how to ramp up sales from its first (non-repeatable) deals. Or suppose a company cannot determine whether sales or operations processes are the primary lever for stabilizing revenues. Yet another case might be that there is an incubator unit within a larger company that is underperforming – how might you approach the problem of fixing the situation?

At its core, "finding and relieving the bottleneck" is an analytical method used in production and operations. There are a couple of predominant ways that I look at operations by default, the former being a more quantitative method involving system & process flows and things like Little's Law, and the latter (which I strongly recommend) method using visual inspection and interviews with client management. Here I'll address the latter.

So back to the case of ramping up sales for a startup, where its first deals are largely non-repeatable because they were unique and early in the learning curve. Suppose you have 1-hour with client management. How might you help to tease out how where to start looking for improvements?

In a nutshell, the bottleneck method approach might simply be organized around finding where one gets the biggest bang for the buck in terms of making a change. I might ask the client if they had another resource or an additional day in the workweek, which of the following would ultimately result in more sales:

  • Refining Strategy – this might involve breaking the customer base into segments based on type and prospect awareness profile. Where's the lowest hanging fruit? What kind of marketing and sales material is each segment getting? If you had a choice to improve the marketing collateral or sales processes for the higher priority segment, which would you choose? Are there backlogs in the system (e.g., uncalled sales lead prospects), which would indicate bottlenecks? If you made the change, would it really address the end goal, e.g., getting more sales?
  • Changing Management Approach - in many situations, entrepreneurs may make the first sales, but they often have problems transferring knowledge on how those sales are made. Alternatively, they may have problems letting go of other areas that could be delegated or outsourced (e.g., finance and accounting, inside sales, meeting scheduling, and/or field sales). Would it be helpful to have someone shadow key executives to distill the sales processes and real value propositions that various customers are buying? If we could clone key people to offload some of the burden, would there be enough prospects and deal flow to make things worthwhile?
  • Adjusting Technology or Product - if the product were made less complex or if we simplified choices, would we get better yield and flow from the awareness to interest phase of the customer purchase process? Is there a way that we could get people to sample or experience the product before purchase to skip people past bottlenecks of overanalyzing things too much up-front?
  • Obtaining Financing for Expansion– if you focus time on more sales versus financing for expansion (presuming company has sufficient sales), what would you do and why? What if choosing one path doomed the other? Would the chosen path still be worthwhile? What kind of results could we expect by financing a new online versus a physical market for services delivery?

Optimal diagnosis clearly involves a mixture of tools and approaches, but the bottleneck method is an important method to learn in consulting because it can be increasingly used in facilitative situations where a client has substantial implicit knowledge (and such knowledge must be better formulated explicitly and transferred for company operations to scale).

I've also used this method in management situations (as opposed to in consulting situations only). The method can be particularly good when troubleshooting a problem that cuts across functional areas.

What are your thoughts? Have you ever used this type of approach? If so, how effective was it for you?

Related Posts: A Perspective On Client Facilitation Skills and Crash Course Consulting Reading List

Update (9/19/09): Readers may also be interested in post by Seth Godin on the priority list.


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