CoLo Consulting, the remote strategy and operations consulting firm I co-founded, is turning two.
In Year 1, we tested the market to see what problems our skills could solve. In Year 2, we “productized” our process improvement service and discovered a demand for two other related services.
We faced challenges (e.g., finding consistent revenue, marketing outside of our network) and learned that our core product is clear communication.
We’re focusing our efforts in Year 3 around three things: productizing the services we found demand for, limiting the number of clients we take on, and enhancing our market presence by creating free content.
CoLo Consulting has been in existence for almost two full years and it’s been a trip. Whereas traditional companies publish an annual report, we wanted to write an open letter to our clients and followers to update you on what we’ve learned, mistakes we’ve made, and what’s ahead.
In the first year of CoLo, @Tracy and I were selling our skills and problem-solving abilities to our customers. We found that our initial clients invested in us (not “CoLo”) as we built an independent brand.
We intentionally embarked on a discovery phase to explore the potential market for our services and collect real-world data. We wanted to “get out of the building” and see what problems needed solving rather than assume we knew what the market needed. We prioritized engagements that allowed us to get into the trenches and solve problems from the inside-out.
Through this discovery phase, we found that the clients we worked with (startups and small/medium-sized businesses) required a different type of service from what we had previously delivered to larger companies.
Admittedly, this is not a novel idea - smaller companies obviously need different things than a Fortune 500 firm. The problem we were trying to solve was: how do you blend the best of both worlds (Fortune 500 rigor and startup speed) to deliver a new service for more nuanced client challenges?
We saw an opportunity to create a product that filled the gap between traditional management consulting firms (McKinsey, Bain, BCG down to boutique shops) and the freelance contractor hired for very specific tasks - from that sentiment “CoLo 1.0” was born.
In Year 2, we focused on productizing the service most in demand: process engineering.
We saw a need within growing companies for the creation of scalable processes and decision frameworks. Additionally, these companies very rarely had anyone internally dedicated to creating and maintaining these processes or their documentation.
That’s where we came in.
Our clients needed documented processes in order to scale, both externally (e.g., sales, client onboarding, customer service, etc.) and internally (e.g., outsourcing, training new hires, etc.).
The companies we worked with realized that their processes were not just something they used to deliver to their customers, their processes were their business.
Ultimately, we freed up our clients to focus on what they do best - serving their customers and thinking long-term.
While our earliest customers invested in us as problem-solvers, I believe our customers in Year 2 invested in us as true partners. Our clients knew that we were going to make their challenges our own and do everything in our power to help them achieve their goals.
Any retrospective wouldn’t be complete without mentioning the challenges we encountered. Here are some of the major ones from our first two years.
As with any consulting business, finding consistent month-over-month revenue and having a strong pipeline was a challenge, especially early on. There were months wholly devoted to business development.
We found the majority of our earliest clients through our personal networks. While we could not be more grateful for our earliest advocates (thank you guys!), we knew that approach wouldn’t position us well for the long-term.
The last few years were filled with some frustratingly long sales cycles, but through that process we now better appreciate the time it takes to develop trust in a new advisor - and that’s ok.
We realized that we were doing our current (and future) clients a disservice if we were not following the same rigor internally that we preached externally.
We needed to create a balance of meeting client expectations and carving out meaningful time to devote to CoLo’s evolution as a business. Specifically, this meant creating standard operating procedures (SOP’s), conducting client retrospectives, time-tracking, creating articles and other external content. These activities were not revenue-generating, but we knew they were important for our long-term growth as a business.
While these challenges were neither surprising nor unpredictable, they provided us with some important learning opportunities.
Yes - you can roll your eyes at the phrase “product agility."
While we started with the hypothesis that process documentation would be our central product, we realized early on that our clients needed other, related services.
One of our very first projects was creating a digital transformation strategy for a staffing company. While this was something our team had experience providing, it was not a service we were actively marketing at the time.
After sharing the results from that first digital transformation project with other companies, we realized there was more demand for this service.
Based on the demand, we decided to formalize a “Business Strategy Planning” service, including Digital Transformation, as one of our core products.
“Product Implementation” services (i.e., designing the framework for a successful product implementation) followed a similar pattern and became another core product for us.
We learned to stay agile regarding how our services could be tweaked to what the market demanded, without straying from what we did best.
CoLo is only as good as the outcomes we create for our clients.
We realized that celebrating our client’s successes was our “marketing.” We didn’t buy Google or Facebook ads, but rather we became our client’s biggest cheerleader.
Promoting our clients was easy because we identified with their success - not just because we played a small part in it, but because we work with clients whose missions we support.
Roughly 95% of our projects are conducted remotely. We realized that to be an effective remote partner we needed our messaging and communication to be crystal clear at all times.
You may be able to clarify any misunderstandings by popping into your client’s office when you are onsite, but we do not have that luxury when operating remotely. We needed to make sure everything we produced could stand on its own without the need for our commentary.
Relatedly, we earned our client’s trust by demonstrating honesty in everything that we do - we’re not afraid to say we don’t know if we don’t.
While we have plenty more to learn in Year 3, our first two years taught us that to succeed we need to rapidly implement our lessons learned.
As we evolve into our third year of operation, we are looking to build on what made us successful in the first two years and continue to apply what we learned.
Our future plans include:
⚙️ Delivering the best possible client experience through refined products: We are formalizing and improving the products we identified a demand for in our first two years: Business Strategy Planning (including Digital Transformation), Process Engineering & Optimization, and Product Implementation Services.
📅 Limiting clients per quarter: Due to the surprising response that we saw in Years 1 and 2, we have decided to limit the number of clients that we take on during a given time period. While this may not necessarily optimize our revenue, we are prioritizing our capacity to deliver for each client at the highest quality. As such we’ll be vetting each potential partner to ensure that we are the absolute best fit for their needs. If we are not the best fit, we’ll be referring them to other great service providers we know.
📢 Enhancing CoLo’s market presence: We want to make sure that companies are able to find us. As such, we’ll be publishing more content, upgrading our website, and doing more public appearances to get our message out to the right people. Publishing free content around our core products (e.g., guides, videos, blog posts, etc.) will allow anyone to learn and apply our best practices, even if they don’t have a budget to partner with us.
We see these enhancements as supporting our ultimate mission: helping our clients achieve extraordinary results. We’re excited to be rolling out these changes, but we also know that we’ll need to continually revisit our progress to ensure they always align with our vision!
As we embark on rolling out “CoLo 2.0,” we are asking for help from our network, whether you are a previous client, colleague, or someone who doesn’t know how this article popped up on their feed :)
How you can help us:
Referrals: If you know someone who may be a good fit to work with us (specifically, executives at a growing early to mid-stage startup looking to build structure into their operations), drop me a line at steve [at] heycolo [dot] com
Speaking or Content Opportunities: Do you have a podcast/blog/conference that needs guests/content/speakers? Or know someone who does? Introduce us! We’re actively looking for ways to provide engaging content to your audience.
Mentors: We strongly believe that we could benefit from adding to our list of mentors. Specifically, we are looking for people who have experience growing a service-based business after seeing promising market traction. If you know of anyone that may be looking to provide mentorship to some grateful entrepreneurs, please contact us!
Mentees: We want to give back to the community that has helped us! If you know of anyone who is starting (or thinking about starting) a service-based business (or freelance consulting) we would be happy to chat with them so that we can share our lessons learned and hopefully help them create a business of their own!
Thank you to all of you who have supported us in our first couple of years. We can’t wait to check back in next year to update you on our progress and what’s in store for Year 4!
Note: This article was originally published on Medium on May 5, 2020.