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Global Flipchart #14

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January 2019
| Global Flipchart #14

Scaling your practice: Advice from the other side

By Van Lai-DuMone

As facilitators and consultants, many of us work on our own, wearing many hats. If you are like me, you are not just a facilitator, but you also carry the weight of business development, marketing, and a whole host of other responsibilities. We all reach a point of capacity, and that’s when the question of scaling our practice arises.

For this article, I interviewed Tam Nguyen, Founder of NB Business Solutions. I met Tam through The Consultant Allies community, and she has graciously offered to share her story of recent growth with us.

Tam’s experience scaling her practice is just one of many. But some of the key learnings I found from interviewing Tam are:

  • Scaling a practice is not necessarily for everyone
  • The decision to scale your practice is dependent on many factors, including capacity to meet client needs, market conditions, and your desired business outcomes
  • When bringing on new facilitators and staff it is imperative that everyone is on the same page about messaging
  • Think backwards. What is your end goal, and is scaling your practice going to get you there?
  • When scaling, start small - so you are able to scale both up and down as necessary

What is it that you do?

NB Business Solutions is a Houston-based management consulting firm focused on human capital and technology. The company was founded in 2015, and although we have scaled our business, the company remains intentionally small to be flexible in scaling up or down depending on our clients’ needs. We continue to differentiate and pride ourselves in providing quality leadership management consulting services and solutions to global, multi-national, and local companies, with a business partnership model.

How and when did you get started?

I started NB Business Solutions in 2015 with my business partner, Jeff Baker, who is an industry expert in IT. We are based in Houston, TX, where the concentration of large companies in the oil & gas industry were seeing the downturn in 2015. Companies started going out of business or consolidating. My company was acquired by Siemens. Jeff Baker’s company was acquired by Noble Energy. We both took the opportunity to exit our respective organizations to try independently consulting. We quickly realized that although companies were scaling down and shifting spending, the need to run the business from a people and technology perspective, still existed. In that particular market situation, we thrived as consultants because we were able to fill many roles from leadership to management to analyst.

At what point in your business did you decide to start scaling?

Around year 2, we realized that we were limited by our capacity to meet client needs. We felt stretched as partners running business development, sales, and administration, while fulfilling our commitment to clients as consultants. We committed to grow the company, and realized we could not successfully do so without adding additional headcount. We started adding contractors as the demand for specific projects warranted.

Once you decided to start scaling, what aspect of your business did you start with?

We started by bringing in contractors to consult on specific projects instead of doing the work ourselves. As partner and principals, we transitioned ourselves to leadership and oversight of client engagements. To find contractors, we leveraged our current network to find trusted, competent professionals who understood the importance of delivering flawless work in our business.

What are some challenges you faced in scaling your practice?

Because the business has solely developed through referrals, our clients have learned and expect much more engagement from myself and Jeff as principals. However, to scale, we needed to remove ourselves a bit to focus on working on the business, not in the business. It is a push/pull situation, where we have had to manage the expectations of clients and adjusted them to working with our trusted contractors, rather than the two of us.

What characteristics or personality traits do you think it takes to successfully grow from a sole practitioner practice to a scaled consultancy?

It takes commitment and accountability. You commit to long hours, making a difference for your clients, and doing something that matters. You commit to quality because the risk of scaling is potentially losing control of how things get delivered. Trust and communication is key.

Many consultants have unique tools and delivery styles. How did you successfully bring on and train other facilitators to maintain the quality of your services?

At NB Business Solutions, we have intentionally kept the practice small. Our consultancy business remains intimate with the two partners and sometimes one or two additional very high-level, seasoned professionals in an engagement. We work closely as a team and talk to each other often. Our priority it to make sure we are all aligned with messaging, what’s being delivered, and how.

What is one question a consultant should ask themselves when considering scaling their practice?

People start their own practice for many different reasons. Scaling takes commitment, and may not be the right or desired option for everyone. One should ask himself/herself what the end goal is and work backwards from there. Not every practice needs to be scaled up.

What is one piece of advice you would give to a consultant/facilitator who is considering scaling?

NB Business Solutions was started in response to market conditions in Houston, almost as a trial run. Once we were convinced we could be very successful and profitable as a company, we committed to scaling the business and our service offerings. The biggest ‘a-ha’ moment was when I was going through the Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Business Program in early 2018. We went through an exercise to get our entrepreneurship mind going. We asked ourselves, ‘What would I do if I were loaned $50k, $500k, $5M….? ‘ The next epiphany was the exit strategy. It made me think through the end and the exit because those two things helped determine how and what the business needed to look like at time of exit.