Reflections on Growing a Small Professional Services Business – First 4 Years

inc_5000What a privilege it has been to assemble a team that has been able to “create something out of nothing” over the past four years. Aside from growing a family, building Symmetrics Group has been the most rewarding and challenging experience of my life. You can read case studies in business school about starting a company, managing payroll and cash flow, hiring and firing employees, building and executing marketing plans, but it’s nothing compared to the actual experience – while there were late nights in school, it’s certainly not the same as the responsibility of making payroll and delivering for customers. I’ve been thinking that a key attribute of an entrepreneur is being able to balance exhilaration and exhaustion, something shared with being a new parent, to which David Szen, our latest team member to become a first-time parent, can relate.

There is a cliché that “we are all in sales,” and to a certain extent, that is true. No matter the business or profession, anyone who is starting a new venture must have a solid level of sales acumen to be able to convince investors, customers, stakeholders, partners, and team members to join their cause. As someone who’s been in sales and worked in sales consulting and training for the past 20 years, it’s been instructive to “drink my own champagne” and “sell” across all of these dimensions for the past 4+ years.

While it’s still early on in the growth and path of our firm (at least that is my hope and expectation), our recognition by Inc. Magazine as one of the fastest growing firms for 2014 has given me a reason to pause and reflect on observations/lessons learned so far. By no means is this a complete, exhaustive, or maybe even a truly accurate list – it’s just some highlights so far, which I look forward to expanding and editing over the coming years.

  • Outside Advice – you need someone to tell you that your “stuff stinks” and also hold you accountable. I was slow to form an advisory board (which we formalized in early 2014) and should have done this much sooner. That said, I have relied on several close friends and clients for advice throughout and have really benefited this year from having a more formal board and access to others outside my core network who are able to give me unbiased feedback and input. As one of them told me this year, “You need to spend more time working on the business and less time working in the business” – a struggle many business leaders and owners face.
  • No “I” in Team – ours is a people business (as are most to some extent), and the largest mistakes that I’ve made so far have been in hiring. I’m a fan of Tony Hsieh and the culture that he’s built at Zappos: “Your personal core values define who you are, and a company’s core values ultimately define the company’s character and brand. For individuals, character is destiny. For organizations, culture is destiny.” It’s been really instructive to see how at a small company (and the same is true of a small team or group within a larger company), a new hire can really impact the team and culture – for good or bad. We have an amazing team who I am thrilled to work with every day, and recruiting and building that team has been the most important and valuable use of my time and also why we intentionally included the word “group” to the company name.
  • Inspiration – in talking to other small business and non-profit leaders, it’s interesting to ask what inspired them to start something new. One of the inspirations for starting Symmetrics Group came while I worked at North Highland and attended an internal training program called LAPS (Leadership, Alignment, Professionalism, Stewardship), which the founder, Dave Peterson, and CEO, Dan Reardon, established to communicate and preserve the culture of the company as it grew. Dave and Dan would tell stories and key inflection points as the company grew from a startup in 1992 to a $300m+ global consulting firm today with recognition on several Inc. 500/5000 annual lists along the way. Listening to their stories, it sounded like an amazing experience to get the business off the ground and scale and inspired me to want to not only do this as well, but in a way similar to their path of growth while preserving the core culture of the original team.
  • Professional Services Business Model – the shelf life of inventory in a professional services business is essentially zero (which is essentially people’s time), making for a constant focus on project backlog and the sales pipeline. This forward-looking focus applies to every business, but with services, you’re always staring at the ultimate “cliff” (and the possibility of going out of business) at the end of your project backlog. While many companies in our industry focus on packaged training and sell intellectual property licenses, a better business model with corresponding higher valuations, we feel that our ability to work consultatively and in a custom way with each client drives better results for the client.
  • “Do you want to be right, or do you want to win?” – one of my former colleagues, Don Purvis, used to emphasize this point of view, and I think it’s apt for a leader with an emphasis on knowing when and in which situations to stand firm vs flex. Our biggest challenges so far have mainly resulted from my inability to read/react to a situation correctly or when I’ve made people decisions that have impacted the culture. Fortunately, none of those have been critical errors (at least not yet, knock on wood).
  • Pulling All the Levers – another motivator for launching Symmetrics Group was that I wanted the opportunity to have my hands on all of the levers of running a business – marketing, sales, finance, product/ops, etc. It’s been a great learning experience to really determine areas where I have preference and competence, as well as areas where one or both are lacking and to learn to leverage others (and other resources) to compensate for the latter.

Our vision is to be recognized as experts in sales and marketing effectiveness with a reputation for excellence. We will be sought after by those who seek to transform the way they sell and by those who have the passion, expertise, and ability to make it happen. Thanks again to our clients and our team for launching us on this path. Looking forward to continuing our journey to build a great business and team.

Share this
Email this to someoneTweet about this on TwitterShare on LinkedInShare on Google+Share on FacebookPrint this page

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *