Lessons learned running a consultancy for 10 years

This year we are celebrating 10 years of Hyphen8.  Firstly, how did that happen? I thought it would be interesting to reflect on the lessons learned during this crazy decade of ups and downs.  There are way too many for one blog so I have picked my Top Ten – one for each year ;0) in no particular order.

1. Find a niche

In my BH (Before Hyphen8) life, I worked for many years in marketing so I understand the importance of finding your niche in a market where there is a lot of competition.  From the offset, I was committed to designing and supporting Salesforce solutions for nonprofits.  But I also identified grant management as a specific area of specialism that seemed to be a gap in the market.  There were concerns raised by my (ex) fellow Directors at the time that this may not be a big enough market.  I am happy to say that I was right to go with my gut feeling.

We have been extremely lucky over the past few years that all of our new business comes from either referrals or being included on shortlists rather than proactive marketing.  This is because we are experts in our area and have worked hard to build up a level of experience that can be trusted.

2. Surround yourself with good people

As a consultancy, people are your most precious assets as all income is directly related to the work delivered by them.  I found out early on that the key to success is attracting really talented people that are better at doing certain things than I am.  It’s important to encourage a broad range of skills, to recruit people from diverse backgrounds with different experiences.  That enriches your own perspective and influences your propositions for the better.  Just because you started the business doesn’t mean that you have to come up with all the new ideas.

At the start, when there are just a few of you, you spread yourself thin and are forced to become a master of all trades.  I found myself juggling finance, sales, marketing and operations alongside actually delivering the work, as I am at heart a consultant.  This is not sustainable.  I am now extremely privileged to have a talented and supportive team that share my values.  Crucially, they are not afraid to tell me to keep out of things that I don’t need to be involved in.  (I don’t always listen but that’s my problem!).

3. Look after your team

Good people are always in demand so are always going to be approached with alternative offers.  Particularly in the tech consultancy space where recruitment agents are constantly on the prowl for fresh prey.  So once you find super stars, you need to do whatever you can to keep them.  Although salary is obviously a big driver when choosing a job, it’s increasingly not the only deciding factor. 

The organisation’s culture, purpose, wider benefits package and opportunity to learn and progress are also huge considerations.  As our profit margins increase, we are able to improve our wellbeing programme, our profit-sharing scheme and our focus on nurturing a learning environment.  Of course, there is not always much you can do to prevent people moving on and they will come and go.  It’s impossible to get it right all of the time as let’s face it, people are complicated!  But we never take our team for granted.

4. Look after your customers

One of the most satisfying things about running a consultancy focused on nonprofits is getting to work with such a wide variety of inspiring organisations.  Even after 10 years, it is still exhilarating when you are selected as a trusted partner.  It is equally satisfying knowing that some of our customers have been with us since the beginning and continue to trust us. 

Delivering an excellent service is always our intention. When an organisation is investing significant amount of time and money in your services, that is a position of great responsibility.  Of course, it is impossible to be perfect 100% of the time but it’s how you deal with issues or unmet expectations that is key.  Open communication, honesty and doing whatever you can to fix a situation can be the difference between losing and keeping a customer.

5. Learn to let go

This is one that is still a work in progress for me!  When you set up a business, you set the standards and your expectations remain high.  It can be very difficult to let go when you have previously been so involved.  I personally suffer from major FOMO:

  • Every customer is precious so you want to remain involved in every project
  • Every team member is invaluable so you want to get to know each and every one of them
  • Every meeting is fascinating so you want to be at them ALL

But you simply can’t be involved in everything and everyone any more as you grow – it’s physically impossible.  So you have to trust in your team and focus on being as positive and inspiring a leader as you can be.  It’s ok that you don’t know every detail of every project.  In fact, it is such a thrill when they are delivered successfully with zero input from you.

6. Control your growth

There are scary statistics on the survival rate of new businesses and I have seen a fair few consultancies come and go over the last decade.  A common story is that they have taken on too much work and struggled to deliver and this is a very real challenge in this industry.  It’s important to consider how much you want to grow your business and if you do want to grow, to control it.

Supply and demand is a continual juggling act in the consultancy business and there are lots of fluctuations that are out of your control.  Project starts get delayed or they go on longer than expected, team members get sick, a global pandemic causes mayhem – the list goes on.  It can be very tempting to keep growing in size at a fast rate.  BUT that puts a huge strain on the induction process and too much change can cause a ripple of unrest. 

I always thought that the maximum size Hyphen8 would reach was 30 people but we already have 35.  We have deliberately had a fairly steep increase in staff over the past 2 years to create new roles and new areas of expertise. However, we now feel comfortable with the decision to turn work down if we don’t have the capacity – something that we could only have dreamed of 5 years ago!

7. Don’t give up!

When you start a new business, there are plenty of ups and downs.  The first few years are tough and there are many challenges to overcome such as:

  • How can we attract the right people when nobody knows us?
  • How can we make enough money to cover our costs?
  • How can we get a foot in the door without any customer stories?

You just have to persevere and believe in what you are doing.  And do you know what?  When you do become successful and you don’t have those particular issues any more – you have a whole other set of problems!  ‘Running a consultancy is easy’ said NOBODY EVER ;0) There are of course times when I wonder what on earth I have gotten myself into.  But I am extremely proud that I didn’t give up and we reached the 10 year milestone with sanity intact (debatable in my case).

8. Define your purpose

As a business owner, there are many times when you will ask myself ‘why am I doing this?’ and you need to have a compelling answer that makes it all worthwhile.  For me, it’s our social purpose – being able to make a difference to such a wide variety of nonprofit initiatives by giving away pro bono time, transforming the way they work, increasing their ability to impact on their communities. 

If your purpose is just to grow a company to sell it and make a lot of money then that is fine but that is not what drives me.  My goal for Hyphen8 is to set up a charitable foundation so that we can fund causes that we are passionate about.  Defining your purpose helps to attract people with similar passions and to make it all worthwhile.

9. Take risks

Taking risks encourages innovation so can only be a good thing.  You have to keep on your toes in any business to keep up with the times but particularly in the tech consultancy world.  Not only because technology moves at a fast pace and new competitors are constantly appearing but because our customers trust us to guide them on the latest best practice.  Taking risks can of course lead to failure but some of the best lessons learned are a result of failure. 

We have taken many risks throughout the years at Hyphen8 including introducing new service propositions, establishing a new team, creating new roles, finding new ways to develop our skills or investing in a product that we believe in.  They don’t always work out but that is ok.  If we didn’t try then we would never know!  If you are not a person that is comfortable taking risks – make sure you have people around you that are.  It’s good to have a balanced perspective at a senior level.

10. Make sure you enjoy it

Last but not least – ‘Don’t forget to have fun‘ is one of the 8 values we live by at Hyphen8 and for me, one that should not be neglected.  Life is short and so we have to spend our time doing the things that make us happy, that we are passionate about and that we enjoy.  Running a business is not easy so if you aren’t enjoying it most of the time, stress can take over and it becomes a burden.  When tensions arise if a deadline is looming or something hasn’t gone to plan – it’s good to find ways to lighten the mood.  Sometimes people need reminding that consultants are humans too and projects are so much more enjoyable if you can enjoy a bit of banter.

We spend a good proportion of our time at work so we need to do what we can to make it enjoyable.  Mark Twain summed it up well when he said ‘Find a job you enjoy doing and you will never have to work a day in your life‘.  I know I am lucky to love what I do and we have built a culture where having a laugh plays a big role.  I wouldn’t want it any other way.