In December 2012, our leadership team was sitting in a conference room in Cincinnati discussing sourcing strategies, recruiting challenges, and growth strategies when we decided that we were going to take on the New York market.
We’re now about a year and a half into the endeavor and one of the most frequent questions I get in our interview process is the difference between a more mature SEI office and a startup office. Essentially, what are some of the unique challenges that an SEI startup faces? And what has our experience been at taking on those challenges?
Here’s a front row view into three key things we’ve learned (pay attention Chicago!):
“The startup dynamic is a display of our values and approach on steroids.”
This gem came from Eduardo Mandarino, an SEI consultant that spent his first four and a half years with SEI-Boston and recently moved to SEI-New York. The level of cross-office collaboration and support is unbelievable and we have very high expectations on our local consultants regarding their level of commitment and engagement in all aspects of the business.
In a mature office, collaboration still happens, but the success of the office doesn’t rely solely on that collaboration like it does in a startup. Similarly, consultants in a mature office have more flexibility to contribute to areas of the business that play to their interests and strengths. In the startup office, everyone does everything – it’s an ‘all hands on deck’ mentality.
Developing new business is challenging, but rewarding!
With a small team and no local presence, the startup can be a lonely place facing significant challenges in generating the client relationships that we depend on. In the startup you don’t have an established client base calling you or a consulting team generating sales activity. The “relationship-based sale” that works in other established markets yields to a more traditional “sell based on differentiators”, which doesn’t play to our strengths, such as specific product/industry expertise or local client references.
However, in every challenge there’s opportunity and this is no exception. We’ve been able to leverage great work for clients in other offices to create new relationships with those same companies in the New York market. This collaboration has fueled our business and bought us valuable runway as we develop new relationships.
Get the right people on the bus.
In Good to Great, Jim Collins’ had a quote that has stuck with me:
“…We found instead that they first got the right people on the bus, the wrong people off the bus, and the right people in the right seats – and then they figured out where to drive it”
At SEI, it’s always been about the people and we all know that the recipe for success lies in our ability to aggregate talent who are team-oriented, selfless, passionately devoted to client success, and building a great business. Startups can be messy. The unpredictable nature of the startup requires strong team bonds and camaraderie, consultant engagement, and an understanding that elements of the model may be stretched in a ‘survive to thrive’ environment. For us, this has meant intermittent travel, challenging and complex projects in independent environments, and the need for consultants to put in extra hours to support and build the business.
“Our ability to recruit effectively to meet our demand without compromising our model or hiring standards is one of the most important factors in our ability to open new offices.”
When we started recruiting, we tended to emphasize all of the great things about SEI: our local model, broad based ownership, and work/life balance. We realized that we were setting the hook on great consultants based on what we were going to be and not what we are right now.
To be successful in the startup environment, we needed the people that were built to thrive in our current environment. We started emphasizing the messiness and challenges and looking for people that would embrace not only the destination of our efforts, but also the process of getting there.
Startups can be a big challenge, but with big challenge comes big reward. It can be daunting operating in a new market without an established brand or deep relationships. Along the way we’ll have successes and failures, but the key will continue to be to learn to pick ourselves up and try again after we stumble (and in many cases to potentially fail again!).
In my one and a half years of experience in New York, I will say there is an immense amount of satisfaction and pride in conquering these challenges and in being part of building a great team. We’re going to continue to take on New York together and have fun doing it!
I’m confident we’ll look back and be proud of what we’ve built and as we bring on more members of our team we’ll continue to make it even better. Chicago is going through this process now and I’m a little bit jealous. That first year is a doozy, but man is it fun.
At the end of the day, our goal for all of our offices is to build great teams of people that are passionate about changing the face of traditional consulting. Sound like you or someone you know? We happen to be hiring.