Donald J. Patti

Posts Tagged ‘Consulting’

New Decade, New Venture

In Entrepreneurship, management, Small Business on 31 January 2010 at 3:02 pm

There’s an old saying that the happiest days in a boat owner’s life are the day they buy the boat and they day they sell it. Never having owned a boat larger than a canoe, I’ve always chuckled when I’ve heard this truism, particularly as I watched my nautical neighbors in Annapolis clean, paint and other-wise maintain their boats.

One would think the same truism would apply to running a business, particularly when building a business from the ground up. As many entrepreneurs and small business owners know, it’s not uncommon to work 60 or more hours a week when starting a business; customers and clients will come calling at all hours of the day and night; and, sometimes you have to stretch more value out of a few bucks than a third-world soup kitchen. Even when the business is stable, vacations are never truly vacations – there’s nearly always a crisis that requires your input, which prevents even three-day weekends from being work-free.

So it may surprise some of my friends and business associates that, after running a business for a little over five years in the first decade of the 21st century, followed by roughly five years working for others, I’ve decided to start another business again in 2010. There are a few reasons I’ve decided to do this, but here are the most significant:

  • Running a business enables me to pursue my passions. As with any consulting business, your client is your first priority. However, after all of the client’s work is done, there is still time to improve your own business, to research new innovations in your industry, and to help your co-workers to learn and grow, too. Along the way, if you identify a new market or business opportunity, it’s yours to pursue – no approvals necessary.
  • Running a business enables me to consult in multiple areas, preventing me from being typecast as solely a “strategist”, a “technology expert” or a “project management guru”. If you are both a voracious reader and an experienced practitioner, it’s amazing how effective you can be in many disciplines, not to mention the synergistic benefits of being knowledgeable in many areas. As an entrepreneur, you aren’t bound by the practice area or job title that someone else gave you – you are bound by the knowledge and experience that you truly hold.
  • Running a business enables me to live according to my own values. A number of years ago, a former PR Manager for an energy company told me why he’d moved out of PR and in to HR by saying, “There was an incident at one of our plants where an employee of our company had made a mistake. I was head of Public Relations, so I wanted to say to the public, ‘We screwed up, we’re sorry, but here’s what we’re doing to make sure it won’t happen again.’ Instead, I was told to deny that the incident ever took place, which was a flat out lie. I did what was asked, but I couldn’t bear the thought of the next time an incident occurred and I’d have to cover for our mistake.”
    While few events in business pose moral challenges as great as what he faced, there are day-to-day decisions that may help your business but harm your soul. As a business owner and a Christian, I can say how nice it is to be able to do the right thing should the need arise, yet not have to worry about whether I’ll land in the unemployment line.
  • Running a business adds weight to my advice. It’s one thing to say something because you’ve seen it work for others, and an entirely different thing to speak from firsthand experience. As a consultant, so much advice is based on observation, but as a business owner, you not only speak your advice you live it and breathe it. Your clients know this, so they respect your advice even more.
  • Running a business enables me to balance work, family and charity. There are many myths about running a small business versus working for someone else that I’ve uncovered during the past ten years, but the most important factor is this: Never was I more able to meet my clients needs, to arrange my schedule around family activities, and to put in time to perform charitable work than when I ran my own business.

I can safely say that I have met many wonderful people while working for other businesses, I have served a number of clients that were well worth the time and effort expended, and I have worked with some very talented leadership along the way. In addition, I have served more than a few Fortune 500 companies and managed more than a few multi-million dollar endeavors in the process.

However, I’m looking forward to living the life of a small business owner once again. I know it’s considered by many to be one of the hardest jobs to hold. But it’s also a very fulfilling life, one that holds the most promise for me to positively impact others – and it’s nothing, apparently, like owning a boat.

Donald Patti is a Principal Consultant with Cedar Point Consulting, a management consulting practice based in the Washington, DC area, where he advises businesses in strategy, process improvement and project management.  Cedar Point Consulting can be found at http://www.cedarpointconsulting.com.

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Taking Care of the Cobbler’s Children

In Economics, Entrepreneurship, management, Manufacturing, Small Business, Technology on 27 November 2009 at 8:35 am

“A cobbler’s children never have shoes,” a co-worker told me after we visited a healthy, thriving small business to provide consulting services. We met with the CEO, a talented entrepreneur who had built her business from one person into twenty in just under ten years. After two days of downtime, desperate to see her systems up and running and her client happy, she readily agreed to pay external bill rates for our repairing a critical part of their infrastructure. Yet, despite the obvious success of the business, the network equipment was nearly a decade old, all of the servers were used or refurbished and the employee’s desktop computers were more than two generations obsolete. “This was more than a case of the cobbler’s children being the last helped by the cobbler,” I thought. But, if not this, then why?

I recalled a day in economics class over decade before, when I learned about the Cobb-Douglas function (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cobb%E2%80%93Douglas), which states that productivity is a function of capital equipment, labor and technology. In short, Cobb-Douglas says that an increased investment in technology or capital equipment (machinery, tools) increases the productivity of your employees (laborers). This seemed obvious, so I tucked it away in my mind as a good example of conventional wisdom transformed in to a simple equation.

During my years consulting, I’ve seen Cobb-Douglas at work numerous times – at a large computer manufacturer where my team deployed over $1 million in computer hardware for collaboration for their 250,000 employees; at a global heavy manufacturer who built out identical server farms for their plants; at a top-10 financial institution where a dot-0 software upgrade (version 2.0, version 3.0, etc.) triggered the purchase of entirely new corresponding hardware. In most cases, we prepared business cases that showed (1) there were sizable productivity gains through the purchase and (2) the cost of replacing hardware during a corresponding software upgrade was far lower than waiting a year or two when the hardware was seeing high failure rates and affecting customers or workers.

I’ve also seen Cobb-Douglas ignored by otherwise-successful entrepreneurs. While this may seem surprising to some, if you understand the mindset of the entrepreneur, then you’ll understand why. You’ll also understand why this is not good policy for a thriving small business.

For many entrepreneurs, the key to initial success lies in boot-strapping – finding creative ways to deliver for customers despite the lack of resources necessary to get the job done. In most cases, small business owners build their business from the ground up by repeatedly stretching human resources to make up for the lack of capital investment or technology, rewarding these employees with equity or large delivery bonuses in exchange for working lots of overtime. As time passes, the entrepreneur equates scarcity and heavy workloads with success, and a pattern that ignores Cobb-Douglas is engrained.

All is well until the business grows, resource scarcity is no longer necessary and the rewards for burning the midnight oil are no longer available. The business has entered its teen years and is in need of some major infrastructure investments, but the entrepreneurial leader has trouble making the investment. Too many years of boot-strapping have made it difficult to imagine making a sizable, long term investment in technology or productive equipment. It’s safer, the thinking goes, to keep doing what made you successful – boot-strapping.

Yet the business has changed and the keys to past success are not the keys to future success. Businesses may start by successfully bootstrapping, but they grow by improving product quality, normalizing operations and building brand, all of which require substantial investment in technology, people and resources. Few entrepreneur’s recognize this shift occurring, so their business suffers “growing pains” until leadership transitions to someone else.  Dr. Rudy Lamone, a now-retired professor of Entrepreneurial Studies and former dean of the University of Maryland RH Smith School of Business, echoed the observation that entrepreneurs are often replaced once they’ve grown a business past a dozen employees, primarily because the behaviors that led to past successes are now detrimental to the business.

As a result, it’s not uncommon to encounter a small thriving business that uses ten-year-old computer hardware and six-year-old desktops for seemingly inexplicable reasons.  The cobbler’s children have no shoes, but not for lack of leather and nails.

What has been the impact?

  1. One entrepreneur lost their largest client by failing to buy and implement a defect tracking system capable of handling a dozen developers and QA resources. The software was delivered, but it was so defect-ridden that the client’s employees could hardly use it.
  2. Another entrepreneur lost two key developers who grew tired of developing on old desktops and outdated software.  When the phone call came from a recruiter to work for a business that provided new equipment and regular training, they jumped ship, creating a one month backlog of development work in their wake.
  3. A third entrepreneur suffered a one week outage of their production system because they failed to stock a redundant firewall for their network.  The pricey firewall, a $5000 unit, had a one week lead time for replacement.  The cost was $80,000 in revenue and breach-of-contract complaints from nearly every client.
  4. A fourth entrepreneur, mentioned at the beginning of this blog, suffered a three-day outage, but was able to avoid a breach of service level agreements by holding the network together for two more months, then upgrading the infrastructure after the contract was renewed.

The effects of tacking care of the cobbler’s children are evident to me, but they’re still anecdotal.  So, I’m asking small business owners and entrepreneurs – when your business is thriving, do you hesitate to make long-term investments in infrastructure? If so, why? If not, what criteria do you use to make the buying decision?