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Archive for August, 2020

10 years since I started Codexx – what have I learned?

Tuesday, August 25th, 2020

Today is the 18 year anniversary of when my consulting business – Codexx Associates Ltd – was incorporated in the UK. I mentioned this to a good friend and he asked me what my thoughts were about it 18 years ago. It prompted me to think about what I’ve learned in those 18 years. So here are 10 things that I’ve learned.

1. Determine the goals for your business – that work for you

Some want to build an empire, others a small-holding – neither is right or wrong. I left my corporate consulting job and started Codexx as I wanted to do interesting, innovative and useful consulting projects, help clients, build a good reputation, keep a good family-work balance and have fun. A smart farm-sized knowledge-based business with no company politics if you like…

2. Have a clear proposition and market

This is one of the toughest tasks. Coming from a consulting career in a big corporate I had lots of experience and thus potential services I could provide. But as a small consultancy you need to focus. A wide portfolio is simply not credible to clients. You need a few service areas that you can focus on, become expert and get known for. Start with areas that you are passionate about and expert in and where there is a ready, profitable and sustained market.

3. Be prepared to change your proposition and market

As our military tell us ‘No plan survives contact with the enemy’ – in this case markets and competition change and your business must adapt if it is to survive and prosper. My original focus sector was Industrial due to my past experience, but I later found a major market in professional service businesses seeking to codify and re-engineer their services. I successfully pivoted Codexx to increase focus in this area. I’m currently working with a partner on a new digital service for supply chain improvement that came out of a consulting project a few years back, when I wondered why we couldn’t do this on the internet…

4. Work to differentiate your offering

In this digital and globalised business world, it is all too easy to find that your offering is being commoditized. There are smart people everywhere, many of them able to deliver a similar service to yours much more cheaply. You need to identify critical areas of your service that clients value and can enable effective differentiation on elements other than price – things like personal relationships, proprietary methods and data (e.g. benchmarking), quality, experience and industry knowledge. You also need to identify lower value services or service elements that you should move out of. It’s an ongoing and dynamic battle to avoid being sucked down the plughole of commoditization.

5. Build your network and create win-win

Codexx is built on an associate model. One of my goals was to have a variable cost consulting model so that I was not spending my time ‘selling the bench’ to cover fixed costs and therefore sometimes providing non-optimum consulting skills to clients. I built a network of experienced consultants and academics that I brought in on Codexx projects to build a team with the skills and expertise needed for client projects. Ensure your associates are also ‘winning’ too. Pay them fairly for their work and treat them with respect; let them benefit from being part of your network.

6. Find good clients and serve them with all your energy and passion

This is simply critical to your business success. Good clients are of course profitable clients, but they are also progressive clients who are open to new ideas, won’t micro-manage you and from whom you can learn from. Unfortunately not all clients will be like this…

7. Build a thick skin

You’ll need this for selling and also working in some clients. What can you do to minimise this unpleasantness? Build a differentiated offering and marketing approach that makes selling less competitive. And work with clients for more than just the money (though this is not always possible in tough times).

8. Be brave and keep challenging the norms

Business consultants are there to change things – to make things better. Many times clients will recognise that improvement is needed. But many times they won’t. With your multi-business, multi-sector experience and awareness of new methods and technologies you can see the possibilities of improvement and new methods that your clients may not. So you will get push-back: ‘That won’t work here’, ‘It’s not practical’, ‘That’s just crazy’. Some sectors are naturally conservative and resistant to change. I found the established paradigm in the legal sector was that you couldn’t have both low cost and high quality – it was one or the other. Successful legal service re-engineering projects broke this paradigm. But it was a constant battle. You have to believe in yourself, use objective evidence, find internal champions, start small and demonstrate success.

9. Keep learning

We live in a time of such change with new methods and technologies constantly emerging. And in your client projects you receive ongoing lessons on different approaches and outcomes – on what works well and doesn’t at all. You need to continue to keep your offerings relevant to client needs and regularly improve them (and yourself) based on your experience. For the last few years I’ve been teaching consulting and innovation to MBA and MSc students. The old maxim ‘to teach you must learn’ is so true! Indeed the more I learn, the more I realise how much more I need to know. So whilst you need to be confident in your abilities as a consultant, don’t forget to keep some humbleness – you can always learn new things and be better.

10. Maintain your perspective

Stress and overwork is the regular bedfellow of many professionals and most small business owners. Sometimes it can all become too much. Your business is important, but you are more important. Don’t forget that.

End point

I hope this is of use to some of you looking to start your own consulting businesses. Of course the nature of learning is that this time next year I’ll have an updated top ten list…

Alastair Ross is Director of Codexx Associates Ltd and also teaches consulting and innovation on MSc and MBA programmes at the University of Southampton Business School. His latest book ‘Thinking about value’ is available on Amazon.

This article was originally published on LinkedIn on 10th July 2020.

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