Evolutionary growth, trusting your intuition and hard work – growing a consultancy business
Advising other organisations on their strategic challenges means Medley Business Solutions’ Founder and Managing Director Tim Eglen, understands the need to adapt strategies to meet the ever-changing business world we inhabit.
Just as he’s about to put into words his ambition for where he wants his business to be in five years, Tim Eglen pauses. Conscious that his answer might sound overly simplistic.
“I want to do what we are doing now, but more successfully. That will translate to doing more work with more clients and growing – profitably – each year.”
“At one point we were on The Sunday Times fastest growing companies list but my measure of what delivers results has always been the same: doing the right type of work well and having profitable growth. You have to be realistic; growth can be restrained by what’s going on around you. But there’s a lot happening in the marketplace, and this creates opportunities. I believe that if you are not trying to move forward, there is no standing still option, so you will be going backwards. Even if you take a few tumbles along the way, you have to look for ways to push forward.”
In the beginning
Medley (so named to reflect the various business and IT components involved in consultancy) helps clients – mainly public sector – to develop the right strategic plans and source the right services and suppliers for their needs. Eglen set-up the business in 1997 against a background of big audit firms launching their own consultancies. In the early days, his strategy was “kind of Janet and John” in its simplicity. He knew he needed to bring in good people, develop strong client relationships and focus on profitable work that added value for the client. “Value has to be a big driver” he says. “I intuitively wanted to do work which would result in clients coming back and them telling their business colleagues about us as well.”
A way in which Medley differed from the big consultancies was in not having a tie-in with any particular product vendor or systems integrator. Otherwise, says Eglen, a consultancy is queering its own pitch by not being independent, and being neutral has opened up an avenue of work. He also believes in providing practical advice. “Big companies will spend a great deal of money having a strategy delivered that’s theoretical and will sit on the shelf. We use the phrase ‘we go beyond the PowerPoint chart’.
“A strategy should be clearly marked out in terms of implementation and can change subtly as the business keeps moving.” And, he adds, a consultative approach can extend to delivery, although that requires staff who are multi-taskers. “They each have a very broad range of capabilities,” says Eglen, “including analysis and design, planning, business change, delivery management, technical architecture expertise – or just crawling around under desks sorting out cabling. I’ve said to clients ‘if you want stuffed shirt consultants who will just tell you what to do, go somewhere else’, although I didn’t know at the outset how that was going to chime with them.”
He goes on; “The big consultancies can get too big for their boots and will only take on particular work, but there will be times when clients need something else and we will take on any form of assignment. We’re not so arrogant that we think anything a client requires is beneath us; we don’t turn work away if it pays.”
Eglen suggests that approach makes a consultative-based company more robust. “Some of the larger consultancies refer to their consultants as being T-shaped; in other words, they have a broad understanding of everything and a specialism in one thing,” he explains.
“But we talk about a saw-tooth shape. Our consultants have a broad understanding and they have a number of specialisms. We had someone who went to a client as a project manager and he ended up doing the work of three people from the bigger consultancies. He has a very long tooth in technology, but he also knows about commerce, procurement, design, processes – and the client needs that joined-up writing.”
All this being the case, Medley Business Solutions have to employ “rounded, talented and experienced people who understand high level business, IT and management needs as well as the ability to roll up their sleeves to take things forward.”
That is a combination that is not easy to find. “The wrong people can shred your reputation,” suggests Eglen. The multi-faceted roles at Medley can be attractive to consultants elsewhere who have been pushed into becoming managers or sales people in order to get advancement, he goes on. “Some of our senior people just wanted to get back to being hands-on consultants.”
Another thing that will set a consultant apart is their confidence to be able to offer an opinion in a timely manner, says Eglen. “Some consultants want to give an opinion with no detail. Others will freeze if they are asked for an opinion before they know 100% of the facts; before they can answer a simple question they want to research it first for two years. But the ability to see the big picture quickly is very important. We don’t want false confidence, someone who shoots from the hip. We want the confidence that comes with knowing you’re doing the right thing. The old adage ‘I don’t know, but I know a man who does’, is very true. The more you know, the more you appreciate what you don’t, and that’s just as important as the ability to offer an opinion about what you do know.”
Meanwhile, Eglen is conscious that growing Medley Business Solutions beyond a certain level will bring new challenges. He is aware that the structure of the business as it grows will have to evolve. “We have a flat structure – someone described me as a spider in a web in terms of our structure,” says Eglen. “But if we get to even fifty people [they have around twenty-five now] a different management structure will be needed.
The challenge is growing in an evolutionary rather than a revolutionary way. Other people take on external funding so they can hire senior people to grow the business. But I’m very conservative financially; I want people to earn their corn. Maybe we could have grown quicker by taking external investment, but that could have changed the nature of the business.”
Eglen studied maths at university and says its relevance to business life is “absolutely nothing and absolutely everything.” He explains; “Maths is about the way you think. I don’t have any use for things like calculus but the ability to analyse a problem and understand how different equations leads to different solutions is a skill you use in business.”
It is important too, to be able to act on the problems once they have been identified. “Some people get lucky that the sheer momentum of the business takes them forward, but one thing I have learned is the importance of knowing what needs to change and when, looking at the problem and dealing with it. Business planning isn’t as simple as saying ‘we get to here and then we do that’. The real challenge is saying ‘we get to here but if the world looks like this, we do that instead’.”
There is also value in this respect in listening to one’s inner voice, says Eglen, who clearly is in the applied rather than pure maths camp. “Intuition is not magic,” he points out. “It’s your subconscious tapping into things that you have learned in the past and telling you things that you have not had the opportunity to think about in detail. “
Conversely, he admits, there have been times that he did not grasp an opportunity because of reticence. “There is no perfect solution but you always need to look at the bigger picture. There is no black and white; learn to embrace the grey.”
Outside work, Eglen is a sports coach. Training distance runners has given him a mindset that he has applied to his business life. “Distance running is not a sport for the impatient,” he explains. “You have to be methodical. If you can’t execute on your strategy, don’t bother having it. But you need to understand that there’s hard work required, and that you’ve got to do that work intelligently. There will be times when you have spent a year preparing for a race and then you run it poorly, so you have to be able to knuckle under and do it again.”
The analogy there with business, he says, is that there is no substitute for hard work when it comes to implementing even the brightest of ideas. “You might have the greatest product but even the iPhone didn’t just fly off the shelves. Apple did a shedload of hard work developing it.”
“I can give my runners a race plan but that’s all hot air if they aren’t able to follow it when it comes to the point where they need to push on. Coaches don’t run races; athletes do. It’s the same with business. The client can’t be dependent on you; if they are, you haven’t provided good consultancy. ”
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