Business branding is such an essential part of setting up a company because this is what’ll set you apart from all the other firms running in the same industry as you are. Your branding is the public face of your company, so it has to present as strong enough to carry the weight of all the companies you want to be getting business from. Dave Ramos, author, speaker, and CEO of SHIFTPOINTS, Inc., talks to Michael Zipursky about the importance of business branding in establishing a strong company. Branding is just one of the many ways through which you can get the trust of your potential clients. Make sure you learn these essential strategies that Dave is imparting to maximize the branding of your business.
I’m here with Dave Ramos. Dave, welcome.
Thank you, Michael. It’s great to be here.
Dave, you have many years of expertise in sales and marketing strategy. You’ve run your own consulting business for years. When I look at what you’ve accomplished and the clients you’ve worked with, they include the American Red Cross along with Foster and RE/Max. You’ve helped some of these companies to even quadruple in size, others double in size and helped them to win awards like The Best Place to Work. You are the CEO of SHIFTPOINTS, but your title is also Chief Alignment Officer. I know you’re big on this keyword of alignments. Tell us what a Chief Alignment Officer does. What does the word alignment mean to you?
We’ve been privileged to have the success we’ve had with our clients. When I started the consulting business, all of my clients were small companies. While the original premise of the business was alignment, that wasn’t their main problem. Their primary problem in our experience was that they were unfocused and undifferentiated. A lot of our early work with our first wave of clients was helping in getting them to be intensely focused and differentiated. I wrote a book about this called Decide One Thing, which the basic premise is you have to find that one thing that you can be better than any of your competitors are doing. That’s the thing that unleashes that. What we learned is that as these companies grow and as we started to work with bigger companies, then alignment became much more of a strategic issue for them. The practice has evolved and now it’s the core of our focus is helping people and companies stay along.
I want to dig into that in terms of how you got to where you are and what you’re working on. You mentioned that early on, the clients you worked with weren’t thinking of alignment. Were you talking about alignment even back then? You were saying one thing, but the marketplace wanted something else or are you focusing on something else when you first launched?
The original code name of the business was Aligned.org. Alignment was the focus from the beginning. I’m an accidental consultant. I came into the consulting business after a few years of working at a church, which is not the typical launching pad for a consulting business. To be honest, I struggled with that transition from working in the church to being back in the business world. The clients that I was able to find early on were small companies that knew me from my network and being around and brought me in to help them with their businesses. The original idea was alignment.
Your background is executive-level positions at IBM and Nortel. You’re a global marketing VP there. What was that transition like for you? You came into the corporate world, you then went into nonprofit and then after the nonprofit you started dipping your toes back into the business world. It makes sense that the first few clients came from your network and connections that you had likely built up in the corporate world back in those days, but also maybe nonprofit and community. You know people, but that doesn’t necessarily turn into their first few clients. What was that transition like for you when you decide, “I’m this accidental consultant. I want to get back into building a business.” What was that transition like for you to now start getting clients? Was it a challenge for you? Was it quite easy and straightforward and clients just came to you? Walk us through what those early days were like.
I started by trying to buy a consulting firm and I lost twice in bidding wars. I was faced with having to start one myself.
Why did you want to buy a consulting firm?
I felt like it would be easier to scale something that existed than create something from scratch because my expertise was working in larger companies. I didn’t think of myself as a blank sheet of paper, start from zero entrepreneur. I sought myself as somebody who was more skilled at scaling an existing enterprise. When we lost in the process of trying to buy the company, essentially, I hung out a shingle as an independent consultant. I reached out to a couple of CEOs that I knew. Both of them engaged me. I started on Monday and by Wednesday I had two clients.
Was it two different consulting firms that you wanted to purchase or was it one that you made multiple bids for?
It’s one and I lost. That deal fell through. I bid again and I lost again.
What was the price you were looking at? You don’t have to say the exact number, but are we talking about low six figures, high six figures, five figures? What investment was you prepared to make?
This was a consulting business that was doing around $1.2 million in revenue. They were looking to sell the business for about one times revenue, which I thought was extremely high. We bid probably the number was around $750,000 for the business.As companies begin to grow, alignment becomes much more of a strategic issue. Click To Tweet
Do you remember what margin did that business had?
It was a long time ago. We felt like that was a reasonable price. We lost in that first round. It came back around. I think we ended up offering maybe $850,000 the second time around and we lost it again. This is the tricky thing about valuing consulting businesses. For some of your readers that are ultimately looking to sell their business, it’s a tricky thing to sell. In the case that I’m talking about, the two founders did not want to hang around. They wanted to sell it and run. That affected the price I was willing to pay. If they had been willing to stay around for let’s say, two years, I would have offered them more because my risk premium would have changed.
We’ve had a few other people on like Lori Kleiman and John Warrillow who have talked about selling their consulting businesses and the challenges that come with that. Looking back with hindsight and knowing what you know now, if you were starting again, would you still try and buy another consulting business? Was it the right place that you ended up in terms of building your own?
I still think that buying a business is a good option, especially for people that take that long hard look in the mirror and say, “I’m not a blank sheet of paper entrepreneur. I’m an improver. It would be easier for me to take something that’s up and running and exists.” The fact of the matter is building a consulting business is hard. It’s a lot of work. You have to develop a methodology. You have to develop a perspective. You have to build solutions. You have to find clients. You have to deliver work. You’ve got to pay the bills and you’ve got to clean the coffee pot, which is why many consultants are working 60, 70, 80-hour weeks. They maybe got into it thinking it was a lifestyle business, but at least for me, that hasn’t been true.
You made some calls to these CEOs that you knew. You told them what you are now embarking on in terms of hanging out your shingle and becoming a consultant. They gave you some work and you went to work. What happened after those two clients? How do you get the next clients in the door?
After my three days in the business and having two clients, I figured we’re good. We’re on our way. It was much more difficult to find the next wave of clients than I expected it to be. I came to joke that I described selling consulting as selling colonoscopies. The CEOs that I would call were like, “No, I think we’re good. We don’t need anybody poking around right now. Maybe next year.” One of the things that I had to learn is how to sell consulting because I had not been in the consulting business in my career before. Frankly, I didn’t know how to sell it and I didn’t know how to be a consultant. I was used to being an executive. It’s very different.
Walk us through. What does that mean you learn how to sell consulting services? To you, what does that look like? What have you found? If you could break down for us the best practices that you’ve accumulated over the years that had been proven to work exceptionally well, what does that process look like?
What we have done is developed an initial offering that is priced at between $10,000 and $15,000. We call it the Pit Stop Program. For us, it’s a strategic offsite meeting where we help the companies refine their strategy and identify what are the things on the dashboard that aren’t working so well that we need to fix. We facilitate that. I have found that it’s much easier for the CEO to say, “We have brought in a Dave to help us with our strategic planning meeting because frankly, we don’t have time to run it.” As opposed to having that CEO say, “We hired a consultant to tell us how to run the business ostensibly. Where are the guys running it now and who is this guy? Why does he think he knows better?”
This is so powerful because you’re talking about the coaching clients. We work with the consultants. We call it the Discovery offering. I’m sure other people will refer to it as well, but it makes the decision-making process so much easier because it’s tangible. It’s not a $50,000 or a $500,000 engagement. It’s something that’s easy to put into a box to understand. There’s less financial and time associated with it. That makes a lot of sense. I love how you’ve branded it. I want to talk more about the branding and with your naming. What do you then do with that? You now have that program, it’s tangible. It makes sense. They want to bring you in to run the strategic planning session rather than them having to figure out how to do it, then what? How do you get the yes for that? How do you approach them even for that idea?
There are a couple of things. Number one, they’re having the strategic planning meeting. The only question for them is are they going to do it themselves or are they going to have somebody come and help them? They already have it on the calendar. There is an effect, a tangible date, a tangible offer that we make, a clear price point and we call it productizing your service. We branded it. I spent half of my life as a Chief Marketing Officer. We worked hard on the branding of this. The Pit Stop Program is a trademark of mine. It’s one of the things that we could explore further is the trademarking and the protection of your intellectual property. The Pit Stop Programs are registered trademark of SHIFTPOINTS, my company. We have found that this makes it eat easy to sell and easy to buy because it feels like a thing. It’s tangible. It’s a reasonable price point. It solves a problem that they have and it’s a make versus buy. We could run the meeting ourselves or we’re going to hire these guys to help us.
I want to break that down for a moment. You’ve done a great job of explaining the value of this and why it works in terms of the mindset of the buyer. How are you approaching them? Are you picking up the phone and calling them? Are you going to networking meetings or events? Are you writing in trade publications? I know you have some books. How are you getting in front of the decision-makers to even be able to tell them or to ask them the question, “Are you running your strategic planning sessions yourself or would you like someone to come in and help you with that?”
Over the course of the years, we built up a list. We use HubSpot as our marketing automation platform and we have a clear offer that goes out to people. A lot of our work comes from referrals of people that know us or whatnot. That initial sales call where we can explain to the CEO, “We do this for a living. We run these kinds of meetings for a living. We’ve done hundreds of them now. For you, the sell is this is an extremely important meeting, number one. It’s probably the most expensive meeting you’re going to have if you add up the executive’s time. It’s critical that this meeting accomplished the objectives.” We’ll typically joke about what happens in a strategic planning meeting that the company runs where a group of executives shows up in a conference room, they write a bunch of stuff on flip chart paper, and then they go to the bar. That’s the typical planning meeting. Everybody chuckles about that but that’s typically what happens.
They can see the value through that illustration or that image. Back to the marketing point there for a moment, you use HubSpot. That’s entailing that there’s content marketing going on. If I understand you correctly, aside from the relationships that you’ve built up, you’ve done things in terms of content on your website that has brought people to the website. You’re then offering them different things, which then you’re capturing their email address and you’re able to communicate your list that way. The offers that you’re making aside from the referrals or maybe the connections you already have with people is through the email newsletters or emails that you send out to people. That then generates an initial phone call with them if they’re interested and that’s where you have this conversation.
We’re also active on social media, LinkedIn in particular.Building a consulting business is hard. You have to be able to create solutions. Click To Tweet
What are you doing on LinkedIn that’s working for you?
We publish articles on LinkedIn. We’ve been publishing an article every day because we’re doing work around the book promotion. Normally, we publish a weekly article, which is about strategy and alignment, the two things we typically focus on. We’re also actively posting things, liking other people’s work, trying to build relationships with people socially on LinkedIn and that’s been effective as well.
When you say we, who are you referring to? Is it an outside external content team? Is it your internal team? Is it you?
It’s one assistant that I have that’s helping me primarily do the social media stuff and me.
I saw from your website you have a partner portal where you can certify or bring consultants in, teach them your methodologies and your approach. Tell us what that looks like. I’m interested in finding out how that has impacted your business.
This is something we’re launching, the Partner Program. We got to a place where we had to say, “How do we scale the business?” There is the traditional approach where you hire associates and we have partners and associates and we’re worried about everybody’s billable hours and something like that. There’s the consulting franchise and there’s a number of consulting franchises or businesses that operate as a franchise. Vistage might be one or ActionCOACH where rather than starting from scratch, people can join that. Our model is different. What we’re focused on is taking the years of intellectual property, the brand, the methodology, how we sell and licensing the platform to consultants on a fixed monthly subscription basis. The point would be if you’re going to start a consulting business, there’s a long list of things you have to do. You have to build a brand, you have to get trademarks, you have to develop a methodology, PowerPoint templates, and sales proposals. There are 100 things on your to-do list and you can either spend twelve years developing those yourself or you can write us a check and have it tomorrow.
That makes sense for someone who feels the alignment with what you’re doing and the area that you’re focusing on. They can check off the whole methodology and how to engage with clients and have the right materials, the right IP that they can just plugin rather than having to develop that themselves if there’s a fit there.
In addition, they get to leverage the monthly corporate marketing air cover we provide, whether it’s LinkedIn, Twitter, the blog, the HubSpot platform, the email outbound campaigns and all the other things that we’re doing. The value proposition to a consultant would be you can do all that yourself or if you like the SHIFTPOINTS brand and you like the framework, if you’re passionate about strategic alignment, then this might be a good fit for you. It might be better than the go at it alone and do it yourself option.
That’s just getting started, not much in terms of the impact on the business yet because it’s still early days. We’ve talked a fair bit about branding. Coming from the corporate world and some senior executive positions at large technology organizations, you clearly have a knack for branding. You value it. You’ve copyrighted may be more than one trademark in more than one term. You have the Pit Stop Program and the Top Gear Program. You intentionally developed these names, which I love, and I’m in alignment with you. Explain to everyone why you did that. Why not just call it, “We do strategic planning workshops?”
A key reason was that I wanted to differentiate ourselves from everyone else. Let me say it this way. There are dozens of other companies that might do strategic planning. We’re the only one that has the Pit Stop Program. Not only is that a registered trademark of ours, but that’s also our brand. We own that brand. It makes it sound more tangible, more differentiated, more like a productized offering. In fact, it is. We talked about the Pit Stop Program being the entree offering, but my goal was to turn a one-time sale into a long-term retainer.
That’s where we developed the brand called the Top Gear Program. The idea is you come out of the pits. We’re going to shift your company into top gear. It’s the racing imagery, and it works for us. It’s fun and the clients like it. That has worked very well for us. Back to that Pit Stop meeting where we write a bunch of ideas on flip chart paper. We have to implement those ideas. We can’t just leave the flip chart paper rolled up or maybe somebody types them up and nothing happens. The Top Gear Program is we provide ongoing strategic advice and coaching and sometimes the kick in the rear that they need to implement the things that we wrote on the flip chart paper and we hold them accountable.
When do you do that? Because many consultants understand the Discovery offer or the initial offer, going into the larger engagement itself. I often get questions from clients around, “When do you suggest that I bring that up? What does the transition look like?” In your experience, what have you found to be the best way when you’re working with a client in that initial engagement to bring then up and move them into the Top Gear Program? Are you having that conversation even before you do the Pit Stop Program? Are you doing it at the end of the first day of the Pit Stop Program? Are you doing it afterward? When are you talking about it and moving them into that next larger engagement?
We include it in the proposal of the Pit Stop Program. We include a reference to it so that they know that it’s not just the Pit Stop and that’s it.
Do you include the pricing of the Top Gear Program at that point?As a consulting business, your end goal is to transform a business, accelerate growth, and help them achieve their goals. Click To Tweet
Typically not because the pricing will depend on how much help they need, but we’ll talk about that our ultimate goal is not to run a strategic planning meeting. Our ultimate goal is to transform their business, accelerate their growth and help them achieve their goals. It’s in the mix from day one. Where we came up with this though is one of the first pit stops I ever did. I’m literally at the bar after the meeting. The executives went to the CEO and said, “Can we have Dave hang around for a little while to help us implement all this stuff?” They asked for it. That was how I came up with the idea of them positioning this two-part offering, the Pit Stop and the Top Gear. It depends in terms of when I ask for the sale. For every pit stop, there’s a postmortem where I’ll meet with the CEO and say, “How did it go and where are we on things?” That gives me an opportunity to be back in front of them and say, “I’d love to keep working with you. Can we structure an arrangement that meets your budget requirements where I can provide the right help?”
That follow up with the CEO, are you scheduling that always beforehand so you know, “On Wednesday we’re doing the strategic workshop together, the Pit Stop, and then on Monday of next week we’re going to have a phone call to debrief?” Is that planned beforehand?
If I was Jill Konrath, I probably would be as structured in my sales process as that. I confess it hasn’t always been that disciplined, but that’s something that we can improve on. That’s a great question and add something onto my to-do list to make sure that the meeting happens.
It’s key. What we always see in the process of working with clients and what we see with our clients as well when they’re out there is if you lose that momentum, the longer that it takes to schedule that meeting or come back and debrief. You lost a bit of that momentum and the excitement and the freshness that has happened. If you can make it happen sooner, it typically leads to higher levels of success in terms of that next engagement.
Yes, it’s a great point. It’s a note to self for me to do a better job in terms of how we’re structuring that follow on conversation and the timing of it and the discipline around it. Because at the end of the day, for us, our business has been a mix of these Pit Stop meetings with long-term engagements. On a given month, we might have a Pit Stop and then a couple of the long-term Top Gear Programs running at the same time. We’re trying to juggle. How many clients can you juggle at the same time?
You’ve now been doing this for years. You’ve been building up the business and you’re looking at ways to scale. What has been one of the challenges that you feel you’ve been facing? You’ve been thinking about, “How do I tackle this?” It’s a priority for you. What stands that either you’ve already overcome or something that you’re actively thinking about?
We’re in the process of launching this Partner Program. This will be our third attempt. I started this idea early on because I felt like it was the right way for me to scale the business. We’ve got a couple of consultants signed up right away. For various reasons, they all washed out. They couldn’t sell. They couldn’t do the work. They didn’t want to do the work. They didn’t want to sell or they just wanted to decide they’re going to go get a job. I tried a second effort right after the launch of my book Decide One Thing. We had a similar experience where we got a couple of people that are interested, signed up and didn’t work and washed out. This was going to be our third attempt. We’ve changed the business model to now it’s a subscription-based model as opposed to a percentage of revenue. We changed a bunch of the other things about it. I’ve spent a few more years developing the intellectual property, the brand, the methodology, and the trademarks. I’ve written another book. There’s a lot more to it that we can offer to people than I had a few years ago in our two previous attempts.
I want to make sure people can learn more about your work and also your books. Your latest is Drive One Direction. You started over 300 companies and interviewed over 100 CEOs. There’s a lot of value people can get from diving into that but also learn about your company, see your branding live in terms of going to your website. For everyone reading, tell them where they should go to learn more about you, your books and your work.
The company’s name is SHIFTPOINTS, Shiftpoints.com. That’s the best place to go. You’ll see all of the things that we talked about in terms of the Pit Stop and the Top Gear Program and how we’ve structured the brand. You’ll also see the books. The latest book’s called Drive One Direction. When I started the company, one of my advisors sat me down and he said, “Dave, you need to develop a methodology and you need to write a book.” I’ve never been a consultant before, so I had no idea about any methodology. I’d never written anything. I was in sales and marketing. I didn’t write anything.
I was an accounting major, so I barely write any papers. It took a while for me to develop the discipline of writing. I started writing a blog that was published every Monday. After a couple of years, I have 150 blog posts. I’m like, “I got some material to work with in terms of a book.” My first book called Shift Points was simply a compilation of my 100 best blogs. The next book, Decide One Thing, was about how you differentiate yourself. It was all the lessons from my first five years of consulting around differentiation and focus.
It was written for a small company CEO that has maybe got to $1 million in revenue and they’re starting to realize, “There’s a lot more competition and I have to differentiate myself.” As we’ve been in the business for so long, the larger the size of the clients we’ve been working with. Early on, they were ten-person companies with $1 million in revenue. Now they’re more likely to be billion-dollar companies and their issue is alignment. Because here’s what happens, as companies grow, they create divisions. Division by definition is divide.
The trick for companies, especially in this scale upstage, let’s call it between either $10 million and $100 million or $100 million and $1 billion. As they’re making this move from being a one-product company, it might work in one office and serve one market segment into a company that maybe now has 2 or 3 offices or 5 offices around the country. They have a second product line. Now they have a second general manager. They have a second P&L. Now we’ve got a business with two P&Ls or three P&Ls, and then they expand to Europe.
What happens is that if you don’t build the alignment foundation into the business from day one, these companies grind to a halt because their internal silos become dysfunctional that eventually, often an outside CEO needs to come in and bring everybody back into alignment. There’s a big organizational restructuring to say, “We have to be one team.” That’s what this latest book was about. I have a lot of fun doing the research and a couple of thousand hours of work. We’re excited about what’s happening with the new book so far.
Dave, thanks so much for coming on. I appreciate it.
Michael, it’s great to be here. Thank you.