Jacob Morgan is the principal and co-founder of Chess Media Group, a management consulting and strategic advisory firm focusing on the future of work and collaboration. Jacob works with organizations that are looking to understand how changes in technology and behavior are impacting the way we work. From the wide variety of new technologies available to companies, to the the millennials that are entering today’s workforce, the future of business and technology are shifting dramatically. Consultants who are consistent with their work and willing to work harder to gain clients’ trust are the consultants that are going to achieve the greatest success in this constantly changing business environment. On this episode of Consulting Success, Jacob shares the path that took him from Craigslist to clients seeking his expertise. Be sure to listen to this episode as we examine the key strategic moves you will want to make to secure your position as a sought-after and highly successful consultant.
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Collaborative Consulting and the Power of Consistency for Consultants with Jacob Morgan
Jacob Morgan is the principal and co-founder of Chess Media Group, a management consulting and strategic advisory firm focusing on the future of work and collaboration. Jacob works with organizations looking to understand how changes in technology and behavior are impacting the way we work. Jacob, welcome.
Thank you for having me.
Tell us a bit more about the work that you’re actually doing because some people may still want to have a clear picture as to what it is that you really do. Is there a project that you’re currently working on that really excites you? Maybe you could share what specifically you are doing in that project.
There are a couple. My time is split up into a couple of areas. Chess Media Group is the consulting company that I run. We basically work with organizations that are looking to build more collaborative organizations and adapt to the future of work. What I mean by that is have new technologies that are entering organizations and companies like Jive, Yammer, Chatter, and there are dozens of those out there. We have millennials that are going to become the majority workforce by 2020. We have employees that are starting to work from home or employees that are starting to work from random hours on mobile devices. We have this really big shift that’s happening within organizations. It is largely being fueled by what’s happening in our personal lives. We look at social media tools that we use and how easy we can connect with people and share and do all that stuff anywhere, anytime, and on any device. Organizations are starting to adapt to that.
We work with organizations on the strategic components of helping them understand what the future of work is going to look like and what they need to do to adapt. As far as projects go, we have a couple of exciting projects that we’re working on. I don’t know if I’m allowed to mention the company names. One project we’re doing is for one of the world’s largest grocery retailer chains. They’re looking to engage their employees and help them to open up and share and collaborate more effectively. We’re doing some strategy work for them. We’re doing work for a very well-known financial industry client that’s awesome and pretty exciting. The financial industries, they are usually very conservative organizations. To be able to go into this type of a conservative organization and help change their thinking as far as what the future of work looks like is pretty exciting. We have a lot of interesting things happening.
You’re talking about going into organizations and opening them up, helping them to change their thinking about how people are communicating at the workforce. How do you do that? Are you going into these companies and doing a PowerPoint presentation for them, or are you doing research and showing them data? What does your actual work look like with regards to doing that?
Our typical engagements are broken up into one of two ways. The first is around an unlimited advisory engagement. What that means is that once we defined the scope of work with a client, they pay a flat monthly retainer and they get unlimited access to us for any type of advisory for feedback, for insights, for ideas. That means that they can pick up the phone and talk to us anytime. They can request that we spend time with them on site whenever they want, and we’re there as subject matter experts to help them figure out what they should be doing. They might call us up and say, ” Jacob, we just had a meeting with our executive team. These were some of the issues that came up. We’re not really sure what to do about it. Do you have any advice for us?”
I’ll spend time with them on the phone helping them think through that or they’ll say, ” Jacob, can you come out on site next week. We have a strategy workshop and we’d like your input on the direction that we’re going in.” I’d go on site with them and give them my perspective and advice on what they’re doing. It’s almost like having a coach or an adviser that you always have access to that can steer you in the right direction, help you avoid pitfalls, and keep you going in the right track. That’s one way that we work with organizations. The second way is around specific consulting projects. We might have a client call us up and say, “Can you develop a strategy for us?”A strategy could be a document followed by a presentation that we presented them onsite, or they could say, “Can you come in and do a workshop for us, or can you do a training session?”We have those types of specific consulting engagements and we also have these types of advisory retainer engagements.
Do you find that typically when you’re working with clients that you start off doing a consulting project for them and then after that, it leads into a establishing and setting up that retainer for them? Or do you have some clients that right off the bat go into retainer mode?
We have a lot of clients that go right off the bat into retainer mode because that’s the greatest value for them. When you think of what an agency like the McKinsey or somebody else would charge or what it costs even to do an onsite workshop, a lot of companies are charging $10,000, $15,000, $20,000 to spend a day with you on site. You can either spend that for the company and get a day’s worth of work with them or you can spend that with us and we’ll give you advisory access for a month. The value that we deliver is very high. A lot of organizations tend to jump right into the advisory. Some start on the consulting side, some even do both at the same time. We have a mix.
One of the biggest challenges that consultants face with regards to establishing consulting retainers with clients is that clients aren’t willing to go right into the type of retainer that you’re talking about where they’re really paying for access to you. They’re paying for your knowledge and your skill set and experiences, but it’s really being able to access you when they need you. How do you get around or how do you approach selling that option to clients? When you’re looking at new clients, how are they familiar with you? How are they comfortable enough to sign up with you right off the bat just to pay for access and not necessarily for a specific deliverable or project right out of the gate, which most consultants seem to establish first with clients before getting into a consulting retainer-type of situation?
We have very much an ongoing relationship with a lot of the people that work with us before they even start working with us. We have companies that will say something like, “We’ve been reading your newsletter for months. We’ve been reading your articles on Forbes or we read your book or we read your blog. We really like the ideas that you have and we’re stuck in this situation and we’d love your help.”It’s not like they just come to the website out of nowhere and say, “Email us.”They have heard of us. They read stuff that we’ve done. They’ve followed us for awhile. They have this ongoing relationship with us. There is that level of trust. They’re much more comfortable in doing these things. Having a bestselling book for a major publisher doesn’t hurt either.
I’m sure you’ve found that helpful in your marketing efforts and we can definitely talk more about that.
As I was starting to say earlier, part of the thing that I do in addition to the consulting is I also have the book. We do a lot of speaking engagements at conferences and events, and I also do a lot of writing for Forbes, for my blog, etc. The primary thing that I do is the consulting, but the writing and speaking in conferences and events helps do some of the other things on the consulting side.
Would you say it’s accurate to say that when you’re working with clients in a retainer-type structure, usually those clients are approaching you because they know about you, they have some relationship, whether it’s reading your book or your blog or an article, as opposed to you going out and hunting a new clients and then pitching them to consulting with you?
That’s what they always do. I can’t think of a single time where we have approached the company out of the blue for anything. Just now, for example, I got an email from a very large global technology company saying, “We’ve been reading your newsletter for several months and I’m interested in exploring ways for you to come to help us.”Pretty much with everything that we do, I would never reach out to an organization out of the blue and say, “These are the services that we offer. Do you want to talk?” It’s all inbound. It’s through social channels. We have a very big active network through social channels. We created resources in white papers and webinars, speaking at conferences and events, people that read the book, read the blog, they’ll email us and say, “We love to explore a way for us to work together. We see that you are experts in this field. It’s something that we need help with. Let’s talk.”
Before you were an author and a consultant and a speaker, you worked at a startup. You shared with me that something that your CEO made you do or did was the reason or one of the reasons that made you go out on your own where you said, “This is enough.” Can you tell us about that?
I graduated college. I went to UC Santa Cruz. I double majored in Business Management, Economics and Psychology. I graduated with honors and one of my first jobs out of college was in LA. It was a company called Think Passenger. This was awhile ago. None of the same people still work there. I worked at this company a while and I was promised I would be traveling, I would be doing these things. I would be doing all these fascinating projects. What happened is I got stuck in front of a PowerPoint screen making presentations for people just doing boring ground work. The thing that pushed me around over the edge was when I was asked to go get coffee by one of the executives.
At that point I was like, ” This is garbage. I worked way too hard for four years to have to go get coffee for somebody.”I realized that working for other people just wasn’t for me. I decided to go off on my own. I worked for maybe one or two other people since. I had another startup that I did once I moved to San Francisco which failed miserably. In fact, the only thing that I still have from that startup is a printer that I bought. I still use that printer now. It’s probably eight years old, but the only revenue generation I got from that startup that I did was this printer. There are certainly some failed things in the past.
I’m happy that you shared that because oftentimes people will read, especially in online publications and print publications, all the different magazines around businesses and success in entrepreneurship. They only talk about the successes and not enough about all the challenges that go into things. I’m happy that you shared it with everyone that you also had your share of a failure and a failed start-up. Both of us would agree that you don’t look at it like a failure. It was a lesson that you learned and ultimately helped you to get to where you are now.
Looking back, there are things that I could say that I failed at or didn’t do the way I wanted it to get done, but just to say I wouldn’t be where I am now if one of those things didn’t happen. If it weren’t for that failed start-up, if it weren’t for the CEO asking me to go get coffee, where would I be? I have no clue. I’m happy where I am now and everything that has happened in the past has in some way led me to where I am now. I can’t really complain.
You went out on your own and you told me that you got your first client on Craigslist. How did that happen?
I was doing search engine optimization work at the time, and I started looking on Craigslist for people who are interested in the search engine optimization work. I started responding to those Craigslist ads saying, “Can I do SEO work for you or maybe some social media advising for you?” It’s actually funny because one of the first companies that I started doing work for was recently acquired by Oracle. It is a massive company now. They were one of my first clients many years ago.
They put up an ad on Craigslist?
Yeah. I think they put up an ad on Craigslist or maybe I met them at an event or something like that, but it was one of the first clients that I’ve done. Majority of them were from Craigslist. They were the people that were going on Craigslist saying, “We need help with SEO. This is what we’re looking for.” I would write to them and I’d say, “We do SEO consulting, how can I help you?”That’s how I started getting my very first clients.
After those first few clients from that you got from Craigslist, how did you start building up your business so that you would be able to get more clients?
I started the blog many years ago, which now is TheFutureWorkplace.com. I started a blog and I started going to a lot of events. I started speaking at conferences. I started writing guest articles and guest blogs for other people. I started just being everywhere. I was a single guy at the time living in the Bay Area. I spent all my time meeting people and doing network. I was meeting as many people as I can and doing the ground work and it helped. It paid off. Being able to contribute to major publications is always great because you want to work with a client or app, you can say, “This is where I was featured. These are some people that I’ve worked with.”It’s a little bit of everything.
If you look at everything that you’ve accomplished to this point now and you look back at everything that you did to get here with regards to marketing and so on and business development and growing your business, are there one or two things that stand out as, “That was probably one of the best things that I did and I should’ve done that earlier?” If a consultant comes to you and said, “Jacob, I’m just starting my business. I have a good specialization. I’m doing good work for my clients but I really need to get out there more and I want to get more clients, ” what would you say to them?
There has been a couple of things that helped me. Before Chess Media Group, I was on my own. After I formed Chess Media Group, I worked with a business partner. Her name is Connie Chan in Vancouver and we have a very great working relationship. She’s been very helpful. Even before that, living in San Francisco helped make a lot of things happen for me. I lived in Los Angeles at the time before I moved to San Francisco. Los Angeles is a city that’s spread right out. Anywhere you want to go, any meetup that you want to attend, any conferences you want to go to, you need to drive and you need to drive for a very long time.
One of the things that was great about San Francisco after I moved here was that these events, these conferences, these meetups, these tweetups, whatever you want to call them, they were all within walking distance. I would be able to walk outside my door and ten or fifteen minutes later, I’d be in an event. After that, I can walk to another event. Having everything in such a close proximity allowed me to meet a lot of people. I was able to attend events and conferences and a lot of meetups and whatnot. It allowed me to start to get my name out there a little bit. That was definitely instrumental and that was definitely important. A lot of people don’t think about that, but the physical proximity, at least when you’re starting out, is important. You have to remember that in my background, I never worked for a big company before this. Nobody knew who I was. Nobody knew my name. Nobody knew anything that I did.
I didn’t have any relationships with anybody when I started my consulting practice. The physical proximity of meeting people was very important, at least in the initial stages. If there’s somebody that’s already worked with big companies and you already have an established track record and a big network, maybe you don’t need that physical proximity and you could do consulting work from anywhere. For me, this kid in his twenties, I needed to have that physical proximity. That was crucial. Aside from that, it was also very important to pick an area that I wanted to focus on and just own it. I started off in search engine optimization which evolved into social media, and for the past couple years, I’ve been very much focusing on the future of work. That’s been the area that I want to own and that I want to dominate. Everything that I’ve been doing for the past several years has all been around the future of work.
That’s been one of the strategies to move with technology, the changes that’s helped you, and you’ve done that almost to the point where you’re one step ahead of the curve. For people that would benefit them in their businesses as well, how do you do that? How do you stay one step ahead of the curve? How do you stay on top of the technology? Even if you are doing that, how do you then translate that into being useful for your clients and for your business?
As far as staying ahead of the technology, you need to have a pulse as to what’s happening in your industry. That means doing a lot of reading, doing events, following relevant conversations. It means a little bit of everything. You need to have a pulse of what’s happening in the industry. For me, for example, for The Future of Work, I know what’s happening with a lot of the big enterprise collaboration vendors out there. I don’t know every single thing that’s happening with every single company, but chances are if you mentioned a vendor, I know who they are. I know what their product looks like and I can probably mention some of the pros and cons and maybe some things that are happening. I also frequently meet with vendors to get updates as far as what’s going on with the technology industry.
A big part of that is you need to have an opinion. You can’t be scared to share your opinion. Part of what I do as far as writing goes, is to share my ideas and to share my opinions. Are they always right? Maybe not, but they’re my ideas and they’re my opinions. Oftentimes, it can help shape what might be happening. Not being scared of what other people are going to say about you or how they might critique or how they might come after you is something that is important. Not everybody’s always going to agree with you all the time, and you need to be okay with that. Sharing my opinion and my ideas and writing about it publicly for everyone to see has been fantastic and being consistent.
Do you think that when you’re writing and speaking, that when you share a strong opinion, it might be even somewhat polarizing in that you know that it might offend some people or that people won’t agree with you? Do you think that’s actually more effective than just trying to write so that you please everyone?
Yeah. Keep in mind, I’m not writing about politics or anything that’s sensitive. I’m writing about as far as where the future of work is going. There aren’t going to be people that agree with everything that I say, and there have been people in the past who have been very vocal and very public about that. That’s fine. You’ve got to learn to get over it and focus on the things that you believe in and the things that you are passionate about and ignore the people that are trying to bring me down.
You’re blogging, you’re writing for Forbes, you’re speaking. In many interviews now, when I’m talking with consultants that have been able to build up their practice and business to a very successful level, the theme of blogging and becoming a thought leader and getting out there is definitely one that runs through pretty much every conversation. I’m interested to find out in your case. From the time that you started investing time and energy into your blog and into networking, pretty much building your business up from when you didn’t know anyone and you’re new in San Francisco and just starting your business, how long did it take before you were able to start building a name for yourself and getting clients coming to you? You mentioned that you weren’t that focused or aren’t now focused on outbound marketing. It’s all inbound and that you’re getting inquiries, prospective clients are calling you and so on. How long did it take to establish that?
It’s something that’s ongoing. I don’t think it’s something that has ever completely established.
Let’s just say then to give people a sense, just even to the point where you felt like, “My business is starting to come together,” and feeling confident in the results you were seeing.
For me, I was little picky because I started off in search engine optimization and then I went into social media and social CRM and for the past couple years. I’ve been focusing on The Future of Work. I pivoted my focus a little bit over the past couple of years. When I initially started off in search engine optimization work, I did for maybe six months to a year, to start getting recognized. It depends on what you do in that time. If in that one-year time period, you get an article on Forbes and you get a book deal, then a lot of great things can happen. If in that year, you write a couple of blog posts and send out a couple of tweets, nothing’s going to happen. The time is proportional to the effort of what you’re doing during that time period.
One of the key things is being consistent. For me, I didn’t start off being consistent. I started in search engine optimization and probably did that for two years, social media and social CRM consulting, maybe another one to two years, and The Future Work, which is where I’ve settled in where I want my domain to be, maybe the past three, four years or five years or so. It took me a little while to find my area that I wanted to settle in. Then again, that happen because I didn’t really know after college, I was thinking about what I’d wanted to do. It took a little while to get settled into that. If somebody knows for sure what they want to do, the area that they want to be in and they’re willing to put in a lot of work into it, ideally you should start to see some results within six months to a year. You should start to see some recognition, you should start to see some things coming in. It depends on the amount of work that you do during that time period.
You mentioned to me that consistency is really important for consultants. I want to find out from you, what does consistency look like for consultants and why is it so important?
Consistency is just a matter of picking the domain that you want to be in and everything that you do is around that domain. For example, one of the things that you can look at what I’ve done in the past is don’t necessarily take the path that I took as far as switching from one area to another. For me, it was a little unique because one evolved into the next. When I started doing search engine optimization work, the field that I’m in now didn’t exist. A lot of these vendors and these technologies didn’t exist. I evolved into that. Maybe that’s not a good example. Consistency, as far as once you know that area that you want them to be in, is making sure that everything of you represents that area.
For example, if you are interested in fitness, you want to have this domain expertise in fitness. Everything you need to do, everything that you write about, every way that you project yourself must be around fitness. Don’t all of a sudden turn around and start writing articles around how to assemble furniture or things that aren’t really relevant to what you want to do. I know a lot of people that are in a tangential industry as mine, they write articles around influencer engagement and then they’ll write articles around social media and marketing and then they’ll write articles around technology and then they’ll write something else around working from home.
You read all these things and you can’t really tell what this person has expertise in. To be successful at something, you really need to carve out that area for yourself and everything that you do should be revolving around that area. If you look at my book for example, the articles that I write, everything for the past couple years that I’ve been doing is very much focused and branded as The Future of Work. That is an area that I want them to be at. Consistency is very crucial because that’s how people start to know who you are and that’s how people will start to recognize you and what to come to work with.
When you say consistent, a lot of people think consistency and they take that to meaning the design of their website or blog and their business cards and logo and the colors that they use and so on. What you’re talking about, I guess that could be part of it. I don’t know if you’d include that in that or not, but it sounds more like your positioning in a marketplace and your messaging.
Your content. The things that you write, the things that you speak about at conferences and events need to all focus on your core area, on your subject matter and expertise. If you start flip-flopping and start jumping around from one thing to the other, you’re not going to be consistent and people aren’t going to know what you do or why they should work with you. If you keep hammering away at one area and start owning that area, you’re eventually going to become an expert and adopting in that area. I’ve come a long way since I started writing. I still have a lot of work I need to do, too. I am by no means where I would like to be. I have a lot of things that I want to work on.
I still focus on consistency. I’ve been on marketing and I’m doing all the same things. It’s not like I’m just teaching back and just watching the money flow in and people calling me everyday wanting my help. I still very much do a lot of the things that I did years ago. I still go to events, I still write. I still try to meet new people. It’s not something that you do and then stop doing. This is an ongoing process. You need to consistently be hammering away and building up your area. It’s something that never ends.
Jacob, this has been a lot of fun. This has been great. Thank you for sharing your insights and some of your lessons and some strategies and ways for people to think about how to build their business, how to make sure that they’re consistent and relevant, and also how to get out there and start to make things happen. Thank you so much.
My pleasure. Thank you for having me.
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