Self-described “recovering consultant” Blair Enns is the CEO of Win Without Pitching, a sales training organization for creative professionals in the design, advertising, and public relations fields. When he wasn’t satisfied with his $400,000 business, he decided to expand it into an organization that now makes exponentially more money that he once thought possible. In this episode, we are talking about ways that you can effectively position yourself as an expert in your field, how to get your expertise recognized, and the danger of productizing your work, as well as what you should be doing instead. Blair has achieved a level of success that many consultants only dream of, and he’s here to share practical ideas on how you, too, can take your consulting business to the next level. Join us to hear solid advice for increasing your revenue from Blair Enns in this episode of The Consulting Success Podcast.
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Doubling a $400,000 Revenue Model With Business Trainer Blair Enns
I’m very excited to have Blair Enns joining us. Blair, welcome.
Thank you, Michael. It’s a pleasure to be here.
For those who don’t know you, explain what you do.
I am a recovering consultant. I am the CEO of Win Without Pitching. It’s a sales training organization to creative professionals. Creative professionals are those who are in typically designed-based businesses. They own design firms of various stripes or ad agencies, public relations, practices, etc.
What were you doing before? Take us back to when you got started. What did your career look like?
I stumbled into advertising. I was academically expelled from university after one year, a low-quality university too. I achieved great things academically and then I took a business administration community college program. I was studying billiards. I’m trying to paint the picture of this wandering, aimless youth. Then I found myself armed with a piece of paper that wasn’t all that valuable in the marketplace and I stumbled into advertising. When I stumbled into it, it made so much sense to me. I immediately fell in love with the business. I worked in advertising for about a dozen years or so at some point. I was hired as an account manager, and I grew in those positions.
Even in my first job when I was 22 years old, the owner of the firm identified that I seem to have a knack for new business. At 22, six months into my tenure in the profession, he put me in charge of business development for this independent ad agency that also owned a public relations firm. I fumbled my way through that too. I went on to work for some of the largest advertising agencies in the world and some of the smallest design firms in the world. I crossed that creative divide. It’s not so much a divide but it was more of a divide back then. There are a lot more blended these days. I worked in the advertising side and the design side doing account management, running offices and doing business development. One day, I wanted to chuck it all and move to the woods. We moved to a little village in the middle of the remote mountains of British Columbia. I needed to find a way to do that so I decided to launch a consulting practice. That was when the first iteration of Win Without Pitching was born.
You are in a town of about 1,500 people or so?
It was about half that. It’s more under 900.
How did you get there and what are you doing there, Blair?
My answer depends on the day you ask me. I’ve been here eighteen years. I tripped over it when I was a much younger man eighteen years ago. My wife and I just had our first child and I got it into my head that I wanted to live in a little village in the mountains next to water. I went in search of that place and found Kaslo. It was one of many places on a map that I had circled, and we took a quick impromptu vacation and visited all these places. Everyone I arrived at I said this, “This isn’t it.” Kaslo wasn’t even on the map so I hadn’t circled it, but it’s an hour from Nelson, British Columbia. I got to Nelson and I thought, “This isn’t it.” Nelson was my destination. The next day we were driving up the lake, and the lake is 92 miles long. It’s called Kootenay Lake. It’s home to the largest strain of rainbow trout in the world, and I’m a fisherman, at least in my mind. Halfway up the lake, I knew that whatever was at the end of this road was home. I pulled into Kaslo and said, “This is it.” It took us a few years to get back here. I became a consultant because I was determined to live here. I didn’t know anything about the main industries here which are logging and dope growing, and I still know very little about both of those industries, so I decided to start a consulting practice.
Some people believe that you can’t be successful in such a remote place where you have no direct access to work face to face with your clients. You’ve made your business work. You’ve been successful at it. How have you made it work?
Being in such a small market where I don’t have a client or even a potential client within hundreds of miles of me, initially when I was a consultant, I couldn’t see anybody within hundreds of miles that would hire me. It forced me to put a stake in the ground. If you want to expand your geographic reach, you need to narrow your focus. People are willing to travel for expertise, but they’re not willing to travel to hire a consultant from the other side of the world or the other part of the continent if they can get the same thing down the street. That forced me into some decisions around what I was going to do in the markets that I was going to serve and other tangential decisions around that that you might call decisions of strategy or of positioning. As a result, it’s probably contributed to my success substantially.
David Baker is a good friend of yours and you run a podcast together. You both specialize in working with creative agencies or creative professionals. Many consultants have this mindset that competition is bad, that you want to stay as far away from other consultants or professionals that are doing the same thing as you are because they may take your ideas or there might be some conflicts there. Here, you and David are sharing a lot of knowledge together. What will you say to those people that are worried about competition? How can they think about it differently? How has it worked for you?
So many of the most meaningful or profound ideas in our life, when we arrive at something where there’s some insight for us, usually we’re taking two seemingly opposable ideas and making sense of them. The idea of competition being bad, on the one hand, it is. If you’re surrounded by competitors and in the eyes of your client, there seem to be little difference between you and your competitors, then you have a significant business problem. You’re undifferentiated. There’s some strategy work that you haven’t done. On the other hand, positioning or strategy isn’t meant to put you into a category of one. If you define yourself so narrowly and build an expertise that is so focused that you’re the only one who does it, you’ve probably confined yourself to a category or a discipline that’s too small. In all of these decisions we make around focusing our consulting practices, we’re not trying to eliminate all competition but we are trying to eliminate most of the competition. There’s this duality that competition is both good and bad.
Once you successfully define your space, to me there are two core elements, discipline and market. What do you do and who you do it for? When you make the decisions around discipline and market, which together I’ll call focus, then that should eliminate all but maybe a dozen or maybe two dozen competitors, maybe three dozen at the most worldwide. It might get you down to a category of four, five or six. Somewhere between four, five six and a few dozen, that’s a healthy competitive set in most markets. It varies from market to market, depending on the size, competition, density, etc. When you get to that space and you’re seen as a leader in that space, then it’s probably a good idea to start collaborating with others who are in or slightly tangential to that space. When it comes to David and I, we are friends, we’re collaborators, and we’re also competitors. For the most part, we’re happy to lose business to each other. We refer business to each other. Both of us do the right thing for the client. If it’s the right thing for the client to hire him as a consultant or to enter our training program, we’re both comfortable in making that recommendation. We’re comfortable with our place in the market that we serve. We feel like we’re both stronger if we work together. I don’t actually play nice with everybody to the extent that I do with David. We’re aligned philosophically as well and that’s important to me.
I have an overarching point of view on how creative services, in fact, all consultative services, should be sold. It’s right there in the name of our business, Win Without Pitching. I don’t believe you should be relegated to the vendor position. I don’t believe that you should participate in these dog and pony shows where you’re lined up in an apples-to-apples comparison against your peers. You’re invited to come in and solve the client’s problem as proof of your ability to solve the problem. I don’t believe you have to sell that way. Somebody else has to believe the same thing for me to be a collaborator with them.
Your business is built on the idea of win without pitching. Many creative agencies pitch their way to win business. You’re opposed to that and have a very clear positioning around that. What are then some ways that consultants, creative professionals, anyone in professional services, can start to take to differentiate themselves so that they are positioned in a way where they have a greater chance of winning business?
It starts with focus. What are you going to be a consultant on? Who are you going to be a consultant to and on what issues? We’ve all met generalist management consultants who will propose to do everything for everybody. That’s a difficult sell because you can’t build the deep expertise in any one area. There are the Alan Weiss’s of the world, and I don’t know who the more modern day equivalent of Alan Weiss would be, that are the exceptions that prove the rule. I remember back when, and I don’t mean to diminish Alan’s current status, I don’t know much about what he’s doing right now, but back in the day when I was paying a lot of attention to him, he’d publish 600 articles and thirteen books or something. It just appeared that he was a guy who could come in. He knew the process of consulting and could come in and consult almost anybody on anything. At least, that’s the impression that he conveyed. It may have been entirely correct.
For the rest of us mortals, we probably want to become subject matter experts rather than process experts. Those two things aren’t mutually exclusive, but those are the two types of consultants you tend to see. To be a subject matter expert, you do need to narrow your focus. I’m sure David Baker talked about this. Start solving the same types of problems over and over again because it’s that repeated observation, repeated problem solving that allows you to see the patterns that is the basis for your expertise. You differentiate yourself by narrowing your focus, discipline for market, so that it’s just narrow enough that it forces you to go deeper. You build deep expertise by solving the same types of problems so that you can see the patterns. A client comes along and says, “I’ve got this situation. I don’t know what it is or what to do. I don’t even know if you can help me.” The consultant says, “It looks like your challenge is X. You’re presenting these symptoms. I’ve seen this about 30 times before,” or whatever the number is. “My initial hypothesis is this. Have these three things happened to you in the last six months?” You can only do that if you have deep expertise. You can only build deep expertise if you begin by narrowing your focus. It starts there.
That’s a great response and a lot for people to think about and work through. When we’re talking about very clear steps that people can take and think through, we’ll explore a little bit more about where your business is at right now. Along the way, along this path that you’ve been on in this journey, what stands out for you as a challenge that if you look back on, you say to yourself, “I maybe could’ve handled that differently,” or, “It’s something that I’d like others to learn from as well?” If you look at your career in building your consulting business, now a training company, is there one challenge that stands out for you or one big learning experience?
Probably the most recent big one, it would be some time in the last five years. I’ve been doing this about eighteen years, the first thirteen or so as a consultant and the last five or so as a training company. I made the switch from a consulting practice to a training company when I started to go deep into the subject of value pricing. I realized that for a proper consultant, that’s not even fair because there are so many different ways to go about being a consultant. If I were going to go deep into my client’s businesses, solve the biggest problems with the highest degree of certainty and create the most value, I felt like I needed to value price my engagements. I needed to do more work upfront in the diagnostic phase to assess what the problems were, and then construct an engagement that was very specific to that client and to their needs and their goals. I realized that’s how it should be done. What I was doing is, almost right from the beginning, I had absent-mindedly begun to quasi productize my business.
Tell me more about that. What do you mean?
It’s probably a spectrum but it’s helpful to think of it as an either/or situation where you have productized services businesses and you have customized services businesses. A typical consulting practice is a customized service business where every new client is a blank slate of possibilities. As a consultant/salesperson, when you’re assessing the client and the engagement, you shouldn’t be thinking about solutions at all. You should be asking questions around business objectives, around measures, around the value that the client wants to create. You want to uncover the desired future state of the client. Once you uncover all these things and you quantify it, then you would have the money, the value conversation and figure out how much money the client’s willing to invest to get to this desired future state. You apply some murky math around an uncertainty discount. “How certain am I, the consultant, that I’ll be able to get them to this state?” Then discount based on your level of uncertainty. Then you would put forward some options for the client to engage you to solve those problems and essentially at different risk levels, and let the client choose their risk level. It’s only after you’ve had the money conversation, the value conversation, that you should start thinking about solutions.
When you productize, you think, “I’ll create this product and we’ll call it the business development audit.” I would have these different platforms or levels of offering off the shelf. I could have published them on my website. I didn’t, but I put them together in a PDF and I would send them to the client. Basically, with every client, it would be, “Do you want vanilla, chocolate or strawberry? Here are the three different options here, the three different prices.” I know I’ve got a book on pricing and I know that that violates my first rule of pricing, which is always price the client. In a customized services business, your focus is on the client and the value you might create for the client by helping to get them to their desired future state. You arrive at a price, and then you start thinking it’s about solutions. With productized, you do it the other way around.
There’s something appealing about productizing your services when you’re in a consultative services business, but it’s a bad move. You end up in this mushy middle, neither productized nor customized. When you start adding staff, if you do start adding staff, you run into all kinds of problems. You have culture problems because you can’t actually do both in the same business. The cultures of the two different types of organizations are so entirely different. A productized service business is about efficiencies and scale and a finite number of offerings that set prices. With customized service business, you’re not even thinking about solutions until you’ve had a value conversation. You have to limit your client base because there are only so many clients you can take on at any one time. It’s not likely to exceed twelve or fifteen even in the largest consulting company.
In a productized services company, we’ve got over a hundred firms in our training program. As a consultant, I couldn’t work with more than three, maybe four, depending on the nature of the engagements. There are two completely different businesses. Most consultants should be in the customized service business. A lot of us find ourselves quasi productizing our services for reasons that aren’t clear to us, that we haven’t thought through the implications. The big thing I would say is just ask yourself, “Are you, either intentionally or unintentionally, productizing or semi-productizing your services when you should stay as a customized services firm?”
The decision for you to take your firm to a training company where there is a lot more productization of the training it would seem, tell me more about that. What does that now look like? What was the decision or the impetus for you to do that?
The decision was I realized I was pricing and constructing my engagements all wrong. For me to do it properly, I probably needed to be in engagements where I could say to a client at some point in the middle, “I’ll be there the day after tomorrow.” Given where I live, I used to say we’re just outside of Vancouver but we’re a nine-hour drive from Vancouver, I can’t get anywhere tomorrow. It’s about the same amount of time for me to go to San Francisco or to Dublin. It doesn’t matter where I go. It’s at least a day to get somewhere. Plus I had youngish kids at the time. I said, “I’m either going to do consulting properly and I’m going to value price these highly customized engagements or I’m going to fully productized.” It made sense for me to go the other way and fully productize.
What impact has that had on your business since doing that?
The first thing is that it had a significant impact on my health. I felt like I had pushed the independent consulting model as far as I could go. In 2012, the last year that I was a consultant, I got sick four times on three continents, not serious, but run down. The last one in November, I was flat on my back in bed with pneumonia for two weeks. I was thinking through all these things and I was thinking, “It’s time to make the shift. This business model is killing me.” If I look back on that, my revenue was probably $300,000, maybe $350,000. I thought, “This is as far as you can go.” That’s so not true. There are so many independent consultants making so much more than that. A big part of why I was working as hard as I could was I was maxing out revenue- wise. I wanted to grow revenue. The only way I knew how to do it was to work harder. I needed to price differently and change my engagements. I probably could have doubled that number and reduce the amount of work if travel were easier for me.
It was in that moment, lying flat on my back in bed for two weeks with pneumonia, I decided, “No, I’m going the other way. I’m going to pursue scale. I’m going to hire coaches,” and it’s been fantastic. I love being a consultant. I absolutely loved it and I’m glad I did it for a dozen years. I’m loving owning a productized service business, a training company, where culture is so important. We hire people. I’ve got to become responsible for these people. I’m responsible for morale and strategic vision, and my wife who’s the operations person just excels at all of the accountability stuff and systems. I’m enjoying it.
How many do you have working with you on your team now?
In head office, which is in the remote mountain village of Kaslo, BC, we are four. We have a full-time coach in Seattle. We have part-time coaches in New York and Raleigh, North Carolina. We’ve got a new level to the model where we’re licensing some consultants next year all around the world. That’s going to start in March.
If you were to start a brand new professional services business, what would be the first thing that you would do to get clients?
It’s changed so much. When I did new business for a design firm, my last employer, I was hired to run a regional office. This would have been 1999. I moved in and the guy who was running the office and all the clients were friends. They left so there were no clients and I had basically a blank slate. I said to the owner of the firm, “I’m a writer. I write so this might take a little while.” I just moved to that market. I didn’t know very many people. “I’ll make some calls, but I’m a writer. I’m going to start writing.” I started writing content or thought leadership. It was probably called the educational marketing back then. I started faxing it to people because email was just coming online. Then I started emailing people and my open rates were over 70%. That was back in the day if you’ve got an email, it was novel. I would absolutely write. I would continue to write. Everybody writes. Everybody creates content. I talked about if you want to become an expert, you need to narrow your focus, and that’s a combination of discipline and market, the next level is you need to have a point of view. The denser competitive space, that’s taking into account the size of the market, the number of clients, and then the number of competitors, -the more competitive your space is, the more vital it is that you have a polarizing point of view.
First, I would choose the discipline for market, and then I would arrive at a contrary point of view, a way of looking at doing X for Y, a discipline for market that is used or even flies in the face of the standard conventions of that space. If I couldn’t come up with a novel model, a novel way of looking at the problems in this space, I wouldn’t even try. I would go somewhere else. That’s the secondary level of differentiation where when you choose a discipline for market, the number of competitors, consultants you would compete against, goes from thousands down to maybe a dozen or dozens. That last battle, how you compete with those few remaining ones, you want to make that a battle of ideology. People will read or come to your thought leadership, whether it’s a podcast or a webinar or a speech or a post or a video, whatever it is. They’ll come for the content, you talking about X for Y discipline for market, but they will hire you for your point of view. It’s not absolutely mandatory. There are lots of successful businesses out there who don’t have an overarching point of view. If you can come up with one, it is so much more powerful and so much more compelling. Simon Sinek got a bunch of great quotes. The one I can never remember perfectly, but it’s, “Don’t look to sell to people who want to buy what you have. Look to sell to people who believe what you believe.”
Somebody reads your article or your blog posts. They came for the information on X for Y discipline for market, but they’re moved by your point of view and they react. You’re looking for one of two reactions. They seem like the opposite, but essentially they’re the same reaction. The first one is, “You think about these things the same way that I do. By implication, not everybody else thinks about things this way. You and I are brothers that way. We think about things the same way.” The other reaction that is equally as powerful is, “I’ve never thought about this this way before.” You need that combination of discipline for market, and then if you can add in that perspective, that point of view that separates you from everybody else, that’s the foundation of a business that will be successful.
You’ve written the articles or created the content. How do people get it out? In your experience, what would your recommendation be to get it out there? If they don’t have a big social following already, what’s an effective way for people to then get that content they’ve created in front of ideal clients?
We’ve been teaching this for about five years. As we review the curriculum every year, there’s something on that front in our expert lead generation, there’s a point that we used to make loosely and then we made it more strongly. Now it’s front and center. It’s this idea of take all of your lead generation or your marketing chips and put them on one square. Pick a major and then a minor. The major might be, “I’m going to write a book.” That takes a while but you publish a book. Then the minor, in support of that, might be speaking in support of the book. The major might be a podcast and the minor might be something tied to the podcast. The major might be the blog. It might be just Twitter. What’s the one thing that you are going to do and you’re going to try to dominate that channel?
What’s worked best in your own business?
I just started writing because that’s what I knew what to do. When I published my first book, The Win Without Pitching Manifesto, seven and a half years ago, up until then I wrote regularly every month, minimum. I did a one-year experiment where I wrote every week. That book has been out seven and a half years and it’s always sold steadily and it’s always climbing. In the first six months, it outsold all of last year. Last year, it outsold all of the year before. This is a book that’s seven and a half years old.
What are you doing to promote that book?
Not much anymore.
It’s gaining steam. It’s getting reviews. It’s showing up in search on Amazon or something like that?
The success of that book, at least in part, is the fact that it’s targeted to the creative professions. It’s a small world, especially if you parse it by vertical where people talk to each other. It’s unfortunate that it’s a book that’s well-referenced and commonly known within the market that I serve. If I weren’t so vertically focused, if I were focused on a discipline and the market, I defined the market in some other way other than a vertical, I wouldn’t be getting that water-cooler talk, the sharing that happens in a vertical space. I’ve been lucky that way. Also, when I published the book initially, I decided to give it away for free on my website. I’d seen a few people do this before and I reached out to them and said, “I’m thinking about doing this.” Some of them said, “Don’t do it,” and some of them said, “Do it.” You can read my book, The Win Without Pitching Manifesto on WinWithoutPitching.com for free. You have to click a lot and we’ve done that on purpose. You read the first page, you click. You read a page, you click. There’s a lot of clicking. At some point, you give up and go pay $8 for the Kindle version or $25 for the hard cover. That strategy has served well. Also, a few years ago we started gating that. We said, “You can read it for free but hand over your email address.” We probably get 150 people a month who are handing over their email address so they could read it for free. I don’t know what percentage goes on to buy the book. I’m not very good at tracking what happens from there, but that book has served us well.
That’s a great case study, an example of the importance of specialization and focus playing out here in real life with you, Blair. You have a new book. What is it all about and what’s the best way for people to learn more about your work, your book and what you’re up to?
First, WinWithoutPitching.com. I’m also Blair Enns on Twitter and LinkedIn. I’m not on Facebook. The new book is called Pricing Creativity: A Guide to Profit Beyond the Billable Hour. It’s available on three formats. There’s an eBook. There is a manual version that is essentially the eBook printed, broken up into sections with an added section called Tools. I conceived of this and wrote it as a manual because I imagined that anybody in the creative professions, it’s meant to go beyond that, anybody in consultative services of any kind who is working on a sale and engagement that they want to price, they would pull this off the shelf. They would reread a couple of key principles. They would re-familiarize themselves with the six rules of pricing creativity. They would look up the specific tips if they had some specific issues that they were dealing with about this proposal or this sale. They would flip to the Tool section and actually start writing in and crafting their options and prices right in the book. That’s the manual version. Then there’s the enhanced manual version that comes with four hours of video lessons in support. It’s only available for sale on my website, WinWithoutPitching.com. If you go to PricingCreativity.com, that will redirect you too.
I appreciate you coming on, sharing your story and what you’ve gone through and what you’re up to. It’s been a lot of fun, so thank you.
Thank you, Michael. I appreciate that. Thanks.
Mentioned in This Episode:
Win Without Pitching
2Bobs Podcast with Blair Enns and David Baker
The Win Without Pitching Manifesto, by Blair Enns
Pricing Creativity: A Guide to Profit Beyond the Billable Hour, by Blair Enns
@BlairEnns on Twitter
Blair Enns on LinkedIn