You will find greater satisfaction and incredible value in your work when you stop working for someone else and start investing in yourself.
Elliot Begoun and The Power of Betting on Yourself
I’m very excited to have with us Elliot Begoun. He is a friend, a consultant, and someone that I’ve known for several years now. Welcome, Elliot.
Thanks, Michael. I’m honored and excited as well.
For those that don’t know you, just introduce yourself and your area of expertise.
I am the Principal of The Intertwine Group. My practice is focused on working with merging and accelerating the growth of emerging food and beverage brands by helping them develop and then execute their go-to-market strategy.
How did you get to where you are? Where did you come from? Before you started your consulting business, what were you doing?
I spent over 25 years in the food business, working mostly for big food and the CPG world. I always felt like I was somewhat of that pariah because I was trying to think two or three steps ahead. I didn’t necessarily love the fact that I was spending the vast majority of my time in meetings and reviewing spreadsheets. I always had this dream of doing something different and being able to go out and affect change and bring really cool things to market. As my career evolved and I moved up and wind up somewhat tied with the golden handcuffs, that became a little bit more distant. Eventually, I decided the time was now or never, and stepped up that hundred-foot pole and went all in. It’s been the best thing I’ve ever done.
How long did it take you? How long was it on your mind that you want to become a consultant but you weren’t ready to make that leap? Did you make the leap right away, or was there a sign that you were thinking over for a period of time? If so, how long was that?
I probably was thinking of some aspect of it for twenty years, but intently, probably in the last year before I did it.
What was the tipping point that got you to say, “I’ve been thinking about it very intentionally now for a year. I’m going to go all in.” What was that tipping point that got you to take that step?
My wife. She called me out on the carpet one night, sensing how miserable I was doing what I was doing. She told me that if I thought I was faking it, that I was kidding myself, that she saw right through it. She saw how miserable I was. Then she made one of the more prophetic statements that I’ve heard, and that was she said, “For 25 years, you’d been betting on somebody else. In this situation, you should be betting on yourself,” and I liked that. That really was the confidence and the support I needed to take the step.
Many people have this idea that working for a company and being an employee provides a lot more security. When you really break it down, it says what you just said, you’re betting on that company instead of betting on yourself. I like the odds as well of betting on myself and on the things that I can control a lot more than relying on others that have the control.
At first it was frightening, but once I realized, “Now I know how to fish for my own food. I control my own destiny,” that level of security and comfort is something that I never knew working for a big company. I was with one company for eighteen years. You feel about as secure as you can for the company in eighteen years, but never that same sense of absolute knowledge that I can do this. Even if I have a bad stretch of luck, I could do this, because now I know. I have the system. I understand the process. I know that I can fish my own food.
I’ve watched you over the last several years go from the starting point of your business to a level of great success. Many consultants experience challenge along the way. I’m sure that you’ve had a few as well. What stands out for you as one of the biggest challenges that you’ve faced in growing your consulting business?
You could almost look at it in stages of evolution. The first was getting clarity of what I wanted my business to be and understanding what it is that one, I solve for my clients, and two, what it is that I really wanted to do and found enjoyment in. The other was not getting too diluted. Once you started the activity of being in this business, there are opportunities. You can take a lot of different forks in the road. I did it at first and I see a lot of people do the same thing where they try to take as many of those roads at the same time. At the end of the day, you just wind up diluted and less effective. Once I narrowed that down and got concentrated on the things I did well and the things I enjoyed doing the most, that allowed the scale to happen.
How did you get to that place? What was most helpful for you to overcome that challenge or that roadblock and be able to get to that level of clarity that has allowed your business to scale?
A few things. Certainly our time together helped immensely, as well as talking to other consultants in the field, not necessarily in the same industry. In fact, none of them are in the same industry, but going through similar experience and having those conversations. The other was having some success and being able to catch your breath. When you first start, you’re running and you’re just trying to win business and get comfortable in this concept of being on your own. Suddenly, you hit natural maturation and able to slow down and say, “Now what am I doing that I enjoy? Of the clients that I’m working with, which of those do I feel like I impact the most?” And also, because you have never done it before, understanding what aspects of the business you didn’t like. That’s the real benefit of doing something on your own. You have the choice, you can be mindful, and you can systematically work many of those things that you don’t like out of your business.
A lot of consultants and a lot of people in this day and age are looking for certainty. We expect results and instant gratification. We expect that when we take an action, we instantly see a result from it. That’s not always the case when you’re building a business. In our work together, you’ve gone through some of that where you certainly have had to make adjustments along the way. What’s been the mindset that you had that you feel has helped you the most as you hit into some walls and have to make adjustments? What’s the mindset that has helped you to stay the course to get through some of those tough times?
One is confidence, and that took a while for me to accept that I have it. There’s a part of that were you just have to develop that muscle of being comfortable and confident in your decision-making as an entrepreneur versus an executive. The other is recognizing that there is a community of other people doing this. Being able to reach out and talk with them and ask and solicit feedback is critical. The third is something that you taught me that has become my credo, which was different from the way I acted as an executive, and that’s this concept of imperfect action. I recognized that I could go out and if it feels like it’s right and if it feels like it’s going to work, I can go try it. If it doesn’t, I can change. That recognition and that mindset that nothing has to be permanent and nothing is irreversible freed me up to just go try, pivot, adjust, change, and adapt when I felt it was time to do so.
You went from working a lot with clients on a retainer basis to a bit of a different model. Can you talk a little bit about the evolution of what your business looked like when you were on retainers with clients, and now what it looks like in terms of the model that you’re working in?
When I first started, the retainer model was appealing to me because it gave me that sense that this is going to be repeatable, consistent revenue so I won’t have to worry. For the first year or two, that’s exactly what it was. What I started to recognize with retainer-based business was a few things. One is when you are newly involved with a client or you’re in a client in the first year, you’re an outsider. They’re listening to you more robustly. They’re investing in you. You also don’t have that habitual view of their business so you’re making a broader impact and so forth. Over time, that outsider, you become viewed and literally more of an insider. I found my effectiveness, my ability to impact change, diminished over time. The second is that overtime, too, it became more of a job, and I didn’t want to work myself into a job.
I started thinking about, “What can I do differently. If I walk away from retainer business, how do I not do the roller coaster?” I spent a lot of time investigating again, introspectively asking myself where am I enjoying my work the most? The number one motivator for me was to make a difference, to be somebody who impacted positively the folks I work with, more so than making it a business. I felt that if I did the former, the latter would have happened naturally. Once I recognized I loved working with entrepreneurs and young brands and innovators and disruptors, then it was a question of how do I do this and find the mechanism and a model that works for them and works for me? What I started doing was investigating the people that are around them, the other people in their sphere of influence that they work with, everything from marketing companies, package designers, and how are they being remunerated and what’s their concept. Then I look at people who would do part of what I did and what were they missing and not doing.
Eventually what I did is recognize there was a spot in the marketplace where no one was doing this soup to nuts solution that I was going to offer. Once I built that and built the program, I did something a little bit unique, and that is I took the actual proposal and went out to what would be ideal clients, but who were not going to be clients of mine because either they were already too far down the road or well engaged with somebody else. I just opened my book, so to speak, and said, “This is the program I have developed. This is how I’m articulating the program. This is the compensation of the program. What do you think? What am I missing? What do you see as a potential objection?”I listened to them and adapted and adjusted and wound up with a program now that has far less forks in the road. It’s very simple, it fits the need, I make an impact, and it’s based on success fee with a minimum, so that I know I’m assured that my cost and my time are covered. I live with my clients now in a way that their success is my success. If we’re able to achieve what I believe is achievable with them and they believe is achievable, we both benefit from it.
There’s a lot more upside for you, based on creating results for them and providing that value.
It’s also made me far more picky about who I engage with. The minimum is just a cost coverage, just to ensure that at the end of the day I didn’t waste my time if that went wrong, but really it is the upside potential. It’s given me also a new mindset that I really have to be selective in the clients that I work with. That again comes from that confidence that I can actually say, “No,” to potential business. “We’re not a good fit.”
You’ve structured a program that is scalable, that you can easily build out. You said it’s simple, you know exactly what you need to do at every step of the way, and so it’s repeatable. There’s a lot of value in that. That’s an area that a lot of consultants don’t spend enough time thinking about. I just had a conversation with some consultant about this, the feeling that everything needs to be customized for each client. What I love about what you’ve done is you created a program that works for all of your clients and still covers what is unique about them. There’s a lot that is repeatable and systematized, and so that’s a great way to scale your business. One thing that you’ve done very well and one that stands out for me that others can benefit and learn from is you’ve leveraged writing into a great channel not only for exposure, visibility and authority building, but also for lead generation. Can you just take us back to when you got started? What did that look like? How did you go about getting yourself published in recognized publications that reach your ideal clients?
The first thing I did is start writing about the topics that I felt my clients would want to hear. As I’ve narrowed my focus, I’ve narrowed my writing, so it’s very specific to the people I’m trying to talk to. The other thing that I did then was begin to look at where are those ideal clients getting their information, what are they reading, those types of things. Then I started reaching out. I had the benefit, but part of it was a little bit of dumb luck. One of my early blog posts that I also posted on LinkedIn, I wrote an article that was actually a relatively generic article that wound up getting read by well over 30,000 people. The editor of the Huffington Post reached out to me. I had no idea how to do a pitch or anything along those lines. That forced me to have that conversation and learn. It also gave me an initial platform for some credibility, although quite frankly, the Huffington Post has some cache around it name, but it’s not been a very effective lead generation. The trade publications, the specific earmarked publications, have been far more effective in both thought leadership and lead generation.
Once I did that, I realized everyone’s starving for content. If I’m delivering content that’s valuable to my ideal client, and it’s the same ideal client that the publication has, we’re already aligned. It’s not like we’re working in opposite spheres of influence. I started reaching out to editors, and instead of pitching to them, saying, “Here’s an article. Would you publish it?” I started asking them, “What do you feel is missing in your content? Where are you struggling in finding content? Would it be helpful if I wrote an article on that for you?”Just engaging them in that conversation is what really took off, because they’re free to say, “These are five topics that we want to cover, but I haven’t had time or haven’t found anything on.”“Let me take one of those and go put something together for you,” and that’s worked.
The other thing that came up was this concept of doing an interview series and reaching out both to ideal clients and also clients or people that are further down the road. If it’s an emerging food brand, I’m talking to young founders but I’m also talking to CEOs of multinational companies, and comparing the similarities and dissimilarities. I went back to the editors and said, “Here’s an idea that I have. What do you think?”and they were all for it. That gave me an entry point into reaching out to what are my ideal clients, and having a conversation around, “I’m going to talk to you about how I can help your business. I’m calling to say I want to write about your story. I want to feature your story in Food Dive or Smart Brief or even the Huffington Post. Can we have a conversation?”Most people will say, “Let’s have a conversation.”During that interview, during that conversation, if there’s an intersect, if there is an opportunity where I can help them, we’ve already built a relationship. We’ve been sharing a relatively deep conversation, so it’s very easy for me to say, “That’s something I do in my practice. Why don’t we spend a couple of minutes after the interview to explore that together and see if I can offer any help.”It’s turned into not only clients, but it’s turned into a great referral source. These larger companies know me, I can reach out to them and ask them for help or pointers or connections. It’s just been a really powerful tool.
You mentioned that you found benefit in being able to access feedback from other consultants. That has been beneficial for many people who are going down this path. What’s your general experience and thinking around having coaches or working with mentors, joining masterminds or other types of peer groups? For someone who may not have gone through that experience like you have, what would you say to them?
I was reluctant and somewhat arrogant at first, feeling like it wasn’t something I needed. Marketing and sales was my background, so now I’m going to have to sell myself and market myself. No brainer. I’ve done that. That would have been probably the single biggest mistake I made in my business, because first of all, I’m far too close to it, too emotional. Secondly, this is a business. The one thing that I have found in being a consultant is that if you allow it to be, it can be isolating. There’s only so much that my wife wants to hear about what I’m doing, or my friends. When you come out of the big business, you’re always collaborating, you are always talking about your business and what you need to do. If you don’t have that outlet and you don’t have that resource, you’re really putting your business at risk. You’re going to wind up being myopic, you’re going to be habitual, and you’re going to not be challenged to look differently and do things differently. Certainly, a peer group is important. The role that you’ve played in growing my business has been enormous, not only in terms of providing the knowledge that you gained by working from all these consulting over time and being somewhat of a bee and being able to cross pollinate.
In many cases, you and I think very differently. Our approach is different, and that abrasion and that ability for you to challenge me and for me to have to respond to that challenge has forced me to look at things differently. I’m confident that I wouldn’t have pivoted, I wouldn’t have done what I’ve done, I probably would’ve done what most consultants do, and that’s wind up being contract labor. Trading my knowledge for contract, instead of creating a product that is scalable and relatively systematic that allows me to do what I want to do and gives me confidence to continue to do it. Even out of our mastermind group, one of the guys reached out and said, “If you’ve got five minutes, can I run something by you?” We do this all the time and it’s always reciprocal. We are happy to do it for each other. It’s a really important benefit of working with somebody and working with a community.
It’s been a real honor to watch your business grow and what you’ve accomplished. I want to thank you for allowing me to be a part of it. I also want to thank you for your time and for sharing your experience with our listeners. Thank you so much, Elliot.
You’re welcome, Michael. Thank you for all your help and thanks for this opportunity to be able to share.