In a growing consulting space, it can be very difficult to make a name for yourself and stand out from the crowd. Founder of Jono Bacon Consulting and Community and Collaboration Strategy Consultant, Jono Bacon shares wisdom from his vast experience on how you can become in-demand as a consultant. He spills some great advice on how you can present and establish yourself in the industry—from putting out content to building relationships. Letting us in on his new book, People Powered, Jono then discusses in detail the power communities can bring to a business and a team. He shares the outcome of the years he spent perfecting the craft of how to build productive communities and talks about combining strategies with execution to ensure success in community building.
I’m here with Jono Bacon. Jono, welcome.
Thank you for having me, Michael. I appreciate it.
You’re a community and collaboration strategy consultant. You work with companies like Deutsche Bank, Intel, SAP, Sony, Mozilla, XPRIZE, IBM and a whole bunch of others that people have likely heard about. What does Community and Collaboration Strategy Consultant mean?
There are companies out there and what they do is they see the potential of community wrapped around the business in some capacity. For example, if they are a technology firm, maybe they want to have an open-source project where people can collaborate and build technology. Maybe they have a platform that people are building applications on top of. Maybe they have a product where they want their customers to support each other and provide guidance, write documentation, produce videos or organize local events. There are multitude of different areas in which communities cannot offer a lot of value. Lots of companies, when they see that potential value, the next question is, “How do I go about harnessing it and building it?” That’s what I do. What I will do is I’ll come into an organization, learn about what they want to accomplish, what they brought the business goals are and the business ambitions.
I will help them to put together a community strategy, which is broken into a few different pieces. There is a set of annual objectives, which are the broad pieces of work that we are going to deliver. There’s a set of target audience members and personas and then that all gets broken down into the individual tactics of how you go about executing it. If you got a broader goal, what are the individual nitty bitty bits of work you have to do to deliver that? I will also provide guidance to them in how they integrate it into the company. How do they train the right people, hire the right people, and measure this work? I’ll work with the folks that they have executing this work on the ground. I’ll set expectations with the executive teams. It’s very strategic in nature, but it’s very hands-on as well as pragmatic.
How did you get into this area of the community strategy and collaboration?
Probably like most of your guests, it was a bit of a wandering path. I wrote a book called the Art of Community. A bit of back story here is, I used to work for a company called Canonical, which was building out a platform called Ubuntu which became one of the most prominent open-source of operating systems in the world. When I was there, it was knee-deep in discovering community and the value of it. I realized that this could be applied in a multitude of other areas as well, not just in terms of open source. It was on a flight moving to the US where I decided to, write a book about community and how to go about it. Start a conference so I could meet other people and get to know the community manages more and more.
Where I possible do some potential consulting on the side. I focused on the book, focused on the conference and then the consulting came once the book was published. The first company that reached out to me was a very large bank based in Europe. They said, “We bought your book. We think it’s great, but we need some help in how we integrate it.” I used to do it on the side and I didn’t have a huge amount of time, so I used to do it for a small number of larger companies. They were relatively limited engagements and then I continued at Canonical, spent some time at XPRIZE and GitHub. I’d always flirted with the idea of doing it full time. I went and did it and so far, so good.
Let’s take the bank in Europe, how did they get your book? Was the publisher did all the work on that? Were you marketing it? How did it end up in the hands of that client?
I did some marketing around it. There is no doubt. The publisher did some. To anyone who is reading this who is thinking about writing a book, the one thing you should know is, your publisher will never do a lot of marketing for you. Because they publish a lot of books and marketing is expensive, so you got a very thin slice of the cake. I do a ton of promotion of it myself. I was going on a podcast. I was writing blog posts about it. I was speaking at conferences about it. I don’t know how they originally got it.
Suffice to say, you were promoting it. You’re cranking the engine yourself. You didn’t just publish a book, write it, put it out there and hope that people found it. You were doing what you could to hustle it and make sure that people saw it. Even back in 2003, you showed your entrepreneurial side because you were doing some of the consulting, writing development like this is now many years ago. Did you know, even at that time and early on, you always have that entrepreneurial side to you?In consultancy, you have to constantly push your brand because people hire you for your skills and expertise. Click To Tweet
In retrospect, yes. At that time, I have no idea what entrepreneurialism was, to be honest with you. Being raised in the UK, this is general across the UK, but certainly my background. I was raised in the north of England and my brother who works in technology, got me into one of these, but I never grew up around entrepreneurialism especially. My dad was and still is, but I didn’t know it at that time, but what I realized was that what I love doing is, I love collaborating on different problems. When I used to work for my previous company full time, I was always fascinated about working on a multitude of things outside of that.
For example, when I was at XPRIZE, I wasn’t just working on launching these prices and building a community on XPRIZE. I was doing a podcast. I was writing books. I was going to conferences. I’d have companies reaching out to ask the help or I go and speak at internal events. It’s always been a passion of mine. I love the diversity of the work. That’s one of the things that I realized when I started consulting was, the diversity of the work is one of the most exciting elements of it and it keeps pushing you and growing you in different directions.
In 2009, you formally started your consulting company. In 2014, you were the director of community at XPRIZE and 2015 you are the Director of Community of GitHub, which was later acquired by Microsoft. You allude to this right now, but were you working on your consulting business on the side during those full-time engagements? Were they not full-time engagements like when you work in multiple clients? How are you structuring your work with those organizations and your consulting business at the same time?
Back then when I was at Canonical, I used to consult on the side and Canonical had no issue with it. They were pretty happy with it. I asked them about it and their view was, “If he is talking to companies, he is probably talking to them about Ubuntu and that’s a good thing for us.” I stopped consulting when I was at XPRIZE because I was so focused on the work there. I was at XPRIZE for a while and then I decided to move on. I was missing the technology side of things. I wanted to get back into the more hands on technology side of things. The XPRIZE is an amazing organization. They launched this huge incentive competition, but the organization itself is not a technology firm. They are facilitator of competitions and prizes, the teams who are doing the work are very much technologists.
One of the things I’ve always love about technology and open source is that it was a very pragmatic way in which people can build communities and that’s when I went to GitHub. When I was at GitHub, I did bits of work on the side. With the exception of being at XPRIZE, there was always these trickle of work in the side and even to this point, I’ve been consulting full time for just over three years. I’ve never gone after work, the work has always come to me, somewhat fortuitously. Even when I was at these other organizations people would email me and say, “We need some help with this,” and I would be happy to help.
For everyone reading who might still be in a corporate position that maybe thinking about doing consulting or might even be doing some stuff on the side, as you are doing. During that time when you were full time engaged in work, were you continuously working on your brand? Were you still putting out contents, doing podcast, doing all that stuff or were you 100% focused aside from some little projects? Was the focus on the company that you were working for or were you still on the side doing other things to build your brand, get your thought leadership and content building?
It’s a bit of both. For example, when I was at Canonical, XPRIZE and GitHub, wherever I’ve work for full time, there was always pushing the brand of what we were doing there.
How about your brand, you as a thought leader or website? Were you always putting out content yourself even during full employment?
Yeah, while we were always, pushing the brand of the organization during the day, outside of that, I’m always consistently pushing my brand. It’s weird because to be honest with you the concept of personal brand-building makes me feel a bit queasy when people talk about that. There are so many people out there who do it in such a nauseating capacity where they are all about the volume of content as opposed to the quality of contents. I’d be lying to you if I wasn’t saying that I’m always pushing my work and the work that I have done on social media or events and beyond. I’ve done that throughout my career, but the goal of it wasn’t specifically around building my brand. I didn’t wake up in the morning and think, “I need to go and build my brand.”
It was more, “I want to share the cool stuff that I’m doing.” It’s one of the reasons why my business is called Jono Bacon Consulting. When I started, I didn’t particularly want to setup a large consulting practice. I didn’t want to hire a ton of people. I want to hire an assistant, someone to do my book, some of those pieces. I called it Jono Bacon Consulting and the reason why was because people knew who I was. If I created a completely new company name, no one would have any idea what it was and therefore I have to start again. Given the fact that it’s primarily just me, why make it harder than it needs to be? Consultancy, if you’re watching or reading this, you need to constantly push your brand because people hire you for your skills and your expertise.
It’s an important insight, but also a good lesson. One thing that has led to people reaching out to you and you don’t have to do much marketing yourself, is that you have been planting the seeds for a while. You didn’t expect that all of a sudden a lot of work would come your way. You till the land, planted the seeds, watered it, did it over and over again and overtime that built up a pipeline that continues to serve you until to this day. Is that accurate?The more you’re obvious about soliciting, the less likely you’re going to get business. Click To Tweet
Yeah, and I’ve taken it even a step further. In fact, when I started out, one of the reasons why I didn’t do this earlier was because I had anxiety that there wouldn’t be enough work. When I started consulting full time, my wife and I had an agreement that we will financially secure enough to give it a go, say we go for six months. I was convinced that it was going to take a while to get going, I was going to give it more of a year. Since I’ve started, I’ve not had an empty month. I mean I’ve been fully booked since I started. I know the part of the reason why that is the case is because I wrote a book. I’ve spent years getting to know people in the technology world and beyond. I had a bit of a head start. If someone is reading this and they’ve just come out of college and want to start consulting, it’s going to be a different experience because you’re going to need to build all of those networks. There was a lot of anxiety at the beginning about whether there is going to be any business let alone enough business.
There are lots of people that have books, who are authors, but their calendars aren’t full of work. If we can go a little bit deeper into what you’re saying, what do you think is the real difference for you or what has made the difference that has allowed you to be fully booked? What stands out to you? Why are you always fully booked? Why do people keep coming back to you or come to you in the first place? If you had to maybe identify one or two things that you feel are the biggest factors in that success, what would you say?
One of the reasons why I’ve not struggled is, first of all there were not that many people out there who do what I do. There are a handful of people and there are people who do develop relations or community engagement. I’m relatively unique in the fact that I attempt to deal a lot with it both. I span from an executive audience down to the people who were doing the work. A lot of the people who come to me as prospective clients are people who are on the executive team or they’re in a more senior position. Some of my friends in the industry who do similar work are primarily operating with the practitioners. A lot of those folks don’t write checks, that’s one of the things that has helped.
The other element, there is no doubt in my mind is that I’ve been working professionally since 2003 and I’ve been building my brands since 1998. I had over ten years of threading the ball. I’ve flown all over the world to conferences, I’ve written books, and I’ve spoken a lot. Especially in the open-source world which is my heritage, a lot of people have, I wouldn’t say pigeon hole, but people see me as the community. I benefited from this and a lot of people in the industry who people I’ve worked with or people I haven’t worked with, people I know. When someone says, “I want to build a community, do you know anyone?” Someone thinks, “You should talk to Jono.”
One thing is clear to me, Jono, is that you have not just sat at home putting out a little bit of content waiting for people to knock on your door.
No. I am very organized when it comes to content.
Can we go and be honest, it’s not just organized, and it’s very active in terms of content, relationships, going to event, articles, books, meeting people at conferences that you put on. You’ve been hitting many different channels so that you are known, but beyond known, you are trusted.
Trust is the most important thing. It’s odd because in an online context I’m very organized. My social media is always busy. I’m reusing content. I’m always creating content on my blog and elsewhere. I write for a variety of different publications, Forbes, Strife Global, open-source that come to a variety of places. Content is very important to keep you in the mindset of your peers. It’s interesting from an events perspective. I know a lot of people who spend every night going to meetups, I don’t do that. I very rarely go to meetups. I go to some conferences, but honestly, I’d rather be at home with my family because I love my business and I love my work, but I love my family more.
I’m with you 100% on that. I feel the same way of putting a lot of time at conferences, meetups and events. Especially the early years of building different businesses, but with two kids, it’s nice to go out and mastermind a network and meet different people at certain times, but the priority is spending time with family.
The good news is that, and I’m sure you’re exactly the same, you can do both. You can have a great relationship with your family and enjoy doing what you do and go above and beyond what you’re doing. The one thing I would say that I’ve learned as well is, when I was in the early stages of my career and I wasn’t consulting full time. I’ve always been the guy that loves having lunch with people. I love going to the pub with people, having dinner with people. I’m very social, especially with people I know. It’s amazing how many clients have come in and how many relationships have been forged from meeting someone randomly at a conference and having lunch with them or having a coffee with them and not seeking to gain anything from them.
I have a general policy that with 98% of the people I meet, I don’t want anything from them. Maybe I’d like to have dinner with you and get to know you a little bit more, but I never actively solicited in business. Part of the reason for that is I’m very fortunate, the fact that right now I don’t need to solicit business, but I can appreciate that other consultants are not in such a lucky position. They do need to actively solicit business. The thing that I would always encourage anyone who is reading this is the more you’re obvious about it, the less likely you’re going to get business.As a consultant, your role is to look for areas of opportunities to add value and not stick to the statement of work exclusively. Click To Tweet
If I can stop one person reading to this, stop sending somebody a LinkedIn invite and then automatically spamming with them with their book or their podcast or whatever it might be. Don’t do that, people see right through it. The more you build trust and the more you have a natural relationship as opposed to a transactional relationship, which is focused on business. I guarantee you, a lot of those relationships further down the line are going to result in something that will be good for your consulting business because people will be around there.
One of the things that we teach our clients in our coaching program is to focus on the relationships, not on the transactions and exact to your point around like LinkedIn. We start to essentially spam saying, “Here’s what I have.” You would never do that in an event. If you met someone in the event, you never say, “Hi, my name is Michael, here is my book, you want to buy it or my podcast, do you want to join me in this group?” You would never do that. You start to ask them questions and find ways to add some value and make sure that it is relevant or else it would be over very quickly. Technology now allows people to automate and to work at volume, it’s causing a lot of distrust around the different platforms. It causes a lot of frustration for people and confusion because they expected to work thinking that it’s going to create a lot of business opportunities for them. The most success comes from making sure that your outreach, your conversations, what you are doing is tailored. It’s customized. It’s specific. It adds value and shows that you are not just taking people through a list of others.
To me, authenticity is so critical. It’s natural for a lot of people to think, “I got all of these tools at my disposal.” I’ve got Twitter and LinkedIn, Facebook and Instagram. I got my blog, you can use media, there’s all of this opportunity to sit in my chair and grow a presence. It’s valuable to grow presence, but there is such a thing as too much. I’ll be honest with you. I don’t know where the line is either. I have an intuition in myself that you got to be careful. A good example is with my new book People Powered, I solicited a ton of endorsements from people. I’ve got the CEO of GitHub, the CTO of Microsoft, the COO of HelloSign, and the COO of Santander in Spain, all of these people that I’m proud to have endorsed the books so I’ve been putting out these little testimonial images up on social media. When I was originally planning these and I was scheduling all of these in, I was going to post one a day and I thought, “Who wants to see that?” Nobody wants to see this influx of testimonials and endorsements, it’s too much. What I’ve done is I’ve said to some of my closest friends, “If you ever think that I am pushing it too far, I trust that you can tell me and I won’t be upset with you, but I need you to tell me if I’m edging into the wrong territory.” Everybody does it at some point.
On social, if you post once a day, I mean the percentage of your network or connections that you would see is still quite small. I have heard on LinkedIn or your organic reach might only be 20% or 30% to your network. I get what you’re saying, it’s about not overloading, but at the same time if you didn’t post enough, then you might not get in front of the people that you want to reach.
Exactly, and a lot of it depends on the time zone that you are focusing on. For example, I post material early morning Pacific Time, but I also post it very late at night in the US, so it hits the European and the eastern market. Like anything, it’s a balance that to me is part of the thrill of consulting is that everything you do, everything that you are working on is an investment in your success. You make mistakes and you push it too far, and then you recalibrate and off you go.
Your new book People Powered, let’s talk about this for a moment here. In the book, you talk about salesforce, other businesses that have benefited from communities and fostering, cultivating, developing communities and how it’s been very beneficial to their business. The question that I have is, can communities in any way benefit either an independent consultant or a small consulting firm? Is it something that’s more beneficial to a larger organization?
There can be benefits to communities in a broad number of areas. It could apply to consulting firms. There are two elements to this. There is building a community that gets together based on what you’re doing. For example, if you got a consulting practice and building a community of your customers or if you are specializing in an area, let’s say you’re specializing in developers, community of developers who were doing consulting. There’s a lot of value in that, but there is also a second area that is taking a community-centric approach. Playing a role in your community, a good friend of mine for example here in California is very active in his local chamber. He organizes local events as part of his work and you can walk into any bar in my town and everybody knows him, and he is very active in his local community. For some consultants who are less on like a global stage working with larger companies and more working with local firms, there is enormous value around that, about being an active participant.
Perry Marshall talks about the idea of like building an ecosystem and that’s what you are getting at is it’s not so much that someone’s in it that a consultant or small consulting firm should think about or spend time with the idea of, “How do I build my network community from a technological standpoint?” Rather, “How can I create and foster and cultivate this community that I play a role in where I have different partners? They’re maybe different accounting firms, law firms, technology or software providers where I have value for them. They add value for me and all together we would create this community that supports each of our businesses.”
People Powered, when I wrote this book, the core ingredient that that entire book is about the value of building meaningful relationships and why you build the community is giving people a sense of purpose. I apply a lot of these to my clients. When I am working with clients, it’s not just a case of, “We agree to what we are going to do. I will put together a statement of work. I send it over and off we go.” I say to my clients like, “I am invested in your success. If you want me to introduce you to people who I know is a good person to have relationship with, I check with that person first. I’m happy to do that. I’m happy to tell you what events you should be on. I’m happy to provide guidance.”
When do you bring that up generally? Is that at the stage before they hire you, is it halfway through the project, when do you typically make that part of the conversation?
The very first time I speak to them because the thing I say to a lot of clients and this might offend a reasonable portion of your audience is, at times I’m embarrassed to say I’m a consultant. The reason why I say that is because there are some consultants out there and in the minority who charge a lot of money to give a fairly mediocre level of work. What they do is they stick to the same of work to a tee. What I say to my clients is, “What you are paying for is you’re paying for undeniable value.” I say this for example, to clients who say, “You’re a bit of expensive?” I’ll say, “If you think I’m a bit of expensive then don’t go with me.” I’m going to generate far more value for you beyond the fee, that’s the purpose of this.Getting client testimonials is all about asking, otherwise, you won’t get them. Click To Tweet
I say from day one, “My role here in a consulting relationship with you is I’m going to be looking for areas of opportunity to add value. I’m not going to stick to the statement of work exclusively. I mean that’s going to be the agreement about what I’m broadly here to do. If I meet someone at a conference who would be a great person for you to have a conversation with, if I hear about a new technology that you should be using, an article that you should go and read, I’m going to be looking for that.” I don’t think all consultants do that and I would encourage your audience to do this. People are receptive to that because they want that. Who are the best employees? People who you don’t just give work to, people who are proactively looking to add value to your organization.
That’s a great tip for people. It’s a great idea that people can use to differentiate themselves and to create more value right in the eyes of buyers. Also, to justify to a degree the idea of premium pricing, it’s something different. Two quick questions for you, what is your typical engagement in terms of size look like? You don’t do anything less than as an example $5,000, $10,000, $50,000 and it goes to $1 million, what is that range look like in terms of work that you take on?
I don’t think I want to get into pricing. In terms of size, I think of size primarily in terms of how much of my time it takes up. I’m in the process of transition here because when I started, I was taking on lots of clients. I’d have ten, twelve clients at a time and I found that the context switching was crushing between these different clients. I’m actively trying to reduce that. I’m down to more like five or six clients, which is where I want to get to, so each of these clients are much larger. I tend to take on clients that are probably not as big, so there are some consultants they have like a friend of mine for example, he has one very large client. He works with them for an extended period of time, sixteen months. I tend to work with a collection of clients with a smaller slice, but I tend to work with them for much longer periods of time. The average amount of time to one of my engagement is fifteen months.
Is that on project billing or is it hourly billing? Are you using value on ROI? What’s your structure or framework for pricing?
It’s a combination. If a client is brand new to all of these and they have no idea what they are doing. If they’re still evaluating whether they even want a community in the first place. I’ll do essentially what I call a trusted assessment, which is a project-based assessment so they could have a fix fee that they know is going to get them a solid assessment of whether it should even go down this area. It’s a report. The majority of my active billing is not hourly like a lawyer where, “I’ll bill people for ten minutes here, ten minutes there,” I don’t believe in that.
Don’t you charge for staples or photocopies?
Exactly. What I do is I will be available to clients for a certain number of hours a month typically.
It’s more of a retainer type of structure.
It’s more of a retained structure. I call it fair use where I say to clients, “There is going to be some months when you don’t need me for as many hours and there is going to be some months when you need me for more.” My goal here is that we’re not nickel and diming the number of hours or whether you are getting the value for the dollars you are putting in there. It should be undeniable that you’re getting the value. The overall engagement should be in equitable arrangement for everybody.
The second question is, you do a great job on your website of displaying testimonials like feedback from clients about you and your work and so forth. A lot of consultants recognize the value of testimonials, but they hesitate to get them or they don’t it. What advice would you have on getting testimonials?
If you don’t ask, you don’t get it. That’s my advice.The more you build natural relationships as opposed to a transactional relationship, the better your consulting business will be. Click To Tweet
When have you found is the best time to ask for a testimonial?
What I usually do is when I work with someone for at least six or eight months. With some clients, I have this initial project. One of the reasons why I do that and I say these to clients, “It’s not just to give you a sense to whether you should build a community, but it gives me an opportunity to prove myself and to see whether this is worthwhile engagement for us both.” I take the same approach with testimonials that if we’ve been working together for a while then I’ll say to someone, “I’d love if you would write a testimonial.” I’ll go over the board saying, “I completely understand if you don’t want to do it. I appreciate that.” If I ask you or the people may ask you, you don’t want to start that trend and no one has ever said no. Sometimes it has taken a while to get it improved by their legal teams for bigger companies.
Do you suggest or offer them some rough draft as to maybe what the testimonial could include or cover or do they write it themselves?
It happened a few times like that, but there have been a few times where people have said, “Would you mind writing some things for me to review?” They’re, “I don’t know where to begin.” What I do is write a couple of options for them and I’ll say like, “Please go and edit it as much as you want. I don’t want to put words on your mouth.” I would very strongly encourage people to put testimonials on your website. It does help a lot and you got to constantly ask for them as well. I have not updated mine for a while but I got a raft of new endorsements for People Powered, so I’ve just put that on my website as well. Nine times out of ten people are happy to provide something for you. If they think that you did a bad job, then you probably don’t want to ask them, but so far, I haven’t had that which I’m lucky with.
We tend to do the same thing, go to ConsultingSuccess.com and check out, for example, the coaching page or other pages. We are always asking for case studies or results or how clients are doing, because that helps us to gauge how things are working for them and how we can better support them. Also, we want to share that success and help others to see what’s possible. Often times what’s holding people back from taking action or making decision is not the understanding of whether or not they can do it, there is some hesitation and so for them to see that others have achieved it, gives them the feeling, “Maybe I can do this too,” and that’s now the start of what they need to begin the process which will get them closer to the result.
I could not agree with you more. It’s absolutely that that is the case because often people like, “I’m sold on your product, I’m sold on your service,” but the endorsements, they get you over the finish line for some.
I enjoyed the conversation. I want to thank you so much for coming on. Where is the best place for people to go to learn more about you, to get the book or to find out more information about the book?Part of the thrill of consulting is that everything you do and everything that you are working on is an investment in your success. Click To Tweet
Jono, thank you so much for coming on. I hope that I haven’t butchered your name too much in our conversation.
No, it’s perfect.
I’m glad that we’ve got straightened out but thanks again, I appreciate it.