Starting your own consulting business can be challenging, but the decision to leave your job and try to make it on your own is always a process. Aga Bajer is the Founder and CEO of a culture strategy firm called Aga Bajer & Associates. She worked with well-known brands like Toyota, Porsche, Citibank, PwC, and many other well-known brands. She is also an author, a keynote speaker, and the host of a podcast called the CultureLab Podcast. On today’s show, she sits down with Michael Zipursky to share what drove him to leave a famous brand like PwC to start his own consulting business. They also get down on how you can develop a network as a consultant and flourish in setting up your own business. Need the push to go start on your goal or get something done for your business or your future? This episode will help you take that next step.
I’m here with Aga Bajer, welcome.
Thank you. I’m so excited to be here.
I’ve been looking forward to this conversation. Aga, you are the Founder and CEO of a culture strategy firm which is called Aga Bajer & Associates. You work with companies including Toyota, PwC, Porsche, Citibank and many other well-known brands. You’re also an author, a keynote speaker, and you host a podcast called the CultureLab Podcast. You started your firm in the summer of 2017. Previously you were working at PwC. What went on? What was the driver for you to leave such a well-known brand like PwC to start your own consulting business?
It’s always an interesting question. I had to ask this question myself many times. What was the catalyst? It’s always a process. It’s never an event when you take a decision like this. I eventually realized that I’ve never really had a job in the sense that I never really felt like, “It’s Monday. I can’t go to work again.” I was always excited, so I loved my job in PwC. It wasn’t an easy decision. At some point, I realized that I’m outgrowing what I was able to do there. What I mean by that is I wanted to focus on one specific area, which was culture.Whatever you’re doing, make sure that you do it better today than you did yesterday. Click To Tweet
In PWC, as in many other consulting companies, you are usually requested to be a generalist, covering many different areas. What you end up doing is working a lot out of our genius zone. It felt like it’s not exactly what I wanted to do, plus managing a large team as well. You end up spending a lot of time on stuff that is not super exciting. Also, from the point of view of purpose and how you add value to clients, it felt like I’m not in the best space. After a lot of thinking and reflection, I decided that it’s time to strike out and set up my own business.
Before we dive into that, you mentioned that it never felt like a job for you. You enjoyed the work that you’re doing. Where does that motivation come from? If you have anything to share for people who might be in their own business right now or working in a corporate role. Not everything is perfect. I’m sure that you also had some challenges when you were at PwC as well as other roles, yet it sounds like your mindset and your viewpoint was always quite positive. How did you channel that? How do you think about moving forward when you are encountering those challenging or sometimes quite dreadful and painful situations that do pop up?
The reason that I am a culture consultant is because I do realize that for many people, it is a challenge. It’s not so easy to find that energy and motivation to get up in the morning, especially on Mondays. Partially, it’s probably the way my brain is wired. I remember myself being a kid, I would always be immersed in doing something that I didn’t even realize what I was. I was just completely into it.
What’s one thing that you did when you were a kid that you were fully focused on and immersed?
I used to play basketball because of my dad. He was a basketball coach. That’s one of those areas. You play and you are in the flow and it’s amazing. I used to draw a lot. I used to write as well. These were the activities that put me in that state of flow. I have a lot of passion for becoming better at something. The things that excite me is where you need to develop a skill or some craft. Most of my satisfaction comes from feeling like, “I’m better than I was yesterday.” That was quite exciting for me when I was a kid. It’s whatever I was doing, making sure that I can do it better than I could yesterday.
This experience that I had when I was young was completely misaligned with what I experienced when I got my first proper job. First of all, I looked around and I realized not everyone feels like that. Second of all, I was also in a position of being a boss. We set up a startup with a friend of mine. I realized that I am not capable of creating an environment where people feel as passionate about this business as I did. That was quite disappointing. That’s why I dived into this whole topic of leadership and culture. To answer your question of where this comes from, it’s partially the way I’m wired and my personal motivations of wanting to improve and finding that joy in mastering a craft. That’s the thing that keeps me going.
For those who may not be wired the way that you are or I am to a degree as well, maybe they know they need to get something done because it’s going to be important for their business or for their future, yet they faced some challenges. They struggle to take those steps forward. What advice would you give them? You were hitting on something important there where you talked about looking at mastering something and being able to look back almost with no regrets and know that you gave it your all. What advice would you have to someone who is looking at the future going, “I know I need to do something,” but they’re not getting it done?
The first thing, and I do this as well, it’s part of my process even now. I still have a journal and I write in this journal every single day. I’m reminding myself why I am doing what I’m doing. As Simon Sinek said, knowing that why behind our goals and connecting to that on daily basis, this is something that generates a lot of energy for me. There are some parts of growing your business that you are not entirely excited about. Maybe they don’t have this element of mastering craft or they’re just administrative tasks and you don’t want to do them. Putting this in a bigger picture and looking at your goals and what you’re trying to achieve and thinking, “What is the ultimate goal? Why am I trying to achieve this? How am I going to feel after I accomplish that?” This part is quite important.
What’s particularly important focusing for me is on how we want to feel and then bringing that energy into our daily life as well. When I think about my big goals and ask myself, “What will it do for me? Why do I feel so passionate about this?” When you peel back the layers, you realize that it’s all about feeling useful, helpful and needed by someone. It’s basic human needs, and connecting them on daily basis, I find this quite powerful. This would be my number one advice. The second piece of advice that I have for people when they struggle to get traction is start small, baby steps. It’s so important because we set huge goals. It excites us, but also overwhelms us, and then we don’t feel like we can find the courage to start that journey or simply feels overwhelming and saying, “I want to go that, but what does that mean for today? What will I have to do? Even if I have half an hour to work on something, what is it that work that I’m going to do today?”
That’s good advice. Thanks for sharing that. You decided PwC was a great experience, but you want to realize your full potential to be able to specialize and focus on the area that gave you the most fulfillment and interest, and be able to develop that area of mastery. What did you do? You’re leaving PwC, how do you go about building your business and starting to get clients for your business? Walk us through in as much detail as you can. What were the first few things that you did to get the business up and running?
The first thing that happened even before I take the decision to leave PwC was that I started working on a book and I co-authored a book while I was still in PwC. Subconsciously, I was preparing myself for striking out on my own, but it wasn’t a conscious decision at that point. As anyone would imagine, it was helpful when I finally decided to have a little bit of IP and having a foundation on which you can build. I am also super appreciative of the support that I got from PwC because my transition had been smooth. I spoke to my boss and we talked about what would be the best way for me to transition out of my job. For a period of time, I was doing a little bit of work for them as well. That has helped me to set up my business. I had some income coming in as I was developing the business and gaining some new clients. A specific thing that I also did as I left PwC is I reached out to some of the clients where it didn’t seem like there will be conflict of interest. I said, “I’m on my own now. This is what I’m doing. I’m focusing on culture right now. It would be amazing if you’d like to meet and talk.” I started building that network from a different foundation, telling people that I have my shelf right now.Focus on how you want to feel and then bring that energy into your daily life. Click To Tweet
How much of that initial message was like, “This is what I would be doing now?” Do you go the direction of, “I’d like to see how I could maybe help you?” Was there a bit of a promotional sales element to it or was it more “Let’s meet for a coffee?” How did you position it to work best?
For me, it has always been about being of service. I’ve never used this approach and it has worked well for me. I can confirm that being generous and being focused on the needs of our clients pays off in the long term. It doesn’t pay off in the short term. This is where a transition out of a job and into consulting can be challenging sometimes. You need to build those relationships. I was lucky because I had some work from PwC during that period. My strategy was something that I’ve been doing all along which was how can I help, how can I be of service, especially in this area because I feel like I have a lot of value to add in this area. What are you thinking about? What are your needs? What are your worries? We had a conversation about the business and what’s happening for them without a sales pitch.
It was interesting. I’ll never forget one specific meeting that I had. I didn’t know what to expect. I arrive at the client’s office, which sounds completely crazy because nowadays we don’t get to meet their clients in their offices anymore. I walk into the office and a receptionist takes me to a huge conference room with many chairs. I didn’t realize that the whole senior leadership team was on that meeting, so that was a big surprise. We talked about their issues, and then literally on the spot, I stood up and started writing some things on the flip chart to explain something that I wanted to show them. They were like, “When could we start doing this together?” This was an example of one of my meetings. It wasn’t my intention to sell, but when you are approaching with this lens of how can I help, when you’re solving an important problem for some of the clients, they will want your help. This is how I got my first consulting gigs. It’s talking to people about their problems and helping to fix them.
For the people that you met who did not say, “Aga, let’s get started right away,” I’m sure there are some of those as well, what do you do these days in terms of following up with those people and staying top of mind? Do you use a CRM tool for that? Walk us through what’s your best practices to make sure that you are visible in the mind of your ideal clients and that you’re able to continue to provide value for them.
Two things, one is technical and another one is mindset related. I’m a big fan of Seth Godin and he’s my big mentor. I did a lot of his seminars. This whole philosophy is about that. How can you generate value and create a tribe or following of people who will continually get value from you? I thought, “What would be my avenues to accomplish that at scale?” One thing is those one-to-one contacts that you have, but to grow a number of people that you can reach, I needed to figure out what would I do and how could I do that. I decided that putting content out there is going to be important for me, but I also needed to think what content. I wanted to write the next book. I didn’t at that time. I decided that the podcast would be a better solution at that time.
The CultureLab Podcast right now is probably one of the most popular podcasts on culture. We’ve grown so much in the past several years. That has been tremendously helpful to build the business. I’ve had a lot of opportunities that came from this, not immediately. It takes time as well but they did. We also have a newsletter. I’m sending out an email to clients and people who are on the list. In terms of tools and technology, I’m using ActiveCampaign that gives you a lot of opportunities to personalize messages depending on what people are interested in. That has been my strategy, podcast and writing. We’re also producing some free courses for people that they can follow. We capture people’s emails this way and make sure that we don’t abuse them, and we continue to deliver value to them.
It sounds like you’re investing heavily on resources, time and energy into content, which is a long-term game. A lot of people struggle with that because it’s not as hard to even start producing and creating content, but then to know that it doesn’t necessarily pay off right away for some people is challenging. Any advice that you would offer to someone who’s thinking about going down that path, whether it’s videos or podcasts or other forms of content from a mindset perspective or may be a bit more tactical that you found to be true for you?Start with small, baby steps. Setting huge goals can be exciting, but it can also overwhelm us. Click To Tweet
One thing about producing content is we tend to underestimate how much effort and time it takes. One of the things that I’ve learned during this process is that it’s good to have focus and be realistic about how much bandwidth you have to do those things. Looking back at all the different things that I tried to do, if I were to do it all over again, I would pick two to maximum three things, and do them well, rather than trying to do a million things not so well or average. That would be one piece of advice around content. An important thing is to establish a practice.
Whatever content you are producing, a podcast, writing or newsletter, it’s consistency that makes a difference. To be consistent in producing content, I find that we need a daily practice because otherwise, it gets pushed away. It can be even fifteen minutes. That’s fine. For me, I block my mornings for creating content. These are my best productive hours. I’ve extended that now to finding a hack with my nutrition as well because after lunch, I was dead. I discovered that if I have something that’s called Bulletproof Coffee, I can go on for two hours longer.
For the readers, from my understanding of it is it’s a special coffee. You can get the brand Bulletproof Coffee, it’s Dave Asprey’s brand. You mix in butter with the coffee.
For people who have never heard about that before, it probably sounds revolting to drink butter or oil and coffee. I’ve had it. You can get used to it.
It’s actually quite delicious. I tried doing it with ghee, which is a clarified butter. That was not so great, but butter is great because I quite like coffee. I’m not using Dave Asprey’s coffee but regular coffee with butter and MCT oil.
Being you’re based in Milan, Italy, I wonder how Italians feel about you putting that into your coffee. They’re probably a bit shocked like, “What are you doing to our coffee culture.”
During one of the sessions that I had with my clients, because it’s quite a large glass of coffee and I was drinking it, people were completely shocked like, “What is this? What are you drinking?” It is revolting for Italians, but it gives you some energy. I can stretch now my creative time to approximately 2:00 or even 3:00 PM on Sundays, which is great. Blocking time for creative work and making sure that you prioritize that is key.Being generous and focused on the needs of your clients pays off in the long term. Click To Tweet
I’m very aligned in what you said there about blocking the time out, I often call it holy time because it’s time you have to carve out. That key word that you mentioned, consistency is so important when you’re creating content. That’s where a lot of people fall off. They’ll start writing a few articles for their blog or think about a podcast or some videos, and they don’t see a result right away. They say to themselves, “This isn’t working.” They try and go do something else. For anyone that’s been in the content game for some time, you know that it is a process. It does take time.
You got to stay committed to it over the long-term. When you do, great things typically do happen, but you have to keep at it for the longer term. You talked about since COVID, not being able to do in-person meetings. Regardless of where you are in the world, you’ve been impacted in one way or another by this. Who knows how things will return or whether they will return or what things will look going forward in the future? You offer a virtual bootcamp, The Culture Strategy Bootcamp. What does that look like and how has that changed in any way at all compared to before COVID?
Before COVID, I was doing a lot of traveling and a lot of face-to-face work. I love that and I miss that. It’s not like everything is great now. It has always been a plan though for me to take what I’ve learned over the years to a larger group of people that wouldn’t have those geographical limitations because not everyone can travel for a workshop. I’ve been thinking about how to take some of that work online, but as I’m sure you know and many of your readers know, when you’re a consultant, you don’t have that much time to develop many of your ideas because you are working in the business, not on the business. That has been my experience before COVID. I spent a lot of time on airplanes and airports. A lot of energy was spent there.
Doing this work finally, first of all, the plan that I had got accelerated. Doing that work virtually has positive sides to it, and you lose some stuff as well. That particular product, The Culture Strategy Bootcamp, works better than the face-to-face thing. Normally what I would do in those cases if I had an open house event for founders and leaders is they would come for a two-day workshop, do some work, learn a few skills, and then forget about it. Now when you have three months where you have a coaching call every week and you get some prompts on daily basis, our promise is you can make a difference in fifteen minutes per day, but you need to be consistent. It’s that same philosophy. It’s easier to capture a super busy audience like founders and leaders in organization when you can tell them, “It’s not going to cost you a lot of time. You don’t need to block out a whole day. It’s going to be an ongoing relationship where you also start building a relationship with other founders and other leaders.”
Intimacy is there and people do build deep relationships. It’s a different kind of intimacy. For some people, it’s even easier sometimes to connect and be vulnerable and open up when they are on a Zoom call. It might sound paradoxical, but especially for introverts, it’s less confronting and less threatening because they are in their own home, in a comfortable environment. I find that there are upsides and downsides to that. Overall, if you ask me, do I feel like the situation has had a negative impact on the quality of experiences or the services that we provide to our clients? I would say no. It’s different but based on the feedback and the value that I see we can create, it hasn’t been less. It’s just been different.
Why have a bootcamp? This seems like a productized and structured offering. There’s a lot of repetition in terms of what you’re doing, so you’re able to develop mastery essentially. That sounds like the positives of a productized offering like that. Why did you specifically choose to create that as opposed to focusing on going into organizations on a custom type basis to do culture work with them?
It’s not a proposition for me as a consultant. I’m doing customized support in organizations in-house as well. One of the reasons that I wanted to create the bootcamp is because my mission is to create a global community of leaders who are culture practitioners. These days, when you ask leaders, they think that culture is still the job of the HR. That critical mass of leaders could make a difference. My dream is seeing more culture first purpose-driven companies taking the world over. I’m rooting for these businesses that are purpose-driven and culture first. I know that I will not be able to make that impact and create that difference on scale if I work with clients supporting them in a direct in-person way. This is my way to connect leaders and create that community because it’s a cohort-based program.
The big plan in the future is that we will have hundreds of companies coming on this program. A huge emphasis is on peer support and mastermind groups between peers rather than being facilitated. That’s support, but a big part of that is peer learning. This is the future of online learning. Looking at the numbers, when you look at the traditional online courses and the completion rates, it’s somewhere around 12%, which is appalling and terrifying because when you think how much work goes into it, and people pay sometimes pretty significant amounts of money for these courses, and then almost no one finishes them. When you look at cohort-based courses, the completion rates suddenly go to 90%, 95%, even 97%. It’s incredible. I think the future is that. I want to go where the fact is going.
Do you find that the bootcamp structure tends to be a starting point that leads to the more customized engagements? Is there a different order in terms of where you see most of the initial flow of new business?
I haven’t tested it yet because we’re launching the bootcamp. I’ve been doing similar events with clients, but not exactly that specific bootcamp. Based on the other work that we have done, what I have seen when it is an open house program where you have many companies participating together, usually that’s what happens. A few of the participants will say, “This was great and we want more. Can you help us?” This will happen as well in this case, but this needs to be tested and we’ll see.Pick two to three things and do them well, rather than trying to do a million things not so well or average. Click To Tweet
Aga, I want to thank you so much for coming on here. Where should people go to learn more about you and your work, check out the podcast, the book, all that other good stuff? Where’s the best place to find you?
The best place to find me is my website, which is AgaBajer.com. When people go there, there is a place called Resources. They can find a lot of useful resources that they can download. I would suggest that and also connect with me on LinkedIn. Apart from that, I just want to say thank you for the work that you are doing. It’s pretty awesome. I’ve listened to a few episodes of the show. It’s such a super important work to help consultants succeed and make a difference in this world.
Thanks so much. I appreciate that. It means a lot.