Many consultants shy away from pricing their services at a certain amount, thinking they don’t deserve it. A. Nicole Campbell, the CEO of Build Up Advisory Group, tells you otherwise. In this episode, she joins Michael Zipursky to share with us her journey into starting her own consulting firm and explains how you can price your consulting services according to the value you provide to your clients. She then takes us through the learnings she has picked up along the way and the processes that helped her create a successful business professionally and personally. How do you teach excellence? What can help create a good outcome and growth in your business? How do you structure your day so you can be productive? What should you be looking for in new hires? Nicole answers these questions and more in this conversation.
I’m here with Nic Campbell. Nic, Welcome.
Thanks so much, Michael.
I’m excited for this. You are an MIT graduate, a speaker and an adjunct law school professor. You lead a bespoke advisory firm focused on strengthening social sector, infrastructure design, the areas of governance, grantmaking and management, and you work very closely with philanthropies, NGOs, social enterprises to manage risk and crisis in these areas. Tell us how you got into this whole world before you started your consulting firm. What were you doing? Take us back to the beginning or the early days.
I fell into nonprofit work. I’m working with exempt organizations, as many usually say they have as well. I started a private practice as a lawyer. I was a Tax Attorney and I thought that’s what I was going to do, focus on M&A deals and all kinds of for-profit structuring. Instead, I was able to start working with nonprofits. A more senior attorney was leaving the firm and asked me to take over a lot of her matters, they were all with nonprofits and exempt organizations. I fell into the world of nonprofits and realized that I enjoyed it. I was getting intellectually challenged. I loved what I was doing on a day-to-day basis. I felt like I was helping organizations and individuals have significant impact throughout the world.
I focused exclusively on public charities, private foundations and social welfare organizations, as well as other exempt organizations. After a while, I got interested about what was happening on the other side of the desk, what was making our clients come to us and ask for legal advice. I went over to a firm, a client, on secondment for a year, and that was a large community foundation, the New York Community Trust and went over as Associate General Counsel. That’s when I realized what it meant to be a part of a team in house and not be on that assembly line, feeling that you would get at a firm. I did that for a year. We wanted to find out what it was like on a global scale and went over to the open society foundations, which is George Soros’ Philanthropy, and was there for about seven years as Deputy General Counsel and Secretary of many organizations within the open society foundations.
I had a focus on the United States, Latin America and the Caribbean and Sub-Saharan Africa, and focused exactly on operations, grant making, structuring all over the world. After about seven years, I wanted to wear those hybrid roles formally. That’s when I went over to Dalio Philanthropies as their Senior Director of Operations and Foundation Council. I wore both that general counsel hat as well as operations hat and focused on building out the philanthropic enterprise there as I had done with open society foundations, but on a much a different scale. I’ve been doing it for a long time.Whatever you step into, you step into with excellence. Click To Tweet
It’s amazing that as I’ve gotten to know you over the last several years, it’s amazing how driven you are. Especially when you went through where you’ve come from the background in terms of school and then career wise, take us back even before that’s the early days. What do you think created this drive within you? Paint the picture for us, your upbringing a little bit, and if there’s anything that you think that in those early years set the stage for the driver you have to power through these prestigious schools and well-known organizations.
It was my parents. They were both very focused on education and excellence. They had this mindset of whatever you step into, you step into with excellence. I’ve followed that mantra and that mindset throughout my entire life, both personally and professionally. It carried me through growing up, we lived in the Cayman Islands, and we moved to Barbados and then over to the United States. In each instance, I had to step into a new way of living, a new way of thinking, a new set of friends, a new set of learning opportunities and education. In each instance, each environment, you’re taking those principles with you, which is you step into everything you can go into with excellence. You keep going until you get there.
Tell me more about that. I want to dig a little bit deeper. When you say that your parents taught you about excellence, both you and I, we have young kids right now, I would love to learn a little more about what they did. How do they teach you excellence? How did they demonstrate that for you? How are you teaching that to your kids, once so that I can selfishly apply that as well, but for the readers, even if their kids are older or they don’t have kids, that we can all benefit from focusing on excellence and applying that?
It was a lot of learning by example. My father, they were from Barbados. We were all born in Barbados. He came from a poor family, poor environment, and he was still able to win scholarships to go to college. He wanted to travel the world. This thinking of coming from a poor environment and thinking about what else is out there and how you can continue your education, he was able to get a scholarship, go to college, start teaching throughout The Caribbean. My mother, the same way, she was a nurse and then won her scholarship to go and train in other islands within The Caribbean. They both had this love of adventure of trying new things and seeing whenever we step into something, we’re going to do it well.
I learned it by watching them. Whenever I did anything, if I got a 98 on a test, it was, “This is amazing.” You celebrate your wins, but then also saying, “How could we get better at the remaining two?” I care about those stories where people are essentially saying, “You got the mandate, but not even recognizing that and focusing on the two that you missed.” Instead, what they did a good job of was celebrating the wins saying and then saying how can we continue to step into excellence. It was both by watching them, but also in how they approach my own education, and even in engaging with other people, knowing that you can learn from other people, no matter where they’re from, what their backgrounds are. I put that all into a play set me up for on that path of whenever I step into something, I’m going to go at it with excellence, with diligence, and invest both my time and energy to make sure that I’m achieving the best result I can.
Thanks for sharing that. It was February 2019 that you started a Build Up Advisory Group, which is your consultancy. Why? You hear you’re working in some well-known, prestigious organizations. I’m guessing that your pay was nothing to sneeze that, and you were doing great work. Why did you decide to step out? What caused you to feel, “I should leave everything that I have here and go off and start something myself?”
It’s for her being Kayden, and my younger daughter Nova. I wanted to get more flexibility, and I wanted that in two main ways. One is with my family because I wanted the ability to be around in the middle of the day, if I needed to, for them. I wanted to be present for them in a way that I didn’t think I could within a structure that was not my own. The second was to have flexibility around the kinds of work that I did, the projects that I worked on and the organizations and individuals I did that work with. In my practice, what I pride myself on doing is working only with brave organizations, brave nonprofits, and philanthropy’s that are trying to affect social change throughout the world. I thought about what it would feel like to have that flexibility to pick and choose what I worked on and who I worked with. That’s when I said what would it look if I created something of my own.Every time that you decide not to do something, you're moving away further and further from your dream. Click To Tweet
I remember, Nic, back in one of our weekly clarity coaching calls, that you recognize the importance of marketing your business, doing follow-up, the whole prospecting thing. I remember at one point, you said you felt like you were getting a bit stuck. You need to do it, but you weren’t always getting it done. I asked you, “Why are you doing what you’re doing? What’s driving you? Why’d you leave the corporate world and start this whole thing?” You said, “I did it for my kids, to be with them, to have greater flexibility.” Do you remember that call or that conversation?
I remember it clearly. It was one of the turning points for me, because when you said, “You have to think about that.” Immediately they came to mind like, “I’m doing this for my family. They are depending on me in that way.” It crystallized everything for me and said, to me, there’s the work of the thing, there’s the client work that you have to do, but there’s also the building of the business. There’s the building of this lifestyle that you said that you wanted to create for you and your family. Every time that you decide not to do something, or you don’t feel like doing outreach, you’re moving away further and further from that dream.
That’s important for everyone to know, because we all face a challenge around doing things that we’re not excited to do. They feel uncomfortable venturing into that new territory. For a lot of people that are marketing, selling their services, getting out there prospecting, reaching out to clients is not the most enjoyable area. Most consultants are good at what they do, they’re experts, but they’re not necessarily marketers or don’t enjoy that part of it. You grasp onto that concept. For the readers, think about, why are you doing what you’re doing? What’s the reason that you got into running your consulting business? What’s your goal? Why are you doing it for? Hopefully, in thinking about that, that’ll be the impetus and a bit of push for you to continue working towards that direction. Nic, you launched your business in February 2019. When you started, when you made that transition, what surprised you, or what did you find most challenging in the early days?
What was surprising to me was what ended up being more of the focus is a bit more challenging. When you think about starting a consulting practice or a business, you think about, “How am I going to get clients? How am I going to be able to build a business?” I was focused on how many clients I would be able to get. Would I be able to get clients? Could it be a feasible thing? When I got started, the clients came a lot easier than I thought. That was not the challenge. The challenge was, in addition to doing client work, can you also build your business? Can you also do the marketing? Can you also do the outreach? Can you also do the behind the scenes running of an entire organization that is completely up to you? It was surprising to me that became the focus and that was much more challenging than trying to go out and find clients.
A lot of the work that you do is in the “nonprofit” space. A lot of consultants or experts that are working in nonprofit have a background or passionate in that space have the belief that nonprofit equals less money. It’s not as “lucrative” yet, I know for you and many of our other clients who work in those spaces around governance or nonprofits or fundraising, it can be lucrative. You can still have a high-income business. Any thoughts that you have, like your experiences, for someone who might be saying to themselves, “I want to work in nonprofit. That’s my passion. That’s my background, but I always hear that nonprofits, don’t spend money.” What advice would you offer them? What might you say based on your experience?
You have to be clear on the kinds of nonprofits that you’re working with, because that category of nonprofits is big category of organizations. There are lots of different types of nonprofit organizations. There are hospitals that are nonprofit organizations, and they are multibillion-dollar enterprises. There are the local place-based non-profits that may have a budget of $5,000 for the organization. You have to be clear on the kinds of non-profits that you want to work with, and then the value that you want to offer to them or that you can offer to them. A nonprofit is like any other organization in that if you offer them something of value, they’re able to then say, “Here’s the investment that we’re willing to make in order to receive that value.” I’ve been able to work very closely with nonprofit organizations. I’ve worked almost primarily with grantmaking organizations. I’m clear on the value that I can provide to those organizations. Getting clear on what are their needs and what’s the value that you can provide to them will help you clarify, “These are the nonprofit organizations that I’ll be able to work with.”
You joined our Clarity Coaching Program, and your businesses has grown tremendously since then. It’s been amazing seeing what you’ve created and the work that you’ve put in and the results you’ve been able to achieve. What would you say has helped you to create the level of outcome and growth in your business? When you think about everything that applied to where you are now, what would you say is the main focus or has had the biggest impact and you’d be able to achieve that level of result and success?
It is, one, me being a member of the program and being a part of that community of people who are thinking similarly, they’re all consultants. A lot of the challenges that you have, even though they’re in different industries, they have similar challenges. It’s also been the coaching that I’ve received from you and Sam. You always say this, but Imperfect Action, that has been huge. Particularly for me, because I’m not one of those people that comes up with an idea and I’m off running before the ideas even fully formed. I can come up with ideas, I’m creative that way, but I’m also very methodical. I need to then say, “What comes next and next?” I need to plan that out and sometimes say, “No, Imperfect Action, get it out there and see what happens” has been instrumental and critical to my growth.Execution, when it's just you, can be pretty difficult. Click To Tweet
You have kids at home, there are distractions that everyone who is working from home deals with, how do you structure your day, Nic? Some people say like, “I don’t have enough time. I can’t get things done.” We all have 24 hours in a day, some people are able to achieve a lot more to make more progress in their business than others. How do you think about your daily routine, your habits, and how do you structure your day to ensure that you can be productive and continue to grow the business?
My daughter in the background is frustrated with the remote school. This is a constant in the household. Luckily my husband is able to spend a lot of time with both of my daughters. That frees me up to do a lot of the work. In addition to that, it’s a lot of planning and scheduling. You and I have conversations about this particularly earlier on in my consulting journey, I start before the week begins. I plan it out and I look at all the upcoming meetings, see how I have to prepare. I plan those things out. I also determine, on a weekly basis, what my weekly goal is, and then what are the three things that I want to accomplish each of those days. I also block out a couple of days a week to focus exclusively on the business. That means that I’m not taking any client calls, any other calls, any partner calls on those two days.
Sometimes it happens because there are emergency situations that come up and I’ll jump on a call or they’re scheduling issues, but it’s pretty rare. Those two days are carved out for me to focus and do work. The other three days, I have times blocked off where I take calls, because otherwise, what I was finding in the very beginning was when it’s your own schedule, you can literally be on phone calls every single day of the week for multiple hours. You start having questions about, “When will I do my work? When will I build a business? When will I go out and market?” Share some value with people who I may not be working with, but I want to share that value with them. I’m a planner by nature. I’m organized. Planning the week ahead of time has been incredible to making sure that I am able to accomplish those weekly goals and the daily goals that I set for myself.
Let’s also then talk a little bit about another area that maybe has contributed to your growth, or at least supported it, I’d love to get your perspective, which is building a team. You’ve started to add people or assistant and so forth. Talk us through what you’ve done and what your thought process has been, or any mindset shifts that you’ve had in regard to building a team and having people to enable you to continue to see growth.
I know that a lot of people think, at least when they own businesses, they struggle with delegating and giving things up. Day one, I was like, “Who could I delegate to?” That was my thought. By that point, I worked in larger organizations, smaller organizations, where I knew that once you got a team, you could get so much more done. I wanted to build a team, but I also want it to be responsible about building that team. I know that I needed to bring on a person or other team members when I had enough work to sustain that. I worked in the business, on the business to hit some pain points because I wanted to see what it felt like to do my own books, and my own scheduling and all of those different pieces that I then ended up delegating out to other people.
I wanted to feel what it was like, and I also wanted to understand it so I could explain it to others and be able to have intelligent conversations with them. The first person that I brought on board was an assistant who’s still with me now. Once I brought her on, I was able to 10X the amount of work and things I could get done. Her talents and skillset complimented mine. Where I was not as great, she was stellar. When I brought her on, I was able to do so much more.
What kind of things is she doing for you? What was the low hanging fruit that you delegated to her, as quickly as you could, that freed you up to spend more time on the high value tasks in the business?
It was scheduling. It was doing first drafts of things, or even saying, “Thanks so much for these comments. I’ll put them into the agreement, or I’ll put them into the document.” Doing those types of tasks where you think, “This is not going to take a lot of time. I’ll knock this out in fifteen minutes.” Thirty-five minutes later, you’re like, “I’m done.” You think again, “That didn’t take a lot of time.” You have to multiply that out. Being able to say, “Can you handle my calendar? Can you handle all my scheduling?” When somebody says, “We have time to meet.” I copy her in, and she takes it from there, being able to handle social media posting, marketing. I’m coming up with the content, but I’m also brainstorming with her because she’s good at social media strategy and knows what’s out there and is able to say, “Let’s think about this together.” Being able to implement, because execution, when it’s just you, it can be pretty difficult, and you can delay things, but she was able to step in quickly and help with a lot of execution.
Talk us through a little bit of what you’re looking and thinking about now in terms of team. Any other team members in play? Any future hires that you see? What are your thoughts in terms of the team going forward and what you’re looking at?
My assistant is now going to become an employee. She is my Program Coordinator now. That means that she focuses on project management, on doing a lot of the partner outreach and engagement, joining me on client calls, helping out with strategy check-ins and accountability check-ins with my clients. Doing a lot more of the substantive lifting. What happens now is we have a need for someone who’s focused on relationships and operations. We’re thinking of a relationships and operations assistant or associate who can do the calendar and do the scheduling for the entire organization, not just me.
I’m helping out with the operational tasks that come up, I’m helping out with the client asks, that come up as well. That’s an immediate need. I’m bringing on an attorney who is familiar with nonprofits and philanthropies and having the ability to both advise from a legal perspective, but also from an operational perspective as well. This is going to be quite hard, because usually find one of the other lawyers who can advise them the operational pieces, but they want to do operations, they don’t want to do the marking up of agreements and things like that, where you find the reverse. Those are the two critical hires that I have that should happen within the first quarter of 2022.
With the lawyer, is that a strategic move? Is that to work in projects that you’ve already been delivering on, or is this that you see a new opportunity to add additional value for clients that you haven’t been able to address without having a “practicing” lawyer?
I thought initially that was going to be the case that I would be focused on the consulting arm or advisory arm only and do an add-on for legal advice and counsel as it came up. What has happened is the legal advice and counsel piece has grown. The experience that I bring to the conversation is based on that intersection of operations, strategy, legal and programmatic approach that I don’t think a lot of my clients and organizations within the sector, generally, they see. They’re attracted by our model. The legal services, through our general counsel routine, has grown quite significantly as well as our consulting services. I want someone who can go back and forth between the two worlds nicely.
How have you seen the pricing model, pricing strategy shift or change over the months as the business has started to mature and grow, you’re building the team? Any big changes that you’ve made to pricing? Have you increased prices? Have you changed your pricing model? Any insights or experiences that you can share?
I have increased my pricing model, but I’ve also clarified my offerings. Once I was very clear on, “I do this, and this.” It was easy to raise the investment level because people saw quickly, “That’s the value I’m getting.” They were able to see the offerings hold them and say, “I’d pay you this amount because the amount of value that I’m receiving, it’s enormous.” It was a combination of raising my prices, but also at the same time, clarifying the offerings that I provide.
What would you say has helped you the most to clarify your offers? Was it conversations that you’ve had? For someone who might be in a similar position where they’re doing good work, the business is growing, things are going in the right direction, or maybe they’ve plateaued, whatever their situation is, but they may feel a little bit murky around their offerings, what would you say? I know you have dialed in your offerings. You’re much clear, which has led to more confidence and therefore increasing prices and better communications with clients around what you’re offering. What do you think’s been the biggest factor or what did you do in the business to help you to become clear around the offerings?
I talked to my ideal clients. I talked to people who were within organizations that were ideal nonprofits and philanthropies for the work that I was doing. I talked to them to find out their needs, the questions that were coming up, the things that they were struggling with, to understand how they were perceiving things happening within the sector, as well as within their own organization. It was a combination of those kinds of conversations, as well as discovery calls, where you’re talking with people and you’re hearing the same pain points over and over again. You start to realize, “This is a thing.”
Once you pinpoint what that is, and then start to massage it and share it back with people and say, “I’m hearing this, and this is how we’ve done it before.” You see what resonates. From there, it was easy to start to mold it a lot better. I thought that when I started, I was clear, but then you realize, even within a niche, I focus on organizational infrastructure with nonprofits and philanthropy is, there is a ton of things that I could be doing. Even saying, “Let’s knock that down to three offerings within the consulting arm, and then three offerings within the legal arm.” That has helped a lot, because it also allows you to start saying no. You’re very clear, you’re marketing, all of those things feed into it. Once you start to have more conversations, then it becomes a lot clearer about what you should be offering.Once you start to have more conversations with clients, what you should be offering becomes a lot clearer. Click To Tweet
One thing, Nic, that people would recognize pretty quickly if they’re connected with you on LinkedIn or following you on LinkedIn is that you post a lot of videos. You get some great engagement on those videos. Talk us through what that’s done for your business or why you are so prolific in publishing videos on LinkedIn.
When people were talking about video, and you would see all these posts about video being the next big thing, I’m like, “I don’t know if that would work for me.” I’m always willing to try something. I found this with my volume of work. It was hard to keep up the pace that I wanted to do my writing on, which was weekly. I thought, “Maybe I can do videos and see how that goes.” The first video is well received. It grew from there. It has done a few things, one, it has made people very clear about my positioning, my thoughts in the sector, my thoughts about nonprofits and philanthropies and how to build infrastructure.
When I get on discovery calls, my rate of having that discovery call turned into a client engagement is high because when they get on the call with me, they feel like they already know me because they’ve quoted things that I’ve said from the video and say, “I know you think this way, or I love this video.” They feed it back to me. We’re aligned before we even have our first conversation, which is amazing. The other thing is it allows me to share value with people who may not be able to become my client for whatever reason. I’m able to share lots of value and resources with them and they’re able to engage.
If someone asks a question in response to a video, then I respond and we’re able to engage that way as well. I’m constantly providing education and value to those who may not enter into a client engagement with me. The third is I’ve gotten clients from those videos. One, I was talking about something that resonated with them and they reached out about it, or two, sometimes people think they know what you do, but they don’t know what you do. Once they see the video and then a need comes up, they’re like, “You were talking about governance. You were talking about grantmaking. I have a friend who is focused on grantmaking or they have an issue with their board. I’d love to put you all in touch.” That has happened a few times and they become clients. It’s been fun first of all, but then it’s been rewarding as well.
To give people a sense, this is not you publishing one video here, one video there, seeing how it goes. You made it a part of your routine and a habit. How often are you publishing? How many videos are going up within a period of a month or so, typically?
I post weekly. It’s called Fast Build Fridays. I post every Friday. At this point, I’ve done about 37 of them. Ever since I started, I posted every week. If I don’t post, for example, if we’re going into the holidays, things can get lost in the shuffle, but I still want to share value and be present. What I’ll do is I’m doing a flashback for a Fast Build Friday. I’m pulling up a video from previous months and playing that. I’m still showing up every Friday.
That consistency is so important, whether it’s video or any other content, being present in front of your ideal clients, it is critical. I want to thank you so much again for sharing some of your insights and a bit of your journey, it’s been great. I also want to make sure that people can learn more about you and your work, where’s the best place for them to go?
Nic, Thanks so much.