The idea of working with the government can sometimes be daunting. While that is the case, it is nevertheless not impossible. In this episode, Michael Zipursky interviews Abhijit Verekar, President and CEO of Avèro Advisors—an end-to-end information technology advisory firm that works with local governments all around the US to implement new IT infrastructures and systems. Abhijit shares with us the process and techniques that enabled him to get a seat at the table. He lays down some of the tools they use to look for opportunities to work with the government sector as well as some tips on how to market them, both in the short-term and long-term sales cycles. Furthermore, Abhijit then lets us in on his biggest challenge in running the consulting business and highlights the importance of having mentors in this industry. Follow along in this conversation to learn a couple of the best practices to win consulting jobs with the government.
I’m here with Abhijit Verekar. Abhijit, welcome.
You’re an expert in the field of Information Technology. You serve as the President and CEO of Avero Advisors. Local governments all around the US come to you for implementing new IT infrastructures and systems. Before we dive into how you got to where you are, take us back to the very beginning. Why did you get and become so interested in IT? Where did that come from? What drove you to go after mastery in the field of IT?
It was early on when I was getting out of high school and trying to figure out what I want to do with my life.
Where was high school for you?
High school was in India. I grew up in Goa, India, which is this beautiful small state in India. I was always interested in technology. Back in the late ‘90s, tech was starting. The internet had just come about in India. A couple of my buddies and I started a company trying to build websites for local businesses. The sad thing was in my whole town or the state, maybe only ten people had computers. No one understood what we were selling.
You weren’t serving the local market then very much.The industry needs to take a step towards offering millennials mentorships because it's the most important thing that a person can get. Click To Tweet
We were trying to get something done. I’ve always had a technology bent. My education has been in business and accounting. When I got my MBA from Cleveland State, I fell into consulting. The type of consulting that we do is not purely tech. It’s how do you apply technology to business. It’s a business process, redesign, coming up with requirements, formulating strategies for effective technology use, and then implementing those technologies to come up with better outcomes for our clients. It’s a marriage of business processes, business thinking and technology.
You mentioned you got your MBA from Cleveland University and then you went to working in the office right away. Before starting Avero Advisors, you worked in other consulting companies. What did you take from those experiences in terms of learnings or best practices that you were then able to apply when you launched your own business?
Early on, it was about finding myself. I started with this consulting company as an intern. What I quickly realized is that my two Master’s had taught me nothing about this industry or the subject matter. I knew a few words and I could apply myself. What it came down to was, how do I use my intelligence and my brain power to do things other than getting good grades? What I did quickly was I latched onto a few mentors that were intent on teaching me the ropes. It’s not just in terms of the subject matter of consulting, but also how to do business in the world in general. I had no experience before that in consulting. When I got my first job as an intern, my job was to dig in and learn how to deal with clients, with your peers and your superiors and be a good professional. From there, I became a master in some lines of consulting. I would say that is IT strategy and business process redesign.
How important was it for you or how was it beneficial having mentors around you?
It’s extremely beneficial. It’s the thing that is missed the most in this environment. We give Millennials a bad name because they don’t show up to work prepared for the industry. The industry needs to take a step towards the Millennials or whoever and offer mentorships. It’s the most important thing that a person can get.
When I look back over our years of being in the business many years ago when I started our first consulting company with my cousin and business partner, Sam, the impact of having mentors around us or even some of our first clients were also mentors to me. That was such a great way to accelerate your understanding, to be able to make progress and to see things that you wouldn’t have seen before if you were trying to do it all alone. That’s why I say to people, regardless of whatever area you’re trying to improve, make sure that you have a community or a coach or a mentor or someone around you because if not, you’re losing so much opportunity costs by not being able to get that acceleration.
Let’s come back to your IT and the skills that you’ve developed there. One thing that stands out about what Avero Advisors does or what you do is your messaging. IT to a lot of people is very dry. It’s a little bit of a boring thing. It doesn’t seem like cutting edge like IT. You communicate IT in a way that’s much more engaging. On your website, it says something along the lines of, “Helping local governments build smarter communities that empower citizens and enrich lives.” That doesn’t necessarily sound like your typical IT firm. Talk to us about how you found IT and the connection to things that are going on around us. Why have that message in place? What’s the thinking behind that?
That’s a good observation. There’s a lot of noise when it comes to IT. Every few years there are new buzzwords. You hear about smart cities a lot. You hear about cybersecurity every day and every minute. My clients tend to get confused to the point where they don’t want to make decisions to move forward. My goal with Avero was to simplify things and to let my clients or prospects know that IT doesn’t have to be this complicated mystery box. IT is around you every day. It’s a utility. When you walk into a room, you expect the lights to turn on when you flip the switch. You expect the Wi-Fi to be working and service delivery to happen. A lot of times, my clients are city managers, mayors, governors. My client isn’t the CIO. My client is the executive. I’m trying to solve business problems with the use of technology that my client may or may not understand or may not have the right questions to ask their CIOs about. I’m the translator between the techies and the business users. That’s why the messaging is simplified. We’re extolling our clients to rethink IT. We’re extolling them to ask the right questions and have us on their side as partners.
Let’s talk about that because, for many consultants, the idea of going after government contracts or working with government is scary. It screams RFPs, long processes, bureaucracy, 100-page proposals and things of that nature. Is that the reality for you? Did you find out a way to work through all of that? Is there something different that you’ve been able to do to get a seat at the table with a governor, a mayor and those types of people in government?
Even if you have a seat at the table, you don’t bypass the RFP process. At Avero, we have a business development manager that is focused on turning on RFPs. We have an operation that is very finely tuned to picking out the RFPs. They’re vetting them and making sure that it’s not just a formality that our prospect is doing, that you can have a chance if you put it in.
How do you know that? For someone who’s looking at a government contract and there’s a lot of them, there are certain websites that post new RFPs and opportunities all day long. For someone who’s saying, “I’d like to win some government business, but I don’t even know where to start because I don’t want to be a number among other firms.” What should they look for? What are some tips that you might offer that could help them to have a better chance?You’re losing so much opportunity costs by not being able to get the kind of acceleration from having a mentor. Click To Tweet
You have to be in tune with the market like any industry. We subscribe to an RFP engine that collates all of the RFPs that are coming out and presents it to us daily in a report. It can be searched. We can go back and look. If you have paid the right amount of fees, that engine will also tell you what’s about to come out. There is a lot of market intelligence that goes in.
What is that called?
There are many. The one we use is called Government Navigator. You can get something that’s called OnBase and DemandStar. There are a lot of companies that do that. Some do it better than others. We use Government Navigator and it gives us about 95% of what’s coming out. You have to go to conferences. You have to market like any other client but keep in mind that the sales cycle in a government buying environment is 1.5 to 2 years. There’s also the process where you start teaching a prospect the idea that then becomes an RFP, years down the road. You apply for it and then you get it. That’s not one channel. You have to be diligent about how you pursue your clients and how you manage your pipeline.
As you talk a little bit more about that last thing that you mentioned where you are teaching or working with someone who might be a client down the road about an idea of a possibility and then they grasp onto that. They decide, “Let’s put that out.” If you’ve been the authority or the expert on their side to a degree or their partner, your chances of winning that bid or that project are significantly higher.
I’m not the only one doing this.
I understand that but how does someone go about even getting in front of the right person? What are you doing now? What’s working for Avero to get in front of key decision-makers to have an opportunity to talk about what those possibilities are?
What’s working now is our track record. Our references are the ones that help us get in front of other mayors and other city managers. They all have their network. There’s the International City Managers Association Conference that happened in Nashville that we went to. Our clients that are Tennessee city managers across the country introduced us to a bunch of other city managers. That’s one avenue. You have to be a subject matter expert in this area. We’ve started doing a lot of email marketing, Twitter and Facebook. We need to get better at that. We need to do a lot more of article writing and showcasing our knowledge base. When you’re starting, it’s a whole other ball game.
Talk to us about that because it sounds like you’re leveraging your experiences to this point, your relationships, your track record, the success that you’ve had. For someone who’s maybe in a little bit earlier stage, what should they be thinking about?
Have some experience when you’re doing this. You can’t say, “I want to do government consulting,” and then making phone calls. You have to go to networking events. You have to meet with city managers and mayors. They are public officials, so with the right pitch and the right request, you can get meetings with these guys. That’s how I started. One good client that you give exceptional service for then becomes your biggest advocate. The sales cycle in governments is long, but it can work on your benefit. Once you have that client, unless you screw up, they’re not leaving you. They’ve invested the same amount of time in giving you that contract. If you build a lot of rapport and you build a lot of confidence in the business relationship, that then gets translated.
Is there anything that you do to stay on top of that relationship to ensure that you’re adding value to your clients? Anything in terms of a certain frequency of check-ins or some technology. What do you feel is adding a lot of value for your clients beyond the actual work that you’re doing?
The existing clients were small enough that I touch base with them every week at least. It’s burned in my mind when my mentor early on told me, “A client left alone for seven days is one left alone for too long.”
What do you do? Is it a text message or you pick up the phone and call them?If the answer isn't going to come to you unless you make the jump, then take that risk. Click To Tweet
Text messaging, phone calls, meetings, going out for a beer or lunches. It’s a mixture of things. You can’t keep doing the same thing every time. Because you work closely with these clients, you develop these relationships that will be on the business.
You mentioned the notorious long sales cycle with government contracts and that type of work. What do you do to deal with that? I understand when the business is up and running and you have enough existing clients, the revenue is coming in, you can wait that out. Let’s say if someone is reading this and going, “This is a great idea. I’d like to start building in some government contracts or opportunities or even corporate projects that might have longer sales cycles.” What did you do in the early stages to be able to have a business and having revenue come in if the sales cycle is so long? How did you find ways to navigate that and make it shorter?
In the government world and the private sector, there’s something called sub-contracting. We also chase clients or other businesses that have existing relationships with government entities. We tend to subcontract with them. In that case, they’ve already gone through the sales cycles. They have this contract. If you have a valuable proposition, they can bring you on their team, give you some business, and get the cashflow going. That’s what we did early on is get started. We pursued some prime contractors that had large contracts with the state or counties. We got on and rode their coattails.
What percentage of your business would be that versus direct or you being the prime?
Now, we’re prime but that doesn’t mean we don’t pursue it. There’s always a bigger fish. In my past lives at other consulting firms, we’ve subcontracted with guys like Deloitte and Accenture. They do business in the $300 million range with the Federal Government. There’s always business to be had.
You have been in a few years into building Avero. What would you say is one of the biggest challenges in running the consulting business that you have in its current state? What’s top of mind for you right now?
It’s taking it to the next level. We’ve done exceedingly well in the years that we’ve been around. My goal is to expand the footprint. What that means is having systematized marketing and sales efforts. We’re good at operations. Our team is solid if we win a new contract. We’re going to go kick off a new contract. I know it’s going to get done right. The operations side is good. I need to scale this now to grow it from 20 to 40 people soon.
You now have a team of twenty or so. What have been some of the best practices or lessons learned when it comes to hiring and building your team? What would you tell someone who might be five employees right now or five team members and they want to get to 10 or 15? What should they look out for?
In a small consulting practice, you need people that can think as you do. I tend to hire people based on a minimal skillset, but more emphasis on attitude and how much I can teach somebody. I’m not going to say there is a cookie-cutter, but I have a formula that works that may not work in another place. I want people that can come in and learn the formula and then take it and run with it. A lot of times, someone with 30 years of experience in a certain subject matter may not get that idea and be able to run with it. The team that I have now has been brought up with the firm with that attitude. Very few people have come in with skillsets for process design or requirements definition. If they come in with a Computer Science degree or an MBA, and then me and my senior team have taught these people how to do business the Avero way.
How much time do you find that you need to spend when you bring on a new team member? Has that changed compared to when you first started and you’re hiring the first few employees, and now with a team of twenty or so? I’m asking this because I’ve heard from a lot of consultants over the years who maybe have neglected their early hires. They haven’t spent as much time with them. They brought them on, put them in and said, “Here’s the manual you need to follow.” Things don’t go the way that they were hoping. Oftentimes, you learned that they need to spend a lot more time. I’m wondering is that the same for you or have you found that your formula or your system has a better way of doing it?
It’s a better way in a slightly different way because we don’t have a manual. We should but we place a lot of emphasis on mentorship. When we hire somebody, I’m the last person to do an informal interview where I’m looking at, “Can I mentor this person and is this person ready to be a mentee?” That’s critical in how we’ve grown. The other thing we do is fire fast. We’ll take a lot of time to hire. We’ll put them through 4 or 5 interviews. When it comes time to let someone go, we do it not flippantly but there is a process that doesn’t drag things out. If you’re not a fit for this formula, you’re not a fit.
What does the mentor-mentee relationship look like? Take us through maybe the last hire that you made or a recent one. Give us a quick example or two of how you would mentor them or what things you might take them through.Consulting is about people. The clients that we serve are looking for those they can trust, and that can help them cut through the noise. Click To Tweet
The very first hire is someone that that will stick with me forever in my head and he’s probably not going to leave me. This person applied for the job. With my line of work, the job description can be very fuzzy, business analysis for governments in technology, but we don’t sell any technology. I can’t tell you what skills you need to bring in. I need you to have problem-solving capabilities, an inquisitive mind, and an openness to learn. When this person came on board, the interview process went something like this. I said, “What do you know about us?” He was very honest with me and said, “I don’t know what you guys do. I was hoping you could tell me.” I said, “That’s a good start. You’re not going to be BS me.”
I then go to the interview. I followed up with the person and said, “Do you have any writing samples?” He said, “Yeah. This is a baseball thing that I did a few years ago because I was trying to break into baseball management.” I said, “Send it over.” It was baseball stats that he had sat through games on TV and map every pitch that every pitcher hasn’t made. He had this analysis. I don’t understand baseball a lot. I took it to somebody who did and they said to me, “If this guy did this manually, this is your guy. You need to get him on.” I have worked with him closely as a mentor, a friend, and a brother to teach him the consulting business and how his innate skillsets can be applied.
Another story is we hired someone who’s sharp on paper and a beautiful resume with a Computer Science degree. She came in and we then found out that she’s not a native English speaker. She’s from Vietnam but she had the right attitude and use the right words. We said, “We’ll give you a shot.” She’s one of our stars now. She’s the one that runs our business development RFP engine that doesn’t allow her to be in front of a group of people. We’re headquartered in Tennessee. A lot of our businesses are here. We have to fit the person to the audience. We’re still working with her on that, on coming up and being the public speaker that she will be someday, but now her skillset is being used in the business development. She’s doing great.
What have you found has happened to your margin as you’ve added new team members? Take us through up to the first five employees and then maybe 10, then 20 where you are now. Has your margin in terms of profitability changed a lot as you built the team? Has it remained quite constant as you’ve increased the headcount?
It’s decreased but it’s still very acceptable and high. Where we’ve lost some margin is in the overhead. As we’ve grown, we’ve had to bring on an operations manager. We’ve had to hire some space for people to work in. That’s what eating into the margins but it’s not anything dramatic. Adding people doesn’t necessarily eat into margin so much in my business because we’re only going to add when we have a real chance of getting some business that that isn’t any existing business.
How did you handle that in the early days? For a lot of consultants who want to build a team or even get a few people on their team if they’re running solo right now, that’s a question at the top of their mind. It’s like, “I want to bring someone on but it’s chicken and egg. I can’t hire someone or I think I can’t hire someone until I have the business, but I can’t go out to win the business with confidence until I have the team to know that I can deliver on that business.” What advice would you offer to them?
You got to pick the chicken or the egg. You have to take that risk. The answer is not going to come to you unless you take the jump. That’s the only advice I can give.
What I often share with clients around this is the idea of building a bench of talent. That way, you don’t necessarily have to go out and hire people. You’re investing in relationships beforehand so that you can go out. You can have conversations with confidence. You can look for new opportunities that might be larger opportunities compared to what you’re doing now. When you win that opportunity, you don’t have to go, “I have to try and find someone.” You already might have five people or more who you’ve built relationships up with. You can send an email and say, “That opportunity or this work that you’re talking about before, we now have an opportunity.”
It’s quite likely that at least one of them is going to be available at that time. If they’re contractors or even if they have a job, they might be available part-time to support you. That’s one thing that I say to people, but you’re right. The message that I would agree with that you’re sharing is you’ve got to be a business owner. There’s a big difference between being a consultant/contractor and doing the work and being an entrepreneur and running a business. There are risks involved with businesses but the rewards are so great. It’s worthwhile to take those risks, but you have to be prepared to take some of them if you want to truly build a business.
Also, the pitfalls. When I started, it was me, then I brought on a few more people. I went through the tricky transition of being the consulting face of the company to the business owner, the face of the company. There are clients even now that struggle with the fact that I’m not involved in the day-to-day because that’s how the long-term business was sold. The challenge is reassuring your clients that you’re still around but you have this other thing that you’ve created to manage. There’s a lot of risk-taking involved. There’s a lot of forethought that goes into it. You have to maintain those relationships with other companies and other contractors to have them on standby if and when you need somebody.
Looking at the success that you’ve achieved in your business to this point, knowing what you know now, what advice would you offer to a consultant or someone that wants to get into consulting regarding growing their business? What would be top of mind advice or even a principle that you follow or hold close to heart?
Consulting is in the end about people. The clients that we pursue or serve are looking for people they can trust and help them cut through the noise. If you focus on the people and once the people trust you, you make sure you deliver and then that builds more trust. I don’t care what subject matter expertise you’re bringing. If you can’t handle people and if you can’t deliver on your promises, you’re not going to get anywhere in the consulting business. It’s all about people and building trust.You're not going to get anywhere in the consulting business if you can't handle people and deliver on your promises. Click To Tweet
Abhijit, I want to thank you so much for coming on here and sharing with us a bit of your journey, best practices, and lessons learned along the way. I want to make sure that people can learn more about Avero and your work. What’s the best place for them to go?
Our website is AveroAdvisors.com. You can also find me on LinkedIn and Facebook.
Abhijit, thanks so much. I appreciate you coming on.
Thank you, Mike. I appreciate this.
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