For every business, it is the network that is the biggest marketing tool used for it to scale. Adding communication, resource alignment and trust within the organization to the strategy helps it grow even further. But when companies get all of these factors in and don’t know what the next step is, Stuart Freidman of Global Context tells them that growing sales and revenue is still on top of the priority list, but there is a need to consider culture and communication. These two, although considered soft skills, should never be taken for granted even with all the high-end tech. Learn more of cross culture consultancy and how it is more impactful than technology.
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The greatest marketing tool you have is your network — here’s how to make it work for you.
Less Marketing, More Consulting — How To Win Projects Within Your Network with Stuart Friedman
I’m very excited to have Stuart Friedman from Global Context joining us. Stuart, welcome.
Thank you very much, Michael. A pleasure.
Stuart, for people that don’t know you, please introduce yourself. Let us know what your area of expertise is and where you’re based.
I’m here in Silicon Valley. I’ve been in this area for about 20, 30 years. I’m originally from New York. I have a degree in Electrical Engineering and always had an inkling for theater. I picked to go to Carnegie Mellon because I thought it was a good way for me to do engineering and science and math, and also at the same time maybe study lighting design. Little did I know that that doesn’t happen at CMU. They’re mutually exclusive entities. I got a degree in engineering, went right into the semi-conductor industry when I graduated. I always had an affinity for marketing. Product marketing then took me to sales at Intel back in the early ‘80s. I threw out all my experiences, what I was exposed to, growing up in the suburbs of New York in theater where lots of cross-cultural situations whether it was South Pacific, King and I, Pacific Overtures, West Side Story, Fiddler on the Roof. I always look for opportunities in technology to travel never knowing that ultimately, I would make that the center of my career. I spent most of my time in semi-conductors. I then went on to become, in my last corporate role, the vice-president general manager of the cable modem business at a company here in the Valley called Terayon. In the time I was there, we grew that substantially in a very difficult market.
It was through that experience that I think two things happened. First I realized that what I had picked up over all those years about how different cultures cognitively impacted somebody’s cognitive abilities was really pretty profound. I used that to my advantage to build relationships, build trust and close deals. Then something very eventful happened. I was on a business trip and a piece of luggage fell on my head. It knocked me completely out. I was stuttering for three months in speech therapy and neuro-psychology testing. Through that process, I became very in touch with something that as an engineer you take for granted, and that is the ability to communicate and the ability to process cognitively. It was through that experience that I realized, “I should be embracing everything I’ve learned about culture and using my new insights, so then communicating.” Hence, Global Context was born. That was about twelve years ago now. In the last dozen or so years, I’ve been working in all aspects of cultural communications whether it be across cultures, whether it be multi-cultural teams within this one company or whether it be the cultural differences that are always apparent and many times the killer of any merger and acquisition.
That’s a very interesting path because you talked about coming from an engineering background then into marketing and into sales, mixing theater into that. It sounds like the interest of culture is what’s more than maybe your actual experience. Was it just the interest in culture and the experience of this luggage knocking you out for a little bit that really spawned Global Context? Will you say that it came from the marketing and sales? Going from marketing and sales to focus on cross-cultural in your business, there are definitely connections but they are very different. What would you say really got you to the decision of, “I’m going to focus on building a consultancy around cross-cultural communication?”
I had to take a leave of absence from work when my immediate family was having some health issues. When I stepped away from work, I got a call from a previous competitor. He said he was sorry to hear that we were working through these issues. If I wanted on a part-time basis, he would love to have me to do some consulting for them from a technology standpoint. I said, “If your idea of my consulting for you as a former competitor was to handover confidential information, I’m not so interested.” That’s when he said something to me that really was the single inflection point. He said, “What we really want to know from you, Stuart, is how did you take away all our business in Asia? What was it that you know about cultural differences that we haven’t learned?” I had been studying it. I had started to realize that there were a lot of frameworks and models that explain culture that for some reason just didn’t make its way out of academia and as strongly into the corporate world. Not so much that I would ever make it a personal investment in my career until the gentleman stepped forward and became my first client. He was in fact my client for five years and through two subsequent acquisitions where I consulted on the cultural integration of his company and the acquirer. That’s really how it happened. There’s no turning back. It’s fascinating to me, Michael, to realize with as much of an affinity that I thought I had for cultural differences and making them work for me, I’m amazed here we are a dozen years later, how much I’d never knew that I didn’t know back when I was on the job.
I want to come back and explore the area of culture a little bit more and how it connects to building your business. Before we go there, when I look at your client list, I know it includes Apple, Sony, Microsoft, Nissan, Oracle, and many other well-known companies. Were you always working with larger brands? Was that from day one of your consultancy or was that more of a transition and you start off with smaller or more mid-sized companies as clients?
I like the mix. Obviously the larger clients take a little bit more time than are higher client acquisition costs. I may have a great interaction with people at one level where they know the cultural skills will make all the difference in the world. As you go up in the organization to more experienced people and more accomplished people, you will also find that the blind spots get bigger. They’re convinced they’re in that role because they already understand the way the world works. To take somebody who’s had some tremendous success in a homogeneous environment, and now they’re dealing with other cultures, sometimes they get it, sometimes they don’t. To your point, that can be a laborious effort dealing with the big accounts. Fortunately for me, I think a lot of the bigger accounts that I’ve had as clients have come to me because some smaller accounts where people that I’ve worked with in the past happened to move on to the bigger accounts. When I got them in, when I maintained them, it was because there really wasn’t any client acquisition time involved. It was somebody joined who already knew me and that’s just grease the skids.
Would you say that you haven’t really had to do much marketing at all? There hasn’t been an intentional plan or strategy that you’ve used to win accounts or business from these large global multinationals or it’s been more through referrals in your network?
I would say if I look at my revenue over the last dozen or so years, I’d say the majority of it has come through personal contacts and referrals. I think there probably could have been greater growth if I put more effort into business development. I’m not sure because for the work that I do, the space that I’m in which is trying to tell people that don’t think they’ve ever had a problem, that they’ve got a problem, that’s a lofty goal. I’m not sure that doing a lot of marketing to the extent of acquiring new clients directly was valuable. What I will tell you is very valuable is when I’ve written blogs now for or Fortune.com, or or been interviewed in other places, I find that those opportunities, while they don’t cast a huge net and get more people to come in, when I am pursuing a deal, it’ll absolutely be accelerated by that. It gets to a certain level where somebody had said, “We really ought to get Stuart in.” The C staff goes out to my website or sees something that I’ve written or some accomplishment that I’ve had, then from an acceleration standpoint of client acquisition, it’s been invaluable.
My confirmation is how it aides them in making the decision, choosing you is the right choice.
I think that has been extremely helpful.
Are there specific steps from a marketing or business development perspective that you have taken? Aside from writing articles on your own website or in some other publications like Fortune or Business Insider, have you done any other kind of marketing that you feel has really helped your business over the years?
In the broad sense of marketing, maybe what I’ve done that’s really helped me is probably keeping a good bandwidth of communications with all those who I’ve had the good fortune to either work with or to have be a client. If something would’ve happened in the news, I immediately write up a blog about it, how the culture got impacted. I’d say that most of my marketing efforts have been maybe to continue to embrace those people who already know me so that they then serve as my best champions and advocates out there.
You said something very interesting, Stuart, which is that you work with in some cases companies who don’t think they have a problem around cross-cultural communication, there are cultural issues. Your role is to convince them or somehow get them to see that there is a problem. How do you do that? I think a lot of consultants are dealing with issues or are inexperienced in areas where there is real value. Sometimes it’s hard to convey that value to buyers because it may not be as high on their priority list as let’s say growing sales and revenue or decreasing costs. Culture, in some ways, people sees it as a soft skill. It’s not as tangible. It’s maybe considered to be a harder sell. You’ve been able to obviously move the needle and win significant business over the years. How have you been able to do that? What’s your approach and your advice for someone who maybe is dealing with an area that is a bit of a softer skill and not as tangible or maybe high priority on an executive’s agenda as growing sales and revenue?
Let me address it this way, which I think as a soft skill guy in the middle of the hardest of all skills, Silicon Valley, I’ve had to deal with some very interesting paradoxes. The thing that I always find surprising is you’ll meet a CEO of a reasonably sized company and he’ll tell his board or the street about their technology, maybe their IP. He’ll talk about the experience and talents of his people. He’ll talk about his operational excellence and all these wonderful things. No sooner as he talks about all that, you find out that they missed the revenue goal, that their expenses were higher than they should have been, that the forecast coming in from the field weren’t accurate and there were some surprises. Where do those things happen? With all the talent and all the brilliance and all the technology, why are these companies missing their goals? That’s the paradox because that is the result of soft skills. It’s the human issues that when all is said and done and you’ve got the technology and you’ve got the brilliance, it’s in fact the human issues that bog everything down.
One of the things that I’ve learned in the time I’ve been doing this was what it is that I’m addressing. If I go out and I waved the cultural flag to people who think culture is so soft, then I’m going to shoot myself in the foot. What I found is a much more compelling value to people at any level in the company is for me to talk at a higher level of where the impact is. The human issues impact the bottom line. Those issues are very simple. It’s miscommunications, it’s resource alignment and it’s trust. When those three things are endemic in an organization, it doesn’t matter how bright the people are and how much technology they have. There are going to be problems. While I don’t say it upfront, trust, resource alignment, misunderstandings are the result of cultural differences more often than not.
I think that’s a really great reminder because a lot of people who are dealing in an area that may be a bit of a softer skill or less tangible from some perspective, they often try and almost persuade. They have this idea that they have to persuade the market to see things their way because the market is not understanding the opportunity. I really like how this reminder that you’re sharing with us, Stuart. It’s about figuring out what does the market care about. How do you take your area of expertise and where you can really add value, and then reposition or position it in a way that it aligns with what the market actually wants so that you can then put yourself in the position to have a deeper, more meaningful conversation.
I don’t remember where but I once heard somebody say something that really stuck with me and that was, “What you really want to do as a sales guy or as a marketing guy or just an entrepreneur, is you can wake up every day and try to convince somebody that they need something that they don’t think they need. Would it be a lot more fun to figure out what keeps them up at night and then talk to them about how you could solve that problem?”
It’s probably a mistake that many people make. How about you? You’ve built your business now to a level of great success. You’ve been doing this for a while. Many consultants, as we know, experience challenges along the way. What may be one or two challenges that stand out for you that you remember were opportunities for you to learn, like mistakes maybe that you’ve made or challenges that you encountered, what really stands out looking back?
What I’m about to say doesn’t come with any bitterness at all. It just comes with a pragmatic observation of maybe lessons learned and how not to repeat it. I’ve really enjoyed the companies that I worked for, whether they were small startup, entrepreneurial companies or whether they were large Fortune 100 companies. It was very naïve of me to think in each one of those opportunities that company really cared about me, that they really had my best interests at heart. Let’s face it. We all know how many people I had to, at one point or another, get on my team when I was in a corporation. You focus on the good points and you temper down the skeletons back in the closet. You have to build the team. You have to stay focused. You have no choice. The reality is I think I was naïve in thinking that the company had my best interests in mind. While I would have never said it out loud to anybody, maybe inside I thought that one day somebody would turn to me at one of these corporations and say, “Stuart, you’d make a great entrepreneur and you ought to be a consultant and you’re going to do great.” Nobody cares about that. It’s all having you be part of the system.
Frankly, coming back to the head injury that I just had, maybe I needed a good smack in the head to realize, “There’s a lot more going on in this world than just being a cog in the corporate wheel.” I think the lesson learned is I could have saved myself a lot more time getting up the learning curve or the so-called 10,000 hours to becoming an expert if I had realized, while I was still on the corporate job, how to plant all those seeds and prepare for the inevitable day that I would be out on my own. I think now about all those millions of frequent flyer miles that I have and instead of watching the in-flight movie, I should’ve been researching things that would have given me stronger and quicker legs to go out and make a change.
What would one of those be? If we may reposition the question a little bit to maybe a mistake, a learning experience that you see a lot of other consultants and experts making, what is maybe one mistake that stands out to you that you just think to yourself, “Why are so many people making that mistake? They don’t need to. There is a better way or a clearer path?” Is there one that stands out for you?
Yeah, there really is. To a certain extent, it’s back to the question you asked me about marketing. I’m now in a position where I’m putting much more effort into certain marketing than before. Having been part of the corporate world, my go-to market, my sales approach, was all based on what gets commonly referred to as OEM sales. I was selling a component to a manufacturer. If he was building a product, he had a space for either mine or my competitor’s product. An integral part of that is you just service the hell out of the account. You build the relationships, you know where the power imbalances within that company and you do everything you can to meet their needs. As a consultant, you can’t afford to do that. No matter how much I tried to nurse an opportunity to success, the client acquisition costs are just way too high and time is too short.
Lesson learned was it took me much longer to transition my business into something that achieves a higher level of fees, unless trying to grow the business by realizing that it’s no longer for me about pursuing the heck out of an account and trying to close it, as it was for most of my career. It’s now my putting some messaging out there and the people who are interested will call me. I think that’s the fundamental difference. I don’t want to chase an opportunity anymore as I did early on. I want people to say, “I read what you wrote. I heard this interview with Michael. You had a media presence that really intrigued me.” I think that’s where the best opportunities for a consultant come from. The guy is already convinced that he needs your services. What can you do to put that message out there and not worry about who it is that’s actually going to call? People who liked what they hear will call.
Are you suggesting that people don’t do follow-up or they don’t make calls or do any kind of outreach to perspective clients?
Absolutely you want to do that. At the end of the day, it’s all about the relationships and making that connection. There’s a point where you do it as an integral part of the normal sales process and there’s a point where you take no prisoners and you say, “Hell or high water, I’m going to close this deal, damn it.” That’s what becomes ultimately too time-consuming. I will typically follow through. I’ll put somebody in a tickler file. I’ll say, “Is there an opportunity to come in? I just developed some new material on something I’d love to update you on.” I put that on the low burner because the real exciting opportunities are going to come when somebody says, “How soon can you come out here? We’ve got an issue.”
I think there are a lot of consultants out there that spend far too much time chasing prospective buyers, only to realize that the prospective buyer either isn’t the ultimate decision maker or someone that isn’t really that interested in buying right now. It’s just not the right stage in the buying cycle for them or they’re just not committed. They fool themselves into believing that they have this pipeline full of opportunity when really it’s a lot slimmer than they think it is. Creating that kind of environment where you’re able to have ideal clients reaching out to you because of your presence and because of the steps or the momentum that you’ve built is certainly a place that people should be working towards. That’s a great reminder.
That’s exactly what I think will allow somebody to transition their business into something much greater and more successful than they ever imagined.
What’s your approach to scaling and growing your business? Do you have a team? Do you productize offerings? How do you plan for growth in your business?
I started this all back just before everything crashed in 2008 and 2009. It was very painful because when I went off and did this, I immediately hired people I’d known for a while. It’s very painful in such a situation when people had taken that chance to join to them just to have to let them go. What I wanted to do this time was figure out a way to scale without necessarily building organizations. I created a network of affiliates who are other consultants in other specialized areas that are synergistic with my area. For example, somebody in Brazil who focuses specifically on relocations and expats, and somebody turns out in Finland who advises the Finnish people when they go to other parts of the world about other cultures, but then they need somebody over here; one of my clients being a Finnish expat based here.
What I took away from that is the approach that you’ve used to be able to scale your business without resources or infrastructure and hiring a big team and so forth is building a network of affiliates, of partners and relationships that you can use as needed for different projects.
The other part of that I was going to mention too was this transition in terms of what my deliverables have been in the past and where I’m trying to go in the future. In the past, it was all about booking my hours. It’s the consultant dilemma. What happens when all of a sudden now your time is booked? How do you grow? If you’re not going to hire people, how do you scale? I am in fact very aggressively now working on developing product, whether it be offering eSeminars, doing my own stuff or developing seminars for other people. I’ve actually even developed an app. I do a lot of work in helping people with presentation skills. English second-language, foreign-born people here in the US who, although they’re very fluent in English, have never learned the nuances of giving a really good presentation in this environment and in this culture or in this language.
Through all the work that I’ve done with companies with PhDs in biomedical, in in pharmaceuticals, a lot of these people go to conferences and they deliver papers. As brilliant as they are and as technical as they are, their presence at the conferences is lacking. I help them a lot with presentation skills. In doing that, I found an opportunity to develop an app, which allows somebody to practice the presentation in front of a live audience and get real-time feedback from them. The audience will put things into their phone, “Slow down, speed up, don’t use your hands as much.” Those answers will all light up on the speaker’s say iPad as a dashboard. This app also offsets things too because I use it in my work, and that also serves the purpose of then positioning this product. I’ve had this now on the market for a year and I hope to use that as a beachhead for some other apps that are more culturally-oriented.
Stuart, thanks so much for coming on here. I really appreciate you sharing your story. What’s the best way for people to reach out to you and learn more about your work?
The website is www.Global-Context.com.
Stuart, thanks for coming on.
Thank you, Michael. Appreciate the time.