Hiring key people for your business determines the height of its success. In this episode, Michael Zipursky interviews HR management, policy, and training expert Kim Silvers on the essence of hiring the right employees. The big boss of SilversHR, Kim narrates how she started her HR consultancy firm as well as speaking engagements. Through the help of a trusted marketer, she has delivered all the right topics to influence many business owners to focus more on earning and leave the hiring to them. Moreover, Kim also shares how acquisitions have helped her expand her offerings. Be passionate on hiring the right people, saving more time, and earning more as Kim shares what SilversHR can do for you.
I’m here with Kim Silvers. Kim, welcome.
Thank you, Michael.
Kim, you’re an expert in HR management, policy and training. You’ve been HR since 1985. How did you get into HR?
Long before it was called HR that was my major in college, at the time it was called manpower and industrial relations. Back in the day, that was mostly about labor relations and union labor-management issues. I have been in HR in a corporate setting for many years and almost many years in my own consulting business. I’ve worked in lots of different industries, but it’s always been around HR.
Years ago, you started your firm Silvers HR. What was the reason that you left the corporate world to start your own consulting business?
I had always worked in large companies, many of those are publicly held companies. There’s lots of visibility and I’d worked my way up the ladder. I found after many years that I was pretty burned out on corporate politics. Quite frankly, the big lady clothes and shoes wore me out as well. I had done a lot of M&A work over those years and I was involved in about a dozen mergers or acquisitions, in the first several, I was always with the bigger fish. On number twelve, we were the little fish and someone else came in and bought our companies. I’d say it’s not fun to be a little fish. When we finished that, I decided that I would take what I called my midlife crisis sabbatical. I took a year off and didn’t know what I would do on the other side of it but I learned a lot of things about myself in my sabbatical. I decided to hang my own shingle at the end of that. In 2001, I started this business by myself. I was going to be an HR nerd and wait for people to call me on the phone and give me business.
Tell me about the sabbatical. First of all, what do you do during that year plus of sabbatical time?
The good news is that we were building a home at the time and we agreed that I would take on the project management of building the house. I had lots to do during the first 9 or 10 months of that project and then the house was done and I’m in it. We don’t have children but we have a dog. The dog and I, we’re pretty tight. It became apparent to me that I need to have a purpose, I need things to do. My purpose is to walk the dog, that’s not enough. I never ever considered that I would have my own business when I was in corporate, selling and business development is not a strong suit or a comfort level in my mind. It never occurred to me, sit in the den and wait for people to call and offer me work and that didn’t last long, but it was the start of what happened.
Tell us what happened. You’re sitting there waiting for the phone to ring. Does it ring? How did things play out for you in the early days?
Initially, it rang with someone I worked within the corporate world and he wanted somebody to do some project management work. In the early days, I would take any work that came through. My expanse was way broad. It was probably about 1 year, 1.5 years into it before I decided I need to start narrowing the scope of what I was good at and comfortable doing. Sacramento, California is where I’m from and it’s a relatively small town. I started attending the Chamber of Commerce meetings. I’ve had about a blue zillion chicken lunches and dinners and everything for breakfast. I started getting out and getting known. What I discovered is that the people I hung with in my corporate days, in big corporations, are not the people I was going to get consulting business from here.
The small business community is primarily where we focused and that’s a whole different community. I had to start out and I did a lot of speaking gigs. I recognized pretty quickly that if I had a speaking gig, I got a client. Eventually and still to this day, I have a targeted number of speaking gigs a year that I want to do to new audiences in order to continue our brand. That’s how it started, and I will tell you that the first three years of this, it’s a good thing I didn’t have to make the house payment solo, the revenue webs ebbs and flows and that, I have a supportive spouse and it worked out.
Can you tell us how did that revenue look in terms of the first three years? You’re saying it wasn’t growing at the rate that you were hoping, but were you seeing growth year 1 to year 2 to year 3? What does that look like for you?
I won’t get into too many details on revenue, but the first year I made about $13,000. There wasn’t much there. We have always been up year over year. We never had a downturn in the Great Recession and part of that stood on an acquisition I made that helped us stay stable. We’ve always been up and maybe it’s the build it and they will come but it worked out.
You’ve seen year-over-year growth. The initial intent or idea was to sit by the phone and someone hopefully calls, someone did call. Before we move on to more about the speaking and tactically or specifically, how you went about doing that and how you still do that, you mentioned that someone that you had worked with previously called you. How did they know to call you? There are a lot of people who make that transition and I want to get for them a little more information on what did you do? Did you announce because LinkedIn wasn’t available years ago? How did people start knowing that you are now open for work and for hire?Not every audience is a great audience for building a business. You also need business owners and decision makers in the room. Click To Tweet
One of the things I did is I kept in touch with the people I worked in corporate. I kept in touch with the HR community in this area and I’ve been a member for a long time and email gave me a great venue to do that with. Most of my touch initially was a personal reach, say one, “How are you?” Secondly, “I want you to know I’m out here and these are some of the things that I would like to do.” I was planting seeds lightly but letting people know. I can’t be in the closet about how I want to make a living.
Were you sending a lot of those emails or was it a few?
I wouldn’t say there were a lot of emails, they were people I liked and people I wanted either to do business with or wanted to continue to have a working relationship with because I’d been the HR director in a large organization here. I knew a number of people and I had all their emails. It was easy to do that.
Speaking has been a big part of your business and you were able to identify that every talk that you gave led to a new client. That’s an exciting thing to realize because you know then, “The more I talk, the more business gets to grow.” A lot of people understand that speaking can be powerful but they don’t necessarily know how to go about landing those speaking opportunities. You shared that you have gone to many different events, Chamber of Commerce, chicken dinner, all that stuff. How did you go about getting the first speaking opportunity? How did you translate that into the next 5 or 10 speaking opportunities?
Initially, because I have done lots of teaching and I feel like my purpose in life is to teach. I offered some classes that I had, some of them my management skills, some of them on general HR practices or the legal aspects of being an employer in our great state of California. It started out with informational.
Who do you offer that to?
I would offer that to certainly the friends that I had. I offered those to an HR Association in town. I sent the word out that I’m available to do this. Eventually, before the days of when we called people virtual assistants but that’s what she was, I hired a woman to go find organizations that were looking for speakers in town. Because we’re in the state capital, there are a lot of associations that are headquartered here. She went and got a laundry list of associations which I’ll have conferences or they have quarterly meetings here and they’re looking for a speaker.
We went to rotaries, Knights of Columbus and the Chamber of Commerce. We created letters that did an introduction and then she followed up on each of those letters and did that warm introduction. That year was a great year for me. What I learned about that is not every audience is a great audience for building a business. One, I needed business owners. I needed decision-makers in the room and quite frankly, in many cases when these are social or fraternity types of organizations, they want to be entertained.
They want a tiny little bit of information and they want to be entertained and personally, I like to do that. That was a real telling for me because initially I was all about the data for them and learned pretty quickly that it wasn’t why they were there. They were there to socialize with each other and I was a piece of that. I’d find one person in the audience who, I said something that either scared out of them or they thought it should be shared and I’d get a business card and schedule work from there.
I love this idea that you found someone who could go out and identify these different groups, speaking venues for you and then you had recreated a letter that you mailed to the association or to the group?
Yes, initially we did snail mail.
What was that? Was that who Kim Silvers is? What you could talk about, some different topic ideas, that kind of thing? Was there something else that you felt made it work?
It’s funny I’d forgotten about this, but at the time I belonged to an organization called the Institute of Management Consultants. It was a group of mostly solo practitioners. That was a wonderful resourceful group for me and there were many people there who said, “You have to have a one-sheet.” “What in the world is a one-sheet?” I hired somebody out of that group who was a marketer and she put together this one-page sheet, a nice little profile picture, a short bio and then a list of three pertinent topics that I would speak to that would be of interest to business owners. That was attached to the cover letter. They had a quick and dirty read of what I could offer them and then a letter with the introduction.
That follow-up phone call that your assistant made, what was she doing in that phone call? Because it’s not you calling and talking what you could do. Some people might wonder, how does that dynamic work? You’re using great leverage by having this other person make the calls for you and you don’t have to do it yourself. Do you know what she was saying on those calls, to be able to then move that into getting you booked?Sometimes you can't get all the deliverables done in time and realize that you need help. Click To Tweet
Yes, because we had an agreed-upon script on what she would say. She was quite good at helping me create that script because she’d done it before I hired somebody who’d done this thing. It was a script of, “Did you receive the letter? Are you interested? Are there other topics you might be interested in?” Probably about half of the time they would say, “No, I have no idea what that letter is.” She would at the time fax it to them and then follow-up with a call the next day. She was great about being diligent. I don’t remember how many letters we sent out, but it was close to 100 letters and from the list she had on, we got one out of four speaking gigs. It was a great return.
What do you think contributed to that? Was it the current economic situation? Was it that your message hit home? Was it the execution of great copywriting, the amazing script and the follow-up? Anything that you can look in hindsight now that stands out as to the success of that, that’s 25% not just response rate but that’s 25% booking rate which is phenomenal.
I had a lot of help with the marketer. I hope that’s not a derogatory term. She’s a marketing expert. Based on her advice and consultation, I had targeted topics and the list of the three topics that I would speak to was tied to return on investment for employers and their HR investment. They weren’t nerdy HR things that I would think would be interesting but a business owner doesn’t care about those things. They want to know how it impacts the bottom line or keeps me out of court, keep me profitable, keep the doors open. That speaker one-sheet was the key to getting people to answering the phone or going back to the fax machine and saying, “I’ll talk to you a bit more about this.” That’s the driver.
Where did you find this person? The idea of finding a virtual assistant, a contractor or whatever it might be, there are lots of different services online that you can use these days to find people. You found not only someone that could do this administrative type of task for you, but you also found someone who has experience writing with the letters, with the fallout phone calls and the bookings. That’s a unique skillset that could be of great interest to a lot of people. Where did you go to find that person?
I don’t remember where I found her. I was specific because that was the primary reason I was hiring her. I didn’t need her to do anything else. God knows I can type and do my own mail. I was looking for somebody specifically who had experience in going out and doing what we now call data mining and finding these organizations and somebody who wasn’t afraid to call people and say, “Would you like to book the speaker?” For me, asking people to do that, first of all, I would not be comfortable to do that on my own and selling myself. There’s that selling thing that scares the dickens out of me. I needed somebody who had the guts to do that and she had experience in doing that.
Do you think that you posted it on to a job site? Was it some intern?
No, it was probably a referral through the Chamber of Commerce. She was local because I remember passing back pieces of paper with her.
The first person you brought in even though it wasn’t on a full-time basis was this assistant. On your website you have six people that are listed on there as the team of Silvers HR. Is that the core team?
What was your first or who was your first hire? Full-time or more dedicated beyond this booking person, what was the first hire that you made for the business?
I was about a year into the business and I was getting more work and it’s hard as you know to work and to continue to do business development. This woman was one of my first clients, her husband was one of my first clients but she had done HR work elsewhere. We hit it off and my work kept getting more piled up and I approached her. I initially hired her part-time. She was an independent contractor which you could do back in the day. Now, it’s a little harder in California to do that.
In fact, everyone who works for me is an employee, which quite frankly it’s more expensive to have employees. I am picky about people I have. They’ve been with me for a long time and that makes a difference. The first one was a part-time independent contractor and she was probably part-time for 4 or 5 years. She always worked some weeks it was ten hours, some weeks it was 30, 35 hours. She was doing direct work with the clients whether it was creating an employee handbook, certainly may have been creating policies, dealing with employee relations situations or health benefits. She had a lot of experience, she could move right into that and deal with the clients directly.
Was your strategic thinking behind that was to bring someone in who can start to do some of the actual work on projects that then allows you to go out and do more marketing and business development or more speaking? Were you thinking of something else at that time?
At the time I was thinking, “I can’t get all the deliverables done in time, I need help.” I figured out pretty quickly that I have so much capacity and then I can’t earn any more. We were both doing client deliverables. Certainly, I was the face of the organization in public and the speaking gigs, and she didn’t do that work but over time, she became known in the community as well. Ideally, if I had been more strategic, I probably would have spent more time on that, but we had so much work.
Was it the speaking and then doing the work and then referrals from that? Was there something else going on that you could link to and say, “The reason why we had so much work was because of this?”HR consultants lighten the load for employers so they can focus on the revenue. Click To Tweet
The reason we had so much work is that in the great state of California it is difficult to be an employer here. Our job as HR consultants is to lighten that load for employers to take some of the risks away to let them go and focus on the revenue. If I had this business in many other states, I probably wouldn’t have much of a business. Much of our business is compliance-driven and the environment drove that and employers are getting sued left and right, the sensitivity level is raised for them. It’s expensive to hire an HR person in-house full-time. We give them that option and that leverage to not have a sun cycle time. They call when they need us.
You brought this person in. They’ve taken a load off of you in terms of they’re able to do some work. One of the biggest hesitations that consultants have when they’re in that same position and why they don’t necessarily bring someone is because they feel, “My clients want me to be doing the work and if I brought in someone else and they’re doing the work, that’s going to upset the client because it’s not me anymore.” Did you have any of those feelings when you’re bringing someone in?
First of all, there aren’t many decisions in this business path that I’ve made that I would change but right at the top of the list is, I would have never named this company after myself. If I had to do it all over again, I would never have my name on the door. There certainly were a few people who felt, unless they dealt with somebody with the name of Silvers, they weren’t getting that. I have long ago gotten out of that. I do little work directly with clients, I have a handful of clients that I do more work with but our clients deal with their consultants now.
I couldn’t grow the business if everything had to come through me. I trusted her and that’s part of it. If you hire people who are trained, you trust them, their deep knowledge and as a result, I pay more. I don’t have twenty-something reading off of monitors in some call center. I pay for the expertise and so people don’t need to deal with me. I haven’t been the smartest person in the room since I hired the first employee. It’s much better-taken care of with somebody else.
We work with a lot of consultants, help them to grow their businesses. Our coaching clients, one of the things we’ve talked about is when this comes up, look at the well-known consulting firms out there or any business, any brand and it’s not common. For example, the CEO of McKinsey or Deloitte or whatever going in and doing the client work. They couldn’t have built the business if they are trying to do everything, it’s not possible. It’s making that leap in a mindset that you don’t need to do everything yourself and in fact, you can’t. You talked about acquisitions and that’s interesting. That wasn’t on my list for us to explore. I’d love to hear from you a little bit about what the acquisition was. It sounds like it was strategic. It was something that helped you to expand your offerings or continue to grow revenue even during tough economic times. Give us a high-level overview of what was that acquisition and strategically why did you make it?
The acquisition which I did in 2007 was the smartest, the luckiest, the most blessed move I’ve ever made, and it saved our bacon during the Great Recession. We’re growing along and we hit a plane where we can take on new clients. I’m picky about the clients we bring on, I’m even pickier about the employees I bring on, and the organic growth is slow. I decided I’m going to start looking for something to buy and I found a woman in Sacramento who had a business similar to ours. She was 67 years old at the time and ready to retire, her husband wasn’t well and she decided it was time to hang it up. One of my vendors said, “You should meet this woman.” I didn’t know her at all. I met her and it was a long negotiation. There was lots of emotion involved in it, but eventually I bought this business in July of 2007. I took out a loan in order to pay for that. By January of 2008, the bottom was falling out in this economy, but I had purchased it and 70% of our revenue comes from retained clients. Our clients pay us a flat fee per month or per quarter. I never worry about payroll ever, it’s recurring revenue.
Was that the case though before? Before the acquisition, was that different than what you’re doing before compared to once you acquired this company?
No. I had always run on some retained revenue.
Was it essential that you’re adding on more like you bought the book of business? Consultants and this firm already had and that got added on to what you already had in place.
Yes. Our business models were similar and our client bases were similar in terms of the kinds of industries we worked with. That was truly a wonderful move for us. Except for the clients who went out of business during the recession, we kept those clients and our revenues continued to grow. I still have more than half of those clients left. Most of them have sold their businesses because there are Baby Boomers. If I had not had that additional revenue, which was about three times the revenue I was earning when I bought it, there’s no way I would have made it through the recession. It was wonderful and it’s how we’ve been able to spur on additional business because we get add-on business from those clients who are on retainer.
Kim, there’s more that we could continue talking. First of all, thank you for coming on, sharing a little bit of your journey and story with us. I want to make sure that people can learn more about you and your work. Can you tell us where the best place for people to go to learn more about you and your firm is?
Michael, thank you. It’s great to talk to you. My website is SilversHR.com and much of what we do is listed there. I love consulting. It is a joy every day and I hope other people get something from sometimes some of the scars and bruises I have. Get something from the journey that I’ve taken. I love what you are doing and offering to our community.