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Episode #233
Stéphane Hamel

Models & Data To Grow Your Consulting Business

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Summary

Data analysis and models are very important to understand your business better. When you have a clear mastery and vision of it, you will be better in marketing, resulting in more customers and bigger revenue. In today’s episode, Stephane Hamel discusses how you can leverage data into growing your business. Stephane is a digital marketing and analytics consultant, innovator, keynote speaker, pre-seed investor, and startup & agency advisor. Through this path, he was immersed in software, web development, and different aspects of technology, including data analytics. Join in as he shares his expertise on the show with Michael Zipursky.

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I am very excited to have with us, Stéphane Hamel. Stéphane, welcome.

Thank you for having me. It is a great pleasure to be here.

You are an independent consultant advising your clients around digital marketing and analytics. You are also a keynote speaker and a pre-seed investor. You have done a lot of things in that space. You have taught at places like Duke and the University of British Columbia. There is a lot that we can cover here. I am excited to have you on to explore your story, how you’ve got to where you are, lessons learned, and what you feel has contributed most to your success. It would be great to begin in your early years. What got you most excited? Why did you decide to get into the world of data and analytics?

When I was in high school, my grades were bad. I wanted to go into Computer Science but I was told, “Do not even try. You will not be accepted. Your grades are not good enough.” I was in a mindset or a setup that did not prepare me to be successful. People were telling me, “You are going to fail.” That was not a good start. I was lucky that I’ve got accepted into Computer Science, and it went very well. At the time, it was all about programming on mainframes and working for insurance companies and banks. There was that obscure little research project that I went to do my internship.

I was lucky it was 1987, and because it was a research project, I had access to the internet. There, students were telling me, “Why did you pick this project? The internet will not go anywhere. C programming and UNIX environments will never pick up. Why did you choose this environment?” It was the beginning of working on research projects with big data before it was called big data. In all my career, I have always worked with data to understand, improve, and measure business processes, be it marketing or anything else.

Throughout the years, I was lucky to work at the Montreal Stock Exchange, where I learned about stock trading. I took the class to trade stocks on the market floor. I worked for an insurance company, so I learned about insurance. I worked for a 3D animation software company, so I learned about that. The connecting point is always leveraging data to understand business processes and try to optimize those environments.

With the years of experience, eventually, I went on to do an MBA, which was something very important for me because I was told that I was not good enough in school. I did an MBA specializing in eBusiness. I did not do a Bachelor’s degree. I skipped right to the Master’s degree, and I have been teaching ever since. I am teaching MBA students, which is a nice return on not being a good student.

It is very funny when you look at all the people around the world who have been told in their early years that they will not amount to anything and will never become much of a significance or become successful and see what they have done. Your story resonates because I remember I had many teachers as well. I was not a good student in school. For me, sports were my life when I was young. I had a few teachers who said, “Do not even bother.”

CSP 233 | Models And Data

 

Fast forward to writing books and content. I certainly would not have imagined that I would be where I am now. My father as well was told that he would never amount to anything and he should not even go to university. He ended up becoming a physician and doctor. It is interesting that when people say you can’t do something, it does not mean anything. You can do whatever you want when you put your mind to it.

One of the characteristics is being an outlier. You do not fit in the usual pattern of what the school system wants you to be. That creates opportunities to be different and do something that other people are not doing. That was part of my success. What triggered my desire to go and do an MBA was simply because I was responsible for several websites and multiple brands across the world, and so on in the IT side of things.

I was sitting in a meeting discussing the marketing strategy. I was there to listen. I was not supposed to say anything. At the time, the marketing director had said that they were talking about the web strategy but I had some data that was saying, “This is what the user is coming to our site. This is what they want to do.”

I could not resist. I am like that. I said, “I have data that says that this is what people want to do on a website.” She looked at me and said, “You do not understand. You are in IT.” That was a slap in the face. That was so insulting that I wanted to prove to myself. I thought I knew what the business side was but I also wanted to prove to others that I understood the business.

It looks like I did because the grades in my MBA were super good, and I have been teaching ever since. I enjoy teaching. Teaching is such a great experience in sharing knowledge but also learning so much. It is the same thing when you do conferences. You are learning so much from the other people attending your class or attending your conference. It is great.

Fast forward because you worked at several organizations, some quite large but you decided at one point that you wanted to leave and start your own business to become a consultant. For you, what was that turning point? What was going on in your life? Why did you make that decision to leave the corporate world and get into consulting?

There are pros and cons to doing that. When you work for a large organization, the last one where I was, was an insurance company. I had a great position. The salary was awesome with good vacations, compensation plans, and all. Everything was great, except that it was such a big organization that in the time it took them to make 1 decision, I was eager to make 10 decisions and be wrong on 2 of them, at least do something. The pace of the organization was not fast enough for me. Maybe I am crazy. Some People will say that I am passionate.

It was the desire to be able to take my own decisions for right or wrong but at least have the impression or the sentiment that I was making decisions. The other thing is maybe because I am a free electron. I am a wild card, and sometimes it is hard to work with me. It is a positive side of my personality but it might have drawbacks in some contexts. It allowed me to push further in many aspects of what I have been doing and sharing my knowledge with the industry also.

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I want to zoom out for a moment and go to a higher-level vantage point. For you, looking back over the years of building your consulting business and seeing the success that you have had, what do you feel would have been beneficial for you or even helpful if you had known earlier?

At one point earlier on, maybe it would have been having the guts to do it. It is seeing important things but not pushing enough to create the idea that I had or push it. That is one aspect. When I was working for the high-end 3D animation software company, the software was being used for special effects in movies, gaming, and commercials.

You go back to 1996. I had that crazy idea that people in that industry were enthusiastic about talking about the commercials, “Who is the director behind the commercial? Which company? Which agency? What were the special effects? What was special about this commercial?” I had that crazy idea of making those commercials available online so people would be able to comment and share.

I talked a little bit about it but I did not push it further because, at the time, the video quality was not good enough. A few months later, AdCritic came out. It was exactly what I had in mind in terms of being able to see commercials and the virality of being able to reshare commercials. That is an example where I should have done it. I was in a position where I knew the technology, knew people who could have invested in it, and I did not do it. There are many examples of that throughout my career.

Within your own consulting business, looking back, whether it is around your marketing, your pricing, how you interact with clients or what you offered, is there something that over the many years of being a consultant and running a business that you feel, “I wish I would have done this sooner and known about that?” What stands out for you there?

I went to a conference, and it was the early days of marketing on the web. One of the speakers was talking exactly about digital marketing on the web. It was starting to emerge as a discipline and a field. I went up to him after the conference. I was much younger and asked him, “I would like to be a speaker one day. What is the first thing I should do?” He said, “Write a book.” I never did it.

That is something I still have on my to-do list. I have several drafts of books on several topics that I started but I have never published a book yet have been cited in about a dozen different books. I never wrote my own but I did other stuff. I created software. I published other things that had an influence on the industry but I never wrote a book.

What held you back from writing a book or what still holds you back? What do you think is the barrier?

CSP 233 | Models And Data

 

It was a language issue because I am French-speaking. I did not want to write it in French because the audience would not be big enough. There would have been other ways of finding a translator. At one point, it was Imposter syndrome. It was like, “Why me? Am I good enough?” Still, even after speaking to over 130 different conferences in Europe and North America, I am not nervous when I go on stage. I enjoy it. I like it but I always have Imposter syndrome, “Am I good enough? Why me? Why am I in disposition to do a keynote or even teach?”

Maybe it is the lack of confidence or being humble about the opportunity that I have to share my knowledge. It’s those two things, the language and then Imposter syndrome. Now, it is being so busy with teaching, consulting, and everything that I lack the time. I write articles and blog posts but writing a book is a different endeavor.

How do you manage the Imposter syndrome? This is something that a lot of people face. Let’s take the example of feeling that way before you get on stage to deliver a talk which you have done 130 or so plus times. What is going on in your mind? How do you push yourself if you know that you are going to feel that way because you felt that way before? What are you doing to put yourself in the position where you still are going after those speaking engagements and then still getting up on stage? How are you pushing beyond the roadblock?

There are a couple of things. One is mastery of the topic. If I know so well what I am talking about or what I want to talk about, this gives me confidence. The other thing is, over the years, I also worked with someone who has been helping me to become a better speaker to find the little things that I was doing that would improve the performance of my delivery on stage.

That made a difference. It is not about making nice PowerPoint slides. It is about the person doing the presentation. That was a huge difference. The third thing is seeing other people speak. Some of them are much better than I am, and some others are so bad. It gives me confidence that, “After all, I am not so bad. I can do it.”

You identified one thing that you wish you had done earlier, which is writing a book. What is one thing that you did in your business that you feel had an extraordinary impact beyond other things? Everyone in business is busy trying a lot of stuff or working through their business. What is one thing that in your specific consulting business do you feel had a big and positive impact on the growth of your company?

There are two major things. One is when I was completing my MBA. The trend in the industry was to say, “Web analytics is so hard. It is difficult.” It is like crying babies saying, “Poor little me. Nobody understands me.” I am always like, “That does not make sense.” If we are supposed to use data to optimize and understand the business, it does not make any sense to run around like headless chickens and say, “Poor little me. It does not work.” I created the Web Analytics Maturity Model. Later on, it was renamed. That was a major milestone. That was something that pushed me to do more valuable consulting because now I had something that I was able to use that was unique to me to assess the maturity of organizations.

That was a big part of my consulting. The Maturity Model was reused by vendors of different solutions and agencies. It was referenced inside of many publications. The other thing is, at one point, I was doing quality assurance of the data collection for web analytics. There was no tool. I created a tool to solve my own problem. Eventually, I commercialized it. I was able to grow it to a certain level and sold it to a company. In fact, I sold it twice, which is a funny story. I created a number of tools like that and also concepts that I shared with the industry.

When you know very well what you’re talking about, it will boost your confidence. Click To Tweet

Did you sell it and then buy it back from the original?

I was lucky because I was advised by a very senior executive who had experience in writing contracts and selling intellectual property and software like that. At the very last minute, in one of the last revisions of the document, he said, “Why don’t you add a little clause that says, ‘If the new owner doesn’t develop support and commercialize the tool, you can get it back for $1?’” I said, “Let’s put it there.” It was accepted because when the company purchased it, its vision was to build something additional with it.

After a few years, they were not doing anything with it. We went on and knocked on the door. We said, “If you do not mind if you are not doing anything with it, I will get it back for a dollar.” I literally gave $1 to the CEO of the company and got it back. I joined an agency. In part of joining, I brought some clients but I also sold them the IP of that tool. That selling of the tool was the one that brought me to most money and rewards afterward. Little statements in the contract made a big difference.

It sounds like both of these things that you mentioned and pointed out had the biggest impact on both the development or formalization of a framework or a toolset. How do you think through that? Very often, people will have an idea but then they will not do very much with it. Can you give us a very fast walkthrough of how you took from an initial concept to developing those models and then promoting it? What did that look like?

The biggest thing is the complexity of creating something new. You need to be creative on the one end. When there is a complex problem, analysis and analytics are how you can split out that complex problem into smaller parts. If they are smaller, you can do something about it. You can measure it, optimize it, and begin to build a solution. That is how I did it. Both of those things were pretty complex at the time when I did it. It is one step at a time, which is very similar to anyone who has a startup and wants to build a new tool or it is a big project. You have to start somewhere. That is simply how I did it.

I am going to push a little bit more on that because I want to try and extract a bit more of your experience from you to help others with this. You have identified that there is a problem or a challenge in the industry or the marketplace. You have been able to identify a solution. That solution or a better way of doing things, you tried to make it simple. The way to do that was to create a visual model or something along those lines like your Maturity Model.

You have that but how do you go from having this thing on paper that can make sense to people when you show it to them or walk them through it? In your case, how did you go about getting that adopted and getting people to accept that and start citing or writing about it in different publications? It sounds like that Maturity Model led to the increase of visibility, attention, and your status as a thought leader in the space. How did you take this intellectual property and this model you had built and have it adopted, distributed, and promoted?

The bulk of it was research and academic but I wanted it to solve real-world problems. It needs to be applicable in the field. I could have taken the path of having a patent and licensing it but the adoption would not have worked at that time because it is a matter of being able to get it out there and get that model to be used and abused. The testifiers see how it works in the field. It is a combination of having a great idea that you can bring to reality but a big part of that is networking. It is the network of people that I knew at the time.

CSP 233 | Models And Data

 

When I presented the Maturity Model, one of the first times I presented at a conference, I was told by many people, “Been there, done that. It is not useful.” The famous quote, “All models are used as some of them are useful.” People are telling me that it is not useful and will not work but still pursuing that direction and eventually picked up. It took years to work. One of the mistakes and the same thing with the software that I created is the protection of the IP. That was difficult.

Seeing people using my work without any reference or citing that I worked on it and that they were inspired by what I did always hurt me a little bit, even to this date, because I spent so much time on it. It is my creation. I was inspired by other people and other work. I always make sure to cite where the inspiration came from but I brought something on top of that. That was unique.

To clarify, what helped to get the adoption of this model, which led to the increase in visibility and perception that you are a thought leader and an expert in the industry, took a couple of years. From my understanding, it came from networking and sharing it with people. A big part of it was bringing that into your talks when you would give speaking engagements.

Somebody once told me that, “Sharing knowledge is better than your own.” It is still true. My desire was to make sure that I was sharing the information so other people could use it. Hopefully, they will get back to me. In my consulting practice, I never paid a dime to pay advertising, get contracts, and do some work. It has always been word of mouth. It has always been through the articles that I have published and the work that I have done. Eventually, you reach a point where you have to pick your clients because there are too many opportunities and a limited amount of time in a day or week.

That is also why I wanted to create a model and make it available for the software because, in my mind, consulting is very difficult because what you are selling is your brain juice. That is what you are selling when you are consulting. There is a limited quantity and market price for that. The only way to scale it is either you grow your agency or create a product. The product is very expensive to create. It is very risky but if it works, then there is the network effect and exponential potential benefits.

Let’s zoom in now to your area of expertise, data analytics. Is it only useful for larger organizations? Can smaller firms like consulting firms also benefit from understanding data analytics?

It is for all businesses in all functions of the business. If we take marketing, there is absolutely no way you can do marketing now without understanding the performance of what you are doing. To do that, you need the data, measure, and optimize. Otherwise, you are throwing money and hoping that some of it is going to be viewed by some people and maybe they are going to purchase. It is essential. That is why I am teaching marketing and analytics also. There is no way around it.

If we think of HR, Human Resources, they are visible on the website. There is a competition for skilled resources. You need to have some measurement in place to understand, “Am I reaching the right people? If I hire someone, how can I make sure that I hire the right person, they are going to remain here, and bring their friends?” If we ask the business, it is essential.

What you're selling is your brain juice when you're consulting. Click To Tweet

When you think about the small consulting firm, let’s say up to about 50 team members and below, what are the most common mistakes, misunderstandings or opportunities that you see people have around the area of data and analytics?

One of the approaches that I use is to imagine you have a triangle with each angle. At the top, you have the business aspect. As an agency, it is hard to pretend that you know the business more than your clients but you bring some expertise, approach, and concepts to help the business. The other angle is what makes it possible to build a solution.

Be it the website or the campaign, you need people who are able to activate or enable the results, the product itself, and the creation of something. The last thing is people who are problem solvers and analysts. They can understand the data and extract information and knowledge that will inform the business. That creates a dynamic where each part is important in feeding the other.

As an agency, you have to pick if you are going to be an enabler like building the solution for your clients. If you are going to be specialized in some verticals or some types of businesses, you work on the business side of things. If you are going to be more on the analyst, problem-solving, performance improvement, and effective communication of what you find in the data, there are agencies that are specialized.

As an agency, an individual is the same thing. You are very strong in one area. You are good enough in the other. The third one is you can’t be good at everything. You have to recognize your strengths and weaknesses in each of those three areas. Develop that, work on that and your strengths, and do more of that and bring more clients that align with your practice.

Is there one thing that stands out to you like a very common mistake that you see people making when it comes to data and analytics?

The biggest mistake is reading all those articles that say, “Top ten things to do whatever.” Those are all clickbait. It works to some extent but the difference is that when you are a good analyst, you understand the best practice. You can read those top ten whatever. If you want to be a good analyst and go above and beyond that, you need to be creative because you want not only to do the best practice or do as well as your competitor competitors. You need to do better in that. That requires creativity. You need data that is non-creative but you need to be creative to make sense of that and come up with solutions that are the best solution considering that there are always constraints to that.

Could you provide me with an example of what that would look like to get the creative juices flowing from you? Let’s take a small consulting firm that has ten people. They could track the number of leads coming in. They could track their proposal win rates. They can track how many articles they get published. That would be some data. It has some different data sources. What is the creative part? Where is your mind going now, Stéphane? As I explained that, what would be an example of thinking about the creative side of using that data?

CSP 233 | Models And Data

 

One thing that I see very often is the desire to say, “If you want to get this paper that we wrote, you need to fill out this form and provide your name, your cell phone number, telephone number, email, title, and a bunch of information.” Too often, when you do that, many agencies and companies are putting behind the label, white paper or something that is a marketing piece. There is no research behind it. They are just selling documents but because they want to have those contact information, they put that ahead of the quality of the information they are providing.

People will fill out the form but they will put junk in there. It is not very useful. Why not do the test? Why not see if having the form there because you have a desire to get the contact information, maybe there is a better way? Maybe it is simply that in the document itself, you make it easy to reach out. The client, in a B2B context, if the business wants to reach you, they know how to do it. It’s the little things like that where it is creating friction. What do you prefer? Do you prefer to have a bunch of contact information that is useless because it is all junk or do you want to get your word out there so people will reach out to you because they want to reach out to you?

That is good to distinction separation because it is very easy to look at and track things like, “How many leads are regenerating?” At the end of the day, it is not about the number of leads. It is about the quality of those leads and, even more importantly, the number of people you end up engaging with and become clients. That is a great prompt for everybody joining us to look at what you are doing now, even from your marketing perspective or it might be from your hiring side. How could you look at it from a different perspective? How can you make it better? How can you improve the experience?

You simply have to test it. The same thing happened with subscribing to a newsletter, where typically there is way too much information that is being asked. What the person who wants to do is, “Subscribe me to the newsletter for now, and maybe I am going to be more disposed at a later time to share more information about me. Do not put it in my face right away and ask a bunch of information that will come in the way of the initial goal, which is subscribing to the newsletter.” Make it easy to do business with. One of my other former bosses always used to say, “Make it easy to do business with. Remove all the roadblocks and the constraints. People will know how to reach you if they like what you are doing.”

Stéphane, before we wrap up, I want to find out from you what has been 1 or 2 books that you have enjoyed? It could be fiction or nonfiction but something that you have found to be valuable, inspiring or motivating.

I read Digital Marketing Analytics, things that are in my field of expertise. That was one that I read, which was interesting. I switch between books related to my work but I also like to read historical novels or fiction and about World War II. I was in London at one point visiting the bunker. There were those dashboard graphs of how many ships were built and how many planes were shut down. In large part, that is how the war was won. You produce more and destroy more than the other party. That is how it works.

I like to be reminded of what we are doing now. In many respects, it is not so different. We have social media and the internet but there are some core concepts and principles that still apply nowadays. That is hard to convince the younger crowd of students. It is not because TikTok is there, and it is amazing that suddenly, all of the other things are different. Sometimes it is good to read books that remind you of that.

Is there one book that you read or listened to in that space?

You can't be good at everything. That’s a fact. Click To Tweet

It’s The Eagles of Europe, which is interesting. It’s the amazing stories of people who had to fight something much more challenging than COVID.

Stéphane Hamel, thank you so much for coming on, sharing some of your journey with us. Where should people go to learn more about you and your work?

The simplest one is to google, StephaneHamel.net or my LinkedIn profile, @Stéphane Hamel. Those are the two best ways to reach me.

Stéphane, thanks so much for coming on.

Thank you, Michael.

 

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About Stéphane Hamel

CSP 233 | Models And DataStéphane Hamel is a seasoned independent consultant and distinguished thought leader in the field of digital marketing and analytics. He advises global clients, agencies, start-ups, and vendors in the digital analytics industry on data maturity matters, the ethical use of data and how to grow a data-informed culture.

Recognized as a Google Product Strategy Expert (2016) and considered one the Most Influential Industry Contributor by the Digital Analytics Association (2012), he made significant contributions to the industry: authoring the Radical Analytics Manifesto (2016), creating the Digital Analytics Maturity Model (2009), and the Web Analytics Solution Profiler (2006, sold to Cardinal Path in 2013) quality assurance tool, Da Vinci Tools (2017, sold to Supermetrics in 2020) as well as other tools and concepts throughout over thirty years of work experience, including 25 years on the web.

He previously held a leadership position with the award-winning Cardinal Path agency and sat on the board of the Digital Analytics Association. He holds an MBA specialized in eBusiness from ULaval (2009) where he teaches the fundamentals of digital analytics to Marketing Masters and MBA students, he was Faculty Chair, Digital Marketing & Analytics for SimpliLearn / Market Motive and taught hundreds of students enrolled in UBC’s Award of Achievement in Digital Analytics. To this date, he shared his passion at over a hundred conferences across Europe and North America.

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