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Selling Consulting Services As An Agency Owner with Jeff Robbins
I’m excited to have Jeff Robbins joining us. Jeff, welcome.
Thanks for having me.
Let’s get started with those who aren’t familiar with you and your work. Take a moment and explain what you do.
I like to say I’ve had many careers over my life. I’m a business coach. I do solo business mentoring and coaching but starting back in the ’90s, I was a relatively successful musician. I had a record deal and toured with the Lollapalooza tour and stuff like that. Prior to that, I did web stuff. I worked on the first commercial website. In 2006, I started a web development company called Lullabot. This was after my music career run its course. I built that company up to about 65 employees before exiting it.
Let’s go back to Lullabot. That was your digital strategy, design and training agency. It’s how you refer to it. You work with some well-known brands like Martha Stewart, WWE, Turner, Intel, Harvard, MIT, Fast Company, BBC and a whole bunch of others that people would certainly know. How do you get well-known clients?
It’s practice, practice, practice. We were one of the first Drupal development companies. For people that don’t know, Drupal is an open source web content management system. WordPress is a content management system that is focused on blogging. It started as a blogging platform. Drupal has always been much more abstract. You could build YouTube with it. It’s probably not the best tool to build a YouTube with, but you could do it in a weekend if you know what you’re doing. Back in 2006, people hadn’t heard of Drupal. There weren’t any dominant open source content management systems. I stumbled onto Drupal, having worked on the web since 1993. I thought, “This has a lot of potential. If we could come in, consult with companies and help them use this, there could be a good business here,” and there was.
I get what you’re saying. You were first to market or early. That can create an advantage. If a lot of these companies had not even heard of Drupal yet because it was so early, how did you get their business? Were you making cold calls? Were you sending letters? Were you attending events? What did you do to get the Lullabot and Drupal name in front of ideal clients?
Remember how I said I was a musician in the ’90s. I used exactly the same stuff that I learned in promoting a band back then to promote Lullabot and to promote Drupal. We started a podcast. We started a newsletter. We started doing events. We started doing training. We started going out and trying to meet people and talk about this stuff. It was an easy sell. It’s free software, compared to the dominant players at the time, where it’s $1 million a year for the license fee. There was that. Maybe I’m downplaying. We also found some great and talented people to go out there, share their knowledge, and build a buzz. It’s the same way that you do in putting together a band, building a buzz around music.
I don’t want to let you off the hook too easily here because you’ve shared a lot of different things in terms of the promotion of a podcast or an event or going out to meet people. One of those, if we look at them, is going out and meeting people. A lot of people are challenged by that. You might know who you need to go and meet. Reaching out to them is one source of fear and can cause some roadblocks. The other is when you talk to those people and when you get a hold of them, what do you say? I know we’re going back in time here a little bit but if you could look at maybe some of the best practices or the approach that worked best for you when you knew who you wanted to land, whether it was Intel or Harvard or any example that you might want to choose. How did you get in front of them and then when you did get in front of them, what did you do or what did you say that allowed you to start a meaningful conversation?
There are two parts to that question. Let me address the first one. You’re saying that you talked to a lot of consultants who have a hard time networking, have a hard time going out there and meeting people and getting in front of people. There are a lot of reasons why that’s hard. There’s fear that comes into it. I come across this all the time in my coaching work. What I tell my coaching clients is, “Think empathy.” Instead of thinking about it that you’re trying to get something from these people, instead, think that you’re sharing. They have needs. They need solutions to their problems. Focus on your stuff. Make sure that you’ve got stuff that helps them, that you’re not selling BS. That you’ve got some quality or something that you want to share, knowledge, experience, connections or whatever those things are. Think of it as helping, rather than trying to get one over. Oftentimes, when we think of sales, we think of this smarmy inauthentic sales process. Sales are connecting with people. If you can think of it that way, it’s a whole lot easier.
We share that with clients as well. It’s an important mindset to have. Did you have that back in the day when you got started or would you say that that developed over time?
That’s how we started Lullabot. We started it because we wanted to share Drupal with a larger audience. It was a higher mission thing. I don’t know if you’ve ever read the book Tribal Leadership. That’s a great book that talks about trying to find a higher purpose for your business or your organization. For us, there was this great open source software. The more people that used it, the better the software would become and the more people could use it because the better it would be.Think empathy. Click To Tweet
That’s a powerful idea of finding something in what you do that is for the greater good. It’s something that is bigger than your business or making some revenue. It’s something that drives you, motivates you and inspires you. I’ve attended certain events or worked with certain coaches or mentors over the years, you get off a call or you get over the event and you feel inspired and motivated by that. If more people could channel that or recreate that in their business by finding something that gets them going, they would not only enjoy it, they work a lot more but they’d probably be a lot more successful at it too.
Shoot higher, think global, think wider or think about making the world a better place, rather than, “I’ve got to go to this networking event and meet people,” or “I’ve got to make these cold calls.” Even the actual consulting itself, talking to people can feel like your problem is minuscule and I’m trying to help you solve this minuscule thing. Think about what is going to be solved by solving this problem. In the case of Lullabot, we’re oftentimes building web applications or larger things. This communication device is to connect with people and that’s a much better feeling than, “I need to figure out how to import this data.”
Let’s go to the second part which is when you got in front of people. How did that work?
I’ve got this concept that I call boomerangs. It’s inbound sales and outbound marketing, as opposed to outbound sales and you go cast a wide net. Go speak at a conference or throw a conference. In Lullabot’s case, we did a whole lot of training events that people were paying to come to. It encouraged us to make sure that we were experts enough in order to speak in front of them and then we would get to know these people over the course of three days or a week or however long we were training them.
Was that training event on Drupal that you referred to?
It wasn’t about Lullabot and your business. It was about Drupal as technology. “Let us help you teach,” and by you doing the teaching and working with them, it brings them closer to your brand.
It’s throwing free events as well. In podcasts, as much as we would give away for free, we found each of those things was a boomerang. You throw it out and sometimes it comes back, but you don’t know when it’s going to come back. It might not come back. Six months down the road, someone calls up. Sony Music called up and said, “You guys are great. I’ve been listening to your podcast for six months. I love you guys. We want to hire you. You’re hilarious. Can you guys start next week?” It’s a $200,000 project. It’s a significant project and we’d already made that first impression. We all showed up on this initial phone call all buttoned up and ready to be our professional selves. We’d been our casual selves on the podcast for this whole time and they’d gotten to know the real us. We didn’t have to have that facade. In terms of targeting, my experience has been you think about who your targets are. You think about this empathy thing, what they want and where they are and try to be there. It’s not this manipulative thing. It’s almost more universal and spiritual. Throw the boomerangs out. Throw them in their direction. Maybe they’ll come back but if they don’t, it’s okay. What we found was that others would and that’s okay too.Sales is connecting with people. Click To Tweet
We work with several owners of agencies and consulting firms in our coaching program that feel like they’re doing a lot of work and having to provide a lot of deliverables for their clients. They’re tired of it. They want to move more into strategy and more into consulting, an advisory type of work to create more leverage and higher levels of profit. Did you ever feel that way when you ran your agency?
It worked backward. We started initially as a consulting company. When we started Lullabot, it was just consulting. We didn’t do development. There weren’t enough Drupal developers out there for us. It was two of us that started the company. If we took on development projects directly, we would be full up with one client. Arguably, we need to hire more people if we got one client. What we wanted to do was replicate ourselves, replicate our knowledge and share. The first two or three years of Lullabot, we probably got to about twelve, thirteen people as a consulting company, which was interesting because we were always so full up with work. Although we were doing all these things, these training things, these speaking at events, doing all these podcasts, we never were selling ourselves because we were full of work. As the Drupal ecosystem was starting to grow, it became harder and harder to find developers to train or, particularly, to put on these projects. Lullabot started the development arm, the design arm and all of the stuff to become a full-service agency that it is now.
How did you manage that? There are a lot of people who are doing one but many times, people are doing some consulting, advisory, strategy but also some development or some deliverable. Were there any best practices that you identified, systems or processes that you used to be able to ensure that you are still doing high margin and profitable work while being able to continue to scale the business?
No, at least not at first. We started a business, not because we wanted to start a business. We started a business because we didn’t want to work for other people. We’d worked at other companies. It had felt inefficient, ineffective and soul-less. We wanted to build a company that was soul-based and mission-based. In retrospect, that’s what it was. I don’t think we thought of it so much that way at the time. It was like, “Let’s do awesome, cool stuff and work with awesome, cool people. Wouldn’t that be awesome?” We weren’t focusing on the profit margins and KPIs and all that stuff until that range that we got to probably about twenty plus people. We were keeping an eye on the money and wanted to make sure that we had enough money coming in to pay the people. Simply sustaining the business and working in this awesome place with all these awesome people and all these awesome clients was exactly as rewarding as one might expect it would be. It was great. That’s what we wanted to build the company on, not on profit optimization.
Eventually, we realized that we needed to focus on that stuff to sustain the business to make sure that there was some solid sustainability and that we wouldn’t burn out. We felt like we had been running this business for several years. We’re building all these Fortune 500 websites and we have nothing to show for it. That would burn a person out. There was making sure that everybody’s taken care of aspect. It came from more of an empathetic place. I want to provide job security and sustainability of the company rather than, “I want to buy a yacht.”
Was there anything that sticks with you when you were running that agency and involved in the growth of going from two of you to 12 to 20 and to 50 plus? Looking back, you go like, “That was a pivotal moment,” or “That was such a big lesson. If I were to speak to someone in running an agency or a consultancy, I would tell them to avoid doing that,” or “I would suggest they do this earlier.”
If we’re finding a theme here talking about mission-driven thinking, empathy and finding your soul in this and that’s a realization that I had. I’ve got this theory, this concept that growth inflection points happen in powers of two. If you’ve got a company of one person, sole proprietorship, even calling it a company sometimes doesn’t quite feel right. If you want to make it two people, you need to come up with at least some agreements. Are these people 50/50 partners? Is the second person an employee? This is a difficult transition to make. Four people, it has its own issues. You’ve got something that feels more legitimate. Eight people, it’s the point where you realize, “I’m running an actual business here. I’ve got to be responsible for people that are coming in and expecting job security.” With sixteen people, it starts to feel that much more like a business and you need to start to get into. This is where I say, “Finding that human stuff and looking into your soul of who you are.” Around that sixteen person point, you’re starting to think about things like core values, mission statement, vision statement and all that stuff that a lot of companies put off until they’re over 100 people.
Lullabot is a fully distributed company. Lullabot never had a central office where people work. Our people are spread out all across the world. For people that are interested in finding out more information about running a remote business and distributed companies, I started a website called Yonder at Yonder.io, where I have a podcast and interview people about running remote teams. One of the things that happen when you’ve got a team that’s remote and they’re not all in the same space together, is you lose that innate feeling of togetherness. You start to need to get a little bit more formal about things that would be otherwise casual in a co-located office. What is the culture? Who are we? As we hire our seventeenth employee, what should we be looking for? A lot of co-located companies don’t think about that stuff because they feel like they can see what the culture is. They feel like they can relate to each other but in my opinion, they are wrong. You don’t. For everyone, it’s about that sixteen-person point where you should start thinking about those gooey qualitative things like core values and culture.Shoot higher. Think wider. Click To Tweet
You transitioned from Lullabot into coaching and consulting as an independent. What have you found most challenging in that time about being a solo independent consultant and coach?
First of all, I enjoy it. It’s so great to connect with people and help them with their problems. I don’t have all of the information. I don’t think anyone has all of the information. As consultants, we probably shouldn’t even try to sell ourselves as having all of the information. Knowing and having the experience that I can help and talking it out, there’s value in that. I do have a lot of experience with this stuff and a lot of opinions. I tend to be philosophical around this stuff where a lot of people tend to move forward. I sit there and think, “What lesson can I learn from this and how can I share that with other people?” That’s been super enjoyable. One of the nice things about coming at this out of an exit, is that I’m not desperate for the next thing. I can do it casually for a while. I’m building up the practice relatively slowly, without a whole lot of desperation. It seems like as soon as I put that on my LinkedIn profile, I got about 8,000 people who contacted me saying, “I sell consulting services. I can get your name out there.” I’ve generally shied away from that. I prefer to throw out these boomerangs and have people come to me because they want me, not because they want something.
What are you doing? What’s working best for you when it comes to getting new clients or inquiries for your coaching and consulting services?
Word of mouth is the best thing. The people I’m working with are happy. They’re happy to share the word. I go speak at conferences when I can. I like going out and meeting people. I love talking on podcasts and sharing the word that way. Even with Yonder, it’s not directly talking about this but it is in the same realm of helping people that run businesses or remote teams to figure out how to do that. We’re focusing specifically on remote work there. It’s a subset of what I do as a mentor and coach.
You had a successful exit from Lullabot. That’s given you a bit of a runway. There isn’t so much stress to worry about paying the bills and so forth. You’re getting clients mainly from word of mouth. You’ve made that transition into coaching and consulting for yourself and working with clients, what is one challenge that stands out to you? One thing that you ran up against that maybe held you back for a little bit or something that you had to grapple with or work through?
This is the same feeling I had back when I was on the front line of consulting with Lullabot. It’s going into a situation with people who are desperate and aggressive. They need help. It can feel like a battle of the minds sometimes where they want to test you. “Do you know your stuff? I need help. You have to understand I need help.” It’s trying to break it down, find the empathy and get to the point where like, “We’re just humans. Let’s be a little bit vulnerable with each other.” Instead of trying to fight over who knows more, let’s admit what we don’t know and try to work collaboratively to solve that. If you don’t share with me what you don’t know, I’m not going to be able to help you. That’s why you have me here. If you won’t allow me to share what I don’t know, you’re not going to be able to truly trust me. We’re not going to have a trusting and respectful relationship that’s going to move us forward. That stuff is a thing I come down to every now and then. It doesn’t happen nearly as much in the coaching realm as it did back in Lullabot when we were stepping into these big buildings with a small team.
Jeff, I want to thank you for coming on. I also want to make sure that people can learn more about your work and what you’re up to, what’s the best place for them to go to?
If people are interested in finding out more about my coaching, JJeff.com is my personal site and the place where you can get in touch with me about that. For people that are interested in anything having to do with remote work, Yonder.io is the place where we talk about that stuff.
Jeff, thanks so much for coming on.
Thank you, Michael.
It’s my pleasure.