Building your business is about building a group of people around you. You need employees and you need clients. From there, you can expand and grow your business to reach various markets. Mike Anthony of Engage Marketing Consultants is all too familiar with that process. He was one of those that left the corporate world to start his own global consultancy business. He shares what you need to learn about starting your own business and growing it globally. He is an expert at shopper marketing and retail for consumer goods. Mike details some tips and advises on how you can market your business from the ground up to spread around the world.
I’m very excited to have Mike Anthony joining us. Mike, welcome.
I’m glad to be here, Michael.
For those who don’t know you, explain what you do.
I run a consultancy and training company called Engage Management Consultants. We do marketing and sales consultancy with a focus on shopper marketing and retail for consumer goods companies. On my spare time, I also set up an online company called MarketingExperts.com. If you want to know more about shopper marketing, you can check that out. I’ve written a book on the topic. I do a lot of coaching and a lot of public speaking too.
You’ve worked with and consulted for over 100 top consumer brands like Coca-Cola, Nestlé, Sony, L’Oréal and GSK. You’re from England originally and you now live in Thailand. How did that happen?
I’d love to say that it was all planned but a lot of it was by accident. I started my career in consumer goods. I started working for a British company called United Biscuits. For those of you in the United States, they originally owned the Keebler biscuits and cookies brand a long time ago. I worked with them in the UK. I worked in sales and marketing roles. I looked after markets in Eastern Europe and Southern Africa. One day someone said, “Would you like to come and run marketing for China?” It took me about ten seconds to have a response. I was still pretty young. It was a chance in a lifetime to go and do something in China and get paid to do it.If we don’t do it now, when will we do it? Click To Tweet
I did think that it would last a little while. It lasted about three to five years with switches from biscuits to Barbie dolls. I went to work for Nabisco and then onto Mattel. I was headhunted by a consultancy, which brought me from China to Bangkok. That consultancy, I thought would be a couple of years journey. It’ll be a great opportunity to learn to consult and to work with some of the biggest names on the planet in consumer goods. I quite liked it and I met my future business partner at that company. In a moment of bravery or stupidity, we decided to set up our own consultancy. I’ve been here ever since mainly because it’s a good place to be. It’s comfortable, it’s low cost and more importantly, my family’s happy here.
That’s an interesting story, the path and journey you’ve been on. Before going off and starting your own consulting company, you spent about fifteen years or more in corporate. You mentioned that you met your business partner at that time and you both started this consulting business. Why did you do that? Why did you leave the corporate world to start your own consulting company?
It was a middle step because I was in a corporate consultancy for two years. That gave me a taste of trying something. There were two steps. The first was trying being a consultant. As a place in my career, having been with in-house corporate roles in sales and marketing for big corporations, having gone out to Asia for five or six years, I was at a point of considering what I should do next. Do I want to carry on working for large corporates? Literally, there was a headhunter out of the blue who came along and said, “I’ve got this consultancy based in Bangkok. They have this fantastic client roster, names like Unilever and Nestlé and people like that.” I was like, “That could be interesting.”
I saw that as a personal learning. The second step was then the bigger step of deciding to go on our own. I’ll be honest, a lot of that was naivety and ideology. We were working with these clients who recognized that we could see a gap in the market. There was a need that big consumer brands had that our current employer wasn’t meeting and nobody else seemed to be meeting. Based on our experience having worked in the corporates and then consulting to corporates, we knew that there was a gap in the market and we felt there was an opportunity to fill it. We wanted to do something important. That was the feeling fifteen years ago.
The other thing for me was starting our own business has risks. This was about as good a time in my life to take that risky journey that I could see. I didn’t have any children and I didn’t have a mortgage. We were in a relatively low-cost world. I felt young enough to feel that if this didn’t work out, then I can always go back. There was a bundle of different things, but that gap and the need in the market and the feeling that if we don’t do it now, when will we do it? It got me over the hump and got me into at least giving it a go.
Things have progressed significantly since that time. How big is your team at Engage currently?
The team is still pretty small. We’ve got six full-time people, but what we’ve done is through various machinations and iterations, we built a series of partnerships. We’ve got partners at a number of different markets. That adds another fifteen people who are working full-time on the Engage brand.
You decided to build a team from day one. Did you ever consider being a solo independent consultant?
We always felt it was going to be bigger than that and there were times when it wasn’t. We always had this sense that there was going to be size and scale to do this. We could do that and that’s what we wanted to do. Having said that, I don’t really want the business to get massive. I found running the company got in the way of helping clients sometimes. That’s one of the reasons why the partnership structure works for us. We always were looking to try and do something a little bit bigger than just a solo enterprise.Small businesses are cash businesses. Click To Tweet
One of the biggest challenges that consultants face when scaling is figuring out how to build a team. How did you approach that and how did you know when to add new people to the team? You’re at six now plus another fifteen partners or whatever, the setup is there. How did you know when to start adding the second person, third person, fourth person? Often, it’s like a bit of a chicken and egg, wondering about hiring people and waiting for the next project to come. What was your approach to that?
That’s the biggest question if you’re scaling a business. If you wait too long, then you get the business but can’t get the right people. If you recruit too early, you have a cashflow problem bundled around and probably one of the most important things that we learned pretty early on is it’s a cash business. Small businesses are cash businesses. It’s not about profit margin. The most important document on your desk is your cashflow forecast. We took a relatively pragmatic view and we saved up to invest in recruitment. We looked at our future cash and made sure that we could forward to somebody based on our future cashflow and then brought them into the team. We used financial rules quite rigorously to control that. We weren’t bringing someone in and then hoping that we would sell a business that I can work on.
We thought of enough cash to pay this person to do something and that. That’s one of the most important learnings that we have, which is it’s all about people. Whether as partners or as recruits, the one thing to do is to spend and give ourselves as much time as possible to recruit. Recruiting when you need somebody. This is what I learned from my corporate days. You’re going to see 2% of the market. You’re going to see who’s on the market right there and then. Whereas if you’re always recruiting and always looking for the right person, and I know that’s not always practical, but you are able to see the entire market. You’re able to build networks, you are able to find the right people and you can bring them on in six months’ time, twelve months’ time when they’re ready. We try to keep those principles in line, but also always making sure that we had the cash to support it first. Then a belief that, “If I’ve got enough cash to pay this guy for the next six months, eight months, ten months, we’ll bring some business in that time. If we don’t bring in business at that time, we’ll be dead anyway.”
It’s a great advice because I share that with many of our clients as well. They should always be building their bench ahead of time because you never know what’s going to happen and it puts you in a position of power. For you, what was the first hire that you’ve made?
The first hire we made was a very junior person. One of the key learnings that we found here in terms of leverage was how to work at a different consultancy where relatively senior consultants did pretty much everything. The first hire we brought was to get somebody in to do all of the stuff that was distracting me and my business partner from high-value tasks. Mainly booking stuff, following up with clients on relatively small details, tidying up PowerPoint presentations and stuff like that. We get through pages and pages of PowerPoint and you can spend an enormous amount of time tweaking and perfecting the product. Getting people to do that and getting someone who can go off and find some details ahead of a client pitch, “Go and research this person, this client or this person.” It’s taking away stuff that would take you an hour away knowing that my most valuable time was selling. The second most valuable time is delivering and anything else had to be of lower value. The first area was rather than trying to bring on a high value, big hitting consultant type, which would be expensive and therefore put stress on us, what we’ll do is leverage my time and leverage the time of my partner by taking away lower value tasks, so you effectively create more high-value consulting time.
That’s like the low-hanging fruit, finding those points of leverage and release, squeeze as much as you can out of them.
Then keep doing it. You get a lot of creep in there. You suddenly find yourself doing stuff like, “I shouldn’t be doing this. Somebody else can do this.”
You’ve worked with some global powerhouses as clients. Once you start your own consulting business, how did you get those first appointments and meetings with them?
There have been two phases of the business development world. The first was luck, courage and networking. The second was marketing. Our first couple of clients came from a network. I’ve been consulting in and around Asia for a couple of years and while we obviously didn’t portray all our various contracts with our previous employer in terms of approaching clients, people move onto different jobs and different companies. I am lucky enough to have a good reputation, which pulled us into a number of new clients. We worked hard on trying to get referrals as well. I must admit at the beginning we weren’t very good at that. We began to come from a relatively large established business, which already had those connections and introductions.
We were based in the Asia business. The head office was in Europe. They were knocking on the doors of some of the big head office. The European business was picking up referrals out of that. One of the things that we looked hard was, “How do we get people? How do we find ways of knocking those doors down?” Part of it was about reputation, part of it was about networking and then we got into marketing. We started taking our marketing seriously, which for a company which consults and advises marketing, it took us a long time to get them. We realized that we needed to build a brand and we need to get out there. We needed to get people interested in us so that we weren’t just another consultant knocking on the door.At the heart of the marketing lies content. Click To Tweet
How are you doing that? What’s working best for you to approach prospecting and building your consulting pipeline of clients?
I’ll be honest, it’s a big work in progress. At the heart of the marketing lies content. For good or bad, I enjoy writing and apparently, I’m okay with it. We wrote a book but before that, I started writing a regular blog. I continued to do that ongoing and have tried to prioritize that whenever I can. Those two things formed the heart of what we do. The blog brings continuity and brings high-value leads. We got into Coca-Cola in Asia through a blog. The head of insights picked up the phone one day and said, “I just read this. That’s interesting. Can we meet you for lunch?”
How long were you blogging for before you start generating leads?
Getting identifiable leads like that Coca-Cola example, that’s about a year. One thing I would say is blogging is not a quick fix. On the other hand, just get it. If you’re thinking content, get out there and start. The first few blogs, nobody will read them anyway so don’t worry too much. Once you start writing, you start reading more and I found that it starts flowing. It took a year before we got anything serious. What we did start seeing was that that’s hard in incoming leads, just arriving on the doorstep. We also started finding that the doors were easier to open. You would be approaching what you thought were cold contacts that heard of you. Having published a book, for example, was a great way to knock down a door.
After that, it slowly builds up the database and the mailing list. As we start focusing on another way for business development, we’ve got a whole bunch of people through LinkedIn or through having subscribed to our various blogs. We know that they are at least aware of us. We have some reference point, which they like something at some point. It gives me as a salesperson some confidence. These people clearly have heard of me and liked something otherwise they wouldn’t have subscribed. Selling is about emotion. It gives you a good deal of confidence and it does make it a lot easier. When people feel that you’re not just another salesman, you’re the guy who wrote that thing that they liked.
There’s vague acknowledgment that’s like, “You’re a pretty good guy. You gave stuff for free. I quite liked it. I must have liked it otherwise, I wouldn’t be on your email list.” It softens then and gets through that first meeting. Once you get in the first meeting, then you’re on your own, you’re going to do stuff. It took a while but now it’s right at the heart of pretty much everything. It’s driven an extra conference business, which we didn’t have before. We’re now getting regularly paid conferences from conference organizers and also from clients. We’ve had plenty of big clients coming in, writing and saying, “I’ve read this and I liked it. Can we talk about this?”
Coca-Cola is not a small fish, so it’s certainly working for you. You are a marketing and a sales guy. Knowing what you know now, if you’re just starting your marketing, whether you’re starting a new business or just an existing consulting business, but you weren’t doing much with marketing, what strategy or tactic would you utilize with the idea that your goal was to start generating leads as quickly as possible? Would it be content? Would it be something else? What would you do if someone said, “Your task is bringing in more leads for the business?” What would you start with?
Probably to a detriment, we thought we were good at marketing and sales because we’ve done marketing and sales in a consumer goods environment where the world is completely different. You’re marketing to consumers first of all and it’s quite different from B2B marketing. Secondly, you’re selling to ongoing customers. If you work for Procter & Gamble and you’re selling to Walmart, you’re not selling from scratch. You’re not walking in every day and hoping that they’re going to buy something. You have an ongoing relationship and they’ve got to buy stuff. Walmart’s not going to do without Procter & Gamble. It’s quite a different relationship and that blinded us at the beginning because we didn’t think we knew sales and marketing. It took a little bit of time to realize that when you’re in startup land, you’re in the B2B land, you need to think differently. Having said that, I personally would still go back down to the content route because the point being is there are two things that are required.
One is something that’s going to differentiate you from every other consultant who’s banging the door. Having been in corporate, knowing what it’s like and knowing how terrible most cold calling emails are, you just delete. Content has a number of different dimensions and advantages to it. Firstly, if you use that in a B2B environment, targeting a relatively large corporate, LinkedIn is a great place to publish content. You can get out there, you can get awareness if you’re prepared to wait and build it consistently. It builds awareness, but it also gives you the opportunity to build a point of difference, to mark yourself out and to talk about your point of view, talk about some practical stuff and getting it to build that image.You learn by doing, you perfect by doing. Click To Tweet
It also helps with the sales effort. You’ll see you’re building mailing lists, but you’re also building a database of stuff that you can mail to people. One of the learnings we’ve had is that all of these blogs we’ve used again and again, they’re great for sending to a prospect. They’re great for keeping a prospect warm who has gone cold over a few months and you haven’t heard anything. You see something in the press and you say, “I’ve written that blog a year ago, I thought you might find it interesting.” You’ve got this constant pile of stuff. The downside is it takes time, but the upside on supporting the sales and marketing is great.
The other thing is it helps the consulting business. It’s been a flow of new ideas. To write, you have to read, which means you’re aware of what’s going on in your marketplace. You’re engaging with people who may never be your clients. Through conversations on LinkedIn, you have sparked an idea that turns into a 35-minute conference presentation or worked out into a two-day training program. All from an idea that came from a blog, that came from a thought and you suddenly say, “How come that we can’t do that? Why is everyone asking questions? I thought that was obvious.”
Before you know it, you’ve got a new product. It’s a way for me of engaging with the topic area, in a way that is quite creative as well as engaging with an audience, as well as creating sales support systems. For me, it works really well. The advice I would give is it takes time and don’t think that buying an outbound marketing system is the answer. It takes a lot of grinds, a lot of waking up on a Monday morning and thinking, “I don’t know what to write, but I just have to write,” because you have to be there consistently to eventually find people cutting through the noise. My LinkedIn feed is jammed full of tons of stuff and somehow, you’ve got to get to the stage where people are thinking, “I like what Michael writes. I’m getting cut through on that,” and that takes time.
It certainly does take time and commitment. The benefits, the rewards and the dividends can be significant but it certainly does require the energy, the effort and the consistency. Looking at the experience you’ve had building your consulting business and knowing other consultants as well, what is the most common mistake that you see consultants making that maybe you made in the early years? Looking back, you know that if you hadn’t made that, there would have been greater growth or a greater impact. What’s the most common or biggest mistake that you feel that you have made in the past?
The most important thing is selling is everything, because behind that are so many mistakes. Mistakes we made in over-engineering our product to make it perfect. You test it right with the client once and you realized that it’s far from perfect but it was still brilliant, and it was still light years ahead of anything that the clients have ever seen before. You are spending time waiting for this ready, aim, fire or else you ready, aim and never fire it because the product’s not quite right. We haven’t got up website is not right, how can we perfect that? We’re over-engineering everything in our business and some of that probably comes from a corporate world, but I then see it again and again. People are saying, “I want to get it right. I’ve been working on my pitch pack for the last three months.” Just get out there and pitch it, you’ll learn it’s pretty damn good already. Has it got the core fundamental bits of a pitch pack, yes or no? Get out there and do it. You learn by doing, you perfect by doing, but you can waste an enormous amount of time and you need to get out there and sell because you need that cash. That probably sums it all up. Whatever you’re doing, if it’s not getting you in front of a client, is that really a priority right now?
That is absolutely great advice. I wholeheartedly believe in exactly that and it is so true. Many people will find excuses and reasons to stay comfortable. They continue to plan, prepare, think and do everything they can to not get out there. Ultimately, it’s the feedback from the actual clients and from the actual marketplace that will tell us very quickly if we’re on the right track or if we’re not. Even if we’re not, even if we learned that we’ve made a mistake and there’s room for improvement, we’re now one step closer to ultimately achieving what we want and getting the result that we want. Mike, thank you so much for coming on here to The Consulting Success Podcast. I appreciate you sharing a bit of your journey story and best practices with us. What’s the best way for people to learn more about your work and to connect with you?
You can find me on LinkedIn. It’s probably the easiest place to find me. You can email me at [email protected]. Reach out and grab me. Ping me a note on LinkedIn or on email and I’ll be glad to answer your questions or tell you more about what I do.
Mike, thanks again so much.
Thank you, Michael. It’s been a pleasure.