My guest on this episode is UK-based consultant Stefan Drew, who is also known as the Marketing Magician. He works mainly in the education sector, but he has a wide breadth of experience — from international environmental organizations and national membership organizations to web design for local companies. He is known for producing great ideas “out of thin air,” and his clients rave about the ROI that they receive after working with him. He has many years of experience and wisdom, and on this episode of Consulting Success you’ll hear several inspiring stories that will ignite your desire to take your business to the next level. If you’re trying to create greater visibility, wondering whether or not you should specialize your business, or hoping to discover the one secret to quick consulting success, you need to listen to this episode of Consulting Success with Stefan Drew.
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Increasing your visibility, specializing, and cultivating relationships in your network are three of the most powerful ways to launch yourself toward consulting success.
Stefan Drew on The Magic of Specializing So You Can Turn Requests for Work Away
I’m very excited because we have with us Stefan Drew. Stefan, I’d like to have you explain to everyone a little bit about what you do, and I want to welcome you to the podcast.
I’m a consultant based in the UK, working mainly within the further education sector in the UK. Having said that, I do a bit of work overseas as well within education. 90%of my work is within education, but you can soon get stale if you work in the same sector all the time, so I do work with a lot of other sectors as well from time to time, anything from international environmental organizations to national membership organizations. I actually designed and built a website, which is something I very rarely do for a local painter and decorator. I learned a lot by doing it.
You’re working here with higher education, some leading institutions in the education space, all the way down to taking on some products for a local painter.
That’s what gives me the breadth and I got to the stage where I can pick and choose a lot who I take as a client. If they don’t excite me, I don’t want to do it. I won’t do it.
How long have you been working in the education space?
As a consultant, on this occasion, for about twelve or thirteen years. I’ve had a period within education previous to that. I started working in education initially on a full time basis as an employee back in the 1980s.
A lot of people are interested in terms of the path of your journey. Just take us back to when you started your consulting business, whether it was twelve, thirteen years ago. What did that transition look like? What kind of job did you have full time? How did that transform into consulting?
I was at the time the Head of Marketing at a medium-sized further education college in UK. Prior to that, I also worked as a Director of Marketing for two quite large colleges. I have also been Head of Press Publicity and Marketing for the second largest government department in the UK. I got a wide range of experience mainly in the education sector. I got to the stage where I’ve been five years where I was. I had a new boss come in. To be honest, he and I didn’t see eye to eye. One of us had to go, and he was new. He wasn’t going to go. I decided to leave, and I must admit it was one of the scariest times of my life. I’ve been a consultant before, but suddenly being in a position of saying, “I’ve got to do this now and I want to do it at this stage, I’ve got to do it at this particular time,” became quite scary. When I started in education as a marketing manager, I was the first one in the UK to be appointed full time. I knew very little, but it didn’t matter because I knew slightly more than everybody else. At this time, twelve years ago when I decided to go alone again, I realized that a lot of other people are doing what I was doing. When I started, I started in traditional marketing. Internet was very new. We didn’t have a website where I was working. In fact, there were only a handful of websites around in the world. It was entirely new. Fax was a big thing in those days, it’s that long ago.
What gave you the confidence to actually move forward? What you’re sharing right now is a challenge or at least a thought that comes into the mind of many consultants, especially in the early stages, but also when they make shifts within their business, which is, “Am I really good enough? Do I have the expertise to be successful? Do I have what it takes?”It sounds like you hit that point at that time. What got you through it? What helped you to make the decision that, “I do have this, I’m going to go for it.”
I was left with no choice. I had to leave where I was. I had two choices. It was either take another full time job or go into consultancy. To be honest, I had a gut full of working for other people. I really wanted to go alone. I had to sit down and look back over my career and say, “Let’s look at the successes I’ve had, and let’s just put aside my fear.” That’s tough. It’s hard. I was at that stage fairly newly married and I didn’t want to admit to my partner or tell my wife that I couldn’t do it. I told her I was going do it. I then had to do it.
With a stomach full of fear, you still took action?
Yes. I did what looked like a wise thing at the time but it was probably quite foolhardy. Rather than focus purely on the sector I was in, the education sector, I had some experience and I have been an Executive Director of a very large environmental consultancy, I thought I can focus on environmental consultancies and education, and back it up with a third option of SME, Small and Medium-sized Enterprise. It was a stupid thing to do because what you do is to spread yourself so thinly you can’t do anything properly. To be fair, it worked fairly well to begin with, because where I thought I was going to get a lot of work in the education sector, for the first three months nothing came through the door whatsoever. I had no work for three months, and then I had three jobs come in, in one week. That kept me going for some time, and then the education sector dried up and the environmental sector suddenly caught in. I landed some work with some very prestigious clients I could claim it was due to hard work and diligence and such like, but there was a lot of luck that went into it as well.
For those listening wondering, when you launched and you had these three different segments or industries that you’re potentially going to be targeting, what steps did you take to generate business?
All the usual ones in those days, websites, set up an email list, I went and sold to people, I networked. I did all the traditional things. I was spreading myself too thin. I have spent a long time working in marketing, and I suddenly realized at that stage that I knew nothing about marketing. I’ve been very successful in marketing when I had an organization behind me, but working for yourself is a different world. I went out and I found a guy that was running some marketing courses online. I looked at it, it was quite expensive, but I thought he looks as if he’s doing things a slightly different way. I signed up for an online course with him. I learned more about marketing from this guy than I’ve learned in the previous twenty odd years. It’s just a different way of looking at things, not taking things for granted, always questioning and questioning. “Is there a better way of doing that? Is there a better process?” That set the scene for the rest of my working life because now I don’t take anything for granted. At present, it’s much easier to find work. I don’t go looking for work very much, it finds me basically. I turn away work from time to time quite often in fact.
You mentioned that you spread yourself too thin, but then it also worked out for you. For someone who may be in a similar situation right now, what would you say to them? Are you recommending that people need to have one clear focus and really just put 100% of their energy into that, or is it okay for them to have two or three different segments or industries that they’re targeting?
I would say you need to focus very strongly. What I did was foolhardy, I was very lucky. I got away with it in those days because there weren’t that many people that were really an expert at anything in marketing. There were a lot of people doing marketing. That was part of my fear, that a lot of people were doing it, hundreds and hundreds of marketing people in the world, thousands of them in my country. You’ve got to go beyond being an expert. I know a lot of marketing experts, self-proclaimed and otherwise, but you’ve got to be seen as an authority in quite a small area of work. I’ve been working recently with a colleague, someone you know very well, Ian Brodie, doing a lot of work on how to become an authority. One of the things that I knew already and have been doing for the last twelve years, Ian codified it for me really and put it into words. It was that you have to have a very distinctive point of view. Just being another me-too marketing person or me-too consultant just doesn’t hack it any longer. All you’re doing is competing against everybody else of similar vein. You’re really a commodity. You’ve got to be seen as being the go-to guy over that one particular issue.
For example, in this country now, I’m seeing colleges claim all the time they don’t have enough money to do things, with funding being cut. I see that in a lot of public sector organizations, it’s not just colleges and that’s not just this country. When you say, “My distinctive point of view,” it’s quite disruptive in some ways as well, is to say there’s actually no shortage of money. You’re just not spending it very wisely. That doesn’t go down very well with some people, of course, but then I go on to explain that. For example, in this country, colleges tend to build vanity buildings, great big buildings that they only occupy for about 30 weeks of the year. Twenty weeks a year students are on holiday or exams or whatever, so buildings aren’t used very well at all. My view is if they taught over 50 weeks of the year, or in 30 weeks, and restructure the whole of education, the buildings’ going to be much smaller, less money would be spent, and you would have enough money. That’s a simple way of looking at it, and that applies in many businesses. By being distinctive, in my point of view and clearly upsetting some people along the way who say he doesn’t understand, that’s fine, but some people will start to look at it and say, “There may be a bit of sense in this. I need to talk to this guy.”
Even though you had the background in education, you were able to apply it to environment or other areas. For people who are looking at their business and saying, “I have a lot more than just one area that I can offer.” What’s your experience there? What wisdom can you share with them, or even insights or observations as to why it’s so important to hone in on one clear focus rather than going in two or three different directions?
Don’t spread too thinly. Instead of as I did going for environmental education and everything else. I would certainly know, if I was back in those days, cut out everything else and just do two. I would then apply this distinctive point of view to both of them, so I can apply that point of view to education and say, “I can show you how to do it, how to spend your money more wisely. In my case, my special is in marketing, but it often spreads into management as well. I get called into a lot of the other things. I often get called in to do marketing, but what they really need is management help. I can apply that to the education or environmental sector. I could apply it to any sector, that point of view in actual fact, but if I start doing that again, I’m spreading myself too thinly. I’ll be remained focused.
You mentioned gratitude. You feel grateful. You don’t take things for granted anymore. What really drives you to do what you do? You’ve been doing this for a while. It’s not just your first few years you’ve been developing your business. You’ve built it to a level of great success where you are able to choose which clients you take on. What drives you to do what you do?
I love what I’m doing. Any job, if they don’t really enjoy what they’re doing, they’re in the wrong job. You really need to look at what you’re doing and say this isn’t for me. The love of what I do drives me forward. I hate to see waste, so anything I can do to improve the sector I’m working in, to cut the waste, to improve the quality and such, great. I like to teach. Consulting is a form of teaching to me to help other people, so they all drive me forward. I’m now 65, I could retire. No, thanks. I don’t want to retire. I love what I’m doing. I don’t want to work full time either, to be fair. Really, for the last eight or ten years, I haven’t worked full time. I work part time. I believe that most of us work far too hard, and there’s no necessity for it. If you’re a good consultant and could get good day rates, then why do you need to actually work five, six, seven days a week? Now I know some people in the younger days may want to do that to build financial security. That’s not what I wanted in my life. I’ve got enough, you can be perfectly happy with far less than many would think we need. Having said that, I’m not poverty stricken either.
Where did that come from? A lot of people are very focused on money. They’re very focused on the feeling that they’re doing enough. They’re spending their time getting things done, checking things off a list. Your approach and what you’re sharing over the last eight years or so has been one that’s very different than that. What makes you feel that way? Why take that approach as opposed to what a lot of people do, which is the exact opposite?
What a lot of people do is they work hard and earn as much as they can, and say, “When I got enough, I can retire, go fishing, play golf, or whatever.” My view is life’s too short for that. I would love to go fishing and play golf now rather than later. I moved to a nice part of the country over here some years ago. I can there walking a lot, I walk the beach, the cliffs, and the hillsides. I enjoy doing that. If I wait until I’m another five years older or ten years older, whatever age you are, then you may not last that long. One of our colleagues, other guy you know, Mike Seddon, died last year. He was 51. He worked hard all his life. I knew Mike very well. We used to go drinking together. Mike did play hard as well. If you’re always working and you die, what was it all about?
What really was the impetus for you to see things in this way, to really start appreciating living life now rather than saving and preparing for later? Was it something specific that happened?
It was may be the fact that I re-married about thirteen or fourteen years ago. I’ve been married previously, I had children, married and broken up, I’ve been alone. I’ve had a few encounters along the way, but I haven’t settled down with anyone until I met my present wife over a decade ago. At that stage, I suddenly thought, “I haven’t got time to waste any longer. I’ve got to live life for now, not for later. That’s been part of it maybe.
You’re picking and choosing which clients you work with now. You’re able to make a very good living working part time. Things sound really wonderful, but I’m sure that you’ve encountered challenges along the way as all of us have. What stands out from a business perspective? What’s one of the biggest challenges that you’ve faced as you work to grow your business?
The biggest challenge I had was about six years into the business. Although I had slowed down, I was doing less. That seem to be working. Suddenly I got a dry period for six or seven or eight months were very little work came in. I had to sit back and think, “I’m doing something wrong? I didn’t know what it actually was really, it was just one of those things that sometimes you get a dry period. Sometimes things aren’t as good as you expect them to be. We know the dips and troughs that we all get in business. I looked at that and I think my marketing then wasn’t as good as it should be. Who’s good at marketing, who’s bad at marketing, but market here is a pretty bad at marketing their own businesses very often. I looked at my business and I thought, “I have not been focusing enough time on marketing, I’ve been busy. I’ve got to even out the workload in terms of marketing my own business. That’s where I started to bring in more distinctive point of view. I’m trying to be doing something all the time steadily. One of the things I’ve done for five or six years now is to write a regular article for a leading website in this country that is really targeted at my sector. It’s called FE News. It’s aimed at the formal education sector. I got a feature on there once a month. I know the editor very well. We live quite close together.
Is that the best source of your business now, would you say?
Yes, it is. It does two things, as a matter of fact. That and LinkedIn is the other one that works very well for me personally. Again, you have to put the time and effort into that, a few minutes a day probably, that’s all. Writing the articles, I can write one good article a month, and that goes out to a lot of people to the extent that I’m known quite radically. I don’t have an email list any longer. I actually dumped my email list a few years ago. It was no longer working for me. Part of the reason that wasn’t working was that a lot of people I work with tend to stay in a job for about five years and move on. We were getting a 20% degradation of the email list all the time, year on year. Suddenly if you don’t do anything about it for twelve months or more, you have a list that’s got less and less value in it, which is a different situation, too, if you’re selling a product where you’re selling to the person a personal basis, not on a business basis, then they’re using their personal email that doesn’t change. Business emails obviously change each time someone who used it moves on to another job. I decided in the end to dump my email list. I’m not going to hassle with any longer, and to actually write for more magazines and such. Speak at conferences as well, that helps a bit.
Some people who are listening might say I don’t live next door to the editor of my chosen publication and I’m not able to go drinking with them. For those people who are not in that situation, how would you suggest or just what was your experience of getting into that publication? How can others learn from your experiences so they can position themselves in front of their chosen publication to reach their ideal clients? What are some of the best practices around that?
When I started writing for this particular website, I didn’t know the editor either. I was doing another part of the contract. I didn’t know him personally. He employed a few staff, I didn’t know them. I just made an approach and said I got a point of view. “You don’t seem to be carrying much in marketing articles, how can I get onto your list of writers? Do you want me to put a few ideas for articles, or would you like to see a specimen article?”I approached him like that.
Did you get a response right away?
Yeah, I did in actual fact, and I’ve done that with quite a few other magazines in this country. One of the biggest ones, the Times Educational supplement I wrote them a couple of years ago and said, “I’ve got an idea for an article, are you interested?” They said, “Send it over,” and they used it. I know the editor there in terms of knowing through email. If I want to write another piece, I would just drop them a note and say, “I got an idea about X. Are you interested?” It doesn’t take that much time. I must admit that takes me back to my traditional marketing days where I did a lot of PR work in those days, writing media releases. What we used to call press releases in those days, is what I call media release now because it’s more than just the written newspaper. That set me in a good stead for what I do now, writing articles. I’ve also got listed on a website that lists people with expertise in particular topics. A journalist would go to the website, look for someone with expertise in Google AdWords or websites or education or whatever it might be, and select from there. Lots of countries have these. In this country, it’s Expert Sources. In America, it will be HARO, Help A Reporter Out. I don’t know what you’ve got in Canada, but every country got something like that. Getting listed on there is useful. Some of these places are paid for, others are free. It’s a good investment.
Wasn’t it writing that got you out of that dry spell for six to eight months when things weren’t taking off? Was it the writing that got you out of that? What was it that actually helped you to get through that time and ultimately come up the other side successful?
Writing, radio as well, I did quite a few radio interviews with BBC. I dropped letters, I emailed people, I phoned people. That’s the cold calling way of doing things. That’s always the hardest one. Getting personal introductions has always worked very well for me. I have been very fortunate in that the first person I ever worked for in the education sector who was the youngest principal in the country at the time, has had a very good career in education. In recent years, he and I worked together a lot. We’ve worked together for 30 years, I suppose. He’s helped me build my profile, so tagging along with someone else that’s doing something similar. He was a principal, I was a marketing director working for him, but that relationship has been very useful. It’s our network that helps us so much.
Things like radio for example, I’ve done a lot of radio. I can’t honestly say I’ve ever sold anything as a direct result of doing radio, but it does give you a great credibility. I’ve published a few books. Do they sell anything? Not in my case, no. There are lot of people publishing books these days. To become an Amazon bestseller actually isn’t that difficult. If you say to someone, I’ve got an Amazon bestselling status, I got a book or so, so does a lot of people. Basically, it’s me-too marketing again. It does give you credibility if you can put the book on someone’s desk and say, “Can I leave this for you? You might find some interesting articles in there.” That gives you credibility. On its own, it’s never sold for me.
It’s the credibility, it’s the exposure, it’s the visibility, it’s the authority, the content, whether it’s radio or articles or books that you are putting out. A lot of people might look at that and say, “You’re not generating direct revenue from it.”What keeps you going? From a mindset perspective, why continue doing those things if you’re not seeing a direct connection to it?
Because indirectly they work very well. They do give me credibility and profile. I had a client many years ago, he was an architect in actual fact, who went into the office one day and he said, “I’m going to introduce you to the team this morning. I need to introduce you.”He said to them, “I want you to meet Stefan, he is our Marketing Magician.” I listened to that and I thought, “Marketing Magician, that sounds fantastic. I’m going to trademark that.” Within a day I trademarked the phrase. One of the things I’ve done over the years is to keep that going. When people interview you on the radio, for example, even for you today, a day later, a week later, people probably won’t remember my name, but they may well remember the guy was called the Marketing Magician. That has really worked well for me. It makes you stand out a little bit more, it gives you a bit more visibility.
One of the first big interviews I ever did for radio was something that taught me a lot. I was in Berlin in November 1989 when the Wall came down. To be in Berlin when the Berlin Wall was coming down, you were part of history being there. Every day is history in some sense, but this is history people will remember. Rather than just sit down and enjoy it, which I did, I did something else. I went to a call box in the middle of Berlin and phoned my local radio station back in the UK, and said, “Who have you got reporting in Berlin? They said the BBC have got someone there but we haven’t got anyone, we’re just a small local station.” I said, “You have got someone there, I’m that person.”Within three minutes, two minutes probably, I was actually on air from a call box in Berlin being introduced by the presenter in the studio back in the UK. Again, it’s taking those opportunities and sensing an opportunity and using it, building a profile all the time. Did that bring work directly? Of course not. What it did bring me was the opportunity to write some articles and some chapters for various books.
A lot of these come back to you building momentum. Even though that one action or activity doesn’t create a direct result, it builds momentum that then layers on to something else, and ultimately there is a result. If you hadn’t taken that first step, you wouldn’t have gotten the results, but a lot of people might look at that and say, “It’s a lot of work and I don’t know if it’s going to pan out.”Even if they tried it, they might stop because they wouldn’t see the result right away. If you were to start a brand new consulting business today, what would be the first thing that you would do to really move the business forward, to start growing and gaining that momentum and generating revenue? What would be that first step that you would take?
The first thing I would do is I would go back six months before I started the consultancy and start building visibility at that stage. Trying to start on the day you start your business is almost too late. You’ve got to somehow build up a profile before that in the employment you’re already in so people can turn around and say, “Yes, I know who that person.”In fact, I’ve got a friend of mine now, I can’t give any details. He handed his notice in last week as a senior executive in a very large company, his staff doesn’t know that he’s going yet so I can’t reveal who he is. He was working a six month-notice period, but he’s already started to build his profile now. He’s got a good profile where he works as an employee and a senior executive, but he’s now beginning to say to people in the sector, people that he has known and trusted for some years, “Just to let you know, I will be retiring from my present employment fairly shortly, in six months’ time. I will be looking for work and we need to have a chat sometime about how you and I might work together.”
It’s about putting that seed out there before you even start, and then building that momentum. He’s got time now to build a website. He doesn’t have to launch it immediately, but he can get it built. He’s got time to put together all these brochures, everything he need, all these marketing he needs and his contacts, he’s got time to do now that most of them are employed. If you try to start just on day one without any preparation whatsoever, which I suppose to an extent is what I did, and it took me three months to get my first work. That almost proves that that doesn’t work very well. It’s preparation.
A lot of people these days are looking for that instance win. They’re looking for magic, right? They’re looking for the one thing that they can do or the secret strategy that will somehow give them that first big win or that next big win. What you’re sharing, what I’ve observed myself over business many years in working with hundreds of clients is that rarely is it just one thing. It’s many things and consistent action that you’re taking. Just to those people who might be looking for the one strategy or the one step that they can take, what would you say to them from your own experience?
I don’t think you need to work very hard for many hours on marketing your business, but you do need to work every day on marketing your business and consistently. That might only take a few minutes. Going back to networking again, it’s easy to link with someone on LinkedIn that looks as if they might be interesting. A friend of mine phoned me and said, “I’ve just linked to this guy on LinkedIn, he’s a chief executive of a very large company I’ve been stalking for years, I’d love to do business. What do I do now he’s linked with me?”I said, “Whatever you do, do not send him a sales letter. Stand back, think it through.” What I advised him was to say, “Look at the groups he is in, go into those groups, stalk him for a little while, have a look and see what’s happening. If you can make a sensible comment on a group discussion that he might say or something he’s commented on, then gradually he will start to see you become higher profile. At some stage you might say I’ll be looking on his website all the time, seeing what they’re doing, checking the news, and there’s lots of ways you can automate that with technology these days from Google Alerts and lots of other things to get news on a company or an individual.
If I could see something that was relevant and I had something useful to say or advice to offer, I would send to him. It might be as little as a newspaper cutting that you cut out of a paper, put in an envelope, and send to them. It might be that you just scan it and email it to them, but just a note saying, “I know you’re expanding at the moment. I thought you might find this useful. Or I know your industry’s going through such and such, here’s what another industry is doing with the same problem.”Anything at all like that, just to raise your profile. It’s not going to be a slimy way of doing things that we see some people do, but genuinely. It comes with a genuine want to help people. If you want to help them, then you do it the natural way. If you try to force it, it really doesn’t work at all. It gets seen the wrong way. It looks sleazy.
Oftentimes, the right way to do it where you’re spending more time cultivating a conversation and a relationship, it can take more time. It might not be as quick as just blasting off a promotional message and talking about yourself and how good you are. That’s what a lot of people will revert to because they don’t have the patience. We’re in a society these days where most places, everything is instant, and so we’re looking always for what can we do right now to get a result right now. The business of consulting is really about relationships. It’s putting in that time and cultivating those relationships and strengthening them. It can take more time, but as long as you’re doing it the right way with the right approach and you’re doing it consistently, that’s where the magic starts to happen.
I recall right early on when I started, I wrote to quite a few college principals. One, I emailed her and said, “I’m starting a big business but we’ve not mapped but I thought you’d be interested. I know your sector very well.”She came back within twenty minutes and said, “Come and have coffee with me. I went and had coffee, we had a long chat for an hour and a half or so. An hour and a half in a chief exec’s time is a lot of time. At the end of it she said, “I’d love to do business with you, but you’re just too expensive. We’re a relatively small organization. There were several million, but she’s thought they were small. I can’t afford to do business with you. You’re too expensive.” I said, “That’s fine. I understand that, times are tight. Can you just go into my website now a moment and sign up to my newsletter” Those days I was doing a newsletter, I just started it.
For seventeen months she read my newsletter quite avidly. I sent here the occasional note, newspaper cuttings as I was talking about. I had a phone call one morning from her PA saying, “Can you come and see Heather, ideally today or tomorrow? She needs your help.” I went along, I actually said, “ I’m too busy, actually. I can come Friday.” The first thing she said is, “This is a problem. When can you start?” I said, “I’m too expensive.” She said, “You were then. I wasn’t desperate then, I’m desperate now.” I said, “You still don’t know me.” She said, “I’ve been watching you for seventeen months. I do know you, and I know you can do it for me. I know who else you’ve been working for. I’ve done a bit of checking. You’ve done some work with so and so. I need you here now. Can you do it?”That cultivating really does work long term.
Stefan, thank you so much for sharing all this. What is one book right now or resource, that you’ve enjoyed recently on the topic of business or business growth that others might enjoy as well?
A book called Pre-Suasion. I can’t remember all the details, but just order it. Of all the books I’m reading most, I’m reading cookery books. There are some lessons in cookery for us as consultants. One of the things that chefs do, they do mise en place. They put everything in its place before they start. They do the preparation. Everything is prepared before the oven goes on or the pan comes out. It’s a matter of adding things to the pan as you go along to the dish. There’s no dashing off and saying, “Do I have that ingredient?” They have total preparation. Based on the books I’ve been reading recently, I would say preparation is what I’ve learned from those books.
I appreciate your time and you sharing with us. For those that want to learn more, I know you don’t have a newsletter, but for those that want to reach out to you and see what you’re up to you, what’s the best place for them to connect with you?
Thanks so much.