Consulting firms struggle in developing their personal brand, not knowing that it is the key ingredient in creating leverage and building authority in the consultancy field. As successful companies grow, they tend to forget this key ingredient which then leads to laxity. Tendayi Viki, Associate Partner at Strategyzer, holds a bird’s-eye view of this tight spot. Author of The Corporate Startup, Tendayi shares how his books paved the way to build his personal brand and reveals the three things that hinder people from writing. Giving nuggets that would help consultants to develop their personal brand, he touches on Dorie Clark’s three pillars of being a thought leader. In this episode, discover Tendayi’s pricing strategy and why most successful companies have to worry about the future.
I’m very excited to have Tendayi Viki joining us. Tendayi, welcome.
Thank you. It’s a pleasure to be here.
You help elephants do ballet. What does that mean, Tendayi?
I work with large companies. I help them acquire and use startup practices, processes and behaviors. That’s pretty much what it means to help elephants do ballet.
It’s an interesting way to describe what you do. Why did you come up with that or why do it that way?
I don’t know where it came from. I must have read it in an article somewhere. It stuck with me. Some people make a comparative difference between speed boats and oil tankers. I help oil tankers behave like speed boats.
What’s the reaction been to that way of introducing yourself or describing what you do?
It’s been interesting. I’ve got a book, which does another play on that same metaphor. It’s called Pirates in the Navy. Steve Jobs once famously said, “It’s better to be a pirate than to join the Navy.” He was talking about the distinction between startups and large companies. I thought, “If you’re going to be an entrepreneur or an innovator inside a large company, you’re effectively a pirate trying to operate within the confines of the Navy.” How do you do that well? Some of that visual metaphor stuff helps people wrap their heads around some of the complexity that they have to deal with.
When I was preparing for our conversation and reading and watching some of your stuff, I saw you introduce yourself in that way. I said, “That’s interesting,” because a lot of people describe themselves in ways that are not memorable. “I’m a marketing consultant,” or “I’m a management consultant,” or “I work with organizations,” things like that you can forget in 30 seconds. Other times people try and describe what they do in a way that becomes so complex or convoluted or even cute that you don’t still understand. Here you’ve created something that or used something that I would imagine when you use it, people say like, “What does that mean?” That helps you to create a conversation, which is what consultants, experts and thought leaders are all after. It’s to create conversations with those that we want to serve to learn more. Thanks for sharing that. You’ve written four books on innovation. At what point in your career did you decide to write and make that a core part of your brand?
There’s an element of me because I’m a former academic. I used to teach at a university. In the United States, you call them college professors. In the UK, they’re called lecturers. I was a university professor. I have a PhD in Psychology. I taught psychology for twelve years. During that time, I was doing a lot of writing anyway like publishing in peer review journals. I published over 40, 50 articles. Writing has always been part of what I do. When I left academia, I took a sabbatical to go do some innovation work with TSN, the global education company. I never went back to academia. What my academic background did give me was this sense of pattern recognition.
What being an academic forces you to do is to think about first principles. You have to be a first principle thinker. You have to think about the underlying principles that drive the things that you’re seeing. Whenever I’m doing work, I’m always looking and searching for those first principles that allow me to then be able to take this and do it again in a different context. Even though I might do it tactically differently, what are the first principles that inform the decisions that I would be making? Doing that then forces you to codify what you’re thinking about. The best tool that I found for me to think and codify what to do is writing. I ended up writing articles and books. That’s my way of expression.
Many people flirt with that idea of writing a book, but they don’t commit to it. Here you had the background right from academia. For those that don’t have that background, they know that writing or creating relevant content could help them. They haven’t found that driver to do it or there’s something holding them back. What have you seen even from maybe colleagues or your own experience can help people to get over the thinking and move to doing?
“Inspiration is for amateurs, professionals show up and start working,” I heard that somewhere. I don’t know who thinks that. There are three things. The first thing is people think they don’t have anything to say. They’re critiquing their experience as if it’s not worthy of sharing. What I found is that if you’re in the trenches doing real work, the stuff that you’re going through and the decisions that you’re making and the choices that you’re faced with, even the things that you’ve failed at are interesting stories to tell to help people gain an understanding of what they’re doing. The second challenge people face is that they’re waiting for inspiration. There is no inspiration. You have to sit at your desk and start typing. The final thing is people have writer’s block because they are looking for the perfect sentence. It never happens. There’s no perfect sentence. I work in innovation. One of the challenges that large companies face is they’re looking for the perfect business plan. They’re looking for the one idea that’s going to save the company.
The thing we know is that with everything that’s impactful, you have to do hundreds and hundreds of versions and hundreds and hundreds of attempts at the same idea before you come up with something interesting. I don’t know if you’ve ever read the book, Originals by Adam Grant. He talks about how you can’t ever write anything great until you’re comfortable with writing a whole bunch of rubbish all the time. He talks about how Shakespeare has ten or twelve plays that are great. He wrote hundreds of others that we don’t know about. Mozart wrote ten pieces that we know that are famous. Here wrote 500 others that we don’t know anything about. It’s the same thing with painting and art. I write for Forbes. I sit down on my desk, write and publish what I’ve written. I don’t even think about it. Some of my stuff has 400 views. Some of my other stuff has 11,000 views. While I’m writing, I don’t know which one is going to get the views. Some of the stuff that gets views surprises me. I suddenly realized there’s a thread there that I can pull out and maybe make that part of a book or something.
I’m nodding up and down because what you’re sharing is so powerful. Whether it’s applied to a large organization or to independent solo consultants, this is at the core of what holds people back. It’s waiting for the inspiration or things to be right, the environment around them or in some cases like their website has to be ready before they start contacting people and having conversations or they need to figure out how things should be down the road before they get there. All these things hold people back. I continue to see in different interviews as well as in my own life and through studies and reading that the most successful people in history are those who create. They don’t need to necessarily feel that creative feeling to create. The creative feeling comes from the actual process of creation and also recognizing that most of what’s created probably won’t work out. In doing that, that’s not where the gems are found. You have to start mining to find them. This is so powerful. Thank you for going into that.
The creative feeling thing, that’s a myth. There is no such thing.
I’ve had so many conversations about this with people. With my cousin’s son, we run a branding and design firm. We had many conversations about getting into that creative zone. A lot of people feel they have to somehow get into that creative zone. If you wait for that feeling to come, you might be waiting for a very long time. Tendayi, you’re now an associate partner at Strategyzer. You also have your own brand for your website, books, speaking. What are some of the best practices that you can share with those who maybe are partners in a firm, but they also want to develop their own personal brand?
There are a couple of things. I came to Strategyzer and I’ve only been with them for several months now. I came to Strategyzer already having a brand built up. Collaborating with Alexander Osterwalder is like a dream. He’s one of my all-time heroes. I love the work that he does. To get an opportunity to work with them every day, it’s inspiring. I came to them already having built up a brand cut. My intention was never to join another firm. It was to keep growing my own brand, to keep doing consulting as a solo practitioner. There was a big draw in terms of aligning my work and the work that the Strategyzer does. There’s a value there.Luck is when fortune meets preparation. Click To Tweet
There’s a value to my personal brand to have the association with Strategyzer. There’s a value to Strategyzer to have my brand also grow. That was something that I love about Alex for, which is he allowed two thinkers to share a platform, in fact, the same organization. I believe that even if you’re an employee inside that organization, you benefit by creating your own personal brand career-wise because sometimes now there’s no job for life anymore. We have to be in charge of building our own brand equity but also the partnership gained from that. As your personal brand reputation grows, so does the value in the partnership as well because all that brand equity accrues to the company. There’s a dual benefit there.
If you’re a partner in a consulting firm, part of the work that you have to do is to bring loads of revenue. Make sure that the company is succeeding in terms of the work that you’re doing. Part of bringing revenue and also even the level of fees you can charge for you keynotes or your consulting or your workshop. The more your personal brand goes up, the more fees that you can charge. I believe that it’s almost fundamental if you are a consultant to build your personal brand. It’s important.
I had this conversation at one of our coaching clients who runs a consulting firm now has about five or six team members. We’re talking about the opportunity for him to not only embrace but encourage his team members to more actively create their own content. Each one of them has an expertise, has an area that they’re interested in, rather than the founder solely trying to create content and be the sole expert. There’s a lot more value that can be created for the brand in total. For the purpose of even inbound inquiries and business development by having more people creating more contents, going to more conferences, engaging in more conversations that benefit both the individual and also the brand as well.
A lot of consulting firms struggle with having a large part of their staff not being billable. The reason why they’re not billable is that when the client turns up, they’re looking for the leader that drew them to the consultant firm. The more of those that you have, the better for the organization as a whole.
Tendayi, you’ve been the consulting world now for a while. You’ve worked with some very well-known organizations. What do you see as being some of the most common mistakes that consultants make when they’re trying to build their own brand and their business?
In the innovation space, in particular, the consultant turns up with a playbook and not sufficient practical pragmatism. It’s what I call the brutality of the lean startup coach. They show up to your organization and they open their playbook. Regardless of what’s going on in your company, you’re going to follow the playbook. What you end up with is repetition, “We need to talk to customers. Let’s go do customer interviews.” You say, “No, we’ve done some customer interviews and we have data and consultants.” He says, “No, you didn’t do them the right way. There’s a way to do it. It’s in my playbook.”
I find that consultants that are playbook followers and first principle thinkers, that’s a huge mistake. The role of the consultant is to create value. The best consultants ultimately make themselves redundant. That ability to leave the organization that you’ve passed through better off than when you first turned up, this is much more important than following your playbook because we’re not executing. We’re not building houses. You’re executing on it. Even when you’re building houses, the great architects are the ones turn up on location. That means either the terrain is a little bit different than they thought and they change the plan.
When you’re saying that, I’m envisioning a house that’s being built, all of a sudden there was a big tree trunk right coming out of the ground. If you try to build a house on top of it, your house would be as new. It would not sit flat. It will not be stable. If people weren’t willing to adjust their house a little bit to fit for that big root, you wouldn’t be on stable ground. Definitely, that’s the same in the consulting world. You’ve made your way onto the Thinkers 50 list. Congratulations on that. Clearly, you’ve made a mark. There are many people though who work in innovation and strategy who haven’t reached the level of visibility and success that you have. I’m wondering for the benefit of everyone reading this, what have you done that has helped you reach the place that you are now? Are there any specific actions or steps that you can look back on and say, “These had the greatest impact. These were the 80-20, 20% of actions that were done that had 80% of the actual impact.” What maybe stands out for you?
When I’m asked that question, I often feel that I need to be very honest in my response as well. Part of it is good fortune. I’ve been very blessed. I’m a Christian, so I feel blessed in the work that I’ve been doing to get the recognition that I’ve gotten. Those blessings, they meet you at a place where they say luck and fortune meets preparation. Dorie Clark says the three pillars of being a thought leader isn’t you have to write loads of content, produce lots of content, whether it’s writing or video speaking. Get social proof. I started getting support for that content and finding reasons why people should listen to you. Later on, build a network that allows the content to spread. In the beginning, I was willing to do anything for free to get content out into the world. I remember it used to frustrate my wife. “Why are you doing it for free?” I wanted to get the word out. I was willing to run workshops for free. I was willing to write articles for free. I was willing to speak at conferences for free to put my content out there. I ultimately knew that the thing I needed to do was to write a book.
With Dan Toma and Esther Gons, we buckled down to a year. I remember checking into a hotel in London and waking up on a Saturday and writing all day. Waking up the next day, first thing in the morning, 7:00 AM, writing again until almost 9:00, 10:00 PM. I remember that I knew I needed to do that. We took the small opportunity that was given to us because we published with a small Dutch company. We didn’t even publish with a major publisher. You start to get lucky. The book starts to make noise. It starts to get a bit of buzz. You win an award. Before you know it, you’re shortlisted for the Innovation Award with Thinker 50. You’re listed on On The Radar, the list of emerging thinkers.
All of these things connect to each other. None of these things happen unless you’re doing the work. What I would say to people is what you don’t want to do is to say, “I have a roadmap and my goal is to get to this place. I’m going to follow these particular steps.” What you want to do is say, “My goal is to create a reputation for myself. I know that these are the pillars, content, social proof and a network. I’m going to stop working. I’m going to put my best foot forward. As things emerge and opportunities come up, I’m going to grab them and use them because I know exactly what I want to use them for.”
How long were you doing the work for free? You mentioned you were writing for free, you were speaking for free, all that kind of stuff. How long was that period of time?Make hay while the sun shines. Click To Tweet
That was a couple of years, two, three years of doing that. I want to feed my family. I remember my first consulting gig. I was getting $150 a day or something like that.
That wasn’t 1943 or something?
That was 2004. It was $150 a day, $300 a day. It was enough money to put food on the table, but that wasn’t a big deal. I had to slow to build up that rep and get to work on too. It was long. It was difficult. It was hard.
You with two other coauthors wrote the first book, which was with a small Dutch publisher. You said it started to reach people or make an impact, gain some visibility. What did you do or what did the publisher do to make that happen? There are lots of people who publish books and nothing happens with those books. What did the three of you or the publisher do to create more visibility and exposure for the book?
When we first started, we didn’t do it on kickstarter. We did on a platform called Publisher. I’m using kickstarter as a verb here. We did a kickstarter campaign. That allowed us to get our first 250 buyers, which was a threshold needed to meet to introduce to Publisher.
How do you get those buyers for that? Do you use your email list and friends found out?
It’s an email list, friends, family, phoning clients. I offered a free workshop for one client. They bought a whole bunch of books. That was the hustle. That was grimy. That’s one person at a time. That’s the dirty elements of starting this stuff. You have to be willing to do things that don’t scale basically. You couldn’t build a career if that’s what you had to do all the time. At the beginning of your career, you have to do things that don’t scale. Pick up the phone, call people, have a conversation. It took me almost two months to get that 250. I did a Kickstarter campaign now for my book, Pirates in the Navy. It took me two weeks to sell $15,000 in sales. It’s different now.
I had to do that and that helped. When the book came out, we sent it to those people. I had this deal that I was doing. I was giving up money, payment for work to say, “I’ll come and do a workshop, but you have to buy 250 copies of my book for your company.” “I’ll come and give a keynote, but don’t pay me to do the keynote, buy 400 books and distribute it to everyone at the conference.” I was giving up actual money in order to get the book to go out. By doing that, you start to create that somebody else read the book and they recommend to somebody else. Until you plant those seeds out into the market, you’re not going to get that traction.
There are so much value and gold in what you’re sharing. There was a little nugget in there that you said that people shouldn’t be trying to scale or maybe in some ways like automate things, find the shortcut right away. That’s the mindset that a lot of people have. When I talked with consultants that we coach, a big challenge that people have is this mindset and it’s also because there are so many “gurus” out there saying, “Buy this or buy this new technology or this new social platform. It’s going to help you to get all these things done while you go to sleep and you’ll wake up and your life will be forever changed.” Building a business, which is what consulting is, it takes work especially at the starting stage or if you’re starting your marketing. You have to be prepared to put in that work.
As you said, you’re planting seeds. As things start to grow, all of a sudden you can do the things that people are telling you that you can do in terms of being able to create real leverage or for your book sales, it’s takes a whole while to get 250 sales the first time. Now down the road, you’ve built things up. You fill $15,000 in a much shorter period of time. We’ve certainly seen the same things. Many of our clients see the same things. It’s hard to feel and believe that you have to put in that work. Everyone’s looking for the shortcut early on. It’s so important to do that. I’m glad that you’re also sharing that. I hope that the audience is going to look at what they’re currently doing and ask themselves, “Maybe I can hustle a little bit harder. Maybe I can push a little bit more. Maybe I can plant more seeds now.” Because if you’re viewing this is a long-term game and not a short-term game, you’re going to benefit from that.
If you’re going to build and create it for short, you have to think about the small incremental steps that you have to take to get to where you need to go. Another thing that I want to say, I was doing this after having left a successful career as an academic, which means I had to go back down into the ground before I could come back up again. I could have stayed in academic. My next promotion was going to be tenure to become a professor. I was very close. I decided that’s not what I wanted to do. I wanted to become a consultant and build a consulting business. I had to go back down to the dirt and start doing work for free again and giving away stuff so that you can build a pattern and reputation around yourself. People should never be scared to do stuff like that.
How did your family feel about that? Your wife especially, I know you mentioned that she was saying, “Why do all this free work?” I talk with a lot of consultants who their spouse doesn’t totally get the entrepreneurial bug that they have. They want to go out on their own and leave their cushy corporate job. They’re not in total alignment with their spouse on doing that. What was that experience like for you?You can't ever write anything great until you're comfortable with writing a whole bunch of rubbish all the time. Click To Tweet
I had to show them proof. I had to earn every little thing that I got from my wife because she’s not part of the world that we’re living in. When you tell them, “I can make X amount of thousands from giving a keynote,” it didn’t make any sense. They’re like, “That doesn’t happen. You’re going to leave a real job for that?” She stuck with me so she didn’t leave me. She loved me through it all. I had to show, “It works. I’ve got this first thing.” Over time, it became clear that the path was right. You have to be brave through it because it’s hard especially when food on the table and children are involved. It’s very emotionally taxing.
You’ve mentioned pricing or dollars and pounds a few times in the conversation. What approach do you use for your pricing these days? When you’re consulting with an organization or when you’re giving a talk, how do you approach your pricing? Is it done on an hourly basis, daily basis, are you looking at retainers or value? What’s your approach to pricing?
It all depends on what it is. On workshops and keynotes, it’s a flat price. What I have to teach myself is to say a large number in the mirror. I still do that insecure thing where you type the number in the email, but you delete it. Then you go, “Let me type it again.” You have to make yourself press send. That’s something that I have to be disciplined about. The reason why I have to be disciplined about that is that I’ve lost a big, well-paying workshop because I acquiesced and configured to do something for cheaper on that day. Once that day was committed, I could not then go and cancel that day. In the meantime, another client came up and said, “We’ll pay you ten times for this, I’d like you to do a workshop.” I said, “I’m not available on that day.” I kicked myself. That taught me that I have to start thinking about my value and asking for that value more confidently. It’s still a struggle.
Our time is our most valuable asset. In conversations with consultants, it’s a challenge because the first feeling or tendency is to accept money. When there’s an opportunity in front of you, it’s like, “I’ll take that. I’m going to make some money and I’ll get to serve this client.” What they’re often not thinking about is, “Is this in line with my business model, my financial goals? Is this connecting to where I want to be?” It’s hard to write because at that time you’re thinking, “Nothing else will come so I might as well take this.” It all needs to fit because what if something else does come up? It’s a good lesson for people to have. Tendayi, you’ve said that the most successful companies should be worried about the future. I want to ask you what you mean by that and why that is. It stood out to me because I’ve had this conversation with clients before. I feel that successful entrepreneurs tend to be worried, but they’re able to channel that worry into growth and not falling into complacency. I’m interested to hear your take on why that is.
The most successful companies have to worry about the future because if you wait until you’re no longer successful to worry about the future, then it’s too late. You may not recover. That’s one of the reasons. You think about that when you’re still doing well because then you have the time, resources and attention. Also, it’s not an emotional thing for you. You’re making sensible decisions. You want to avoid putting yourself in a situation where you’re now reacting because you’re under pressure. You want to start thinking about the future. The work I do has led me to the ultimate truth about human beings, which is that there’s nothing that makes people more complacent than success.
Success can make people lazy to think about what could stop them from being successful. I’m not saying become somebody who doesn’t enjoy your success or smell the roses or any of that because you can also go too far. You don’t want to lie in the roses, drink champagne and never get up. My feeling is that a lot of the companies get disrupted because they’ve become so complacent that they no longer have the muscle of entrepreneurship. They’re now executing on what they’ve always done. When presented with a threat, they dismiss it as, “That’s too small to deal with us.”
I was listening to a podcast. The lady was describing the reaction of the Blockbuster CEO to the threat of Netflix. He was saying to her, “If that ever becomes anything, we’ll buy it.” You’ve gone too far. If your success has led you to that level of complacency, you’ve now gone too far. The reason why make hay while the sun shines is a piece of advice human beings get because it’s very hard to make hay while the sun shines. You want to go lying under the sun and you don’t want to be working. That’s a discipline that every human being should have. It’s the paradox of humanity, which is the more success you get, the more you should worry about being unable to sustain that business. You become complacent because of that.
The real optimal solution or at least the way that I try and approach it is the balance. Work hard towards achieving success and goals but do it in a meaningful way, which means that you’re not working to a destination and not enjoying the journey but rather making the most of every moment as much as possible. Recognize that there’s going to be a challenge. You’re going to get knocked down but you get back up. You don’t always push 100% on the accelerator, take time to slow down, coast and enjoy the sun. Enjoy everything around you, those moments because you never know what’s going to happen in life. Keep working towards something. Keep working towards what your ultimate goal is. If you do that, you get the best of both worlds. Tendayi, I want to thank you so much for coming on the podcast. I appreciate it. I’ve enjoyed this conversation. I want to make sure that people can also learn more about you and your work. Tell us where the best places to do that.
Tendayi, thanks again so much.
Thank you very much. I appreciate the conversation.