Inspiration

Julia's Key Learnings in Year 2 of Julia Reis Consulting

Julia Reis Consulting has just celebrated its second birthday. As last year, I like to use this occasion to look back a bit and reflect on my key learnings on freelancing, entrepreneurship and collaboration over the last 12 months.

These are my personal six key learnings of the last year:

Grow (or don't grow) for the right reasons

Luckily, business was going well for me over the last 12 months. At the beginning, I was still sceptical whether it would stay this way, but in spring 2020 I realized that demand might actually even continue to grow. I decided that the beginning of the Covid-19 crisis was one of the best points in time for me to start recruiting for my own team.

Why? My competitors for talent (mainly larger consulting companies) were putting their internship programs and hiring plans on hold, which meant that there was great talent available on the market, to whom I might not have access in normal circumstances.

For a start, I wanted to hire an intern to support me mainly in design and research tasks. And almost a dozen interviews and over 60 applications later, I hired Sherry, who was in the middle of her Management Master's degree at ESMT. This was a decision I never regretted. Almost a year later, she is still part of the team as a working student and hiring her enabled me to make a huge step in terms of branding and design both on our LinkedIn page (which is soon hitting 500 followers) and in our client presentations.

In autumn 2020 I then also had the chance to hire Anna as a Consultant, who I had worked with in my previous role at i-potentials. This again was a perfect fit, since we both preferred a flexible part-time collaboration at this point and she brought the necessary experience in the HR consulting sector to not only work on supporting tasks but also directly with some of our clients.

Many people ask me now: 

Do you intend to build a "real" consulting company instead of staying a freelancer?

This is a question I was (and still am) struggling with quite a bit.

On the one hand, the loyalty and satisfaction of our current clients as well as the continuous growth in interesting incoming leads would suggest that it might be possible for us to build a sustainable consulting business. On the other hand, one of the reasons for deciding to become a freelancer was the freedom it brought and the larger your company gets, the less feasible having some "free time" for yourself gets. What's more, many of our clients are specifically asking to work with us because of my quite special working style (sometimes described as "pragmatic perfectionism") which is hard to replicate or "delegate".

What's more: My impression is often that many people are pushed towards building larger ventures because it seems like the more "prestigious" route to take. But this doesn't seem like the right reason for growing for me.

When creating our new website this spring, I felt like I had to define our business set-up more clearly. I opted for defining our organization as a "freelancer plus" model. At least in the near future, I will remain the "chief consultant" driving most client projects, but I can also rely on strong support by a small but excellent team - benefitting both our clients and our possibilities for growth.

"If the fit is right, magic happens"
(one of my favourite quotes ever - by Chris O'Neill)

As much of the rest of the office business world, we collaborated almost 100% remotely within our team (as well as with our clients) over the last year. In our case, often even across many time zones since Sherry decided to return to her home in Taiwan due to the much more relaxed Covid situation there.

Nevertheless, I actually wasn't worried for much more than a second whether this would work. The reason: there is a true match between my team members and myself.

Even though we are diverse in some dimensions of our personalities and backgrounds, we share the same fundamental values. This enables us to work together very smoothly because we can implicitly trust each others' decisions.

If I had to name an additional success factor in our good collaboration, it would probably be our proficiency in using the right tools in a very systematic way. In our case, it's mainly asana and slack.

Know your priorities - and live with the consequences

Considering my decision above not to scale further by growing the team, I was still wondering in how far other ways to grow might be feasible.
"Productizing" a service like ours is not an easy feat but we nevertheless decided to give it a try!

After creating a shortlist of some possible products emerging from our consulting services, we prioritized the "Management Essentials Toolkit" as a first test balloon for us. While launching this digital product aimed at founders, managers and HR professionals, we would like to

a) learn about all the necessary steps and tools to build and sell a product and

b) check out the possible market for more toolkits / products allowing us to grow beyond our available hours.

Almost a year later, the product hasn't been launched yet. The key reason: a lack of priority.

While we are still convinced about this product and have actually completed it by about 70%, we prioritized accepting new client projects in most cases. This was a conscious decision (it's just very hard to say "no" to an interesting project in which we can provide good value to a client), but nevertheless we felt frustrated at times.

It pays off to plan your weeks in a deliberate way

With a constant booking rate at around 100% of our capacities, time management remained vital this year.

The most useful "hack" that I implemented in this context were "untouchable days" (inspired by this great article). It means that I blocked one day in my calendar every one or two weeks which I keep "meeting-free" as much as possible. Sometimes I just use it to work on client projects and sometimes I am even able to use some of it for strategic / internal topics or for working on our product mentioned above.

At first, I was sceptical about whether this would be realistic but once I put the big orange blocker in every week of my calendar, it actually worked much better than I expected (even though it meant having even more meeting-packed days over the rest of the week).

Diversification is key

Some might wonder why Covid-19 related learnings didn't feature very much in this list. This is due to the fact that we actually didn't really feel much of an impact on us when it comes to sales or existing projects.

Looking at the rest of the freelance consulting industry, I of course wondered about the reasons for this and what I could take away for any future crises. While luck and our specific client portfolio certainly played a role, two other factors were key:

  • Our diversified project portfolio: we actually work with between three to eight clients in any given month. So even if we lost one or two, we would still be able to retain a large chunk of our revenues in most cases.
  • Our less workshop-driven approach: many consultants in the HR space focus a lot on trainings and workshops whereas we only regard them as one part of our toolbox but also work a lot on more strategic / sparring-focussed or operational / hands-on projects. In the latter, there was actually even more work to do over the last year due to Covid since HR had to take the driver's seat in many respects even in companies in which it previously played a rather minor role.

"Bringing your whole self to work" can also work for freelancers - if you chose the right clients‍

Unfortunately, the last 12 months also included the sudden death of my grandfather in Hungary from Covid-19 in November. It was in this particularly difficult time, that I became especially aware of the power of strong and authentic relationships with your clients.

In my case, many of them supported me in my mourning more than I would have ever expected. Be it by just offering their condolences, showing understanding even in situations in which I had to start crying in the middle of a client call or by sending me flower bouquets. I cannot thank them enough for this. It helped a lot and proved to me how important it is to a) really be yourself in your work and b) work with clients who work with you on eye-level rather than just viewing you as "service providers".

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This got rather long and perhaps also a bit more transparent than initially planned, but I hope you enjoyed the read!

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Photo by Adi Goldstein on Unsplash