Episode 3: How to Prove Your Firm is Not a Body Shop
In Episode 3 of The Boutique, Sean and Greg talk how to position your firm in its marketplace is strategically important. Learn how to position yourself well in your market which is a critical way to determine the strength of your value proposition.
Various Speakers [00:00:01] You can avoid these landmines. It’s a buy versus build conversation. What’s the root cause of that mistake? Very moved by your story. Dive all in on the next chapter of your life.
Sean Magennis [00:00:16] Welcome to the Boutique with Capital 54, our podcast for owners of professional services firms. My goal with this show is to help you grow scale and sell your firm at the right time for the right price and on the right terms. I’m Sean Magennis, CEO of Capital 54 and your host. On this episode, I will make the case that the position of your firm in its marketplace is strategically important.
I’ll try to prove this theory by interviewing Greg Alexander, Capital 54’s chief investment officer. Greg is an expert in identifying a market position and in helping firms take actions to achieve this position. An acquirer of your firm will find your boutique attractive if you are positioned well in your market. Market position is a way to determine the strength of your own value proposition. A strong market position can indicate excellent competitive positioning. So, Greg, what is
the first step in establishing the most attractive marketing position one can get for your firm?
Greg Alexander [00:01:36] You know, I think it’s important to underline something that you said there, which is market position is a way to determine the strength of your value prop. So that’s what we’re really after here is the strength of your value proposition. So with that as a grounding. Right. The first step is to think like an investor and ask this
question. How will a potential, potential buyer of my firm measure the strength of our value proposition otherwise said measure our position in the market? So there are some obvious ways to measure the strength of your value problem. So, for instance, fee level in fee volume are two basics in any due diligence process. A fee level below, let’s say 250 bucks an hour, will suggest that your body shop. Body shops, if they sell, typically do so for a very low price and on very unattractive terms, you don’t want to be a body shop. A fee level, let’s say 500 bucks an hour will suggest that you have monetize real intellectual property. You’re not selling time. You’re not selling arms and legs. Instead, you’re selling knowledge and skills. So firms such as this are capable of selling and when they do sell, they do so at a premium price. Fee volume, on the other hand, indicates market position by suggesting the size of the overall market. So, for example let’s say you’re doing 50 million dollars a year. So that’s fee volume is 50 million a year, suggests a large market opportunity. Now, why is that? It’s understood that boutiques are not the market leaders. They’re the emerging market leaders and they typically penetrate their markets at, let’s say, somewhere between one and ten percent. So in this example, if you’re doing 50 million dollars a year in fee volume, that suggests that you’re working in a market opportunity that’s greater than five hundred million dollars and could be quite a bit larger than that and buyers of firms want to buy firms that are high growth, but that also still have a lot of runway in front of them. So when they’re thinking about their position that you’re boutique has in its market relative to the competitors and they’re trying to understand the strength of your value proposition. Some of these basics, like fee level and fee volume, are ways to prove that you’re not a body shop.
Sean Magennis [00:04:07] Got it, Greg. And obviously that runway comment is vitally important to have lots of runway ahead of you. So how about some suggestions beyond the basics, such as fee level and fee volume? What else what else is there, Greg?
Greg Alexander [00:04:20] Sure. So savvy acquirers are going to consider more precise indicators of your market position. So an example that might be client return on investment and this is often overlooked in it’s absolutely critical. You know, the slang term for this is client ROI. So boutiques that can scale to market leaders can prove their worth to clients. So what’s a simple way to illustrate this? Let’s say a client buys a service for half a million dollars and the realized benefit from that project is, let’s say, five million. So this is a 10 times return on fee. That’s a clear client ROI and if you’re a firm that can prove that you’re gonna be very attractive to a buyer. That’s a savvy buyer looking at the strength of your value proposition. Is there a clear before and after result? In contrast, let’s say that a client buys a service for half a million and it’s realized benefit is something subjective, such as
well trained employees. That’s poor client ROI. Well trained employees are at benefit from the project for sure, but it’s not quantified and it’s not in relation to the cost of the project. So these boutiques are likely not to become market leaders and a savvy acquirer is gonna know that. Another way that investors measure a boutiques market position is call point.
So what does that mean? So call point refers to the title of the person buying your service. For instance, if board members are buying your service, that’s a high call point. If the CEO or the CEO’s direct reports of buying your service, that’s a high call point. However, if your call if your call point title is like a director or manager, that’s considered by investors to be a low call point and firms with low call points have a hard time scaling. This is, that’s because they’re really selling a service that’s not worthy of an executive’s time to solving a problem an executive has delegated to junior staff and this indicates that the boutiques
service is not as, not that important to clients and that’s going to make it very hard for a boutique to scale. And investors are looking for high growth firms that have lots of runway in front of them and they can scale and one way to assess that is who do you call on? Who buys your service? And maybe one more just off the top of my mind is cycle resiliency. This is particularly important as we record this. The world is suffering from COVID-19.
Sean Magennis [00:07:00] Yes.
Greg Alexander [00:07:01] And a cycle resiliency is often considered by acquirer’s as an indicator of market position or the strength of your value prop and this cycle resiliency refers to having a boutique perform in periods of recession. Recessionary periods cause clients to cut most all non-essential budgets and unfortunately, this can include discretionary budgets that many boutiques rely on. Firms that see steep declines in financial performance during recession, that have poor market position and those that do well and maybe even expand during a recession have very strong valued propositions and it’s those boutiques and have the best chance of selling their firm’s.
Sean Magennis [00:07:48] Outstanding points Greg, and lot to unpack and think about here. So client ROI call point and cycle resiliency. These are all great market proof points. Greg, when you sold your firm SBI, how did you demonstrate to the buyer that you had a really strong market position?
Greg Alexander [00:08:12] Yeah, so in my case, the strength of our value proposition and our position in the market was obvious. Our acquirer evaluated us through the lens of each of those attributes and we we happen to show really well in each category. However, we probably shined brightest when it came to cycle resiliency and in fact, I can I can tell you with clarity that that actually drove the purchase price. In fact, our purchaser paid more for our firm because of how well we did during recessions and just some quick history for those that don’t know my personal story. I found in my firm sales benchmark index in 2006
and many fragile young firms were wiped out during the great financial crisis of 2008 through, let’s say, 2010. Yet we pushed right through this period with no problems and looking back, it’s really remarkable to say that and it’s in it’s a testament to the great employees that we had there and the loyal clients that we had. You know, SBI was only three years old when the world fell apart and we were selling a discretionary item that was easily cut by clients during those brutal times but our clients didn’t cut our services. In fact, just the opposite. They added to that and our revenue and profit growth really accelerated during the Great Recession and on a peer to peer comparison basis, we were growing at roughly twice the rate of our peers during that part, period and after the deal closed, you know, the acquirer’s mentioned to us that, you know, that really struck them as to how strong our market position was and it gave them great confidence to pay a premium for our service because they felt that if we made it through the Great Recession, if another recession hit, we were likely to make it through it again and as I understand it, the firm is
doing really well during COVID-19 so that that, you know, proved out. So cycle resiliency was a big deal for us.
Sean Magennis [00:10:14] Thank you Greg, and what a great set of examples and a testament to you and your team and obviously what I’m hearing too is your loyal customers really profound. So listeners, as you can see, market position is really important to potential acquirers. It tells them whether you have a compelling value proposition. It also tells them are you a position relative to your competitors.
Sean Magennis [00:10:43] We will be right back after a word from our sponsor. Now, let’s turn the spotlight on Collective 54 members who are making an impact in the professional services field, Collective 54 is the only national peer advisory network for owners of professional services firms who are focused exclusively on growing, scaling and maximizing business valuation. Today, we have the pleasure of introducing you to an exceptional person. Joe Gagnon, he’s CEO of Performance Tea, where his mission is to help people achieve their potential.
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Sean Magennis [00:12:11] Get to know Joe and other business owners who are leading innovation in the professional services industry by visiting Collective54.com. Learn more about how Collective 54 can help you accelerate your success.
Sean Magennis [00:12:31] Greg, here we go again with our top 10 checklist. Greg Alexander [00:12:34] Drumrolls.
Sean Magennis [00:12:35] Drumroll. In an effort to provide you immediate value, I prepared again 10 questions on a yes no checklist. Please ask yourself these 10 questions.
Sean Magennis [00:12:48] Number one. Is your average fee level above five hundred dollars per hour? Question number two, if not, can you prove that you are not a body shop. Number three, is your fee volume big enough to prove that you are in a large market? Number four, if not, can you prove that you are in a large and growing market with a lot of runway ahead of you. Number five, do you have a clear client return on investment? Number six, if not, can you prove that your clients realize a good cost benefit tradeoff? Number seven, do you call on the board of directors of your target client? Number eight, do you call on the CEO of your target client? Number nine, did your financial performance hold up well during the last recession? And number 10, can you prove to a potential acquirer that your boutique is cycle resilient? If you answered yes to eight or more of these questions, you occupy a really strong position in your market. If you answered no to eight or more of these questions, you have a weak market position. It would be wise to hold off on your sales process until this is addressed. Acquirer’s want to buy firms with validated market positions. This reduces their risk and increases their upside. There are many ways for a market position to be evaluated. Please be sure that your case is bulletproof.
Sean Magennis [00:15:00] If you enjoyed the show and want to learn more, pick up a copy of Greg Alexander’s book entitled, The Boutique How to Start Scale and Sell the Professional Services Firm.
Sean Magennis [00:15:14] I’m Sean Magennis. Thank you for listening.