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Episode: 27 |
Vivek Soman:
Tech Industry Due Diligence:
Episode
27

HOW TO THRIVE AS AN
INDEPENDENT PROFESSIONAL

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Vivek Soman

Tech Industry Due Diligence

Show Notes

Our guest today is Vivek Soman, a former McKinsey Engagement Manager who is the founder and Managing Director of The Ananya Group, which has completed over 300 projects since it was founded in 2008. Ananya is a Bengali word meaning “unparalled.”

Vivek’s firm has a very clear focus: the client focus is large $1 billion revenue and up tech, media, telecom, and professional services companies

The service offering includes three types of projects:

1) competitive intelligence

2) customer intelligence

3) focused strategy projects

Vivek has worked to standardize the process of doing competitive intelligence, and we discuss that as well as a couple practices I found interesting:

1) found that obscure tech journals in the Middle East and Europe – executives of large tech companies sometimes talk more openly about their product strategy that you can find in the US

2) developed a process to source 80-100 interviews, with very specific questions, just 3-4,

You can read more about Vivek’s firm at www.TheAnanyaGroup.com

Vivek is currently looking for someone to help with business development. If you are interested in that role, or just have other questions about his work, he invites you to contact him at vivek.soman@theananyagroup.com

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Will Bachman: Hey there, podcast listeners. Welcome to Unleashed, the show that explores how to thrive as an independent professional. Unleashed is sponsored by Umbrex, the world’s first global community of top-tier independent management consultants. I’m your host Will Bachman. 

Our guest today is Vivek Soman, a former at McKinsey engage manager who is the founder and managing director of The Ananya Group, which has completed over 300 projects since it was founded in 2008. Vivek’s firm has a very clear focus. In terms of clients, they focus on $1 billion+ revenue tech, media, telecom, and professional services companies. And they have a tight focus on their service offering. They do competitive intelligence, customer intelligence, and focused strategy projects. And that’s it.

Vivek has built out a virtual team, and a standardized process for doing this type of work. And Vivek shares some practical tips and tricks for doing this kind of project, including number one- he’s found that obscure tech journals in the Middle East and Europe… executives of large tech companies sometimes talk more openly about their product strategy than they do in the U.S. So, that’s a kind of cool tip for looking for some sources of information in trade journals overseas. 

He’s also developed a process to source quickly 80-100 interviews. They conduct them rapidly, last maybe 15 minutes, asks very tight set of specific questions, only three to four. And it’s a repeatable process. 

So, you can read more about Vivek’s firm at theananyagroup.com. That’s A-N-A-N-Y-A. Ananya, by the way, means ‘unparalleled’. 

Some of my own consulting work involves commercial due diligence, and customer and competitive intelligence. And since my conversation with Vivek, I’ve been putting in some hours to review the work that I’ve done over the past 10 years, and develop some checklists, and templates, and standardized processes for myself. Something I probably should have been doing all along. It’s easy to not make that kind of investment and treat every assignment as purely bespoke and custom, and Vivek’s example shows there’s real value in creating a repeatable process which allows you to offload some of that work to others and build some leverage. 

So, I got a lot of great ideas from our conversation, and I hope you find it useful as well.

Vivek, I am so delighted to have you on the show. Thank you so much for joining.

Vivek Soman: No problem.

Will Bachman: So Vivek, we have known each other for several years, and you presented at one of the conferences I organized a few years ago in L.A., and I’ve always been admiring what you’ve done with your firm. Maybe you could start by giving just a little overview of the kind of services your firm offers, and maybe sort of the thumbnail sketch on your background on your bio. 

Vivek Soman: That’s right. A quick bio… I, like you, I am also a McKinsey alum. Prior to that, my background is in technology industry. And after McKinsey, I worked at Microsoft for about five years in making the strategy rules, and then started this company, the Ananya group. We are a boutique concerning form, and we offer three key services. Competitive intelligence, customer intelligence, and focused study projects. McKinsey liked projects, but on a much smaller scale. And we primarily serve still technology industry. The industry that I know. But technology defined as a little broadly then than just hardware and software. We also serve media companies, telecom companies, and professional services companies. 

Will Bachman: Okay, can I jump in there? Help me understand better. What is the difference between a competitive intelligence project and a customer intelligence project? 

Vivek Soman: That’s a good question. So take an example. We just recently had a query from a large software company that said, ‘Our business is very healthy in our enterprise segment. But the company is not a large companies that buy from us, that segment is healthy. But SMB segment is struggling. And when it turned out what the data was, enterprise segment was growing at 20%. SMB was flat. And they were puzzled by that. And they said, ‘Why is this happening? Why aren’t our customers buying product from us at the same clip among SMBs as they do in enterprise?’ 

And second question, ‘Do our competitors see the same trend? Or are we just the lone losers in this market?’ So in order to address that question, you have to understand customers deeply. So we talked to a range of customers, and because it is SMB, we also talked with channel partners that, in turn, sell to customers. And developing depth understanding of their purchase preferences for that specific technology. Why are they buying it for? What are the key uses? What are the scenarios? How much did they buy in previous three years? How much are they planning to buy in the next three years? Why, what is the difference? What is their opinion of our clients technology? What are the alternatives they’re considering? Why?

So, all of that. So that’s part of customer intelligence. Really understanding the customer drivers for that market. 

On the other hand then, we also have to understand the competition. So we did a deep dive on two key competitors of our client to see if they are seeing the same trends. If they are, what are they doing about it? And are they specifically targeting our client, and if they are, are those initiatives succeeding? And is that why our client was seeing a reduction in business? 

Will Bachman: Cool, okay. So that was helpful clarification for me. As much as it should’ve been obvious to everybody else in the world. So, why don’t we walk through each one of these and talk through what a project looks like. And I’m sure they sometimes overlap, but I suppose as you talk through that, you can also talk a bit about the structure of your firm because I think that you have built out a virtual team with your people that you work with on an ongoing basis.

So, walk me through an example, you know, sanitized example of a competitive intelligence project. 

Vivek Soman: Yes, a key project we recently did was a large hardware company. They noticed that Cisco had taken a significant market share in a particular market. It is something about solar technology. It’s a large market, multi-billion dollar market. And starting from nowhere, Cisco took 20% market share in few years. 

Our client did analysis of their products and they found that there wasn’t anything significantly different. So they concluded there must be something about their quarter market that was different and winning, helping them win the market share. So they asked us to do an in-depth analysis of Cisco’s quarter market for that particular product line. And we, in fact, developed a 75-slide deck on all aspects of Cisco’s quarter market for that particular technology, including what customer segments they go after. What exactly they sell, not just by at a high level, but by product. How are their sales teams structured? Who are the key roles that sell? How much do they get compensated? What does the sales process look like? Because there is a lot of hand off between direct sales for said channel. How does that work? What are the technology enablers? And on and on. It really applies like that. 

Then we said, ‘Okay, we know what they do. What are the organizing principles behind them? Could we found six or seven of them?’ Then we did a competitive analysis of what Cisco was doing, what our client was doing. And made outside in recommendations to our client on what aspects of their GDM they should improve. That’s an example of a competitive intelligence project.

Will Bachman: Alright, this is very cool stuff. So, if I were gonna do this, just not really being an expert in this sector, I might say… Alright, I’ll probably go to some theoretical clients of Cisco and see if I’ll talk to their procurement people, or their engineers, and say, ‘Hey, you know, tell me about what was it like buying from Cisco?’ Or maybe try to find people that they pitched and that didn’t select Cisco. That would be sort of the obvious approach to me, but I’d love to hear in the 75 page deck that you did, what were some of the… what were the various sources of the insights that you had? The raw material insights that you had for that research?

Vivek Soman: I think that probably a good segue into our [inaudible 00:09:30]. This is a [inaudible 00:09:32] that we developed over time, but with trial and error. And we have used it for 100+ projects, I would say about 100-150 projects so far in various different contexts, so I feel reasonably confident that it works. 

We start with clients questions. What are the strategy questions that they’re really trying to solve? In order to address those questions, what information they need? Of that information, what information already exists and client knows and we don’t have to worry about it? 

And then, that leaves us with a set of information that they don’t have. Some of that information is available in public domain. But many times, it is very widely dispersed and diffused. So there is more there than meets the eye, but our team has, over time, become really proficient in finding every bit and piece of information that’s out there. That’s where we start.

Will Bachman: What’s the typical five or ten top thing that are on that list of data sources or information that we wanna get?

Vivek Soman: Many times, if we look at the client requests we get, the most often we get asked about competitors product strategy. What products are they likely to come up with? Why? And what the features are likely to be. Which customer segments the products with be targeted at, and so on.

The second set of questions we get are on the quarter market. Sales, marketing, channel, how big is the business? How exactly the clients execute their global market. 

And the third is things about pricing and business economics. Especially for B to C market, pricing is fairly transparent. You can just go to somebodies website and read it. B to B, it’s not that simple because there are radius discounts available. Pricing is not on the website many times. Many times, it is, ‘Okay, if you are more than 50 users, call us,’ and then you don’t know what’s going on. So, that is the third set of questions. So, product strategy, quarter marker, pricing, and business economics are the three big buckets that our clients want to know about their competition. 

Will Bachman: Okay, cool. So, let’s talk about sources of insight. I mean, I don’t know where you’d begin on getting insight into actual pricing in the market. I’d love to hear about that, as well as the other two.

Vivek Soman: So you know, we start with, as I said, from everything that is published out there. There is more there than meets the eye. I will give an example. Many times, say U.S. companies have a policy of something, and here is what we are going to do. And they tell their employees not to talk about it. But, say if you read newspapers or tech journals, in say, Middle East, or in Europe, you will find that even Senior Sales Executives who live in those areas talk a lot more than their corporate policies would allow. So if your search team is really good at finding information from non-U.S., non-English sources, you will find that there is a lot more information out there than meets the eye. So that’s for us. You know, we get the base level of information that’s out there. 

Second then, we have people on our team who are subject matter experts, for a broad range of technologies. We have people who understand the technology, have the intuitive feel for the business. And we can start building a base level model for what the answers are likely to be. So we are very well educated before we start calling anybody. 

And then, our team, the competitive intelligence team… just one quick factoid about them, that all of them have been working in this space for at least 15 years. Every one of them has done at least a couple of hundred projects. So they’re very proficient in finding people who have a reason to know, and getting them to talk with us.

Will Bachman: And maybe describe your team. So this is just folks out there in Seattle with you, or distributed all over the world, or…? Where is your team, and are they full time employees or.. tell us a little bit about that.

Vivek Soman: It is a mix. There is a set of full time employees in Seattle that I call a core team, and that core team is mostly management consultants. People like us, from McKinsey, BC, what have you. And what we do is we structure the projects, understand what questions need to be answered in what order, what the dependencies are. And we’re also responsible for doing stress testing as the information comes back from the research team, to make sure that the answers make sense, that all the different answers that we are getting for all different answers are consistent with each other. Then at the end of the project, we can tell an internally consistent, accurate story to the client that we have high confidence in what we are saying. That we know not only what is going on, but why. Why the competition may be doing what they’re doing, and what the implications are for our client. All of that is done by the core team that’s in Seattle.

The heavy lifting on finding non-public information is done by a team in London. And they are technically not part of Ananya, but they are, in sense that we are their biggest client and only because I don’t want to own a company in London. I haven’t really, quote en quote, ‘bought them’. But you can consider them as a captive team. 

And then for research that can’t be done online, we use a firm in India that can scale up and down very quickly. This was also a firm that was started by another McKinsey alum, who then a few years later sold it to a larger company in India. 

Will Bachman: Cool. So, I wanna ask about the tech journals. So, in that piece, they’re sort of the non-U.S., non-European tech journals. Are you finding stuff that you wouldn’t find with a Nexis search, or like a Factiva search? What are the methodologies used to find those obscure journals?

Vivek Soman: There is no one thing that our team does. It is what I just loosely called a, ‘smart search’. That, given the subject matter, and given the questions we are trying to answer, the team of competitive intelligence people and the team in India, over time they have gotten very smart about figuring out what sources to reach. And answers could be different depending on the subject matter and depending on the questions we are trying to address. They go to different sources. But overall, they have gotten really proficient in finding information that’s publicly available. 

Will Bachman: Can you give us maybe even a sanitized example, or even make one up that would be representative of what’s the kind of thing you might find published somewhere that they wouldn’t be saying out loud in the U.S, but what’s an example of something that you might find in some journal in the Middle East somewhere?

Vivek Soman: It did happen actually in one of the projects we were doing on pricing. Here, a BCOEM asked us about what are the specific margins that their competitors offer retailers in different geographies. So it’s an [inaudible 00:17:24] factor, by price bands, it was that specific. And one of the pieces… you know, we had to, of course, construct most of it out of private interviews. But our team did find that some people’s, some OEM executives of a competitor OEM were talking about their margins in a trade journal in Asia. Which is technically not supposed to be done, because these are the details between the contracts signed by the OEM with different retailers. And generally, both retailer and the OEM are very protective of their business model. But well, we did find some pieces of information that helped up corroborate a lot of other information that we were getting because it was in public domain and we could verify it.

Will Bachman: Got it. So beyond that, the sort of obscure industry journal… what would some of the others sources be? Is it anything other than just interviews with experts in the industry? 

Vivek Soman: Oh, then yeah. So let’s come back to that, though. So then, whatever we find in public domain generally constitutes only, say, 10, 15% of the information we collect in terms of what gets presented to the client. 

There’s a lot of base material we collect because we need to know. But what gets presented to the client is mostly generated through private sources. And we talk to a range of people. We talk to employees of the competitors, ex-employees, suppliers, partners who are system integrators, consultants, bankers, industry experts. So there is a range of people we talk to. So that some of our large projects, we end up talking with couple of hundred people. And every one of them gives us only bits and piece of information. We don’t meet anybody, we don’t exchange any documents. Everything is just through phone calls. And no conversation is more than 10 or 15 minutes long. 

We educate ourselves, and we don’t ask open ended questions. So the other party feels like they’re talking with an industry expert or somebody who knows what they’re doing. We don’t misrepresent ourselves, we tell them that we are a research company working on behalf of a technology firm, or whatever that appropriate monomer for our client happens to be. If they’re not happy with that, we thank them and move ahead. But many people are willing to talk. And nobody feels like they’re giving [inaudible 00:20:01] because we ask only specific questions, three or four questions at the tops, and we’re out. And we don’t ask open ended questions, we don’t ask them, ‘Well, how much is your revenue?’ We say, ‘We think it is this much. What do you think? Help us get it better.’ 

And that’s how the conversations go. And in return, we sometimes give them information back that they find useful, because everybody wants to know more about market, everybody wants to know more about competition. And we give them something. Nothing about our client or nothing that our client would find really valuable. But something in return that they feel like they got something useful out of it. 

And that’s how we go. We keep on piecing together information one by one. And our core team in Seattle then keeps on making sure that we stress test that information that comes back makes sense, and that it is internally consistent, all of that thing we just discussed a while back. And so by the time that we are done with this process, we have a… what you can call a very accurate proprietary understanding of what the competition is doing. Something that our clients can’t buy from anywhere. They can’t subscribe to any information like this. It doesn’t exist. We create it for them, specifically for the questions they have in mind, so it’s custom created, directly targeting the questions they have.

Will Bachman: Very interesting. And then, so these experts that you interview for 10 or 15 minutes, have you built up a core set of experts that you’re tapping on an ongoing basis, or is it like… what percent of experts on a typical project would you have to recruit fresh because it’s such a particular need? I’m curious if it’s sort of ad hoc recruiting every time, or the same group of folks that you go back to over and over. 

Vivek Soman: There are a few people we go back to. You know, we of course keep record of who we talk to. So, if another project comes up that has a very similar need, we do talk to same people sometimes. But it’s a small portion. 

Many times, because our research is so targeted exactly to the questions our clients have, many time we end up talking with a fresh set of people. And many times, we do it because we don’t want to create an impression that we are asking for too many things again and again for too many people. Sometimes we even purposely ask someone else from the team to call the same person if we are going to talk with the same person again within a short period of time.

Will Bachman: Got it. How do you recruit these experts? Just via LinkedIn, or how do you find and reach out to people?

Vivek Soman: LinkedIn is a tool, and then our team also uses a bunch of other proprietary methods to figure out who they’re looking for. Ex-employees of some company that had specific, you know, a rule in say developing technology. Apart from LinkedIn, they have figured out other ways to get to those people. And that’s how they build a list of people they want to talk to. And then, the falloff of it is also a high sometimes. People don’t want to talk, but they keep on trying and we, pretty much every time, succeed in getting enough information talking with enough people.

Will Bachman: So it sounds like most of the information you’re getting from these couple hundred short interviews from a distributed set of experts. 

Vivek Soman: We can’t call all of them experts, either, because many times they are just employees of competitors, they’re ex-employees, and suppliers, and re-dealers. But many times, was talk with RSPs, who are at retail stores doing their job. So they’re not necessarily experts. Many of them are just practitioners doing their job, and willing to talk with us for 15 minutes.

Will Bachman: What about on the customer intelligence side? Do you do any kind of large qualitative or quantitative surveys, or is it just more a limited number of interviews? How do you go about collecting that customer intelligence?

Vivek Soman: Right. That also is custom designed for what our clients need. And, depending on the client need, what they’re looking for, we can deploy different methods. So we go anywhere from doing an in-depth interview, and those are good when clients want a qualitative understanding of what’s going on. So if a market is changing, for example, and it’s demand is going down for a particular set of products or technologies, maybe client just wants to understand why it is going on. They know it’s going on, they just want to understand a little bit better why. 

And in that case, say doing eight or 10 in-depth interviews with eight or 10 different clients is good enough, because all you are trying to understand the qualitative drivers. And in general, unless you are asking the wrong questions, and you should start hearing same thing, by in large in about seven to eight interviews. So we typically do 10 or 12, just to make sure. 

But that’s one way to do it. If the focus is on developing a qualitative understanding. Sometimes though, we need to also understand… develop a quasi-quantitative understanding. And I’ll give you an example. 

Recently we did a project for a professional services company. Their core business is flat, or shrinking. And they wanted to know if that is the case, and how much. As part of a larger project, that was not the only thing they were asking, but that was one of the questions they had. Talking with just 10 people, you wouldn’t be able to get a quantitative understanding. You wouldn’t be able to say, with confidence, that your market is shrinking at 2% a year. 

If you tried to do that through a survey, because this is a professional services forum where the clients are mostly senior executives, they wouldn’t ever take an online survey or even a phone survey. They just wouldn’t do it. 

So we developed this other instrument. We call it touchpoints. And the beauty of that is it goes beyond in depth interviews, but it has the rigor of it’s survey that we start asking after we have a hypothesis from the client, and understanding from doing some in depth interviews, what other key questions we want to get answered. We develop a very structured list of questions, say 25 or 30 of them. And we ask exactly the same question to say, 30, 40, sometimes you want 100 people. And say, imagine you ask 30 questions to 100 people, you have 3,000 data points. And at that point, using that data, you can do a lot of interesting analysis first of all, on that data set. And because now you have talked with 100 people and asked specific questions about their demand in say, last three years, and next three years, and current year, we could tell our client with confidence that, yes indeed, your market is stagnating and we think it is shrinking by 3% per year.

And we did similar analysis on a bunch of other business metrics that they were interested in. So that’s the second thing we do. And the third of course is the large scale surveys you have to do for situations.

For example, one of our clients asked us, ‘We are coming up with a new product. How should we price it?’ Because traditionally, they had priced it as… they used to sell it as a license, now they wanted to do software in the service. Go from a perpetual license to a subscription price, and they didn’t know how to price it. But in order to understand the right price, you pretty much have to talk with, or get input from several hundred people. And that cannot be done through interviews, that has to be done through online survey. So we do that, too. 

So, in depth interviews. That can scale up to say, 10, 12. Touchpoint interviews can scale to about 100, 150. And then large scale surveys can go into hundreds. And we can do any combination of those in order to understand what clients are doing.

Will Bachman: That is very cool. So, these touchpoint surveys. I mean, if someone asked me to do that, I’d be a little bit overwhelmed, saying, ‘Holy smokes, how am I gonna identify and reach out to and recruit 100 of the right people for a survey in this kind of short order?’ So, I’m really curious. Practically, at a very tactical level, how do you do that? Do you have a person who is dialing for dollars, or emailing people? What do you say, and how you schedule it? What are some of the practical factors in this network?

Vivek Soman: So all of that, again, is done by our competitive intelligence team in London. And it’s the same technique that they, no it’s similar techniques that they use to get people to talk with us for competitive intelligence. They used to get people to talk with us for customer intelligence as well. One difference being, customer intelligence interviews are longer. They are 30 minutes at least, sometimes 45. And that is a trick. So, I’ll give you an example.

Recently, we had to finish 50 interviews for a client in about five weeks. And in order to complete 50 in five weeks, they had to contact 950 people.

Will Bachman: Wow.

Vivek Soman: And because there are a whole bunch of followups, a bunch of people’s contact information was wrong. So for some people, they didn’t return calls. Some people called just to say, ‘We are not interested in talking.’ Some people just couldn’t schedule, because we not only had to have the right profile, but we had to have the interview conducted in certain period of time. They just didn’t have the time. Some people talked to use and then figured out when we figured out that they don’t have the right profile. So there are a lot of these waterfall drop-offs, and in order to complete 50 in four weeks, we had to contact 950 people. And we had exact profiles. 

So part of what we do, we also develop exact profile of people that we want to talk with, that they need to be senior director or VP in the certain particular function, and then we also have quotas and what percent of our samples should be of say, from financial services industry, to what percent should come from technology, what percent of samples should be in manufacturing? What we try to do is mimic the market so that the sample is not too different from the composition of the market, otherwise you’d get misleading results. 

So, we do all of that upfront. And then they’re really good at contacting these people and getting them to talk to us. But you see, the falloff rate is quite high. So, there is a bit of work involved in guaranteeing our clients that we will finish 50 or 100 or what have you in a given time.

Will Bachman: Any tips or tricks on just even getting their phone number and contact info?

Vivek Soman: It is, you know, again, LinkedIn is a good source. Many times, we also ask our clients to say, give us your client list. And sometimes they do. In this particular project that I talked about, a client went through and then gave us a large client list and said, ‘Okay, here are the clients.’ Not specifically we want to talk to, but then at least we got some contact in the company that we are interested in. And we told the client, ‘We won’t tell you exactly who we talk to,’ and then because we say we are finishing 50 interviews and client, we don’t want you to know who we talk to. Give us a list of like, thousand people, so that you will never know who we talk to. And we wouldn’t even tell you whether we actually talk to the people that you provided, or whether we developed names on our own. So that way, we maintain the double client- that is very key, because if we can make a concrete promise to the people that we talk to that their identities will not be revealed. 

Even many times, I don’t know who we talk to, our research team, because I don’t need to know. And I don’t ask my team to tell me who we talk to.

Will Bachman: I’m just curious, how does it make sense to have the team based in London? You know, are they trying to call people in New York, and Seattle, and how does that work?

Vivek Soman: So, when I say we’re in London, the core of the team is in London. Part of the team is in Seattle [inaudible 00:33:28] actually, but the core in London. And that’s a historical accident. When I was building the team, even in my prior jobs I had to use this particular set of people to do some competitive and customer intelligence. And I like their work, and they were willing to work with me to advance the state of the art in what we do and how we do it. And it worked, so over time, we started doing more and more projects together, and to a point where now we are pretty much the same company except for the name, so. 

Will Bachman: I mean, you have done an amazing job, and I think you have done like, 300 projects since 2008, which is incredible. There’s probably some things that you’ve tried, and that haven’t worked, and I’d love to hear a little bit about that.

Vivek Soman: That’s right, of course. It has been a long series of trial and error involved in doing this. A few things that did work. Early on in the company, about two years into starting the company, I tried to take on a couple of partners, with a part that we can create a interconnected set of services, say strategy, sales, and marketing. And then I continue to lead the strategy service, and at that time I didn’t have a competitive intelligence or customer intelligence service. All I was doing was mostly strategy projects. 

So I thought it may be a good offering, good face to the client to say, ‘We can do not only strategy, but also we can solve your marketing, and sales, and quarter market issues.’ So, I tried to recruit a couple of partners to join me as an equal, and the three of us tried to run the company. But it didn’t work. And I eventually bought out both of them, and then I’m still friendly with both people. In fact, one of them has now turned into a client. So, no hard feelings. It was just that I hadn’t done… it is my mistake, I hadn’t done enough due diligence to really understand their motivations and ability to run a firm like this for the long term.

Will Bachman: Can you, without embarrassing anyone or revealing anything that’s too private, you said kind of difference in motivations. Can you just talk about that a little bit? About the sort of types of motivations that might be different across the founders or owners of a boutique firm?

Vivek Soman: Yeah, that is right. So, you know, my vision from the beginning was to provide a distinctive service and make Ananya known to be a boutique firm that has distinctive set of services that are high quality. And we get known to be a quality providers for certain needs our clients have. 

One of the partners I took on, he said all the right things when we were talking about him joining the firm. But it soon became clear that his real motive was to grow the company through , effectively, body shopping. That you get a contract from a client, and instead of having a deliverable, you say, ‘I will supply three people for you to do something. Program management, project management,’ some ad hoc need that the client has. And the project doesn’t have a deliverable, it has, ‘Okay, we have two people for three months’. 

And that’s a very different business model. It’s a perfectly fine business model, I just didn’t want to do it. But it wasn’t clear at the beginning that, because he said all the right things to begin with, that his availability and real passion for doing this was to effectively build a body shop. 

Will Bachman: Okay, I mean, yes, that’s a legitimate different business model.

Vivek Soman: Yeah.

Will Bachman: Now that you reflect back on it, is there a question that you could’ve asked at the time that you think would’ve helped sort of sus that out? 

Vivek Soman: You know, we tried to go through how you scale the business. What type of clients would you get? What type of problems would you solve? And when the company grows, how would you get the talent and what type of projects would you do? 

And maybe I should have pushed a bit harder on that topic, because initially, he kept saying, ‘I’ll get other people to work for me and then we can get this project, and have, say, four people work on it and I’ll find them.’ And I probably should have pushed a little harder on the nature of the project. Is it based on deliverables? Is it not based on deliverables? And that may have clarified that difference of opinion or you know, different views on how to grow the business a little better. But, you know.

Will Bachman: Makes sense.

Vivek Soman: Yep.

Will Bachman: Makes sense. So, you’re talking about kind of what didn’t work, and one of them was taking on partners. Anything else, any other lessons learned?

Vivek Soman: Yeah, so hiring sales people. I tried to do that too, to say now that we have been doing competitive intelligence and customer intelligence for some number of years, I said, you know, there are kind of product tie services. It should be easy to explain to an executive at a technology firm what we do, show examples of work we have done, and say, ‘Here is what you get.’ And get them interested in talking with us, because, you know, every time a client or a prospect has talked with me to say, ‘What do you do?’ And then every time I get a chance to explain what we do in a 30 minute meeting, the chances of that person walking away, at least walking away with a positive impression and potentially turning into a client at some point in time in the future is very hard.

So I wanted to see if a salesman can create that top of the funnel, if you will. Contact a large number of companies, and use his or her prior Rolodex and get a bunch of people in front of us to start that engine of introducing us, and what we can do to a much larger audience than what I can do personally.

But so far, it hasn’t worked. Not that it wouldn’t in the future, maybe I hired wrong people. But hasn’t worked that well so far.

Will Bachman: What happened in practice? I mean, I’m sure they didn’t just, you know, surf the internet all day. They were probably trying hard. What did they do? Did they just not get meetings, or get meetings that weren’t the right people? Or, sort of, what played out?

Vivek Soman: What turned out was I hired this person. Let’s talk about one of them, right? So, this is the most recent example. They told me that they had done very similar work for a company that has competitive intelligence offering in the market, and they’re a reasonably well known company. And I got a reference from his manager, whom I also know from some other personal network. And he said good things about him as well.

So I hired him. And then it turned out that the strength of his personal Rolodex was not that good, although he had on his resume senior roles. And I thought, okay. And the way he’d interacted with me was quite polished, so I thought, yeah, you know, somebody talks like that has an experience in selling something very similar to what we do. And his manager has given a good reference. He should be able to get a few people interested in talking with us.

But turns out, his personal Rolodex was quite weak. And then he did go through a very systematic effort of figuring out, who are the large technology companies and also we went through the effort of what types of projects have we done and those projects, and those projects would be relevant to what types of companies? Who are the big companies in this space? 

And then he tried to contact them, and get them interested in talking with him. But that didn’t work. That didn’t work. So it looks like cold calling doesn’t work. Somebody calling out of the blue from a company they have not heard of, from somebody who sounds like a salesman, is probably not a good idea. At least, it hasn’t worked for us.

Will Bachman: Yeah, that’s probably something that a lot of people struggle with, is like, I have this great engine, I have this great product, but how do I…

Vivek Soman: How do I scale?

Will Bachman: How do I scale.

Vivek Soman: Yeah, the other thing I tried was I had looked, you know, we have this service and I’m sure lot of large consorting firms also had get similar requests. But many times, they can’t do this work, or sometimes they don’t want to do the work because many large companies are their close clients. 

Imagine if you are McKinsey and then you are doing work for say, you know, Hewlett Packard and they ask you to do a deep competitive intelligence on Dell, whether Dell is a big client too. 

Will Bachman: Right.

Vivek Soman: So, it’s difficult for large companies to do this type of work. Sometimes even if they can and want to do it, it is too expensive. So I thought, hey, you know, they can come to us for this type of work. And they did. But not in enough quantity. It still doesn’t, it cannot be systematized. We have done a bunch of projects for McKinsey, and bunch of others, too, but you know, you worked there, I worked there, so I can talk a little bit more freely about them. 

You know, they have seen our work. Every time we have done a project that has been successful, I know part, because you know, I’m pretty old now. So, all my colleagues from McKinsey were still there, they’re all directors, so we’d go in with [inaudible 00:43:29] senior endorsement. And the projects that are successful are self evident. 

It still doesn’t work at a scale that you would think it would. And the main issue seems to be that they don’t think of us in time. They think of it after they have already taken the project. And then it becomes different to fit our cause in their PNL. And I have encouraged them many times to think about us before they write their own proposal. And somehow, that just doesn’t happen. I don’t know what the blockers are, but that has been my experience. 

So if, you know, scaling through other large concerting firms hasn’t worked either. And lastly, I know from personal choice, I never really went to these talent networks. I never tried those.

Will Bachman: Well, you guys have a very specific offering. What have you done to build your visibility of your firm? So, some people do writing or speaking, or going to industry events, creating events. What have you found works for you?

Vivek Soman: So far, you know, we have been fortunate enough to go through our tradings effectively. Our client reference ability is 100%, so many times, a bunch of our business comes from our clients referring us to other clients. 

Then, second source is, as part of doing the project, we get to known other executives and we tell them what we do, or they proactively call us to figure out what we do. And that becomes business development for us.

And then third is, my overlapping networks from McKinsey, from Microsoft, from Berkeley, and you know, other things. So, that has been enough so far. But now we are reaching to a point where that’s not enough. And that is where, in all the things that I’ve mentioned to you, I tried. You know, hiring sales people and so on.

So the other things I am trying are I am revising our website. So, our website is now clear [inaudible 00:45:34] old. It doesn’t tell the story accurately or effectively, so I’m putting effort into creating that. 

The second thing I’ll be doing is we have a marketing person now part time, but helping me on creating a content strategy. So, figuring out what we learned through doing projects that we do, and we do over 30, 40 projects a year. And every project, we learn something. Is there something we can encapsulate from the projects we do? Do all the appropriate sanitization, and then publish. And publish it in our website, publish it on LinkedIn, publish it in some other forums. And slowly build a followership for us as a company. 

We are also going to experiment with advertising on LinkedIn, and also identifying a few forums, and technology industry associations and so on, to see if that would give us the visibility to the right audience. Our audience is senior director to senior VP level people in technology, telecom, media industry. Question is, where do they congregate and how can we get onto those forums? You know, there are not that many good forums. I mean, I had some experience with [inaudible 00:46:56] where we tried a few things. Didn’t quite work, it turns out you go to an event and then you find out that everybody is at the event is also somebody like me, trying to find other clients. That didn’t work.

Will Bachman: I wanted to ask you, Vivek, because I know that you’re an early riser, and I’d love to hear a little bit about your morning routine.

Vivek Soman: So, I wake up at five o’ clock, that’s the alarm. I get up within a few minutes of that. I do exercise, I do a little bit of meditation, and then the first thing I do before I start work is I maintain a running list of top things to do. And I review that list, update it, and figure out what are the top three of five things I must accomplish in that day. 

And that has helped me just to focus, because there are so many things to do and as, you know, when you run a company, there are so many things coming at you. And it is easy to forget things. And especially, I found out that the things that get pushed aside are things that are important, but not urgent.

Will Bachman: Sure, of course.

Vivek Soman: And looking at this list everyday, at least, you know, lets me know that I’m ignoring some important things that are not urgent and that increases the chance that I will act on them sooner rather than later.

Will Bachman: This might be absurdly reductionist and detail-oriented, but I’m curious, kind of being a tech guy, your sort of running list and your top three to five, are you writing this on a index card, is this in Evernote, sort of… how?

Vivek Soman: Oh no, it’s a simple thing. It’s just a spreadsheet.

Will Bachman: Spreadsheet?

Vivek Soman: So, yep. It’s easier for me to manage. Just easier to manipulate, easy to delete. And then I create columns. You know, there are things that are top things that I need to do for business development, for sales, for project execution, for administration, on personal trends. So I can create a bunch of columns and all of them are visible to me in one chart. A spreadsheet, and as I execute them, I delete them and put new things in every day.

Will Bachman: Great. Hey, Vivek, as we are coming here to the top of the hour, how can folks find you online?

Vivek Soman: It’s our website, www.TheAnanyaGroup.com. And our LinkedIn page of the same name, The Ananya Group. But both of them are somewhat old right now.

Will Bachman: They will be refreshed soon.

Vivek Soman: They will be refreshed very soon, in our next month or two. But until then, if you want to know a little bit more about our firm, just send me an email through the group.

Will Bachman: Alright. And I wanna make sure we get the spelling out there. It’s A-N-A-N-Y-A Group. Is that right? Ananya Group.

Vivek Soman: That is correct, and there is a The in front of it.

Will Bachman: Oh, TheAnanyaGroup.com?

Vivek Soman: That is correct.

Will Bachman: And I’m just curious, what’s the origin of the word ananya?

Vivek Soman: Ananya is an old Sanskrit word, and it means ‘unique’.

Will Bachman: Unique?

Vivek Soman: And it also means ‘focused’. So, that’s the origin of the word.

Will Bachman: Unique and focused. Alright.

Vivek Soman: Unique and focused, that’s who we are.

Will Bachman: Alright, well Vivek, we’ll wrap there. This has been a great discussion. Thank you so much for joining. Really, really appreciated about hearing about hearing about the work that your firm does.

Vivek Soman: No problem, thank you very much.

Will Bachman: Thanks for listening to this episode of Unleashed, the show that explores how to thrive as an independent professional. Unleashed is sponsored by Umbrex, the world’s first global community of top-tier independent management consultants. The mission of Umbrex is to create opportunities for independent management consultants to meet, share lessons learned, and collaborate. 

I’d love to get your feedback and hear any questions that you’d like to see us answer on this show. You can email me at Unleashed@Umbrex.com. That’s U-M-B-R-E-X.com.

If you found anything on the show helpful, it would be a real gift if you would let a friend know about the show, and take a minute to leave a review on iTunes, Google Play, or Stitcher. And if you subscribe, our show will get delivered to your device every Monday. 

Our audio engineer is Dave Nelson, our theme song was composed by Gary Negbower, and I’m your host, Will Bachman. Thanks for listening. 

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