Will Bachman: Hey there podcast listeners, welcome to Unleashed. The show that explores how to thrives 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 a good friend of mine, I’ve known him for almost a decade. Rick Condon, he is a former submarine officer in U.S. Nuclear Navy, he’s former engagement manager at McKinsey, an he’s been running his own consulting practice since 2004. You can read more about Rick on his firm’s website, insideconsulting.net. That’s one word, inside consulting.
I had a great time talking to Rick about work that his firm does, and I hope you enjoy the discussion as well.
Rick, thank you so much for joining us. I’m really looking forward to our conversation today.
Rick Condon: Sure, it’s a pleasure, I’m happy to be here, thank you.
Will Bachman: So, we have known each other for I don’t know, eight or ten years, you’ve been independent for quite a while, and in a lot of ways I think you as mentor, I’ve turned to you for advice on a lot of occasions.
Wondering if you could maybe give us a little thumbnail sketch of your background, before when you were at a big firm, and then when yo became independent and so fourth.
Rick Condon: Yeah, sure.
As you know well, we both started out in the submarine force, went to business school in Chicago, and from there joined McKinsey. Spent a number of years there, both doing strategy and some operations work. Went on, had did a little bit of work at Thompson Writer’s in a strategy role.
But quickly thereafter, kinda fell into the work of independent consulting after I had left Writer’s and just picked up on kind of a whim, a project in Bolder, Colorado. Working on profit improvement for a manufacturing client that was based there, and applying some of the basic principles on a lot of the things we learned at McKinsey, worked pretty well on a smaller scale.
References kind of came out of that, and that was back in 2004, I think. Work continued to flow, and here we are ten years later.
Will Bachman: So what are some of the ways that you make use of the flexibility and freedom of being an independent consultant in terms of, trips, time with your family, or other projects.
Rick Condon: Sure.
One of the great things about being an independent consultant, if I were to compare my time in more of a structured corporate environment, or while I was at McKinsey. A lot of the time was spent in meetings and things I didn’t feel were necessarily, directly productive. So a lot of that time savings has really kind of parlayed into the independent consulting. Where you’re on a project, you have specific objectives, deliverables, that you negotiate, and that you’re accountable for. Generally, I’m working in the year, maybe six months, total, if it’s over a period of 12, of actual work.
There’s probably some minimum amount of admin associated with it and some business development. But the balance of the time in those pockets, I can use basically to pursue other interests with my family, and really kind of having a much more well balanced life. Of course then the income while you’re in the window and delivering, generally is a bit higher, so it all balances out and works.
Will Bachman: Now, you and I were gonna actually meet, what six months ago? And then you called and said hey, I can’t make it, not gonna be to San Francisco, my back is killing me. And that was a bummer, obviously, and your back was killing you for a while. And then I think you have been doing yoga since then. Can you talk about that a little bit?
Rick Condon: Yeah, sure.
Part of the downside of having months off and spare time available as an independent, I do try and structure projects so I have summers at a lower pace, and I’m able to take on projects. I took on a project of building a larger garden with a rock wall, and got a little stubborn with the size of rocks and the need for forklift versus able to do it myself. Got into a little trouble with my back.
I ended up herniating my L5 disk. It was a four or five millimeter herniation, and never have I felt pain quite that sharp in my life, and it was quite debilitating. I couldn’t sit for more than an hour, I couldn’t get on planes, it was pretty tough going. My way out of that if anybody is listening that has back problems, was presented with a couple of really stark choices. One was back surgery which had a 50/50 chance, the other was physical therapy, and activity hoping to kind work that herniation back in to place.
I elected to go with the second, and specifically, I just started doing yoga. There’s this other thing called a teeter, but I don’t really want to get into that, but I’d hang upside down for 20 minutes a day. But those two things over a period of a year and a half kinda did the trick, and really, actually had a lot of ancillary benefits. So now it’s part of daily routine. I just do yoga over lunch for an hour. It’s a great way to relax, get some physical activity, get into a little bit better shape, but also to clear and relax my mind and get ready for the afternoon meetings.
Just before this podcast well, I was at yoga, so there you go.
Will Bachman: So many folks that I talk to are now doing some kind of mindfulness practice whether it’s meditation, or yoga. Do you find you get any mindfulness benefits besides the physical benefits? You want to talk about that a little bit?
Rick Condon: Oh yeah, sure absolutely.
Definitely, I think our lives, and American lives in general, and particularly those of that pursue this kind of practice and worked at the McKinseys of the world and are now independents tend to run pretty hard, and work the mind. You know, tends to work quickly and constantly, and just having that break certainly slows down the mind, clears it. There’s definitely stress reduction benefits associated with it. I think just as a practical matter in terms of problem solving, and just work and productivity.
The hour, plus in and out time, just on yoga and even some of the meditation that’s mixed in, is really immeasurable. It’s really had quite a big impact, I just can’t recommend incorporating that if nothing else, a way of stress reduction and a better more balanced life physically and mentally. Incorporating that into somebodies life … has been great for me, and I can’t really say enough about it.
Will Bachman: Tell me about this hanging upside down thing, is this like something you have in your house? Or what is this like, you flip it upside down?
Rick Condon: Yeah, my wife says I’m a bat.
There’s this contraption, it’s called a Teeter, and apparently it’s on a bunch of these infomercials, I was super skeptical. But the massage therapist that I was seeing at the time, working on my back, said oh you’ve got to do this, it helps realign your back and decompresses the disks, and it’s good for you even if you don’t have back problems.
So you literally strap in, link your legs, you flip upside down. At first, the blood rush to the head is a bit much, so you can only go for a minute or two at a time. But slowly as your muscles relax and your joints get used to it, you can build up to two ten minute sessions a day.
It really kinda helps with pain, posture, all sorts of things that can afflict those of us who sit in offices all day and do that sort of work.
Will Bachman: That’s totally cool, I’m gonna look into getting one of those things, it sounds awesome.
Rick Condon: Yeah, just google it, there’s videos. Don’t buy it, there’s plenty in used exercise equipment stores for cheap.
Will Bachman: Just don’t get one with a big rusty bolt on it.
Rick Condon: The reason why I’m saying Teeter specifically, is those parts, it’s a high quality … I did do all the research on this. If you get the one for a hundred bucks at Walmart, I don’t think I’d be hanging upside down on that one. Just a brand name, pay a little extra, but not full price.
Will Bachman: Awesome.
So talk to me, I’m always fascinated by, in a big firm they’re sort of taking care of you in terms of your professional development, to some degree, right?
Rick Condon: Sure.
Will Bachman: But as an independent, you’re completely on your own. There’s no one scheduling your annual training session offsite, kinda thing. It’s totally up to us to figure out not only how do we do the professional development, but what even should we work on? You’ve been doing this for a while, as an independent, successfully.
I’d love to hear how you have over the years decided, prioritized what kind of skills you want to work and then gone out? How have you done that?
Rick Condon: I think as an independent when you’re relying on client income for your living, and really as a practical matter, if my development in what I’m doing has to have sort of immediate value to the client for professional work. I mean there’s other non-professional development things that I do that has nothing to do with winning, keeping, maintaining clients.
So just as an example, a lot of my work is focused on rapid profit improvement. And coming out of McKinsey operations, we did a lot of stuff in manufacturing, and manufacturing efficiency. We started just picking up procurement opportunities to reduce material costs as part of increasing labor efficiencies in the plants. And as it turned a lot of those things really paid off as much or more than we were doing on the efficiency parts, in the plant. And clients really valued that, and I saw it as kind of a great service extension to what I was doing and needed to add to my skill set.
I had a little bit of experience and exposure in that at the firm, but certainly not enough to be considered an expert. I said, well that could be a good service line extension and a thing that I could add to my resume, so I started pushing for and taking on projects that highlighted that, increased emphasis on that area and compressing outside spend, and I would bring in people to projects that I sold as experts, and I really learned from other independents had much more depth of experience in that area.
I also did a fair amount of just research, lit research, Google, everything to see what people were doing in the area. Then combined with experts that I hired, own research that I did, and then just through experience and practice, that became over time sort of a core service extension, is now more a big chunk of the work that we do and deliver for clients.
Just as an example we’re also then … That started probably 2007, and we’re in 15, and now we have technology that supports it, process. A number of people in that area that work with me. But as of ’04, ’05, it was a relatively small and distant skill that I really wasn’t really well developed.
Will Bachman: You mentioned process. Beyond studying this, have you also investing building some tools, or building some proprietary technology around this?
Rick Condon: Yeah, absolutely.
I was using some tools that were available in the market, but they just … Too expensive, too complicated, didn’t really get to what my teams needed to get the job done for our clients. So we just built a set of easy to use … Technology platform would be a gross overstatement of what we have, but there is technology that we bundled into what we do to improve both the efficiency of our delivery, and also the effect in terms of the compression.
Will Bachman: So you mentioned a couple times, you’ve alluded to it, but I probably didn’t ask the broad enough question. Can you talk a little bit about the types of projects that you do. You’ve mentioned rapid profit improvement, what does that mean?
Rick Condon: Sure, sure, sorry. We kind went down on the career development.
Outside spend compression is an element, an example. Now we’re also working on price lever and price related things. But yeah if we step back and look at the type of clients that we serve. Really profit improvement for us is just driving EBITA, so earnings, it’s mostly PNO focused, not balance sheet improvements. So any ideas or any improvements that we can get in to full run in a year count. so it’s tactical, practical things that we work on, stuff that’s two to five years out, which typically is more strategic, is generally out of scope though. I’d say maybe 5% of the work we do is strategy, but it’s usually an add on to the core work that we’re focused on.
The types of clients, it’s horizontal, it’s cross industries. We serve software, all kind of technology, manufacturing, we’ve been in real estate, so Reits. It’s really all kinds of travel, insurance, pharmaceuticals, really all types of clients. Most though, our focus now is more in the mid market, then with the larger companies.
Will Bachman: That’s quite a range of industries. Do you have sort of standard approach, or a diagnostic that you would do? Maybe tell us a little bit about how you come in and quickly diagnose the opportunity?
Rick Condon: It is horizontal, not vertical, and kinda more situational where we just go in, look through the PNO, kinda do a diagnostic, figure out what the key levers are, the drivers, which ones we can most immediately affect, prioritize those, get together with the client, they agree. Figure out then the best approach for either taking the money out or for increasing the revenue.
Generically speaking it’s kind of what any McKinsey profit improvement ops project would do, except I would say over the last … It’s been a while since I’ve been there, so they’ve probably developed and advanced as we have over the last ten years, our specific methods and methodologies.
Will Bachman: So some of the levers would be the outside spend reduction?
Rick Condon: Broadly, that’s not even really a lever, that’s an area. So you look at outside spend and all sorts of things on the revenue side, which is a big area and there’s a lot of firms that work on that. And then there’s employee productivity, which can be anything from, particularly in the technology, a lot of that’s around, the effectiveness of their development teams, or could be IT ops, which is typically run to get solutions in the data centers, and things like that.
Will Bachman: How do you get your leads? Where do they come from? Relationships? How do you maintain those relationships? Talk [inaudible 00:17:08].
Rick Condon: The core mantra and principle from day one has really been, the work has gotta sell itself, and the clients have to value it. So what I mean by that is, the work that we do then, and the results, people are happy enough with those to hire us again, which is a core source of leads, core clients leads to more projects, and either other businesses, or other parts of the portfolio. I would say that continuation and ongoing work is a high percentage of our business, but like any business, clients turnover.
So the new leads are generally the CEO or CFO going, you have to hire these guys, and telling their friends and buddies. They often times sit on boards, so the results really then drive new leads. The introductions and referrals are made, I follow up on those, and some percentage of those close and become new clients and that’s kind of how we grow. In terms of … We didn’t even really have a web presence, or pitch documents or anything until probably a couple of years ago, when a client said you really need a decent website and a pitch deck, so I put one together.
But really for the first ten years it was people introducing us, based on what we did.
Will Bachman: Some consultants are a little bit shy about asking for a referral, and it can be a little awkward. Do you ask for those kind of referrals? Or how do you convey that you would certainly appreciate if they spread the word?
Rick Condon: It’s easy. As an independent, or a small firm, you really don’t have time and marketing resources and selling, to be out for that sort of classic division of labor where the partner sells a tea that implements it, there’s a lot of overhead associated with that. So really, my communication, the clients is really, to the extent that you appreciate this work, part of how we keep our fees reasonable is that it’s just word of mouth. It’s how I was introduced to you, and to the extent that you find this valuable, and you think that others would, please hand us off and refer us to your friends and to your family so to speak.
Also, at the end of projects when clients are generally ecstatic, they’re happy with the results, they’re like wow, this is really great, at that point is a good time to just remind them, very flattered, I’m glad that you’re happy, thank you for the feedback. To the extent that you do know anybody, our business model is reliant on referrals exclusively, so to the extent that you could make those, it would be greatly appreciated. That’s all.
Will Bachman: So now, putting someone on the spot-
Rick Condon: It’s sort of predicated on the fact that it’s great work, that they like it, they can clearly see it put some place else, all that kinda stuff.
Will Bachman: So you’re not putting anybody on the spot, like, do you know anybody now? You just say hey, it would be appreciated.
Rick Condon: No, it sets a high bar I think for the work, but I think that’s the way it should be, and certainly the only way I think if as a small firm or an independent serving clients, I really think it’s the only way that it actually works. Because you spend so much of the time on the delivery side, that when you’re done, if you don’t have any leads or anything to come out of that, or from past work, you’re kind of always starting from ground zero. That can be difficult to make work, if there’s not stuff flowing out of the work that you’ve done.
Will Bachman: How, and how often do you follow up with clients that you’ve served in the past that you’re not actively serving now, just sort of to check in?
Rick Condon: Usually immediately following, I’m checking in a little bit more frequently to make sure that things are sort of tapped in and there isn’t any kind of leakage in the results. But once we get a little bit further away and there’s some time, probably twice a year, and further back maybe once a year, really. And more than that I really don’t think it’s necessary, for us at least. It’s sort of situational dependent too, they know they have issues coming up and there’s problems they’re solving, then I’ll be involved more. But usually I let them drive that.
Just like tomorrow morning, there’s a CEO I had served in 2015, he’s on a board and he’s also trying to pull together money for kind of a roll up with a private equity firm, and he wants to get into the economics of his idea, and wants some help. So he reached out to me, and I was like of course I have time. So that’s the best way to stay in touch when they reach out to you for help on some subject, that’s the best way to stay connected with them, is just sorta being helpful.
Will Bachman: Yeah, absolutely. And trying to add value.
Rick Condon: Just always saying yes to the core people that have helped you out is definitely the way to go.
Will Bachman: You mentioned that you bring teams to bear typically. Talk to me about how you build out your virtual extended team. And I’m talking not just about associates, but that full set of professionals that supports you, whether it’s your bookkeeper, or designer, or PowerPoint person, or analysts. How do you approach that?
Rick Condon: That’s a great question, here’s a plug from Umbrex. You’ve helped me in the past identify people that’s been helpful, but really we’re kind of tapping the same network. So frequently, advertising and kinda networking are the top tiered firms, like BCG, McKinsey, and others. People from other firms, if I’ve not mentioned yours, I’ve networked through those.
Just simply posting. I think that the pool of independent consultants is growing rapidly, and that the interest in the field is there. So just advertising in the right spots, and then kind of having a drip of resumes and points of interest that come in. I’m an ex submarine guy, so I always like to talk to ex submariners, out of bias. So that’s been kind of a good source, now I’m talking specifically on the teams for the delivery teams.
I think direct marketing, and then through Uwill and Umbrex and others that do similar services like that. That’s mostly it on the delivery, then most of the people kind of stick around and come back for repeat engagements.
I think on accounting and things I did nothing fancier than Google local accountants and interview a few of them and pick one that I liked.
In terms of legal council, I had just happened to be an expert witness in a couple of cases, and ran into a firm that I liked, met a partner who’s a really smart guy, and I’ve kinda just used him for contracts and things of that nature. Also on the engagements when we do review client contracts. Just kind of incident, there wasn’t any kind of great screening process, other than, just meeting people that I see are talented and that I can trust, kinda hire ’em and just keep ’em.
In terms of report production, that goes way back, I’ve used the same person since 2005, her name is Heater Haydock, if anyone is interested in hiring her, she does a great job, available, and does great sort of McKinsey or BCG quality or whatever presentations at a good price. I’ve been using her since 2005, she’s certainly been an important person on the team.
Marketing, I have a great marketing firm. Again, I’m kinda running you though the teams, and how I met them. When I was in Boulder I used to ride my bike a lot, and raced on some teams. And one of the guys that was on the team was a founder and CEO of a local web development firm in Boulder named Insight Designs, they do great work. His name’s Nico, we just became friends, hired him to do the website, and he did a fantastic job. Then he’s been helping me with other marketing collateral and stuff ever since. So just somebody I was friends with for four or five years, and he’s been kinda helping us for three.
Will Bachman: Beyond your website, what kind of collateral have you put together?
Rick Condon: Just at the behest, really a client said, can you send something over on what you do? So I used to just whip together a few case examples and put an outline, and send it through. But now I actually have something with brand, image, trademarked, fonts, all that fancy stuff that can make it look more standard and professional.
It’s just a pitch deck, here’s an overview of what we do, who we work with, types of clients, types of projects, how we work, who we are, stuff like that. Ten pages, and then we’ll have a section on case examples, and that’s it. People don’t usually like to look at more than ten or 15 slides of anything, so just keep it less than that I suppose.
Will Bachman: Any other members of the team? Research, or IT support, anything like that?
Rick Condon: IT support, well we’re all virtual, everyone has their own laptops. The IT thing is sorta ad hoc, where we just find free, cheap solutions that we use. A lot of our stuff is virtual, so we use Zoom meetings which is like $15 dollars a month per user, or something silly.
Will Bachman: Yeah you were telling me a while ago that you guys started using that and that you really like it.
Rick Condon: It’s awesome. It keeps us off planes, it keeps client expenses down and [inaudible 00:27:51], it’s just super easy.
Will Bachman: How do you use it?
Rick Condon: It’s real easy, it’s through your web browser and you just set up a meeting, you click it, you’ve got up to 30 people that can come in and it’s pretty seamless. So we just basically send out a meeting request, put the Zoom link in, and everybody just kind of clicks in, those who want to be on video are, and those who are on audio just remain on audio. And it’s real easy to share screens and do all kinds of collaborative stuff that we used to do in team rooms. Can’t understate the significance of that now affordable piece of technology to a firm such as ourselves has had kind of lifestyle and productivity.
Will Bachman: That’s awesome.
Rick Condon: So, anybody that’s thinking about that. Zoom, or anything like it.
Will Bachman: Do they have some kind of thing where you can draw and people can see your drawings and [crosstalk 00:28:47].
Rick Condon: Oh yeah, absolutely, you can do white boarding. I think some of the independent white board apps might be better.
But generally what we do to stay off planes and keep our productivity and cost high, and cost down for the client. Once you have the relationship started and kind of established up front, we then switch to virtual, then probably kind of rotate in for bigger reviews, where we’ll spend a week onsite ahead of a review. But otherwise, everybody is just working out of their house.
It kinda depends on the typ of work too, though. So if you’re integrating two companies, it tends to be really hands on or direct productivity improvement of the flow of material through a plant, I mean obviously you can’t do that on virtual technology, but on certain projects that are more analytically driven, those types of things can certainly be more remote.
Will Bachman: Beyond Zoom, any other apps or software, or technology tools that you’ve found are awesome?
Rick Condon: That’s really been the biggest one. I mean I think there’s some … We don’t do a lot of presentations, and there’s some stuff that’s improved since I’ve been, but I don’t-
Will Bachman: There’s think-cell, which you can [crosstalk 00:30:08].
Rick Condon: Yeah, think-cell, that’s it, that’s a good one.
The technology that I talked about earlier that we built but wasn’t really out there, but that’s kind of a custom for our teams, it’s not really even client facing.
Will Bachman: Did you build that for yourself, did you hire a programmer for that?
Rick Condon: Yeah, I hired a firm with a couple good programmers.
The user interfaces and things that they have now for building technology and apps to do stuff that you want, generally should be available. If you can’t find a good one at a reasonable price, building it yourself.
The firms wanted $100000, $200000 a year or something ridiculous for their app. So, you can build something decent these days, probably around $30, $40, $50000.
Will Bachman: Is that about what you guys spent on your thing?
Rick Condon: In that range, it wasn’t-
Will Bachman: So making an investment like that allows you to really build a tool that is beyond just having some IP, it actually says, we have this tool where we can do this super efficiently.
Rick Condon: Yeah, I don’t want to overstate it, maybe I shouldn’t put a bunch of collateral on the market around it, but it’s more to make my teams lives easier and more effective. Well you’ve right, we could probably do something with it and make it fancy and client interface, and all that kind of stuff, but we’re not a software firm, so.
Will Bachman: One thing I wanted to loop back to is we were talking a little bit about professional development, and I wanted to follow that up with, just a question about, what do you read? What are your interests? Are there a couple of books that have affected your thinking that you would recommend?
Rick Condon: Yeah, sure. What I read, New York Times, Washington post, The Economist, scan The Journal. And then from there, stuff kind of just comes up professionally that makes sense to go through, McKinsey quarterly, BCG has a lot of good content on their site that I kind of read and keep track of. And then personally, just kind of in the context of the current political environment, I’ve been doing a lot of research into how others have kind of worked through current environments. I just look at people who I admire from my past histories. So, Gandhi, Dalai Lama, a lot of eastern thought. I think the Dalai Lama has a good book on joy, that I thought was quite good.
Also, listening to a lot of podcasts in the car when I have time.
Will Bachman: I love that, what are some of your favorite podcasts?
Rick Condon: I actually get a lot of this stuff through this website called Dharma Seed. It’s a Buddhist leaning website, I listen to a lot of the podcasts that come out of that. Mostly that lately, that comes to mind, actually.
What other books are good? Whispering in Giants Ears, that was a good one. I just took a trip to Bolivia, so I read that as kind of background and context to work with a nonprofit called [inaudible 00:33:16], that I’m doing down there.
Another book is Indian Givers by Jack Weatherford, The Book of Joy by the Dalai Lama, How Can I Help. There’s also some really good books by [inaudible 00:33:32]. You can kinda tell that right now I’m sort of in the eastern thoughts, and a lot of stuff is coming out of that.
Will Bachman: We’ll include a list of these in the show notes.
Rick, final question. Let’s say you’re granted the rights to put a message on a billboard, what would you put up there?
Rick Condon: This point in time, I’d put anything that would go across the U.S., I would put in to yourself as others.
Will Bachman: Nice.
Rick, before we leave if people or clients want to get in touch with you, how can they find you on the web? Give a website, a twitter account, any kind of social media or just your website.
Rick Condon: Sure, you can just go to the website, insideconsuliting.net. I don’t think it even Googles and comes up, so you just have to type it in directly. Then there’s an interface to send emails that go directly to my email account. Probably direct message me on Linkedin, those are the best ways to get ahold of me.
Will Bachman: Great, okay. Insideconsulting.net.
Well Rick, I appreciate your time today and we will include a bunch of links and a list of books in the show notes that you recommended today.
This was great, I’ve enjoyed our chats over the last decade or so, and your advice.
Rick Condon: Sure, no problem.
Will Bachman: And fun having you on the podcast.
Rick Condon: Alright, well thank you. Take care, bye.
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.
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