A new type of consulting – one built around an emotive brand

by | 3 March 2021

A new type of consulting – one built around an emotive brand
We spoke with Gus, Founder of Circle Strategy, to hear his thoughts on the Consulting Industry and the changes afoot. He credited his non consulting background as being a huge asset when building Circle – allowing him to break traditions and look to build a consultancy like any other business or product: one with a clear emotive brand and that invests in growth.
Consultancies are launched by ex-consultants

Consultancies are traditionally launched by ex-consultants.

When you look through the Founding Partner profiles, the story tends to fall into one of two categories:

  • A group of Partners left a larger brand to “spin off” a consultancy
  • A group of consultants trained up at prestigious brands look to go their own way targeting a certain niche (industry or function)

That means they often do it in the same way. They know how consultancies have been built in the past, and they have a ready-made network. This can mean they don’t approach launching a consultancy like launching a product, or a business.

Circle is different. “I never did consulting. I didn’t have a consulting brand behind me. Instead I looked at launching a consulting business as an entrepreneur would. I identified a whole in the market, and looked at how to best fill it.”

Not being burdened by a consulting background meant Gus could think differently. He could escape the Group Think risks of a more traditional consulting background. And in doing so, he saw a huge opportunity – he saw a market that hasn’t moved much culturally, strategically, technically for the last 50 years in a world that has changed a lot. hadn’t really changed. “It was still adopting the same codes and was super expensive.”

More diverse and changing client base

At the same time the clients had changed a lot. “Historically the buyers of Strategy Consulting were white males who were buying from the same companies as their uncles and dads. That’s changing now.”

Executive teams are starting a long overdue transition to be more representative. And those on Boards are becoming more diverse in their thinking. As such their thinking is changing in how they procure strategy support.Gus identified the opportunity for a more pragmatic approach to strategy. “You get that from entrepreneurism” – hence the model of Circle Strategy was born: to deliver more pragmatic strategy consulting with people who combined the consulting and entrepreneurial/strong operational background.

Barriers to entry and how to overcome them

The barriers to building and scaling a consultancy are often around utilisation. You need to get to a certain scale to be able to manage utilisation, and have the flexibility of a bench. However, it takes time to guarantee the work in the pipeline.

The traditional approach has been to scale in a cash-flow positive way. Wait for the work to be confirmed and recruit reactively. Gus recognised this was going to limit the speed of growth, and thus wanted a different approach.

“I knew tying recruitment to business performance would stunt our growth. Instead, I looked to raise the capital required to scale quickly – and operate as a loss making business for the first couple of years to unityte recruitement and buisness. By doing so we ending by being super possitive after not even 2 years..”

This allowed him to recruit ahead of business growth. And with it scale a great team who were invested in building the business. For the initial growth stage, he didn’t look to use freelancers as a short-cut to manage utilisation. He took the decision that he wanted people to be truly bought-in and aligned to the growth of the business. He also felt that over-relying on freelancers at an early stage would stop the business taking the required risks to scale: “Hiring a team also created a burning platform to go out and win more work.”

Interestingly, freelancers did help overcome barriers to growth for Circle. They soon realised that bringing in freelancers for expertise suited to certain clients and projects, was an extremely effective way to deliver more value for clients.

The power of brand and differentiation

Central to Circle’s success was having a clear differentiating factor.
Given most consultancies are building from previously developed networks, the differentiating factor is not always the first starting-point. But it was for Circle. ”I launched Circle like I would launch any business – I create a clear mission, and with it a clear brand. Building a brand is about building an emotion. Emotion needs to be there before a clear product. It’s bizarre that services aren’t more focused on their marketing.”

Circle built their emotive brand on its individuals. Recruiting has been central to the business: Entrepreneurs bring an extremely eclectic and diverse way of thinking. And most importantly, they bring a pragmatic approach to thinking about business – this, plus a more cost-effective structure, gives Circle a clear differentiator compared with its more traditional competitors.

It’s critical to keep investing in this; it doesn’t self-sustain. Gus explained that central to Circle’s offering is the continued development of the team. “The most important part of development is responsibility. We offer this from day one. When you can explain something, as opposed to just doing it, that’s when you’ve mastered it. Being in a position of responsibility means you have to explain.” Circle also believes in personalised training; as opposed to the more traditional approach of ensuring everyone goes through the same courses, Circle devolves the learning budget for people to choose which training they will benefit from most.

This differentiation also needs to be clear in how you deliver your service. Gus explains that project teams from Circle tend to look very different to your more traditional strategy firm. There’s also a familiarity that breeds authenticity – the CEOs of CAC40 firms aren’t used to being tutoyer but that’s how trusted relationships are built.

Impact of COVID

It’s hard to not touch on the impact of COVID across consulting. For Circle, in many ways it has helped to accelerate growth. Companies that have been badly hit by COVID or the subsequent recession are looking for new options. When everything goes wrong, you don’t want to stick with your usual advisors; you need new ways of thinking and new approaches. In addition, the high fees of some of the traditional consultancies become very hard to sustain in a crisis. As such, they’ve been able to attract new clients who would traditionally be continuing to work with their current partners.

Movemeon summary

Circle is approaching the industry in a completely new way. Their brand-first approach has allowed them to develop a truly differentiated business model. As such, their continued growth comes as no surprise. It’s also a distinctive offering for talent – a growing number of our community love different aspects of start-ups and consulting – this is a rare place where both sides can be fulfilled. We’ve really enjoyed supporting the hiring of [input hires with permission].
Interview written by Movemeon.

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