If you’re an executive of a large corporation, you can call on your board of directors for advice. Or you could engage one of the nation’s leading consulting firms, such as Deloitte or Accenture.
But what if you run a small business in the Kansas City area and are facing a challenging issue or set of issues? Several smaller consulting firms — small businesses themselves — offer coaching and advice, for overall strategy and in specific areas such as sales and financial accounting.
One such source of help is sisters Casey and Sloane Simmons, who also own Stuff in Brookside and have walked several miles in the shoes of small-business owners. They opened their store at 315 W. 63rd St. in 1996, offering jewelry, art and other products made by artisans from across the country.
“We did consulting before we opened the store, and we started again six years ago,” said Sloane Simmons. “We were political and event consultants before we opened the store.”
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“We were being approached a lot by small-business owners, startup dreamers and individual artists, asking if we could meet with them,” Casey Simmons said. “We realized we had a skill set from the past and knew how to put things into words and give advice based on 10 to 12 years of solid, small-business ownership.
“So we said yes, we can do that, but we have to put a value on our time. We started to do individual consulting when we were approached, but we didn’t publicize it on our website. Then we decided we could offer educational, affordable, question-and-answer based seminars where we could answer questions that were pressing on them or holding them back.”
The monthly Q&A sessions last two hours each and cost less than $40 a person. If a business owner or would-be entrepreneur wants more in-depth consulting from the Simmonses, they can get that, too.
They also offer “creative brainstorming” sessions for small groups. The objective could be to solve a problem the business has encountered or the desire to come up with new products or ideas.
“We approach that obstacle by breaking down the way they think about it,” said Casey Simmons. “We come around from the back side.”
“It’s a creative exercise in how you think,” said Sloane Simmons. “We disarm their thinking process with rapid-fire ideas and exciting, challenging questions.… We start to turn and churn until everyone lets go of their thinking, and then they find a pathway that wasn’t there before. Then we say ‘Stop, let’s work that one through.’”
Taking the plunge
As owner and CEO of the startup company Brolly Communications, it took Rich Wagner a while to seek out advice when he set out to offer high-speed wireless Internet service in Louisburg, Kan.
“When I started this, I had heard of the concept of a business coach, but I didn’t know I needed one,” Wagner said. “An entrepreneurial class introduced me to the concept.”
Wagner explained how he came to believe he needed outside advice this way:
“You may believe you know how to play football, but how do you know how effective you are? You don’t know what you don’t know. A business coach can help you think through those things.… They can make you more effective. They offer experience and perspective.
“When you’re in the game, you don’t always see the whole picture. A coach on the sideline can say, ‘Have you considered this strategy; this tactic?’ Now I can’t imagine not having a coach. No matter how large our company grows, I expect to have a coach.”
Wagner acknowledged that “as a startup, it’s difficult to come up with the cash to pay them every month.”
But that’s something his business coach, Chris Steinlage of Aspire Business Development, has helped with, too.
“They say, ‘Let’s talk about startup financing,’” Wagner said. “I learned why cost structure is important. If you’re going to get money in the future, it has to be handled correctly.”
Steinlage and his Aspire partner, Shawn Kinkade, offer a variety of experience to their clients. Steinlage worked as a manager in the food-processing industry, and then he owned and operated two construction-equipment dealerships in different parts of the country. That, he says, gave him experience in marketing, sales, customer service, human resources, financial management and development of systems, among other things.
Kinkade’s first job out of college was with Andersen Consulting, now Accenture, working primarily with telecommunications clients. From there, he moved to a job in financial operations and strategy with Sprint.
Today, both men are members of the Professional Business Coaches Alliance. A decade ago, Harvard Business Review estimated that U.S. corporations spent $1 billion a year on executive coaching.
“There are very few businesses that don’t go through struggles,” Steinlage said.
Kinkade said: “A lot of problems are the same, whether you are a small business or a big corporation. The challenge is getting the right people in the right places; profitability. They are just of a different scale and size. A Fortune 100 company can implement a $10 million computer system to help resolve it. A small business may implement a spreadsheet.”
Small business owners, Steinlage said, “tend to wing it.”
A business consultant can offer such a person constructive criticism in a safe environment.
“The accountability piece ties back to what a board of directors would do for a larger company,” Steinlage said. “The CEO of a small company is not accountable to anybody but himself. They often get lost in the day to day, fighting fires.”
A 30,000-foot view
Another local business consultant, Jim Mellon, has a background that includes a stint in the U.S. Army’s special operations branch, specializing in psychological warfare. More relevant to his clients, though, is his experience as the owner of an independent insurance agency.
“It was never enough for me to just sell,” Mellon said. “I looked for ways to learn more about their process and to help business owners.… I believe that a coach is someone who helps you gain understanding in different areas. Consultants are telling you how to do it. Maybe you hire one to help you figure out HR issues, the financial pieces or different management issues. There are a lot of great courses and books: (W. Edwards) Deming, the Lean process, Six Sigma. They teach you the nuts and bolts of how to implement a system. … I have a dual role as a consultant. I’ve given them the project-management tools and taught them how to implement a process. But my main focus is on soft people skills. That’s the hardest part — motivational issues; the why and how of encouragement and drive.”
Perspective is important, Mellon said.
“A small business owner wears a lot of different hats,” Mellon noted. “He’s the payroll manager, the HR director, the chief sales and project manager. They are so busy working in the business they can’t work on the business.… They’ve got the vision. Dreaming got them where they are in the first place.… But if they get bogged down, they are not able to work toward that vision.
“You know the concept of the 30,000-foot view? They need to be able to back up and get that view, when so often they are entrenched at ground level they can’t see the forest for the trees. They can’t see where their organization is on the playing field; if that’s where we want to go, we need to make a course correction.
“They may have people problems they are aware of but don’t know what to do, or aren’t aware of. It can cost them good employees. The buzzword these days is employee engagement. How immersed are they; how much buy-in does the employee have to their role in the organization? How invested are they? Or are they just punching the clock … and looking for their next opportunity? Maybe so, if they are not getting fulfillment and don’t feel valued.”
Why are the jellyfish taking over?
Jane Walton reached just such a crossroads in her career four years ago and decided to leave her HR position at a large, KC-based corporation and hang out her consultant’s shingle. Her office is in a renovated house next door to her own home in Kansas City’s West Side neighborhood.
She had experience as an HR manager, charged with handling the needs of smaller teams within a large financial company. Then she earned a master’s degree in HR management and moved into the field of architecture and engineering.
“I worked with CEOs in different companies within their executive team,” Walton said. “I helped them to grow their business; to hire and train the right people and make sure they’re connected and communicating well together.”
While it was beginning to recede, the Great Recession was still very much on executives’ minds when Walton began her own business, she said, making them reluctant to spend money hiring consultants.
“In times of stress, collaboration ceases to exist. Decisions are made exclusively from the top,” Walton said. “Anything extra just stopped. People were getting their work done and leaving.”
Today, Walton said, as the result of recession-era job cuts, “the workload people have these days is ridiculous.” And yet “too many people mistake activity for progress,” she said. They have packed schedules but get little done.
“I’ve been behind the scenes and know what makes a not-great situation bad and, worse, chronic,” she said. “People turn into jellyfish at that point. If issues are not addressed, it can cost the organization money and health and productivity.”
Like an infestation of jellyfish, such a situation can feed on itself and multiply rapidly, she said.
Walton has even written a book she plans to self-publish this summer titled, “Why Are the Jellyfish Taking Over?”
Just as the natural environment requires balance, Walton said, so, too, does a business environment. In a healthy business, “people collaborate, they talk, they move ideas forward to improve products and services,” she said.
Maggy Godfroy is director of professional resources for Massachusetts-based Sasaki Associates, a firm that offers architecture, interior and urban design and civil-engineering services. Godfroy said Walton’s background in the architecture industry proved beneficial when she called on her for consultation.
“In this industry, people are resume-driven,” Godfroy said. “Respect can be hard to come by. They think, ‘What does she know about architecture or design or the issues I am struggling with?’”
So Godfroy hired Walton to coach an individual who was thinking of leaving the Sasaki firm.
“We said, ‘We value who you are. We want to put resources behind you and show you how valuable you are,’ and we set her up to talk with Jane,” Godfroy said. “They spoke for several months, and the individual felt better suited to deal with some of the issues that had been taking place.”
Sasaki retained the person in question, Godfroy said.
Godfroy said Walton has a personality “that automatically puts people at ease and creates a sense of comfort and trust that is vitally needed for this particular role.”
Flexible consultants can provide one-time advice — and build relationships that encourage repeat business.
Theresa Van Ackeren, one of the owners of Family Bicycles of Kansas City in Waldo, reached out to the Simmonses for consulting last fall and again this year.
“It’s been very helpful,” Van Ackeren said. “They helped me with social media marketing.… They talked about how to figure out what your niche in the marketplace is and using that as a basis for your advertising. Our niche is we work with families. We don’t just talk about bikes in general. We have bikes for kids and bikes for people who don’t like to ride bikes.”
Van Ackeren said she can’t absolutely tie a direct spike in sales to her efforts, “but people are talking about our way of doing business with their friends. I can see the results from that. Sales are up.”