When is it Time to Grow Your Firm?
Making the leap is an expression I’ve used for years. It conveys the reality for small firms that growth can’t be linear, but rather comes in big chunks that must be swallowed whole. This is true for sales (when that big, unexpected whale shows up) and in expenses, when it comes to hiring a new employee.
And there’s no place where hiring is more gut-wrenching that with the sole practitioner who is taking the step to have his or her first, real-time, sitting-in-the-office everyday employee.
Where will this person come from? And with so many demands, what expertise will be paramount? Should it be a seasoned veteran, or an eager beaver just out of college? A technical, CAD expert, or a talented designer? Someone who will put his or her head down and get work done, or an extrovert who clients will love?
From Projects to People
And what is this thing called, “management?” Part of “the leap” is when one goes from simply managing projects, to managing people. Or better yet, to managing a practice. How much time will that take? Are the systems in place? What level of training will be required, and don’t you wish all of your processes were documented and in a nice, neat binder?
Oh yeah, and cash flow. Do you really have enough work to support a new employee who you promised to pay almost as much as you’re paying yourself in some months? Do you have to offer benefits? Will the workload support the added overhead? Or, are you going to wake up with a real hangover about what you have done?
These are the type of questions I’ve been discussing with coaching client for years. One in particular comes to mind who, for six months or so, continued to wrestle with these tough questions and whether or not to take the risk….the leap. Like any good coach, my job is more to ask questions than to give answers, but there’s no doubt from what I had seen that she really needed to make this leap. She had a huge celebrity client as well as other serious projects and it’s not going to be possible for her to support her $1.5 million in business, or more, all by herself.
Start with Baby Steps
So we took baby steps. I convinced her to run ads on Indeed.com, not to hire, but just to learn. Just to see what was out there. I convinced her to tell her favorite architects that she was hiring and ask if they knew of anyone. Not necessarily to hire, but to use that as an excuse to reach out and give the impression that her firm was blowing and going. I told her that if she was going to grow the type of firm she dreamed of, that hiring and training would have to become a “critical core” of hers, and she had best get started.
And lthen came the news—she had hired her first design associate! She was very careful including multiple interviews and references—she even put the young woman through a test project, requiring her to create sketches and pull samples for a fictitious job. She aced it.
Fortunately, this client already had an office with plenty of extra space, so that part was not a problem. But what really impressed me was that almost overnight, the nature of our coaching calls changed. No longer was she asking me about technical details such as how to create a procedures manual, or how to write a job description.
Rather, her questions were now about the future and how to build her firm. They were about branding and PR and partnerships. They were about getting published and creating a leadership position in her niche. Successfully making the leap had freed her mind up to think about more important things, like her future.
She’ll have to hire again because of the “donut hole,” that reality that every billable hour creates almost one full non-billable hour as well. They’ll need administrative support, but it will never be the terror-inducing experience the first time was. This former sole practitioner will get better as a manager and learn to delegate, and she’ll have more time to cherry-pick the portions of projects she loves most, as well as go forth and make rain!
Is it time for you to make the leap, or leap again?