David C. Baker | The Business of Expertise: How Entrepreneurial Firms & Agencies Can Grow Today

John Corcoran 11:42

That’s the bad ones are the ones that stick with you. Maybe Yeah,

David C. Baker 11:44

right. So I have learned so much more from my bad decisions, and from my good decisions, maybe I just need to make more good ones. But it and so the value of money, the value of positioning the value of a marketing plan, the value of managing people, right, not making bad hiring mistakes. And one of the biggest lessons that is still with me from almost 30 years ago now was having an agency of 16 people, and having one client that represented 40% of our billings, and they were a great client in many ways. But I discovered accidentally that our client contact was embezzling from his firm. And I, you discovered this, I discovered it Yeah, wow, I didn’t. I didn’t know what to do, I’d like to say that I immediately called the company and turned them in. But I didn’t, I thought about it for a couple days figuring out what the best thing to do was and, and that is what I did, I turned them in thinking that the company would be very grateful and maybe even give us more work to do, right. That’s not what happened. So. And I wasn’t prepared for the devastation of losing a 40% account overnight, essentially. And I remember borrowing 300 and some $1,000 from my father in law, which, by the way, is never a great idea. Because you do have to pay it back, right. And I did pay that back in about a year and a half or so which is quite a bit quite fast for a small firm like that. But I’ll never forget the pressures you feel from not managing to change that could happen to you. And so that influence is decades later. Now it still influences how I think about things. Yeah,

John Corcoran 13:23

yeah, absolutely. So how, what are some ways in which it continues the color the, you know, your decisions today, or the way that you view the chaos that we’ve been through over the last year and a half?

David C. Baker 13:37

Well, in some ways, it makes me a lot bolder in other ways, it makes me more grateful for what I have. Because I do feel sort of like a year and a half ago, I do feel like at any point the business can be pulled out from under you, no matter how successful any of us is. We’re about two stupid decisions away from losing everything in the business. So is that always

John Corcoran 13:58

a good thing? Or is that a bad thing? It’s funny the way you describe it, I can tell maybe a little bit of both.

David C. Baker 14:04

I think it’s a good thing. Because I don’t want to get cocky like you. You have a remarkable business right now. If I let that go to my head, then I’m not going to be afraid of like, I’ll just not think very carefully about things and I don’t want to. I also don’t want to think that my current success is anything but a mix of intelligence and discipline, and a whole lot of being in the right place at the right time. Like there is just if you pull that out of the equation. My business wouldn’t look like it does at all right now. And I just always want that in front of my mind. But I also feel like there’s sort of an anti fragility in our businesses. The longer we do this, the more we figure out we’ll figure it out. There’s something there’s something that’s coming right. And it comes down to sort of a fundamental notion I have about entrepreneurships in that we start, often for the right reasons, not always, but then we lose sight of those things. So we started, we decided we start a business because we’re ultimately unemployable, we finally come to that realization, it’s like, we’re the worst employees in the world, we got to, we can’t have a boss anymore. And that’s the main one, then there’s other ones like, I’d like to make more money, I’d like to have more control, I’d like to have a better work life balance. So we start to sing, we’re all excited, it usually goes well. And then a few years later, you stop and you look back and you realize, wait a second, I’m making less money than I did. And I’ve got more financial risk. I’m working longer hours, I don’t have as much control, I feel like I’m feeding a machine. And it’s that slow transition where the business begins to own you. And you don’t have that sort of freedom, because you are always one or two steps behind the business, you’re catching up, you’re like, Oh, I got to do this, like instead of planning ahead and shaping it very directly. What happened last year, is that the world shook our businesses up and said, it’s dead in the water, what are you going to do about it, there was no choice we had, right. And success is what keeps us from more success more than anything, it’s like things are going good enough. And so we don’t have those deep moments of wanting to effect some change in our businesses. So all the I don’t even remember what your question was. Now. I’m just ranting. But it’s just,

John Corcoran 16:30

It started with utilis. And kind of the ways in which being going through that experience, losing 40% colors, right? The experience of today, right? Yeah, that’s we’re

David C. Baker 16:44

like, look at your I don’t know a lot about your business. But you’re well known. You’re interviewing great people, intelligent people. If you wake up and you hate your business, it’s like something’s got to give because you, you have an amazing business and an amazing country, and you’re making money and you have all kinds of, it’s like, we got to realize what we have, and we’ve got to protect it right? But not to preserve it. But protect it by planning more and being willing to change and constantly realizing that, Hey, David, what got you to this place? John, what got you to this place is not the same thing. It’s going to get you to the next place. So always be willing to learn. Yeah, so

John Corcoran 17:23

true. So true. And the healthy paranoia, I think, is kind of a phrase that some people use. I think that that can be a good thing. I do want to ask you about hiring, recruiting, labor, and staff retention. It’s such a big topic these days. What are you seeing these days? We’re in October 2021? What are you seeing that is affecting the market?

David C. Baker 17:45

I’m seeing that it is a big issue, just like you said, I just wrote an email to the 10s of 1000s of principals to get my weekly emails. And I just said, Listen, your biggest problem is not finding clients, your biggest problem is finding good people. And then your second biggest problem is how to pay them well enough. You know, you, it’s hard. There are a lot of experienced creatives available, but you need a software engineer, a coder, you know, you may have to pay 75,000 bucks for somebody out of school who isn’t even that good, right? So it is a big issue. Here’s Let me insert an idea that maybe your listeners will find interesting. So a lot of my career has been spent helping people fashion the right positioning, and then building a marketing plan. On top of that, I kind of think that finding great clients is not as hard as finding great team members. So why don’t we instead focus on building a marketing plan for our team members. And the positioning for that is the culture that you’ve built, and the clients you have and the work you do and the systems and processes. So I’m asking people to think differently about new business and think more about new employees and to have an actual marketing plan for new employees. Maybe you do a podcast that doesn’t that is not directed at your target audience but it’s directed at future possible employees of yours talk about having all kinds of guests on there talk about career path issues, and how to manage up with your boss and you know, there’s 100 topics you could talk about. And then at the end of it, whenever you have an opening say by the way at Blue search, we’re hiring for such and such and then you have 1000 people who are already attracted to what you think the way you do things. Because I think what’s gonna hold you back from succeeding like you could will not be clients, it will be team and management.

John Corcoran 19:42

Yeah, yeah. I love that. That’s a great idea. And I think that’s a great benefit of doing a podcast you could focus it on that for sure what other know

David C. Baker 19:50

anybody? Do you know anybody that does podcasts for people? You know, anybody that doesn’t know you might be okay. So if only there were so many Just put this together I have no idea

John Corcoran 20:05

Rise25. Something I want to ask you about. Aside from the labor shortage, what else is your eye on these days? How else? What are the ripple effects you see now and going into 2022? 

David C. Baker 20:22

Yep, a huge one is the whole work from home thing and how that will impact. So how that will impact compensation in particular. So, in the past, you would see a salary survey for every firm and it would say, Okay, if you’re in this position, and you live in New York City is this, this is your expectation to pay if it’s Des Moines it’s this right? Well, none of that matters anymore. Because to whatever extent people can work anywhere, the decision they’re making about where to live is not anything that the owner has control over. So they’re going to say, Listen, I pay this for this position, you live wherever you want, that’s something we haven’t quite figured out yet. The other is just thinking about the whole service offering side of things. What what we’ve done a little bit in panic in the professional services space is we have made our service offering choices look a little bit too much like the Cheesecake Factory menu, where you have 30 pages, and it’s like it takes you all you need to you need a couple appetizers just to read the whole thing. And instead of a price fix or however you pronounce that right where we are. And there’s a difference in terms of how you’re most of my clients, and most of your clients are not in the service business. They’re in the expertise business. And in an expertise business. You it’s your job, if you don’t do this, it’s malpractice. It’s your job to lead the client the right way and tell them what they need. And then do it graciously. And, and, and well. And so some of this service offering design stuff has looked a little bit too much like a buffet where we’re just letting clients pick and choose. And because of that they don’t really experience us in the way they should. We don’t have control over results. So those are the big themes I’m seeing nowadays.

John Corcoran 22:11

Yeah. And you made the point in one of your recent podcast episodes where you kind of dovetailing on what you just said that you’ll get fired for not providing that expertise to the clients. Like not only are you expected to, but it’s malpractice if you don’t

David C. Baker 22:27

write by that, yeah, because they’re gonna find another one. When you quit thinking from scratch, when you start just mailing it in, then that’s their, their, that’s their clue they need to find another firm. So you need to be leading them all the way through the relationship.

John Corcoran 22:41

Yeah. And then what about changing? I guess there’s a question about technologies and, and new mediums. Is your eye on any of those sorts of things? How is that affecting the world? I’m constantly thinking about that. Because obviously, we do podcasts and I love New Media, I love new emerging markets. You know, is that something that you’re noticing is having a big impact on?

David C. Baker 23:11

Could it could it’s not as fast as we suspect. Often I forget when the whole clubhouse craze thing came out, right? Yeah, I started to do a bunch of stuff there. And I think I have 3000 followers or something, and I’ll pop on sometimes and just start something new. And I’ll get a whole bunch of people that apparently have nothing else to do in life. And they’re talking with me, and then none of they’re going to be prospects, I get discouraged and I go on. I don’t I don’t think there’s a radical difference in technology there. It’s just getting more complicated. And, and we’re starting to figure it out a little bit better. And some of the older methodologies are coming back into an example of that, so we pretty much dismiss direct marketing, direct mail, excuse me, because we usually just know exactly all the tricks and we just toss it as soon as we get it. But it still is pretty darn effective. And when you mesh direct mail with some digital marketing, you can do some things that you can’t do with just one or the other. And so I think as an industry, we’re learning how to weave the right mediums into the picture in a smarter way, rather than just throwing stuff at the wall and seeing what sticks. However, the promise that now that so much is digital would lead us to clear attribution is simply not happening. You know, 40 years ago, somebody said, I think it was the famous copywriter who said, only half of what I do is effective. Problem is I don’t know which half and supposedly we weren’t supposed to be suffering from that now. It would be very clear what we needed to do. The truth isn’t that at all, it’s just more complicated. We still need a lot of instinct, but yeah, yeah. We don’t know, we still don’t know much about marketing, which is why there are 1000s of books about marketing trying to tell us something, right? There’s

John Corcoran 25:06

a new one all the time. Speaking of that, not that you were to write another book. But if you were to write another book, and I certainly don’t want to break any news here. If you were to write another book, what sorts of thoughts would you share in that book?

David C. Baker 25:22

Yeah, well, I have written another book that’s ready to go if I can get the courage to release it. And it’s really about the tradecraft of consulting. And it’s, it makes me nervous, because it’s a lot of sort of inside secrets for the consulting world, I think it’s probably worth writing and releasing, I was nervous with the expertise book, my fifth one, and it turned out to be received well,

John Corcoran 25:48

will make you nervous about releasing this other one, 

David C. Baker 25:51

because people will now see the secrets of consulting as I work with them. They’ll read, they’ll read it in the book, and they’ll say, Oh, now I know why he’s doing that. Right. And it’s not manipulation at all. It’s just the way to be more effective. And I don’t, sometimes I think the mystery is useful. So that’s what makes me nervous about it. I would actually love to see if I could write a nonfiction or I mean, a fiction book I’ve never had and I, I don’t think I have, I don’t know, I have no idea whether I can do it. Well, I’ve started one. But that’s what I would love to do. I’m in a weird place as an author, because I hate business books. And I always have and I don’t like to read them, even though I do. And I think most of them should be magazine articles instead of full books. So I just get really hard on myself when I’m writing a book. It’s like, do I really need to include this? Or should I? Should I really charge this much money for this book? Is this really useful? But every book I’ve written has been even better for me than the last one, not so much because of the reception. Because they’re not famous, famous books they’ve done well, but they’re not that famous, more just because it forces me to spend time with a topic and figure out what I think. And then I see that all that time I spent kind of bubbling up in other things and and it’s, it’s just like opening one room, like my podcast partner friend says, Blair ends all the time. There’s one door and you’re not sure what’s in there, and you’re not sure you want to go in there. Because everything here I know, unlike and that’s a new thing. And you get in there, and you don’t realize until you’re in there, but there’s all kinds of new doors and windows in there. And you’d never get tired of the expiration. Next exploration, excuse me. So that’s, I love the process of, sort of, but writing a book feels a little bit like diving into an empty pool and inventing water on the way down. Like, once you start it, you know, you have to finish it, and it’s gonna be very, very painful. And you’re gonna have to have time to run out. And then you’re done with it. And you’re so grateful, you swear you’ll never do another one. And then sure enough, you do another one.

John Corcoran 28:06

I’ve heard so many authors say that, you know, this is my last book, I’ll never do it again. And then six months later, I’m interviewing them for their next book. Yeah, this, this has been great. I want to ask you, before we wrap up, we’re almost out of time. But I want to ask you about your podcast, which is super popular. But you have a distinctive style. It’s a two person conversation. How do you keep on coming up with ideas? And also the motivation to I mean, Aren’t you sick of talking to Blair by now?

David C. Baker 28:34

Oh, you have no idea? Yeah, the only reason we keep being successful is because I carry most of it. Now, that’s not true. So what we and I wish, you know, not many people realize there aren’t guests on it. And I wish all the pitches I got realize that because I usually have fun with them that somebody wants to be on the show. And I’ll say, Oh, no problem. Tell me which of the guests you were really drawn to. And then they’ll go, they’ll spend hours and discover there’s no guest. We, all the podcasts, I listened to had guests. So I’m not against that format. I love that format. We just felt like we had enough going on. And we know enough about this field that we could probably come up with enough topics. There have been a few times when we’ve thought oh, not sure. What are we gonna talk about next? But most of the time, we have tons of topics, I think it’s been 120 episodes. And the key to us is that we know each other well, we serve the same field. And we can make stuff up so we don’t practice. It’s just a three paragraph thing like hey, Blair, interview me on this today. And I’ll send them those three paragraphs, and it just happens. And we were just committed to sort of being ourselves. We never do a second take of it. We don’t do any heavy editing. And if people begin to not enjoy it, then we’ll just stop it. But it can’t we’re not going to do it if it takes a lot of work. So it takes about 10 minutes of prep. 30 minutes to record it. 35 minutes and then we drop into a dropbox folder, our producer, Marcus DePaula takes it from there. And we never think about it. So it is the return on investment. You didn’t ask this question. I mean, it doesn’t cost us much in terms of money or time to do it. I have never in my life done something that has been more influential than that podcast when I do it. It is rare that I’m not saying that it’s because of the quality of the podcast. It’s because it’s the medium itself. There. Now, the audio needs to be great, need to be articulate, need to be interesting, all that stuff, I understand. But it’s very rare for me to talk with any prospect for my consulting business that hasn’t been listening to this thing regularly, when it was Blair’s idea to do it. And I kind of went along with it. Because I like him. We’re friends. I didn’t think much would come up with it. But I have just been blown away at how it has impacted my business. I’m not a client of yours. You didn’t ask me to say that. I just think it’s just pretty amazing. And I’ve got about 15 clients doing them as well. And they would all testify to that. One of the secret wonderful things about podcasts is it is an excuse for you to call people who would otherwise never take your call and ask them to be a guest on your podcast. And yeah, and and then if you treat it respectfully, and there really is a guest you’re not trying to pitch them. The goodness sort of flows to you. So it’s I love the podcast, i i And I actually listened to every episode too, and just kind of cringe or laugh as we go. Oh, wow. Do you listen to your episodes? I do. Yeah. Oh, that was funny. I was really breaking the ground. Oh, yeah. There are times when I say Oh, David, I can’t believe you thought that was funny. Why did you say that?

John Corcoran 31:49

Yeah, yeah, that one I have not done. I’ve listened to some of them. But it’s very real.

David C. Baker 31:54

So I’ve listened to more of your use of yours. And you have pretty much

John Corcoran 31:56

Pretty much yeah, that’s pretty much the case. Well, David, this has been a pleasure. I want to wrap up with my last question, a big fan of gratitude. So you know, if you look around at your peers and contemporaries, how are we going to define that it could be, you know, heads of different entrepreneurial firms. You know, who do you respect? Who do you admire that’s doing good work these days? 

David C. Baker 32:19

I’d have to try so hard to choose that because I have so many candidates for that. But I’d have to say probably Mark O’Brien at newfangled.com. He was an intern at that firm when I first started to work for them as an advisor. And he actually ended up buying the firm for millions of dollars later. And the way he manages it and the people’s side and the service product mix and his attention to financial metrics and marketing plan. It’s like, it’s just like, a seminar on how to run a business. And I don’t know all the details of it. But that would be one for sure. The newfangled.com people.

John Corcoran 32:54

Excellent, excellent. And then, you know, just for anyone listening to this, who’s thinking, oh, all, you know, I could certainly use his help. What types of work are you doing with clients these days? How are you helping them? 

David C. Baker 33:07

So I only work with firms in the marketing, digital and creative space, and I do m&a work. I also do a total business reset thing where we look at all different six key elements of their firm and help them from top to bottom. Or if people just want to start really small they can get there without any costs. They can just get the weekly emails or if they want to get the book. That’d be cool, too.

John Corcoran 33:30

Excellent. All right. David, such a pleasure. Thanks so much. For Thank you for

David C. Baker 33:35

having me, too. I appreciate it. It was really fun.

Outro 33:37

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