A little over two years ago, I partnered up with Jeremiah Peschka, Kendra Little, and Tim Ford to turn my blog, BrentOzar.com, from a blog into a consulting company.
I didn’t want to live-blog the business-building process. As life unfolds in front of you, it’s a noisy, jumbled mess with everything happening at once. Plus, like Salman Rushdie wrote in Midnight’s Children, “Most of what matters in our lives takes place in our absence.” To give myself better perspective and a bigger picture, I decided I’d wait at least a year before blogging about anything that happened.
It’s going well, and I guess it’s time to look back at what’s happened so far.
How We Started the Company
In February 2011, I was a consultant at SQLskills, Kimberly Tripp and Paul Randal’s company. We got along famously – I love Paul & Kim still to this day – but if you know us, we’ve all got strong personalities. I had really firm convictions about how I wanted marketing to work, and it didn’t mesh well with how they’d done it. Neither side was wrong or right – their approach works fabulously for them, but I wanted to take a different approach that worked better for me. We agreed that it’d be best if I went out on my own. I’d always had my own clients, so it was an easy and amicable separation with no business problems.
Before going public, I told Jeremiah because he was a great friend of mine. At the time, he was working at Quest Software as an evangelist in my old department (that’s where I’d worked before I went into consulting). It turned out that he wasn’t really happy in the evangelist role, and he was thinking about becoming a consultant too. For so many awesome reasons, I jumped at the chance to partner with him to build a consulting company. He’s one of the sharpest, funniest guys I’ve ever met. We’d failed together at an earlier attempt to build a little startup, but even the failure experience was great, so this was a no-brainer. Even if our consulting company was doomed to fail, Jeremiah would make it a fun experience, and between the two of us we’d be able to learn enough to make the next one a success.
One of our mutual friends, Kendra Little, had recently left Microsoft to be a DBA at a much smaller company. It wasn’t her thing either, and she was looking for something new. I originally didn’t want her to quit her job, though – after all, Jeremiah and I had enough of a risk just trying to bring in enough consulting business to keep ourselves fed. I didn’t think we should try to land enough business to keep three people busy, but Kendra really wanted to be a partner (not a paid employee), and I’d be damned if I’d let that opportunity pass by. Out of the three of us, Jeremiah and I will instantly tell you that Kendra is the smartest. I’d also seen her in action in some really politically challenging environments, and I was dumbstruck by her people skills.
Tim Ford and I started SQLcruise.com together, and I asked him if he wanted to bring that company into just one company that did both consulting and training events. It was fraught with risk for him – if the consulting company failed, it could drag down the cruise events. He was totally up for it, though, as long as he could keep his day job rather than go into consulting immediately. (I was sure we’d be able to bring in enough consulting revenue later to get him off the ground gradually.)
In April 2011, the four of us launched publicly as Brent Ozar PLF, LLC.
Yeah, About That PLF Thing
Let’s make one thing clear: I never wanted my name on the company. I was an absolutely equal partner with Jeremiah, Kendra, and Tim – each of us owned 25% of the company. Thing is, I was already keeping busy with consulting revenue coming in through the BrentOzar.com contact form, and the site had a lot of good SEO. After talking to branding consultants, we decided to keep using BrentOzar.com as the company’s home base.
We wanted to make it clear that the company was bigger than me, though, so we originally named it Brent Ozar PLF, LLC. The PLF stood for Peschka Little Ford, the last names of my cofounders. We hoped that by including the PLF in the company name, people would have no problem signing up for consulting work with Jeremiah and Kendra, even though they didn’t have big web presences as consultants.
Nobody got it. I mean, nobody. Some thought it was some kind of play on Page Life Expectancy (PLE), a common SQL Server monitoring metric. Others thought it was some kind of legal thing like an LLC. Every time we did a webcast, somebody would ask what the PLF stood for.
The Sales Process in the First Year
The PLF naming didn’t have the desired effect right away. BrentOzar.com had been my own personal web presence for a decade, and when prospective customers filled out the contact form, they would often start with “Brent,”. We tried a lot of different approaches:
- Rotating duty for the initial contact emails, for example, so clients would get accustomed to someone else right from the start
- Publishing less of my blog posts & webcasts, and more of Jeremiah and Kendra’s
- Futzing with rates and availability dates (like I wouldn’t take work less than a month in advance, which is my preference anyway because I hate context switching)
- Multi-person gigs – for example, I would show up for the first hour of the remote sessions, and then gracefully exit if my skills weren’t required. (And they never were – somehow, no one needs an instant memorized recital of Lady Gaga lyrics.)
We also experimented with our product list. We originally launched with a few different services products around SQL Server health checks, cloud migrations, VMware management, and SAN tuning. The products made sense given our skill sets – they were all perfectly tailored to us – but they weren’t really tailored to what customers needed. Nobody says, “Man, I wish I could find a boutique consulting firm that does SQL Server, VMware, SANs, and Amazon Web Services.” We kept iterating on our products, figuring out which ones worked best, and polishing those.
We never ate ramen noodles to survive (although I certainly love them by choice), but we had some frustrating months. Incoming client requests simply died in the summer, and we had challenges getting existing customers to sign for more work.
Tim Left, We Took Stock of Everything
Even though the paying work slowed down, the unpaid work kept piling up – legal, accounting, sales, writing, meetings, you name it. There’s so much work in getting the basic plumbing in place, and it all happens in the dark, in the evenings, on weekends, when we’d much rather be spending time with our loved ones.
Eventually, Tim grew tired of the grind, the risk, and the lack of a light at the end of the tunnel. He’d learned that he didn’t really want to segue out of the comfort of his full time DBA job, and I don’t blame him. With two kids approaching college, stability is a huge concern, and a father shouldn’t be stuck in his home office after hours doing weekly company partner meetings. To make matters worse, Tim’s wife Amy had volunteered to do the accounting work to save the company money, so that was even less quality time they had as a family. The end result is that none of us were happy when we got together, and that’s the opposite of what we wanted in founding a company together. The whole purpose of this thing was to make our lives more enjoyable, not less.
We agreed to split the company up. Tim got complete ownership of SQLcruise, and he could walk away from the risk and work of the consulting business of Brent Ozar PLF, LLC. We paid Tim for the rights to use his face in the Brent Ozar PLF logo for a while longer so we could go through a rebranding exercise.
Even though times were tough, Jeremiah, Kendra, and I took a deep breath, and we made some big investments. We came up with a list of four-to-five-figure initiatives like reimagining our brand without the PLF, redesigning our web site, becoming an Amazon partner, implementing SalesForce.com, and hiring our first employee. Only one of those really finished in the first year, so I’ll cover that one.
Hiring Employee #1, Jes Schultz Borland
When we’d first started the company, we wrote a big manifesto about how we wanted to treat each other, our customers, and down the road, our employees. We boiled down the employee parts into a blog post announcing we were hiring, where we covered what we wanted in an employee and how we’d take care of them.
We were utterly flabbergasted and humbled by the response. I seriously wish I could have hired a dozen people that very first day. It was amazing. I’d get an email or a Twitter direct message and say out loud, “Wow!”
We hired Jes Schultz Borland, and suddenly things got really real for me. I really like Jes, not just as an employee, not just as a member of the SQL Server community, but as a person. She’s good people. Now, my actions had a direct impact on her. Before, with Jeremiah, Kendra, and Tim as my partners, I didn’t feel that much pressure because we all had equal risk. If each of us didn’t bring in business, we didn’t get paid, but that was just our own fault. Now, we had a mouth to feed, and it wasn’t her responsibility to bring in her own business – it was our responsibility to give her things to do. We wanted to make damn sure she was taken care of, no matter what.
That was a big deal for me because several years ago, I had a company that couldn’t take care of me. I worked for a small software vendor that had to skip a couple of paychecks because they didn’t have enough cash in the bank. One of those skips happened in the week I was trying to close on the Houston house Erika and I built, and I’ll never forget the crazy stress of that week. I resolved then and there that I’d never let that happen to me again, and I sure as hell didn’t want to put anybody else through that same level of stress. We wanted six months of salary in the bank at all times so that if we hit another 9/11, we wouldn’t have to worry. We could work on building tools and training materials so that we’d be even sharper when the economy picked back up.
How Starting the Company Affected My Life
We had enough client work that none of us had tapped into savings – the company bank balance kept growing, and work kept coming in. There were slow periods – both of our first two summers slowed down a lot, but we didn’t have enough experience under our belts yet to understand if that was a regular seasonal thing or just coincidences. I was making a little more than I’d made as a DBA or an evangelist, but nothing life-changing.
But to pull it all off – to bring in enough income, keep doing marketing, and keep taking care of the unpaid partner duties – I was working harder than I’d ever worked as a DBA. I traveled a lot (2-3 weeks per month at times), and I put in a lot of weekends. I’m most productive in the mornings from around 6am to 11am, and I would get genuinely resentful if Erika woke up before 11am on the weekends. She was always a late riser on the weekends, and I’d grown to think of weekend mornings as my time to work.
The first year of the company startup put pressure on our relationship. After busting my hump for quite a while, we came to the agreement that I’d travel no more than one week per month on average, and never more than two weeks in a row.
What I Expected for Year Two
We knew bringing Jes on board would be an incredible amount of work. Jeremiah, Kendra, and I were really three different consultants doing vaguely similar things in completely different ways, but we had to come up with standard processes that we could pass on to Jes – and then eventually on to more consultants. Kendra took on the challenge of system-a-tizing our server takeovers and turning them into our new SQL Server Critical Care™ process.
I had to figure out a smooth client sales process. “Sales” is really an exaggeration – I was not much more than an order-taker. People would email us, describe their problems, and I’d explain how we could fix them. In Year Two, I wanted to get much better at building a sales process and scaling it so that we could keep our second and third employees busy. I wasn’t even sure if people would be willing to take Jes as their primary consultant – right at the end of Year One, we had just finally conquered the challenge of getting clients to not just take Jeremiah or Kendra, but actually request them.
Meanwhile, Jeremiah was tackling Amazon Web Services, building up a business practice around helping clients move their databases to the cloud (plus moving our own databases and web site there). That required a whole new set of processes, learning new lessons.
The funniest part? None of us expected this at the start of Year One. This wasn’t what we thought we’d be working on. Thankfully, we’d all adapted and grown, and we really liked the work we were doing. (Yes, believe it or not, I was loving sales.)
Today: June 2013
Year Two has just finished, and so I know how all of this turned out. You’ve seen this year’s web site redesign, maybe caught the changes to our services page, and the most attentive readers might have even noticed subtle tweaks to our logo already. We’ve gone through much bigger changes behind the scenes, too. I’m looking forward to recapping this year’s progress next year.