When last we met, dear reader, I was super excited that I’d broken $500K in Black Friday sales – a goal that I’d been working on for a while. I was really proud of that.
That moment triggered a lot of introspection, though.
In my post about year 6 of the company, I wrote about how the business was a stool with 4 legs: training, consulting, online services, and community. At that time, I didn’t have the skills to make the consulting leg of the business consistently profitable, so I laid off Angie, Doug, and Jessica. However, I kept Erik & Tara on board because we had enough business to keep them pretty consistently busy.
However, that also ended up keeping me busier, too: dealing with sales, contracts, customer relationship management, it all added up. It took up Erika’s time, too: herding clients to get their homework and checks paid, dealing with insurance, taxes, etc. I’d never formally tracked how much of my time was spent on each part of the business, but I had a pretty good feeling of where the stress was coming from. It wasn’t Erik and Tara, mind you – they have always been completely awesome – but the surrounding business involves a lot of stress and gotta-handle-it-right-now issues.
I’m not a fan of stress.
I don’t live to work – I work to
It’s always better on holiday
So much better on holiday
That’s why we only work when
We need the money
So after Black Friday finished, I asked myself a lot of tough questions.
I use Dr. Walling’s framework for decisions like this.
Every year, I get away at least once to do a planning retreat with Dr. Walling’s book. Each time, I learn a lot about myself, re-evaluate things I’m doing, and ask tough questions about why and how I’m doing them. For me, one of the most powerful techniques from the book has been to come up with 10-20 alternatives for each thing I’m doing. It helps me step back and think about whether what I’m doing still makes sense, or whether I should do a wildly different approach.
For example, I thought about GroupBy.org and came up with 10 ways I could approach it. Here are my exact notes from the retreat:
- Keep it as-is
- Hire a virtual assistant to manage it:
- Write posts & Mailchimps for call for speakers, call for speakers ending, voting starting, voting closing, speaker thank you and denied, cohost invites
- Edit posts, put in screenshots, headers
- Republish posts with date/time that the podcast goes out
- Put the content into the Mailchimp newsletter
- Train Erika to manage it (doing those same above tasks – she doesn’t have the free time to do it now, but maybe I could clear out other things on her calendar to make room for it)
- Open source it – hire a web developer to write WordPress plugins to manage processes, like count down to voting starting, run the voting, close the voting and do announcements, push the right content to MailChimp, etc.
- Discontinue it – pick my battles and my expenses. I’m already investing ~$3K/quarter, and I’m looking at investing more. At the end of the day, I’m not sure I’m providing a really valuable service that user groups and virtual chapters couldn’t provide if they wanted to.
- Do it more often (monthly?)
- Do it less often (2x/year?)
- Give it to a vendor
- Give it to PASS
- Make it a standalone entity – start a non-profit corporation, invite a round of board members, recruit the first round of sponsors, and then let it fly on its own
The first 4 ideas came right out of me in the first few minutes, but the rest came hours later as I was considering other projects, or when I came back to the questions after sleeping on ‘em, or reading additional books.
I looked at everything I do – SQLServerUpdates.com, the blog, the First Responder Kit, SQL ConstantCare®, the Office Hours podcast, you name it – even the consulting business – with a fresh set of eyes. I think about scaling each thing up, scaling it down, tackling it differently, merging it with something else, or abandoning it entirely. I always have more ideas than I have time or money, so I have to figure out where to place my bets.
I used Tim Ferriss’s priorities to figure out where to cut back.
As part of the retreats, I also read business books. This year, I’ve been reading (and re-reading) Tim Ferriss’s classic, The Four Hour Work Week. It’s every bit as spammy as the title suggests, but at the core, it’s about work-life balance. It’s about figuring out how to stop doing the busy work that doesn’t pay off so that you can either do more of the work that DOES pay off, or split – and go spend time with the ones you love. For the remaining work that you gotta do, it’s about automating as much of that as possible to reduce the time it consumes.
Ferriss talks a lot about the 80/20 rule, saying things like:
- Focus on the 20% of your customers/products that produce 80% of your income.
- Ditch the 20% of your customers/products that produce 80% of the problems.
- With the time you free up, invest it more wisely.
I read a lot of management books this year, but that one really resonated with me and challenged some assumptions I’d made.
So what if I didn’t have consultant employees? What if I still offered consulting if people really wanted it, but I took the tools we’d built for consulting, and I used those in the training business instead?
There’s a saying in business: in a gold rush, sell shovels. For years, I’ve been trying to do both: have gold miners (data consultants) on staff, plus sell shovels (training and SQL ConstantCare) to other miners. I wasn’t losing money mining gold, mind you, but…I wasn’t making all that much, either, and I could be building even better shovels. And what if I took our shovels and started selling them to you as part of our training?
That was it – I realized I had to close the consulting line of business. I had to stop thinking about the business as a multi-legged stool. It was the wrong analogy. I had found a successful strategy in the online services business, and I needed to focus on that.
So is it bad to build consulting companies, or am I bad?
Does that mean consulting is a bad business? Not at all! Any business can be a good business – that just doesn’t mean it’s the right business for me. I want to get out of the trading-money-for-time business, and get into more scalable forms of income. I did consulting for a long time to pay the bills, but…it’s not the only way to pay the bills. I used to do web site development, too. Times just come in your life when you need to hit F5 and get a fresh set of results.
Does this mean I failed at consulting? Yeah, I think so, in the same way I failed at web development – it’s something I did for a while for money, and I enjoyed it, but over time, I found other sources of income that I liked more, and paid better. I still bust out the PHP and MySQL from time to time, but it’s not where I focus my personal growth.
Like I wrote in the post a couple of years ago about the first round of layoffs – I really admire folks who can grow a consulting company to 10-15 employees. It’s one hell of a lot of work, stress, and risk. It pays off when you get there, but the journey is Herculean, and I just found a different route to success that feels like it fits better with my Jacqueline mentality.
Time to edit and re-focus for 2019.
For 2019, I’m making several course corrections:
- I gave Erik & Tara great severance packages and let them go yesterday. They’re fantastic employees and coworkers, and it’s not their fault, but I need to focus and do things differently.
- Getting rid of consulting employees meant I didn’t need Erika full time anymore, either. (There are still time-sensitive admin tasks in the business for sure, like customer login support, but I’m going to transition those over to a virtual assistant firm.)
- I’m going to take some of our consulting tools and sell them as part of our training. For example, we’ve got a data gathering utility that makes life way easier for independent consultants.
- I’m going to pivot SQL ConstantCare® to being an entry-level monitoring tool. I’m going to remove the mentoring component entirely, and just give you a low-cost way to know if your servers are doing alright.
- I’m pausing GroupBy.org and the weekly Office Hours podcasts for now. I love both of these, but in 2019, I want to find more ways to give back that don’t involve me being connected to the Internet at specific dates/times. I want to get more creative with my calendar and taking longer periods off.
These changes will give me more time to focus on the training and SQL ConstantCare®, hopefully working less while simultaneously doing more profitable work.
I’m really excited about these changes. Years ago, when I laid off Angie, Doug, and Jessica, I was mentally exhausted and burned out, frustrated that I couldn’t make the business work in the exact way I wanted. Today, I’m in a much better place, happy and content. I’m not happy to let go of Erik and Tara, mind you – they’re phenomenal people that I loved working with – but I’ve found my calling in a way that I can’t afford to ignore. I wanna spend less time working, more time with my family, and I think I’m going to be able to do it.
Let’s see how it goes.