From consultancy to startup
A number of people in our team started out working in consultancy, including our co-founders Alex and Yali. We posed them a few questions and found out why they made the switch and what advice they have for people looking to make the switch.
How did the skills that you acquired during your time in consulting help with founding and scaling a company?
Alex: I would call out three: the ability to listen, creativity and tenacity. The ability to listen to what consulting clients are telling you is so key in consulting, and it is no less important when you are just starting out building a new technology for early adopters and looking for that elusive product-market fit. Secondly, creativity: the ability to turn that understanding of a market and that customer intimacy into genuinely novel solutions, be they consulting projects or software products. And last, tenacity. Consulting is a demanding career – you are only ever as good as your last project – and similarly willing a new startup into being is not for the faint of heart.
Yali: Working in consultancy taught me:
- How to think through open ended problems in a systematic and analytical way. When you’re starting a company / scaling a company you’re constantly having to identify and solve open ended problems. (What is our product? Who is our customer? What is our value proposition? Where can we get the first few sales? What worked well? What can we scale?)
- How to present ideas clearly (esp. in powerpoint). This was useful as the team grew, as we needed to make sales and eventually sell “investors”
- How to present confidently when you really know very little. (How to bullsh** persuasively.)
What did your time in consultancy look like?
Alex: Really it was a story in three acts. First act, I joined Deloitte Consulting after university, having the luck to be assigned into their Business Intelligence team, which would come in handy later. Next, I left Deloitte to join a small TMT (telecoms, media and technology) consultancy in London called Fathom Partners, where we did strategic work for firms like Vodafone, Channel 4 and Orange. Fathom was run by two super-smart partners, both called Harry, who taught me an incredible amount about business, technology and strategy. The third act came a bit later: I left Fathom to join tech startup OpenX, where I met Yali; when OpenX relocated to LA in 2008, Yali and I left and fell back into consulting, creating our own small agency called Keplar. Keplar was quite eclectic – we (it was just Yali and I) did product management, all manner of analytics projects, plus various strategy and research projects too.
Tim: I started as a graduate in the technology team which meant that you were assigned to a variety of projects. I was pretty lucky and managed to get attached to a consultant that was doing more interesting work on companies data and BI strategy which allowed me to work with Lego, Rolls-Royce, Morrisons with senior members of the client staff. I ended up joining the “Data Strategy” team. After a while I realised that working at a massive consultancy working with big clients wasn’t very fulfilling. Overall I was a consultant for just over 3 years. I wish I had gone into startups straight from University. Sadly I do think my consulting experience gave me credibility.
Yali: I spent 15 months at a big consultancy (PwC) and then quite a few years as an independent consultant at Keplar LLP with Alex.
- PwC was very miserable – very cookie cutter, hierarchical, not very many interesting problems to solve, no innovation, mediocre team
- Working with Alex at Keplar was awesome – lots of opportunity to solve different problems, work with different companies, solve different problems. Lots of freedom to innovate.
Lucas: I worked for a consultancy specialising in Financial Services, I was placed in a variety of retail and investment banks as well as an insurer during my tenure of 3 years. I started on their rotational graduate scheme working on a number of data-related projects in a Business Analyst capacity. I then transitioned to a solution consulting type role selling and subsequently integrating a portfolio and project management data visualisation tool.
Rebecca: I was focused on the data side of consulting – sometimes that could look more on the analytical side, often more on the infrastructure/large scale software deployment side. Data is always a big part of these sides of projects and analytical resource were always scarce at the time. I mainly focused on clients in the Utilities and Public Sector which was actually super interesting.
What skills did you acquire from consulting which helped set your career up for success?
Tim: Consulting was a decent crash course in projects, working with clients, producing deliverables, running workshops., it does expose you to quite a lot quickly. Another thing was getting comfortable with change as you are constantly changing environment, team members, clients etc.
Yali: The key skills were the ability to think analytically and present clearly. These are both really valuable skills.
Lucas: Consultancy throws you in at the deep end when it comes to stakeholder management at a very senior level, even as a graduate you’ll often be speaking / presenting to VP / D / MD level clients – you learn how to engage with individuals at every level of the organisation from the get go but you have the safety net of your team and manager to fall back on if things go awry. Another key skill is breaking down complex problems into more manageable pieces in order to tackle them systematically and comprehensively. Lastly, I’d say there is a huge emphasis on basic client “hygiene” – such as showing up to meetings on time, prepared, and with an agenda as well as ensuring that any artefact you put in front of a client is well put together in terms of structure, formatting, and content.
Rebecca: My “consulting guard” stood me in good stead given that I was interacting with clients at Snowplow from day one. The soft skills you pick up from project work with clients and a huge range of stakeholders is really valuable. Generally a confidence I think to be thrown into any situation comes with a background in consulting because you can go from a project to biz dev to a new client on the other side of the country in less than a week. You tend to learn how to thrive in ambiguity and I can’t think of any better skill than that for a quickly growing company.
Why did you start to explore careers outside of consulting?
Alex: I had been coding since my teens and interested in startups since before the dot-com bubble burst. I wanted to work in startups, but the startup scene in London was incredibly nascent in the 2000s, certainly compared to the tech consulting ecosystem. I had a couple of friends who worked at Skype and loved it, so I kept my eye out for the ‘next Skype’. I saw some PR about OpenX, they were growing fast and had some VCs that I had met behind them (Index Ventures), so I decided to join.
Tim: I wanted to be in an environment where people really cared about what they were doing, to have proper responsibility and have more fun doing it. I was pretty sure startups were going to be the way to go
Yali: As a consultant you’re advising people who actually do stuff. I really wanted to actually do stuff instead of chirping from the sidelines.
Lucas: Despite the many benefits of starting a career in consultancy, I began to feel constricted by handling two sets of bureaucracies in parallel – internal and client-side. Internal politics would often mean you’d be blindsided and passed over for a promotion or selection for a project due to things outside of your control. On the client side, there would be several layers of sign-off for the smallest change in process meaning you’d often feel powerless to have a meaningful impact.
Rebecca: So whilst it is kind of fun to get thrown on to any project it is also daunting. I do love to travel but realistically often for UK based consultancies your travel may not be to the most exciting locations… I actually wasn’t actively looking but have always kept an eye on the market and saw the role at Snowplow and it just felt written for me. Early stage companies are often looking for T shaped people, strong all rounders with specific domain expertise and I think consulting sets you up perfectly for that. The role at Snowplow was this slightly bonkers blend of analyst, domain expert in data, client facing and commercial strategy. How often does that come along in consultancy!
How did the skills translate from consulting to your role now?
Tim: The projects I was involved with were about gathering information, identifying problems and root causes then developing solutions which maps pretty well to working in a startup. Also the constant change in consulting is a good primer for startups because nothing in startups stays the same for very long.
Yali: I find the ability to think analytically and present clearly really helpful in my current role. (And all my roles since being a consultant)
Lucas: Startups / scale-ups can often feel like the wild west in terms of the lack of maturity of structure and process. Moreover, the casual culture can often mean client hygiene is more lax. Bringing a “client-first” mentality to the roles I’ve been in has consequently been an advantage
Rebecca: I think being strong on requirements gathering – literally a skill you pick up when you do a BA role in consulting has really helped me drive project successes at Snowplow. There are so many smart people in startups but often binding thinking with some light structure can pay dividends. Being a confident communicator easily able to adapt my style has meant I have moved across multiple roles at Snowplow both client facing and internal with relative ease. Whether working with customers, prospects or colleagues having domain expertise in the space helps and having done a specialised stint in consulting that credibility is there.
What surprises and challenges did you face when transitioning into a startup and what did you find particularly easy?
Alex: The people management was the big thing. In consulting you can be quite senior without having much in the way of line management responsibilities. At OpenX I joined as the only Senior Project Manager, basically the deputy to the Engineering Director, and so I was quickly involved in just tons of management concerns, from line management and project management to culture questions and process building.
The other area that was very new to me was the structuring out of Product and Engineering. When I had last worked in software roles in the early 2000s (during university holidays then at Deloitte), software development had been much scrappier, much more chaotic with few very defined roles other than ‘coder’ and ‘tester’. When I joined OpenX in 2007, we were embracing more modern and structured processes – dedicated Product Managers, Agile/Scrum etc. It was a lot to take in.
The last surprise was how geographically complex things were. In consulting I had had projects involving visiting client offices across Europe but generally my collaborators were in the same office as me, in London. At OpenX we spun up a development office in Poland, then had the second HQ in LA. Even just scheduling meetings was complicated, flying visits, then layer on the global distribution of OpenX’s customers and open-source users too…
Yali: So many surprises and challenges – the biggest surprise is always how much work it takes to keep everyone aligned and rowing in the same direction – as we scale we keep hitting that same problem and having to resolve it again and again. (A solution for 4 people needs to be reworked for 12 people then 20 people then 40 people etc.)
The other surprise is how much fun working at a startup has been – it’s much more fun to build something than to advice someone else how to build something.
Lucas: Startups’ job descriptions often don’t align exactly with the reality of the role on the ground. This is a positive in that you can try your hand at related functions (e.g. product / sales / pro services / customer success) but can be a challenge when you have competing priorities with your main role and day job, which of course has to come first.
Rebecca: On the surprises/challenges definitely the lack of structure and process to begin with, but I joined a much earlier stage of Snowplow than we are now. Actually restructuring your frame of reference from large scale project delivery in consulting to pioneer mentality actually takes a while to reset. I found the client facing side super easy and actually a great thing about SaaS vs consultancy is that your customers tend to stick around for longer and so do you so you can forge those deeper bonds.
What are the biggest differences between consultancy and startup?
Alex: There are so many similarities, and so many differences! Both are creative, dynamic environments where success is never guaranteed. The fundamental difference though is that in a consultancy you are always moving forwards, finishing a project then starting the next. Whereas in a startup, you have to hold the territory you move through: you have to keep the customers you acquire, maintain the software you write, retain the team you hire… I think a lot of the folk who make the leap from consulting to startups have gotten frustrated with the Groundhog Day project loop in consulting and want to help build something a little more permanent.
Tim: Responsibility and accountability. In a startup you don’t get to move onto a new project, you have to own what you are doing and deliver. Its incredibly rewarding. You are also doing it with a bunch of other people who really care.
Yali: The biggest differences are:
- The ability to do rather than advise – it’s totally different. (And much more rewarding.)
- The ability to build really deep insight by doing. You still get to learn by reading around your subject, but you get so much perspective actually doing / building things.
Lucas: The lack of hierarchy and barriers to communication in startups is the biggest difference. In a consultancy as a junior, you couldn’t just drop a Slack message to a partner or senior client even if this would be the most practical thing to do. In startups, it’s often encouraged to engage with and learn from senior members of the organisation including at the C-level.
Rebecca: Honestly, often at a startup you are actively encouraged to bring your whole self to work, in fact something about your personality and spark is probably one of the reasons that you were hired, whereas sometimes in consulting especially at the more junior grades you are actively not encouraged to do so. And again I’d just touch on the length and breadth of relationships possible in terms of work.
What advice would you give people looking to make a change?
Alex: Do it. Once you have the consulting skillset, you can always go back to consulting if startups don’t work out for you; remember this is what Yali and I did when we left OpenX during the Global Financial Crisis in 2008. When Yali and I were running Keplar, we were always looking for an interesting path back into startups, because they are just such fun to build. I think a lot of startup founders come from consulting because they keep running into a specific and acute client need that demands a new startup to solve. Yali and I found that idea in our consulting analytics projects, and created Snowplow as a result in 2012, but that is a story for another blog post…
Tim: Startups are 10x better than consulting, you get to build something, see it develop and hopefully flourish
Yali: Think about what motivates you / makes you happy – and if you’d rather build something than advise other people, then make the jump!
Lucas: On the whole, the transition was the right move for me but may not be for everyone. Some of my friends who remain in consultancy love navigating the politics of large organisations, they get a buzz from what they describe as “5 dimensional chess”. I can’t really see the appeal myself and was more interested in getting *stuff* done and having an impact – it really depends what you enjoy and value in a job. I’d say try both, it’s easy enough these days to switch back and forth between the two (large corporates and startups) at different stages of your career.
Rebecca: Honestly? Just do it. You’ll probably love it.