Decision Vision Episode 152: Should I Become a Consultant or Freelancer? – An Interview with Ben Cagle, Cagle Consulting Partners
With corporate employment in constant flux, executives tired of the corporate life often set up their own independent consulting practice. Host Mike Blake spoke with Ben Cagle, managing partner of Cagle Consulting Partners, about the process of becoming an independent consultant or freelancer. Ben discussed his journey, how to get that first client, networking and marketing, the challenges unique to consulting, and much more. Decision Vision is presented by Brady Ware & Company.
Cagle Consulting Partners
Ben Cagle, Managing Partner, Cagle Consulting Partners
Ben Cagle is Managing Partner of Cagle Consulting Partners (CCP), an Advisory Firm focused on helping clients:
• Accelerate Revenue Growth
• Respond to Rapidly Changing Markets
• Building/Scaling Organizations
• Selling to Large Global Customers.
CCP currently serves large Global Enterprises (IBM, Cisco, SAS), Mid-Market Firms, and diverse Technology Start-Up clients in Artificial Intelligence, Data Analytics, Cybersecurity, IoT, and Blockchain.
Prior to founding CCP, Ben served as a Division President for a Global 100 Enterprise. Ben had P&L responsibility for a global business unit (several $ hundred million in revenue) and was on the core team leading an industry consolidation initiative (with McKinsey & Company).
Transitioning from “industry” into global management consulting, Ben served in various Consulting Partner, Practice/Industry Leader, Solution Innovation, Marketing, and Thought Leadership roles. Ben’s global enterprise consulting leadership experience includes positions at HP Enterprise (formerly EDS), DXC Technology (formerly CSC Consulting), and Hitachi Consulting with clients across four continents.
Ben also has led various NASDAQ, VC-backed Software/SaaS, and entrepreneurial companies focused on Advanced Data Analytics, Market Insights, and Brand/Marketing Strategy targeting multiple industries.
Ben is an Alpharetta, Ga. native and currently resides in Alpharetta with his wife, Sara. He graduated of the Georgia Institute of Technology, is active in various Technology and Start-up organizations, and currently serves as the Chairman of Tech400 (sponsored by the Greater North Fulton Chamber of Commerce).
Mike Blake, Brady Ware & Company
Michael Blake is the host of the Decision Vision podcast series and a Director of Brady Ware & Company. Mike specializes in the valuation of intellectual property-driven firms, such as software firms, aerospace firms, and professional services firms, most frequently in the capacity as a transaction advisor, helping clients obtain great outcomes from complex transaction opportunities. He is also a specialist in the appraisal of intellectual properties as stand-alone assets, such as software, trade secrets, and patents.
Mike has been a full-time business appraiser for 13 years with public accounting firms, boutique business appraisal firms, and an owner of his own firm. Prior to that, he spent 8 years in venture capital and investment banking, including transactions in the U.S., Israel, Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus.
Brady Ware & Company
Brady Ware & Company is a regional full-service accounting and advisory firm which helps businesses and entrepreneurs make visions a reality. Brady Ware services clients nationally from its offices in Alpharetta, GA; Columbus and Dayton, OH; and Richmond, IN. The firm is growth-minded, committed to the regions in which they operate, and most importantly, they make significant investments in their people and service offerings to meet the changing financial needs of those they are privileged to serve. The firm is dedicated to providing results that make a difference for its clients.
Decision Vision Podcast Series
Decision Vision is a podcast covering topics and issues facing small business owners and connecting them with solutions from leading experts. This series is presented by Brady Ware & Company. If you are a decision-maker for a small business, we’d love to hear from you. Contact us at email@example.com and make sure to listen to every Thursday to the Decision Vision podcast.
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Intro: [00:00:02] Welcome to Decision Vision, a podcast series focusing on critical business decisions. Brought to you by Brady Ware & Company. Brady Ware is a regional, full-service, accounting and advisory firm that helps businesses and entrepreneurs make visions a reality.
Mike Blake: [00:00:23] Welcome to Decision Vision, a podcast giving you, the listener, clear vision to make great decisions. In each episode, we discuss the process of decision making on a different topic from the business owners’ or executives’ perspective. We aren’t necessarily telling you what to do, but we can put you in a position to make an informed decision on your own and understand when you might need help along the way.
Mike Blake: [00:00:45] My name is Mike Blake, and I’m your host for today’s program. I’m a director at Brady Ware & Company, a full-service accounting firm based in Dayton, Ohio, with offices in Dayton; Columbus, Ohio; Richmond, Indiana; and Alpharetta, Georgia. My practice specializes in providing fact-based strategic and risk management advice to clients that are buying, selling, or growing the value of companies and intellectual property. Brady Ware is sponsoring this podcast, which is being recorded in Atlanta per social distancing protocols.
Mike Blake: [00:01:14] If you would like to engage with me on social media with my Chart of the Day and other content, I’m on LinkedIn as myself and @unblakeable on Facebook, Twitter, Clubhouse, and Instagram. I also recently launched a new LinkedIn group called A Group That Doesn’t Suck, so please join that as well if you would like to engage. If you like this podcast, please subscribe on your favorite podcast aggregator and please consider leaving a review of the podcast as well.
Mike Blake: [00:01:41] Today’s topic is, Should I become a consultant or freelancer? And it’s an interesting topic, as we record this on January 18, 2022 as we continue through this trans-pandemic period that we’re in, we are seeing society reorganize in many facets in real time. And one of the areas that I don’t think any of us are truly prepared for was the way the labor market is reorganizing.
Mike Blake: [00:02:18] And we’ve had a couple of shows late last year, probably in the 120s or so, I think this is recording number 151 or two or something, but, you know, we’ve had conversations about how to find or tap into underutilized, underexplored labor pools. And the reasons for that are that we are experiencing an unprecedented labor supply shock that we have not seen since World War II.
Mike Blake: [00:02:48] And that labor supply shock has occurred for a number of reasons including – in whatever order you want to place – that we’re two-and-a-half million immigrants short of where we would have been had we continued the policies that have been in place before, say, 2016. And that’s according to data from the Cato Institute. The Cato Institute is a conservative think tank. So, don’t go all up on Blake is a communist kind of thing.
Mike Blake: [00:03:19] We have seen between three to four million people retire that we were not expecting to retire, and that’s data that comes from the Kansas City and St. Louis Federal Reserve. Again, they may be communists, but take it up with them, not with me. And that’s been because of a combination of people being let go, and they probably don’t have great prospects for reentering the labor force. It’s because of people’s portfolios suddenly becoming a lot more valuable because they had invested in Apple and Netflix and, therefore, can afford to retire, and people that just don’t want to deal with a COVID work environment.
Mike Blake: [00:03:59] On top of that, we’ve had something on the order of 400,000 to 450,000 people simply die or be disabled by coronavirus that were of working age in the United States. And we don’t know how many people who have exited the workforce because for lack of day care and elder care. And the estimates I’ve seen have placed those numbers in the millions. So, the point is you take that many people out of the labor force in an 18 month period, you’re going to find that it’s hard to find workers.
Mike Blake: [00:04:35] And on top of all that, we’re finding that the script has flipped in what we’ve called the gig economy. I mean, the gig economy has been around for a while. It’s been around, as long as I can remember in my professional life, since around 2000 or 2005, when startups were relying on gig workers to help bootstrap their startups and run an ultra lien. And everything was about Elance and Fiverr and now Upwork and other places. But that was always considered sort of a fringe area of the labor market.
Mike Blake: [00:05:17] And then, we saw the second wave of gig economy in terms of delivery and transportation, Uber, Lyft, Amazon drivers, to a lesser extent, delivery services like Instacart but that really didn’t take hold until we all didn’t feel comfortable leaving our homes anymore.
Mike Blake: [00:05:38] But what’s happened now is that the script has flipped a little bit and that I think there is a perception for many of us that if you’re in the gig economy, you’re kind of there because you got relegated. You didn’t get picked to go work for a big company or you had unique life circumstances that simply wouldn’t let you work out of the home. But, frankly, we felt sorry for a lot of people that were in the gig economy because we had the sense or the stigma, perhaps, for being fair about it. We had the sense that people in the gig economy because they were forced there, not because that was a matter of choice.
Mike Blake: [00:06:23] And that’s now changing as we enter a phase in the economy that I have not seen in my adult lifetime. I don’t know if this happened in the early 80s. I was a dumb ass teenager then, so I don’t know. But I have not seen a period in my life where labor had this much power in the labor market in the United States. I cannot remember when that’s ever happened. Even during the dotcom boom, it was really nothing like this.
Mike Blake: [00:06:54] And for a combination of factors of wanting to work from home, from liking the flexibility of working from home, work life balance, in some cases better pay, in some cases, I would argue, better stability rather than less than in a gig economy than working in a J-O-B, job. Lots of people are making the switch to becoming consultants and freelancers, often for the companies where they quit their jobs to take that role in the first place. And that’s not new, but it’s more pervasive, because I think companies are more desperate to keep that talent so they’re kind of saying, “Well, whatever kind of keeps you in the seat, we’re going to be willing to do.”
Mike Blake: [00:07:32] And so, that made me think that this is a neat topic to visit at this point in time. Because whether you’re a decision maker thinking about entering the gig economy as a freelancer yourself, it could be as a side hustle, it could be as a fulltime thing, or whether it’s an employer wondering if your employees are thinking about becoming gig workers, whether they would prefer to become gig workers, maybe the gig work model is better for you as a company. I think that it has relevance and warrants a discussion of the topic that I’m not sure that it really has had since we launched the Decision Vision podcast, and I hope you’ll agree. If not, then you’ll probably have already turned off and listening to another podcast.
Mike Blake: [00:08:19] But with that long preamble – probably the longest I’ve ever had – today’s topic is, Should I become a consultant or freelancer? And according to the data from MBO Partners and presented by Visual Capitalist, gig workers are now contributing $1.2 trillion in revenue to the U.S. economy. That’s a little bit north of five percent, maybe six percent doing the math in my head. And according to Statista, millennial gig economy statistics show that 44 percent of millennials freelance.
Mike Blake: [00:08:55] And, you know, as I sit here, I’m now 51, I have to realize that millennials aren’t just pimply video game playing teenagers anymore. They’re serious people and serious jobs that are executives and owning companies, and some of them have become my clients. And, you know, now we get to make fun of the Gen Y or whatever the hell is behind them. But that generation has largely embraced the gig economy by choice. And so, again, it just underscores the fact – or my belief anyway – that this is a topic that is well worth talking about in the decision of whether to enter the gig economy or not.
Mike Blake: [00:09:36] And joining us today is somebody who is no stranger to the gig economy – I think, we’re going to find from many angles – Ben Cagle, who is Managing Partner of Cagle Consulting Partners, CCP, an advisory firm focused on helping clients accelerate revenue growth, respond to rapidly changing markets – I bet you’re busy doing that – building and scaling organizations, and selling into large global customers. CCP serves large global enterprises, IBM, Cisco, and SAS; mid-market firms, and diverse technology startup clients, and artificial intelligence, data analytics, cybersecurity, Internet of Things, and blockchain.
Mike Blake: [00:10:19] Prior to founding CCP, Ben served as a division president for a Global 100 Enterprise. He had P&L responsibility for a global business unit of several hundred million dollars of revenue. And was on the core team leading an industry consolidation initiative with McKinsey and Company. Transitioning from industry into global management consulting, Ben served in various consulting partner, practice, industry leader, solution innovation, marketing, and thought leadership roles.
Mike Blake: [00:10:49] Ben’s global enterprise consulting leadership experience includes positions at HP Enterprise, formerly EDS, DXC Technology, and Hitachi Consulting with clients across four continents. Ben has also led various Nasdaq Venture Capital backed software and SAS and entrepreneurial companies focused on advanced data analytics, market insights, and brand marketing strategy targeting multiple industries.
Mike Blake: [00:11:17] Ben is an Alpharetta, Georgia native – I knew there was one out there – and currently resides in Alpharetta with his wife, Sarah. He graduated from the Georgia Institute of Technology, is active in various technology and startup organizations, and currently serves as the chairman of Tech 400, sponsored by the Greater North Fulton Chamber of Commerce, and it goes on and on. Look at his LinkedIn profile, he’s done a bunch of stuff. Ben Cagle, welcome to the program. Thanks for coming on the show.
Ben Cagle: [00:11:47] Yeah. Thanks, Mike. And thanks for cutting my LinkedIn profile short on that intro. I appreciate it.
Mike Blake: [00:11:52] The beauty of copy and paste, maybe. So, you know before we get started, it’s bizarre that you and I have not talked more. You know, I spent a lot of time in the startup community with Startup Lounge, and I know you’re familiar with it and I’m familiar with your name. But this will probably represent the longest conversation you and I have ever had up until this point.
Ben Cagle: [00:12:17] Well, that’s because alcohol is not currently involved. But, virtually, we can take care of that. But, no, I look forward to it. I loved your intro. It was a bit lengthy, but I’ll give you grief about that later. But disruption has been a theme of my career and a theme of how I’ve had to create value for different clients and different opportunities. So, I really look forward to your setup. I really enjoyed the conversation.
Mike Blake: [00:12:37] Good. Well, like I said, it was a record. Most don’t go that far, but, you know, it is just a fascinating topic. And when we get into society evolution questions, I just find them so fascinating. And my favorite field of economics has always been labor economics. I’m not sure why, but just the relationship between workers work and society is really interesting. And it’s interesting because I think every time we think we understand, we find out just how little we understand.
Ben Cagle: [00:13:10] Yeah. And it’s interesting how it’s changed and how each industry is cascading at different maturity curves and everything else around that, so a lot going on. But, you know, I entered the workforce in the 80s – yes, I’m that old – and the expectation, I think, at that time – we read several articles – I was really at the edge of the baby boomers, the last year, maybe in the next generation past baby boomers, 35 year career, one employer. Three years after I graduated undergrad, they then said it was radical you may have three jobs in your career. Then, it turned five years, it was 12 jobs, maybe.
Ben Cagle: [00:13:50] So, you can see how that change in that expectation, that loyalty to the global enterprise. All the disruption you talked about has changed. And just going through all of that and, even getting a 401K where you’re accountable for your retirement versus all the baby boomers that are punched out before us, had the free ride with the pensions, all those changes I’ve cascaded. I call it surfing through those changes and had to really respond to industries, you know, disappearing, new ones emerging, and then how do you manage your career through that, which led me to starting my own consulting practice.
Mike Blake: [00:14:25] You know, it’ll be fascinating to see how my sons enter the economy. I’m a Gen-Xer. My oldest son will be 20 in April. My father had two jobs in his professional career after the Air Force. I’m on job, I think nine since college, maybe ten, I’m not sure. And my sons may have 30 over the course of their career. And the definition of a job may change. It’ll be really fascinating to see how that all kind of works.
Mike Blake: [00:14:59] So, Ben, you’ve done all these things. In a lot of ways, many people would say that you had to achieve the brass ring several times over. You sort of made it to the top of the pile. You made it to the top of the food chain. And then, you gave it up to go into consulting and freelancing. So, what I’d really like to understand and I think my listeners would find fascinating is, I’d love you just to tell me about the origin story. How did Ben Cagle, corporate chieftain venture capitalists turned into Ben Cagle, freelancer Fiverr?
Ben Cagle: [00:15:36] Well, my wife is still asking that same question.
Mike Blake: [00:15:41] Should we get her on? That’ll make for some good podcast.
Ben Cagle: [00:15:44] This will be a support group meeting if we do that. Now, if I may, I look at my career, not just by jobs, but by chapters. And there’s been four chapters to my career that kind of sets up what I’m in now, the fourth chapter, which is having my own consulting company. So, I, hopefully, won’t belabor the point. But let me just tell you that runway and the themes of that disruption that I previously mentioned.
Ben Cagle: [00:16:08] I got out of Georgia Tech, got into industry, Global 100 company, started in sales. They trained me supply chain all the way through operations. And, eventually, the industry itself was disrupted. And the industry is we sold paper to newspapers- yes, I am that old. Remember our newspaper, you used to get ink on your fingers. There was actually a product, not a digital product.
Ben Cagle: [00:16:36] But what happened is, during that change, we knew the world was changing. Our customers were consolidating. All the media companies were consolidating. We knew this thing called the internet was going to take off. I’m in my late 20s, early 30s saying, “Okay. I know that in 15 years I’m going to be obsolete, what do I do with my career?”
Ben Cagle: [00:16:54] So, at that time, I was very fortunate. We did a McKinsey study, reorg, and I knew that I had to get into technology if I was going to be sustainable in my career and to keep having value. So, with the industry, in the paper industry, I was able to be the division president, traveled the world, global clients. Did that, enjoyed that lifestyle, and enjoyed the ego strokes that came with that, but knew I was going to have transition.
Ben Cagle: [00:17:19] At that time, a company called EDS, their technology, they were looking at people that had business experience, not even technology experience. I don’t even know how to do a PowerPoint or anything like that. But they brought me in. I led some practices learn global consulting. I was recruited over to another company, CSC. So, the first chapter was industry. The second chapter was big consulting. So, again, big business, big systems, all the ERP, the enterprise resource planning, the internet bubble. We consulted right through that, advised several large companies.
Ben Cagle: [00:17:53] Third chapter of my career – and this is a key theme here, and I think this is what’s happening with the great resignation – people said, “Screw it. I’m tired of the corporate reorgs.” I was tired of climbing the ladder, building an organization. Someone made a decision, sold the business, shut the business, didn’t fund it. New CEO comes in with a new strategy every two years. So, at that time, I entered the third chapter, which was working with Nasdaq, traded data analytics companies or venture software, leveraging my industry experience and PNL experience into different smaller companies.
Ben Cagle: [00:18:27] You know, Mike, I only had, like, $2 million of revenue. Others had 120 that were Nasdaq traded. I had thousands of employees across two continents. So, that was the third chapter is managing these small businesses. And then, the fourth chapter was my own business.
Ben Cagle: [00:18:44] And the reason I decided was, “You know what? I’m tired of other influences determine my future. I’m tired of not being able to navigate and be totally accountable for my own success.” So, I did everything wrong when I started my consulting business. I had no clients. I had three ideas. And I really jumped out of it because I just left another position and the decision was, for me at that time – Mike, and this is PC, you know, pre-COVID – I said, “I had a decision to make. I’m in my 50s, do I want to do three more turns of the crank finding jobs every two to three years? Or do I want to do my own thing and really ride this into retirement or really create a new future?” And I made the decision, “I’m going to take accountability. I’m going to create my own future.”
Ben Cagle: [00:19:35] And to do that, I started out with, again, typically, someone in their 50s that punches out of corporate, they always go and sell themselves back. They do consulting or freelance work for their previous employer. That’s the standard model for someone in the 50s. Now, we’ll talk about younger people, different skill sets, how they’re freelancing versus consulting in just a minute. But that was my decision. And I really started with a three layer cake.
Ben Cagle: [00:20:04] I started with saying, “Okay. I’ve led venture capital software companies, let me play with startups.” And that’s where, Mike, I started hanging around all the incubators and accelerators in Atlanta, I think there’s 35 at last count. And just started kind of building relationships and learning.
Ben Cagle: [00:20:19] Second layer of the cake, mid-sized companies, five to 150 million. And then, I said, “What’s their problem? How can I add value? What would someone pay me for?” And that’s the problems of growing revenue, scaling organizations, applying disruption, and helping them just really think through their business strategy, and then execute that strategy.
Ben Cagle: [00:20:40] And then, I was very fortunate, kind of the third layer, the top layer of the cake with the Global 100 companies, I actually was recruited by a firm that actually provides senior level executives back to IBM, Cisco, and SAS, training their sales reps how to have the executive conversation with the CEO, CFO, line of business leaders.
Ben Cagle: [00:20:59] So, that’s kind of the three levels of my consulting business, startups, mid-sized companies – and really, I’ve done breweries. I’ve done software development in India, all that tech stuff, all of these services stuff. And then, still staying in touch with the global enterprises and even their innovation groups. Because – guess what? – they want to know about the startups and create value there. So, there’s a method to the madness of that three layer cake and then solving the three major problems of revenue scaling, responding to change, and innovation.
Ben Cagle: [00:21:31] So, Mike, thank you for letting me kind of share that, but that’s really what led me to building this business. The other thing is, it was kind of a lifestyle. But more importantly, I wanted to kind of say, “You know what? As I got older, I could either ramp it up or ramp it back.
Ben Cagle: [00:21:45] The other thing is cable partners, I called it that because I didn’t want the headache of having a payroll. So, I work with 15 different partner firms, some of them are three person, single entrepreneurs, freelancers. Some, actually, they have 100 employees. And if I need to assemble a team to deliver value, whether it’s tech or strategy or whatnot, I can do that. It’s really relationships together to deliver value for clients. So, that’s my long rambling.
Ben Cagle: [00:22:16] So, Mike, as I was telling that story, which themes head of your disruption of the gig economy 2.0, what were you thinking about as I was telling that story?
Mike Blake: [00:22:27] Well, the thing that struck me, probably because I just happen to violently agree with it so it must mean we’re both geniuses, is, you talked about or you touched upon what effectively is the myth of stable employment. You talked about being tired of somebody else making a decision for you.
Mike Blake: [00:22:47] And I remember years ago, I was a sole practitioner – I still consider myself sort of a sole practitioner within my firm and certainly my comp plan does, so I think that all agrees – I remember giving a talk. I was at the Kettering group, I think. And back then, they had a lot of executives in transition, that was sort of their thing, not that much anymore. But I started the talk by asking the question, “How many of you guys are in transition, guys and ladies in transition?” Two-thirds of them raised their hands.
Mike Blake: [00:23:18] I said, “Okay. Keep your hands up. And then, all of you who think that you are let go because of a bad thing that you did, keep your hands up.” And everybody’s hand went down. And it has everything to do with what you just talked about, acquisitions happen, strategic priorities change, economies happen, somebody has a bad day.
Ben Cagle: [00:23:48] Well, yeah. Perfect. I’ve been on the giving and the receiving side of a reduction in force.
Mike Blake: [00:23:55] So have I.
Ben Cagle: [00:23:56] And like the Nasdaq traded company, that was, again, about $120 million, we came in as a leadership team. We were about eight weeks with not making payroll. So, we had to get rid of about 20 percent of the workforce immediately, and you had to basically navigate a quick strategy, whipsaw. And I’m kind of a relationship guy. You know, I’m a spiritual guy. I was really having problems with that.
Ben Cagle: [00:24:20] But it’s kind of like the old, when you’re in that leadership position – so I understand it – it’s kind of like being a submarine commander. When you’re sub’s head in the front with a torpedo and you have to close all the doors, and you know the front sailors in the first section that got torpedoed are going to drown. But if you don’t do that, everyone’s going to die. So, that’s been in that kind of situation. So, I’ve been on the giving side of that.
Ben Cagle: [00:24:43] The other thing is, you know, I was hired by Hitachi Consulting, recruited by the CEO of the consulting group, working for the COO. They said they were going to be there five more years. I had three years to make my goal and build the business we were talking about. So, it was a senior level executive. They were throwing money at me. And three months after I joined them, the CEO was shut. The COO was shut. So, all these long term people that promised me the world, basically six months later, they took the top 15 of us and shut us all.
Ben Cagle: [00:25:14] So, that’s when I said, “Mad as hell. I’m not going to take anymore. I’m pissed.” And I’ve always said I’m smarter than everyone else and go prove it, you know, if you’re that pompous. And I said this to myself, “You’re that pompous. Go make it happen.” So, that’s how I got into consulting and just loved it. And I have no regrets going back.
Mike Blake: [00:25:34] And I think there’s a lot to the notion that when you have income coming from ten spots as opposed to one, it’s just basic diversification. One consultant decides they don’t need you anymore, for whatever reason. You still got the other nine. Not as big a deal.
Ben Cagle: [00:25:54] Let me tell you the best piece of career advice I got was from my landscaper, true story. So, between senior level executive, they always get rid of you, and then they send you a severance, and then you use that severance to look for your next role. Sometimes that could be a year gap, two year gap as you’re jumping. My Chapter three of my career, different leadership roles.
Ben Cagle: [00:26:20] So, he noticed I was home again, working for home yet again. “Hey, Ben. You’re between jobs.” “Yeah. Thanks, Al. I really appreciate you rubbing my nose in it.” And I said, “Well, at least I don’t have it like you do.” And he goes, “What do you mean?” I go, “Well, at least I have opportunities, and I’ve got the logos behind me, and I was doing all the corporate stuff.” He goes, “Well, Ben, that’s all great. You know I’ve got 140 customers, if three of them fire me, that just means I go home early.”
Ben Cagle: [00:26:48] So, I’m going, “Damn. I missed it again. That was just genius.” And really, Mike, I will be honest that informed my portfolio approach to I’m working with startups. They don’t always have money. So, I do some sweat equity, some for fee, retainer-based, fractional COO or CRO, whatever. But my portfolio, that middle tier of the cake working with those mid-sized companies, sometimes that’s a three month gig, sometimes I check in once a quarter. And then, the training that I do working with IBM, Cisco, or SAS, or the innovation group, the chief innovation officer that I work with, that comes and goes.
Ben Cagle: [00:27:25] So, you’re right, I’m managing a portfolio of interest, of revenue models, and everything else, but it’s my hand to play. It’s my cards. I lay three cards down. I’m playing draw poker. I pick three up. And that’s what I’ve enjoyed about it and being able to navigate those different ecosystems of relationships, which is key for freelancers or anything else. I’m sure we’re going to touch on that in terms of what’s success or how do you drive success. But that’s been the most fun part.
Ben Cagle: [00:27:50] And meeting, quite frankly, guys like you and some of the other professionals that turn into being, you know, referral networks, hub and spoke advisors. It’s just really cool. You meet wicked smart people with the same values. You don’t have to deal with the assholes. And you just run your business and run it the way you want to.
Mike Blake: [00:28:11] So, I think a question everybody is asking – and you sort of touched on this and you said you did everything wrong – everybody wonders how do you get your first client. That’s so scary. Now, you, obviously, have some exposure to sales, but not every consultant who goes out there has a background in sales. Talk about the story of getting that first client. You hang out the shingle Ben Cagle and Associates, or Partners, or whatever, Cagle Capital Partners and Consulting Partners, how do you get that first client?
Ben Cagle: [00:28:48] Yeah. It was a referral. I think it took me six months. In my first year – and this is not making fun of people or saying it’s derogatory – I think I made 30,000 in revenue. And there’s nothing wrong with making 30,000 revenue, but that was a little bit below my expectations, and I had two daughters in college at the time.
Ben Cagle: [00:29:09] But I remember that first retainer I got was from a technology company and it was part of my networking. So, I mentioned the three layers of the cake, I was networking and just going to events with startups down around Georgia Tech. I had a friend from Georgia Tech refer me to the startup, got a referral, and just started telling my story, and that was the connection. So, networking and referrals, key, key, key pipeline for driving any kind of freelance or consulting business pipeline.
Ben Cagle: [00:29:42] It’s not the only channel to drive revenue or get clients but, obviously, your first one’s going to come from that or, like I mentioned, a previous employer, or if you’ve got another partner in your practice, or other freelancers that can refer you in. So, that referral network, that’s key. If you don’t have that, if you haven’t built it, it’s going to take time.
Ben Cagle: [00:30:03] Someone advised me – Mike, I’m curious to hear your point of view – if you’re starting ground level cold, it takes about almost four to five years to build your network where it feeds your business. In addition to doing other marketing, doing thought leadership like you’re doing here with your blog, there’s other things to really get your marketing, your awareness, your interest out there besides networking. But you can’t avoid it. You’ve got to be out there talking to people and getting that referral network going.
Mike Blake: [00:30:32] Yeah. It definitely takes time, which is one of the things I’m harping on all of my team who are much younger than I am. I’m always pushing them to build networks. I only got serious about my network when I was about 35. And I kind of wonder because I was always the quant geek, I was the math geek they shoved in the closet someplace and never like to talk to human beings because I was the Greek letter guy. And that was fun. It was fun to have everybody talk about how smart you were.
Mike Blake: [00:31:03] But then, I realized what immense damage that did to my career that I had no network. And when, all of a sudden, I needed to learn how to sell, I think it took me a year to sell my first engagement period, which is a really small one. And then, it did take about five years before the flywheel started going, and I didn’t have to be always doing sales all the time for the phone to ring and emails to come in and so forth.
Ben Cagle: [00:31:35] Right. Exactly. I mean, for a lot of people in their 20s and 30s that are either getting started, I was talking to one lady, she worked with start ups. She’s 29. She’s already feeling obsolete because she doesn’t know where her next opportunity is coming from. She hasn’t worked on our network. She really hasn’t thought about her core competencies, poor English, what she’s really good at. And she hasn’t thought about either her own consulting, what’s the problem she’s solving, or anything else?
Ben Cagle: [00:32:04] You know, if you’re an engineer, you can do software coding. There’s enough websites now to keep you busy. My daughters are in their 20s, they’ve got a friend, she’s a financial analyst, great MBA, and she’s literally traveling the world. It’s like we play Where’s Waldo? It’s like Where’s Michelle this week? Because she is working anywhere in the world she wants to doing her financial analysis. Those are discrete mathematical engineering skills. And I think there’s kind of a hierarchy. Those are easy to quantify, easy to validate, easy to use all the technology out there.
Ben Cagle: [00:32:37] However, the more senior you are, the more vague you get. If you’re creative, you definitely need channel partnerships. You definitely need referral networks, alliance partners, that can really get you in the opportunities around that. So, really, I look at your skillset, your experience set, your tenure, which industries you played in. And then, of course, what scenarios have you been in? Were you in a high growth mode or a mature dying industry?
Ben Cagle: [00:33:05] All of those five or six kind of vertical lines when I do career coaching informally, I look at all those and say, “What are you really unable to? How can we wrap you, package you, and then how do we get you to market to meet the needs and create value where someone will pay you for it?
Mike Blake: [00:33:21] So, I don’t think it’s so much of a choice. I think it’s a spectrum. When you’re a consultant, the spectrum of lifestyle versus I want to kill it. One is, I want to have a certain lifestyle, and maybe it’s a 30 to 45 hour week kind of gig and that supports a certain lifestyle, if you will. And then, there’s a 75, I want to build the next McKinsey, Bain, Boston Consulting kind of thing. Where do you think you kind of were on that slider when you started and what went into your decision to go that direction?
Ben Cagle: [00:34:00] Yeah. Let’s be honest here, I think what you were implying, Mike, when you said, “Hey, it’s going to take you a while to win your first client,” cash is king. Cash is oxygen. Cash flow, if you don’t have cash flow or savings or investments that you’re willing to give up to fund this runway – and I think you said a year before you hit your first revenue, I would second that motion – I think it takes you three to five years to ramp up. So, this is going to be a long haul building this. Potentially, again, unless you have specific skills, very discreet.
Ben Cagle: [00:34:36] So, to me, my goal was, within three years, I’m going to be making X per month. I wanted to have revenue on all three layers of my cake, my startups and mid-sized enterprise. And I wanted to build a network. I had a networking goal, because I knew that the people, that connective tissue, was what was going to make me successful. And that’s what I evaluated on.
Ben Cagle: [00:34:58] The other thing is, you know, continuous learning and those kinds of things. So, I had a revenue goal, yeah, but I had other goals around relationship goals, exposure, or acquiring clients with specific problems, size of clients. And then, building my network of not only just getting into clients, but also how I deliver that value. So, that’s the way I thought about it. Some people get into it saying, “Hey, look, I’ve got three friends. We’re going to start billing. We’re going to do website development and we’re going to get out there and just knock it out and just lock arms and get it done.”
Ben Cagle: [00:35:34] But mine was all about virtual. I wanted to be leveraged. I wanted to market. If I need to resell, like if I needed a graphic designer, I would mark them up and I get 20 percent. They would do the work. I would be like general contractor. So, that virtual firm was my model and I’ve been very fortunate that we’d be able to pull that off. And I’ve had resources from India, Belarus brought in and, again, I love the virtual economy.
Ben Cagle: [00:35:58] I love COVID – I hate to say this – I’m picking up clients well outside of Atlanta, in Dallas, New York, Chicago just because, like this, you know, we’re talking on Zoom right now, you’re recording the audio. But I can add value to any client through any distance. I can collaborate with them. I can have deliverables. I can be part of their management groups without leaving the comfort of my home office. So, to me, that was the other dimension.
Ben Cagle: [00:36:27] I thought I had to be geographically based when I started five, six years ago. This has really opened my eyes to this leverage model and bringing in other freelancers or other consultants to assemble them to, again, deliver value for the client. But you have to be very intentional about the problems you saw, of the clients you go after, and the way you’re going to deliver that value, whether it’s your own skills and unique knowledge, or they’ll be tangible deliverables or products around that.
Mike Blake: [00:36:54] Isn’t it funny how we’ve had the telephone since the 1870s, I think, it was invented, right? So, we’ve had the telephone for 145 years. For 60 of those, we’ve had video conferencing available. AT&T showing it off the world’s fair. We’ve had video conferencing as long as we’ve wanted it. And nobody wanted it for a number of reasons. At first, it was because the frame rate was like two frames a second. And then, for other reasons we didn’t want it.
Mike Blake: [00:37:26] And now in the pandemic era, we can’t get away from it. I have people asking for permission to get on an old timey phone call because they’re afraid I’m going to think less of them that I’m going to put them on Zoom. And I want to see the innovation diffusion curve for video conferencing. I’m going to go back and do the research on that because that’s going to be a weirdly shaped curve.
Ben Cagle: [00:37:49] Yeah. And, again, now that we’ve all gotten comfortable, it’s like, I’m not wearing pants right now in this frame. I just have a shirt on for the show.
Mike Blake: [00:37:57] Well, thank you for that.
Ben Cagle: [00:37:58] Yeah. Yeah. Kidding, of course. But it’s funny how, to your point, the more has change. I mean, again, I deal with IBM, who calls on Goldman Sachs. They call them Royal Dutch Shell over in the E.U. They’re having to sell their consulting services virtually. You know how they measure relationships? If you know you’re really close with a client – and I just confirmed this with another mentee of mine who’s about 32 who’s in sales for tech sales – if you’ve got a text relationship, that’s like the ultimate. If you can text that CIO, Chief Information Officer, you’ve got permission. They’ve already got you identified in their address book when you pop up.
Ben Cagle: [00:38:42] When you can actually be on the Zoom call or the WebEx call and text them to get feedback on what’s going on, not even do chat, that’s when you know you’ve made it.
Ben Cagle: [00:38:52] So, everything has been inverted from a relationship, “Hey, let’s go get a cup of coffee in the cafeteria. Tell me about your kids and then I’ll find out what’s really going on.” You know, walking the halls, elevator pitch – remember all those terms? – they’re now obsolete. To now, the relationship, if you’ve got the highest relationship with a C level of a Global 500, if you’re texting back and forth weekends and all that, boy, you know you’ve made it.
Ben Cagle: [00:39:19] The other thing is, I found using Zoom and WebEx, people going, “How do you build a relationship?” And I said, “Hey, just cut the meeting short to 20 minutes and give them ten minutes back in their schedule, because everyone has 12 hours of Zoom now.” Give them back ten minutes and say, “Hey, Bill, by the way, or Barbara, before we break up, do you mind? I’ve got an idea I want to run by you that I think might help you guys, or may create value or, solve a problem.” And that’s the way you have to do it. And then, ask either for permission or get to text as soon as possible. And that’s how you know you’ve really made it from a sales and development standpoint.
Ben Cagle: [00:39:58] So, isn’t it weird the way that you used to avoid text because there was no interaction, there was no voice inflection. But now that’s become the gold standard of relationship.
Mike Blake: [00:40:07] Oh, it’s fascinating and probably warrants its own podcast in some fashion. I’ve met in person fewer than 25 percent of my clients, and that number goes down every year. They don’t want to see me, and there’s nothing to even look at if it’s a tech company.
Ben Cagle: [00:40:24] Yeah. They don’t want to deal with me. Occasionally, if we’re local and say, “Hey, let’s grab a beer or grab coffee,” there’s some social element to it. But when COVID hit, I hosted a virtual happy hour. Everyone got their drinks and we brought people in, literally, from four countries and, I guess, really, five time zones just trying to get social interaction, talking about how people are responding differently to COVID and everything else. So, that social element, that emotion, that need is still there.
Ben Cagle: [00:40:55] But you’re right, from a business to business standpoint, people don’t want to see you. They don’t want to invest the time. They don’t want to put a collared shirt or dress pants on.
Mike Blake: [00:41:08] So, thinking back when you started as a consultant, what was the scariest part? Or was there a scary part of it? And if so, what was the scariest part of that process? And how did you overcome that fear?
Ben Cagle: [00:41:24] Again, I’ll show my age here, but remember the Indiana Jones movie when he had to step out on faith and walk across an abyss of a hidden bridge and he didn’t know it was there? That’s what it was like is taking that first step saying, “I don’t know what’s going to handle.” Now, again, keep in mind, I had two daughters, no scholarships, out-of-state tuition. So, I had my highest cash flow outflow with zero income coming in, so that’s pressure.
Ben Cagle: [00:41:54] And if you’re measuring your security by your 401K, your investments, your cash flow, your savings, you might want to rethink when your kids are in college and starting your own consulting business. So, that was the scariest point to me is not knowing the financial insecurity, knowing that I may be betting part of my retirement savings on the fact that I’m betting on myself that I can build this business and be successful. That was the scariest part to me.
Mike Blake: [00:42:19] So, I’m happy to geek out on Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade, that was a great movie. So, what helped Indiana Jones overcome his fear was that his father had been shot and he was dying. What helped you overcome your fear? What is it that got you to take that first step off the cliff?
Ben Cagle: [00:42:40] Yeah. Well, I think what happened was it wasn’t a greater fear of going back into another job. It was, I think, my pissed factor. I was so mad. It exceeded my fear factor and it made me more determined just to go for it. So, if you’re doing a two-by-two matrix of pissed versus scared, I was more pissed than I was scared and going for it.
Ben Cagle: [00:43:01] And the other thing was I knew the world was changing rapidly. I had to adjust from selling paper to newspaper publishers, to implementing SAP ERP implementations to Toyota North America, to basically doing e-commerce for banking in Europe. I understood how change was happening and I thought I could capitalize on it. And I was betting on that. So, that was my big trade off. And I’m a very rational person and I’ve got a weird sense of humor. But that was the trade off, it’s like, “Damn it. I’m going to go do it. There’s a market opportunity, I believe I can capture it. And I think I can create a better future than I can going back into corporate or trying to get another leadership position that has a two year, three year runway.”
Ben Cagle: [00:43:49] And we haven’t proven that theory yet. But touch wood with God’s will and a little bit of more persistence and great network partners, we’re on our way. I’m feeling pretty good about it.
Mike Blake: [00:44:03] So, one thing that I think keeps people from becoming a freelancer or consultant is the matter of health insurance. You know, I had a sole practitioner shop for a while and one of the first lessons I learned as a sole practitioner is that the best insurance you can buy on the open market is more expensive and worse than the worst health insurance you’re going to get through almost any company. That’s what I learned anyway.
Ben Cagle: [00:44:34] Well, again, you’ve been talking to my wife doing background. She complained about our insurance, she still does. But just the two of us now, the kids finally got married and got off the payroll – well, partially off the payroll. So, we’re paying $1,400 or $1,500 a month in insurance with a high deductible and it covers catastrophic events. But beyond that, we get a free COVID shot and that’s about it. So, I think that was the biggest learning financially for me is health care. I’ve got my overhead. I knew that.
Ben Cagle: [00:45:09] But getting comfortable with that and, of course, all the tax implications of making sure that, “Hey, look how much money I’m making” versus making sure, especially if you come out of corporate you’re used to all those withholdings made for you, be very intentional about that, or for using retirement savings early penalties, the true cost of money, make sure you understand that before you make the leap to go there.
Mike Blake: [00:45:32] What’s a skillset that you’ve had to evolve or develop since moving out on your own?
Ben Cagle: [00:45:41] It’s not personal discipline but – and this is what a lot of people have trouble with – structuring your day. It is saying that I’m going to go to this networking event back in the day or I’m going to work on my LinkedIn profile. It’s allocating that working on the business versus in the business – you’ve heard that.
Ben Cagle: [00:46:02] When you first start – and, again, I mentioned that fear of having a high cash outflow and not much coming in – I thought I had to be, you know, constant business development, finding that, versus being smart about laying the foundation, and LinkedIn, using media like you’re using smart channels like RadioX and some other things you’re doing with your blogs. Being really intentional around that because that’s the foundation that will feed you and serve you later.
Ben Cagle: [00:46:28] So, that’s the biggest skill of work on the business versus in the business and really get used to adding structure and discipline. You know, no boss is going to tell you what to do. No company is going to set up mandatory conference calls. It is a blank slate and you’ve got to add that structure. I knew that but you really have to be intentional around that. And that was really a muscle I kind of had developed being part of corporate, but really had to be intentional around structure, work on versus in the business.
Mike Blake: [00:47:01] I’m talking with Ben Cagle of Cagle Consulting Partners – got it right instead of five tries this time. And the topic is, Should I become a consultant or freelancer? That’s the benefit of podcasting, more forgiving medium.
Mike Blake: [00:47:21] So, let me ask you this, who shouldn’t become a consultant? I want to take the flip side of this. Not everybody’s cut out to be through everything, right? There’s no amount of practicing I could ever do and become a successful ballet dancer. I should not become a ballet dancer. What kind of personality or what kind of personal situation, probably, maybe doesn’t prohibit, but at least puts you at a serious disadvantage to become a consultant or freelancer?
Ben Cagle: [00:47:49] Let’s go for kind of seniority level from a career standpoint and then work our way down. So, arrogant former CXOs should not be consultants, because they write their book that was basically their swan song. They promote their book and they add zero value. And, eventually, I’ve seen the tale of their growth curve goes off about eight to nine months, because no one wants to work with them because they’re arrogant and they think they own the world. And they’re doing it for ego versus really adding client value. So, that’s kind of one.
Ben Cagle: [00:48:27] On the other side of it, if you’re not comfortable with understanding problems, asking questions, interacting with people, that’s kind of like Consulting 101, doing discovery on what the problem you’re solving is, or what the requirements of the job spec they want to hire you for are. If you’re not comfortable with those interpersonal skills, and leading that, and thinking ahead, and you’re not a structured thinker, probably not a good idea to be a consultant. So, that’s kind of a skillset personality continuum. But those are kind of some of the people I’ve seen have tried and failed.
Ben Cagle: [00:49:00] You know, you can be very shy but be very analytical or very technical. And if you’ve got the right, either partnership or channel partners, or you kind of contract with a company that places you, you can do really well. But if you’re out on your own, I’m going to be dealing with clients. You’ve got to find it. You got to find the client, kill the client, skin the client, eat the client. You have to do, you know, all the delivery all the way through. You better make sure that you have confidence in yourself. You have great communication skills. And you’re not talking about yourself all the time. You’re spending at least, you know, 70 percent letting the client talk versus you.
Ben Cagle: [00:49:38] That’s what I meant about the arrogance, I’ve seen a lot of people just talk their way past opportunities because they were trying to prove how smart they were. So, kind of lessons learned there. That’s the pragmatic. Mike, what are your thoughts? What dimensions do you think about when you think about people consulting who are successful or not?
Mike Blake: [00:49:56] I think it’s coming to grips with the fact that having to sell becomes part of the job description. You know, if you have a particular skillset, that’s great. But if nobody knows about it, if nobody understands how that fits and how that addresses a need that they have, I think it’s very difficult for a consultant to succeed in that way.
Ben Cagle: [00:50:24] Excuse me for interrupting, the one question I’ve asked people that want to get in consulting, do you think sales is dirty? Is it beneath you? Is it sleazy? That perception will tell you if you’re ready for it. If you think sales is really helping people finding problems, how are you going to help them solve their problems, then, odds are you’ll be more successful as a consultant.
Ben Cagle: [00:50:53] But if you think you’ve got a sale and ask for the order, and I hate talking about money, they’re just trying to take advantage of me, if you kind of come in with that attitude, boy, keep your day job. Update your LinkedIn profile and, hopefully, find a good place or a staffing firm or a good recruiter because you’re going to need it. I agree with what you said there, Mike, yeah.
Mike Blake: [00:51:17] You know, the transition at the end of the day is, you might find yourself moving from being a cost center to a profit center. And that can be a difficult transition, because when we say somebody is a cost center, there’s an implication that you’re kind of a dead weight. And you’re not a dead weight, but you are a weight that has to be carried by the profit center.
Mike Blake: [00:51:45] And when I give advice for the few people who ask me for advice about their careers, always position yourself to be a profit center. If you’re a profit center, then you’re never going to be unemployed a day in your life. And that’s what consultants have to do. And if you particularly, as I did, come from a technical field, finance and business valuation, I can be the greatest spreadsheet jockey in the world. But if I can’t go out there and get clients, it just doesn’t matter. And what you find is the people who can sell make more and they have more job stability.
Ben Cagle: [00:52:27] Yeah. Absolutely. And just having that knowledge going in, I think, that’s like a yes/no primary screen question you should ask around that. Can you represent? And, again, not tell what you do but understand and relate to that person you’re sitting across the Zoom call on about what their issues are and how you’re relevant to them.
Ben Cagle: [00:52:48] So, I’ve been on both the buy side and the sell side of consulting, so I’ve had that advantage. And even today, I get sold constantly. They’re trying to sell me services for my own firm or people are trying for me to hire them or partner with them. It’s amazing how they push the play button and talk about themselves and really don’t understand the situation they’re going into. And if you don’t have that awareness, that EQ and IQ, boy, you’re not going to be successful as a consultant. So, you really got to have that radar going.
Mike Blake: [00:53:20] Yeah. It’s hard. Ben, this has been a great conversation. We’re running up against the hour that I asked of you for time. I know we haven’t gotten every question I wanted. We got off our script pretty quickly, but that’s okay. But there are probably questions that our listeners wish that I would have asked or we’d stayed on a little bit longer. If somebody wants to follow up on this conversation with you for some advice, can they do so? And if so, what’s the best way for them to do that?
Ben Cagle: [00:53:46] Yeah, Mike, we’re pretty casual about it. And thank you for this opportunity, I really enjoyed the conversation. Thank you for reaching out and, again, giving me the opportunity to be on your blog. And if they care to reach me, they can reach me directly through email at ben, B-E-N,@cagle, C-A-G-L-E, partners.com, firstname.lastname@example.org. Or through my website Cagle, C-A-G-L-E, Partners, caglepartners.com.
Ben Cagle: [00:54:10] And, again, I coach people. Part of my values when I founded my firm is I want to help other people advance. If I can help them and create value for them, odds are, eventually, it’s like karma. It will eventually come back, if not from that person, someone else. Don’t mind helping people. Love to have a conversation anyway at all. I can get perspective or help people along the way. I would be glad to do that. Email or hit my website.
Mike Blake: [00:54:35] Well, that’s going to wrap it up for today’s program. I’d like to thank Ben Cagle so much for sharing his expertise with us.
Mike Blake: [00:54:41] We’ll be exploring a new topic each week, so please tune in so that when you’re faced with your next business decision, you have clear vision when making it. If you enjoy these podcasts, please consider leaving a review with your favorite podcast aggregator. It helps people find us so that we can help them.
Mike Blake: [00:54:58] If you would like to engage with me on social media with my Chart of the Day and other content, I’m on LinkedIn as myself and @unblakeable on Facebook, Twitter, Clubhouse, and Instagram. Also, check out my new LinkedIn group called A Group That Doesn’t Suck. Once again, this is Mike Blake. Our sponsor is Brady Ware & Company. And this has been the Decision Vision podcast.