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The Hidden Constraint Capping Your Consulting Firm (and How to Lift the Limit)

The driver and limiter of your consulting firm’s size are the same: a single variable simultaneously fuels your growth and resists expansion.

Let’s look at three consulting firms:

Hans Olo Consulting is a $500k, one-person practice focused primarily on helping chocolate manufacturers successfully implement their most important, transformation projects.

Weera Gruppe consists of 20-ish personnel and they bring in around $5m/year primarily through chocolate-related  transformation projects

Lotta Partners is also a project management consultancy in the chocolate industry, and currently they boast 200 employees and $50m in annual revenues.

All three consulting firms are in the same industry, solve more-or-less the same problem, and were founded around the same time by one or two partners. So, why is the scale of these firms so different?

Over time, the size of your consulting firm is a product of two factors and one constraint.

The two factors that enable your consulting firm’s growth are Commitment and Know-how. Those two span a host of important topics including your market offering, systems, capital, confidence, etc.

Most of the articles on this site aim to increase your know-how, and often they challenge your commitment. For example, are you committed enough to success to switch the focus of your firm, if necessary?

The one constraint on your consulting firm’s growth isn’t what you might suspect. It’s not the market demand or the availability of trained staff—though those two do create temporary, local limits on the size of your firm.

Ultimately, the invisible ceiling that limits your consulting firm’s size is your Aspiration.

Your aspiration acts like the mechanical cruise control on the 1966 Chrysler Newport I drove in days gone by.

When you flipped the switch on that contraption, it would pour on the gas until you reached the pre-set speed (often in gut twisting bursts of acceleration). It also would press back hard against the accelerator pedal if you tried to exceed the cruising speed.

Your aspiration sets the boundary on your consulting firm’s scale, and also drags you forward, encouraging to increase your know-how and make the commitments necessary to reach the boundary.

Determining Your Consulting Firm Aspiration

The most common point of confusion around consulting firm aspirations is whether they are a destination (we want to be a $15m firm) or a journey (we want to serve clients and be a force for good).

The most helpful aspirations are both. They are a journey with fairly well-defined destinations along the way. They describe what you want to do (e.g., serve) and what you want to achieve (e.g., $15m revenue).

To help you identify and refine the aspirations that set the invisible ceiling for your consulting firm, consider the following five questions and one redirect:

5 Aspiration Questions + 1 Redirect

Q1: What makes you tick: what are your passions and what creates happiness and joy for you?

Q2: Describe your perfect day: what happened from the moment you woke up to the moment you went to sleep?

Q3: Describe your perfect year: what happened over the 12 months?

Q4: Describe some of your ideal achievements: what do you want to have accomplished over the course of your life?

Q5: What do you stand for: when people speak of you to each other, what do you want them to say about you?

Redirect: Go back and answer those five questions again, with this additional prompt: What are the implications of my answer for my consulting firm?

Remember, your aspirations aren’t carved in stone. For instance the size of my own consulting firm changed markedly when I decided to embark on a different journey.

Also keep in mind that there are no bad aspirations. Big, small and everything in between are all good. Your aspirations for your consulting firm are perfect as long as they are true to you.

You accelerate your likelihood of achieving your aspirations when you commit publicly. So, please share: what is one (or more) of your aspirations for your consulting firm?

  1. John Ennis
    September 1, 2021 at 6:16 am Reply

    What 10X’d us was hiring David Fields!

    • David A. Fields
      September 1, 2021 at 7:27 am Reply

      I wasn’t sure whether to laugh or blush at your comment, John! Then I realized your story ties well to aspirations. At each stage you’ve adjusted your vision for yourself and your firm. The willingness and ability to adjust is a sign of your commitment, and the resulting shift in aspirations has pulled your firm upwards.

      People talk about 10x as a pipe dream. Your journey will show that 100x or even 1,000x is absolutely possible.

      Thank you for the generous comment on the article, John.

  2. Stacye Brim
    September 1, 2021 at 9:16 am Reply

    Great article! These questions give good structure to things I’ve been pondering lately. I will spend some quality time with these questions today. Thanks David!

    • David A. Fields
      September 1, 2021 at 1:06 pm Reply

      Good on you, Stacye. Pondering your aspirations definitely deserves concentrated, thoughtful reflection. Let me know where you end up!

  3. Franziska R.
    September 1, 2021 at 12:30 pm Reply

    Implicit assumption: Bigger (in terms of total revenue or headcount) is better. That could be looked at differently: Revenue per person is greatest for Han – uhm – Hans Olo, so he is the “most successful” by that metric. And maybe his priorities include not having to deal with people management and higher tax brackets. Depending on their aspirations though (e.g. create as many consulting jobs as possible), you could also claim the others “winners” by their different metrics. Just to underline that numerical growth only makes sense if aligned with purpose/aspirations.
    That’s why I love the 5 questions + 1 redirect, David.

    • David A. Fields
      September 1, 2021 at 1:14 pm Reply

      I appreciate you reinforcing the point that there are no bad aspirations. Bigger is definitely not better. Achieving your aspiration is better. Knowing your aspiration and, therefore, why you are “stuck” is even betterest. (Or something like that.)

      There are a lot of ways to measure success. Fortunately, as leaders of small consulting firms, we get to choose our metrics! (As you know, my metric for success is Relationship Strength.)

      I appreciate the insightful addition to the conversation today, Franziska.

  4. Alex Kuznetsof
    September 1, 2021 at 12:36 pm Reply

    Thank you for the Article David!

    • David A. Fields
      September 1, 2021 at 1:16 pm Reply

      You betcha, Alex. Hearing from readers is always powerful and positive, so thank you for voicing your appreciation today.

  5. Tim
    September 2, 2021 at 5:04 pm Reply

    David thank you. I have, ever since I started consulting, been torn between the ‘grow’ vs ‘cruise’ modes. Question 1 really. I mean, I’ve had ample opportunity to grow, to win more work and employ folks, and build a firm of high value that someone might acquire one day. At the same time, my solo-ish mode allows amazing work life balance and earns in excess of what I need – the surplus able to be invested in wealth creation (investing, home ownership etc.). There is an interesting trade off implied in my situation but perhaps both roads get me to the same long term destination…I’m not sure. In the meantime I’ve come up with a middle of the road option which looks a lot like a cooperative – so others have joined but not as employees, they earn what they win and any long term value creation (ie via a future exit) is shared proportional to how it was created. And I still don’t have an answer for question 1!

    • David A. Fields
      September 3, 2021 at 2:57 pm Reply

      Thank you for thinking out loud and sharing, Tim. What you’re illustrating very well is that there are multiple paths available to achieve our aspirations. One of the true joys of leading a small firm is that you have so many choices–build a firm…or not; hire employees… or not; work 24/7/366… or not; consume inordinate amounts of chocolate… or just a lot of chocolate.

      Keep working on Question 1. As you crystallize your answer, you’ll also find the best paths to achieve your aspiration become clearer. And keep me up to date with your progress!

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