Episode 77: Going Independent After Consulting at Big Firms—with Will Bachman 

Deb Zahn: I want to welcome you to this week's episode of the Craft of Consulting Podcast. So this episode, we're going to talk about an option that exists, which I actually didn't know existed for independent management consultants to get support and build relationships with peers. Learn new skills. Get business that they can do while still being independent. And so I'm going to talk with a co-founder, Will Bachman of Umbrex, which is the first global community that connects independent management consultants with each other. And we're going to talk about what that does. What the benefits are to the folks that are members of it. And then we're going to kind of go broad and talk about the future of consulting and what independent consultants need to do to position themselves for success particularly as the world changes around us and we can expect that it's going to continue to change. So lots of great stuff in this. Let's get started. 

Hi. I want to welcome Will Bachman to my show. Will, thank you so much for joining me. 

Will Bachman: Deb, it's a pleasure to be here. 

Deb Zahn: So let 's start off. Tell my listeners what you do.  

Will Bachman: So I am a management consultant by training. My first career was as a nuclear trained submarine officer. I've been a management consultant since 2001. And for the last 10 years, I've really been working on building a global community where we connect independent management consultants with one another. So we can talk more about Umbrex there on the show. So my main job right now is running the Umbrex global community.  

Deb Zahn: That's great. Now, you started, as I understand, at McKinsey. And then you started your own independent consulting practice over a decade ago. So why did you want to be independent?  

Will Bachman: Well, I left McKinsey in 2008. And at that time, my second child had just been born. I had been traveling for my son's first three years of his life. Four days a week for almost three years straight. And number one, I wanted more control over my life. I didn't mind traveling if that was really essential, but I wanted more control. Number one. 

Number two. I liked serving clients, but I didn't like all of the administrative overlay that comes when you're in a global consulting firm. So it's always like you work on the document. Then you review it with the engagement manager. Then you review it with the partner. Then you're doing edits and edits and edits. And it always seemed like a lot of administrative overlay just to get some pages in front of a client.  

And then I thought also that being independent actually seems to some people like higher risk because people say, "Well, you don't have the firm behind you." But it felt to me at that time, and I believe so even more now that it's actually more robust because if you're an associate partner at McKinsey, and I know plenty of people that this has happened to. You have a great program to get elected partner and you have two core clients and a couple of other secondary clients. And then one of those core clients, the CEO changes or something happens in the market, that client goes away. All of a sudden, your whole program falls apart and you no longer have a chance to getting elected partner. 

And if you're a full-time employee somewhere, things could be going great. You can be very senior. But if the leadership changes or something happens and you get laid off or there's a reorg, then it can take a year or longer really to find an equivalent senior role. Whereas as an independent, if you build up a portfolio of 8, 10, 12 core clients over time. One of those could drop out but you still have a very robust long-term career plan.  

Deb Zahn: That's right. And you're in charge of developing that instead of being at the mercy of someone else.

  

Will Bachman: That's right. 

 

Deb Zahn: I love it. So let's talk about Umbrex because I think this is a really interesting model and I want to dive in a little bit more. So give my listeners a general overview of what it is and what it does, and then we'll dive into the details.  

 

Will Bachman: Sure. And for any listeners that are independent consultants, I welcome you to reach out to me. Happy to invite people to join. So think of Umbrex as there's really two constituencies that we serve. Two sets of stakeholders. On the consultant facing side of Umbrex, we're the only global community that I know of that's designed to connect independent professionals with one another. So pre-COVID, we'd do about 40 in-person events per year, both social events, as well as more in depth two-day professional development events across North America and Europe. We're also doing plenty of virtual events now. We have an online forum where members can connect and have discussions.  

 

We promote the thought leadership of our members on our blog and in our weekly newsletter to members so people can see what other people are creating. We're constantly connecting members with one another so they can collaborate. And we're looking for ways where independent professionals can share lessons learned and find ways to collaborate as if they were in a global services firm. 

 

We don't charge members. The business model is we serve clients by helping our clients find the right independent management consultant for their projects. And when we provide that service, we invoice the consultant through Umbrex and we add a modest margin and that's how we pay our bills. 

 

Deb Zahn: Interesting. I like it because it seems like kind of the best of both worlds. You have an infrastructure behind you, which I know is often challenging for independent consultants to get business apart from what you hustle to get. But they're still independent consultants so they're not employees. They're just a member of this larger body. Does that sound right?  

 

Will Bachman: That's right. And to some degree, we're free riders off of the top consulting firms. We do offer a kind of ongoing professional development for our members. And oftentimes, it's not just sort of me or Umbrex headquarters if you will, but members themselves are obviously highly accomplished. And often, our members will volunteer to give training sessions to other members on their area of expertise. But to some degree, we're free riding off of McKinsey, Bain, and BCG who are designed to bring people in right out of college. Right out of business school. And teach them the fundamentals of consulting. The folks that come into our community have already been through that process. So they already know the basics of the craft.  

 

Deb Zahn: That's great. So thank you, Big Five. And then they can be independent, and they know how to be a consultant. So describe what your typical member is. What's generally a profile of who joins Umbrex? 

 

Will Bachman: Yeah. And I'll mention we have a second community as well, which I'll mention. So Umbrex is primarily alumni of McKinsey, Bain, BCG, and Booze. And that person could be of any tenure really. We have folks that are former business analysts that are just a couple years out of the firm. We have folks that are former partners and senior partners from McKinsey and Bain and BCG. We started a second community for alumni of other top firms, as well as executives who have decided to become independent consultants. So for folks that have been a senior executive or folks that have an MBA and have spent time in companies but weren't at a traditional consulting firm, we started a community called Veritux, which comes from the Latin meaning true guide for members of that community. We offer similar services. Virtual events. Access to resources. Connectivity. An online forum. And a weekly email.  

Deb Zahn: That's great. Now the executives obviously are different than the folks who have been trained to be consultants. What are some of the challenges you see them facing and suddenly switching to consulting?  

 

Will Bachman: Well, consulting is a craft and sort of like being an electrician or a barber. There's some parts of it...You can know an industry and be very skilled at being an executive in digital marketing or the oil and gas industry. Being a consultant, there is a craft aspect to it where you're not leading a large organization and leading through authority. But more leading through influence. It's much more about asking the right questions than having the right answers. So some senior execs and people that spend time in the industry grasp that and perhaps either through having worked with consultants over the years have been able to see that firsthand. But others may struggle in that role. They want to play kind of the senior kind of advisor type role who offers advice from on high, but doesn't want to roll up their sleeves and really do the work. 

 

And those people, they may occasionally get the kind of advisory type roles where someone wants a few hours here and there. But it's a little bit more difficult to get the more in-depth engagements. So I'd say my advice to those people are: Number one, invest in rebuilding if they are a little stale. The basic skills. So if you're a senior executive, it may have been a while since you've done PowerPoint yourself or done Excel files yourself. And that's fine. We have staff to do it. As an independent, you're typically a more full stack. So you're typically creating Excel models. PowerPoint documents. Doing that yourself. So reinvest in learning those basic skills.  

And you can get a long way by doing some reading. So the one book I would recommend would be The Trusted Advisor by David Maister is a really good introduction to the core elements of consulting skills.  

 

Deb Zahn: That's great. That's wonderful. Yeah. I worked at a firm where we hired a lot of former executives and a lot of CEOs of big multimillion-dollar agencies and their biggest struggle was often the business development piece of it. Where, how do you describe what you do now that you don't have a job description that generally gives people an idea of what you do? And then how do you craft an offer that is compelling and there's demand for in the market? And I saw a lot of struggles around that. So I'm actually really curious about the business development piece. So I know one of the things you do is you connect your members with project opportunities and you see clients and then bill through Umbrex. How does that typically work? So are you folks generally who's doing the business development or is it a mix? 

 

Will Bachman: I'll admit, I'm not great myself at being proactive on business development. We don't do cold emails. We don't do cold calls. It's really a relationship business. I've been doing this as an independent now for 12 years. And I remember...I think it was in 2001 when I had just started at McKinsey. I was in the Barnes & Noble at Lexington and 53rd Street in New York City in an easy chair. Reading The Tipping Point with Malcolm Gladwell I think when it had just come out. And there's a section in there about connectors. And I thought to myself, "That's what I want to do." 

So really, for almost 20 years now, I've been just trying to keep relationships alive. Reach out to people. Stay in touch. See if I can be helpful. So most of our leads at Umbrex that come in through people that either know me or now a lot of them come in from members of our community. So if a member of Umbrex, if they're aware of a need at one of their clients, and it's either not a right fit for them or they're already busy on something else, they may share that with me. And I'm able to find the right person for that. And we do have kind of a referral program in place where we'll share some of our margin with the person that refers it to us. So that keeps it in the family to some degree. It helps the client out and satisfies their need. And it also helps the consultant who's aware of it. And if they want, they can invoice it through their firms so they maintain the client relationship. So a lot of our work now is coming in from members of the community. 

Deb Zahn: That's great. And I know that one of the other things that you mentioned was the events to build skills and relationships. And I believe they're called Top Tier Events, which is a great name. What types of things are people typically learning at those types of events?  

Will Bachman: So I'll tell you the agenda that we had at the events that we ran last year, they were two-day events. And we tend to not focus at those events so much on industry specific or functional specific topics because it's usually folks from a bunch of different industries and a bunch of different functions who are coming together. So often, it is more around running your firm and the business development pieces of that. And the curriculum for 2018 and 2019 was heavily informed by...As in '18, I partnered with David A. Fields who's the author of the book, The Irresistible Consultant's Guide to Winning Clients, which I highly recommend.  

Deb Zahn: Yeah, I've read it. I would recommend it as well.  

Will Bachman: Yeah. So I've given out a couple hundred copies of that book. I love it so much. So a lot of the content the past couple years was influenced by David and that book. So we talk through how to identify your core network; how to categorize your core network by who are the decision-makers, you know; who are the strong relationships you know and the weak relationships that are weak ties that are often the best source of business. So we go through an exercise around that. We go through an exercise on the fishing line, which is a term David came up with. 15 words or less that really captures what it is you do and who you serve. 

We go through an exercise of how to make outbound calls, which a lot of consultants are not very comfortable with. And Dave and I did a podcast episode on that on my show. It was episode 172 of how to make outbound calls without sounding salesy to people that you already know. So these are warm calls. People that you know. Not cold calls. Checking in with people. We go through an exercise on content creation and thought leadership because there's really two ways to think about getting a potential lead. And it's really around either creating content, number one, or creating social interactions, number two. Because you really just...you need to stay top of mind with people.  

Most of the leads that an independent consultant gets, at least in my experience, are going to be from people that you know. Or people that they know. And that's kind of 90% of the leads that most consultants get. Most consulting projects at our scale are usually reactive. So a client has a need. They recognize it. And they say, "Now I need to find a consultant to help me with this." As opposed to McKinsey going out and telling a client, "Oh, here's our latest thinking around X, Y, Z new consulting fad. Let's run a program for you." 

So when a consultant does have that need, you need to be top of mind to that person. And even if they know you and like you and trust you, if they don't think of you and don't know that you're available for consulting projects, you're not going to get the call.  

Deb Zahn: That's right. And there are a lot of ways to do that. And I love the creating content because it's not just that you just did an engagement that ended three days ago and now they have a new idea. There's often some time in between that and you want them to be able to see and think and experience you in some way. That's wonderful. So let me ask this. The other thing that you do is help build relationships, which you talked about. I know this is a frustration of a lot of independent consultants. A client asks them for something. It obviously requires a team approach and not necessarily one person. That happens with me quite a bit, but I don't know who to turn to because I'm not at a firm or I don't have those relationships. Describe how that works within Umbrex in terms of how people end up working together.  

 

Will Bachman: So if a consultant is serving a client and they see some need that is outside their skillset, there's a few ways. So if they've been attending events regularly, there's a good chance that they may have met another Umbrex member who has that skill set. If they haven't met someone with that specific thing, maybe they need an expert in B2B pricing, or they need an expert in e-commerce. Then they can reach out to me and I will help connect them with a member of the community that is interested in that. That has that skillset and that's available. Who's willing to do it. And it would be a good fit. And then they can go off and collaborate.  

Deb Zahn: That's great. And what typically are you looking for in members?  

 

Will Bachman: Well, we're looking for folks that, to join our community, folks have to be independent consultants. It's fine if they have some other activity on the side and many do. So Tim DeRoche, for example, has written a novel and he's written a non-fiction book that just came out. Some people have music careers on the side. Some people have startups on the side. Some people are taking care of an elderly parent or relative or sick child and can't travel to our independent consultants. But we're looking for people who are independent consultants, not full-time employees, and people that are alums of one of the top firms and have that experience and training at McKinsey, Bain, or BCG. And as I mentioned with Veritux, we have a broader tent of folks that have training either at another top firm: KPMG, or Deloitte, or A.T. Kearney, or that have, say an MBA from a top school and have executive experience that we find credible.  

Deb Zahn: That's great. Now, obviously, the world of consulting is always changing and COVID had a major impact on that. But I'm curious what you see as the future of consulting because obviously, the model that you have, and I know it's...Yeah. I know when we talked before, it's not the only one. But it's a really interesting model for folks who want to be independent and also have support. But what do you see happening as consulting moves forward and the world changes around us?  

 

Will Bachman: Well, I think that we're only at the very beginning of this shift towards use of more independent consultants. Or in some cases, you could think of it as contractors. My sense is that professional white collar work at Fortune 500 firms, I believe that in the future, it's not going to be 50%, but I think it's very reasonable to think that 10% or 15% or 20% of the professionals at a large Fortune 500 firm at any one point might be independent consultants or contractors. It allows large companies to get the talent that they need when they need it and not make a permanent lifelong commitment to that person. Or at least sort of several year commitment with benefits and so forth. So it's a better, I think, option for companies for many areas of talent. Maybe they're starting a new division. Or they're just ramping something up. Or they're not sure if it's going to work or not. Or they just need someone very quickly and it's going to take several months to find a full-time employee. 

 

Additionally, I think it's better for the talent in many cases, for people who like this life, because it allows people to I'd say accelerate their learning far faster. So if you go and work at Proctor & Gamble for 10 years, you'll certainly get...you might be great at being a brand manager in one culture, but that's the only one you've seen. Whereas if you've worked at 10 different firms and seeing 10 different cultures, you'll see 10 different ways of doing that and you'll pick up tips along the way. So you can think of the consultant as the butterfly or the honeybee who's pollinating by going to many different flowers, if you will.  

 

So I think there's a lot of benefit to companies by bringing in a flow of outside professionals. Bringing them just when they need them. And then allowing them to roll off and go somewhere else when they're no longer needed. 

 

Deb Zahn: And it also helps I think for the consultants to fulfill other areas of their lives. So if they are caring for an elderly parent or they do have a rock and roll music career or something else that they're doing, it allows them the flexibility to do that. 

Will Bachman: I totally agree. I mean, it can be a more fulfilling career. More variety. And it allows companies to plug the apps. So I think that that is one trend that I see continuing and accelerating. I'd say another trend that I see is the larger consulting firms are really investing in software and services and you see McKinsey with McKinsey Solutions trying a lot of different things. They're working very hard to...because they realized that their services are so expensive, $150,000 a week for a team. That they're looking for ways that they can stay embedded with clients by developing software that those clients will subscribe to over time. So I think we're seeing consulting firms push in a lot of different directions to innovate their business model.  

Deb Zahn: And is there anything in any of those innovations that you think is helpful for independent consultants to consider?  

 

Will Bachman: So I've seen some smaller firms, not necessarily independents, but boutique firms doing stuff like that. Oxford Valuation Partners run by Gandhi, a friend of mine, has been developing software. They help companies do valuations of startups. And so they've developed software to help those small companies maintain a lot of their data that investors want to see. But I'd say for independent consultants, it's tough to think about developing those products and services. More of what I see the smartest consultants doing or the savviest is it's more around the direction of developing personal brands and getting really known for something. And I'll raise an example of Robbie Kellman Baxter who is an independent management consultant. She wrote the book The Membership Economy after serving Netflix for a number of years. That really established Robbie as the go-to expert on subscription firms, on companies that work to develop memberships among their customers. And now she's come up with a second book, The Forever Transaction.  

So people like that. I'd say that's really the direction that independent consultants can aspire to go, is getting known for something. Building some thought leadership. And that allows the independent consultant to really significantly raise their rates and do many different types of projects rather than the typical five days a week for three months. It allows you to do keynote speeches or the two-day workshop kind of thing at much higher rates. So I'd say for independents, that's probably more where I would suggest people put their energy. 

Deb Zahn: That's great. And the lead up to that is obviously important. So if someone wanted to do that, what would you suggest they do now? Writing books? Doing other types of things? What would you suggest?  

 

Will Bachman: Well, I'd suggest not writing books. I'd say only write a book after you've built an audience. I'd say do exactly what you're doing now, Deb. I think starting with a podcast is about the best place you can start. I'm a broken record on this. I'm recommending it every day to people.  

Deb Zahn: Me too. 

Will Bachman: It's such a fantastic area because with a podcast, you can build relationships with someone else just like we're doing now. You can get to know someone on the show. For a lot of folks who maybe aren't lifelong writers and dread the idea of trying to write a 2000-word blog post, doing a podcast, you record the podcast. You send it off to an editor, boom, you're done. And you're learning something. So you're building relationships and you're learning about an industry at the same time. And you're creating some content that you can share in a multiple of ways. And if you have a team, you could share both the episode, but also you can share clips from it. Quotes from it. You can make audiograms. You could do all sorts of things. And you do 200, 300 podcast episodes, and now you might have an audience and you may have the material for a book plus white papers could come out of it. Articles in industry journals could come out of it.  

So I'd say interview format podcast is probably my number one recommendation. If people just don't like their voice or sound of it, interview people and maybe write blog posts based on it. But some kind of content creation where you're engaging with either potential collaborators or with potential clients is my top recommendation.  

Deb Zahn: Yeah, I would agree. I certainly obviously love podcasting. But the magic of it is very important. If you're clear about what you're doing, you put out quality content and then you leverage the heck out of that content to get other content that basically builds an audience. I was just coaching someone and giving that same advice on whether it's starting their own or being a guest on other podcasts, that this is the way a lot of folks are consuming content. And it creates an intimacy that writing doesn't. It just doesn't. 

Will Bachman: It's a warmer medium. I mean, writing is also great. And I also recommend as sort of an alternative would be starting a newsletter. Everybody is doing a newsletter these days, but it's a great way to just stay in somebody's email inbox and remind them that you exist. You don't have to write the whole thing. It can be a good chunk of it or the whole thing can be a curation. So if you're in the pet food industry and that's the sector you want to serve, send out a weekly email with the latest developments in the pet food industry. Or the best writing. Or the best news. Or the executive transitions. Provide some value to folks and just remind them each week. And then as you go around meeting executives in the pet food industry, ask them if they want to subscribe. 

 

So I think that a newsletter is underused and not enough people do one. It's a little bit of activation energy just to get it set up and designed. But once you do that, it's...it encourages you to be more perceptive and be more looking out for things to put in your newsletter. 

Deb Zahn: That's right. Which means you're always learning more by necessity. 

Will Bachman: It's a forcing mechanism to kind of keep you honest. Make sure that you're reading the news. Reading essays. Talking to people. Finding out something new every week. So having that as a forcing mechanism is a good way to not only stay top of mind, but also just keep learning yourself. 

Deb Zahn: That's wonderful. I love that. So let me ask you my last question. I always ask folks because I thought this was important before COVID, but I certainly think it's important now. Which is to have balance in your life. However it is you define that for yourself. So how do you bring balance to your life?  

Will Bachman: Well, great question. I think that, to me, there's a quote that I really love. It's called master in the art of living makes no distinction between his work and his play, his labor and his leisure. And that to me, kind of defines my sense of it. So I don't know if I so much go after balance. I think that may be a bit of a false goal or unachievable goal. But to me, I feel quite fortunate that I actually love my work and it's something that I wake up early in the morning wanting to get after and wanting to do. So I find very little distinction between "work" and "life" as if that doesn't include work. 

 

Deb Zahn:That's right. Yeah, the integration piece is something that I think a lot of folks are pursuing. Instead of saying, "These five aspects of my life are perfectly in balance," it's, "How do you integrate things so that you have more meaning and joy in your life? And you're not neglecting things you don't want to neglect?" 

Will Bachman: The economy is much stronger for people that work in an office. For almost a dozen years, I've mostly worked from home. So waking up in the morning and doing what I enjoy. Talking to people. Learning about the world. Talking to consultants. Finding out what's going on. Helping make connections. And then going and spending time with my daughter. Reading to her at night. There's just very little distinction between that. It's things that I'm responsible for doing that I enjoy doing. So I feel very lucky myself that I've got to a point in life where I wake up. I do things all day long that I find meaning in and satisfaction and then I go to bed and I wake up to do it the next day. And I'm not so much like, "Oh, well, this was so many hours of 'work.'"  

Deb Zahn: I love that. And you sound like a lucky man to have gotten to that point.  

Will Bachman: I feel very fortunate.  

Deb Zahn: Well, Will, thank you so much for joining me today. There was a lot there. For folks that are interested in learning more about Umbrex, I'm going to have a link in the show notes and you can go right to it. It's a great website. There are some really helpful videos that you can check out. A lot of great information. 

Will Bachman: Yeah. Thanks. I really appreciate that, Deb. I'd mention that your listeners, I would welcome them to send me a connection request on LinkedIn. I'd be delighted to connect with any of your listeners. If they add a note, just mention that they heard me on your show. That would be great. And I know you have some fantastic courses around consulting, which I've shared on my show. We do have a course that's much more on the practical aspects of setting up a consulting firm. The legal. The contracts. And so forth. If people are interested in that, they can find that on our website. Umbrex.com. Setting up your firm. So thank you so much for being on your show. 

Deb Zahn: I love it. Thanks, Will.  

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