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Episode 46: Building a Super-Niche Consulting Business—with Reuven Lerner

Deb Zahn: Welcome to episode 46 of the Craft of Consulting podcast. My guest today is Reuven Lerner. His consulting revolves around a particular type of computer programming language, which is called Python, and he's going to talk about a number of topics that are applicable to any type of consultant. In particular, we're going to talk about the importance of niching down so that you can target a specific market. We're going to talk about working with businesses as well as working directly with customers and why that mix might be helpful. And then we're also going to talk about developing products as a consultant and figuring out how to market them and price them and use those to be able to scale without you having to be in person doing all of the work. Lots of really terrific topics. Very excited about this episode. Let's get started.

I want to welcome my guest today, Reuven Lerner. Reuven, thank you so much for joining the show.

Reuven Lerner: My pleasure, Deb, really happy to be here.

Deb Zahn: So let's start off, tell my listeners what type of consulting you do.

Reuven Lerner: So I do corporate training mostly. Meaning that companies, especially high-tech companies that have programmers on their staff and want to help those programmers advance in their careers and, a little more selfishly, use technologies that the company wants to implement. And rather than simply buying everyone a book or getting them a video subscription, they'll often bring in a trainer like me to teach them classes.

And I specifically teach a programming language known as Python, which is extremely popular nowadays. So most days I'm in a different city, different country even, different company, teaching one of the 10 or so different Python courses I offer at various places.

Deb Zahn: That's great. And how did you get into consulting?

Reuven Lerner: So the story is that when I was in college, I interned at HP over the summer and, every so often, they would hold a staff meeting and there were two people not invited to the staff meeting. One was me because I was a student, and there was this other guy and I said to him, "So why aren't you going to the meeting?" He said, "Oh, I'm a contractor." I said, "What's a contractor?" He said, "Oh my God, it’s the best."

And he described to me how consulting works, which I'm sure the HP managers would have been so thrilled about. And this always sort of stuck in my mind as, “Hmm, this sounds like an interesting way to do things.” And so in 1995, when I moved to Israel from the U.S., I took advantage of the opportunity—of the sort of upheaval in my life anyway. And I said, “OK, I'm going to try consulting.”

Fortunately, my previous employer at Time Warner said explicitly, they wanted to be my first client. And they sort of…you can think of them as the investor in my consulting firm where they gave me the cushion I needed to slowly but surely learn what it was like to run a business. And to slowly—very, very slowly—start focusing on a particular topic. So at first, it was, “You name it, I'll do it.”

Deb Zahn: Yeah.

Reuven Lerner: And what, 25 years later, now I'm doing Python training, which is a tiny fraction of what I offered back then. But it's a way better business model.

Deb Zahn: That's great. I love that. And former employers as your first client. I've seen that so many times, which not only is a great testament, but it's a great way to build a business. So I love that. So you've made…one of the reasons I wanted to talk to you is I'm going to dub you the “thoughtful consultant,” if that's OK from here on out.

Reuven Lerner: Oh sure, sure. I'll take the ego boost.

Deb Zahn: Good. So you've made a number of very deliberate choices about how you're going to do your consulting business—and you just mentioned one that we're going to talk about—that I think are helpful for other consultants to consider because I think a lot of consultants start off and say, "Oh yeah, I do anything for anyone, and that's how I'm going to get business."

The reality is it's not that, it's the opposite of that. So I thought we could get into a few of those starting with the niche. So you have evolved into a very specific niche where you're not just, “I'll do anything.” You're not even just programming, but you're specifically Python, a type of programming, whatever it is. Obviously, I'm not versed in such language. And I always tell new consultants to niche down, especially when you first start. But talk about why you ended up choosing that very specific niche and how that evolved over time.

Reuven Lerner: So it was definitely a lot of evolution and a little bit of choice. When I first started consulting, I was mostly doing programming in the Perl language, which was very popular then for websites. And so I would help people with their programming in Perl, and I would help them with their websites, and I helped them with their servers, and sometimes they'd ask me to do some training. Sort of, “Teach us how to do what you do.”

And so that was fine. And then basically, at some point, I was going to start a project and I realized that Perl was getting a bit passé. This happens with programming languages every few years. And so I tried a different language known as Ruby. And so, for a while, I was doing lots of stuff with Ruby, and then I discovered that the Israeli market for Ruby was just not very big.

And so I started doing more Python, which I’d been doing anyway for many years, but sort of in the background. And then the really big switch, like not just sort of organically figuring out what my clients wanted. By the way, all those initial years, if someone were to come to me and say, "Hey, do you do technology X?" I'd say, "Oh yes, absolutely." And so then, of course, I would buy the book, read it about X, turn up at their office. They'd be like, "Whoa you are quite expert."

And I'd say, "Hah! Fooled them again." Except when I didn't.

But for the most part, it worked well. The really big shift for me happened probably about 10 years ago when someone said to me—I was finishing up my Ph.D. dissertation, or I thought I was finishing it up. It took a lot longer than I expected, but that's a whole other story—But basically, he said, "Listen, why don't you work with a training company, and they will just hire you out to do training? And then you won't have to worry about finding projects nearly as much."

So I talked to them. I said, "Well, I can teach Perl. I can teach Ruby. I can teach Python." They said, "You could teach Python? Whoa, there's so much demand for that." And so that's when I started realizing, “Oh, the market has spoken.” And so I worked with them for a few years, and then when I finished the Ph.D., I went back to doing training on my own.

And that's when I realized, “Wow, the market for Python is just huge.” And I didn't even imagine. It’s probably 10 times larger now than it was even then, 5, 10 years ago. It's just exploded in size and scope. And so probably about a year or 2 ago, I even took some of the other topics—some database topics and Ruby topics—off my website, just because there's so little demand and it’s so hard to keep up with all those things.

So it was always this sort of push and pull where the market would sort of tell me; I would get demand for a certain topic. In this case, it was Python. And then when I would teach one class, I'd say to them, "Would you like another class, maybe more advanced or a practice workshop?" And they would say, "Oh, we'd love that." And so just sort of my checking in with them and asking what they wanted and upselling them seemed to work out.

And I'll add also that one of the things I do before each class is go around and get everyone's name, and I'll probably remember only some of the names. Fine. But I ask them, “Why are you here?” And I even jokingly say, “Is it because your boss forced you to come to this class?” You know, some people it's happened. But that is the most valuable business development I do. Because they'll say why they're there and they will tell me what they plan to use it for. And I can then seem—brilliant, because I have predicted, as it were, what people are actually going to use Python for, and set up a class for it. And the biggest example of that is I have a data science class, data science machine learning.

After about two years of hearing 10%, 20% of my students say, "Well, I want to use Python for data science," it became clear to me that if I offered a course in data science, they would pick it up. And sure enough, that's one of my most popular offerings now.

Deb Zahn: That's great. So one of the other things you're talking about is one of the other choices you made—and it sounds like it evolved over time—is the B2B selling, which is business to business. So you selling to companies who then have or make their people do things. But that's also a B2C, which is direct-to-customer selling, which is the individuals who want to advance their skills and learn how to do things. So what are the advantages and disadvantages of either of those approaches?

Reuven Lerner: So I started off doing only B2B. And, again, I sort of fell into it organically over time and discovered how it works. And it still amazes me that I can talk to one person at a multi-billion-dollar company and we do business. Like I email them and say, "Would you like a course on such and such days?" They say yes.

What happened was I basically realized…and I even remember writing a blog post about this. I should probably take it down at some point…saying I will never record my courses because I'm an artist, and I want to have the interactions with people. And if you can't have interactions, it's not worth it.

And then I realized that: A, I'm not reaching all the people I want to or could. B, there are people, individuals who don't work at companies that can foot the bill for corporate training. And C, from a business perspective, boy, am I being stupid.

So, little by little, I started to record my courses. Not exactly one-to-one equivalencies with my corporate training but, little by little, I've got now about 10 recorded video courses and another 6 courses that are done through email and forums of practicing Python. So I have like a full set of things, and it's very slow. Like I find time to record, and I do it.

And that's B2C. And that’s a completely different kettle of fish because B2B is very slow. I measured this takes about 9 to 12 months. When a company emails me and says, “We want you to do training for us,” it still takes 9 months for it to happen. It's not going to happen the next day.

But when you get in the door with a big company, unless something really catastrophic or weird happens or they have a shift in strategy, you're in there for life, or at least for a few good years, and they pay really well. But that is so different from the B2C marketing where you're talking to people with obviously smaller budgets.

They don't know who you are; you don't know who they are. How are you going to find them? And the marketing is just wildly different. Interesting, exciting. And you're also dealing with a lot of different sorts of questions. So you know, people are always asking about discounts, and companies ask about discounts and I say, "Hah! That's ridiculous. I won't." Or I'd like to say that or at least think that.

There was one company in Israel where they called me up. It was the person for the purchasing department and she said, "Listen, my boss won't approve the course unless you give a discount. Please, anything." So I said, "OK, well, if we knock $10 off per day?" She said, "Perfect, done."

So I offer pricing that's going to allow me to do business with individuals. You know, I have individuals from India. I have individuals from other non-wealthy countries, and I just started figuring out, “How do I do this? What do I do? How do I market to them? How do I convince them that it's still worth it? How do I figure out pricing for them?” It's just a whole different world.

That said, it's been ramping up, and now I would say probably about 20%, 25% of my income is for B2C sales. And hopefully, that will rise as I learn to do it better as well. Just one more thing, which is having the video courses, in theory, is for B2C. But it turns out that there are companies that have also bought it for their employees, either because they're remote, or because of the budget, or they want what's known as blended learning.

So they'll have me come in for 2 days, and they'll use the videos for two days. So it gives me, as a consultant, additional offerings, additional flexibility, which I didn't expect. But it’s been a really great thing.

Deb Zahn: The one time I had a product at the firm I used to work for, it was the firm's first product ever as a consulting firm. I had some clients whose trade association bought a portion of the tool, but they said, “We're going to pay this percentage; you can pay the other percentage.” So it was kind of a mix of who was paying it, but the trade association essentially gave an incentive to the individuals to purchase it. Which I thought was a nice little combo.

Now it's interesting because I had another guest on who works with a lot of big companies or even government entities, and she said the same thing. Where if you get in and they recognize you, know the value you're able to offer, you can establish a long-term relationship where you're able to deliver value over time. But you also have to recognize that they don't always make decisions quickly. As you said, the wheels turn slowly. The payment wheels can turn very slowly, and if there's a change in leadership it all could disappear.

Reuven Lerner: Oh, funny...How many sensitive points can you hit it once?

Deb Zahn: I'm trying to get them all.

Reuven Lerner: So fortunately, the payment has generally not been too bad. It's pretty standard in Israel to pay net plus 60, which I'm not thrilled about, but I'm used to, and so companies tend to be OK with that. The government of Israel, God knows when they pay. I think it's like net plus 180 or something. So I just avoid dealing with the government and that's worked out OK.

But look, when their leadership changes, when there are big decisions made, I have one company that I've been working with, like a Fortune 500 company, for 7 or 8 years.

I was there once a month, twice a month. And they called me last month and said, "So we've made a decision, and we're not going to be using any of your Python courses anymore." That means next month they're canceled. And I was stunned. I figured, OK, I've sort of seen the writing on the wall that it would happen eventually, but I didn't expect it to come down like a hammer like that.

And look, they said to me, "Oh, we love your courses. Your courses are the best. Everyone loves them, and everyone learns a lot from them. But our CEO made a decision to go with a different vendor, and we've held them off as long as we can, and that's that." So, yeah. Yeah.

Look, another big company, just as another example, that I worked with last year, and they invited me to both San Jose and India—Hyderabad, India, which was fantastic and fun and interesting. And I emailed them last month and said, "So when are you interested in, have you trained this year?" They said, "Well our budgeting only ends at the end of February, so then we can talk to you about it later this year." So they might be very enthusiastic, but who knows when I'll hear back from them. In a month or so, probably.

Deb Zahn: That's right. And that's just the nature of working with large companies. And by the way, I've worked with some smaller organizations; it's not a lot different. Sometimes, there's a lot less bureaucracy that you have to sift through. But that's why I really like how you talk about having a mix of also being able to go directly to customers.

So the lead up to acquire those customers sounds like it can take longer and require a different setup and different skills to get that. But you're basically diversifying your revenue streams, which I think makes a lot of sense for new consultants to think about. So what does it take? So switching to the B2C, what does it take to actually get business from individual customers that's different from some of the big companies?

Reuven Lerner: So it was probably about 5, 6 years ago and I thought, “Huh, I should teach an online Python course and I'll charge $1,000 for it. And people will love it, and they'll come and flock to it. And a friend of mine who's like a consultant to consultants as it were, he was so kind. He said, "Wow, that's really going to be a challenge. I hope it works out for you, but I think you're going to have some issues there."

And sure enough, basically, no one signed up. I was crushed and he explained to me—which is now pretty obvious—for someone who doesn't know you, or barely knows you, to plunk down a large amount of money. That's going to take a lot of trust. And so what I've done is I've tried to build authority and trust in a variety of ways.

So I'm on Twitter a bit, posting on Python things. I'm on YouTube, posting about Python things. I blog about Python. But the biggest thing I've done is have a mailing list, and people who visit my blog are invited to join my mailing list. And the way I've set it up is it’s evergreen. Meaning if you sign up today you get Issue 1, and then next week you get Issue 2, Issue 3. And if you sign up next month, you get Issue 1, and Issue 2 and Issue 3. So I'm already at Issue 102 or 103 meaning, if I do nothing whatsoever, they will get about 2 years of every Monday, getting a new Python article. And people generally respond to that.

And these are full-length articles, sort of like the ones I used to run—Linux Journal, which went bust a few months ago. So they're getting a full-length magazine quality article, giving them insights into Python. And then what I do is, anyone who's on that list, a broadcast before I launch a course. Or occasionally to market it to them. And then they're not saying, “Who is this guy asking for a lot of money?”

It's, “Oh, I like his writing and teaching. Yeah, I'll buy that.” Now I'm still working on the marketing; I'm getting better copywriting. There's always improvement to be made, but it's overall working, and it's exciting to get people from all over the world to sign up for these things. I'll give you an example of something else I just did recently as sort of an attempt to get people to like it.

So I put out a free course, exactly the same quality, exactly the same style as my regular courses, and I actually wasn't sure. I knew I wanted to do a free course, but I wasn't sure what I should do. So I happened to go into a client the next day as I was sort of mulling this over. He’s one of my students who I've been in touch with for years; he's been in many of my classes. He said, "Listen to Reuven, here's the course you have to do." He didn't even know what I was thinking about this.

He said, "People are always looking for interview questions for Python. They're going to go look for a new job, and if you search for Python interview questions, you're going to find lots of garbage. You should make a course and it'll go viral, and people will buy it or get it." And I was like, "Oh, that's great. Yeah, that'll be my free course."

So sure enough, I went and recorded, over 2 weeks or so, 6 hours of video, answering 50 popular Python interview questions. Ace Python Interviews, and about 1,000 people have taken it so far. And sure enough, some of them have turned into paying customers.

Deb Zahn: That's great. And I think the key strategy that I've talked with lots of folks about is generosity of value. So you know it's kind of hard sometimes for consultants to think, “Wait, I would give something away for free? That's not what we do. Have you met us?”

And my answer is you have to establish that authority and credibility in the market. You  want people to get exposure to you. So I had somebody recently say to me that she's really interested in when I launch something that you have to pay for. Because her thinking is if this is what she's giving away for free, imagine what she's going to give us if we actually hand her money, because I bet she's saving the really good stuff for that.

And so giving them an experience of value—which I love your examples of a mailing list—free courses. It could be a talk that you give in a workshop, you give at a conference, where you just knock people's socks off because they hear it in a way that they haven't heard it before. It’s a great way to establish that relationship, which is each  individual customer who now thinks you're the go-to source.

Reuven Lerner: Right. And so in Israel—so Israel is a small country with a relatively big high-tech sector—a lot of companies will call me asking for Python training, and I'll ask them always, “Where did you hear from me?” And people move from job to job. And so if the boss says we need a Python class, then they’ll say, “Oh, I had Reuven's class.”

And so now basically in Israel, I mean there are other trainers, but I'm in many ways one of the first people they'll call. I even had this crazy experience. I was in Haifa at the train station waiting to come home, and this guy sits down next to me. He looks at me and says, "Hey, your Reuven." I said, "Yes." He said, " You teach Python classes, right? You taught a class 8 or 9 years ago." I'm like, "Wow. Either the course was really good or really bad, but he remembered me. But it only works if you're in this tiny sector, this tiny niche. If your everything to everyone, then no one's going to remember you. But if I'm the Python training guy it's going to stick out more.

Deb Zahn: That's right. Because if you're building a platform, you can do it because it's very specific and you're talking to a specific audience. But if somebody's like, “I'm programming.” Or in my space, I work in healthcare, “I'm all of healthcare.” That's an absurd statement to make.

And so when I first started, I niched down to a very specific sector within that, and even within, that very specific thing I can do for that sector, and now I do other things. But I started with that kernel of easily understandable…And when I go out and talk about things, people know what to expect, and I attract the right people. I love that. And how did you learn how to do this? How'd you learn how to build a platform so that you got love and attention from strangers on subway platforms?

Reuven Lerner: A lot of mistakes.

Deb Zahn: Yeah, I hear ya.

Reuven Lerner: I mean everyone always said you should have a mailing list. So I collected some email addresses, and I had 100, 200 people or so on my list. And then I would send out a message, and then I would not send a message for a month or two, and I would start the next message with, "Oh, I'm so sorry I haven't written in a long time." Who cares? Like were they really waiting? Were they really waiting for me?

Deb Zahn: Oh my God, that's great.

Reuven Lerner: You know, I got little bits of ideas and information from different people, and you see what works and what doesn't, and it's a process. Like I keep saying to myself, encouraging myself, saying, All right, if every day I can do something, or every week I can do something, that'll get me just a little bit better.

So maybe it's improving the landing page somewhere. Maybe it's improving how I send out the email. Maybe it's rejiggering the pricing. All these different things over time, they snowball. And so when I started my evergreen list, I guess it's probably close to 3 years ago now. So I had 102 messages, but I haven't really done it every week.

So let's say 3 years ago I said, “OK, I'll try this, and we'll see how it goes.” And now I realize I had people coming in through various funnels. I had a free email course, and the video courses, and whatnot. So people come in, they get on my list. And just 2 days ago, someone wrote to me because I sent out a message after 52 messages.

I say, "Hey, you've been on my list for a year. That's fantastic. Tell me what you think and how I can help you more." And this guy wrote to me. He said, “I don't know how I got on your list.” And I'm thinking that he probably got on my list through a Facebook ad or a share or something on Twitter. He doesn't know. I don't know. But it doesn't matter because now he loves what I'm doing. And so lots of trial and error.

Deb Zahn: Yeah, and you see what works and you see what doesn't. So I think what you've homed in on is the right thing though; you come at it from the frame of, “And how can I help you?” So you send useful articles that are relevant to what they care about and not just, “Hey, nice to talk to you and here's a little something.”

So if I got a bunch of emails that didn't add any value and didn't help me further my career, why do I keep opening it? And I think because I've gotten on other people's email lists who send me stuff that I don't get why, I shouldn’t even open the email after 1 or 2 times of looking at it.

Reuven Lerner: Right. So I really try to provide some value there. And look, in many ways again, I'm doing what I do with my Linux Journal column, which is, I'm often writing to answer questions that I have myself. I'm using it as a platform for research and exploration. Or if there are questions that come up in class a lot, what I see online a lot, I know that many people are wondering the same thing, and so someone's going to be satisfied by this.

So there's this Python technology that I had sort of written off called asyncio. I had a booth at the Python conference this year selling my consulting and my training, and several people came up to my booth and said, "Hey, are you going to have a class about asyncio?" I thought to myself, “Huh, I thought this thing was dead. I guess not. I should really research it.”

And so for the last year, I've been researching it, and I've been using my newsletter to write about it as I learn new things. And I just got emailed about 2, 3 weeks ago from someone saying, "Oh, I'm so glad you're writing about this because I've been using it at work and your insights have really helped me." So we all win, right? We all learn, and it's being attuned to the community and to what people are saying. That helps everyone.

Deb Zahn: That's wonderful. And how do you figure out pricing for your products? So you know, again, I think more consultants should do products. I think it makes a lot of sense. It's different from trading time for money. You can scale more easily. You can serve more people. But pricing is always the really tough one. And I know when we did our product, people thought I was pricing too high. Some people thought I was pricing too low, and luckily, I turned out to be kind of in the sweet spot. But how do you figure that out?

Reuven Lerner: There's no good answer. And years ago when I started my business, I sort of figured people will tell you how much to charge. And especially when I first started off and I was charging by the hour, everyone sort of agreed, “Yes, $75 an hour is probably a good amount to be charging.” I'm sure now it's a bit more, but there was sort of this consensus. And on product, there's no consensus at all.

Deb Zahn: There is none. You Google it, you'll see everything.

Reuven Lerner: Right. So—and I even sometimes get an angry email—I’ve gotten 2 or 3 messages like this: “Why are you charging $100 for this? I can get it for $10.” Go enjoy, right? So you have to be willing to say some people are not going to be able to do it.

What I basically have done is I keep them relative to each other. My longest course is 12.5 hours of video. Never again. That's fine. So I think that's like $300, $350. And then my shortest course is about 3 hours that's about $80. So everything is sort of in the middle there between those two extremes. And I offer 2 sales a year. I do a Black Friday sale and I also—I learned this from someone—I do a birthday sale.

Deb Zahn: Oh, nice.

Reuven Lerner: And here's my little twist on it. So every year I give them a discount of how old I am. So last year, I gave them 49%. This year I'll give them 50%. Several people wrote to me and said, "We can't wait to have your 102nd birthday."

Deb Zahn: Where you pay us to take the course.

Reuven Lerner: That's right. And so beyond those sale prices, I also offer discounts to anyone outside the 30 richest countries in the world—an automatic 40% discount—and seniors and students. So I feel like it's affordable for everyone at some point during the year. That's not always true, right? I'm still playing with different ideas for pricing.

Sometimes I put my finger in the wind. Oh, here's an example. So a weekly Python exercise originally was a year-long course. Every Tuesday you got emailed with a problem, and the following Monday you got emailed a solution. And in between, you could be on a forum to discuss it. It was originally a sort of monthly subscription or annual subscription. I realized this was not working. It's wasn’t working in a whole variety of different ways. So I made it, “You buy the course, and you have 52 weeks, and we'll do it in a cohort. Everyone doing it together. But how much am I going to charge? I don't know.

So I called it. I think it was $120, and I realized that a year-long course is way too long. People drop out like 30 weeks in. So I said, “OK, I'm going to re-jigger this, and I made it 3 courses, each of which is 15 weeks long, and I made each $100. Wait a second, $100 for each of 3 courses instead of $120? Basically, I was making twice as much, three times as much, but people felt that it was more digestible. And so everyone came away happy again.

And so that seemed to work out. And now that opened the door than to have more versions. So now I have 6 versions of weekly Python exercises with a few more probably coming this year. And it's become a brand and a platform on its own, just through playing and rejiggering the prices.

Deb Zahn: I love that and also thinking, again, you're the thoughtful consultant I decided, but even thinking carefully about what their experience is on the other side. So part of developing courses or even doing training, you have to have some sense of how people learn, how people retain information, how people consume information. And so I love that.

So you played with it, and then you ultimately got more dollars in your pocket and people got more value in the way they wanted it. I think that's beautiful. So I want to ask you one other more general question: If you were standing in front of a new consultant, so they just took the leap, they hung their shingle up. What advice would you give them?

Reuven Lerner: Start with something that you know well and that there's demand for in the marketplace. It doesn't have to be your favorite thing and it doesn't have to be...there are lots of technologies. I mean I know technology well, right? So there are lots of technologies and people are always saying, "Oh, should I do Java? Should I do C-Sharp? Should I do Python?" It doesn't really matter much.

There's a market for just about anything. Start with that. And you can always change, but you're not wed to it for your entire career. And you probably will change and adjust over time as I have, as you have, as most consultants have. But the longer you spend sort of debating what it should be and not actually trying it out, experimenting, and then getting feedback.

So I guess if I could put it like one and a half pieces of advice, the other advice is to listen. Listen to the market, listen to your clients. I often say—and this is true for training, but I think it's true in consulting in general—it’s sort of like being a stand-up comedian where the jokes that are really good have been seen by 100 audiences, 200 audiences already. And the first 50, 100 audiences got not-as-good versions of those jokes. And so by paying attention to the reactions and how people are learning, how people are doing, what people say, you'll get better and better over time.

Deb Zahn: That's right. I love that, and if you made a choice that isn't right, the market will respond to you. In which case…

Reuven Lerner: That's right.

Deb Zahn: ... You go back. The market is kind of that way. They will tell you if they don't like something.

Reuven Lerner: Right. Look, I decided I'm going to try something new this year. So I decided I haven't been so successful at doing open enrollment courses, meaning I don't go on-site to a company necessarily. But I'll sort of say, “I have this room and I have 20 spots, and anyone who wants to can sign up for a spot. I tried that. Turns out I was bad at it.

I'm going to try two different things to sort of make up for that. One is I'm going to partner with a training company where we're going to share the profits, share the investments. He has a marketing machine already set up. He has lots of people who might want to do it.

So for companies who just want to send 1 or 2 people, that's an opportunity I otherwise wouldn't have. The other thing is, I decided to try something totally crazy. We'll see if I actually ended up doing it, which is go to a resort either in like Rhodes, or Cypress, or somewhere else, and have an open enrollment course there. People might be enticed to come to a spa. A nice spa.

Deb Zahn: I know nothing about Python, but can I help?

Reuven Lerner: Strangely, I've gotten a number of volunteers. So how do I test that sort of thing? I emailed my list. I said, "Hey list, what do you think about this?" And half the people said, "Yeah, this is interesting." And half the people said, "No way." OK. So I know it's not for everyone, but for the people who did say it was interesting, I said, "What would encourage you and what would discourage you?" And in both cases, people said price was a major factor. OK, so now I'm starting to talk to some hotels and spas, and I'll find out what the price is. And then I can email my list again and say, “Given this pricing, would you take it?” And so before I even plunk down any money, I can sort of test the waters. I guess literally in this case, find out how successful it might be with very little risk to myself.

Deb Zahn: Yeah, I love that. I've even seen folks, young consultants or entrepreneurs who develop products. And their pre-sale before they even…the whole thing is one of the tests like, “Here's what it is, here's what it would look like. You get a discount if you pre-purchase it.”

Reuven Lerner: Oh, that's good.

Deb Zahn: It's a good one, right? And then if no one purchased it, or only 2 or 3 people do, you got to figure out how to improve it, or maybe it's not the most viable idea. I love that. Well, and this is the fun thing about being a consultant—we always get to learn and try new things. But the biggest takeaway that I've gotten from you that I think is really helpful is ask and listen. Ask and listen, and the beauty of having an email list or having a cadre of clients who you can ask, “Would this be help you?”

I had an idea for a product and I called 2 of my clients, my longstanding clients for whom I've done work that's related to the product, and they said, “Here's the one thing I like about it and the 4 things I don't like about it. And I thought, “Perfect, I haven't developed anything.” Basically, I'm out a phone call and I got to talk to someone I really like. So that's absolutely wonderful.

So let me ask you the final big question that's always important for consultants: How do you bring balance to your life with all of these beautiful consulting things you're doing? What brings you balance?

Reuven Lerner: Look, for a long time I was very bad at the balance thing. The good news is I was working from home for many years. The training over the last 10 years has sort of changed that in that I used to always be at home and now, typically, I'm not at home most days. Although it's a small enough country that I'm always home by dinner time in the early evening. So on the one hand, my wife and kids have always seen me.

On the other hand, for many, many years they would go to bed and I would keep working after that. And I'm trying, with some success, to wean myself away from that. To get up early and go walking and exercise. To see the world. You know there's actually nature out there; it's nice to see and enjoy it. Don't just stay in front of the computer all day. Then I'd go to sleep at a normal-ish hour, and it's still sort of shocking for my family to see, “What do you mean you're going to that? It's like 10:30, 11:00 p.m.”

Deb Zahn: “Are you OK?”

Reuven Lerner: “What's going on here?” Right. But it's great. It's great. And we've taken vacations in the last few years, which has been wonderful. Like you know, for years I would say, “Oh my God, I can't take a vacation because if I do what will happen to business?”

I would say training has actually given me that luxury as well. Both because it's a bit more lucrative than software development. And also, because with software development, people will call you at all sorts of crazy hours and times with bug reports and with training. If I say to them, “I'm away.” OK, I have gone away. Like nothing is an emergency, it can wait. And so I've definitely had a chance to spend more time with family, more time on my own, more time relaxing, exercising, which has been good for everyone.

Deb Zahn: Wonderful. Well, Reuven, thank you so much for sharing all of your wisdom and your strategies with us. It's wonderful stuff. Thank you so much.

Reuven Lerner: My pleasure. Thanks for having me on.

Deb Zahn: Thanks so much for listening to this episode of the Craft of Consulting Podcast. I want to ask you to do three things. If you enjoyed this episode or any of my other podcasts, hit subscribe. I've got a lot of other great guests and content coming up, and I don't want you to miss anything.

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