What about the feast side of the feast-famine cycle?

Philip Morgan

Continuing AMA week here at [PMC]...Yesterday's was a fun one, and I've got a few more fun questions queued up to answer.Today's first question is more business-related, but ties into some interesting stuff:Kristoph asks:"Something you and Jonathan Stark refer to from time to time is the "feast and famine" cycle. Currently I'm going through the "feast" bit and I've got way more clients than I can deal with sending business my way. And you're going to cringe, but I'm a generalist (Startup CTO), so the type of work is all over the place. My question is, how do I deal with the "feast" phase? I've been recommended to do subcontracting but haven't really figured out how to hire and manage them, and lay out processes such as payment, etc. Keep in mind that I'm currently a solo freelancer now, and I'm looking to grow a formal practice out of this."Thanks for the question, Kristoph!Let me get my main bias out on the table up front and then dig into this question.Back when I was co-running a content agency, we subcontracted out some work during a "feast" part of our feast-famine cycle, and it was a disaster. It was a disaster in multiple, painful ways. I'll explain more in a bit. I'm sure this painful experience has created some sort of bias in me, so keep that in mind as I give you my take on this question.I'd love to know what a formal practice looks like to you.Office space and a team of bright, cheerful youngsters with hip eyeglasses writing on whiteboards and happily working overtime for no extra pay?Same thing but remote team?You giving a keynote speech at a conference attended by your buyers and getting several lucrative contracts afterwards that are fulfilled by you and a small constantly changing team of subcontractors?You offering high value advisory services without much travel at all and no employees at all?Those are 4 different visions of successful consulting practices. Each is equally valid, and each can work just fine.And each has significantly different demands on you. Different requirements about the roles you'll have to fulfill and be good at.There are 2 basic ways you could approach your current "feast" of work. Well, I guess there are actually 3.Skipping ahead... the third way is to not think deeply about the long term picture, freak out, and hastily hire one or more subcontractors to help you with your current "feast" situation. That's what I did some years back, and I can emphatically recommend not doing things that way.When I was operating as a generalist, I landed a big project with a regional truck freight company to build some e-learning. They were a great client, and I went into the project knowing that the scope and timeline combined to exceed my personal capacity to deliver. I knew I'd need to sub out some of the work.This is where I got sloppy. I hired the first person I could find who sort of fit the requirements, handed a list of tasks off to them, and then sort of ignored the whole thing.You can probably predict how well that worked out.A few months later I wrote and somehow avoided sending the angriest email I've ever written. I was livid that the subcontractor failed to deliver and left me in a lurch.And the whole thing was my fault--100%--for not managing properly. I hustled and ate a bunch of hours and delivered a pretty crappy result to the client, who was exceptionally gracious about the whole thing.My takeaway is that if you're going to delegate, you are also going to manage. Period. If wanna delegate but don't wanna manage, you are in for some future pain unless you are phenomenally lucky.My adaptation of that Ronnie Coleman quote: "Errybody wanna have other people do the work; but don't nobody wanna learn how to manage a team well."I might be saying something you know very well, but I can't not say it. :)I'm definitely advocating for building whatever your vision of a formal practice is. If that's you being one person who generates $300k or more in yearly revenue, go for it. If that's you building a nice, small consultancy that's at $180k in revenue per employee and your role is only to win new business and set the vision and positioning for the team, that's fine too.Those represent the opposite poles on the spectrum of what's possible.Even if you do want to grow headcount and delegate everything you can (except for what David C. Baker says you must not delegate, which is the long term vision and the positioning of your firm: https://2bobs.com/podcast/the-science-behind-structuring-roles), you will probably have to endure a multi-year period where you can't afford to delegate some role or function you dislike doing and yet you can't not do a competent job at that role. So make sure you have the stomach for dealing with the awkward "adolescent phase" of your business if you plan to scale horizontally by increasing headcount.As a solo firm you can scale vertically by moving up the value chain. This is the route I've chosen because--you guessed it--I suck at managing people and don't care to get better at that (you can get better at management. Check out Markus Blankenship, Karl Sakas, and Garret St. John for help with various aspects of managing a technical team). Going the solo or very small route takes lots of options off the table, and you should be aware of that, but it also puts other options on the table. I believe you can build a great business either by scaling vertically (increased value and profit) or horizontally (increased headcount and hopefully increased profitability) but you will have to live within the constraints created by that choice.This is all vision stuff. It's all about the question of what is your vision for the business you're building?Earlier I suggested there are 3 ways to deal with your current feast situation. The third is to react hastily and say yes to all the opportunity and sloppily add headcount to meet the demand. Obviously I don't suggest this third option.The other two options are:Stay small and say no to some of the work. Cherry-pick the most desirable, or most profitable, or most strategically valuable opportunities and say no to the rest.Start a program of smart growth (in headcount) if it's in alignment with your long-term vision.I'll expand on those two basic options a bit.Saying NoIf you've never said no to an opportunity, it will probably feel very strange the first few times.As you look at the project opportunities in front of you, is there a specialization opportunity there too? I know you don't have the next 2 years worth of opportunities laid out on the table in front of you to look for patterns, but it's in my contract so I have to ask anyway: is there a pattern to the kind of projects coming your way where you could say yes to certain of those opportunities and no to others and in a year or two you'd have a somewhat cohesive body of work or portfolio that you could use to bootstrap your way into a desirable market position? The pattern here could be a common industry vertical, a common technology that's not towards the end of its lifecycle, or a common business problem.As you look at those same opportunities, is there an opportunity to change the scope of your involvement on the less desirable ones such that you are getting paid to offer advice to others who do the actual implementation? Not after the project starts, but before.Is there an opportunity to say "not now, but in x months we could handle this for you"? In other words, to say "yes, but later. Not now"? If your projects are shorter turnaround, this could be a way to even out your utilization. Saying "no now, but yes later if you can wait" can be scary the first time, but it's a vital skill to learn IMO.Do you have a way to understand what projects are most profitable for you? If not, the sooner you start developing that skill or reporting system, the better. It's easier to build this during a "feast" time when there's lots of demand for your services than during a "famine" time.Saying YesI've already mentioned multiple times that I suck at the people management thing. Maybe you don't. Maybe you're quite good at it.My advice here is to just be real with yourself, and if you have room for improvement, hire a coach to help you.Also, don't rush to hire. If the hire turns out to be a mistake, it can be a costly one and you should treat the discovery of a bad fit the same way you would treat a Gangrene diagnosis. Do not wait to take swift corrective action. Also... do not look up the Wikipedia article on Gangrene unless you have a strong stomach. :)Thanks for the question, Kristoph!Quantella asks: Do you make moral judgments about whom you dispense knowledge to? Whom you'll work with or won't work with based on some preconceived knowledge or judgment rendered by someone else in your circle?Well, as every person on this list should know very well by now, I'm human and do make mistakes. I've said and done things I regret or would do differently if I had a second chance, and can guarantee you that will continue. Not because I'm lazy or cruel or stupid, but because I'm human.Here's my aspiration for how I use my knowledge and expertise:Free advice requested via email: I provide as much as I can within the limits of my time and how clearly the question is asked. I don't have a good count, but I'd say 50 or 100 people, perhaps more, on this list have gotten 10 to 15-minute audio responses from me to questions they've asked. Many more have gotten short "best effort" replies to questions they've asked.Advice not requested by anyone but something I think this audience would benefit from knowing: This stuff eventually makes it into a paid product, a podcast episode on http://consultingpipelinepodcast.com, or an email to this list. The more involved, complicated aspects of it tend to only show up in paid products, but a lot of it ends up in some freely available form.Paid advice delivered via my Positioning Accelerator Program, my 1:1 Retainer, or a paid workshop: I want to be sure both I and my client both think there's likely to be a ROI on the money and time they're spending, so I do a 15 to 30m video call to check for fit before I'll let anyone give me money. I'm looking for personality fit (we communicate well together and don't make each other's skin crawl) and business situation fit (now is a good time for them to take action on whatever they're paying me to provide advice about).On the free advice front, I know I've not lived up 100% to my aspirations. That's the area where I have run into time or energy limits, and I've dropped the ball on responding to questions, or taken a super long time to reply, or something like that.Once I got super behind on responding to emails and went through and used Google Mail's star feature to flag emails I intended to respond to after I got more free time and I'm pretty sure those little gold stars of shame are still there today, indicating messages I've not responded to in over a year. 😱I know that if I was offering conventional done-for-you services there is no way I'd be able to allocate much time to responding to questions from folks who have't given me money and might never give me money. I just wouldn't be able to make a business case for it. But that's not the kind of business I'm trying to build. Actually, what I'm trying to do is change an entire profession (I've done my best to describe my intentions around this here: /about/). My ability to create positive impact for the profession of self-employed software developers is actually furthered by answering a wide variety of questions from a wide variety of people in the profession. That's why I feel bad about falling short of my aspirations to answer any and all questions about positioning, specialization, and lead generation that show up in my inbox. It feels to me like an athlete might feel about missing a workout during training season.My negative moral judgements are mostly reserved for powerful people or groups who repeatedly directly or indirectly mistreat those who are less powerful, and for people who systematically lie or exhibit a pattern of narcissistic behavior.I'm not choosing how and who to correspond with based on who would make a great 5 or 6-figure client, I'm choosing based on the result I'd like my life's work to support.Let me close by saying I know I I'm not perfect, and I fall short of even my own aspirations and moral standards more often than I'd like.Thanks for the question, Quantella.-P