Your Practice is an Entrepreneurial Endeavor
No matter what line of work you choose to pursue, finding a clear niche and narrowing down who you serve and how you add value will be one of the best ways to ensure your career success. Today we welcome Jay Harrington to share his story starting at a large law firm, then starting his own private law, and finally launching his current consultancy. Jay is also the author of three books, The Productivity Pivot, The Essential Associate, and One of a Kind. Jay covers the pivotal moments of his journey from attorney to co-founding a firm and how he used the lessons he learned along the way to successfully transition into his current role as coach, trainer, and consultant. Jay shares his thoughts about growing your practice, embracing fundamental entrepreneurial ideas, and focusing on prioritization, impact, and target markets. He also shares his framework for insights, introductions, and invitations, and towards the end of our conversation, Jay distinguishes these business development methods from the vital marketing piece.
No matter what line of work you choose to pursue, finding a clear niche and narrowing down who you serve and how you add value will be one of the best ways to ensure your career success. Today we welcome Jay Harrington to share his story starting at a large law firm, then starting his own private law, and finally launching his current consultancy. Jay is also the author of three books, The Productivity Pivot, The Essential Associate, and One of a Kind.
Jay covers the pivotal moments of his journey from attorney to co-founding a firm and how he used the lessons he learned along the way to successfully transition into his current role as coach, trainer, and consultant. Jay shares his thoughts about growing your practice, embracing fundamental entrepreneurial ideas, and focusing on prioritization, impact, and target markets. He also shares his framework for insights, introductions, and invitations, and towards the end of our conversation, Jay distinguishes these business development methods from the vital marketing piece.
Key Points From This Episode
- Looking at Jay’s history and the beginnings of his law career in Chicago.
- The transition that Jay made from his work in bankruptcy law to consultancy work.
- How Jay took the lessons he had learned himself and began using these to help others.
- What Jay wishes he had known when starting out; the links between autonomy, motivation, and satisfaction.
- Framing a practice as an entrepreneurial project and working on your business, not just in it.
- Escaping the hamster wheel of billable hours!
- Working within the time limitations that we all experience; investing in yourself and the business through better time allocation.
- Jay’s perspective on the most critical areas to focus on when building a practice and finding clients.
- An argument for niching down your offer in order to gain traction.
- Choosing your own game and finding a less crowded field to win on.
- Jay’s recommendations for best practices, and his emphasis on separating marketing and business development.
- Allowing space for chance connections and opportunities; why consistently putting your business out there is so powerful.
- Unpacking the marketing component of building and maintaining a practice.
- Jay explains his LinkedIn strategy and how it has evolved over time.
[00:00:01] ANNOUNCER: Welcome to Branch Out, a Connection Builders podcast. Helping middle market professionals connect, grow, and excel in their careers. Through a series of conversations with leading professionals, we share stories and insights to take your career to the next level. A successful career begins with meaningful connections.
[00:00:21] AD: Hey, everyone. Welcome to the Branch Out podcast. I’m your host, Alex Drost. Today we welcome Jay Harrington, a leading consultant and strategist and legal marketing PR in business development. He is also the author of three books, The Productivity Pivot, The Essential Associate, and One of a Kind. Jay shares his journey from junior attorney to co-founding a corporate restructuring firm, and now as a coach, trainer and consultant. We discuss why professionals should think about their practice as an entrepreneurial endeavor, and the best approach to making time for high impact work. I hope you all enjoy.
[00:00:59] ANNOUNCER: Connect and grow your network. We are on LinkedIn. Search for Connection Builders.
[00:01:06] AD: Jay, welcome to the Branch Out Podcast. I’m excited for our conversation today.
[00:01:09] JH: Yeah, Alex, thanks for having me on. This will be great.
[00:01:11] AD: Well, Jay, why don’t we just start off with you sharing a little bit about yourself in some of your career journey? I think that we’ll get us started here.
[00:01:19] JH: All right. Sounds good. So, I’ll try not to go back too far, but I think it’s relevant to go back to 2001, which was when I started practicing law at a big firm in Chicago. Skadden, Arps, probably the most interesting aspect of that experience was up until about six days before I started, I was supposed to be an M&A lawyer and then got a call a few days before I started that I was going to be putting the corporate restructuring group. The reason for that was, I was starting on September 17 2001. So, shortly after the 9/11 attack. Basically, all of us who were supposed to be transactional lawyers were then bankruptcy lawyers for at least a period of time.
So, I worked there for about five years. Then I moved back to the Detroit area, which is where I’m originally from. My wife and I were thinking about starting a family, and it had been a good experience, but a bit of a grind. I went back and started working at Foley & Lardner in Detroit doing corporate structure work again, followed that by starting my own law firm, corporate restructuring boutique, kind of took advantage of the financial crisis/automotive crisis in Detroit. We had a small firm that was very busy for a few years. And, I guess, in about 2012, 2013, I started devoting all my time to the business I’m in now, which is more of a consultancy, serving the legal industry, doing coaching, training and marketing consulting work for lawyers and law firms.
[00:02:41] AD: That’s a heck of a transition. So, let’s talk about how that happened. How did you go from being a bankruptcy restructuring attorney, to being a consultancy, around marketing for lawyer? Give me more about how that happened?
[00:02:56] JH: Yeah, for sure. So, there was a few, I guess, external factors that led to that decision. One was we had had a good run with the law firm, and I was, frankly, feeling burnt out. So, looking to maybe do something different, wasn’t necessarily determining that at that point, I was going to leave the practice of law forever, but wanted to try something different, maybe a little bit more purely entrepreneurial, sort of without some of the baggage associated with practicing law.
Also, at that time, my wife and I had one child, found out she was pregnant with twins, and we had been thinking about a more flexible, I guess, lifestyle, working arrangement, all of that kind of thing. It’s difficult – it’s much easier now, perhaps, to be a remote working attorney. Back in 2012, that wasn’t really a thing and we will really want to move to where we live now, which is Traverse City in Northern Michigan. So, I thought consulting would allow for that flexibility I was looking for. And she was a graphic designer, had her own sort of freelance business at the time. So, we kind of joined forces, sort of doing creative work for law firms, and then some of the more consulting and coaching stuff I do.
[00:04:05] AD: What drove you to that? I understand the lifestyle desire, the change behind that, right? That I think a lot of people will resonate with. That’s a big shift. The type of work you were doing versus the type of work you are doing. How did that play out?
[00:04:16] JH: Well, so I think part of it was an eye-opening experience in terms of when I was at big firms, Skadden and Foley, I very much was an associate, I was very much of the mindset of like, the lots of hours, keep your head down, do good work, whatever. That seemed like the path. I didn’t really know any different, right? You heard about things like, “Oh, build your practice, all this kind of thing.” I don’t know, A, those firms didn’t really incentivize that sort of thing among associates. They didn’t really need people to do that at that level of experience, because I was, that time when I left Foley, I just finished my sixth year as a lawyer.
And then when I started my own firm, it was kind of an unlock, where I was like, all right, all of a sudden, I had to do these things. I had to build a practice. I had to go out and market, do business development, build relationships.” If I didn’t, not only would I not be able to sort of pay the rent, but also my mortgage, right? I mean, everything fell on my shoulder. So, that’s sort of a factor that doesn’t exist when you’re in a bigger organization, at least to the same extent, at least, I didn’t feel that external pressure.
So, by the time I had kind of built a firm and figured some of these things out, I realized, I’ve now got an experience to build upon and teach others about. Where I know what it’s like to work in these big environments. I know sort of what’s missing, and what may be motivation is required in order for people to start taking some of the steps, and I’ve done it myself. So, I was interested in exploring that and whether I could turn what I learned and what I did into a consulting practice.
[00:05:50] AD: That’s fascinating. I’m sure it was a heck of a transition and a lot to – a big change for you then. But kind of fast forward now, you’ve been doing that for a number of years, looking back both on your lessons during your time in law, but also everything, as you’ve gone through this. We talked a little bit about this before we had recorded here, what are some of the key takeaways? Or what is kind of a theme that we can focus on that you would love to go back and tell the younger version of you or someone before? What’s the skill set that you wish you would have known?
[00:06:17] JH: Yeah. I mean, the first thing is understanding, I guess what really matters. What actually brings satisfaction and those feelings that keep you kind of intrinsically motivated within an organization like that. I think that, at the time, when I was working within bigger firms, I still had the, I think, for me, at least the mistaken perception that it was all about hitting the numbers, getting the big bonus, all those things. But that’s kind of become sort of a hamster wheel, and over time, it’s not particularly motivating.
What I found when I struck on my own was how empowering and satisfying it was to have more autonomy. To know that you are more in control of your circumstances, and that you have the ability to really influence and be in a position where you’re not relying upon others to bring you work, and that’s really empowering and powerful. So, I think, first and foremost, understanding that autonomy can be so motivating, and it’s not just my personal experience. I came to find out that, in fact, there’s lots of studies on this, autonomy tends to be the most important predictor of satisfaction in one’s work and life, including there’s a study about lawyers, and autonomy was cited as one of those really important factors.
I think that’s really important and understanding that you’re not really going to have autonomy in the private practice of law unless you build your own practice, right? You have your own clients, you have that sense of like, “All right, even if everything falls apart, I’ve still got my relationships, my clients, and I can take those with me if I need to.” So, that’s really powerful. And then once you kind of have that mindset, where you’re like, “Okay, this is motivating to me. I want more of that. I want more autonomy in what I’m doing”, then it becomes viewing yourself and your practice as more of an entrepreneurial endeavor. This whole concept of, I’m not just like a cog in a wheel, but I can build something on my own, even if I’m in a very big organization.
Frankly, one of the things that I really miss, or I never saw or you thought of when I was working in big law firms was, all of the resources that you have at your fingertips to act like an entrepreneur, all of the departments and people and the opportunities to build something within a firm is very large and potentially beneficial. So, that means once you start to see yourself as an entrepreneur, the key thing that you need to start doing is not just sort of working within your business, right? This is the classic advice given to startup entrepreneurs. You’re never going to grow if you’re always working in your business, keeping all the balls in the air and plates spinning and all that, trying to do all things, be all things to all people. You need to carve out time to work on your business.
So, for a lawyer, or any, I think, professional service provider who’s building a practice or who serves clients, if all you’re doing is spending all of your time serving other people’s priorities by billing hours, well, you’re never going to build your own practice, and you need to start thinking in terms of working on your business, not just in it.
[00:09:25] AD: I want to come back and I want to dig into that a little bit. One of the things you said and even as you are kind of saying what was running in the back of my mind, it’s like transition is a professional where oftentimes you are, and you’re talking specifically in law, which I think it’s very prevalent there. But I think across many professional services, there is a level of you’re a producer, you are kind of a contributor to getting work done. But as your career goes on, and if you truly want to, in many cases, take your career to that kind of next level, it really is much more entrepreneurial than anything, which is to your point, there’s the self-agency, the autonomy, the control that oftentimes requires a different level of maturity and discipline, self-accountability to truly be successful at.
I think these ties into where we’re going to go next. I think that a lot of that kind of discipline, personal accountability, maturity, is really pulling yourself out of the weeds, out of the in, working in the business, in the endeavor, to recognizing that it’s important to carve out, create, and prioritize time to do the “on the business”. Is that a fair way to look at it?
[00:10:30] JH: Yeah, that is absolutely the way to look at it. Because the easy thing to default to, again, is just billing hours, right? If billable hours are abundant, it seems like that’s the low hanging fruit that’s always in front of you. Frankly, if you’re working at a law firm, it’s generally what’s incentivize. So, you have to recognize that in order to take actions that are maybe inconsistent or in conflict with some of those natural incentives. I mean, I think there’s a concept called hyperbolic discounting, which is basically the notion to a psychological concept where we, as humans, tend to value short term rewards over long term ones, even if the long-term ones are much larger. It’s just human nature, right? So, you need to recognize that because if left to our own devices, oftentimes in this context, we’ll just keep billing.
One of the things that are these mental models to think about, one of my favorites comes from Charlie Munger, Warren Buffett’s business partner in Berkshire Hathaway, and also a lawyer. Many people who maybe aren’t in the practice of law don’t realize that Munger was a lawyer before he became an investor. So, when he was, I think this is back in the 1950s, when he was working at his first law firm job out of law school, he found himself in this trap, where he was spending all this time, billing hours all day, serving other clients. He wanted more, and even as a young man, and he decided that he needed to start seeing himself as he put it as his own most important client, and carving out, and as he put it, selling himself at least one hour of his time every day, to work on his own priorities, right? Because if he didn’t, he knew he would just kind of default to what we’ve been talking about, which is serving other people’s priorities.
So, I like that idea. That, I think, unlocks things for people a little bit where you’re like, “Yeah, I know as a professional service provider, I’m going to have to spend most of my time and most of my effort working on other people’s matters. But can I at least carve out 10% of my time every day, if I view myself as my most important client, to work on my own priorities?” If you can do that, you can get a lot done. And in my experience, that’s enough time to do the things we’re talking about here, which is stay in front of clients, build new relationships, work on the business, and all these things, and it doesn’t need to be all of your time, it doesn’t even need to be near even a majority of your time. Just an hour a day is plenty to get this stuff done.
[00:12:59] AD: I agree with that. I guess what I want to ask you about, I want to go into in a second around, what are those things like? What specifically should we be thinking about? But before we even dive into them, I think thinking for listeners, oftentimes, the challenge becomes no matter what the things are, that we’re going to dive into, I just don’t have time. I’ve got too much to do. I have to get this done. I don’t have any more time. What do you say about that? How do we address that, I don’t have time?
[00:13:24] JH: Well, I would say this. I don’t think there’s ever time to get everything done, right? I mean, there’s always going to be something. So, if you’re waiting for time to magically appear, it’s never going to happen. It’s like vacuum situation, where there are always going to be things that are going to fill the gaps that you might have with your time. So, I don’t have any magic formula other than saying you just have to make it and as a result of doing that, probably will become more efficient at getting your other work done as a result of it. Because over time, you’re going to be transitioning to hopefully, a more of a, again, being an entrepreneur who is building a practice, versus someone who just working within it. So, you’re going to have more autonomy to have more control over your time.
But at the starting point, the thing I suggest is to say, look, if you’re waiting for time to magically appear, it won’t. So, you need to be more purposeful and intentional about it. The way to think about is like, “All right, at what point in the day, am I at my most productive? And at what point in my day, am I required to be least responsive?” So, where does the overlap between those two things fall? And pick that as your whatever, 15-minute, 30-minute or an hour block of time that you are allocating to yourself.
I think that when I see people who are doing this successfully, meaning making the time and getting this work done, again, they’re not just waiting for it to magically appear. They are scheduling meetings with themselves on their calendar, blocking out that time, oftentimes first thing in the morning, before all the inputs start what we talked about. When do you have to be least responsive? Or when are the distractions at their lowest point? You calendar it and you just do it consistently. And most people find that they can be more productive during the rest of their day, when they feel like they’re working on something like for themselves, that’s benefiting them as a result of it. So, I don’t have, other than a magic formula that doesn’t exist, like that’s the best way I know to think about it.
[00:15:22] AD: I think that’s good. I’ll add in there from my own experience around, there’s always more to do than there are hours in the day, and I try to reframe it in my mind. If I ever catch myself saying, “I don’t have time for something”, rather say, “It’s not a priority”, and recognize that it’s not about having time, it’s about the priority. Because once you say to yourself, it’s not a priority, if you still believe that statement is true, then it’s truly not a priority.
Don’t do it. But oftentimes the things that we’re saying I don’t have time for, we would not be willing to say it’s not a priority for me. When that conflict arises, then that’s where we got to dig in deeper and figure out how to make that priority actually happen, right?
[00:16:00] JH: Absolutely. Can I add one more thing to that, Alex? Because I think, I’ll just briefly touch on this.
So, we’ve talked about if we can connect the concept of work being like an entrepreneur who’s working on their business, not just in it, and this concept of carving out time to get important, maybe not urgent work done. Part of what you’re doing, if you were just getting started with systemizing and making this more of a process as part of your day, what you might be doing during that hour time is thinking through ways to delegate, eliminate, simplify, automate, like implementing systems and processes such that you can make more time for yourself.
There are many things that you need to think through that need to get done, but not necessarily by you. That’s the kind of thing that an entrepreneur does, right? They build scalable systems that allow them to continue to sort of level up the type of work they’re doing and working at their highest and best use. So, that might be the type of thing that you’re first working on before you ever get to things like marketing and business development.
[00:17:00] AD: I think that’s a really good point, because I often believe that a lot of individuals that want to get started on that journey of really spending time on building their own book of business or their own personal brand, that their relationships, their network, if you will, the overwhelm is so powerful, because of the general maybe lack of systems and how work is done. When you’re just a producer, you take inputs, you get them done, you push them back out, and you keep doing the work that’s coming at you. Versus, again, the entrepreneurial mindset in the scalable, the leverageable mindset is, “Well, I have to have a process to manage everything that I’m doing to begin with. And once I can manage everything better, I manage my own time better, if you will, and it becomes easier to consistently carve out and create that time to go be successful investing in it.”
Whereas, if you try to dive right into it, I have to assume you’ll agree with it, consistency is the biggest key of any of it, under all of it. So, diving in for an hour here, taking three weeks off and coming back for another hour is not going to get you anywhere. You got to figure out how to make that hour a consistent thing, and so the systems I think are unbelievably important to start with. It’s some kind of thoughtful approach to how you manage everything you’re trying to take on.
[00:18:12] JH: Yeah, 100%.
[00:18:15] ANNOUNCER: This is Branch Out, a connection builders podcast.
[00:18:23] AD: So, let’s dive in and let’s chat about then what should we be doing. So, we’re talking about this idea, we’re creating time to focus on being an entrepreneur, to really build our agency or autonomy and to kind of build our own entrepreneurial unit, if you will. What matters? Where do we spend our time?
[00:18:38] JH: Yeah. Well, I mean, if we’re going to frame this around, okay, building a practice, generating client work. I mean, I like to think of it in a few different ways. So, one would be, I think you have to have some understanding of a target market, right? I think trying to be all things, all people, is very difficult in this environment. Oftentimes called a niche, whatever you want to call it. Understanding what you do, who you serve, and what solutions you provide to that audience is critical, because I think that decision in and of itself, kind of solves a lot of the other problems and has a lot of the other pieces of the puzzle fall into place, once you determine it.
So, I’ll just share a quick story from my own experience in building my law firm and why, I think, these matters. When I was starting my small firm, I knew there was going to be opportunity because we were dealing with the – GM and Chrysler were filing for bankruptcy, and there’s going to be a lot of corporate structuring work. But we were a small firm and knew that most other firms in town we’re going to be focused on that weren’t conflicted out. We’re going to be focused on serving the large tier one, tier two auto suppliers, who are going to have to deal with the Chrysler and GM bankruptcies. So, we kind of looked a little differently at things and said, “All right, what’s under-appreciated, underserved market that’s also going to have demand and where there’s good clients that can pay their bills?” And that was the auto dealer market in Metro Detroit, right?
So, there were, I don’t know if you remember this, but countless GM and Chrysler dealers lost their franchises in those bankruptcies, and they needed legal representation. That was our target market and that was our niche. So, we served other clients through referral work and that kind of thing, but like the active work that we targeted, that we pursued was in that space. Why is it important to have a niche? And why is it beneficial from a marketing business development standpoint?
Well, every niche market, like auto dealers in Metro Detroit have what I call an ecosystem of attention. They are members of certain organizations, they attend certain conferences, they read certain publications, they rely on similar advisors. So, once you make that determination that you’ve picked a niche, your job then is to kind of define the ecosystem of attention, and then figure out how you’re going to immerse yourself within that environment. In our case, it meant getting in touch with the Michigan Automobile Dealers Association and the Detroit Auto Dealers Association and writing content, doing some speaking for them, like going to the – they would have us come, talk to the dealers about the impending bankruptcies. As a result of that, you’re we were the only lawyer showing up and probably got 30 dealership clients as a result of just that experience. A couple hired us, and then they said, “Who are you using?” “These guys.” So, it’s just sort of this cascading thing.
Again, instead of just bouncing from target market to target market, you identify one and you start to be seen as like a trusted insider, versus some professional who’s just trying to pitch for work, who they hold at arm’s length. So, I think that’s really critical, because once you define that target market, then it just becomes a matter of, “Okay, I know they all read this trade journal. I’ll write for that. Or this conference is coming up. I’ll try to get a speaking slot for that. Or at a minimum, all attended, and can network and build relationships and that kind of thing.” So, I think that’s an important starting point is strategically to think about these things.
[00:21:57] AD: I want to ask you a question on that. I think first and maybe a statement behind it, you’re pointing to the real value of a strategic approach, to what you’re doing, right? You’re carving an issue, being thoughtful about it. You’ve put some thought into where is there potentially an underserved market? Where do I have expertise? Where does that crossover? And I believe that I can do well there, then you’re understanding the ecosystem, the world in which that target market plays in, so that you know where and how you can become influential into it. That’s next, I want to talk about how do we actually do some of that.
But before that, I think, the idea of doing that makes a lot of sense, that is, you got to carve out time, you’ve got to put in the thoughtfulness to truly kind of craft out a strategy behind that. But what do you say back to the professional who doesn’t want to niche themselves? They want to be all things to all people. How do you react to that?
[00:22:44] JH: Yeah. Well, I mean, that is a common area of pushback, and I guess it’s just a matter of like, what’s your game plan then? What is your strategic approach? And I would say this, you don’t need to have a narrow niche. I’m just saying, it’s oftentimes, especially for someone who’s just getting started, a way to gain that initial traction that you need. I mean, I think if you were to reverse engineer the experience of most what you would call now like rainmakers, they may now serve a very broad set of clients.
But at some point, they probably had a niche. And that’s not always the case. But I just know from experience, so many professionals, and the best way in my experience, and sort of watching and observing other people to build that big practice, is to continue to make like sort of lateral or adjacent moves from one niche to another.
There’s a guy by the name of Scott Becker, who is a lawyer in Chicago and kind of a mentor to me. His experience, I think, is common in the sense that he was a healthcare lawyer, who’s about a fifth or sixth-year lawyer, and he realized he wanted the – same thing, like this is back in the mid-80s. He wanted to build a practice, he wanted to be more autonomous. But he realized, I’m not going to be able to get hospital or healthcare system clients. I’m too young and inexperienced. But what about surgical centers in Metropolitan Chicago? That’s an underserved market. So, he went and he sort of dominated that niche over time. Part of how he did that, was by starting a newsletter. Back in the day, printed mail newsletter.
Anyways, fast forward, he kept kind of going up, once he sort of became a well-known expert for surgical centers, started serving a couple hospitals, and then it became national healthcare systems over time, and built a significant practice for himself. In addition to that, his newsletter became what some people might recognize is the publishing platform of Becker’s healthcare, which in itself, has become a super successful, large niche publishing platform. Scott has grown an immense practice. But if you were to dial it back 30, 40 years now, it all came as a result of him gaining that initial foothold with a very small niche industry vertical, geographic niche, and he grew from there.
So, I’ve never been successful in talking someone into the idea of a niche, if they just had this fear of missing out an opportunity, you may miss out on a few opportunities. But that’s kind of the point, right? You are saying no to dispersing yourself, and you’re saying yes to sort of concentrating your expertise in one area, which I think compounds much faster.
[00:25:23] AD: I completely agree with that. And I would bring it back to where we were before this, the idea of, I don’t have time, I have too much coming at me, I’ll never get it all done. Part of, I think, the value of picking a target market, if you will, and whether that’s a deep, narrow niche, or even a specific audience in which you think you’re going to see the most, however you wanted to find it. But bringing some clarity around where you’re going to focus your efforts, and where are you going to work to build your business around, without doing that.
If you don’t do that, then you continue to have more and more and more too much coming at you. Inverse, when you do, do that, you’re very clearly carving out to yourself and saying, “Well, this is my market. So, if I’m getting an opportunity to do something that falls outside of that”, and this is really hard to do, but the self-discipline to say, “No, that’s not a fit for what I’m doing and to focus on where actually makes sense”, is how you truly are getting farther ahead in leveraging to build that kind of that scale, right? Because you’re spending the time in the right places.
I really think, to your point, actually, I didn’t know that history on Scott Becker. I do know my previous life and investment banking, I did a lot of healthcare deals, and I was well aware of the McGuireWoods healthcare conference, and Becker healthcare, and I read stuff from ambulatory surgery centers that when I was doing research on this, years and years ago, I’m [inaudible 00:26:38] stuff for him. It’s funny. But to your point, it’s picking a market, it’s going after it, and then focusing on it, and it can grow over time. You can expand what that looks like. You’re not stuck there forever. What you’re doing is you’re being thoughtful about where and how you spend your time.
[00:26:54] JH: Yeah, for sure. To people who are afraid of niching down, I don’t think I’ve ever come across an instance where, in working with a professional, when they’ve proposed a niche market, I’ve never seen a situation where it’s too small, right? Almost every niche, the total addressable market of each niche is massive. Like I said, you would think, “Oh, auto dealers in Metro Detroit, small market.” It’s not. It’s a huge market. And we just got a tiny slice of it, and built really successful practice on the back of it.
The other part is, I think building a practice is all about choosing the game you want to play too, right? Where in many instances, yeah, okay, you can say look at the guys at Kirkland & Ellis, and the private equity practice they’re building. That’s a great niche. I’m going to go pursue that. It’s like, yeah, that is a great niche. But everyone is chasing that work, right? Why play that game, when there’s probably some other industry that you could be focused on, that there’s a lot of business and other lawyers or other professionals aren’t paying nearly as much attention to. So, that’s another aspect of it, too, is like, don’t just play the game everyone else is playing. This is your opportunity to think strategically about a different game that’s maybe not nearly as competitive.
[00:28:04] AD: I like that. It’s design your own game. It’s designed back to how do you want your life to be, how do you want your success to play out. At the end of the day, you pick and decide how you’re going to approach that. Your common around thinking the size of the market isn’t large enough, I would – and not to oversimplify any of this. But I’ve certainly seen it in my own life and with others that I’ve talked to and worked with. There can be a scarcity mentality. This might not be enough. It might not, and I can understand where in the short run, it may feel like that where there are things that fall outside of that, that you’re not spending time on, you’re being narrowly focused and are trying to stick to what your focus is.
But I argue that if you can get over that short-term scarcity worry, and focus on that longer-term benefit that comes from it, I can’t fathom any practice area, that wouldn’t be large enough to build at least an individual book of business around, but let alone an entire firm around. I mean, going back my time in the deal world, you’d be shocked some of the niches that exist out there. The things that you never thought was a business or a market, and they’re very big and very booming. To your point, the auto, I’m sure it could have been three firms that could have full time done nothing but support auto dealers in Metro Detroit, and still had plenty of space sitting around it.
[00:29:14] JH: 100%, yeah.
[00:29:15] AD: So, you had overcome that internal thought, that the short-term scarcity and recognize kind of the long term behind it.
[00:29:20] JH: Yup.
[00:29:21] AD: So, Jay, let’s take this, let’s kind of transition for the back end of this. Let’s focus on what do we do? So, we picked a niche, we picked an area, we know that we want to focus on, we’re dedicating time, what do we actually do? What are some of the best practices we can think about to build that book of business and gain that agency and that autonomy?
[00:29:39] JH: Yeah. So, I’ll break this into two categories just to maybe talk about these things. Because I think oftentimes, people think and lump the concepts of marketing and business development into like, one thing, right? I think it’s just like one thing, which can make it confusing because there are many ways to build a practice. But I like to break them out and think of them as distinct concepts. So, we start with business development. We’ve done all this work, strategic work, as you mentioned, you kind of laid out the parameters we’re talking about here. So, how do you essentially go to market and try to develop a practice.
From a business development standpoint, that is something that’s very much a one to one interaction. Marketing is something that’s scalable one to many, right? Oftentimes, you’re sharing your ideas to as many people as possible within your target market through marketing. But business development is different. So, the way I like to think about it is, where you think about some small subset of your broader network that you would define as your key contacts. And you would try to stay in front of these people as consistently as possible.
So, the number that I recommend is somewhere in the range of 20 to 25. The reason for that, is because A, it’s manageable in the sense that if you decide that there’s 200 people that are people who you would define as key contacts, you’re going to have a real hard time staying in front of any of them in this one to one, more personal, interaction way that we’re describing here. So, you’ll probably do nothing as a result of that, because you’ve got too big of a list. So, 20 to 25 is more manageable, and it also corresponds with the approximate number of business days every month.
What I recommend for my clients is develop this list and reach out to one person on that list every day with some form of meaningful interaction. That’s kind of a loaded term. What does meaningful interaction mean? But the idea behind one person each day, every business day of the month, so that you work through your list, is basically every month, you’re never going to have this gap where like you disappear for long periods of time, and business development requires two things. It requires trust, and you’ll be building that over time, hopefully, with those key contacts, and being top of mind, because you’re not the only one who’s targeting these people for new business opportunities. So, that helps accomplish that.
I mean, in terms of what is meaningful interaction mean, it might mean, yeah, taking someone to lunch or something like that. But it might mean –there’s sort of three things I think about which would be insights. So, the ability to send someone information, usually via email, or whatever, that is like an article you read in The Wall Street Journal that they should read, or something you wrote that you want to share with them that might be relevant for them or their audience. An introduction is another way to engage in meaningful interaction, which would be who are two people in your network that need to be connected to one another, and you’re making that introduction. Or last month, when you talked to this person, they mentioned that they needed a referral for like a new CPA, you make that connection for them.
So, the third category would be like an invitation, right? That would be, “Hey, we’re putting on a webinar, maybe you’d be interested in attending this”, or, “Hey, let’s grab lunch next month or whatever. There’s this charity event, we bought a table. Would you like to attend with us?” Invitations, insights, and introductions, I think are three ways, three categories of ways to think about, “Okay, I don’t want to be pestering this person on a monthly basis, sending them email saying, ‘Hey, you got any work for me?’ Of course, that’s not going to work. That’s certainly not going to build trust.” But if you can reach out to them in a way that they perceive as valuable, and I think, some of the things I was describing, fall into that category, then you’re going to have the ability to be there, when the unpredictable nature of demand for professional services arises.
That’s the big thing to remember, which is, the way not to do this is to be continually chasing, like active demand. You learn about a potential deal, and you start making all these phone calls and stuff. That doesn’t usually work, right? By the time that you learn about the deal, or the litigation matter, whatever, the ship has sailed, in most instances. You need to have been there for the seven or eight months before that building trust and staying top of mind, such that when the deal or the litigation matter arose, you’re the natural first call for that kind of thing.
To me, that’s sort of a system for business development. There are obviously other aspects to it. But I think, building your contact list out and then getting into a habit of staying in front of people on a consistent basis, and it might just be doing one thing a day, send a handwritten note, whatever, that again, we’ve talked about this concept of compounding, that compounds hugely over long periods of time. And I think, Alex, I’m interested in your take on this, but at least in my experience, it’s not 100 people or 100 clients or referral sources that fuel most big practices that people build. It’s like 5 to 10 people, who are sending you 80% of your work, and that’s just the nature of things, so you don’t need to feel like you need to be in touch with 100 or 200 people consistently.
[00:34:52] ANNOUNCER: This is Branch Out, bringing you candid conversations with leading middle market professionals.
[00:35:00] AD: I completely agree and you shared – I enjoyed the framework that you shared there. I guess a couple thoughts or maybe additions and some reactions to that. You are right, in my experience, I typically see it’s a small group of individuals, a small circle, that tends to the 80/20 rule, if you will, right? There’s 20% of your network or 20% of your relationships are generating that 80% of those opportunities. I think one thing to keep in mind, especially for younger professionals, or people in kind of growing this, is that you may not know what that’s going to look like to begin with, and it’s going to take time. So, I like the framework of 20, 25 people in your core circle, I typically, when I’ve kind of thought and talked in some of this before, I add in, maybe, that’s a tier two where recognizing that people move, life changes happen, career changes happen, and people are always coming and going from your circle. If you’re really fortunate, you may have a handful of those folks that you build really long-term genuine relationships with over a lifetime of your career.
But the reality is, there are going to be people that you build close relationships with that all of a sudden, you just end up in different places in life, and it’s not that that person isn’t someone you may stay in touch with or still talked with, but they’re not going to continue to be that tight inner circle from an opportunity development standpoint, if you will. So, knowing again, in my experience, that there is some in and out around that. So, keeping that thought in mind, but under all of that, the single biggest key that I really appreciated that you hit on, is the consistency, the top of mind, that the element that no matter where the opportunity is coming from, or where the relationship with is, this is a business that is very, very often top of mind.
Again, back to, if you have a 15, 20-year relationship with someone, you might get to the point where they’re more of a genuine friend, and they’re going to just keep sending you stuff, because that’s how they become that 20% core group because you’re really close with them and you’ve built that relationship. Before you get to that, every drop, even at that level, I think, top of mind still matters. But absolutely, before you get to that, so much of it is top of mind.
And it’s understanding where are the referrals best to come from? Where are you likely to find that opportunity here? Who is it? Is it directly with the clients that you’re building relationship with, that doesn’t need a service until all of a sudden, they do. And if you don’t stay top of mind, I can’t tell you the number of times, I can think back in my previous life in banking, we would – quality of earnings is a great example. We would hire in CPA firms for quality of earnings, and we’d always give two to three options and kind of fiduciary responsibility. We didn’t want to put one in. We’d say here’s some options, but there is always what we’re telling the client, here’s kind of who I think you should go with, and here are all the options. And it doesn’t always work out perfect that way, but it’s always, we’re trying.
But I’ll tell you that there were some firms that we had a relationship with that you just kind of kept calling, and they’re always on the list. But there were always new firms that would – “Hey, I bumped into so and so at an ECG event last month, and we’d love to just put them in our process here.” So, you bring them into the process. The first time, they very likely don’t win in that process. But they stay in touch, they stay top of mind, and I think about, “Oh, let’s bring them in again.” And, “Oh, well, now let’s do some business.” I think that’s oftentimes how services are ultimately sold in that way, in that element, when you’re in that position, whether it’s a referral or you’re working directly with a client and building that relationship. The really unique element of what you’re describing is you’re not ever trying to sell along the way. You’re educating, you’re informing, as you said, informing. We said informing, inviting, and –
[00:38:34] JH: Yeah, insights, introductions, invitations.
[00:38:39] AD: I said, I think, informing, and I was like, “Insights.”
[00:38:42] JH: Exactly, yup.
[00:38:43] AD: You’re sharing thoughts, you’re sharing things. And sharing those things, likely highlights your professional capabilities. It likely highlights the expertise and the knowledge that you bring, that uncovers that opportunity for you. But at the end of the day, in doing all of that, you’re staying top of mind, and when that intro or that referral, that opportunity comes up, you’re not really pitching, if you will, for the business. You’re having a conversation and you’re bringing on an opportunity, right? It’s not you’re so far past the pitch that it’s a much better place to be.
[00:39:13] JH: So much better. Yeah, absolutely. I love all that. It makes perfect sense. And I think that your point is a good one. I mean, this is circling back to the list itself and your key contacts. It’s very much a dynamic list. It should change over time, as you level up and yeah, things change, relationships change, people change careers. And then yeah, it’s a good point for people who may be just getting started. If you’re someone who’s working in an organization, a large organization, many of the people on your key contact list might be internal contacts, right? Where those are the people you’re getting work from, who are bringing you in on deals, and who you know will be probably moving on to in-house roles or different firms and be in a position to at that point send you work. So, don’t think this is just external. This is key contacts very much it’d be internal and in often cases, should be.
The last thing I’ll add is this process that we’re talking about here, Alex, of identify your key contacts, like strategically reach out on a consistent basis. That is a very strategic approach to business development, which I think you should engage in. But also, I’d be remiss not to mention just sort of getting out there into the world and meeting new people and allowing serendipity to sort of take hold. Because I’m sure your experience has been like, sometimes, there was nothing strategic at all about where new opportunities arose from other than, you just got out and met some new people and had interesting conversations and do interesting things. I can look back to like coaching my kids, sports teams, and there’s all these things that you just do that striking up conversations, standing in line for whatever, and you meet someone who is sort of connected to someone else who you should know.
So, just getting out there into the world too, and I think, oftentimes, in this remote working environment we’re in, that doesn’t happen often enough, is an important factor in business development as well.
[00:41:02] AD: Totally. I want to reiterate your internal networking comment. That is actually, if I look back, I think it was like the second or third podcast I ever did years ago, was on internal networking. I think that’s such an underlooked thing. But we don’t need to go deep in the weeds in that. The serendipity, I actually, am a believer and intentional serendipity, meaning that I’m going to intentionally take the steps every day to put myself in more positions to have serendipity happen.
Whether I want to use the word serendipity or luck, I want to make myself lucky by doing the things that I have to do every day to put myself in the position that has the most likely opportunity to have a lucky outcome for me. That’s everything we’re talking about before that, right? That’s the strategy, that’s the thoughtful, that’s being intentional. Not even stretching, here’s the exact person I’m talking to, but here’s the type of individual that’s best for me to run, here’s where they typically hang out. Okay, let’s go hang out there. Let’s figure out how to make that happen. And that’s where I think strategy plays into all of that.
So, for the sake of time, let’s cut down into kind of the last part of this and I want to pick your brain on, or hear your thoughts, I should say, around the marketing element of all of this. For our listeners, if you don’t follow Jay on LinkedIn yet, make sure you go follow Jay. Jay is probably the most active poster I see on LinkedIn, who has – I see every time I open up my feed, you do a darn good job. I mean, if this matters enough, that your like count is always far higher than anything I see elsewhere. So, hats off to you. You’ve definitely put in some work there, from a marketing element around everything. But love to hear your thoughts. Where does marketing plan? How do you use marketing? Where does thought leadership come into all of that? And how should someone be thinking about it?
[00:42:31] JH: Yeah, so if we circle back to how we kind of define marketing a couple minutes ago, it’s basically how do I take ideas, get them in front of people who are in my target market, such that, they’re aware of me, and ideally, it builds trust. So, this is the distinction. I mean, marketing is all about attention, and there’s a couple of different ways to get attention. You can buy it. So, if we think about some forms of marketing require you to buy an ad, or whatever the case might be, and that can work. The problem with buying attention is that it doesn’t accomplish, at least in my opinion, the second important sort of pillar, which is building trust.
So, building trust comes from many different factors. But in the context, we’re talking about, I think the most important form of trust is establishing expertise. Are you seen as someone who is capable of helping solve the types of problems that I face? To me, that’s sort of the mission I’m trying to accomplish through marketing. So, that’s why among the various ways to market oneself, I think that thought leadership marketing, creating and sharing content is the most effective form of marketing, of all the options you have.
Now, it’s also the type of marketing that requires the biggest investment of time, too. So that’s why many people don’t do it. But therein lies the opportunity, right? I mean, you’re pointing to sharing content on LinkedIn, that’s what I do on a daily basis, and that’s what results in – at this point, probably 100% of the inbound opportunities that come my way, and everything comes inbound these days. It didn’t happen at first. This took years to get to the point where I have built a system that allows me to consistently generate high quality opportunities from ideal clients. But that’s the sort of the promise that thought leadership marketing offers.
So yeah, I mean, it all comes down to how do I want to reach and stay in front of an audience at scale. And again, there’s many ways to do it. I think you should pick something for yourself that ideally you enjoy doing, because that allow you to do more of it and build a skill set at it. So, if you’re naturally inclined towards writing, write. If you hate the idea of public speaking, don’t necessarily do it. I mean, I know a lot of people talk about, “Oh, you should get in a zone of discomfort and/or work on your weaknesses”, but we’ve got finite time here, and I want to just play to my strengths. Because there’s no one, right way to market or build a practice, you might as well do the thing that comes more naturally to you, I think.
[00:45:07] AD: I would also just add in there, that thought leadership, content creation, in general, is typically a very uncomfortable process to start off in and can continue to be uncomfortable. So, to your point, find your strengths. You can lean into areas of discomfort for growth, but you’re going to get that just by starting down the journey to begin with, when it comes to content creation.
[00:45:26] JH: Yeah, that’s right. You will, for sure, especially if what’s interesting now is that I have a podcast, but I’m much more of a writer in terms of my marketing. I’ve written four books. I write daily posts on LinkedIn and elsewhere. It’s very much the way I used to think about things was, I write long form content, and then I use social platforms to promote that content. So, I’ll write an article for law.com, that will get published, and I’ll share a link to it on LinkedIn. I think that’s the way most people think about using social platforms.
A couple years ago, I kind of had a shift in mindset, which was, the easiest way to put it is, instead of using LinkedIn as a place to promote content from my blog, I started using LinkedIn as my blog. Meaning, that’s where everything starts. What I’m trying to accomplish and what I think, other people should accomplish, like, again, going all the way back to the first strategic decision. What is your niche? My niche is the legal industry. So, my goal is to create awareness and trust within that industry. And also, from a marketing standpoint, to create a feedback loop with my audience. I want to write content for lawyers, on platforms like LinkedIn, where it’s much more of an interpersonal interaction of content creation, as opposed to, I just published something and then I never know who read it.
I want people to interact with it. I want them to tell me if that’s a good idea or a bad idea. I want them to tell me whether this resonates with them or not, because then that informs me in terms of understanding, what are the challenges they’re facing? What questions do they have? What ideas are they interested in? Which then, that feedback loop allows everything in my sort of marketing flywheel to work more effectively.
I write a short LinkedIn post on a particular concept, and it goes over like a lead balloon. Well, I might have found that interesting, but obviously, my audience didn’t, and all I care about is what my audience cares about in this context. Whereas, I write something about an idea that really catches fire with my audience. Well, that’s probably something I’m going to write a longer form article about, trying to get it published in Bloomberg Law or the American Lawyer. And perhaps, like in the case with the Charlie Munger quote that we talked about earlier, I might write a book about that concept.
So, by establishing this feedback loop and sharing on a consistent basis, lots of ideas, high velocity of ideas with my audience, then that creates sort of the compounding returns that lead to a big following. The other part about it, and I know we’re running out of time, but I think this is for the skeptics out there who say, social media is just this place that I don’t want to be immersed in, it’s lowbrow. And what I do is I do public speaking at conferences, or I look for high reputation, publishing opportunities.
I’ve never had more publishing opportunities and speaking opportunities that I’ve had since I started creating content on LinkedIn, because all of those reporters looking for sources, those event organizers looking for speakers, those publishers looking for content contributors, they’re all on LinkedIn, looking for thought leaders. If you’re not visible in those types of environments, you’re going to have to actually go and pitch those opportunities as opposed to those gatekeepers pitching you.
[00:48:43] AD: I couldn’t agree with you more on that. I think the last comment I’ll say around that, again, I say, I opened my LinkedIn up a couple times a day, and you’re at the top of my feed, at least one of the times I open up my feed.
[00:48:53] JH: Sorry about that.
[00:48:55] AD: No. It means you’re doing your job, and you’re doing it very well, and your marketing strategy, your thought leadership strategy is paying off for you. Because back to – at the end of the day, people do business with people they know, like, and trust. And if I’m seeing something come up, I know you, your name becomes kind of a recognizable name, I start to, in many ways, build a relationship, whether we actually communicate or not. I read your stuff. I’m starting to like you and trust you. And then I read your stuff, and it says, “Oh man, that resonates with me.” You’re saying something that hits home. I have a need, I want to reach out, and now I’m inbound, right? That’s everyone’s dream of building a business that the funnel kind of feeds itself and then bound to happen. I’m absolutely confident it’s possible.
I know that a lot of that has to do to your point, it’s building that marketing, that the thought leadership that supports all that. Every bit of that, going back to the start of a conversation, slow, painful, time consuming, delayed gratification, not the short-term game and quickest, easiest way to generate revenue or generate opportunity. There’s so much that goes behind that that is really playing the long game, and it sounds like that, at the core of what you’re saying behind that, it’s embracing that and playing the long game behind that. All of that supports the BD efforts. It supports everything else that you’re doing in the marketplace to generate those opportunities for yourself.
[00:50:09] JH: Totally. Yeah. What you were describing, that sort of delayed gratification. I mean, it’s exactly like investing, right? I mean, that use compounding takes like, what a 10-year timeframe, and then all of a sudden, you start to really notice the gains, right? So, it’s the same thing here. But to the extent that you are – you have a narrowly focused market, they can happen much faster.
I mean, I’m sharing my own experience. But if you were to quiz me, and asked me for lawyers, for example, in any practice area, or like industry niche, I could give you, “Oh, commercial contracts, like that’s Laura Frederick. She owns that niche on LinkedIn.” She came out of nowhere, two and a half years ago, and now has like 30,000 followers and has built a really successful practice for herself. Like, “Oh, RWI insurance for transactions, that’s Bryan O’Keefe at Seyfarth. He’s got his podcast, and he’s the thought leader in that space. And his content is huge on LinkedIn.” So, my business is not unique in that sense. Again, I could point you to people who are doing this in many different domains.
[00:51:08] AD: Jay, I appreciate you coming on here. I appreciate the conversation. I can’t believe we’re already pushing an hour. We dove into some great topics there, and I appreciate all the insights, the thoughtfulness and wisdom that you share in all of this. We’ll make sure that your website and all of your contacts are linked in the show notes below for listeners to reach out learn and more about Jay, and how Jay is helping to add value. I assume LinkedIn is one of the best ways to connect with you? Get on LinkedIn and find you?
[00:51:32] JH: Yeah, that’s the hub. And then there’s, yeah, there’s various spokes that you might want to – I’ve got an email newsletter, I’ve got a podcast, that kind of thing. But yeah, LinkedIn is the hub where you can find everything.
[00:51:42] AD: Awesome. Well, we’ll make sure all of that is linked in the show notes below. So, make sure to reach out and connect with Jay. Jay, again, appreciate you coming on here today. I enjoyed the conversation and hope to be talking again soon.
[00:51:51] JH: Yeah, it was great. Thank you so much for the opportunity, Alex.
[END OF INTERVIEW]
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