Episode 15 – Strategic process consulting in practice
Setting up a strategic process consulting practice or firm in our industry is not easy. On the one hand side you have the large system integrators/Big 4 companies, and on the other side you have the tool vendors helping setting up internal practices and capabilities. Finding your niche in that setup and build a sustainable business is a challenge.
Showing an example of a successful enterprise, we are talking with Zach Bennett, who runs his own firm Visual Enterprise Architecture for over 25 years, in this episode of the podcast.
Zach is a senior executive leader with demonstrated success in delivering transformational solutions and working directly with senior business and IT leadership to achieve strategic goals. He also championed culture of continuous business transformation across entire organizations and established company Centers of Excellence for Business Transformation and Enterprise Architecture and execution of transformational programs and projects.
We are talking about the following topics:
- Zach’s background
- Where a small boutique firm in the process/EA industry can position itself (vs. the Big 4/SIs or tool vendors)
- How external consultants bring in new ideas, but also provide the continuity in an organization when their people move around every few years
- Zach’s perspective on where the market goes and what skills a newbie should develop
- How to grow a consultant team and what to look for when hiring
- Adding products to consulting offers
- Trends and challenges in the future
Zach can be reached at via LinkedIn here: https://www.linkedin.com/in/veainc. Or you can go to VEA’s website, LinkedIn page, and BrightTALK channel to learn more about the firm’s offerings and approaches.
- No additional information for this episode 🙁
Music by Jeremy Voltz, www.jeremyvoltzmusic.com
- CP1 (Welcome)
- Wurly (Interlude 1)
- Airplane Seatbelt (Interlude 2)
- South Wing (Outro)
(The transcript is auto-generated and was slightly edited for clarity)
Roland: Hey J-M, how are you doing?
J-M: Hey Roland, I’m doing pretty good today. It’s getting to be a little bit warmer I suppose, and all of the snow that was piled up and I had to shovel last night has now become ice. Hurray, it’s crystallized into a beautiful sparkling wintry sheet.
Roland: Oh, that’s great.
J-M: I live up in Canada, so as you might imagine, we’re quite used to the cold in the winter weather, and honestly, I look forward to when it snows. I don’t love when it turns into ice, but it’s a part of our yearly cycle and it’s great to have it around. Sort of a blanket of white.
Roland: Well, how weird will that be if we publish this episode in summer? But anyways, I do have a special treat for you J-M. We do have one of our best friends Zach Bennett today on the show and we’re gonna talk with him about being a strategy process consulting firm in a certain market that we have here in America. Welcome Zach.
Zach: Thank you both for having me. It’s awesome to be here.
J-M: We’re happy to have you, my friend. Now we’ve been back and forth talking for so many years now and it’s really exciting to have a chance to dig into the man, the myth, the legend, and the business that is Zach Bennett and VEA. So first and foremost, I think our listeners don’t know you quite as well as we do. Tell us about yourself.
Zach: Well J-M, this is Zach Bennett. I’m the CEO and Chief Operating Officer of Visual Enterprise Architecture, a founder and key driver for this organization for more than 25 years.
Roland: Well, congratulations. Not so many companies make it to that milestone.
Zach: It’s nice to look at the longevity of the business and the team we’ve built. You know, over so many years I have a lot of people that have worked on my team for 10-15 years. You really start to see them over such long periods of time and you build a great working relationship and an effective team.
Roland: Absolutely, absolutely. But before we start talking about VEA, your firm and what you do and how you position yourself, maybe let’s talk a little bit about yourself. So, can you share a little bit about your background and what you’ve done in the past?
Zach: I actually have a business background. I went to the Wharton Business School a long time ago and in my first career I worked as a financial analyst for a few years in New York City, where I’m from. And then I actually got very much involved in the ‘.com era’ in Silicon Alley down in New York City and worked for a place called the New York Internet Center. Basically, early in the start of the Internet – network connectivity and building websites and eventually evolved into this practice around what I’m doing now because of the different customers and experiences I had in that environment. You know the ‘.com era’ was pretty crazy. Around 1999-2001, I was involved with a company that was very well funded and we ran national TV ads and we built whole teams. At times I had almost 50 people reporting to me, which was quite an experience.
J-M: That’s really cool. And talking about experiences, tell us a couple of these interesting, notable experiences in your life prior to VEA. What are some of your favorite moments you pick out of the air?
Zach: I really was lucky enough to study abroad – I lived in Australia for 18 months in Sydney in the Eastern suburbs and that was quite an amazing life experience coming from New York and the New York metropolitan area and just living within such a great culture.
Roland: So how did you like your three best friends? Sharky, Spidey and Snaky.
Zach: You know? I learned how to surf. I wouldn’t say that I was excellent at it or even very good at it. But you know, I guess I always wanted to. I’m always a big fan of the 60s and The Beatles and really the opportunity to go surfing for days on end was an experience I could never have coming from the East Coast.
J-M: That sounds really good. That’s a lot of fun in Australia. I actually had a chance to live there as well when I was in high school and I lived just outside of Melbourne and it was really nice to meet really friendly and inviting people and avoid dying every day as a result of poisonous spider bites as Roland alluded to…
Roland: Is there some local rivalry between Victoria and NSW or are they all chill?
J-M: Oh, there’s rivalries all over the pages. Oh my goodness. And also like if you support a footy team like your rivalries are the hotheaded of sorts. You’re gonna be yelling and screaming at everyone else and their teams. Rugby / footy man, both those things. I still follow the Western Bulldogs just tangentially, I suppose, because they are a lot of fun. That sounds like a cool life experience.
J-M: You mentioned surfing as a passion. What other hobbies do you have? What are the things you really love doing outside of work today and give me like bucket list items? Things you really wanna do in your life? You haven’t had a chance to yet?
Zach: Yeah, I’ve got some good ones. I’ve had some pretty good experiences, you know, and running a business and traveling all over the world and doing business in so many places. It’s been great, but personally I would say I’d like everything about the ocean. You know, even though I’m an East Coast person, surfing was one thing, but I learned how to SCUBA dive and really just got such a fondness for the ocean. I’m hoping later in life I will live closer to where it’s warmer and can experience it. You know, my wife’s from Miami and maybe we’ll be moving South sometime soon.
Roland: Yeah, I heard Long Island is one of the hot surf spots in the world.
Zach: Yeah off Montauk. There’s some surfing out there, but that’s 2.5 hours outside.
J-M: So you can run your business from Costa Rica and enjoy all the beautiful sunshine year round.
Zach: Well, you know there’s a benefit of running a virtual organization as we’ve been like this for a long time and it does afford you the opportunity of, you know, being in different places, especially now in the way that things have changed.
Roland: Yeah, but speaking of which, tell us a little bit about your firm, about VEA. What do you do? What type of services do you provide? Obviously, why should somebody reach out to you?
Zach: Sounds like a good idea, so you know we’re a management consulting firm. We’re focused on four different things. Business process excellence. IT portfolio management, Enterprise Architecture, and we do our own software product development.
My company’s got almost 50 people now. Actually, it’s amazing that in 25 years how the team really grows over time, especially as you build those relationships. As I mentioned earlier, most of our team there’s different groups that we have here in North America. Our consulting team is made up of a team of strategic consultants, mostly with 15-20-25 years of experience. They’ve worked in different businesses, different projects, different companies. It’s that broad experience, really, that I think is valuable to us as an organization.
I mentioned a lot of the team has worked for us for a long time, especially our technology and solution delivery team. You know, we run a lot of different businesses. Although we’re a small company and we do provide services, we also do our own software, product development. We have our own subscription services. We do private hosting, so we really run the spectrum. A lot of that originates from a lot of my experience 25 years ago, in running a fairly large .com, you know high availability environments, multiple business and consumer types of business had a huge influence on how we’ve run this as an organization, so we have kind of that full stack of capabilities.
Roland: Well, that sounds good, but I think you’re more known for solving business problems, right? So the hosting is maybe something like the baseline work that you do. I think it’s more along the lines of hey how do I solve a client problem? Is that correct?
Zach: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, our approach is long term relationships and strategic solutions. You know it all really focuses around two things, which is business process excellence and IT portfolio planning and those things definitely work together. We’re a very solution focused organization. And with those clients where we have really great relationships we’re able to offer that full stack custom development and as you said, those other types of services. But the majority of our business is deploying large software configurations of various different platforms and sizes supporting the improvement projects. Building up centers of excellence. Whether it’s business process, excellence or enterprise architecture, or IT portfolio planning, and I think that spectrum of services gives us a little bit of a differentiation because those things all work together.
J-M: I had a question about that. We’re going to talk a little bit more in our second section about sort of how you get there, but when you’re making the decision between offering things like strategic services, relying on understanding of the market needs and the strategic needs of an organization and helping to advise on how to proceed and how to implement, versus technical services and working on a platform and helping to implement and deploy the actual solution itself and maintain it. How do you decide which one is more relevant for your business? How do you sort of split your people’s focus between those two different topics and ultimately, what should people be looking for when they’re looking to engage with you? And how are you gonna respond?
Zach: I think that’s a really good question that there is such a difference between being a specific technology solution provider, right? If you’re very good at something, and you have certifications, and you bring that experience to the table, that is where business can come. But also the ability to solve these strategic problems to have the business focus and industry experience at a broader scale, not just around the technology but around the people and processes and the technology behind everything. That’s absolutely correct, and our business is a balance of both. It’s a consistent approach with whatever technologies we’re using. We must bring a lot of that business acumen to the table. There couldn’t be more relevant than in Process Mining. The process mining itself and the technology behind it is but a small element of how process mining projects and process mining improvements take place.
J-M: Oh yeah. I feel like we talk about that a lot in the podcast, how one of the biggest things we see with a lot of our clients is that they rely on the technology to solve the problem for them, and the technology isn’t a solution. Technology is a catalyst. It’s like going to the gym. Going to the gym is not gonna make you excellent at sports. Practicing is going to make you excellent at sports. Having strategy on how you’re going to win, it’s going to make you excellent at sports. That’s gonna make your team win. Going to the gym is going to get you swole and help you be able to execute when it’s time to go. But it’s not going to solve that problem for you.
Zach: No. The technology you know, it depends. It’s an enabler, right? If you’re good at the technology, you can quickly solve problems. I think what really makes a successful engagement and drives client value is having done something before bringing the experience to the table and being flexible about how that’s going to work. A lot of what we do together in our career is business process excellence. The top three companies are all in Germany, right? European approach to process excellence is one thing versus in North America, we like to say it’s our own methods and our own processes and ‘roll our own’ a lot of times. So you bring a methodology. You bring a structure. You bring a framework and approach, but it has to be malleable. You have to be able to respond to different clients based upon industry based upon the organizational dynamics and how you approach a solution for companies is different.
Roland: So speaking of which, before we get to the larger question of the markets that you serve, can you give some examples of the type of projects that you do? You know, we obviously said yeah well, large rollouts and all that stuff, but I think it needs to be a little bit more tangible. Can you give some examples of projects that you’ve done in the past?
Zach: Yeah, I do like to talk about enterprise enablement. Whether it’s business process or enterprise architecture, IT portfolio management, you know building structured centers of excellence and program and project management process for process excellence at large organizations at medium sized organizations. But a lot of our engagement is more targeted in certain business areas. You know the most prominent business areas right now are accounts receivable, accounts payable, supply chain as they’ve always been, and we’ve engaged through the spectrum of those types of projects. Whether it’s some design and configuration or deployment, we’re driving value by understanding and knowledge you know in developing a common understanding of how this technology solution is going to work for a customer.
J-M: Yeah, and so that bridges into the next question about what kind of customers you have. So tell us a little bit about your market when you take a look at a market assessment of where the possible ways of engaging VEA is, what types of customers come up first and foremost? And tell us what that market landscape looks like when you’re competing and trying to find ways of getting into spaces that you wouldn’t necessarily be in normally.
Zach: We’ve really been fortunate to have worked in so many different types of industries. Public, private, U.S. government, foreign government, military. All different types of industries, probably somewhere between 360 and 370 different companies. And it’s interesting because you hear from companies in all different industries about how they’re so unique and how the challenges that they face are so special to them. And the majority of companies. 90% say that to you, but the truth is, most of them do have common challenges, common problems. They do develop products and services. They do market and deliver them. They do hire and fire people. They do have information technology and financial responsibilities and legal and risk responsibilities. So although 85 to 95% of what companies do, it’s very very similar and those processes are very, very similar, so bringing that knowledge to the table, you can say, ‘well, you’re really all not that unique’.
Roland: Yeah, I agree. It’s only our mothers that tell us that we’re special. In all reality it would not, you know, but speaking about special sauce, I know you’re a partner of large vendors in the process industry, in the process mining industry, in the EA space. But when you position your firm, I would say you have the vendors, their professional services as one bookend and you have the big SIs, the Big Four audit firms as the other bookend, where in that spectrum do you see yourself and and what is the special value that you bring to the table of having that position between those two bookends?
Zach: So our go to market strategy is a combination of strategic business and technical services. We offer a greater level of flexibility. We’re very cost competitive and definitely we’re able to drive the same value and offer personalized services because we are a boutique firm and as an organization of this size we’re structured based upon a lot of the principles I’ve been following my whole life, which are entrepreneurial. You provide the right incentives to employees, and they really can benefit from your mutual success.
J-M: That makes sense and thinking about this, I heard you say something that is interesting to me and I wanted to touch upon this when we talk about creating a marketability of your services, particularly against making a decision to move forward with something like a Big Four for strategic purpose or for boutique implementation. You mentioned price as a big differentiator. Do you see that as a differentiator? Do you see that as a key differentiator for how you offer services? Or are you trying to stand up things competitively against these Big 4 on value or on knowledge sets, or on experience and capabilities? Where do you feel like your competitive edge can be found?
Zach: Well, I think in the end when you look at engaging with an organization to provide strategic services, you’re talking about the people involved in the project and the experience they have and what type of service are you going to get from them in the long term. And I think for us in larger organizations they do bring resources, in some cases a variety of knowledgeable resources to the table, but their cost is definitely a significant difference from us. And if our clients accept us as a valuable source, we’re very cost competitive. We are actually cost competitive to hiring internal team members. I view our long term strategy as outsourced team members. Don’t hire another architect, hire VEA, and that’s one of our strategies. We know that’s the way the market is going, and especially in the types of work that we do, process excellence, IT portfolio management, all those things, the truth is that a lot of these groups are also from different areas already, so it’s easy to fit us into the team and become a valuable team member. In larger organizations, there’s less flexibility.
J-M: And as an interesting question for our listeners, and I think that’s something for you guys to think about. Remember that when you look to hire an architect or bring an architect onto a team, you’re paying for that architect. No matter what. Either you’re paying their salary internally because it’s somebody you’re just taking off of another project and allocating to yours, so that’s still a cost. Or you’re paying externally, you’re bringing in external resources that will help to shore that capability up without taxing your people. And I think the argument that I see for bringing in external, all the time, is that one of the things your external consultancies will not know is your business. But your internal people will, and that’s a very expensive thing to buy – to buy the ability to have worked there for 15 years and know everything about what you do. Why not use the architects you have to deal with business specific problems and bring in external consultancies to deal with industry specific problems.
Zach: The challenge is they generally don’t have a viable internal team in the people that make up these teams in process excellence and enterprise architecture / IT portfolio management generally have dotted line responsibilities. They’re pulled onto the biggest projects. They’re pulled onto other internal activities and their primary focus is to boil the ocean enterprise wide, you know, change the portfolio, change the process mentality and the truth is a majority of these teams already have consultants in these positions, especially enterprise architecture and process management. They are not all internal people, and the challenge is in bringing in outside people; they bring other practices to the table where a lot of enterprise architects have been in these positions. A lot of process architects have been in these positions at companies for five or ten years and they don’t have the outside perspective that external consultants have. I would argue that for external consultants, some of it’s behavioral. Management tends to listen to an external opinion more than an internal opinion, and that’s a thing I see at every company we work with, right? It’s almost a comic line, so to speak. One of the other things that we believe offers from our perspective a competitive advantage is you are buying an engagement with us and that is not necessarily a single resource. We offer our different types of resources and if the balance of those resources is a little bit more strategic, a little bit more technical. Our objective is a long term relationship, so we know that over the long term that’s going to work and I can tell you that sometimes takes 3-5-7-10 years, but then we become part of the team and we’re just as just as competent as people that have been there internally. I’ll tell you the flip side of that, J-M, there’s occurrences where we have been help supporting the center of excellence at an organization for a decade, and we’re the consistent piece. That’s a really interesting value-add that we bring.
Roland: Yeah, and that is also what we see when you look at the audience that we define for our podcast. Because one part of that audience is, there’s always new people, right? It might be the guy who just comes from college who gets pushed into a project like enterprise architecture or process project and doesn’t know anything. Or it’s like you describe, people who just move on from one project to another right? But there’s always the need for education on those topics because the one thing that you need is experience. You don’t get that from college and for obvious reasons with 25 years under your belt, you’re obviously successful in that area.
Zach: We also see those team members, and let’s call it either process excellence, process improvement now in business transformation or digital transformation or enterprise architecture or continuous improvement, those team members have also fought prior battles in organizations. Some they may have won, some they may have lost, some of the politics still exist. Let’s call it organizational dynamics. And bringing in fresh people and fresh faces, especially as the management layers move around. That’s one of the primary drivers for the reason these organizations change: the management team changes.
J-M: And it seems like it’s an actual value-add that you’re doing the learning and development for your own people. So in some ways you’re saying, hey, listen, outsource this part of your business to me. So we are a core part of the CoE and as we swap in new people – as our juniors come on board and we bring them up to speed, we’re responsible for ensuring that they get all the knowledge that they require. We don’t have to rely on your systems, which may or may not be effective for communicating change or which may or may not be effective for rolling up this type of expertise to new members of your team. So hire us for the reliance on our ability to do this, and our consistency and delivery. That’s a cool thing. It’s kind of a risk mitigation for change, right?
Zach: Even better, we’re in the position where we’re training their employees on the system and the content I do that. I mean, that’s not a that’s not a fable, that is a majority of my work. Our team members are at companies 2-3-4-5 five years, and I can guarantee you that some of those people have changed or the executive management has changed. That’s just normal dynamics within an organization. People move around. Some organizations mandate that people work in different areas. Some you know, people bring in their own people, new teams form, but we’re able to be there consistently and provide that continuity. It’s not only risk management, but its continuity.
Roland: Yeah, that’s a great point. Speaking of which, as I mentioned a minute ago, you’re obviously successful in that type of work that you do. Where do you see the market for your offerings going forward?
Zach: I think going forward, the outsourcing model is definitely where we’re going to be growing our business. We’ve been very familiar with the virtual organization – we’ve been that way for more than 15 years, and in the role that we provide to the different groups for process excellence or IT portfolio management, we’re really well suited to be trusted advisors and strategic partners in the way that organizations move forward.
Roland: Do you see a special area of the type of work that you see going forward? I’m thinking about process mining, process governance or all these types of things. Do you see a special field that you would say: OK, if I’m new to this industry that is the topic that I want to specialize on?
Zach: For sure, without question, you need to understand how process mining works. But when we say that and I know the three of us all know this together is that mining is really only one piece of the puzzle. We look at the full spectrum of process excellence technologies and they all have their value and they all have their implementation needs. You start with process modeling, which is representation of processes and documentation and shared understanding of system deployments and other technology solutions. You move to governance where you have business ownership and those within the organization take responsibility for the processes. You have Process Mining, which is a way of optimizing the high value processes within your organization for greatest benefit. And you have automation which once you discover those issues in the mining process, you’re able to use automation to solve those problems and then document the processes and train the rest of the organization. This is an ongoing lifecycle that will never stop, and in the core of each of those process excellence activities, are IT portfolio management, the management of the portfolio of all the different applications or technologies in your organization, and how they and how they support capabilities to enable process excellence.
J-M: So that’s an interesting question for you, because we’re going to hear about this in a future episode, but I know there’s a lot of focus right now on AI-driven recommendation, and I certainly have my thoughts on whether or not AI can solve problems but how are you seeing an evolution towards that sort of predictive analysis / predictive analytics coming into strategic consulting and how are you managing that sort of future service offering that includes a human and a machine providing combined recommendations?
Zach: Maybe this is a topic for later on, but I think it’s a good time to bring it up. So when you talk about automation and the impact that process mining or task mining are going to have on an organization that’s very similar to what was happening 100 years ago with industrialization. We are talking about the automation of knowledge. The industry has evolved from process identification process capture to now being process effective, and we’re only in the first stage of that which is really understanding what goes on from a process perspective and how are we going to solve and automate that. But once we do solve and automate that, we’re looking at the convergence of process mining, task mining and automation or robotic process automation. Those three things, it will begin to accelerate this year as it has already been for the past several years, but if we project out two or three years, these types of activities yield tremendous benefits. The organizations themselves are not ready for the impact of these changes on the people that work at these organizations because this time we’re coming for knowledge work. Automation is coming for a different type of knowledge worker where things are repetitive. When I mentioned earlier about the 300 different companies we’ve worked with in every single industry, the way pay, you know, accounts receivable and accounts payable. Those types of functions are going to be very, very well understood. There are organizations that have tens or dozens of people whose only responsibility is to look at AR and AP between different systems. When you automate all those things, you now have a software solution for all of those people in those positions.
J-M: Yeah, but I’m specifically thinking about the automation of process improvement. And that’s the thing that I know is coming out. We don’t believe that it’s quite here yet, but I know that we look at a future state marketplace, some of that automation – that AI is going to take over the knowledge work that you do right now. At least a portion of it, right? It’s going to provide recommendations on process improvements, not just the automation of repetitive tasks.
Roland: I’m also optimistic about the future. You know, I don’t think that this automation, the knowledge worker automation, will just create masses of unemployed people. It will create new jobs. They will be just different than the ones that we had before and who wouldn’t bet whatever to give up those repetitive tasks.
J-M: Sure, but the thing I’m thinking about specifically here, Roland and also to Zach, is what happens when organizations, and particularly leadership in organizations say: “I think the robot is going to be more capable of telling me which processes and where in those processes I should improve”? Where do you see the role of folks like yourself and your company coming in to augment and support the robot’s assessments in this future state where they’re saying: “hey, listen, the automation is smarter than a person at showing where I need to improve. Now you can sort of work with its guidelines?”
Zach: I agree that that’s there, but it really only represents a small percentage of the actual work. And the truth is across the broad spectrum of companies, do you know how many different technology platforms are out there on the market? I mean, we’re all aware of that, right? So the big ERPs? Yeah, they’re going to essentially automate fairly quickly, but what we’re seeing in the marketplace, and we’re in particular mining is significantly more effective is in looking at organizations that don’t use a single system but use 2-3-4 different systems, perhaps in different channels, across different regions, and most of the challenges that they’re facing are the interchange between those systems. They have reports to generate and provide dashboards and status, but they don’t truly understand the process based interchange between those different systems. And that type of framework will continue to exist for the next 10 or 20 years. Just like companies these days are still using technologies that are 15, 20 and 25 years old, a lot of them will be slow to adopt these types of technologies.A lot of organizations will adopt these technologies, but these organizations have not planned for the impact; the organizational change that automation will have on the people within the company.
For VEA, we believe we continue to play a strategic role in the analyzing of different businesses, it’s process mining IT, portfolio management. There’s an ebb and flow of IT portfolio management.
Roland: Yeah, but that is true Zach. Because then obviously an organization of your size has a benefit because they’re small and nimble and they can adapt very much faster than the big organizations. But let me close out this segment for our listeners with a couple of questions as always that we have while you’re listening to music. I would ask you to think about how you’re delivering your projects. Is that done entirely in house or do you leverage consulting partners? Are you using one of the big four companies, or have you engaged with a boutique partner like VEA? And lastly, what would you like a partner to bring to the table? We’re going to leave you alone for a couple of seconds and we’ll come back in our second segment.
Musical Interlude: “Wurly”, Jeremy Voltz
J-M: Alright folks, well thank you so much for thinking about that. Hopefully you understand better where partners fit into your ecosystem and how you’re bringing them to the table now, Zach, I think this is perhaps the most important question from my perspective from today’s episode. I would like to take all of our listeners through the process that you employed to get to where you are today and how you’re going to see that process evolve you to the next phase. Of your company and it starts with the decision to leave. So tell me about when did you decide that you were going to say goodbye to being in senior management for your ‘.com’ to becoming your own independent consultant? And why did you make that decision to strike out on your own?
Zach: So for me personally, this has always been a long term journey. I have always been an entrepreneurial person. The truth is it was something I studied at Wharton when I was at school was entrepreneurialism, and I’ve always been involved in some type of business throughout my entire life and in my working career was a challenge by my first few years in the industry working in New York City as a financial analyst and not being an independent. There are a lot of management structures, organizational structures in place, and I really always had that drive to be an independent and to drive my own success and own business to drive my own success. I think one of the keys to being successful as an entrepreneur is really being passionate about what you do for work. If there’s a blurry line between work and your personal life, because you really do enjoy what you do, it makes all the difference. And finding that drive to continue day-to-day and meet the challenges of being an entrepreneur require that kind of drive.
Roland: And how did you choose the industry that you’re working in – the Process Improvement, enterprise architecture, mining industry that we’re currently in? Because there’s obviously so many other opportunities to live your entrepreneurial dream.
Zach: The story behind me actually getting in this industry is very interesting. My first experience in the financial services industry, I was actually let go of a position and found the drive internally to buy my first computer and teach myself HTML and that’s how I got involved in the Internet and the ‘.com’ business. Because of the organizations that I was involved with, I was able to gain a lot of experience around IT, portfolio management and enterprise architecture and understanding how different solutions and services were delivered. I would definitely say that early on in my career I didn’t have that a lot of that process excellence and process focus. After a few different customers of working as an independent consultant, I was able to participate in both an enterprise architecture and a business process excellence team. It was at this point that I became very familiar with process excellence as a discipline. It’s something that I’ve been very attached to and continued to be passionate about on a daily basis.
Roland: And how long did you do this type of work just as a one man show until you realized, hey, that’s something that I can grow? How long did that take?
Zach: I was an independent consultant for four or five years before I was able to start to grow the team. Actually, in fact, the more I think about it, I think it’s more like 8 or 9 years. The first step to becoming an entrepreneur is generating a client base and building revenue. It took quite some time after being an independent consultant to find the right project where I could grow the team and build my business. The business group initially lists some solution engineers to help support some of the deployment projects we were working on and over time as I started to build more than one customer, 2 customers, 3 customers, I was able to identify a sufficient level of work where I could, in a very calculated fashion, begin to grow the team. It’s very difficult to grow a business that is consulting based because as you begin to grow a team and add members to your team, you have to have a consistent volume and level of work.The way that some companies achieve this objective is through a combination of both internal team members as employees and also partnering with others. Other organizations are using subcontractors. It’s still a model that we continue to use today, although in a much larger sense in order of magnitude. We continue to use a core team of employees, partners and other solutions to ensure that we’re successful. As a smaller business, the biggest challenge is again keeping that consistent level of work.
J-M: So as you’re looking to scale that business, how do you decide who to hire? I mean, obviously you know some folks in the industry, but if you’re looking at building a small business, every employee is a huge potential risk or potential benefit. What was the hiring criteria you had to bring people in? What key talents were you looking for? And almost more importantly, what sort of people? What personalities are you looking to bring on board?
Zach: When we initially started to grow and bring on team members, one of the fundamental things we were looking for was experience some of the technology and solutions. We talked earlier about how there’s two ways to approach the business. Being a specialist or an expert in a particular technology and being a specialist or expert in a particular solution or business. Early on in the business, there’s definitely an advantage to being an expert in technology. It’s generally a smaller market that can be addressed, and you bring this particular skill to the table where you know that that client requires that particular skill. Over time as you build a better relationship with your clients, year 2, 3 or 4, you bring other skills to the table. All the team members at VEA have a lot of project experience working with different customers and the types of people that we look to bring on board also understand the diversity of the way organizations operate. There is no one single way of doing things. Being flexible and understanding how to be independent and managing your own work is critical to being successful in VEA.
J-M: Question for you then, and this is going to sound crazy, but where do you find these people? ‘Cause obviously you know people through the industry, but if you’re trying to scale up a business from one guy, Zack Bennett, to 50 people, where are you finding them?
Zach: The challenge of finding the right people never ends, no matter how good you are in operating a business. There’s always the challenge of maintaining the right balance of people that support you and make you successful. I believe a good combination of both long term or full time employees, as well as an extended team of consultants and partners can make the difference and provides that balance. So if a particular area of your business requires support from one of the others, they act together as three different pillars of the organization.
Roland: Well, you spoke about the skills of the people you know, the project experience and the technical experience. What are you looking for on a personality perspective for people to be hired in your firm?
Zach: I really enjoy that question, Roland, because there’s one thing at VEA that separates us apart from, for example, some of the other larger consulting firms that you mentioned earlier. It’s the entrepreneurial nature of us as an organization. So if you’re willing to accept a little bit more risk in the way that you receive compensation, you’re able to receive a significantly greater reward. Everyone participates in our success, and a business has its ups and downs. People come and go within your organization, even with your best efforts to keep them around. Some of the most critical members of our team really value the independence and flexibility. We do not have a large management structure. I depend upon all the key people in our organization to meet their responsibilities and to deliver services and solutions to our customers successfully, and when need be we bring in the right resources to support them and to ensure that they’re successful. That’s very pitchy.
J-M: It’s OK to pitch what you do and I think that’s really important for people to understand. As an independent business owner, I happen to also have other things that I do. You’re always pitching, you’re always selling. You talk about the team, everyone sort of having that entrepreneurial spirit – we have an expression at one of the organizations that I work with which is “everybody sells”. “Everybody sells, all the time.” And if everybody is selling then even if everyone isn’t as effective as your sales team, you have way more people getting a shot and more shots equals more business.
Zach: There’s also a difference between those on your team that just perform delivery, and they may be spectacular at that delivery. But there’s also a certain type of person that understands delivery is ongoing. Your evaluation is not just your ability to deliver, but to build a relationship enough that the client would like to continue working to solve challenges with you as a team member. This idea of continuous selling is a fundamental part of everyone at this organization and the reason I believe at VEA successful for our team members is because as they’re able to build these relationships with customers and sell as you say it, they actually participate in that process. Additional services, software and solutions that we deliver. They benefit from the company being successful as well, and I can tell you at a small organization that makes a huge difference in why people like to be at VEA.
J-M: So the other question here is, besides people being at VEA, which sounds like you really have a nice approach to making people feel both welcome and empowered to make decisions and to support the company and see a direct result of growth. How do you engage with your companies? How do you sell VEA to larger organizations? So what’s your model that you’ve adopted and how has that model evolved overtime? Has it stayed the same? Or have you found new ways to both sell your offerings and deliver them better so that people find the success they’re looking for?
Zach: Initially a lot of our client development was based upon that need for a particular technology solution. As our business grew and we built more relationships, we were able to build, experience and grow businesses within each of our clients. One of the most interesting ways that you can also develop the business is the people that you work with, especially successfully at organizations. They tend to move around to different organizations and for us, one of the biggest drivers of additional business is when people that we’ve worked with who trust us move to a new company and are interested in engaging us for an even better round of success at their new place of employment.
Roland: Yep, I’ve seen that in my experience as well. You know where you’ve built a personal relationship with your client and then obviously they come back and have that conversation with you at the new place.
Zach: We have clients we’ve worked with at three or four different companies.
Roland: Speaking of which, when we look at -going forward- what you offer, the packages that you bring to the table for your clients, it’s obviously the consulting stuff, but I know that you also have content packages, so you sell products on top of your services. Can you talk a little bit about that?
Zach: Yeah, that’s correct, and that’s where the different parts of our business really work together. So, in addition to our own solution accelerators, we also recently signed a technology partnership with ASCM, the Association of Supply Chain Managers, where we’re going to be offering an accelerator of the SCOR content across multiple platforms.
J-M: And how do you decide on which ones are important? What industry trends are you looking for? What customer requests are you looking for? ‘Cause obviously you’re trying to scale beyond just providing a dollar for an hour, because that’s by definition a linear growth. You can’t really scale that, right?
Zach: Yeah, I believe you raised that point earlier and that is one of the challenges of growing a business as a consulting organization. The way that you generate revenue as a consulting team is generally by projects and the more people you have, the more projects you can support. And we identified early on, I believe it was 15/16/17 years ago that we had to generate other sources of revenue that were long term. In addition to becoming a partner and reselling software, that has never been a primary part of our business. We also realized that we had to build these solutions. So we originally offered software and software maintenance as an ongoing service, and that’s now of course we followed the industry trend of moving towards a subscription based model. So whether it’s our accelerators that our subscription or our specific software products, those generate different revenue streams that help to balance a lot of what we’re doing on the consulting side. And also for some of our key customers we even offer other services such as private hosting which really lead itself back to our ‘.com’ origins.
J-M: So the last thing I wanted to ask on this is specifically those ideas you see – topics offering those accelerators for which ones have you found overtime have really paid off? Which ones are emerging? Which ones are things people might think are important, but maybe actually don’t offer as much value? So these are specifically industry topics that you focus on at VEA or you’re going to focus on at VEA.
Zach: There’s such a wide variety in how organizations approach the use of frameworks. Sometimes they’re there merely as a reference, sometimes that you drive the organization, sometimes they’re different from the organizational structure of an organization. But organizations always tend to turn them into their own particular flavor or framework. They make changes to them. Organizations are trying to identify what are the core business capabilities that they need and helping them to understand the combination of business capabilities and the technology portfolio is an ongoing challenge. You mentioned earlier about how we could also support companies and outsourcing? We’re working with some clients that have outsourced their entire IT department. And that’s such a radical change from the way we’ve seen companies organized in the past. We talk about the impact of automation. The truth is that as these companies outsource more and more pieces, we still believe they’re going to require a strategic core set of capabilities. We see the ebb and flow of the enterprise resource management system or the IT resource management system and going from one large system to many disparate systems. And now with cloud and hybrid we see more of that. So companies now even don’t have an infrastructure in place for it because everything is cloud based. But they still require that functionality that IT portfolio management capability and as they move these solutions more into the cloud they are in more and more different places. And looking at process mining in the way the processes interact with all these different cloud technologies is a challenge that most companies are going to face for the next decade. Again, the transition these companies go through, it’s a long term one. We’ve seen that enough. We talk about how long systems are at companies. So we think this transition to the way things are going to be with automation is going to take a long time.
Roland: Well that’s true, Zach, but where do you see the challenges along the way?
Zach: What’s changed most for us as an organization is that most companies have embraced the virtual workforce. Hybrid work is here permanently – it’s going to stay. The long term implications of that is that our business model, which was not necessarily unique, is now going to become more prominent with other organizations. For our team, 10 or 15 years ago, most of our service engagements were characterized by medium and long-term engagements where our consultants were on site, involved with the teams of our clients on a daily basis. In the last 3-5 years, we’ve seen a diversion towards more localized gatherings in person for those project and team participants. Part of that is the nature of our global customers who have teams in disparate locations, so on-sites have definitely become fewer in frequency. This is particularly evident with the changes in the past two years as a result of the pandemic.
Our success has always been driven over the past 20 years with our ability to engage with people at conferences, at meetings and at events. Since early in my career in New York at the Javits Center or even the old New York Coliseum, I’ve probably worked 40-50 different conference centers across North America and even Europe. We really do enjoy it, and we knock it out of the park when we have the ability to meet with people in person. We haven’t been able to do that. There were years we did 20-30 different events. It’s definitely a way to engage and build better understanding. Even me, as the CEO, goes to visit all the customers (at least before the pandemic), and I know that we’ll have to resume that. I believe the role of in-person meetings and conferences in the future will be even more prominent because people will be craving that kind of industry interaction. And you just can’t get it in a virtual setting. It may take another year for us to get there, but it’s going to happen.
Roland: I can tell you that I’m ready for that!
J-M: It’s a good experience that I had growing up. I don’t know if I ever told you, but I was the booth boy for my parents back in the day. I have like literally when I was growing up as a child I would stand in the booth at trade shows and conferences and that’s where I learned to cut my teeth by selling whatever we had to offer from the convenience of a booth in one of 100 booths on the floor. So it was a good experience and I wanted to bridge that experience back to you ’cause you know I really. I think that this is an opportunity for you to talk to future business owners just like yourself. People who are thinking about maybe going independent right now. People are thinking, hey, I bet you I could make a practice around. What I do would help me to control my income control. My working hours is something I’m passionate about that I wanna turn into the flow of my life and I don’t just want to work for a company. I want to be the one who’s driving this. So talk to me about that. What advice do you have for those people and what pitfalls have you seen that they should be avoiding? Help someone get started.
Zach: First and foremost, I’ll repeat what I said before. You better really enjoy what you’re doing because it will require a significant amount of work. Not only will you have to provide the services that you do in your line of work, but also run all the other functions around the business. And growing people over the long term, even given your best efforts, it is hard to retain people over the longer term. I’ve talked previously about the entrepreneurial nature and I believe that for those that are interested in being rewarded in a merit based system for performance, this type of model can be very successful. For us, our driving force behind our success has always been ensuring that we deliver exceptional service to our clients. Being a small organization, we are able to bring to the table a significant level of resource and support to solve difficult challenges. We like to actually call that “dragon slaying”. It’s something we’re really good at. When you get 10 or 12 or 15 people together as an organization that have worked together for a long period of time, we’re able to solve any challenge, build understanding and knowledge about new solutions, and take on whatever challenges may be required. And I think as an owner you have to be ready to take risks. As a business owner, there’s no way of avoiding that. I can’t tell you how many conversations I’ve had with other business owners. How do you know when to invest correctly? I don’t necessarily have a project, but do I hire the people in advance? It’s always an ebb and flow. Do I bring the people on and train them in advance and be ready for the projects? Or do I wait till I get the projects and then I find the people to come support them? There’s no perfect answer for that. What I can tell you about being successful is larger organizations I believe are a little bit more strict around the number of hours that you’d give to a certain project, and the performance of individuals. For us as an organization at VEA, we’re happy if the customer is successful, because even projects where we spend less time and get more money may not drive the most value over the long term. We might spend 500 hundred hours on a project for a smaller amount of money, but then work with that customer for five years and it’s that long term vision. That’s a real differentiator for us.
Roland: So Zach, I definitely see the problem. Getting and keeping that balance that you just described. When you look forward, what kind of changes in the industry do you see and what kind of impact will they have for your business?
Zach: For VEA as an organization, we’re also growing with the industry. There’s a certain level of process maturity that has existed in Europe for the last five or ten years, and the pandemic has really accelerated that adoption here in North America. So we’re seeing the embracing of process mining and process excellence. These concepts and solutions have been around for 10/15/20 years. But now there’s so much more important in understanding how companies operate. They have to be able to respond in a more timely fashion than process excellence in what we’re doing with process excellence. (the full spectrum of those services) just means that we’re here along that journey with these companies. As they grow and mature and understand whether it’s process modeling process, governance process, mining process automation, we move up the mountain with them. So as they move to the next level, we’re able to bring them with us. So we’re always out in front.
We have a driving philosophy here at VEA. It’s something I’ve been very adamant about since the beginning. We do not wait for those solutions to be requested by the customer, we’re always out in front. And all of the solutions we’ve developed in the last 15 years – we built them in advance. We were already ready to deploy them when we found the customers that required them. And that made all the difference.
J-M: Someday you’ll have to show me your crystal ball, because that’s going to take a lot of insight into what the industry is going to want to be able to predict and build prior to them needing it. That’s fantastic.
So I want to take us to the second question for today’s episode for our listeners. Because you’ve heard the story of Zach Bennett, how he’s come up, how he thinks you as a consultant might be able to build up your own practice. So we want to ask you to reflect. Think about your career and expertise. What do you do? What do you love doing? What do you think you’re really good at? What do you think could be valuable to take and turn into a practice? Do you think that lifestyle would suit you? As Zach said, you’re always on if you’re a business owner. Would you want to strike out and make your own offering or business, and if so what would that look like? Let’s dream together as we float away with some music and we’ll be back in a moment for our thoughts, our conclusions, and the end of the episode.
Musical Interlude: “Airplane Seatbelt”, Jeremy Voltz
Roland: Welcome back, so before we wrap up the show, obviously now that we’ve all learned about Zach’s very interesting background and about his firm and the interesting things that they do. Well, the question that I have – actually I have two questions. The first question that I have is if I just wanna hang out with you and have a conversation with you, or if I’m a potential client and I want to work with you, or if I’m a potential candidate because I want to work for you – how do I get in contact with you?
Zach: Probably the easiest way to get in contact with me is on LinkedIn. I’m pretty active. You can always see me posting content up there, and I’m always very engaged with those that reach out to me on LinkedIn.
If you’re interested about our organization, you can follow our Brighttalk channel. You can follow our company on LinkedIn. You can visit our website for those that are interested in working in an entrepreneurial organization like VEA, we do have some job postings on LinkedIn and also will provide an address for you to submit your resume and be evaluated as a candidate.
Roland: Definitely we’ll put all those links and email addresses and all that stuff in the show notes. So if you’re super excited, that’s your chance to go to our show notes, which J-M will tell you exactly in a minute where you can find them.
J-M: What an intro. Well, this is actually an outro, friends because thank you all for listening. We say this at the end of the episode, but this podcast wouldn’t be around without wonderful folks like you tuning in, paying attention, loving what we do and giving us great feedback.
And that’s right, you can leave us lots of feedback. You can send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org or you can look at our show notes. There’s lots of ways of getting in touch. You can also leave us a voice message on Anchor so we can actually hear your lovely voice telling us what you thought we did great and what we thought we could do a little bit better on.
That’s also a reminder to leave a rating and review on your podcatcher of choice. As you might imagine, these reviews go a long way into helping us beat that nasty algorithm and emerge our content from more wonderful ears just like yours. Well, there’s another pitch for our website, whatsyourbaseline.com, because you can find all the notes for this show posted at whatsyourbaseline.com/episode15.
Well, until next time, my name is J-M Erlendson.
Zach: I’m Zach Bennett
Roland: And I’m Roland Woldt
J-M: And we’ll see you in the next one.
Roland Woldt is a well-rounded executive with 25+ years of Business Transformation consulting and software development/system implementation experience, in addition to leadership positions within the German Armed Forces (11 years).
He has worked as Team Lead, Engagement/Program Manager, and Enterprise/Solution Architect for many projects. Within these projects, he was responsible for the full project life cycle, from shaping a solution and selling it, to setting up a methodological approach through design, implementation, and testing, up to the rollout of solutions.
In addition to this, Roland has managed consulting offerings during their lifecycle from the definition, delivery to update, and had revenue responsibility for them.
Roland is the VP of Global Consulting at iGrafx, and has worked as the Head of Software AG’s Global Process Mining CoE, as Director in KPMG’s Advisory, and had other leadership positions at Software AG/IDS Scheer and Accenture. Before that, he served as an active-duty and reserve officer in the German Armed Forces.