Anecdotes & Musings

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A Veteran’s Day Salute…

Here is a salute to my late brother-in-law.  It really has nothing to do with consulting, but everything to do with being a gracious human being.

It is also a salute to all who have served. Thank you!

P.S. – Fifty years ago this week I was a young engineering student on my way to becoming an Air Force officer (AFROTC). A serious car accident suddenly changed that.

My career went in a different direction, and eventually I ended up as a consulting engineer where I worked on many defense projects –including those for the Air Force.

Life is funny that way…

Copyright © 2015, All rights reserved.

Be approachable…

This post was inspired by a popular RV blog I’ve followed and enjoyed for several years. The author added this to a recent blog post:


This accompanied a terse reply to an RV newbie who expressed hope in meeting her, as our blogger had inspired and informed the newbie with her blog. I found it hurtful.

While there is likely something that precipitated this, I still respectfully disagree. Anyone who RVs knows the culture encourages cordiality.

No, you don’t have to become best friends, but being friendly is the order of the day. We’ve had many a pleasant conversation with our RV neighbors. Found great places to eat,visit, and camp too!

Unfortunately, I’ve seen similar behavior with consultants – to their detriments. It may be unintended, but such behavior can come across as arrogance. Not good. Remember, people buy from those they know, LIKE, and trust.

In our case, we long had a formal policy to be approachable. As older engineers, we were particularly worried about intimidating younger engineers, so we took positive steps.

  • We responded right away to email or phone questions (at no charge.)
  • We welcomed newbies at trade shows or other events (always good for a beer.)
  • We shared advice on becoming consultants (several have joined the ranks – yea!)

We knew it worked one day when I ran across a quote on a professional forum. Asking for a referral, the response was “Call Kimmel Gerke Associates. Not only do they know what they are doing, but they are very easy to work with.” You can not buy advertising like that!

Later, that sentiment was expressed when my business partner passed away early this year. He was a quiet introvert, yet praise came in from around the world (see eulogy.) I’m still hearing from colleagues who treasured his friendly humility, grace, and approachability.

So be approachable — and work at it too. Keep your ego in check. Not only is it good business, but it is also just being a good human being!

Copyright © 2015, All rights reserved.

Five Things to Consider for a New Practice…

Here are five questions to ask yourself when starting a consulting practice — or any small business. This post was inspired by an answer to a business post on franchising vs independence.  Good advice for new consultants too.

(1) Is it interesting and motivating? There are consulting opportunities everywhere, but you will do much better and be more productive if you enjoy what you are doing. Done right, it won’t even seem like work – at least most of the time :-)

(2) Is the market big enough? I’ve emphasized identifying your niches, but make sure the niches are not too narrow. Can you identify multiple potential clients, not just one or two? On the other hand, are there too many players in your niches? You don’t want to get lost in the crowds. (We started with two part-time contract clients, and ramped up from there.)

(3) What make you different and unique? Even if you are in a generic area like accounting, what is special and unique about your practice?  What sets you apart from the competition, and why should clients choose YOU? (Think about those niches...)

(4) Will the need/market endure? You don’t want to jump in just as the bubble is about to burst. Ask where the market going, but be prepared for changes. Watch for changes, and adapt as needed. (My consulting practice today is very different from 30+ years ago.)

 (5) Last, but not least, can you make money? Maybe this should be first, since if you can’t make money, why do it? This is true for non-profits too, where you still have expenses that need to be met. (Consulting is a business, not a charity.)

Five simple questions, but worthy of serous consideration. Unlike the inspiration post, franchising is not an option. If you are making a JumpToConsulting, you are almost always starting from the ground up. But if successful, it is worth it!

Copyright © 2015, All rights reserved.

How much is enough?

How much IS enough? The question still haunts me…

Here are three stories. All three affected my thinking. Perhaps they will affect yours.

Story 1…

The question of enough was posed by a fellow consultant several  years ago. His wife had just been diagnosed with cancer, and we were talking after a professional society meeting. He was doing some serious introspection, and as a friend and colleague I lent an ear.

“How much is enough?” he mused. He had worked hard, was successful, and had enough in the bank. His immediate priority was enjoying whatever time his wife might have.

So he backed off on the business, and they went on some cruises. She responded well to treatment, and happily, she is fine today. But it did reset his priorities on what was enough.

Story 2…

My first encounter with enough goes back 45 years. My new boss hosted a Christmas party at his new house on a lake. It was a beautiful place in a beautiful setting. Being recently married, I thought how nice it might be to someday have similar digs.

Later, I thanked him for the party and complimented him on his new house. He smiled, and then offered some fatherly advice.

“Thank you,” he said. “It is nice. It makes my wife happy too. But there is a downside. We put all our money in the house, and as a result, we can’t do anything else.” He continued, “You are just starting out. Be careful about committing to a big fancy house.”

I decided that our modest house was enough. Each time we moved we stuck with enough. And today we have still have enough. 

Story 3…

My next encounter with enough came 12 years later. I was working for a successful entrepreneur, who net worth somewhere around $50 million.

An old German who had escaped Hitler, he came to America and worked as an engineer. Following a dream, he started a business in a garage. A combination of working hard and being in the right place at the right time with the right product led to phenomenal success.

But he was still  an old engineer at heart. One evening at a trade show, he hosted a bunch of us for dinner. After a few beers (after all, he was an old German), the subject of how much was enough came up.

He said, “You know, a couple of million is probably enough for most of us. How can you spend it all? After that, you are only keeping score.”

Sadly, he and his wife divorced on his way to his riches. Was it worth it? Not in my book.

Finally, how much is enough for you? Thanks to starting my own consulting practice combined with prudent living, today I can say I have enough.

P.S. Now back in Arizona. Had fun on our RV trip, but always good to be home. 

Copyright © 2015, All rights reserved.

Join the CBM Club…

I was first introduced to the CBM Club in 2012. What a novel concept!

In August 2011, we bought a small motorhome from Born Free in Humboldt, IA.

At a rally in 2012, I met John Dodgen, the 85 years old founder of Born Free back in the 1960s. What a delightful man, with a continual twinkle in his eye. Over the years, John and his family built the company into a small but highly regarded RV manufacturer.

At one point, I had the chance to talk with John over hamburgers. Always curious about small businesses, I asked him how he got started.

He smiled, and told me his story that went something like this:

After my brothers and I returned to Iowa after World War II, we realized that we could not all share the family farm. Liking the area, I decided to start a small company to manufacturer farm machinery.

One of our most successful products was a special trailer for feeding livestock. A niche product, we we eventually saturated the market. Furthermore, we made them so durable they didn’t wear out.

So I went to my board. I told them I wanted to take the company in a new direction. After much deliberation, I wanted to join the CBM Club.

At this point, John waited for my puzzled response. OK, so what is the CBM Club???

Corn, Beans, and Miami. You see, I’d noticed many farmers buying our machinery grew corn and beans, and then they headed to Miami for the winter. I wanted to do that too.

So I suggested making an RV. A highly durable RV, using the knowledge and experience gained making farm machinery. The first model was a slide in on a pickup truck. It was pretty heavy, so we added a tag axle for support. That was unique to the industry.

Not long after, we added roll bars. This was based on hearing of a fatal RV accident. I directed my design team to figure out how to add this important safety feature.

A few years later, we started building motorhomes. We focused on small truck based units (Class C), and built them with very high quality. Including the roll bars – never been a fatal accident in a Born Free, of which I am proud.

So what lessons can we glean from this for consulting?
Pick a niche. Don’t try to be everything to everybody
Be flexible. Be ready to change direction, but try to leverage on past experience.
Deliver high quality. The market may be smaller, but your customers will love you.
Don’t compromise. On safety, ethics, or anything else. Your reputation is key.
Have fun. I will always treasure the story of the CBM Club.

John recently passed away, and will be missed by all — his family, his company, and his customers. What better legacy to leave behind. Our condolences – RIP John.

P.S. –Yes, we love our little Born Free “Built for Two!”  Heading back in it from Minnesota (where there are some grandkids) to Arizona (where this is no snow.)

Our version of the CBM Club –joined as a consultant.   

Copyright © 2015, All rights reserved.

Consulting lessons from Pope Francis…

Like many others, I was enchanted by the Pope’s recent visit.  And I even gleaned some consulting lessons. To wit:

(1) Be likeable — Pope Francis radiates likeability. Nobody wants to listen to a jerk.

As consultants, this means being genuinely interested in your clients. It means really liking them, and not being mean, snarky, or vindictive.

(2) Be approachable –-Pope Francis rode in simple vehicles, rather than fancy limos.

Remember the auto CEOs and their jets? Many are angered by power when it is abused.

As consultants, we must be careful not to intimidate or annoy. Early on, we realized that as older engineers we might intimidate younger engineers. So we made it a formal business policy to be approachable. It works.

(3) Be honest — Pope Francis spoke truth to power — to Congress — and to the United Nations. Some people didn’t like it, but he let the chips fall where they may.

As consultants, that is what we are paid to do. To speak the truth. To identify and fix problems, not to praise or to suck up.

(4) Be flexible — Pope Francis made changes, even in the face of resistance. He didn’t just talk about it – he did it.

Change is often hard – particularly cultural change. Lot’s of inertia, not to mention politics. Those who enjoy advantages (fair or otherwise) don’t want to give them up.

As consultants, we are often called to be the agents of change.

(5) Be forgiving —  As Pope Francis would tell you, nobody’s perfect. Those genuinely seeking forgiveness will be forever grateful.

As consultants, accept those imperfections (including your own), forgive, and move on. You will be a better person for it.

(6) Be humble — Probably the Pope’s the most important lesson. Stories are that he was not always so humble, but had to learn humility. That speaks volumes about this man.

As consultants, keep your ego in check – you are not the center of the universe. I’ve seen too many cases where a felllow consultant’s ego killed the relationship.

No, I’m not Catholic, but I sincerely respect this man.  He is a breath of fresh air. I think he’d be one fine consultant. But maybe he already is!

Copyright © 2015, All rights reserved.

Small town living – a path to financial independence?

Here is a reply I left recently at my favorite financial blog, Mr. Money Mustache.  Pete, a fellow engineer, spent the last several years challenging and cajoling people to become financially independent.

He “retired” at age 30, and now does what he wants with no financial worries. Lives a nice lifestyle in nice digs, too.

His formula is simple — cut consumption and increase savings. When your income from investments equals your expenses — viola — you are now financially independent. He did it in seven years, and you can too.

So what does this have to do with consulting? You don’t need to be fully financially independent to make your JumpToConsulting, but you DO need some reserves. Assume at least six months with no income.

So if you are overconsuming and living pay check to pay check. you can’t make a JumpToConsulting, or any other jump. You first need to cut your expenses and change your mindset and your lifestyle!

One way to do this is to move to a small town. That is what my older son (the inspiration for this blog) did this year. Here is his story:

Don’t overlook small towns – particularly those about 100-150 miles from a major city.

After living in the city, my older son recently moved to a small town in Minnesota – population 5000. About 100 miles from Minneapolis, it is beyond commuting distance so it is no longer a suburb. But it still close enough for city resources (hospitals etc.) or a big city “fix” if needed.

They bought a nice house for 1/2 the cost in the city. The grade school and a park are across the street, and the high school is a few blocks away. The kids love it – they can bike all over town with their new friends. His commute is under ten minutes of country driving. His wife works in the high school as a teacher’s aide, and loves it.

They were concerned about leaving the city, but have been pleasantly surprised. Small town festivals –wineries — microbreweries — parks with uncrowded campgrounds. It may be rural, but there is still plenty to do. And the big city is still only two hours away.

Looking for a job change, he stumbled – almost by accident – on an executive opportunity with a small medical manufacturer. The company was delighted to get someone with his talent and experience, and they pay him accordingly. The school was delighted to hire his wife too. Big city wages with small town cost of living — how great is that? Plus the quality of life.

These opportunities abound, but you must seek them out. So if you are not yet financially independent, consider this as one way to speed things up — and enjoy the journey immediately. My son admits he never dreamed they would live like this.

A few more details on my son. After taking a company through a complex acquisition, he no longer had a job. Small thanks for helping grow the firm by 10x in a couple of years as their financial guru.

So he took his MBA in finance, his experience, and his proceeds and hung out his shingle as a consultant. The early discussions with him were the catalyst for this blog.

Although he was building the business, it was going slower than hoped. When one of his clients make him an offer he couldn’t refuse as the VP of Finance for a start-up, he jumped at it. Besides, like his dad, he has a love of small business.

But after a couple of years, it became obvious the start-up was stalling. Furthermore, there was friction with the founder, who was unwilling or unable to make necessary changes. (Been there myself.) So rather than wait for the axe to fall, he started a job search.

One interesting opportunity was with a medical device manufacturer in a rural community. As both he and his wife grew up in the city, there was some reluctance to purse it. Still, the job sounded interesting, so they decided to go in a new direction. So far, so good.

I’m proud of my son for taking that chance, and for working hard, like a good consultant, to make a positive impact on the world.

I’m also proud of his brother. A financial attorney in a large Manhattan firm, he recently took a chance and initiated a special project on alternate currencies. As their “Bitcoin-guru”, he too is working very hard to make a positive impact on the world.

Well done, both of you!

P.S. Thanks to the Internet and Fed-X, one can easily consult from small towns. And depending on your niche, you may even find plenty of clients right in you own backyard. 

Copyright © 2015, All rights reserved.

Thought Leadership – Is is really necessary?

The short answer — NO! 

But you DO need to be able to help your clients. Time for a mini-rant.

If you are like me, you are probably weary of hearing about how you MUST become a though leader to succeed in business. Unless, of course, you are pitching books or programs on thought leadership.

But let’s back up. Just what is thought leadership, anyway? Wikipedia says a thought leader is “an individual or firm recognized as an authority in a specialized field, and whose expertise is sought and often rewarded.” Gee – that sounds like a consultant to me.

My big concern is the concept may hold people back. As in, “If I’m not a thought leader, how can I break into consulting?” Don’t let this business jargon bamboozle you.

Think about it. You doctor has specialized expertise that can help you. But do most doctors consider themselves thought leaders? I doubt it. Most just consider themselves professionals doing their jobs — helping their patients.

Now some doctors, such as specialists, may be considered thought leaders. When my wife had an unusual kidney condition, we consulted with one of the world’s experts at the Mayo Clinic. He fit my definition of a thought leader. Even then, he was modest to a fault. (Incidentally, he quickly diagnosed the issue, while ruling out any serious problems.)

There is nothing wrong with aspiring to and becoming a thought leader. But it doesn’t happen overnight, and you DON’T need it to get started as a consultant.

You DO need to identify your niches, and you DO need to be competent and experienced in those niches. In certain areas, you may need to be licensed.

OK, so I don’t need to be a thought leader to start, but how can I eventually become one anyway? Writing and speaking are two good avenues.

Magazine articles and white papers are a good start. A book is even better, preferably published by recognized publisher.

Speeches and seminars also good avenues. All these take time, however, so don’t expect to be vaulted overnight into a thought leadership position.

But don’t overlook just doing a good job for your clients. Experience is a big part of becoming a thought leader, and the only way to get experience is to  DO it — over and over.

Malcom Gladwell says it takes 10,000 hours to really master a subject. Some pundits dispute the numbers, but the fact is it takes time and effort to become an expert – or a thought leader.

As an example, we started Kimmel Gerke Associates almost 30 years ago as a couple of reasonably competent engineers. To market ourselves, we started writing magazine articles and doing technical presentations. At that time, we did not consider ourselves though leaders.

Over time, this eventually led to 200+ articles, three books, hundreds of consultations, and training 10,000+ students through public and in-house seminars.

At some point, I suppose, we became thought leaders in our field – not that it really mattered to either of us anyway. But that came later, not right away.

NO, you don’t need to be a “thought leader” to make your JumpToConsulting. But the sooner you do make the jump, the the sooner you can become a thought leader – if that is even your goal in the first place.

Copyright © 2015, All rights reserved.

What do you do when it no longer works?

Received an email a while back from a fellow engineer whose consulting firm is struggling. The question was what to do now?

First, a little background. To protect privacy, I’ll be purposefully vague.

He started a consulting firm some years ago, but it recently began to slide. Rather than give up, he kept putting money into the business – but with a negative impact on his finances and retirement. Cash flow is now a key concern.

So the question posed to me was not about starting a consulting practice, but rather –  What do you do when it no longer works?

That is a tough one. Here is my sanitized reply:

Wish I could say I had never heard your story before. Sadly, I have. The good news is things usually get better, but not without some pain.

Here are three examples:

  • Former neighbors (in their 50s) who owned two small restaurants for many years. When the business slump hit in 2008, they refinanced their house to keep things going. In the process, they lost the businesses and almost lost the house. But they are now recovering, as they went back into the corporate world. The good news is that they found jobs where they could use their valuable skills and knowledge.
  • My older son (in his 40s) who was ousted from his position (after an acquisition.) Small thanks for helping grow a small company by 10X and handling the complex financial details of the transaction. So he took his proceeds and hung out his shingle as a business consultant, but within a year it was obvious it wasn’t working fast enough to provide an adequate income. The good news was that one of his clients (a start-up) hired him.
  • Me (in my 30s). Fired one day from a start-up I helped launch, I hung out my shingle. That only lasted a couple of months until I realized it wasn’t going to work – for now anyway.  So I went to “Plan B” and found another corporate engineering job. Of course, that was easier then as I was much younger.

Two common thread on all three cases were:

  • Recognizing the business was not making it (at least fast enough to provide sustenance)
  • Changing direction (while still gaining valuable experience and knowledge.)

My first thought is to see if any firms have an interest in hiring, even on a part-time or sub-contract basis. These firms might be other consulting firms, past/present clients, or even vendors serving  his technical community.

Your knowledge, contacts and experience are valuable. This would let you focus on the technical side of the business and not worry about the sales/marketing/management side of the business.

A second thought is to check with technical contracting firms. Some are small, and some are large (like Manpower.) I know several engineering colleagues who have gone this route.

One caveat – do NOT pay anybody ANY money up front. The legitimate firms make their money when they place engineers with their clients. Many also offer group insurance and related benefits.

In both cases, the business still exists – just in a different form.  Incidentally, nothing wrong with changing directions. Sometimes it is better to stop the bleeding, and start the recovery.

As a fellow boomer, these approaches are likely more successful than seeking a full time position. Many companies want to hire the younger people full-time, but are willing to take on us old-timers part-time. Of course, if you find a suitable full-time position, go for it!

My sincere best wishes, and feel free to write again if you have additional questions or comments.

If you are in this situation, don’t despair — it took me two tries to make it as a consultant, and four tries for the training part of our business. And there have been several ups and downs along the way.

Finally, there are no guarantees for success in any business, consulting or otherwise. Change is inevitable, and the key is to be flexible.

Copyright © 2015, All rights reserved.

Are you seeking freedom… or power?

This dilemma is often faced by those considering a business of their own –– often at mid-career. Should I strike out on my own, or should I stay and climb the corporate ladder?

There is no right answer. You must first seek to know yourself. It is YOUR decision — nobody else can make it for you. NOT your family-NOT your friends-NOT your colleagues.

Either way, there is a price to be paid. Both paths require time and effort — often much more than you realize. Both may result in different levels of compensation… different levels of family time… different levels of overall life satisfaction. Consider the tradeoffs.

In my case, I chose freedom through consulting, with no regrets. At the same time, I’ve had colleagues who chose corporate power with success. No regrets there either. I’ll share specific examples later. But first, a short story…

In ancient China, two brothers went separate ways. One became a monk, and the other became a civil servant.

Many years later they met in the market where the monk was eating his bowl of rice as he sat on the ground.

Said the now successful civil servant to the monk, “If you had learned to bow to the king, you would no longer need to eat rice.”

To which the monk replied, “If you had learned to eat rice, you would no longer need to bow to the king.”

Here are three modern examples…

(1) One colleague chose the corporate route. He worked hard and eventually rose to the level of VP. Along the way, he made significant contributions to the company, and was amply rewarded. He recently retired, and now engages in philanthropy and angel investing.

(2) Another colleague chose the freedom route. After becoming increasingly disillusioned with big corporate life, he founded a small but very successful company. He is still running the company, and is having a blast.

(3) A college classmate was rising fast on the corporate route, but it didn’t really fit. One night he awoke spitting up blood from an ulcer. The stress of being a square peg in a round hole finally caught up with him. Fortunately, his enlightened company let him take a step back, and he finished his career developing several successful products while mentoring numerous young engineers.

Three stories, three happy endings…

And in the third case, nothing wrong or disgraceful with making a change. Had his company been less enlightened, he might well have succeeded with another company, or even as a consultant. (He did moonlight for a while to feed his passion to create rather than manage.)

Incidentally, all three made these decisions (as I did) at about age 40. The late Howard Shenson once noted this is a good age for a mid-career assessment. By that time, you have enough experience to know what you like (and are good at) and what you dislike (and perhaps are not so good at.)

The secret, Shenson said, is to focus on the former and ignore the latter. Unfortunately, many people miss this opportunity for change, and spend the rest of their lives in misery.

This post was prompted by a recent discussion.  I hope this helps if YOU are facing this dilemma. If you opt for freedom, consulting is but one option. It has been great for me!

Copyright © 2015, All rights reserved.

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