In this minisode, Jennifer reveals how she made the decision to move from hired consultant to founder of her own company and how she has scaled her business. Discover the key considerations that you need to decide before starting a business, and the first team members to bring on board. Jennifer also shares how to raise capital and manage cash flow, and what to think about when deciding on a name for your company.
In this episode you’ll discover:
- How to decide whether you want to be a CEO (3:00)
- The first big decisions you’ll need to make when starting your own business (4:30)
- The first position that Jennifer hired for her business when she was starting out and why (7:30)
- The difference between being a technician and a business owner (10:00)
- How to decide if you want to work “in your business” or “on your business” (14:00)
- How to start building a team when you don’t have a lot of capital (21:30)
- The structure you need to build when you are building your business (23:00
- How to manage cash flow fluctuation (25:30)
- A key question to ask yourself as you scale (27:00)
- What to think about when naming your business (28:30)
Listen in now, or read on for the transcript of our conversation:
DOUG FORESTA: Hello, and welcome back to The Will to Change, this is Doug Foresta and Jennifer Brown. Today, I’m really excited about this episode because I actually do not know the full story of JBC consulting, and you’re going to hear that story, but we’re also going to be talking about what decisions you have to make as an entrepreneur or business owner in the early days about the direction that your business will take you.
Jennifer, welcome, always great to be with you, thanks.
JENNIFER BROWN: Thanks a lot, Doug.
DOUG FORESTA: Let’s start with, we were chatting a little bit off air just before we started, and you said you taught a bunch of different subjects. I didn’t even know that. Maybe we could start from whatever the beginning is. Can you say a little bit about the early days of your business and how you got started?
JENNIFER BROWN: Yeah, sure. In my TED Talk, I skip over a lot of years because, obviously, it’s a TED; it has to be short.
DOUG FORESTA: That’s right.
JENNIFER BROWN: After voice surgery and having to reinvent myself and finding my way, thankfully, to a master’s degree program at Fordham University here in New York about leadership development, which was such a gift. I really felt I had found my calling and my people and such a life’s passion.
I had been an internal HR person after that. Originally, I jumped into corporate because, as one does, it’s the easiest thing to do to get your chops and credibility and build your resume.
I ended up getting laid off after a couple years in corporate HR, which was such a gift – yet another gift. Life steering you, even though you find it terrifying.
I had been courted at the time when I was a head of HR by vendors and training companies to deliver our internal training, so I was vetting them. But when I got laid off, I thought to myself, “I should call them and offer myself to be a trainer and a delivery person.” Because I thought, I don’t love the back end of HR and running or being a high-level administrator. I really wanted to be in the classroom, I really wanted to be facilitating. I thought that was my best and highest use in this field.
They said, “Absolutely, we’re going to send you on the road. We loved you, we thought you would be great with our clients.”
We began a relationship with this wonderful firm named Madison Consulting Group. They’re very small here in New York. They’re a great company, and they’re a soft skills leadership training company. They do sales skills and manager 101 and business writing and conflict resolution and negotiation skills and time management.
I taught everything in their catalogue. It was such a crash course on the business world. Walking into a corporate client on site, having people for one, two, or three days even sometimes when we taught the long manager 101 classes.
I got to teach everything and learn it at the same time as I was teaching it. It was incredible. One of the things you’re taught when you study how adults learn is your job there is you need your expertise, certainly, but 90 percent of the knowledge you pull from the discussion and the value you pull is from the participants. That’s what’s so cool about teaching adults and talking about the business and the leadership conversation. It all lives in the audience, and your job is to welcome it, invite it, give it a little twist, connect some dots, give it back, have them build on it, learn from each other and not just from you.
This rhythm is established. It was such an easy fit for me. It was really enjoyable, and it meant that I didn’t have to have 20 years of running a P&L before I could teach a leadership class.
I taught everything. We were laughing earlier that a lot of the things I learned as I was teaching them. I was barely ahead.
DOUG FORESTA: That is true for all of us.
JENNIFER BROWN: Yes, it’s true for all of us. Those who don’t know how to do something, teach. (Laughter.)
It was fun. Then what happened, I was very good at that. And I thought I never wanted to be the CEO or the boss. I never wanted to be the person who was sending me out into the classroom to clients. I didn’t want all the administrative headaches of owning a training company that would have someone like me as a subcontractor. I don’t know why. I was scared of, I guess, the administrative responsibilities of it – the sales, the infrastructure – it looked like it was really intense. It’s funny, because that’s the life I live now.
DOUG FORESTA: Right, exactly. We’ll get to that exactly and what that looks like today. It sounds like you thought, “This is the fun part, the delivery.” Is that fair to say? This is what I want to focus on, I don’t want the headache of all the other stuff.
JENNIFER BROWN: Yes, definitely. And then what happened, unlikely, is a huge, huge client landed in my lap directly to me. I didn’t get this client through my subcontracting relationship, I got it directly. It was a Fortune 10 company.
DOUG FORESTA: Wow.
JENNIFER BROWN: They fell in love with me. At one point, I was facilitating three senior teams and their supply chain organization all over the world, coaching all the leaders. They were 80 percent of my revenue one year.
I ended my subcontracting relationships because I thought to myself, “This big client is a sign. There’s going to be more than I can handle, and there’s going to be more that now I’m getting my feet under me as a sales person and somebody who can find clients and attract them to us and me. If this company is seeing fit to invest so much with me, maybe there’s more business here.”
That was eye opening and a huge confidence booster to be entrusted with the leadership development of all of these senior teams and shadow them and travel with them and have a leader say to me, “Okay, they’re in your hands for the next two days, I’m out of here. Do whatever you want with them. Do leadership assessments, coaching, one-on-ones, activities.” I could design anything I wanted. I could read a book on a plane and land and teach something from the book the next day. It appealed to the improvisational, creative part of me that did so well on the stage as well, by the way. It’s that under pressure, inventing as you go, responding – a lot of the same sensations kinesthetically that I had on stage.
It was great. At that point, I thought, “Wait a second, I’m onto something. It’s bigger than me. Maybe this means I now need to create my own entity and grow from there.”
That’s a big decision. When you become the talent and then you’re responsible for managing all of it, billing, expenses – I’ll never forget invoicing the client and starting a business account versus your personal checking. All of that. There are so many rookie things that you do. Looking back, it’s funny, I used to comingle my checks from my clients into my personal checking account. You know, just stuff like that. It seems like forever ago.
I rolled with that one client and some little ones along the side for a while. But I knew with all of that good revenue coming in that I needed to – I always say, I could have taken that money and, I don’t know, gone and bought something with it for myself on a personal level. But, instead, I decided to hire a proper CFO/COO, a six-figure person, and really embark on a strategic planning process for the company.
We did an LLC for me, we looked for a line of credit, we started to build the infrastructure, the administrative processes.
DOUG FORESTA: I want to slow you down there for a second, because that is a – you went over that like, “Well, I decided to do that.” Exactly, for people who are into cars, I’m not particularly into cars, but $100,000 will get you a really, really –
JENNIFER BROWN: Right?
DOUG FORESTA: You could have, like you said, or you could have just put the money in the bank for yourself and said, “This is money that I have.” What went into that decision? It’s not an insignificant decision to say, “I’m going to hire a CFO at a six-figure salary and move in this direction.” What went into that decision?
JENNIFER BROWN: Thank you, there is a lot of choice at that moment and it really matters. It comes down to self-awareness and knowing what you’re capable of that is beyond what you’re doing right now. Sometimes you don’t see that in yourself and others see it in you.
That big client I was mentioning, I will never forget when she came to me one day and said, “We have all these trainings coming up, you don’t need to be there. Why don’t you send somebody else?” Getting that permission and shifting my thinking to say, “Wait a second, I could be sending other people all the time.” I could start to work as that famous book, The E-Myth, says, and I recommend it for everybody, “Are you going to work on the business or in the business?”
Getting that CFO and working on the business shifted the frame to say I could actually be a brand under which great people can come and do the work and help me do the work. I don’t always have to be the one that does the work.
By the way, maybe I’m as talented of a sales and marketing person as I am a consultant. That was also emerging to me. I’m not the kind of technician about my work where I really just want to be doing the work. That’s what brings me all the joy. I think for me I thought, “Wait a second, I’m a pretty good marketer. I have a lot of energy for building relationships and getting in front of people and schmoozing,” – certain characteristics that every business needs. Every business needs a sales person. Whether that person is your CEO and founder, and whether that person was your technical person and became your sales and marketing person, which can happen.
Oftentimes, technicians and people who are practitioners are the most comfortable doing what they do, and that’s their stock and trade, that’s their currency, that’s what they’re proudest of, it’s what brings them joy.
If that’s you, then it’s always probably going to be really difficult to build something beyond you, unless you can buddy-up with a great sales person and a great team around you that enables you to then just do the work, but then other people are selling you as the talent. That’s a different business model. That was me and I was the talent and everything else, but as I grew, I strategically thought about, “Who’s my sales person? Maybe I want a head of consulting who can manage the consultants and develop our IP. Who’s my marketing team?” I have an incredible marketing team that I actually spend most of my time with these days. We think about things like how do we build the brand, get the message out, write more, and generate more content? Where do I need to be in terms of speaking? Who needs to be seeing me, the team, and the brand?
I was lucky in so many ways – a million ways. I do think there’s that choice, Doug, of, “Is this bigger than me? What role am I best in playing? Do I want to work in the business or on the business? Do I want something bigger? And what kind of capital do I have to create something bigger?” Obviously, it takes money to go beyond yourself. That’s a very real constraint.
DOUG FORESTA: Let’s talk about that in a moment. I want to say also, when you say, “lucky,” there’s a saying, “Fortune favors the bold.” (Laughter.) You weren’t lucky. I would say you were lucky if you were sitting at home watching television and someone burst into your house and said, “Jennifer, I want you to take on training.” You were out there, you put yourself out there, you put yourself in a position to have opportunity. I just want to say that.
The other thing I want to ask you before I go into the capital piece, and maybe this is related. For you, you made the choice to hire and bring on a CFO as the first person. If someone is thinking, “I do need to build out a team,” is that automatically where you would start? Does it depend? Where do you start with that?
DOUG FORESTA: That was an expensive proposition. I would say that’s not going to be possible for most of us. You grow into hiring somebody like that. The reason I did that is I recognized that my lack of administrative knowhow would hurt my ability to run as fast as I possibly could with the client work.
I was scared that I would get over my skis. I had this inkling that if would get bigger than me really fast, and I would be equally overwhelmed or more overwhelmed with the administrivia of running a company and deciding people’s hourly rates and even making sure people are paid on time and doing all the consulting work. Something in me knew that I would need to stay in my lane and not try to learn QuickBooks, for example. A lot of entrepreneurs have to learn QuickBooks, you’ve got to be inputting your receipts, when you could be making sales calls. You can only spend a minute one way, and that message haunted me at that stage. That’s why I made the decision I made.
Under him, the infrastructure started to appear. We still carry a lot of that infrastructure to this day. It’s not the same, but it created new pathways for me in terms of thinking about my org chart. I learned about the major functions of every small company. I always call it the three-legged stool of sales, operations, and service delivery. These pieces usually need to be in place. Even if you’re a team of three, as long as you have all those things covered, you’re pretty good because then you can look after everything and make sure the trains are running on time, making sure that you’re selling enough, make sure that your delivery is at a high standard and you have different owners for different parts of the process.
For someone that doesn’t have capital to invest in that high-level person, I did also at the same time find a junior marketing person. She doubled as my admin as well and my scheduler and my tech support. I found her on Craigslist, my dear Emily Nugent. She’s still with us, yes, ten years later.
DOUG FORESTA: Yeah, I know Emily, yes.
JENNIFER BROWN: She’s wonderful. She’s so multi-talented. I found her on Craigslist, and she’s also a musician, so I was really excited to have somebody that was creative. She did everything with me alongside me when my team was just three people.
That’s affordable for a lot of us, I think. When you can find someone at an hourly rate where they’re going to get exposed to a lot of cool things, they’re going to be able to grow. I think, too, we’re a completely contractor-based company. You can grow without needing to have employees, per se. In fact, the gig economy is such, and we didn’t even know this ten years ago, it wasn’t even a word. What I have found, and I was the subcontractor 1099 person, too, is a lot of people just want to be 1099s. They want to be on call, they want to have agency in terms of what they choose to work on or not. They want to be able to say, “I’m going to take three months off, and I’m not available to do any projects.
DOUG FORESTA: Especially now. It seems like with the gig economy, there are a lot of people who are looking for more 1099 work than necessarily being brought on as a full-time employee.
JENNIFER BROWN: Yes. And you could argue, do they want that or is the economy forcing it? I’m not sure. That’s a whole other podcast.
DOUG FORESTA: It depends. There are a lot of creative people who really like that. But you’re right, that could be a whole episode in itself.
JENNIFER BROWN: Note to self. Yes, I think contracting really works well, especially for talent that has not been able to make it work or wanted to make it work in corporate. It’s legendary, as we always talk about on The Will to Change – corporate doesn’t make it easy one some of us. Depending on whether we’re single parents or we’ve got a kid with special needs. There is so much that goes on in our life stages, and we need our companies to be flexible for us, yet they are not. They are not rising to the occasion at the pace they need to. Therefore, a lot of amazing talent is spinning out.
Some of our listeners may be listening and thinking, “When can I leave my corporate job?” I’m unhappy, I’m stressed, I don’t have balance, my health is suffering, my emotional health. I’d love to make a go of it on my own like Jennifer has, what would that even look like? There is a lot that you need to look at if you’re thinking about that.
DOUG FORESTA: Absolutely. Let’s talk about that piece. Let’s dig into the piece about capital. What do I need to line up? I can hear some people sighing in the background saying, “Okay, I don’t have to bring on a six-figure, full-time CFO right away, but what do I need to have lined up to start a business?”
JENNIFER BROWN: A great question. I’ll tell you, for those of us who are already on our own, but maybe a company of one, what you do with the revenue you’re bringing in, and diversifying the number of clients you have so that you’re not overweighted in one relationship is really, really important. That was another thing I knew that I needed to change in the early days. While I was grateful to have this deep relationship that was yielding a lot, it was very much in jeopardy if anything went sideways.
When your numbers look good, when you’re profitable, meaning it might be really helpful in your first year of having your own business to make sure you have a P&L, make sure that there’s a way for you to look at your financial picture as a business separate from your personal, of course. Even if you’re breaking even, even if you’re underwater, it doesn’t matter, but the discipline of understanding how your business is running, what your expense structure is, how much you pay yourself? How much do you invest back into the business and in whom and where do you start? Do you start with a marketing person?
Doug, another really important place to get outsourced help is with a bookkeeper. You can get bookkeeping resources very, very affordably. Like I said earlier, you as the owner, you have to be really careful where you spend your time. It’s going to show up in your bottom line. If you can take $300 or $400 a month and make sure a bookkeeper is managing invoicing and getting you paid and doing your financials, maybe every quarter, you don’t need to do them all the time like we do them now. If you can set that relationship up, to me, that feels of utmost importance along with that CFO, if you can. That accounting company or bookkeeping company can function as a CFO. If you find the right one, they can be all those things wrapped into one. They can do your taxes, they can do your bookkeeping, and they can give you your financial reports, which is basically all you need.
If you’re a business and your revenue is $50,000, say, your first year out or $100,000, that’s really all you need. And then I would really challenge yourself to think about, even though it hurts and feels risky, investing in the help you need.
Back to capital. The other interesting thing is I’m a services business, Doug. There are product businesses out there that go out to the money and raise money, they can guarantee investors returns down the line because their product is scalable.
A really important framework that I learned about my business is it is really a slow-scaling business. It’s a people business.
DOUG FORESTA: It’s not making pencils, right? It’s not.
JENNIFER BROWN: No widgets, yeah. There is no way in the world I would ever say to an investor, “This time next year or in two years, here’s the payout that you’ll get.” Our field is a bit volatile. Diversity and inclusion is not the fad of the month, necessarily. Certainly, it’s hotter than ever, but the budgets for what we do are still very volatile. Companies are still trying to decide, “How do we structure this function? How much do we fund it? What should that funding be for?”
We are buffeted about by the uncertainty amongst our clients. It’s a different question than if it’s important to them. It is important to them, but just because something is important doesn’t mean there’s going to be a huge investment in it which would actually make an appreciable difference for me as the business owner on the receiving end, as the supplier or vendor.
I would say to folks, back to your financials. It’s important that you understand financial reports, that you know whether you’re profitable or not or breaking even, and that you are making investments, as painful as they might be, in outsourcing or getting help. When things look good, it would be a good time to go and begin a relationship with a bank and get a small loan of some kind.
It is very important, ultimately, when you get as big as we are, to have a line of credit. Interestingly, banks want to see a very beautiful, favorable financial picture when you approach them, of course. You need it, though, when you’re in a cash crunch.
DOUG FORESTA: Less than beautiful, right.
JENNIFER BROWN: Yes, exactly. Even for successful businesses, we have some crunches sometimes where some of our corporate clients pay on a 90-day schedule. You can imagine, we’re delivering the work within the first 30 days, right? We get into a crunch, and its just an availability of cash crunch, it’s not a warning sign or commentary.
DOUG FORESTA: It’s operational. It’s not that the business is in operational risk or anything like that, it’s just cash flow.
JENNIFER BROWN: Exactly. It’s cash flow, yes. Evening out your cash flow, by the way, is an advanced concept, and that’s what we strive to do now because I actually have a COO, I have a head of sales, I have an amazing bookkeeping accounting controller outsourced firm. We still outsource it, by the way. But they spend a lot of their time predicting revenue and predicting when we’re going to have the lulls and how to sequence payments to our team, which has grown and grown and grown, and now we’re probably 20 people or so, but how do we make sure everybody’s on schedule for their own payments? Remember, a lot of people I work with are not paycheck to paycheck, but certainly when you’re a contractor, these payments really, really matter. You still need to run a really good business and be on the up-and-up with your team.
As a founder, sometimes you have to take a back seat. That’s another question of capital, too.
DOUG FORESTA: Do you normalize your own salary?
JENNIFER BROWN: Exactly. There have been moments in ten years of running a business, it’s going to be the hardest on the founder usually. Founders are really selfless people, in my experience. I’m sure there are some that are a not, but a lot of us in the services business realm, we take care of our people first. We are always going to go to the mat for the business. We are always going to try to make up for any shortfall ourselves so that things can keep rolling seamlessly.
I don’t have human children, Doug, like you, but it’s your child. It’s your baby, it’s your reputation.
DOUG FORESTA: It is, absolutely.
JENNIFER BROWN: It’s interesting. You have to be all in. Financially, it’s very helpful if you have a significant other with a steady job and things like benefits and an income that you can count on, it certainly makes being an entrepreneur easier. No doubt about that. Not being a parent of human children also has enabled me to be more of a workaholic relatively, because it gets everything of me. It gets every part of me.
I think the dedication, the sheer number of hours, and the investment that I’ve been able to make in it, I’ve been very single minded about it. I think that’s probably true for a lot of business owners, we all do it because of passion. Certainly, if you are in the inclusion space, you are deeply invested in having impact. It’s not necessarily about becoming the biggest company in this space by revenue metrics. Maybe reputation is really important to you. Maybe you really want to have a strong point of view, but it’s just you, and you never really want to build a bigger company.
I want to add, Doug, that the other question you have to ask yourself is will it make you happy to have other people representing your brand? Is that something you really want? Or does it make you afraid or paranoid or turn you into a micro manager, or you don’t trust people to carry your message in a way that you approve of?
That’s another thing to notice about yourself as you’re asking the question about whether you want to grow beyond yourself. For me, I have always been lucky. I’ve been delighted and proud about anybody on my team that has a great day on a client site, and I hear about it and everybody had such a great experience, the client’s happy, my team member’s happy.
DOUG FORESTA: Sure.
JENNIFER BROWN: That brings me a ton of joy. Not just because I didn’t have to get on a plane and go do it, so I feel like my business model is working, but even more than that, it’s that our message is being pulled out into the world in a much bigger way than I could ever do alone.
DOUG FORESTA: Right. You couldn’t be physically in all these locations.
JENNIFER BROWN: Right. Right. I would drive myself crazy. As you grow your business, think about your own health and your own balance and say, “I can’t be all things to all people. I can’t control all the things about this.” If I need help and I’m ready to put some money down towards that, what kind of help would enable me to get closer and closer to doing what brings me joy?
If you come from that place, then your beginning org structure, you’ll think about that first hire and that second hire, and maybe you start super part time. Maybe you start with ten hours a week with someone and you just ease into working together and figuring that out. You get your legs under you.
I still make a ton of mistakes. Oh, gosh.
DOUG FORESTA: It’s all learning experience.
JENNIFER BROWN: The other thing I wanted to bring up, Doug, the question of what to call your company is another thing that a lot of people want to know my opinion on. That has always been a question for us for ten years.
When I started, I had nothing else to call my company except for my name. It was the easiest thing. It wasn’t an ego play at all, it had nothing to do with that. It was more that it’s Jennifer Brown LLC, of course it is.
DOUG FORESTA: Right. I’m Jennifer Brown, exactly.
JENNIFER BROWN: And the bank is happy because the name matches the name on the account.
DOUG FORESTA: Exactly.
JENNIFER BROWN: It’s been this back-and-forth, interestingly, around if you name it after yourself, is anyone else going to be comfortable working in it – especially people who are client facing? I’m happy to say right now if I can speak for my team, people are excited and it’s not an issue. In the past, it has come up as a demotivator for people. It’s almost like they might have wanted the company to be called something else because they didn’t want to always feel like they were in my shadow, even though I wasn’t in the room.
You’ve got to be careful about that because part of me was so team oriented and low ego, that I almost went through with changing the name of the company at one point because I felt I was getting so much pressure by my team, and I wanted them to be successful. The last thing I ever wanted to do was to make them feel small or not feel like they were walking in with the most strength and credibility that they could.
In the end, I got some really good advice as I was trying to wrestle with these decisions from other woman business owners who said, “You are the biggest asset of your company, and that will probably never change. Just because you have your name on the door, it’s your biggest asset, and it’s something that you can transcend. You just need to find the right people that celebrate who you are and are really proud to be there under your name.”
DOUG FORESTA: It’s a brand.
JENNIFER BROWN: It’s a brand.
DOUG FORESTA: It’s a brand now, right?
JENNIFER BROWN: Yes. But I doubted it. That’s some advice for people. Think about the implications both ways. If you don’t want to be the brand, which some of my friends don’t want to be the brand. They just don’t. Then feel free to call it something else, and then you can take a hidden role in your own company. There is nothing wrong with that. Some of us are meant to be out on the edge of the stage and that’s our best and highest use, and then some of us are like the architects and scientists behind the scenes, or maybe an operations person, even though we’re the owner, and we have other people who we lead with.
In making this decision, you have some choices. I can’t say there’s a right answer, but for me, it was the right answer. Maybe it won’t be the answer forever, but I feel that it was affirmed that it is okay to be in the lead position. For some women out there in particular, this is an interesting question, if you find that you’re wrestling with your own confidence around this question, you’re not alone. You may not be protecting your name because you may be wanting to share and be democratic and inclusive, but maybe also putting yourself in a second seat when you shouldn’t. What’s in a name?
DOUG FORESTA: That’s a whole other one.
JENNIFER BROWN: That’s a whole other one.
DOUG FORESTA: Jennifer, we have a good problem, which is that there is so much more that we need to dig into, so much more I want to ask you about leadership style and working with virtual teams. What was it like when you had consultants start going out working under the Jennifer Brown name? There are so many other things. If it’s okay with you, we’re going to do a part to follow-up to this. There is so much to dig into here.
JENNIFER BROWN: Thank you, Doug. Thanks for listening. It’s very cathartic to talk about it.
DOUG FORESTA: It’s great. The more you started sharing, the more I said, “Oh, my gosh.”
JENNIFER BROWN: It’s a bigger expertise sometimes than diversity for me. Being a business owner is no joke. It is ten PhDs in one. I would love to talk more. I’d love to hear from our listeners what they’re curious about. I know, Doug, I look forward to the next time.
DOUG FORESTA: Thank you so much. For all our listeners, stay tuned. Our next minisode will be part two of this. Jennifer, thank you, as always.
JENNIFER BROWN: Thank you, Doug.
DOUG FORESTA: Thank you.
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