Sarah Johnson Dobek is president and founder of Inovautus Consulting, a national consulting firm that develops strategies, programs, and training designed to help accounting firms grow faster and in the right direction.
Why Start Your Own Business?
Sarah had always aspired to work in consulting. She enjoys helping people and advising.
"Be willing to fail. Part of success in marketing and business development is learning. I see way too many firms quit because they tried something and it didn't work. A lot of times, a small tweak to something you're doing can have a really big impact. Don't be discouraged by your failures."
This mindset is very important as you continue to develop.
"You're going to hit roadblocks no matter how successful you are. Bringing in outside advisors can help you figure out a new path forward. What got you to where you are today may not get you to where you're going, things naturally have to evolve."
Making the First Hire
Sarah's first hire was a contractor working in an intern role. It's difficult to manage people and it took Sarah a couple of years to feel comfortable enough in hiring someone full-time. Sarah estimates it took 5-6 years to narrow down exactly what she was looking for in a hire.
Building Culture in a Remote Environment
The hires that didn't share firm values ended up struggling immensely. To build culture, Sarah makes sure the firm is interacting and conversing online - video chat is critical to this. They also meet up once a year.
"Our values are critical... the folks that we've hired that didn't share our values struggled immensely and we struggled with them. It just wasn't a good fit."
Accountability and Expectations
Since you can't manage by sight in a remote environment, Sarah manages to deadlines. They try to be as clear as possible and use the project management system accurately and thoroughly so all work flows through there. Processes must be document clearly.
"We manage to deadlines and we try to be as clear as possible... We live and breathe by our project management system, it outlines expectations... all of our work goes through there."
Weekly or bi-weekly check-ins with the team are very important to monitor progress and capacity. By doing this, issues can be brought up, proactively communicated, and resolved before a final deadline or deliverable date hits.
Biggest Challenge in Building and Raising a Virtual Team
Sarah believes communication is the biggest challenge, even given the measures taken to ensure open collaboration and transparency. There is always room for misinterpretation. Communication is easy in an office environment, you must be much more intentional with communication operating virtually. To overcome communication issues, all meetings involve a recap. Chatting and "water-cooler talk" is encouraged but not required.
Sarah believes it's very important to project out a few years when switching technology platforms. You must be able to grow with the new platform or service over at least 2-3 years.
Most Treacherous Challenge
Managing people is different from leading. Sarah believes the leadership component and self-confidence is most difficult. Tough self-doubt can always creep in, so Sarah is a big believer of self-talk. She looks to dig in and talk herself through things.
"You're going to have doubt. You'll always have doubts as a business owner, every stage you go through... The bigger you get, the further you can fall... and the weight becomes larger."
COVID-19 Influence on Business
The changes in Sarah's business came from speaking with clients and identifying their needs. To address this, they created a toolkit and transitioned to an eCommerce business overnight. The goal wasn't necessarily for profit, but that clients absolutely needed this information to deal with this crisis. Sarah believes that firms should position themselves as an open and willing resource with advisory services. Also, have the confidence to bill for the services you provide. This can be a tough conversation to have. You want to have that conversation up front and make sure there are no surprises, be empathetic about the situation.
During this crisis, Sarah is handling things week to week. Everyone wants some level of normalcy, but it may not be realistic. Sarah is slowly starting to phase back in this normal content, but tweaking the messaging to the situation and being cognizant of the state of the conversation. Now is the time to be a thought-leader, re-engage with your communities, and be visible in the marketplace.
"Re-engage with your communities and be a resource. We're spending a lot of time on our thought-leadership, there is an opportunity.. to be out there and be visible in the marketplace. It will carry far, people will remember that."