Why we hire consultants to help build egghead.io

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Over the past few years we have built egghead.io from a relatively simple “video blog” and into a full blown platform for developers to publish their knowledge about software development as screencasts and get paid for it. The process has been intense! Every step of the way was a new road block labeled “NOW LEARN THIS”. Often with multiple new skills to learn at the same time. If you stop for a minute and consider what it takes to build an online business from scratch, your list would be similar to:

It’s really fucking daunting. As a “mild” perfectionist and planner with symptoms of OCD to proceed without first fully understanding the problem and knowing the proper, best-we-can-manage solution to the problem. To solve this, especially in the beginning when it is just you and the wide open internet is to:

  1. Buy all the books.
  2. Read all the books.
  3. Search for answers and opinions on the internet.
  4. Combine all of the above into a composite solution for your specific problem.

This takes a long time, depending on the scope and difficulty of what you want to build. It is required though, and as somebody that is trying to solve a non-trivial problem using software deployed to the internet you will need to be an expert in many things.

Wikipedia, Amazon, Kahn Academy, Safari Online…

It’s seriously amazing to be alive in this time of deep deep wealth of available information.

There are definitely other options. You can even take college courses, but that is dreadfully slow and it will delay making The Thing for sure, maybe forever. They don’t offer a degree that combines the list above, and it is very expensive.

Another option can be to take on a partner or partners. This is tricky, but you’ll often hear the story of a technically oriented person teaming up with a business savvy person to create a thing. Partnerships can be amazing and work out wonderfully, but they can also be horribly tragic and painful. Choose your partners well, and understand that (maybe most?) partnerships can end badly if expectations don’t meet reality.

Some combination of the above is going to be how you get started building your business. You’ll understand the principles of getting an audience built. Once you’ve got a group of people that appreciate your help and knowledge, you’ll sell them something small. Now, you’ve started to develop an income somewhere in the “hey, this pays the rent!” range, and you’ll have had interaction with your audience and understand their pain and suffering even more. Now it’s time to alleviate the pain, and build The Thing.

What’s The Thing? Who knows. If you start with an idea of the solution, you’ve basically tainted the whole process and will most likely become another sad case of “9 out of 10 small businesses fail” giving the rest of us a bad name. Right now what it is doesn’t matter, but the process remains the same.

Learning all of the skills needed to build a Platform of Audience Pain Relief at an expert level is an admirable goal. For a lifetime. That’s too long, so how can we speed that process up and serve our audience in more profound ways sooner?

Expert consultants. Individuals that bring years of experience, intelligent insight, and high level focus on the specific problems that your business craves. Consultants, good consultants, are highly paid to give you their undivided attention. The amazing world-class experts in their fields that would take you a decade of sad failures to fully understand what they can accomplish in a matter of weeks.

A good consultant will cost you thousands or tens of thousands of dollars per week, and when you see the proposal’s last page, it can be a bit of a gut shot. A good consultant can ultimately save you years and increase your earnings exponentially.

If you want to maximize the value you get out of your consultant engagement, it’s important to have a conversational knowledge of the area of expertise you are hiring a consultant for. The more knowledge you have will help you identify specific problems that are beyond your current level, as well as interview and make sane decisions when you hire a consultant.

How to actually hire the good consultants is another essay ;)

You hire a consultant as a teacher.

If your hope is to hire an expensive consultant to “do their thing and leave” they will do that, and it could be just fine. Or…

Look at your world-class consulting engagement as an opportunity to receive a condensed practical education from somebody in the top of their field in the context of your business.

This approach can multiply your investment in hiring experts so much.

When you are paying a consultant $25-50k a week (sounds crazy, right?) and they are doing their work, you should be taking notes and asking questions.

Have you ever seen the show Kitchen Nightmares? You’ll notice one type of restaurant owner that always bickers with Gordon “fucking” Ramsay. You’ve got a world class chef and restauranteur standing in your kitchen giving you tips and techniques to lift your business and better serve your customer… and you’re gonna bicker with him?

If you own a restaurant and Chef Ramsay is in your kitchen, you should be standing at attention, notepad poised, asking questions, and scribbling down the answers to study that night to ask more questions.

Don’t annoy the Chef, but learn, observe, and communicate where you want clarity. Take notes. Summarize in written documents. Ask questions async (email). Ask the expert to review your summaries. Use this time to your advantage.

If you consider your consultant as a prized guest lecturer there to demonstrate and teach you how to improve your business, they are money well spent.

Building a team

If things go as planned, you can start hiring experts to work with you full time. That can be an amazing experience, though you’ve also added “HR” to the list of skills you need to know and understand. You might fuck that up a few times too, as you learn about hiring and working with humans the hard way through trial and error.

Consultants are often hired to fix problems caused by poor early choices, which is fine and sometimes required. Consultants can also be hired to start new directions and ideas correctly.

Once you’ve got a team in place, hiring consultants can continue to help educate the entire team, while filling in gaps with their expert knowledge. Now the team can be present and observe the work that occurs to draw upon and fill in their knowledge gaps. The team can summarize and discuss the work the consultant is doing, as well as participate in the feedback cycle and clarification.

Hiring a good consultant can uplift your business’s product and team and work as across the board multiplier to Platform of Audience Pain Relief. The team wins, the customers win, the consultant wins, and ultimately you win too.

What if it goes bad?

It’s not all roses. Engagements can go wrong. You might end up feeling a little sad or disappointed if your expectations don’t reflect the outcomes. At that point, it’s time for some reflection and understanding. Was it a total loss? Are the gains not apparent yet? Were we attacking the wrong problems at the wrong time?

It’s a learning experience. Don’t bet the farm on a consulting engagement! It’s an intermediate to advanced technique, which in itself is on the (ever-growing) list of skills you probably need to have.

If you learn something, the odds are that a bad consulting engagement is a low-key win you and the business.

Keep going.