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What business are you *really* in?

I remember that less than a year into our professional services business, I read an article by Norm Brodsky, columnist of Inc. magazine, that was titled “What Business are you *Really* In?” At the time, one of the businesses Norm owned was an off-site document storage business. The point of the article was that he realized he was not in the record storage business, but that he was in the real estate business. Why real estate? One reason had to do with the cost of storage. He ran his business in New York, one of the most expensive cities for cost per square foot, so where he stored impacted his bottom line – not only his profitability, but also what clients would be willing to pay for storage. Also, when a prospective client needed to access records stored off-site, they did not want it to take a long time to get to the warehouse, nor pay high courier fees to get documents delivered from across town. Proximity, the location of the real estate, was important to all his prospective clients.

As I read this article, it got me thinking….hard. At the time, my co-founder, Kevin, and I had launched a professional technology services firm specializing in electronic document management for RIAs.

Our first two clients were a large firm in San Francisco and a small firm in Miami. Both of them belonged to a study group of advisors, whereby one of the other advisors had what at the time was cutting-edge technology.

Both the S.F and the Miami firm said they wanted exactly what the cutting-edge firm had. With the blessing of the early adopter firm (they were all friends), we duplicated her technology for the San Francisco and Miami firm.

Three things happened. Turns out the two firms did not truly want to replicate what the first firm had, despite what they said about how similar all three practices were. These were independent advisory firms, after all. So they didn’t really have the same needs.

Secondly, both firms – the large firm and the tiny firm of four employees, struggled out of the gate with the new technology. Why was that? Too much change at once.

This lead to the third thing – an epiphany – when the angels sang. At that moment, after reading the Norm Brodsky article, I realized we were not in the technology business. We were clearly in the “change management” business. And I had an “oh s***” moment that lasted for about 30 minutes. It went something like this:

Keep in mind, our first two clients we had flown out and met with in person, and did much of their work and training on site to get a feel for the boots-on-the-ground reality. However, our business model was to be web-based only. It was not part of our long-term plan to travel to do installs for clients. Not only did we feel if was not necessary, but we did not feel small businesses would not want to add per diem and travel expenses to the price tag.

So – “How were we going to change people’s behavior – people whom we had never met? And in some cases, people who were anxious about change?” Especially because at the time, moving away from paper was a pretty dramatic transformation, especially when it required most of the existing files to be back-scanned – a big project and a fundamental change for most firms.

That’s when I had one of the most important conversations of my career with a financial advisor mentor. In fact, the conversation was with the exact trailblazer whose office systems the other two advisory firms wanted to emulate.

The conversation is still crystal clear. I was pacing in the hallway of our home with my headset on. I was describing my revelation– that the business I was really in was the “change management” business, not technology after all.

And this advisor asked me one simple question that would change everything about what we did and how we did it.

She asked me: “What would your process look like if you could guarantee success?

It became clear to me in that moment all the reasons for why people struggled with technology change, and I knew exactly what we had to do to fix it.

As I explained to her the process I had in mind, she gave me a parting comment: “Remember - this is not a Chinese menu. They don’t get to mix and match for a list of services. If this process is what you know people need in order to be successful, this is what you provide.”

After being in business less than one year, we moved to that model, and it has been a raving success ever since.

Little did I know at the time, that conversation was groundbreaking in more ways than one. It set the stage and crystallized our drive and what was to become Trumpet’s purpose: We help people enjoy the way they work.

So I likewise encourage advisory firms to consider, if someone were to ask you, “what business are you in?” how would you respond? Do you think you’re you in the wealth management business, the investment advisory business, or is it something deeper?

If you decide you are in the “trust” business, "relationship" business, "dream fulfillment" business or something else entirely, it changes everything about how you approach your business and your clients.

It changes everything.

So, I encourage you to think…”what business are you really in?”


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Jo Day

Jo Day

Jo loves learning about interesting problems and how people are solving them. Jo is well known for connecting people and ideas and is a great catalyst (moo!) to change. Where some people see the world through rose colored glasses, Jo sees the world through processes. When Jo isn't hanging out with her family, Jo's favorite hobbies are being anywhere outdoors and coming up with new business ideas – just for fun!