By Rob Johnson, 13 September 2016
I describe Research Consulting as a ‘mission-driven business’. This means we deliver work that makes a difference, with the drive and focus of a commercial undertaking. In practice this can feel like walking a tightrope, where it is all too easy to lean too far in one direction or another.
Before I founded the company in 2013, I spent several years working in an international professional services firm, and a number of years at a university. In each case I came to realise that the environment didn’t fully suit me. I thrived on the pace of the commercial world but I wasn’t motivated by financial gain. It was great to work for the public good, but after a while the inflexibility and bureaucracy sapped my enthusiasm. Setting up my own company was an attempt to combine the positives from each of these experiences.
For me, getting the right balance between our ‘mission’ and our ‘business’ right depends on five things.
1. Find a mission that matters – and stick to it
Our mission is to improve the effectiveness and impact of research and scholarly communication. It’s a big goal, to which we will only ever make a small contribution. We therefore focus our efforts where our time, energy and effort can make the greatest difference.
Initially this meant advising universities how to manage their research and open it up to the rest of the world. We now work with many other organisations as well, but in each case we use what we know to make a difference to our clients and to further our mission. You might call this finding your niche, or working at the intersection of passion, talent and opportunity. Ultimately, it’s about doing a few things well because you care about them, while being in a position to make a difference.
Over time, the opportunities we are presented with have begun to go wider than our mission. In recent weeks I’ve been asked if we can run strategic finance training for senior university leaders, help a university with recruitment into a key role, write a book chapter on growing a business, and carry out a workforce audit in the NHS. Yet taking on these opportunities doesn’t fit with our mission. I therefore try to implement what Greg McKeown calls the disciplined pursuit of less – sticking to our mission, and gracefully saying ‘no’ to anything that deviates from it.
2.Embrace the simplicity of the bottom line
When I first started Research Consulting, I was given two sound pieces of advice. The first was ‘The more you charge the more will people value your time’, and the second: ‘There’s no point being the guy who’s really good and really cheap’. Both have proven to be true. However compelling your mission, and however well-equipped you are to deliver it, if you can’t make it pay then you won’t get far.
The truth is there’s nothing particularly complex about running a business. That doesn’t mean it’s easy, but turning a profit is a relatively simple goal compared with running a university, a hospital or a country, let alone teaching in an inner-city school or providing end-of-life care. It is however an environment that is very unforgiving of mistakes, and where failure is more ruthlessly exposed than elsewhere. That means you learn quickly what works and what doesn’t.
For me, the benefit of being a mission-driven business is the immediacy of the feedback we get on our work. Either a proposal is successful or it isn’t, either our clients are happy or they aren’t, and either we turn a profit or we go under. Given this imperative, we can’t afford to let projects drift on interminably, or accept perpetual scope creep. The fact we are a business fundamentally helps us to deliver high quality work, on time and on budget.
3. Seek out work that is meaningful – and track your progress
We’ve probably all heard the story of the three stonecutters building a cathedral, only one of whom really understands the meaning of his work. But the reality is most of us struggle to sustain our focus on the bigger picture if what we face daily is pure drudgery, or if our best efforts are thwarted through factors beyond our control. What difference does being in a mission-driven business actually make on a wet Monday morning when you’re sifting through a backlog of emails?
It seems to me that it comes down to making progress in meaningful work. For many who work in the public and not-for-profit sector, the work has meaning, but the sense of progress can be elusive. In a commercial environment, it may be easy to make progress in climbing the career ladder or chasing financial rewards, but it can sometimes be harder to know what you are doing it for. As a mission-driven business, what we seek to do is to combine the two.
I believe the work we do to improve the way research is managed, disseminated and commercialised is meaningful. Yet on a day-to-day basis I take at least as much satisfaction from making tangible progress. This might be completing the first draft of a difficult report, or finally publishing a blog post like this one. One privilege of working in consultancy is that our projects (usually) have clearly defined aims and objectives, and a finite life. This helps us chart our progress more effectively than most, but we’ve deliberately invested in project and quality management processes that support this.
To put it another way – making progress is what keeps you awake at work; finding meaning in that work is what helps you sleep at night.
4. Remember, small is beautiful
It hasn’t always been the case, but in recent months we’ve found ourselves turning away almost as much work as we take on. In a traditional business, this would be a sign to staff up, put our prices up, and milk the opportunity for it’s all worth. Instead we’ve grown relatively slowly. Partly this is about maintaining some work-life balance, and managing the risk that comes with a growing cost base. However, I’m also convinced that growing too fast is likely to erode the quality of what we do, and ultimately compromise our mission.
There’s good evidence that businesses that begin life with an extra-financial purpose tend to side-line it as they grow – particularly if they take on external investment. The fact is that bigger businesses have to manage by numbers, policies, procedures and, if you get big enough, the goal of ‘creating shareholder value’. Whatever the intentions of the individuals working within the business, this can result in a collective tendency towards short-termist behaviour and the pursuit of growth at any cost. If you think this is a recent problem, just read John Steinbeck’s description of 1930s banks for a useful corrective.
Plenty of people have recognised the problem of short-termism but we’re a long way from finding a workable solution. Call it a cop-out if you will, but for me the best solution is to stay small. This leaves me free to take decisions that I believe further our mission, even if they don’t make sense on purely financial grounds. I’m not short-changing shareholders or external investors, and I don’t have to justify every decision to a board of trustees. If we can grow slowly but steadily while continuing to fulfil our mission – great! But I’d rather stay small and feel good about what we do than pursue growth for its own sake.
5. Put your money where your mouth is
One challenge of running a mission-driven business is how you deal with success. I set up Research Consulting as a business because I wanted to work in a more commercial way, not to earn a commercial return. As we have become more established, though, we have to make choices about what work to take on, and what to do with our profits. If our mission is to be more than just a marketing ploy, it needs to be reflected in those choices.
G.K. Chesterton once said: ‘There are two ways to get enough. One is to continue to accumulate more and more. The other is to desire less’. I try to remember this when determining what profits to take from the business, and I have sought to practice it from the outset by giving 10% of our pre-tax profits to charitable causes.
Equally importantly, making a profit creates opportunities to fulfil and extend our mission. It allows us to take on work that is meaningful, but doesn’t necessarily pay well. It also allows us to give back to the communities of which we are part – both in our local area, and in the wider world of research and scholarly communication. With this in mind, two goals I hope to fulfil in the next phase of the business are to take on and train up an apprentice, and to support a student through a PhD.
Like walking a tightrope, building a mission-driven business isn’t easy. There can be tension between pursuing a mission and running a business, but it is a creative tension. Building a mission-driven business has been a wonderful journey over the last three years. I am excited to see where it takes us next.
Featured image: Vaclav P3k/Shutterstock.com