In business, as in life, it can be really (really!) hard to ask for help. Yet, bringing in outside assistance is often the smartest course of action. In the business world, these fairy godpeople come in the form of consultants, and the right one—or two, or five—can give burgeoning but struggling businesses a big edge. Just ask Denis Doré, co-founder and CEO of 3D animation shop Squeeze Studio Animation (2019 Growth 500: No. 57), which splits operations between Quebec City and Montreal. Eight years ago, soon after he and co-founder Patrick Beaulieu left video game giant Ubisoft to start their own studio, the ambitious twosome hit a snag: they wanted to create an original, smash-hit TV series, but they didn’t really know how. “We needed help to understand how series financing worked here in Canada,” says Doré. “More importantly, we needed to know how to distribute that series internationally to reach a broad audience, turning that single product into a full franchise.”
Aware of their blind spots, Doré and Beaulieu collected expert advice from legal and licensing consultants to help them build crucial relationships with talent agents and distributors. “We never wanted to rely on consultants long term,” says Doré, “but we really learned from them where we could, and would bring them back in for specialized projects.”
While it can be an Everest-ian test of ego for execs to admit what they don’t know—and, in that spirit, recruit someone to fix their business’s kinks—Doré’s experience, and those of his Growth 500 contemporaries, shows that properly deployed consultants are often the key to streamlining processes and, ultimately, soaring to new, lucrative heights.
According to Peter Lawler, executive vice-president of the Business Development Bank of Canada’s Advisory Services division, trying to do it all is a classic error encountered by new entrepreneurs. “The right consultant can bring a level of expertise that allows owners and executives to take a step back, pivot and focus on what’s important,” he says.
At Squeeze, Doré was wise to acknowledge his own shortcomings quickly. If you’re in the fortuitous position where growth has come faster than expected, it’s especially key to have a consultant at the ready. “They give you instant access to specific fields of expertise that are just impossible to cover internally, especially at the outset,” Doré says. That expertise is what can help a company succeed, allowing execs to concentrate on the areas where they can add value as leaders.
KNOW THEIR ROLE
Discerning when to ask for help can be just as tricky as realizing you need it. Enter Peter Block, author of Flawless Consulting: A Guide to Getting Your Expertise Used, with a shortcut: “When you find yourself having the same conversations over and over again, or when you find yourself at odds with someone else in the business, that’s when you need to seek a third party,” he says.
Also, says Block, don’t hire a consultant to do a job—like downsizing, for example—that should be the responsibility of in-house execs. Choose someone that will be a good fit, namely, someone that possesses the precise resources to tackle the task at hand. “Be very skeptical of a consultant who tells you how much money they’ve saved other companies,” Block says. Ultimately, that indicates they’re taking credit for an action that rightfully rested with management. They might be selling themselves too hard.
START AT THE TOP
The need for fledgling execs to laser focus on stability can often result in the neglect of other segments of the company. “One of the most important areas a consultant can help an entrepreneur with is building better leadership capabilities,” says Lawler. In 2018, Natalie Armata—co-founder and chief creative officer of Toronto ad agency Giants & Gentlemen—realized, after seven years of strong growth, that it was time for the business to evolve. So Armata and the executive team at Giants (2019 Growth 500: No. 322) brought in Rob Drynan from BeachHead Strategic to provide a detailed analysis of the company’s processes, financial systems, business development and, crucially, its culture. The results pointed straight back to senior management.
“We found that our people wanted to be more involved in key decisions that affected our future success,” Armata says. “We made improvements to how we delineated roles, changed some titles and adjusted our organizational chart.” For Block, how execs answer the following question often reveals which of their companies are poised to evolve: “Do you have the courage to act on the expertise you asked for?” (In Armata’s case, the answer was yes.)
Two years ago, Perkopolis founder and CEO Morgan Marlowe realized her company had grown to the point where processes and staff responsibilities were increasingly blurred. “We would end up indirectly assigning two people to do the same thing and not even realizing it,” she says. Marlowe then brought in self-described “scale coach for founder CEOs” Brent Lowe to help get her out of the weeds. “He taught me how to bring clarity to everyone’s roles and responsibilities, and to align team members to be completely engaged in the company.”
As a result, Perkopolis (2019 Growth 500: No. 499) has seen growth in its account management, sales, and data teams, as well as hiring senior managers that allow Marlowe to focus on wider company strategy.
Block, who has been consulting for nearly four decades, foresees a change in how experts are allocated. “The consulting business is going to shrink into one focused on relationships, more on culture than cutbacks.”
Beyond forging improved intra-office dynamics, consultants should also be leveraged to link companies with outside resources. Doré credits Squeeze’s former roster of consultants with helping them source tax incentives and financial help from Teletoon Canada. Thanks to that help, Squeeze now has over 125 artists and technical experts working in each of its offices. And that original hit TV series—the one they were hell-bent on producing? Cracké is now being broadcast in 210 territories.