Jennifer Benz is Founder and CEO of Benz Communications, a boutique consulting and marketing firm that specializes in employee benefits and health care. Jen leads a team of 25 employees and serves numerous top-tier firms.
Roll Up Your Sleeves
I'm something of an unintentional entrepreneur. I didn't set out to build a business--not at first.
In 2006, I took on a few freelance projects while exploring my next corporate move. One client quickly grew into more, and I formed partnerships with other freelancers and a small design agency to take on bigger projects. It wasn't long before I realized that what I had in front of me was amazing and special, and that I'd never have another corporate job again. I joined forces with the head of that small design agency, Isabelle Englund-Geiger, and embraced building Benz Communications.
I've learned a lot about what it takes to set out, survive and flourish as a professional services entrepreneur, much of which can be boiled down to three key pieces of advice I learned from my parents. They were in the services business themselves -- as electrical contractors -- and set an early example of working hard, keeping an eye toward perfection and creating a successful niche.
1. Embrace hard work.
Many people romanticize professional services businesses as "lifestyle" businesses, complete with three-hour lunches and a cushy schedule. But, the unglamorous truth is that growing and running a professional services firm takes a tremendous amount of roll-up-your-sleeves hard work. The long hours and "do whatever it takes to get the job done" work ethic that my parents brought to their contracting business was a good role model. Especially in the first years of the business, the answer to many of our challenges was simply longer hours and harder work.
Eight years in, I still savor the weeks that I work only 40-some hours. We have become really good at staffing so our team works modest hours (especially compared to most agencies) and we take real time off. But, our daily work is -- and will always be -- very demanding. My current priority as a leader is to help my team develop the work habits needed to do creative, challenging work almost every work hour of every day.
2. If you're going to do it, do it well.
My parents were the ultimate perfectionists and pushed my sister and me to be the best at whatever we did. They didn't know they were giving us business advice at the time; it was just part of our family values.
Now, that focus on quality and "doing it the right way" is ingrained in me and is also ingrained in my business. My team is laser-focused on quality, and continuous improvement is built into our business DNA. We celebrate our successes and then look for a way to outdo ourselves the next time around. We have a team who loves the craft of communication as much as the impact it makes, and we have learned to hire ego-free experts who are inspired by continuous learning.
3. Know your niche.
The most successful time for my parents' business was when they focused on a narrow niche: as a preferred subcontractor for the growing public school districts surrounding Denver, Colo. For my company, that niche is employee benefits communication for forward-looking large employers.
As a consulting business, it takes tremendous discipline to define and maintain a niche. But it is critical to success. We narrowed in on that market and put a lot of resources into thought leadership and content marketing to grow our brand and credibility. The Affordable Care Act gave us a once-in-a-lifetime platform to share that expertise.
For any struggling services business, my first piece of advice is to more narrowly define your niche. Then you'll know just how to define your voice so your customers can find you.