How committed are you to your vision for your company? Committed enough that you would sooner see it fail than change your approach?
Most experts will tell you that's crazy and that you'll build the most successful business by supplying what the market demands. But every once in a while, sticking with a vision to the point of apparent insanity turns out to be a very smart move.
Case in point: Jeremy Cohen, co-founder of The Talent Studios, an executive search firm. Cohen has what he calls a "pedigree"-an MA in Organizational Psychology from Columbia and three years at DHR International, one of the top five retained executive search firms. From that vantage point, he saw an opportunity: To create a search firm that would cater to specific large consumer brands. It would offer the experience and education of his background from a top-five search firm, but would also match the brand image these companies project.
"I saw a gap in the marketplace," he explains. "There were a lot of informal search firms with t-shirts and jeans but not a lot of pedigree. On the other hand, there were the big five, and everyone there looked like bankers." There weren't any firms combining the prestige of the big-five with the dress-down informality of today's most vibrant brands.
He and his partner decided to start a firm that could directly engage and mirror the consumer brands they loved most. "There are opportunities to work with companies you're not passionate about, they allow you to earn a livelihood," he says. "But the folks who seem to hit it out of the park are the people who are passionate about the product."
So Cohen went after Red Bull, a brand that was perfectly aligned with his love of adventure sports. It happened that Red Bull at that time was transforming its leadership team and needed to find 35 new top executives. Coming in as an embodiment of the Red Bull lifestyle, Cohen managed to unseat 12 other search firms and won all the business for his company. But after a good long run, all the searches were completed. "We filled every role they needed and walked ourselves out the door by placing a head of talent development," he recalls.
Job well done. Now what?
The Talent Studios had a problem. While working on Red Bull's searches, they hadn't solicited other customers and now there were no new big-brand customer accounts. Offers of work were coming in though. It often happened that someone seeking an insurance executive or another similar business would call to inquire about a search. And technology companies, all of whom are hurting for talent, offered to pay above the usual market price for searches.
But Cohen didn't want to take this business on. It takes a lot of time and effort to learn an industry well enough to be really expert at search, he explains, and he didn't want to do it for these industries that did not align with his vision. He didn't want to fake it, either. "I didn't want to do a search pretending I was the best person for it when I well knew it wasn't my subject matter area," he says.
What followed were some lean times. "There was a lapse when things were very dim," he recalls. "My partner was getting job offers. I was considering going back to a big-five firm although that sounded awful to me."
Faced with the choice between taking on clients he didn't really want or closing up shop, Cohen decided to do neither. Instead, he doubled down. During his years of searches for Red Bull, he had settled into a long-term relationship and was now spending less time on adventure sports and more time enjoying the outdoors. That led him to Burton Snowboards. Determined to win that account, he invested in a trip from Los Angeles, where Talent Studios is located, to Burlington, Vermont, where he spent a week learning about the company.
"I doubt other search firms would have done that with no guaranteed work," he says. "There was no guarantee of work and also no search they needed done to talk about. It's one thing to do that if you're talking to a company about a specific search. It's another degree away when there's no search and it's just an introduction. It's very rare, and that's the kind of thing we do, and did do even when we had very little cash."
The gamble paid off, and Burton Snowboards became a client. When Cohen then had a daughter, he decided to go after American Girl, which meant another trip, this time to Wisconsin. Here again, his personal connection to the product paid off. "I learned about the business and shared anecdotes about my young daughter, and as a result conducted a search for their new chief of e-commerce." Thanks to this approach, the lean times are over at The Talent Studios, with millions in search fees every year, only four employees, and a healthy profit margin, he reports. And it's earning those returns doing work that the founders are passionate about.
There's a lesson in this story, Cohen says. "We've come a long way in three years-and it's the result of really believing in yourself. You might have parents or friends or stakeholders who tell you otherwise. If you don't look in the mirror and believe it, nobody will."
Do you have enough belief in yourself to stick to your vision-even when it seems crazy?