Brian Casel
Brian Casel

Starting a Consultancy (what’s different this time?)

by Brian Casel on February 24, 2024
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Here in 2024, I’m doing something I thought I wouldn’t do again in my career.

I opened a new consultancy! Yup, back to working with clients.

It’s not my first rodeo in client services. But this time, I’m taking a much different approach.

Let’s unpack.

My new consultancy

Since late last year, I started working with clients on product strategy and software product development.

Now I’m formalizing it under the name Instrumental Products. It’s my product studio, where I partner with SaaS companies, founders, and creators on taking a new product from concept to launched.

Instrumental Products

I think I bring a unique killer combo:

As a full stack designer, developer who also has experience building multiple businesses, I relate to the goals of founders in a way that most developers don’t. And, I can build, launch and sell.

For more on how I’m framing the offering and who it’s a great fit for, check out my new 1-pager site.

Taking a different approach

My previous experiences in client services included solo freelancing, small agencies, large agencies, and productive services.

I’ve worked as a solo operator, I’ve grown teams up to 25, and worked inside agencies much larger than that.

I did pretty well financially with those client services businesses. One of them was even acquired and resulted in my largest exit to date.

Still, all of my experience in client services came with a common theme: They always drove me away from client services, for one reason or another.

I want to avoid that outcome this time. So here are some ways I’m approaching this new product studio differently.

Solving problems… as a service.

What I’m most excited about is the nature of the work itself. Product work.

To design a product is to solve a problem. The entire process gives me endless amounts of creative energy.

From identifying the right problem to solve, to researching how customers currently experience it, to strategizing the simplest most elegant solution, all the way through to positioning and bringing this new product to market.

It’s strategic. It’s creative. It’s technical. It’s challenging. It’s rewarding.

This is different than my previous work in client services, where the service itself wasn’t what fired me up most. I offered services like site design and content creation. I (and my team) delivered that work with integrity. But for me, that work wasn’t a craft I was truly passionate about.

So I used those services as a means to enable me to break away and work on what I really wanted to work on: Developing products.

…Which brings me to my next point.

Not a “stepping stone” business.

My previous ventures in client services were intentionally built to be career stepping stones to other things.

When I left my job at an agency to become a freelancer, my intention was: Make money as a freelance web designer… And gain freedom to explore a career in music (turns out, music works better as a hobby for me).

When I started my productized service business, my intention was: Establish recurring cash flow and remove myself completely from the day-to-day operations… To fund my time to learn to code and build SaaS businesses (turns out, I had varying levels success).

As stepping stone businesses, I think those more or less served that purpose.

But that approach also led me to develop a limited mindset. As soon as those businesses provided enough cash or freedom to serve my other goals, I stopped investing energy into growing or improving them.

Instrumental Products is not a stepping-stone business. I see it as a major endeaver both now and for years to come. I want to keep improving it. Keep adapting it and evolving it. I want it to stand on its own as a great business for me and my team and be the engine that enables other things.

I don’t intend to grow it to a large-headcount agency. Small product studio is the vibe I’m going for. But I think this can grow into a thriving, profitable, and rewarding business for years to come.

Not selling marketing.

The last time I build a client services business, it sold a marketing service. Content marketing, specifically.

One of my biggest challenges was the fact that we couldn’t actually control or promise results.

I can’t stand it when marketing agencies or consultants make big promises of delivering business growth to their clients. No matter how good their tangible work is, there are so many other factors that are out of their control, which can impact the outcome.

I quickly learned that no matter how well we played our role as the outsourced producer of content (for content marketing), I could not, in good conscious, promise that our work would result in more traffic, leads, or sales for their business.

So instead I positioned us more like a production team than “marketers”. Clients who needed what we produced (content) came to us to produce it efficiently. That worked some of the time. But clients still invested in us using their marketing budget, which fluctuates as the business takes turns.

After I exited that business, I knew that going forward, I’d avoid businesses that sell marketing.

I’m staying true to that rule with Instrumental Products. I’m not offering anything that I can’t stand behind with integrity.

What I’m selling is product. You come to Instrumental Products with an idea or concept. You leave with a product that’s ready to go to market.

I (and my team) take you from zero to one. Concept to launched. I’ve done this before. Many times. I’m doing it again. Guaranteed.

Not removing myself

In my first client services business—freelance web design—I tried to remove myself from the work of designing websites, with very little success. Even when I hired help in those projects, it still required me to be heavily involved from start to finish. I burned out.

In my later client services business—a content marketing productized service—I successfully built it to run without me in the day-to-day. I got it to the point where I touched that business ~3 hours per month! That enabled me to eventually sell and exit that business. A huge win!

Removing myself is not my intention with this new consultancy.

I truly enjoy the craft of working on products. In my early work with clients this year, I’m seeing that this remains true even when I’m working on products I don’t own.

So I’m thrilled to dig into this work on client engagements and I very much want to be involved as much as I can.

I still intend to grow a small team to work with me. Part of the value I offer is my ability to assemble my lean team and manage them to move fast through the build and launch process.

I’d also love to bring in a higher-level collaborator—a fellow full stack designer/developer—to work with me on more projects. If you know someone, I might be looking soon :)

But I still very much want to be involved in every project, at all levels.

Clients are partners

An unfortunate pattern tends to develop in many client services, where an adversarial relationship forms between the client and the consultant (or their team).

Everyone starts out with good intentions. But over time, the client wants what they want and the consultant wants… to make the client happy and get paid.

The result is mediocre work that nobody is really thrilled with, and a sense of wasted time, money, effort, and stress.

This doesn’t happen all the time, of course. But it happens enough to form a pattern. One I certainly want to avoid.

With Instrumental Products, I aim to collaborate with clients as if we’re partners. In some cases, there is actually a small equity exchange (an actual business partnership), but even when the engagement is 100% cash, my attitude is the same.

It’s about coming to these relationships from a position of trust. We’re in this together. We want the same things. We want to enjoy working together. We want this to last and we want to build something great.

I don’t expect to get this right every time. But it’s something I’m keenly aware of as my client relationships grow. From the types of partnerships I choose to get into, to how I relate and collaborate with my clients. It has to feel like true partnerships.

Vehicle for everything I want

There are certain things I want in my career in business. Some I’ve already attained and want to continue. Others I haven’t attained yet.

I see Instrumental Products as the vehicle that has the potential to bring these things into reality:

Products portfolio

I still intend to grow my portfolio of products businesses that I have some or full ownership in. Building products is the core competency of Instrumental Products. So I intend to develop something of an 80/20 balance of client work to our own products. In some cases, a client partnership can check both sides of that equation.

A small high caliber team

I’ve been lucky to work with some incredible people and amazing talent over the years. I very much want this to continue through my work in Instrumental Products.

I’d love to collaborate at a higher level with a like-minded and talented full stack designer / developer. This type of long-term collaborative working relationship is something I haven’t really had in any previous businesses and it’s something I’d love to explore this time around.

Team & client retreats

I love traveling to fun locations for retreats. I’ve done them solo. I’ve done them with founder friends. Fun. Relaxation. Relationship building. It’s a great investment all around.

But I’ve never had a business that supports the expense of flying my teammates out to a team retreat. I think Instrumental Products can get there at some point.

Retreats don’t have to be limited to just teammates. We invite our clients and partners too. Building trust and positive relationships is what this business is all about.

Self funding

Opening this consultancy is me re-committing to my preferred method of funding and sustaining new business ventures: Self-funding through profits.

I prefer this bootstrapped approach because it allows for the most optionality. I also found that once you have sustained profit margin, most of the urgency and stress of uncertainty falls away.

More time off

In truly life my work. Sometimes too much. I’ve always struggled with breaking myself away, because I enjoy the craft too much.

In the past year or two, this crossed some kind of threshold, where I physically feel like I’m working more than I want to be. I want to take more time off.

This consultancy business is still in its infancy, so I’m still pushing. But my goal is to grow it to a level of sustainability to where me and my team can afford a healthy amount of time off.


Let’s go

So there ya have it. Instrumental Products is my new focus for 2024.

If you’re interested in working together (as a client, a partner, and/or teammate), I’d love to talk!