What is your catalyst?

Posted by on Nov 14, 2012 in Client Talk, General, Lessons, Management | 0 comments

After spending eight years in the medical technology start-up world, six years in Corporate America’s pharma and consumer products sectors, and two years consulting, I founded the Ballast Group, an integrated communication strategies firm. I believed finally I had enough experience in many areas of industry and business that potential clients could gain insights from them. But I didn’t always have the guts to take such an entrepreneurial risk.

My sailing partner and coach, a commercial real estate entrepreneur, was my catalyst. On a slow-to-no-wind race day on Lake Erie for the Lightning Nationals, he asked me if I’d ever thought about starting my own company. I said, “No. It sounds like too much responsibility – you know, with employees, payroll and uncertainty.”

His words surprised me. “Ever hear of a 1099?” I laughed and asked him to speak English, as a small breeze raised our hopes of getting back into a real race. “Do you mean the inspiration from Prince’s music – Party like it’s 1999?” I laughed. He clarified 1099 was a tax term for contractors. I was intrigued and still a little afraid. Now I can see that I should have taken the entrepreneurial plunge 10 years earlier.  

Although I am not an immigrant or 55+ years of age, surprisingly now of the 1.8 million new small-business owners, 30% were born outside the U.S. And the nation’s fastest-growing group of entrepreneurs is those age 55 and above.

Two years after my catalytic moment on the water, I started the Ballast Group – a sailing metaphor, dedicated to a passion and to my catalyst. Ballast is a symbol for the right balance of weight to keep a crew and ship stable, going in the right direction and on its most effective course. People are also called ‘ballast’. The right balance of people is critical to any business.

The first year I helmed the consultancy on its own (before it was a real business). Ebbs and flows were to be expected before learning a good course to take. The second year I brought on a rock star (sorry Prince!) 1099 bookeeper. Depending on the clients we served, contractors became a staple of our team – all by word-of-mouth referrals.

I am overwhelmed with the quality of work and caliber of contractor expertise and bandwidth. Our clients get results that move their businesses into new places – exposure, lead generation and partnerships.

Today we have added a SME strategy to our team – subject matter experts.

SMEs represent a niche such as military marketing, health & human services or nanotechnology. Each SME with his or her deep expertise may add 5-8 hours of consult each week. Our decision to bring SMEs into the fold has refined our team thinking, added credibility with clients and sharpened their results.

When we have no intention to provide services in areas outside of our wheelhouse, we work with strategic business partners for marketing communications, advertising, event planning and digital experiences. 

To best serve our clients, adding the right contractors, SMEs and strategic partners may require looking outside of a geography. While we are based in Chicago, our team works remotely from the West Coast to the East Coast and back to the “Third Coast” of Lake Michigan.

I could go on about virtual teams and the catalysts they provide for project and relationship insights. A Spin Sucks blog post written by friend and PR guru, Gini Dietrich sums up how to best incentivize a  team of geographically diverse experts with a trial and then a commitment to a virtual office.

We are continually on a quest for a collective pool of intelligence. Smart decisions require thinking about the best immediate team, given the client’s needs and the sectors served. Consider these types of business decisions when adding brains to your team.

What will be your catalyst?


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