Silicon Valley Bootstrapper Success Story - RoseRyan

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When Kathy founded RoseRyan, she wanted to build a different finance and accounting consulting firm that has challenging and interesting work, but still have work-life balance. Today, RoseRyan was voted as one of the Top Work Places in the Bay Area, and it is serving over 800 companies ranging from startups to fortune 500 companies. The road that leads RoseRyan to be among the top 0.4% of all of the US companies is not easy, and here are some of the learnings that Kathy is sharing with us.

When did you start the company? I started in September of 1993, so we are just over twenty-seven years. Why did you start this business? I wanted to provide interesting and challenging work and opportunities with some work-life balance. I was coming out of corporate, and I saw an opportunity. I did not want to work the corporate hours that I was working, so I decided to start my own firm. In many cases, I think it was seen as it was one or the other, either it was all devoted to work or it was all devoted to life, and I wanted both. I found after the first few months that I really, really enjoyed consulting and working with a variety of companies at different stages. I cannot say that I am completely one hundred percent successful, but for a lot of my employees, I am. Starting your own business and work-life balance does not always equate. You have grown this company to such an incredible size. You must of have done something right, what do you feel you did well? Well, there are a lot of things I think, that I did right. I made many mistakes, but I think there was a lot of things I did right. Prior to starting the company, my original partner and I took several weekends to decide what we wanted from the business, how we wanted to grow, who or what type of people we wanted to hire. While the business changed within the first year, because we had taken time to really understand our motivation and our values, I think we did very well. In the more recent years, I hired a business coach who I continue to use, and he certainly offers a more objective, more outside view of my business, and his insights and advice are critical. With this Growth phase in mind, could you tell me where do you think your company is at in this stage? I would say that we are at the maturity slash rebirth stage. I hired a CEO for RoseRyan last year with the intent to grow RoseRyan to the next level. I consider that a part of rebirth. But I see the final stage on the curve is listed here as Finish and Exit. However, I think that the curve continues to extend. Companies go through the same graph, just at the next level. A lot of companies, including RoseRyan, have gone through those first three stages over and over and over again. It is almost like a circle, that is how I think of it; until the company decides to finish or exit. I would say that RoseRyan is now in that rebirth stage. Since you have actually seen all these different phases, from Start-up to Growth, Maturity, and then coming back again. Let us talk about the start-up phase, what would you say is the biggest challenge in this stage? When I look back, I think during the first year that I was in operation there was more business than we could handle. It is good, but it also has its downsides. It is a challenge, so we decided to grow beyond just the two of us, which was our first deviation from the business plan that we had prepared. We began taking on additional risk by hiring salaried employees, so we were super cautious. We did grow, and we did hire people, but we did it incrementally. We did not just go out and say, “Okay, let us go get five people and go,” we hired one in August within the first year and then the next one was five months later, and then the next one was maybe six months later. We did it incrementally, but it was a decision that we had to make in order to grow. You mentioned that you were very cautious, and you were not adding headcount very quickly. What is your thought process there? Well, we were hiring people on at salaried. So, I paid them even if they were not working. Even if they were on the bench or something. Attracting people on a per hourly work was not popular back then. Therefore, we needed to make sure we had the business or that we would soon get the business, which then required that we do more marketing and more sales efforts on our part, plus holding down, we were each holding down a full-time client. It was just balancing all of that to feel really comfortable as to when we wanted to pull the trigger to hire the people. Cash flow is very important. When you are in that exponential growth phase, what was the biggest challenge?

This was several years later; we did go through high growth. We called it “our hair on fire”. It was just grow, grow, grow. The Bay Area was doing well in the marketplace. And I think the hardest challenge even now, is hiring and training qualified employees. Making sure you have the best people going out, people that know how to consult, because that is what my business is all about, a Finance and Accounting Consulting firm. I think if you take away those internally to us is how could we handle this growth? Our processes had to be updated and we had to scale up. We had more people and multiple offices. The question now was, how do we keep everybody in sync? How do we keep everybody aligned? It was really difficult I will tell you that, and we had some cracks, everybody does, but we just had to keep perseverance through the times. Financially we were doing well, but it is just trying to keep them all going at a higher level, at a faster pace. That was a very difficult challenge for us. How did you overcome that challenge?

We started putting certain processes in place on how to manage our business. That is when we first started looking at making sure we knew where everybody was, what clients, how long they were going to be. We did a much more in-depth skills checklist for people, so that we could be more operational and more efficient in that way. We started to put in some training for our consultants, how to be a consultant, just Consulting 101. Everybody thinks it is easy, but it is not. Those are some of the steps that we took. We started within our organization structure, looking at the type of solutions that we were delivering to our clients. We made many changes to help us become better and run the business more smoothly.

When is a good time to put in an organization structure? I think a good time is earlier rather than later. Over the twenty-seven years, I have changed my organization structure several times. It is not something that is cast in stone and that you never change. I believe that you have to keep innovating in that area, but I would say you should have clear roles and responsibilities set out very early on.

Is it hard to obtain that work-life balance and how do you make sure to maintain that? I am not sure I have an answer on that. In the growth stage, it is incredibly difficult to keep a work-life balance. I was working sixty hours a week, during that time because I was running the business and I was also out with clients. I had two jobs in effort. Client’s work always comes first and sometimes that is to the detriment of your own business. I was working tremendous number of hours and it did take quite a while to bring that back down to normal. As my clients ended, I did not take on more clients. And that is something that I really enjoy. I enjoy being out with clients, but you really need to have a full-time emphasis on your business as well when you get to a certain point. Let us look at the maturity phase, what is the biggest challenge there? Well, I think that companies at the maturity stage can get set in their ways, and we were no different. The challenge is really how to continually innovate and be relevant in the current and the future market. I know it sounds very broad, but when you know you are doing well, you are not able to sit back on your roles or on your past successes because things change. A couple of things that we did or steps that we took in the past were to continuously refresh the solutions that we provide to our clients. Which ones are important in today's world? Which ones are still relevant to our clients? And then do we need to repackage them, so that they can stay relevant in today's market? That is something that we look at, probably not every month, not every day, but we are looking at it probably every year. What has changed? What has not? How do our products or solutions still hit out in the market? Internally, to get everyone in the company aligned with the same goals, we did a couple of things. One was to increase our communication with all our employees on a regular basis. We are pretty transparent in the information that we provide to everyone in the company about where we are financially, where we are from a client perspective, what is new, and what are the new technical issues that we need to deal with. We have also implemented OKRs, which are Objectives and Key Results within the management team.

I have read something about Google's OKR plan. So, I looked at that and I said, “Oh, this is something that could help us.” This was a while ago. It is not exactly perfect yet, but we are making progress. This will be our third year of doing it. In the first year, it was kind of kludgy and then the second year was kind of clunky, now we are really into it and getting better at it. Although we are not perfect, it is nice to see that we are making progress in this area. What is that inflection point or what is that pivot point? and, How did you manage to put the company back into the growth phase? I think the most significant rebirth that RoseRyan did was something that was essentially out of our control. The pivoting point was the 2009 and the Great Recession. Our clients, all of our clients, from startups to Fortune 500 companies were impacted by the recession. Which means that our business was also significantly impacted. The challenge was how to survive during these very difficult times. How did we overcome this challenge? There was no one solution, I made some very significant changes to the business and the internal structure, organization structure of the company. We had some layoffs and some salary cuts. I spun out our two Southern California offices. I streamlined our management team, and I flattened the organization structure. We kind of went back to some basics.

We then made the very conscious decision to rebuild the company. I had two or three people on my leadership team that I completely trusted. So, we decided to rebuild the company and the very first project we set out to do was to set our values and to actively manage our culture. During our growth, these may have been neglected and we said, “Never again.” I looked at my leadership team roles and responsibilities and I set them up for the future. We had other projects that we implemented in 2010 and 2011, so that when the economy came out of the downturn, we were running at it. We did certain projects that were right for our business, but they certainly helped us set up for going forward. We were prepared. We were ready. We were ahead of maybe some of our competitors who had hunkered down. We took money, we invested in the company and did certain things. Again, this is where my business coach came in. He was very helpful in helping us see beyond what was going on in the day to day of the company. How are you affected by this COVID-19 crisis and what are some challenges? What do you see in the marketplace? What are you actively doing to make sure that you survive or come ahead in the end? As a business, we were not severely impacted by COVID. I have been a remote workforce since inception. It was fairly seamless for us to move everyone to remote. Many of my consultants are enjoying the lack of the having to do the Bay Area commute, as we have clients all over the Bay Area. Some of our clients have seen a lot of growth because of COVID. I have a number of clients that are in Life Sciences.

The impact to the business has not been significant. Business did slow in May, June, and July, primarily because a lot of companies did not know what to do for a while. They were scaling back, and I think that has changed now. Companies are saying, “Hey, this is how it is going to be,” and so they have moved on with some of the projects that we helped them with. I think the biggest challenge that I am seeing, is for many of my employees that are working from home with small children or school-age children. God, there are just so many challenges in that situation. I hear this normally from clients as well as our own consultants.

To try and overcome that, we are just constantly talking to our consultants. We want to know if there is something that we can do to make their lives easier, do they have all the right equipment? Etc. We want to make sure that they are supported, we want to know what issues they are having. Is there something we can do about those issues? I cannot go out and teach kids, but how to make that happen, that is what we are trying to work on. Making sure there is not anything that we can do to make their life easier. With clients we have always been pretty flexible on the work hours. Some people have to leave at three o’clock to go take care of something or to get their kids situated or whatever it might be, and then they come back and work in the evening. We are very flexible with respect to that. If you can give the audience one advice when they are going through this bootstrapping and growing their business, what would that be? I am an accountant running a business, so cash is king. Never forget that. I think also a model that I have always had when working is, strive for incremental progress versus postponed perfection. A lot of little steps. Lots of little steps really add up when you look back. It does not feel like you have done anything big, but when you look back, you think, “Oh, wow, look at what progress I have made.” Then the final bit of advice I would tell you is that culture beats strategy all the time. Take time to define your culture and then manage it on an ongoing basis. Do not just let it sit there. Culture is very important. I have seen it in my clients, and I have seen the lack of it at in my clients. I have seen it within RoseRyan, how we neglected it and it had ramifications that take time to correct. When you have a great culture, people like working with the company. They like working at RoseRyan and it makes all the difference when you want to move forward and getting people aligned.

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