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post # 331 — March 15, 2007 — a Strategy post

It’s always gratifying to hear stories about people who did (or did not) use your advice, and to find out what happened. Here’s an interesting tale, received by email yesterday:

Dear David, It’s extremely unlikely you will remember me, but I attended a management development workshop you ran in London in 1998. I had already read “Managing the Professional Service Firm” and found the time spent with you very valuable. After one of the sessions you and I had coffee and you recommended I start my own market research company. Subsequently I returned to Australia, ran Taylor Nelson Sofres for a while, and then took the plunge.

We started Celsius Research in 2002. We carefully thought about our positioning (heavy-duty quantitative market research with a strong predictive component) and stuck to it. Things went great and I bought an Aston Martin.

In 2003 we recognised the opportunities presented by on-line data collection and, in line with your opening chapters, launched a separate company, Information Research Management, instead of attempting to use the Celsius skill set and culture to undertake the more operationally focussed tasks associated with fieldwork. Things went well and I travelled around the world with my family.

In 2004 Celsius undertook a segmentation study for Microsoft Xbox inAustralia andNew Zealand. Our advanced analysis produced a fresh view of this market, which Microsoft embraced. As a result of this success, Microsoft sent us a RFQ for the building and management of panels of gamers in 20 countries. The brief called for a large amount of sample build, with quite simple data collection, although on a grand scale. There was little need for Celsius Research’s skills, although they appreciated our knowledge here.

Anyway, my partners and I had a meeting where we concluded that, “Maister would say we shouldn’t pitch on this work because it does not fit into the mission statement of either company”. And, yes, you guessed it, we decided that you were probably wrong in this instance, and, after all, a $2.2 mill contract was very attractive. We pitched against the world’s biggest firms, and we won.

I can detail for you the rest of the story, but it ended in us losing $250k, our attention was taken away from our core competencies, no-one here enjoyed the work, and the only good thing to emerge out of this is that our reputation in Microsoft’s eyes is good.

You were right!

Please feel free to use this case-study as you wish. Maybe someone else won’t make the same mistake; maybe they will listen to you! Next time you are in Oz, let’s catch up for a beer. I owe you many. Regards, Martin. (Prof. Martin James, Managing Director, Celsius Research Pty Ltd.)


For those of you who are not aware of the reference, the advice of mine that Martin is referring to was subsequently written up in my article Strategy Means Saying “No”.

Does anyone else have examples of my advice gone right (or wrong?)


Britt Keener said:

My hats off to Mr. James for his transparency! This story is very beneficial to read as I aspire to ownership in a professional services firm. Thank you, thank you for your willingness to share this object lesson.

And to you David, thank you for the wisdom in the superb article, Strategy Means Saying No. I know personally too well how tempting it is to take more business on for the wrong reasons.

posted on March 17, 2007

Jaime @ Fitzgerald Analytics said:

David, this testimony is both cautionary and inspiring. I am grateful to you for your clarity, and to Mr. James for his openness.

Knowing when to walk away is perhaps especially critical for niche boutique consultancies, whose entire culture, business model, career path, and staffing model are built around being excellent in their area of specialty (in their “strike zone”). As your article reminds us, we need to avoid the temptation to swing at pitches outside the strike zone, as we are unlikely to put those balls over the fence!

Thank you again,

Jaime @ Fitzgerald Analytics

posted on December 7, 2007