How to Become a Resilient Consulting Business Leader with Ryan Kutscher: Podcast #304

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“Life doesn’t get easier or more forgiving. We get stronger and more resilient.” – Steve Maraboli, from Life, Truth, and Being Free.

Today, Ryan Kutscher, the founder of Circus Maximus, shares his journey to inspire others to become resilient consulting business leaders. He shares the steps to help you navigate the highs and lows of being an entrepreneur and consultant. As Ryan dives deeper into the conversation, he also emphasizes the importance of the restaurant business model in his practice. You will learn more if you tune into this insightful episode with Ryan Kutscher.

Joining Michael on the show is Ryan Kutscher. Ryan is a writer, creative director, and the Founder of Circus Maximus, a renowned marketing and branding agency with twelve full-time employees. Ryan outlines some of the challenges that consultants, including himself, may be having in this current economy to grow their firms. This is why it’s essential to have a clear plan for growth. That is where the Consulting Success team can help you. If you’d like to work directly with the Consulting Success team and receive personal coaching and support to optimize and grow your consulting, business, marketing, and revenue, visit www.ConsultingSuccess.com to learn more and apply now.

Let me tell you a little bit more about Ryan, who has an impressive clientele that includes notable brands such as VitaminWater, Gillette, Crest, and many others. His insights and work have been featured in prestigious publications like The Wall Street Journal, New York Times, and Forbes. As you’re tuning into this episode, a few things I want you to focus on. The first is how psychology plays a role in economics and advertising, and how to avoid falling for the shiny object syndrome.

Ryan’s five-step process helps you navigate the highs and lows of being an entrepreneur and consultant, how to ensure your pipeline doesn’t dry up, how to create a productized service to help you scale your consultancy, and why Ryan wants to take the restaurant business model and apply it to his own practice. Here to share with you his full story and expertise. It’s Ryan Kutscher. Enjoy.

Ryan Kutscher, welcome.

Thank you. I’m glad to be here. Thanks for having me. It looks like your kitchen office.

There is a kitchen, and it is the office. Everyone always wonders, “Is that a background or is it the real office?” It’s an industrial space. If I pointed upwards, you’d see pipes and all that stuff. We just open it up and put it in the office here. Let’s come back to you. I’d like to start the early days because you have a Bachelor of Science in Economics from our research. I’d love to know how you went from that to becoming a creative director. What did that path look like?

I’m laughing because it’s the least scientific thing, but I don’t know what else you call it. When I was in college or you might call it university, I was always fascinated with economics. I love to write and do all these creative things, but by the time I got to college, most people were communicating that there was no future in that behavior. It’s like, “Get a real major.” Economics was appealing to me for the fact that it was human behavior. There’s a science to it in a way, but it’s artistic. A lot of it comes down to persuasion.

In economics, for example, all of the theories start with making an assumption. The first assumption that they always make in economics is that people act rationally. I was like, “That’s not true.” The whole science of economics is basically built on a lie, but lies are very persuasive. I like that nuance of, “Let’s roll with your lie and see what happens.” I don’t know. That was always the psychology part of it that I enjoyed, claiming an art to be a science.

I guess you can go graduate and become an economist, but I didn’t know any of those. It led me to wonder what I was going to do with my career. As a senior in college, I was exposed to advertising. I had seen advertising before I went to college, but I didn’t think about it as a career. It cherry-picked the best parts of economics about making some assumptions, telling some lies, and seeing what happens to human behavior. I was like, “That’s a career. I’m in.” I got to do all those creative things that they basically told me there was no future in such as writing stuff, telling stories, coming up with crazy premises, playing make-believe, and all that stuff. Advertising as a career came into focus.

CSP Ryan Kutscher | Resilient Consulting Business Leader

For you, was it from a young age? When I think back to the people that I know who studied economics, or are involved in economics now, they tend to be a bit more on the financial side. I rarely hear people say things about psychology unless it relates to the psychology of investing. It sounds like you were drawn to this idea of persuasion, storytelling, or just human psychology. That’s not the typical thing that I’ve heard from people that are in the world of economics. Was there something even before you started studying economics and being interested in that, looking back at your childhood, that now you can see, “There’s a connection to how I ended up in advertising and consulting, and helping organizations and so forth?”

Absolutely. Many kids are very creative and I focused almost all of my attention on art. I love to draw and illustrate. I would write comic books and get into high school like normal kids went and did football or something in the summer. I remember I did a program where I was taking college classes in creative writing. I’m kind of a nerd, but I was indulging in that creative side of my brain.

You get to college and economics also didn’t have a lot of credits to major in it. Some of the stuff that I never indulged in was called econometrics. That was the premise that you could isolate and identify all of these variables in the economy and tweak them to come out with some prediction. That’s always wrong and false and takes that idea of economic assumption to its unnatural conclusion. The side of it that I liked was probably what we would now call behavioral economics. Which is the economy of attention, power, confidence, or things that are based on human emotion.

That link back to writing a story to get someone to feel a certain way or doing a comic book that makes you excited, or has a story about someone like Peter Parker becomes Spider-Man. He is a normal kid that’s able to achieve these incredible things. Those stories are the ones that we tell in advertising, “If you use Axe body spray, you’re going to become Don Juan.” It’s all that make-believe stuff that happens in your mind, but it does get filtered through the world of commerce.

It makes a lot of sense. Let’s fast forward to 2013. You have a bit of experience. At this point, you decide to start your own agency, Circus Maximus. Tell us what played into that decision to start this company.

It was a real hazy entrepreneurial instinct and the idea that I want to start my own business. I want to be the benefactor of my own skill. I don’t want to necessarily apply my trade for an agency that charges my hours at a multiple that I never see. There was some greed and desire. This is America. You get to start your own business if you want. I had no idea how to do it. I still am trying to figure it out, but that’s what the inspiration was. I also didn’t like the idea of working for someone else. No matter what’s going on, one day they can just walk into your office and go, “You’re fired.”

It’s so common. We hear this all the time. People that ultimately want to take their destiny into their own hands. Be in control. As you said, it’s a very common one of realizing, “I’m making $150 an hour, but somebody else is making $300. They’re charging me out at that.” There’s that margin that you wanted to capture. When you made that decision to start this company, how did you go about getting your first few clients? What did that look like?

I just want to touch on the last question real quick. Three things you pointed out, fear, greed, and irrational confidence. Why?

It’s to drive that point a little bit more than confidence is critical. If you don’t feel confident, then you don’t have to be rational, but you have to have that belief that you can be successful, otherwise, you have no chance. Even though you don’t know what you likely need to know, it’s still okay because you can still make progress and figure things out. What you’re raising right now is that a lot of people might be not taking action right now because they feel like they don’t have all the answers. You’re never going to have all the answers. It doesn’t matter if you’re at $0, $1 million, $10 million, $100 million, or beyond, there’s always more to learn.

That feeling of, “I don’t think I have enough information, and I’m afraid.” I feel that every single day. I’m thinking about other ventures that I started to consider recently, and I’m feeling that feeling again. I’m like, “I wonder if I should do it.” I’m thinking about the differences. Now I’m 44, I have a child, a bank account, and I have a savings account. You almost have more stuff the older you get to stoke that fear, but everyone has it, and you have to get through it.

You almost have more stuff the older you get to stoke that fear. But everyone has it, and you have to get through it. Click To Tweet

How do you do that? For people who have heard in the intro a little bit of what you and your company have done, and you worked with some very impressive brands and built a pretty nice business that’s growing. How do you process that fear? When you’re in that situation when you want to do something, but there’s some hesitation or some fear, what do you go through? How do you navigate through that?

I’ll be completely candid. You probably serve a broad audience. I happen to work in the advertising business. In my industry, I can’t tell you exactly what happened, but somewhere between 2022 and 2023, it was like we were hit by a meteor. That irrational confidence that I had in 2022 is gone in 2023. The business that I thought was like, “I’m killing it.” This 2023, I’m like, “I don’t know if I’m going to be here next year.” Sometimes it gets served at your doorstep.

When I was an employee, I was afraid that someone could come in and tell me I was unemployed. As an entrepreneur, you are drinking from that same fire hose, but instead of your boss, it’s the economy or your business model, or all these things. How you overcome it is that nagging voice inside that’s like, “I think that this idea is going to work.” I have a perverse fixation on figuring out this business model.

It’s an unresolved thing in your head that you have to do. You’re sitting there like, “I’m bored,” or you’re thinking, “What legacy am I going to leave? When I’m 80, am I going to regret not indulging this idea?” It’s fear of a kind but it’s like, “What if I don’t?” It’s complacency. You got a nice house and a car payment and all that stuff. You’re like, “Am I happy?”

Let me drive into this a little bit more because we’re going in a direction that I didn’t necessarily plan, but that’s fine. That’s part of the fun of doing these shows. You’re hitting on a point that I believe is relevant for a lot of people. We talked to a lot of clients that at the end of 2022, beginning of 2023, we’re going through exactly what you’re mentioning, where all of a sudden budgets were getting frozen or companies were hesitating to make an investment or they’re delaying things for a quarter or several quarters. By June or so of 2023, we’ve seen with many clients, things have started to loosen up that they’re getting called in. Companies are starting to pick up spending.

That’s going to be different, depending on a multitude of factors. For you, when you’re in that position where let’s say you’re counting on some business coming in and now it’s frozen, it’s delayed, or it gets cut, and you’re wondering where you are going to be, and how are you going to handle this going forward. From an operator, an entrepreneur, and a CEO position, what have you been doing? How have you navigated that to keep things going?

Do you want the truth?

Yeah. The whole truth and nothing but the truth.

Step 1, stop drawing a salary. Step 2, look at your revenue projections and see where you can cut unnecessary spending. Step 3, you start looking at your OPEX, “Here’s my staff. Here’s what I got coming down the line. How do I find space here? Am I going to do layoffs?” Step 4, I got that lifeline at the bank. I got that loan. I got that line of credit. Step 5, what’s my burn rate? How long do I think I can go? Do I think I’m going to have a pipeline in that timeline that’s going to allow me to make this gamble? I’m going to take that line of credit and go for a couple of months, pay my staff with that, but I know that in Q4, I’m going to get that revenue that’s going to make it all worth it, and I just got to get through this hurricane. The answer is I don’t have the answer.

It’s still in process.

CSP Ryan Kutscher | Resilient Consulting Business Leader

There are other factors that are in play about how confident you are in the return. In advertising and maybe in other client services businesses, you might get lucky because you only need one client to come in and save your ass, but those are the calculations. Some of them are just math problems on a spreadsheet, and some of them are sentiment. I had a great conversation with a guy who has never been a colleague of mine but is a guy that I trust in the business and who works in business development.

I’m trying to triangulate what he’s saying and what he’s telling me about his business with what I’ve just heard from my other friends that have small businesses. My friends work at large agencies. What are they hearing and seeing? Can I create some unified theory about what’s going on in the economy and how it might impact me? There are some math problems and there is some guesswork going on. I’ve lost all my hair.

I lost mine a long time ago. Is there anything that you’ve done as part of the process to this point that has been surprising to you, either in a positive or negative way? You did something you thought, “That actually saved us a lot of money, I didn’t expect that, or that was a dumb move?” Anything that has popped up for you as you’ve been making these decisions?

God bless my wife for supporting me through this, but it’s been a lot of spouse therapy that she’s been giving me. Surprising decisions definitely caused me to become more analytical. My CFO and probably my account team is going, “This guy is a little bit more active in my swim lane these days.” It’s digging into the numbers I guess. For a guy that is more of a comic book artist than a mathematician, it’s getting into the numbers and critically analyzing how we go to market.

What we’ve seen is pipeline dry up. You’re like, “Why would that happen?” Factors that are out of my control versus those factors that are in my control. Hopefully, I’m trying to let go of the things that are out of my control and get better at the things that are in my control. Things that are in my control are how am I positioning myself, and creating innovative products that I can tell clients about that address what they’re dealing with, which is everyone in that penny-pinching mode. I’ve thought about how to repackage advertising in what I call the McDonald’s menu. It’s like a prefix, “Here’s what you get, here’s what it costs, here’s how long it takes, here’s the deliverables. That’s great,” and trying to roll that out. You get creative.

What’s your headcount now?

We’re 12 people but we were 22 in 2022.

You did have to make some cuts.

We did.

For those that might be in a position where they’re thinking like, “I might need to make some cuts too, but have never done that before,” it’s never easy, but what advice would you offer them in either analyzing when to make a cut, but the second part would be to actually do it. Any suggestions or advice around that?

Let go of the things that are out of your control, but get better at the things you are in control. Click To Tweet

In your gut, you know what you got to do. Your CFO or you may be a CFO, is going to tell you the numbers. I actually saw a piece of advice from the Airbnb CEO.

Brian Chesky, I believe.

His advice was like, “Make the big cut so that you don’t have to do it multiple times because that starts to wheedle away morale.” There’s that thought. This is a dark conversation, but I guess the other thing is to try to be as transparent as you can. That doesn’t mean telling everybody everything but try to be as open as you can about how and why. In an economy like this, at least in my experience right now, I’m not firing anybody. It’s called a layoff. It’s like, “Guys, we work with a business model and everyone here is supported by the revenue that we go get. When that changes, our employment changes.” You maybe say it a little bit more sensitively than that, but that’s the gist. Just try to be kind to people.

I’ve got talented people, but I’ve tried to cut people that I think could freelance quickly, easily, and well. I’ll be like, “We don’t need you right now. I might need you again, but I want you to talk to this person because they need someone like you. You would crush it there right now,” to the extent that you could be flexible. Smaller agencies probably are flexible in that way, and I’m trying to open the network up to say, “I believe that you’re a talented person and you’ve done a fantastic job. If I can help create a soft landing for you or open up a new opportunity for you over here, I’m doing that.” That’s maybe something people might want to consider if they can do that because it’s people’s livelihoods.

Let’s talk about the pipeline. You mentioned that’s one thing that you have seen dry up. What changes? What are you doing differently? How are you thinking about attacking that to get the pipeline back up?

You call everyone you can. Your question was, “How did you get your first client?” It’s the same way I got my last client. Call and dig into the network. I have software that tells me how my conversations with my clients are going.

Do you mean a CRM of some sorter?

We use Copper. I’ve also created a spreadsheet.

For those that might not be using a CRM or wondering, “What do you mean?” Essentially, what you’re saying is inside of a CRM, you can set it to say, “Remind me every X number of days or whatever to get a ping or to get in touch with this person. You’re getting those prompts and reminders. You’re making sure that you’re staying in touch with people. Is that correct or anything else that’s different?

That’s the gist of it. Depending on which one you use, it will tell you, “Here are the 3,000 people that you’ve been emailing with over the last three years.” You can assign different members of your organization to be their point of contact. I’ll go back through that and hit people up. You can get more or less sophisticated with it. You can do like, “I don’t do this, but you can do chain emails.” I would try to keep personal like what I know. I’ll reach out to them. One surprising thing is how happy people are that you’ve gotten in touch with them even if there’s no opportunity at the moment. We’ve all gone remote, or at least I have.

CSP Ryan Kutscher | Resilient Consulting Business Leader

Nurturing is a light bulb moment. You got to nurture your network, even if that’s emails, texts, and stuff like that. I have a business coach and he put point blank to me, “If your life depended on it, what would you do right now?” I was like, “I’d call one I know.” He was like, “See you next month. That’ll be $5,000.” That’s how that’s gone.

I want to go a little bit deeper on that. When you say calling people and emailing people, those that are joining us right now would find it helpful. What is the approach? What are you saying in your emails or in the phone calls when you’re reaching out to people? Are you talking about what you’ve been doing, and how you might be able to help them? Is it like, “How are you doing, Ryan? It’s been a while. What’s going on in your world?” What does the arc of that conversation or that outreach look like?

I try to keep it personal. We all know what’s going on, so I’ll reach out. A lot of it is just like, “How are you doing?” I have a client, he’s not even a client. He’s a guy that I met that is in the network. I knew that they were affected by the thing in Silicon Valley Bank. I reached out and was like, “Are you all right? How are you doing? Have you been contaminated by this?” It’s just curiosity and genuine, “Are you guys doing all right?” It’s icky to even call it a tactic. It’s called empathy.

For other people, it’s like, “We just did this thing. We were able to do this amazing production at this ridiculous budget. In so doing, we came out with a formula that we think could be relevant. I don’t know if it makes sense for us to have a conversation about this. Is this something you guys are thinking about? I know budgets are required, but here’s a way that we’ve worked around it.” It’s offering value in that way to potential clients.

Also, following up like, “We had that thing. I don’t know if that went well for you guys. Here’s an event that happened. We thought you guys might be able to comment on this,” or giving an idea. Keep it personalized to whomever you’re reaching out to. Some could be just a check-in or an offer. It could be like, “We thought about you. Is this interesting?”

I appreciate those examples. Those are great and will be helpful for people. What are you seeing so far in terms of response? What’s the sentiment? Is it starting to produce any outcomes? What are you seeing from this activity?

It’s a combination of things. We’ve yielded some opportunities that way. We had a brand ID for a client and came out great in the world of FinTech. We did another one for a company that’s doing a customer service AI platform. We did a brand identity and some work with them. It was pursuant to something you talked about earlier like, “What have you learned or been surprised about?” It was reevaluating our positioning. Is it clear? Is it concise and compelling? I got this idea in my head that everyone tells me I’m crazy to do it, but every time I think about it, I’m like, “I got to do that.” It’s a prefix business model idea.

When you say prefix, a product offer?

Yeah. It’s hard. We work in customer service. In our go-to-market and in the life of my business, we’ve always been this white glove service. The benefits of that is you get this real high touch interaction and you’re getting a lot of personalized attention. We’re troubleshooting and problem-solving things that may or may not live within the scope. The world is getting more and more complex in the world of advertising. That feels less and less doable.

I’m trying to take a business model from the world of restaurants and apply it to advertising, which is a hard thing to do. There are always three questions my clients ask and maybe other consultants get this too. What do I get? How much does it cost? How long does it take? There’s never an answer. I’ve been trying to come up with the answer. This economy has forced me back into that world of thought. Hopefully, I’m going to be able to solve that.

At Circus Maximus, we help you get your story straight and tell it well. Click To Tweet

You’re definitely going in the right direction in terms of that’s worthy of exploration. We’ve worked with a few clients in the branding ad space, helping them to develop product offers. I know that it can be very successful. We talk more about that afterward. I’m wondering, when you said the world economy is becoming more complex, it’s hard to provide that white glove service, add a little bit more context. Why are you feeling that? What are you seeing that’s making you believe that is the case that it’s harder or the world is more complex? What are your thoughts on that?

There’s a lot of confusion. Even if you take a snapshot around the media landscape, you’ve got all your traditional media. You’ve got your online digital media. You’ve got online video across platforms like YouTube, Hulu, or Netflix. They’re all rolling out digital creative platforms, and they demand your creativity to look and feel a certain way. We’re in the social media world and you’ve got Meta, which has become the bulletin board of the internet. You’ve got TikTok, which I don’t know that I would trust the analytics from TikTok very much myself, but there’s an awareness thing that’s a tantalizing component of that platform.

Even in that little spiel of conversation, as an advertiser, I’ve got to think about how I can create unique content for each of those channels. My advertising budget didn’t increase. It decreased. I’m paralyzed by how I do it and which one is valuable. I found that the beginning of many relationships in my line of work usually involves some consultative aspect that we’re not charging for to help CMOs, clients, brand managers, and CEOs first make the decision of, “What the hell should I even be doing right now?” Once we decide that, we’re lucky if that service is something that we provide.

We get this broad view of the landscape. That’s what I mean about having to do more with less like a landscape that is getting ever more complex. I feel like it’s my job to make it as simple as possible to know how to interact with me as a business and a brand. If I can do that, then I’ve done an amazing service for a client before we’ve even had a conversation.

What I’m hearing you say is finding something to productize or taking an area of expertise that you and your company feel very confident in, where you can deliver a result that is in demand or something that your clients want, and figuring out how you package it, put some good systems and process around it so that it’s less custom. Even though the end product is customized to each client in terms of their content or their ads or whatever it might be, it’s a process that you can run people through, so less variables and slicing something that is easier to sell, easier to explain, and easier for people to buy.

At Circus Maximus, which is my agency, our tagline is, “We help you get your story straight and tell it well.” We got to do that for ourselves too. One way to do that is to be succinct about what you offer and who you offer it to. At this point, how much does it cost? What happens in an economy like the one that we’re in is all these variables start to happen and you start to second guess yourself. You’re not sure why your client pushed that budget. When things are going well for a brand or a business, they’re in the pocket. They’re delivering the thing that they’re good at to clients that need it and everyone is happy.

In an economy like this, those opportunities are a little further and far in between. Maybe you start to stretch a little bit about, “We can do TikTok,” even though you’re not a TikTok agency. “We can do the planning. We’ll take on a comms planning project,” when we’re a brand identity team. You start to work in adjacent markets. Pretty soon you’re all out of whack and you don’t know what the hell you’re doing. Now you’ve created this confusion for yourself, and that has been something we’re trying to avoid. At the same time, you want a strong brand and business that knows what they do and doesn’t do what they’re not good at.

It’s a lot harder to do that in this economy where those opportunities are fewer and far in between, and you’re like, “I still got to make my revenue, so I guess I’ll say yes to this thing that we’re not great at or that’s not our core competency.” I’m trying to avoid that. In order to avoid that, I got to define what we’re good at and hopefully, that has value to the market.

The lesson inside of that for everyone is here you are, ten years or so into the business, and you’re still thinking, as every company should, about how to further dial in the positioning, how to optimize certain areas of it, and what you want to be known for. That’s just something that smart entrepreneurs do. You’re not just going to sit and be complacent. You’re going to always look to evolve, optimize, and be agile, depending on what’s happening with the world around you and the clients around you.

I’ll share some thoughts with you as well afterward on this, but I’m excited to hear how all this progresses as you continue to build and get through it. There are a lot of people right now who are dealing with something similar in one form or fashion. That’s what ultimately separates successful entrepreneurs from those who struggle. Those who struggle, tend to give up. They freeze and they don’t keep taking action, but you’re clearly taking action and you’re starting to see some results from it. Keep it up and we’re excited to get an update from you.

CSP Ryan Kutscher | Resilient Consulting Business Leader

I don’t know what form it’s going to take. Succinctly, Ray Kroc famously said, “I don’t know what people are going to be buying in 50 years, but I’ll be selling it.” That’s the mentality that I hope we had as an agency prior to the economy forcing that level of thinking on us. Certainly, we’re doing it now, so here we are.

Before we wrap up, I want to make sure that people can learn more about you, try and follow along, and see the great work that you guys have done as a company. Where’s the best place or the one website for them to go to check all that out?

www.CircusMaximus.com.

There we go. Ryan, thanks again so much for coming on.

Thank you for being flexible with me too.

It’s my pleasure.

There you have it for this episode between Ryan and Michael. If you enjoy this show, be sure you hit that subscribe button wherever you tune in to your favorite shows. If you want to help support the podcast, you can do so by heading over to Apple Podcasts, where there you’ll have the chance to leave a rating and review.

If you’re looking to grow your business and consultancy from 6 to 7 figures, then the Consulting Success team can help you. If you want to work directly with the team and receive personalized coaching and support to optimize and grow your consulting business, marketing, and revenue, just visit www.ConsultingSuccess.com to learn more and apply now. That’s the end of the line for us. We’ll be back with another episode. Until next time.

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