Tag Archives: Career

Consulting versus Investment Banking after Undergrad

23 Feb

Consultants in board roomAfter completing my undergraduate business degree, I pursued management consulting as a career, first at the Monitor Group then at Bain & Company.  While I left consulting three years ago to pursue a career in technology startups, I still get asked about consulting as a career, especially as compared to investment banking.

It’s easiest to frame my opinion in the context of what you can learn – this is because the majority of investment bankers and consultants end up moving into other careers within 2 – 4 years.  While consulting and I-banking are great training grounds, they aren’t necessarily great matches for everyone long-term.

What you Learn as a Management Consultant:

  • Data Analysis: Depending on the firm and specific clients your work for, you will either do a lot of Excel analysis or TONS of excel analysis.  While this can feel like drudgery at the time, it is an increasingly valuable skill in the workforce, especially in fields like online marketing.  Surprisingly few business people are trained how to think about and solve business problems with data – consultants are.
  • Problem Solving: Consultants are trained how to break down a complex problem into component pieces, understand the assumptions and hypotheses behind each element, and craft a path toward understanding and solving them.
  • Project Management: As the most junior person on the team, you’re often left handling the coordination between the consulting team and the client.  As you get more senior, you spend a lot of time crafting communications (often in PowerPoint decks) about project status, timelines, etc.  This constant management of what’s getting done, by who, and when it will be done is broadly applicable.
  • Communications: In line with the note above, consultants spend a LOT of time in PowerPoint, crafting and re-crafting communications for clients.  This often comes on the heals of analytical work that you’ve done.  When combined with the ability to break down a problem and do analysis to help solve it, the ability to then synthesize and communicate those answers to another professional is extremely valuable.

What I Didn’t Learn as a Consultant, but you Probably Learn as an Investment Banker (based on those I’ve worked with who come from that background):

  • Financial Modeling: While in some cases the data analysis I mention above can take the form of creating a financial model, it rarely does.  More often, you’re analyzing results of a customer survey, pulling apart operational numbers within a business (how many phone calls to customer service, at what average handling time, resulting in what average cost-to-serve?), or calculating market sizes and growth rates.
  • Corporate Finance: While you might be deep within the operational metrics of a business, rarely does that analysis bubble up to the level of looking at corporate financial statement (Balance Sheets, Profit and Loss statements, Cash Flow Statements, etc).  Most everything I know about this stuff I learned as a business undergrad, not in consulting.
  • Public Markets: Similarly, the evaluation of a business as a potential investment target really isn’t part of what the typical consulting project.  A consultant might be looking at the likelihood that a potential joint venture will work out operationally (is there demand for this new product? what capabilities does each side deliver?), they aren’t often tasked with making the ultimate investment decision.

These are obviously just my own experiences and thoughts, but something I thought was worth sharing.  What have your experiences been?

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Reflecting on the Launch of Hilltop Consultants

5 May

Mini Hilltop Consultants LogoI was recently asked to contribute to a guidebook for new student members of Hilltop Consultants, a student nonprofit consulting organization that I started while I was at Georgetown University. I thought it would be appropriate to also post my thoughts here:

Starting Hilltop Consultants was an exciting part of my university experience at Georgetown. I had heard of other student nonprofit consulting organizations on other campuses, and was surprised to see that none existed in Washington, DC. Given the plethora of nonprofit organizations based in the area, the potential client base was huge. My peers, other undergraduates at the McDonough School of Business, were an ambitious bunch who were eager to find ways to gain real-world experience early on in their university careers. These same ambitions had led many to join The Corp and the Georgetown University Alumni and Student Federal Credit Union, and I saw no reason why their energies couldn’t also be directed toward nonprofit consulting projects.

After returning from a semester abroad, in January 2004 I began working on the plan in earnest. A group of three other students answered my calls for assistance to start a new student business organization. We drafted a mission, vision, and business plan, applied for recognition as an official student organization, and recruited the first leadership board for Hilltop. By April of 2004, Hilltop Consultants was a reality. By the time I graduated in May 2005, we had served four clients over the course of two semesters, and hosted the first ever business strategy case competition at Georgetown University, the Business Strategy Challenge.

As a member of Georgetown’s case competition team, I had experienced first-hand the excitement of student case competitions, and saw a great opportunity to expand Hilltop Consultants’ activities into that area. By choosing a local nonprofit organization as the subject of the case study, we were able to further build upon Hilltop’s mission of both serving the DC nonprofit community and enhancing Georgetown students’ opportunities to learn about business by advising the managers of local organizations as they struggled to tackle real-world business challenges. Our first Business Strategy Challenge, in April 2005, focused on the obstacles facing the United Way as it adapted to a fundraising environment in which donors demanded greater transparency about how their donations were being put to use.

After graduating from Georgetown, I spent three years as a management strategy consultant for the Monitor Group. I was lucky to not only gain experience serving many impressive businesses in the United States and abroad, but also served several nonprofit organization. It was incredibly stimulating to work in a place where I was constantly surrounded by a group of people with such incredible intellectual horsepower.

Consulting is a valuable first-step out of an undergraduate education not only for business students, but students from all academic paths. It provides a strong analytical foundation which is valuable to employers in nearly all reaches of the economy. It also provides opportunities to build presentation skills and enhance a person’s professionalism as he or she is put into meetings with more and more senior clients. Finally, it provides excellent opportunities to explore a variety of industries and practice areas (e.g. marketing, finance, operations) to see where your passion lies.

I hope that Hilltop Consultants not only helps students find a way to contribute to the nonprofit community through a higher impact investment of their time than might otherwise be possible, but that it allows students to “test the waters” of a career in consulting. The long hours, the often grueling travel schedule, and your status as “advisor” rather than “decision maker” mean that consulting certainly isn’t the perfect career for everyone. As a first dive into the professional world, however, I can think of few better options available to a recent Georgetown graduate.

-Mitchell Fox

Founder and President, Hilltop Consultants, 2004 – 2005
Consultant, The Monitor Group, 2005 – 2008

Owners vs. Operators: A Career Choice

9 Nov

One of the fundamental separations in the business world is between the owner and the operator. Owners have a fundamental role of identifying and valuing business opportunities, as well as setting a firm’s fundamental direction. Operators develop a strategy for achieving that direction, and ensure its execution. This is the separation that exists, for instance, in most public companies between the roles of the Board of Directors and the CEO. This distinction is of particularly relevance in job hunting because having one or the other as an aspiration should, in theory at least, influence a person’s career path.

This simple but powerful observation was courtesy of David Wong, a former colleague and fellow Georgetown alum who now works as an Analyst at a mid-market private equity firm in Boston. As I continue to explore career opportunities that will build off my experience as a management consultant but move me closer to my goal of working with small and medium businesses, I called David to get his perspective on whether working in private equity would a step in the right direction. His candid advice was powerful, clear, and refreshingly candid, something which can frankly be difficult to gain during a career search (after all, it is difficult to be impartial on something so personal).

Private Equity is About Being an Owner:

Private Equity is fundamentally about being the owner of a company. It requires being able to identify companies with promise to either be grown in size and value, or which could be restructured to release additional value from the existing business.

From David’s perspective, private equity is much more often a destination than a path to anything. Whereas consulting and investment banking are highly transient industries, with analysts and associates spending two or three years then departing for other opportunities, investing jobs tend to be long-term commitments to a particular business mindset.

Someone who moves into private equity (buyouts, to be more precise) looks at companies with proven business models and how to gain further value from them. While she might decide she wants to focus instead on identifying promising new business models and technologies, and therefore move into venture capital, she would still be doing so with an owners mindset. Similarly, she might decide that rather than worrying about individual companies, but instead on valuable industries, sectors, and types of investments, she might move to a hedge fund, but she would still be thinking like an owner.

David suggested that you could not take someone from any one of these careers and put them at the helm of a company or at the head of its strategy group and expect that he could be successful. Identifying the opportunity and actually executing against it requires fundamentally different skills and attitudes.

Career Paths for Operators:

David suggested that if my goal was to be a successful operator of a small / medium company, private equity would be only marginally helpful. While it would expose me to high growth businesses and how those companies achieve their success, my fundamental job would not be to understand how to replicate those successes on my own in the future.

As David pointed out, there is a fairly clear path from consulting into an operating role in a larger business. Many consultants move their way up the ranks of their firms until they discover a client who finds their advice indispensable and hires them to run an internal functional area (e.g. marketing, strategy, or operations).

What our conversation left fundamentally unanswered was how someone could best position himself for an operating role in a small or medium business.

The challenge for someone in strategy consulting is twofold. First, with only a few years experience, he is still inadequately experienced to run much of anything or be dropped into a COO-type position and be successful. Second, because consulting firms charge hefty prices for the privilege of their advice, clients are rarely small or medium businesses, limiting the networking and “watch-and-learn” opportunities.

Two ideal career path options for a strategy consultant with an eye towards being an effective operator would therefore seem to be either take an operating role directly (either literally in operations or in product development, sales, or marketing) in an industry of particular interest, or continue in an advisory position (as a consultant, either in a professional services firm or perhaps internally in a company with an internal strategy group).

Helpful Clarity, but Further Questions:

Whether anyone else will find the above helpful is of course an open question. I certainly found it to provide helpful structure to a question that is difficult to navigate.

It leaves open some deep questions for personal reflection. At the end of the day, do I want to be an operator or an owner? Does the challenge posed to an entrepreneur bridge both? Do any of the careers I described above (e.g. investing, industry operating roles, or strategy advisory) really prepare someone to be an entrepreneur, or does it all just come down to trial and error of starting a few companies and seeing what works?

Previous Lives: Uphill and Down in San Francisco

4 Sep

Today I was trying to remember the mailing address for Monitor’s office in San Francisco, and googled “Monitor Group San Francisco.” With a bit of amusement, I realized that a BusinessWeek article written about me (well, more like BY me) about a year and a half ago is the third hit that comes up.

I figure it’s worth linking to the article from here to say “yes, that’s me” and smile to think about how much has changed since then.

“Consulting is a fun job with a tough work schedule,” says this Georgetown grad, who bikes the famous hills to work each day

Consulting, VC, or a Startup? Best Career for an "Entrepreneur in Waiting?"

19 Aug

Entrepreneur in WaitingI am a part of the great swath of young professionals around the world who might be best described as “entrepreneurs in waiting.” We are people who aspire to one day start our own business, or partner up to create one.

We have in common the desire to be prepared to seize a new business opportunity when it comes our way, but many of us are currently working in other careers, waiting for the right moment to make our move. Jared Smith, a friend, former colleague, and junior partner at PICS (Pacific Industrial Contractor Screening) calls this “waiting for your pitch” — holding out for that great idea you can hit out of the ballpark.

Where, then, is the best place for me to wait for my pitch and optimize my chances of not only receiving the most pitches, but also knowing when I should swing and having the skill to hit the ball? How do I maximize my chances of meeting the right people, while also gaining the skills and experience that will make me an attractive business partner? What career will provide the most inspiration to dream up the big business idea I want to build my career upon?

The answer, obviously, depends very much upon the type of entrepreneur you want to be. Are you a developer or a business guy? How much do you have to lose if you leave your current career and mess up? I am writing today with the business-minded entrepreneur in mind; one who already has a good job and does not want to join just any startup, but the right one. I am, essentially, writing about myself.

Management Consulting [where I am today]:

Pros:

  • Build credible work experience and learn best practice
  • Develop important business skills in analysis, customer interaction, planning, and management
  • Cultivate a management mindset – consultants are trained to structure problems and think about how to grow businesses
  • Exceptionally diverse exposure to different industries and business problems, improving the chances of stumbling across new business ideas and innovative solutions to old business problems
  • Diverse exposure to different geographies and business environments, possibly giving insight into businesses which could be transplanted from one location to another
  • Relatively stable and low risk compensation [bonus based on a mix of personal and firm performance, not necessarily that of clients or a portfolio]

Cons:

  • Limited control over the industries, geographies, or business problems you face [i.e. You may be just as likely to be working for an “old economy” auto manufacturer in Detroit as a “new economy” biotechnology company in Silicon Valley]
  • Typically clients are fortune 500 businesses or governments, both of which operate very differently than startups, possibly limiting the applicability of some lessons learned
  • Limited networking opportunities with other entrepreneurs, for the same reason

Venture Capital:

Pros:

  • Exposure to diverse businesses and solutions within a narrow industry area (most firms focus on just two or three industries) – gain understanding of how different players are solving the same problems with different approaches
  • Gain an investor’s mindset, looking at businesses in terms of their relative ability to succeed, and understand a venture capitalist’s investment criteria
  • Network with entrepreneurs and venture capitalists, increasing the likelihood of running across a potential partner with a “big idea” you are excited about
  • Realistic possibility of moving from a position in VC to an operating role in a portfolio company
  • Relatively stable compensation, however bonus is tied to portfolio performance and forms a greater proportion of salary

Cons:

  • More time spent critiquing business models, management teams, and strategies than thinking about or learning first hand how to grow a business
  • Limited diversity of industries and geographies likely to be encountered
  • Limited opportunities to gain operating or management experience

Operating Role in a Startup:

Pros:

  • Network with other startup professionals in your industry niche and within your company, people who are likely to have very similar passions and might eventually make great business partners
  • Build deep knowledge of your industry, increasing the likelihood of identifying unmet needs which could be filled with a new product or service
  • Gain practical operating and management experience, improving your credibility as a potential partner
  • Understand the challenges faced by startups, and some common methods of overcoming them through personal experience
  • Spend part of your day worrying about how to keep things working (operating mindset) and part your day worrying about how to make them work better (growth mindset)

Cons:

  • Narrower networking opportunities – relatively less likely to meet potential partners in other industries or geographies, or think of solutions to problems that your company is not in the business of solving
  • Possibly reduced professional credibility if later attempting to rejoin the “corporate world”
  • More risky – compensation is highly correlated to business performance, which you may or may not have the ability to control

Of course, there are plethora options beyond consulting, VC, or working in a startup for any entrepreneur in waiting. I would love to know your thoughts. Are there other options which should be considered? Advantages and disadvantages of each that I have failed to consider?