Never Too Small to Manage
Author: David Whitford
A talkative man with a brown mustache, Michael Bryant is CEO of Career Transition Services, in Baltimore. He is also that company's sole employee. Its corporate headquarters is a room on the second floor of Bryant's house on Berkshire Road. Outside on the front porch, next to the door, hangs a small painted sign: "The Bryants, est. 1980." It acknowledges the dwelling's other tenants: Michael's wife, Nancy, a financial planner who works in town (1980 is when they married), and the couple's three young children, Rachel, Zachary, and Jane.
Bryant is a consultant. He helps people decide what to do with their lives. Some of his clients are individuals who come to him on their own. Others are organizations that send him their castoffs for outplacement services. Many of those same organizations also hire Bryant to help with strategic planning or to run in-house seminars on time management and communication skills. Now and then he is called upon to deliver a speech or write an article. He has also written a book, as yet unpublished, called Lessons on Life. In a good year Career Transition Services, or CTS, brings in about $100,000. For Bryant, who has no expenses to speak of (outside of those he can use as tax write-offs), works a four-day week, is usually around when the kids come home from school, and watches dusk descend on his own property almost every evening, that's plenty. "I love the life I've created," he says.
Understandably. Yet we tend to peg soloists like Bryant in unflattering terms. They must have been laid off by somebody, right? Their revenues are capped. They don't create jobs. They'll never really be rich. And there's no way they run a real business. But Bryant wasn't downsized, outplaced, or reengineered. He chose this life. Like anybody else, he settled on a profession; he trained for it and works diligently every day to keep it up. Moreover, there's no doubt that what he's doing is running a real business. (He even practices open-book management, but more about that later.) And, oh yes, he's having, uh..."a blast!" he says. "I'm a pig in slop!" Of course.
Maybe we should put Bryant up on a pedestal, where everybody can see him and call him a trend: a new-model soloist, say--a professional whose satisfaction comes in equal parts from practicing his craft and from running his business. The clincher--what makes it such a kick for him--is that he gets to do it all by himself.
But scrap that. Let's just call him the happiest small-business owner in the world.
It's obvious from the moment you enter Bryant's office that he has no kinship with those mythical soloists who set up shop in some fantasy locale in front of a picture window, who work with their feet up on their desks and their laptops actually on their laps. This is Baltimore. When Bryant looks out his window (which is hard--the computer monitor is in the way), he sees the neighbors' house. The decor is standard office drab: blue rug, brown paneling, beige couch, brass floor lamp, and magazine rack. If the IRS ever saw this place, it would make Bryant its home-office poster boy.
Bryant's idea of a great day is to come in here in the morning and never leave. He also loves his house, his street, and the city of Baltimore. He loves most of all the fact that he has lived here all his married life, and that his kids have never had to move. Growing up, Bryant never lived anywhere long enough to have a local bank account. (His father worked for Du Pont.) The money he made shoveling snow and delivering papers, he mailed to a bank in North Carolina, where he had relatives. Bryant always knew that when he had a family of his own, things would be different. So together he and Nancy chose a place (a good place, as good as any) and have stayed put. "There are four and a half million people in the Baltimore-Washington corridor," says Bryant. "I am one guy. I ought to be able to find enough work."
Bryant's success story begins, classically, with confusion and failure. His first solo venture, Bryant Educational Services, started in 1977, was "one of the great flops of all time," he says. "It lasted two or three months. I found myself saddled with debt and scared half to death." In retrospect, Bryant wasn't ready yet. He was still so busy learning his craft that he let his business drift. By the time Bryant came back to form CTS, four years later, he had a much better grip. For one, he was certain now that he had discovered his life's calling, the one job he was meant to do. Not a big job, necessarily; not one likely to bring him fame or riches. But a meaningful job nonetheless: he would help people find their own place in the world of work.
Great. But having failed once, Bryant also knew that helping people was only one part of what he was after; the critical part was earning a living for himself. That meant paying close attention to the health and well-being of his business.
He knew what he had to do. He just never dreamed it would be so much fun.
What do you hate most about running your business?
Meetings? "My meetings are great," says Bryant. "They can be held anywhere I want. Only the people I want to show up, show. No one's ever late. Any idea I have, I love. And they're over when I say."
Dealing with employees? "My personnel problems are under control. Everyone's really happy. There are no employee disturbances. And the employees are really mature about what the boss needs to get done. They've all really 'bought in.' "
Administrative chores? It's amazing how simple life can be when the only consideration is what works for you. Bryant is not a Luddite; he just chooses not to worship computers. He keeps track of names and addresses the way mothers used to keep track of recipes: on three-by-five cards, stowed in little plastic boxes. Whenever he has a business expense, he puts the receipt in an envelope marked, say, "CTS Parking" or "CTS Supplies." At the end of the year, he adds up all the receipts. As for billing, most clients who come to Bryant's office write a check before they leave. But if he has to send out an invoice, he puts a copy in a folder with the client's name on it. When the check arrives, he marks the invoice paid and puts it in another folder with all the other paid invoices. "That thing works like a charm," he says proudly, pointing at the shoe box full of envelopes. "I'm not spending all those hours entering things into a computer, either, just so it can spit something out one time."
The part about Bryant's practicing open-book management sounds like a joke, and it is, sort of. Bryant shares all his numbers...with himself! Bryant distributes all his profits...to himself! Whoop-de-do. But there's more to open-book management than that, and here's where it gets fun, not just funny. If you're going to do it right, you can't just open the books; you have to make sure everybody understands the numbers. And you can't just pay out bonuses tied to profits; you need everybody energetically moving the numbers in the right direction. Both are monumental challenges, whether you're dealing with a thousand employees or just one. Bryant, of course, has developed his own system.
The first step was dividing his revenues into logical categories. Before he did that, he thought all money was alike. "Receivables are up," he'd tell himself, "we're doing great. Receivables are down, I guess we're not doing great." But when he took a closer look, he was able to discern four distinct streams: individuals, consulting, speeches and workshops, and outplacement. He began tracking the streams, assigning revenues as they were earned, and marking them on a flip-up calendar. As time passed and the data accumulated he gained ever deeper insight into the natural ebb and flow of his business. But the real breakthrough was yet to come. For that, he needed more powerful analytical tools. He needed cows, pigs, and chickens.
More than 80% of Bryant's revenues in a typical month come from corporate clients. None of them live forever (a consultant's clients never do), but some of them live a long time, producing steadily all the while. Those are cows, he decided. Next are his individual clients, whose significance resides in their numbers, not their individual worth. Those are chickens. ("Chickens are not to be sneezed at," Bryant says. "General practitioners do very well with chickens.") Finally come the nonrecurring revenue opportunities, the clients who hire him to give a speech or write an article or produce a workshop. Those are pigs; you get only one chance to slaughter a pig.
Once Bryant had identified all the animals on his farm, he started looking into their genealogy. He knew, for example, that without a steady supply of cows, his farm would go under. But where did his cows come from? From other cows? Rarely. From chickens? It happens, but not very often. From pigs? Why, yes, from pigs! Typically, Bryant would give a speech to a professional organization; later he'd get a call from someone who had been in the audience, and the result would be a consulting contract. It didn't always happen right away ("there's a little gestation period there," he says) but there was no denying the lineage. Bryant had discovered a fundamental truth about his business: pigs beget cows.
Then Bryant started playing games, using his data to keep score, just like a real open-book company. He set monthly revenue goals and rewarded himself with prizes for making his numbers: a coveted Samsung Maxima Zoom 105 camera last July, a CD-ROM player for the kids in August ("Dad, are you going to make your number?"), a new freezer for the kitchen in September. The trick with incentive plans, of course, is to keep them challenging and fresh. So Bryant has begun thinking about nonmonetary forms of compensation--"like giving myself time off for a job well done."
The upshot is that Bryant has more control over his business. And being in control, as every entrepreneur knows, is fun. "This is how I get pleasure," he says. "When I look at these numbers and say, 'I need to do something to move these numbers,' and then I do something and they move, I feel terrific."
Lately, Bryant has been mapping out some rough goals for this year: more cows (at least one new steady producer in 1997), more pigs (at least one speech a month), finding a publisher for Lessons on Life, keeping a four-day workweek ("So I can stay home with Jane, my three-year-old, the other day"), and getting the house painted.
All reasonable, all attainable, all pertaining to or derived from the success of his thriving solo enterprise. No wonder he doesn't call it work. He calls it "my most favorite way of playing."
Resources: For more on working alone, see Working Solo: The Real Guide to Freedom and Financial Success with Your Own Business, by Terri Lonier (Portico Press, 800-222-7656, 1994, $14.95). Also, the Working Solo Internet site provides a searchable version of the Working Solo Sourcebook of more than 1,200 resources.
To learn more about open-book management, check out John Case's Open-Book Management: The Coming Business Revolution (HarperBusiness, 800-242-7737, 1995, $13). Look at Inc.'s special report on open-book management online (from our June 1995 issue) To subscribe to The Open-Book Management Bulletin, a monthly newsletter, call 617-625-7095. An annual subscription costs $195.
CAREER TRANSITION SERVICES, Michael Bryant, 3126 Berkshire Rd., Baltimore, MD 21214; 410-444-5857; firstname.lastname@example.org
David Whitford is a business writer in Boston.