108. Starting a Side Consulting Business | Susan Boles

September 5, 2019

Susan Boles is a CFO, CTO, project manager, and all-around business integrator.

She recently shared her professional journey with me, explaining the role that her side projects have played in her career. Or rather, the role that her full-time jobs have played in her career.
Because for Susan, the side businesses have always been the full-time focus. The jobs were the means to an end, so to speak.

And yes, I said businesses. Because through-out Susan’s professional career, she and her husband had always had something going ‘on the side’ of their regular day job.

Gaining freedom and flexibility is essential for them, and the path they’ve chosen to get there is through business ownership.

Even so, it’s still a balancing act. The road has been circuitous, but it provided Susan the combination of skills and experiences that form the foundation of her current side hustle.

On this episode, we talked about how she got started with her side consulting business, Scale Spark. What helped her address the initial challenges, as well as the ongoing balancing act between her two seemingly full-time roles plus her family life.

Personally, I took note of – what she calls her primary asset – her ability to laser focus on what really moves the needle forward. Something vital, especially when we have multiple, competing priorities, and we have to make the most effective use of our time. So, you definitely want to tune in to that portion of our conversation.

Highlights of Episode 108

  • The main difference Susan experienced starting an online consulting business versus their previous brick-and-mortar businesses
  • What she focused on when she initially got going with Scale Spark
  • Susan’s methods for maintaining the balancing act between her day job and her side consulting business
  • The role of their side businesses versus the role of their day jobs on their long-term plan
  • How Susan talks about her day-job and her side business in social and networking events

Follow Susan Boles on Twitter or LinkedIn
Radical Candor by Kim Scott*
Badass Your Brand by Pia Silva*
Why Start a Side Hustle (even if you don’t need the extra money)

Edited Transcript

Susan Boles: I’m a CFO for a facilities management organization at a large public university. And then I own Scale Spark, which is a consulting company where I help agencies and consultants break out of growth-stalls by fixing back-end processes and creating systems that can grow with you while reducing your overall workload.

I operate as what I like to call a “growth architect” and a number 2 for founders. So, I say that your job is to run your business and my job is to run businesses efficiently. That encompasses finance and technology and processes and team and client management. All those things that can actually hinder growth once you’ve figured out how to sell whatever it is that you’re doing.

All of my clients are remote. And everything happens via Zoom calls, or I do a lot of emails or just via our project management system. A lot of communication happens that way and I’ve tried to design it so that there doesn’t need to be that much one-on-one, real-time communication.

Lou Blaser: I know this isn’t the first time that you started a side hustle and I also want to talk about that in a bit. But for now, let’s focus on Scale Spark. Why did you decide to do this? Why do this when you already have a full-time job? And also, how did you get started with it?

Susan: I tend to approach my full-time job as my side hustle. My businesses have always been my primary focus. Scale Spark was an evolution of all of those different businesses.

I was working as an outsourced CFO for a virtual accounting firm, doing technology implementations and data analysis and financial consulting. One of the things that is happening in the accounting realm is that they are transitioning from desktop stuff to Technology Solutions as part of their overall business ecosystem. And I kept getting assignments to implement solutions I knew were probably not the best thing to fix the problem for our client.

On the surface, it seemed like it would fix it. But in reality, it wasn’t going to be the right fit. And I was getting really frustrated that I couldn’t help people earlier in the process to find the right tool.

Basically, I decided I’d just do that. That I would just create a company that only did technology implementations. And for the first two years, I was mostly doing software implementations and consulting. So that’s how Scale Spark came about.

Lou: So, you have a very strong technology background then Susan?

Susan: I’ve done a lot of software implementations and most of my professional career has been in business analytics. It’s Higher Ed, so it’s called something different but it’s data analysis about large organizations. The accounting piece is probably the newest part of that. I kind of backed into becoming an accountant and it was never really my intention.

Lou: I was actually interested with your career path because I would have imagined that the path would have been towards CTO or CIO as opposed to CFO.

Susan: It was literally accidental. I started my career in the Air Force. I was an Air Force officer, in Security Forces, which is Criminal Justice. I separated so I can marry my husband. He was also in the Air Force and we decided that it was his path was going to be our path for the first 20 years. He was interested in retiring in the Air Force. I enjoyed it, but I wasn’t the be-all and end-all for me.

My mom was actually in institutional research. It’s basically data analytics about higher ed institutions — so colleges and universities. And we moved to Virginia at the time and there happened to be an opening in the institutional research shop at the College of William and Mary. My mom was like, “Well that’s flexible. There’s a college everywhere. So, this is great just do that.”

Luckily my background in social sciences was a really good fit. I had the statistics background for it and that’s how I got started professionally.

We moved to England and the university system is really different there. So, I ended up managing a small bike shop for a few years. Which was great because I got all of this really fabulous small business experience like managing a small business and retail business. Originally our plan had been to actually own a bike shop.

Along the way, I got my MBA. We came back to the States and decided to buy a guest ranch which was essentially on a whim. We bought a guest ranch up in Northwestern Colorado and ran that for a few years.

And decided that wasn’t a great fit for us. We shut that down and decided to open a running shop which was much closer to our original plan of the bike shop.

While we had the running shop, I got this job as the outsourced CFO because of my background. I’d managed businesses and I’d also done this technology stuff. And so, it’s been a very long circuitous path where I picked up all of these different skills that worked perfectly for exactly the business that I’ve designed now.

Lou: You mentioned a couple of the previous side hustles or side businesses that you had started with your husband. The ranch was obviously a brick-and-mortar thing. And then the running store, which is also I guess a physical store with physical inventory. I just wanted to clarify that during the time you always had a job, or you were also employed.

Susan: Yes. I went back into institutional research, about six months after we bought the guest ranch. So I went and got another job as the Director of Institutional Research at a community college in Colorado.
And so, I had that job up until the point I got the job as the outsourced CFO. But during the time that we had the guest ranch and the running store, I had a full-time professional job.

The side business is the primary thing

Lou: You’ve always had this thing, like a constant theme in your professional career, where you have a traditional job and a career with increasing levels of responsibility. And then, with varying levels of involvement or hours, you always had this other thing on the side. I wanted to dive into that part of your story.

Why were you always inclined to do something on the side in addition to a full-time job? Because for many, a full-time job is a lot already. But you always had other things on the side. Why was that important to you? Or why was there a calling for you to do that?

Susan: I don’t know that there was necessarily a calling for me to do that other than paying our bills. The only reason I’ve really had a full-time job is to give us more flexibility and more runway.

Physical businesses take a lot of capital and a million-dollar guest ranch takes an extensive amount of capital followed by a very high inventory business. None of those ever ended up making enough money to have me quit. It would support my husband or me, but not both.

The goal has always been for the business to be the primary thing and the job has always been there to give us more flexibility. To give us more runway for a longer time before we run out of money. And at least initially, it was to support the businesses. To give us capital to be able to invest in very capital-heavy businesses.

Lou: Was it a case, Susan, where you and your husband sat down and said, “This is our goal. This is our long-term goal. We are going to be business owners, not tied to a 9 to 5 job.”

Susan: We did definitely sit down before we decided to open the guest ranch. Both of us were really interested in being business owners and not tied to a job, despite the fact that we’re both pretty successful in the military.

Neither one of us particularly likes not being in charge of things. We always prefer to be in control of our destiny and in control of our day-to-day lives. And I think some of that is just you really have zero control when you’re in the military. He could go at any moment’s notice. He just disappears for six months and I had to pick up the slack. That was our plan.

But the short-term plan was always I’d follow him around. Then when he got out, it would be my time for my career. And I’d go do my thing and he’d follow me around. That was the initial plan.

But throughout that, there was this undercurrent of eventually we will own a business. We did specifically sit down and talk about it. And it’s something that we’ve both been on board with and has always been the goal.

Getting started with the side consulting business

Lou: Could you talk a little bit about how you got started with Scale Spark? Because it is different in the sense that it is not a brick-and-mortar shop, unlike the other two before. And with the prior side hustles, you were selling products, you were selling things. But Scale Spark is something else completely. Could you talk a little bit about how you actually get started? What helped you get started?

Susan: I actually had a business before the guest ranch — my own business right after I got out of the Air Force — as a professional organizer. This was back in the early 2000s before anybody knew what a professional organizer was. The industry itself was really new and so I actually got my start in service-based businesses. But you know, the online business industry was very different back then. I literally put up a Weebly website and got a client. That’s all I did. I did nothing else. I just made my own website. I put it up and magically got clients.

And so, this time around it was a different landscape. I sort of thought it was going to be about the same thing where, you know, I made a website and now I have a business and come hire me here.

It didn’t work out. Online business is a big thing now. Nobody had a website back in 2003. There were certainly no professional organizers in Oklahoma City. I was pretty much the only one. It took zero effort for me to rank #1 on Google.

I expected it to be the same thing but I also came into it with a lot of experience from the other businesses. So getting started with Scale Spark — the “what do you do when you start a business” — was very easy because what you do when you start a business is the same thing. You put up a website. You figure out your name.

But for me, it was a really different experience because this was the first business where I am selling me. The whole credibility piece is me. That’s what I’m selling.

That’s never been the case before. We didn’t have to name the guest ranch. It had a name. It was a thing. You say, “I own a guest ranch” and people know what that means. And when you say,” I own a running store,” people know what that means.

When I started out, I was calling myself a cloud integrator, which nobody knew what it meant. It took me a really long time to figure out how to talk about what I did. And how to be comfortable with me being the center of the business. That was a very difficult transition for me.

When I tell you I run my own running store, I’m going to sell you running shoes. That doesn’t require a lot of explanation. But trying to explain something as amorphous as running the back-end of a business — even back-end means different things to different people.

I did actually put up a website and expected it to be the same. I set up my accounting and I set up my website. And I went out there into the world and it didn’t go well, as you would expect.

I found some really good resources that helped me make the transition. I did a boot camp course with Pia Silva. She has Badass Your Brand. I’m not sure how I found her. I think probably like a Facebook ad, one of those random things that was exactly the right thing at the right time. Her boot camp course is ostensibly about marketing your business. But there’s so much operational stuff in there like, how to structure your products and how to talk about your business that was really useful.

So, I would say that one thing that really helped me was finding a really good connection with somebody that I needed at the right moment in time.

And then the other piece that I found was an online community that unfortunately no longer exists. It’s called The Arena by Margo Aaron.

Lou: I think I read the blog post that talked about why she closed The Arena.

Susan: Margo is hilarious and actionable. That’s the part that I love. One of the people that was in the boot camp with me was a member of The Arena and knew Margo from the Alt-MBA program. I ended up in this, I think she called it an online co-working community, which was a very small close-knit group of people. Everybody would always jump in and help answer whatever question you had and that was so valuable for me.

So, finding a tribe of people willing to help and who had gone through those same struggles. It was a little bit different for me because I had had so many businesses. I’m not saying that that experience was insignificant, but it didn’t help me make the transition to running an online business in the way that working with other people and finding a community and a network of people had.

Lou: Because you have your day job today and then you have your side-hustle, did you have to disclose to your employer that you have this side business? Is that a requirement?

Susan: It’s not a requirement, but they know. I did disclose it.

Lou: What’s that a concern at all? I know this is a concern that I’ve heard from other folks. In your case when you had a running shop or a guest ranch, those were very different businesses. It’s like if you’re a CFO and you have a restaurant. Well, those are two different things. But in your case, your day job and your side business are both in similar space.

Susan: They’re in a similar space but I don’t work with enterprise clients. I only work with small businesses because that’s what I’m really passionate about working. So there’s not really a conflict of interest. But I wanted to let them know because I have a visible online presence. I have a web page. I talk about it. I do my best to keep them separate but I talk about the fact that I have a business. I’ve never tried to hide it.

Lou: That’s great. For some people who are currently employed but are doing something on the side — this balancing act of “how much do I talk about this other part of myself at work” is a challenge.

Susan: Yeah, and for me, that’s such a huge part of my life. It’s really hard to keep it separate.
But also I have had the experience of trying to go look for a new job and having people know that I own a business and having that be a disqualifier. Certain companies are okay with it and some aren’t. So I have definitely had the experience where I went to apply and they looked at my LinkedIn and they saw that I had a business and I had to answer questions. I like being transparent. I don’t want to hide anything. I don’t advertise that during the interview process, but it’s there. I’m not actively hiding it. I’m not going to hide it on my LinkedIn profile or anything. If they ask me about it, I’ll say yeah, I do have another business and that’s been a disqualifier sometimes.

I’ve also been on the other side. I do a lot of hiring and have been on interview committees with people. And somebody comes in who has owned businesses or currently owns a business and on the interview committee, some of the discussion is, “Well, they own a business and they’re not going to be as loyal here.”

Lou: Like the question of dedication and focus on the job versus their business.

Susan: And from my experience working, with business owners, it’s totally the opposite. It’s the same concept as hiring moms. You know, they’re the best workers because they don’t have time to mess around and spend all day on work on Facebook. They know how to focus and get the job done. And I think that’s a skill that gets discounted sometimes when people are getting hired. I’ve been on both sides of that one.

Lou: How do you introduce yourself to people now? Do you introduce yourself as a CFO or as a business owner? How do you show up in the world?

Susan: It’s always a really long introduction. It depends on the audience. So, if I’m at an event for my job, I introduced myself as a CFO. If we get into a longer discussion, I may mention something about owning a business. But I would say in my normal day-to-day work, I normally introduce myself as a business owner and talk about my business. Because well, every opportunity is actually an opportunity to network. And if they don’t know that I own a business, they can’t talk to other business owners and say hey, I know somebody who does that, you should meet her. I don’t need to worry about that with the day job.

Sometimes, I’ll just talk about my husband’s business, especially locally with real estate. Oh, my husband’s a real estate agent and you should meet him. And then I let him talk because he’s the social butterfly.

Time management and work-life balance when you have a side consulting business

Lou: Let’s talk about the balancing act. You have a very senior level position that requires a lot of time and effort and thinking. And then you also have a business and so how do you balance all the stuff that you need to do? What helps you balance things out?

Susan: So at the day job, I have a staff. I’m at a position now where I’m not doing a ton of work necessarily. Most of what I’m doing is networking or serving on committees. Right now, we’re doing a giant software implementation. We’re doing an ERP implementation, so I’m very involved in that. I have people underneath me that are actually managing their individual programs and I am directing. I’m a traffic director and if I’m doing a good, they are owning their area that’s theirs to run. I am definitely not a micromanager. That allows me to have to some mental space, looking at Big Picture stuff. I’m not having to figure out the tactics because I have a lot of really good people that work for me and that’s what they’re there for.

And realistically, I am a CFO in higher education, which is a very different environment than a corporate CFO. I go to work at 7:30. I come home at 4 and that’s pretty consistent. There aren’t a lot of like emergencies. The pace of work is generally a little bit slower because that’s just the nature of higher ed.
So that’s one aspect, the industry that I’m in is very family-focused. It’s very much about work-life balance. The university I work at is very family-oriented. So luckily, I work for a company that is focused on making sure that they’re not working you to death.

And then on the business side, I really hate to enforce the hustle hype and all of that, but I get up really early and that’s probably my number one trick.

I’m normally up between like 4:00 and 5:00 a.m. Because that gives me about two solid hours where I know nobody is going to interrupt me. I also just much better in the morning.

I know my kid is not going to be awake. There’s going to be no family obligations. Nobody’s going to call me. Nobody’s going to email me. It’s my time to focus. I found when you have that environment where you can just really focus on a specific amount of time, you can get a ton of stuff done.

You can be so effective if you’re really clear on what it is that you need to focus on. I know some people who work a lot better at night and so they’ll do it after the kids go to bed. But for me after about 3 o’clock in the afternoon, I’m pretty useless.

Lou: Do you work on the weekends?

Susan: Sometimes I do. I try to avoid it because my family is really important to me. That’s actually the reason that we’re trying to have, time-independent businesses.

So, I do my best not to work on the weekends. I’ve also designed my business to be time-independent. Very low overhead administration. So, I don’t have to do a lot of low-value things like bookkeeping or worry about sending an invoice or chasing people for payment. That’s all designed in the structure of my business that I don’t have to do it.

And then just as far as what really actually helps me juggle things, my husband is totally on board with what we’re doing and what we’re building. The fact that we’ve both built businesses before he knows what goes into that.

It’s a conscious choice for us. That’s a priority and that’s the goal as a family and he’s very supportive of that. Luckily his business is flexible that he can do a lot of things during the week. So, he handles I would say probably 90% of the kid things. I don’t have to worry about it. He does the pick-up; he does the drop-off. And he’s extremely supportive when I’m like, hey, I have to do work.

And then the other thing I would say is that over the course of the last year, in order to scale the business while I’m still working full-time, I’ve started hiring some really good consultants. I’ve been very conscious of not handing off to like low-level people. So my go-to wasn’t to hire a VA and have them set up my folders. I lean on automation for that stuff.

But like when I re-did my website earlier this year, I hired a really good copywriter who knew my voice and who I’ve worked with before. I could just hand it off to her and say hey, here you go. Here’s all my stuff, go write it. And I could keep the focus on client work stuff that brings in revenue and that’s moving the needle forward.

The power of hiring really well-qualified people is that you don’t have to manage them which is fabulous. Sometimes if you’re hiring somebody who’s a little bit more entry-level and you don’t want to spend the money, you end up creating more work for yourself by having to manage them.

I’ve seen some exponential growth this year. And I think a lot of it has been just finding who is the expert in that thing that I need to do and letting them do what they’re an expert in. That’s been powerful in terms of helping me manage as Scale Spark is ramping up, managing the workload and allowing me to scale.

Lou: Speaking of scaling, can you share with us your long-term plan for the side gig? Do you intend to leave the full-time career and focus primarily on the business? What is your long-term goal?

Susan: Probably not super long term anymore. The goal was always to get Scale Spark to the point where it would serve as my full-time income. In order to do that, I had to get it to the point where it could actually generate my full-time income so that when I quit my job, I would be able to support the family. That’s been a gradual ramp up over the last three years trying to get to the point where my recurring income is equivalent to my full-time job.

And then when I hit that point, the plan is to ease off of the full-time job and then Scale Spark will become the only thing. I’m very excited about that because it’s been seven years since I’ve only had one thing to focus on.

Lou: There was something that you said in a prior exchange of emails before our call that I wanted to highlight. You touched on it a little bit already. You shared with me that one of the insights you’ve gained through these experiences — maintaining a full-time job while having a side-hustle — is that it’s not about time management. Rather, it’s about drilling down on what’s actually going to move the needle forward on the business. And doing only those things because you have limited time.

Susan: I would say that’s probably been my most powerful asset. When you only have an hour or two and that’s all you’re going to get that day, what is the most effective thing you can do to move the business forward? Sometimes that’s client work.

Sometimes if you don’t have client work, what is something that’s going to matter? What is literally going to move the needle forward?

A lot of the times, it’s very easy particularly an online business to get really distracted on what people are saying you should do. Or everybody feels like they need to develop a course or they need to do all these other things that get drilled into our heads that we’re supposed to be doing to grow our business.

But a lot of the times, that’s not really true. So I would sit down in the morning during my protected time, and I say what are the three things that I’m focusing on and basically make sure those can get checked off.

But they are things that really make a difference. So if I am trying to drive new business, it might be something like go pitch five podcasts or reach out to five people. You have to focus on something that’s going to be actionable and something that you can do that day. That you can accomplish because that’s really key.

If it’s something really big like, I’m going to change my whole positioning. it’s really hard to actually break that down. You something tactical that you can do right now.

But I also focus on what can I just not do. Is there stuff that I can just ignore? And for the first couple of years of business it was I’m just going to ignore social media for the most part.

It sucks your time up. Most people aren’t going to tell you that somebody found them on Twitter and hired them. For a while, it was, “who can I connect within all of my online communities? Can I have coffee chats with people so I can actually make a connection? To build referrals so people know about me which is much more effective than a cold email.

Probably the thing that I would attribute to my growth the most is just knowing people and then people knowing about me in the online community. So that was a really effective use of my time. But yeah, when you think when you have all day to do something it’s going to take all day.

Lou: I would imagine that to some extent although it’s not 100% in your control, but that would apply as well to your job job.

Susan: And I would also say that I’m sort of inherently lazy. Not that I don’t have a work ethic, because I do. But I don’t want to spend my time doing things that don’t matter. If there’s a way that I can automate that and not have to actually do it at all, I will go after that. If there’s a way that we can just eliminate doing silly things. Like I’m not a fan of meetings. So if I can figure out a way not to have a meeting I will figure out a way not to have a meeting.

I would say it’s okay to be lazy when it comes to really low-value tasks because they’re not going to move that needle forward.

Book recommendation

Lou: Is there a book that has made an impact on you, on your career, or on your transition that you could recommend?

Susan: I would say the one that probably had the biggest impact particularly on this business is Pia Silva. She has a book called that Badass Your Brand. It is short and very easy to understand. And it’s one of those that I always recommend to folks when they come to me and they say, “I’m starting a business. Where should I go?” I’m like, “Start here. This is a good foundational piece.”

And then the other one I’ve found career-wise that’s been really helpful is a book called Radical Candor by Kim Scott. That is probably the number one management or leadership book that I recommend to everybody because it’s just really valuable. And I found it valuable in consulting as well just dealing with clients.

Lou: And then lastly Susan where can we find you online?

Susan: You can find me on scalespark.co and I’ve got a podcast that’s launching called Break the Ceiling. You can also hit me up on Twitter or Instagram @thesusanboles.

Lou: When is the podcast launching?

Susan: In September and we dig into what really hinders growth on the back-end and show you how to go from stalled to Skyrocket without working more or hiring the wrong people. So, it’s really about you know, the tactics of how to run an efficient business.

Lou: Perfect. Susan thank you so much for your graciousness, for your generosity in sharing your story and experiences with us today.

Susan: Yeah. Thanks for having me.

YOUR TURN. I would love to hear your thoughts about the topics we discussed in this episode. What did you take away from Susan’s side hustle journey? You can leave your comments below. Or find me on Instagram and let me know!

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