MJFChat: The New Rules for Running Your Own Services Business

We’re doing a twice-monthly interview show on Petri.com that is dedicated to covering topics of interest to our tech-professional audience. We have branded this show “MJFChat.”

In my role as Petri’s Community Magnate, I will be interviewing a variety of IT-savvy technology folks. Some of these will be Petri contributors; some will be tech-company employees; some will be IT pros. We will be tackling various subject areas in the form of 30-minute audio interviews. I will be asking the questions, the bulk of which we’re hoping will come from you, our Petri.com community of readers.

We will ask for questions a week ahead of each chat. Readers can submit questions via Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and/or LinkedIn using the #AskMJF hashtag. Once the interviews are completed, we will post the audio and associated transcript in the forums for readers to digest at their leisure. (By the way, did you know MJFChats are now available in podcast form? Go here for MJF Chat on Spotify; here for Apple Podcasts on iTunes; and here for Google Play.)

Our next MJFChat, scheduled for July 7, is all about the new rules for running your own services business. My special guest is Richard Campbell, wearer of many hats, including entrepreneur, “rabid podcaster,” Microsoft Regional Director and Microsoft MVP. We want you to submit any and all of your questions for Richard ahead of our chat.

Richard has run his own business, Campbell & Associates, for more than 25 years. Lately, everything is very different. There’s been a huge shuffling of priorities by consultants and their clients. The double-whammy of the COVID-19 pandemic, plus the current economic downturn, has created an unfamiliar landscape. Richard has thoughts about how IT pros can figure out what they can do remotely, how to focus on immediate ROI projects and lots more.

If you have specific questions on anything to do with running a services business in this new world, Richard’s a great person to ask.

If you know someone you’d like to see interviewed on the MJFChat show, including yourself, send me a note at [email protected] (Let me know why you think this person would be an awesome guest and what topics you’d like to see covered.) We’ll take things from there….


Mary Jo Foley (00:01):
Hi, you’re listening to the Petri.com MJF Chat show. I am Mary Jo Foley, AKA your Petri.com community magnate. And I am here to interview tech industry experts about various topics that you, our readers and listeners want to know about. Today’s MJF chat is going to be all about the new rules for running your own services business. And my special guest today is Richard Campbell. He is an entrepreneur, a self-professed rabid podcaster, a Microsoft regional director, and a Microsoft MVP plus so much more. Thank you so much for doing this Richard.

Richard Campbell (00:38):
I’m so excited to be on your show MJ, it’s fun to be in the other seat, you know?

Mary Jo Foley (00:42):
Exactly. I’ve been on your show a few times, but I don’t think I’ve ever had you as a guest.

Richard Campbell (00:47):
I’ve done Windows Weekly with you and Paul a few times.

Mary Jo Foley (00:49):
That’s true.

Richard Campbell (00:49):
Always a boondoggle.

Mary Jo Foley (00:52):
Exactly. So I’m going to give the listeners here a little context, if you don’t know Richard Campbell and I don’t know who doesn’t in our business. But Richard is one of those people who can truly talk about anything. So I wanted to make sure to find a topic that he could address that perhaps many other people could not. And it seems like during the pandemic consulting like many businesses is undergoing a lot of changes, that’s why it seemed like a great time to get you to opine on what people should be doing to adapt to the new world order.

Richard Campbell (01:27):

Mary Jo Foley (01:28):
And, you’ve been doing a series on your own show, right? About working from home during the pandemic.

Richard Campbell (01:34):
Yeah. On the RunAsRadio, which is the podcast that focuses on IT Pros as the pandemic sort of took place. It’s a funny story for the first time in a number of years, we always publish on Wednesdays. April 1st was going to fall on a Wednesday. And so I had literally been planning for months to do a gag show for April Fool’s. Do something funny. Right and I’m not going to reveal what it is cause hopefully I’ll get to do it again because by the middle of March, nothing was funny. It would have been completely inappropriate. So instead I did a solo show where I literally said, listen, like I’ve been in IT a long time. This is an unprecedented situation. Here’s what I’m thinking about. And sort of just went down my list of things like, how are you going to scale your VPN? How are you helping your people work from home?

Richard Campbell (02:22):
You know, how are you maintaining infrastructure? Can you still maintain your security perimeters? Like all of those IT related things. And the reaction to the show was very powerful. And so I committed to doing an additional show, RunAs, per week, but specifically the Pandemic Series and sort of took that 25 minute checklist that I ran through for April 1st and turned it into a half hour on each of those subjects. But I feel like now coming into July, we’re finally talking about how do you get your people back into the office?

Mary Jo Foley (02:51):

Richard Campbell (02:53):
So the story is still going and going.

Mary Jo Foley (02:55):
Definitely. And when we talked about doing this chat about how to kind of renovate your own services business, you mentioned to me that it’s really key for consultants to figure out what they can do remotely. Number one, and then decide whether or not the services you’re providing hit on immediate ROI. So I thought it would be good to maybe get going with that and say, how do people evaluate what should be considered an immediate ROI project? Like what are some examples of those?

Richard Campbell (03:25):
Well, there’s a key class to that whole thing is what pain has the company your customer got right now? That they may or may not fully even understand. Obviously the sudden need to work from home meant, do you know how to scale their VPN? Do you know how to help their remote workers actually function effectively at all? It’s not enough to just be online, but can they actually get to the resources they need in a relatively secure way? Are they able to collaborate meaningfully? You know, all of those pieces come into play. And so there’s lots of service there, but they’re almost not real projects. They’re just the scramble to try to get people functioning. Which I think largely happened at least in the Western world in April and May, although still ongoing. You know, I continue to have these conversations with IT folks that are now starting to help tune the employee wifi.

Mary Jo Foley (04:21):

Richard Campbell (04:22):
It’s not just that the workers at home it’s that everybody’s at home, kids are using bandwidth to do their school lessons. And the spouse is also working from home and it’s like, you know, internet is overwhelmed. So there’s lots of that sort of patch, patch, patch kind of projects. But I also think that there’s a bigger scope here of the economic impact of the pandemic and the amount of work that did stop. Like I have talked to consultants where their customer simply stopped everything, which I think is a panic reaction. And understandably, this is unprecedented times. You don’t really know what to do next. And so cutting expenses seems like a reasonable thing to do. And so I think it’s incumbent on the service provider to also be able to be that more rational force. I’m seeing IT folks in general, not just IT, but dev all of these kind of thriving in this environment. Cause we’re sort of used to problem solving. It’s just another problem to solve. Now, if you sit back and have the existential dread around it, you can impair yourself.

Mary Jo Foley (05:29):

Richard Campbell (05:32):
Focus on how do I make this situation better with the skills that I have? Is everything genuinely services that you can provide? And you’re seeing again and again, both internal and external people kind of stepping up as de facto leaders through the pandemic, helping these businesses to survive and hopefully even to thrive.

Mary Jo Foley (05:52):
Right. I think that’s a really important point because I know there are a lot of people in IT who are like, Oh, you know, I’m obsessive compulsive, or I’m really too detail oriented. But I think in this kind of an environment, like you’re saying this whole, like I can solve this. It’s a problem. I’m good with like dealing with a current crisis, kind of a thing. And uncertainty I’m really good with that. I think all those kinds of soft skills are super important. And these are things people who are in IT kind of have just built into their makeup in a way.

Richard Campbell (06:23):
Yeah and hopefully they’re using a little bit of their communication skills to sort of assemble that checklist because there’s plenty of business leaders that are overwhelmed. And so when someone comes in as a sort of force of calmness of here’s an order of execution, things we can take care of today, stuff that we can actually improve. How do we relocate all those machines? How do we scale up the VPN? Like all of those sorts of tasks and gathering useful information. Cause there’s plenty of services out there so that you suddenly become this service, this help to take problems off the table. Cause there are plenty of others that you can’t deal with. So anything you can say, Hey, I can make this issue, go away for you. Makes them excited. Not every business gets to shut down, and it’s not always obvious things, you know, it’s subtle things, surprising things too.

Richard Campbell (07:13):
There’s a local bakery, a friend of mine, they specialize in cannoli and very Vancouver-like kind of place, but also good baked goods and so forth. And it’s a sort of place that on a Saturday afternoon, you go and you get a cappuccino and you have a biscotti. It’s fantastic. All of that stuff. But Sammy had been starting up a catering business. He wasn’t there yet, but he’d stood up a website which was basically just brochure ware and he’d gotten a truck. So he, the van just arrived around the time that the shutdown started. And so he was smart enough to engage with some tech folks that turned that brochure website into an eCommerce site. And so deliveries, you know, at a distance, drop in boxes off of doorsteps and so forth. Now it’s not like everybody needs cannoli, but at the same time, what he stumbled into was A, he makes wicked lasagna and we could all use more lasagna it makes your life better.

Richard Campbell (08:12):
The bakery supplies, eggs, milk, wheat, flour, because he’s on the commercial side. His supply pipeline is completely different than the grocery store. So when the grocery store was out of all those things, he wasn’t. For better or worse in Western society, we built separate commercial and retail produce prep lines it’s efficient, but it meant in this weird situation where all of the restaurants were closed and the bakeries couldn’t take orders and so forth. They had lots of stuff when the grocery store aisles were empty. And so he was suddenly busy as could be supplying those core supplies and cannoli. It kept his business alive, but it was just that little bit of technology like it for us as tech folks standing up three or four pages of e-commerce and creating a payment engine form, that’s all cloud stuff. Right. It was switched on in a matter of days. And it wasn’t pretty, it’s not the most beautiful site you’ve ever seen, but it worked. And it kept people working, it kept his company functioning and it kept people with the stuff they needed. Right at the time they needed it.

Mary Jo Foley (09:20):
Yep. Yep. You also mentioned to me like something that might be considered an immediate ROI project would be working with touch free technology. And you know, I think some of these things are super obvious what people can specialize in, like remote medical services. Yeah. That’s perfect timing for this or you know, pandemic support projects, but then when you kind of extend that and think more broadly, just not specifically about, Oh, you know, you have to be more careful about what you’re touching, but then kind of position it as touch, free technology. I think that’s a really good way to kind of repackage something to make it look like a bigger kind of a solution that you as a consultant are delivering.

Richard Campbell (10:02):
Yeah. I’ve seen a few folks there that have grabbed on to just using text messaging. Well, everybody’s got a phone,

Mary Jo Foley (10:08):

Richard Campbell (10:08):
So, you know, you’re arriving at the home improvement center and you’re not allowed in there. You can wait on the phone, which seems like a waste. It’s so much easier to text that you’re there and what parking spot you’re in and what your order number is. And then they know to come out and drop stuff off. Or if you are doing the only so many people allowed in the store, you can do a virtual line where everybody stays in their car rather than the lining up six foot space apart in [inaudible] that we can all just sit in our cars and literally have a text message. Like it’s your turn to go in now. That is again, not terribly complicated software, but it speaks to this unique moment that, and arguably this whole infrastructure that will be useful later to make it easier for people to work, to communicate the way they want to communicate.

Richard Campbell (10:58):
Especially in the retail side of this, there’s this concept of omni-channel, that it shouldn’t matter whether you’re in person, on the phone, via email, on a website, whether you want to buy something, have something delivered, pick something up or return something that they all integrate together. And in reality, most businesses that have a variety of these things, they’re not integrated. Often the website was a feature stood up after retail was already in place and literally has its own inventory and own supply chain management. And so when the retail was shut down, there’s literally no workflow for all of those products. It’s like, we’re out of this in the web side, but we’ve got it sitting in the stores. How dumb is this? Again, that’s a software problem.

Mary Jo Foley (11:44):

Richard Campbell (11:46):
[inaudible] with some good programming. So these are hugely valuable projects that will always be valuable. I guarantee you, it was on somebody’s to-do list, but it was way down at the bottom and suddenly it should be at the top.

Mary Jo Foley (11:58):
Exactly. So, we’re talking about things that people should think about working on immediate ROI projects, but then there are some things people should put on the back burner too. Longer term ROI projects, right? Like this isn’t really the time probably for those. So what’s an example or two of those. And what do you think consultants should be doing in terms of thinking about longer term projects?

Richard Campbell (12:21):
Well, I think in general, the immediate ROI is are we, revenue of the business is already impacted, how do we replace that revenue, how do we repair that revenue? Like the things that are breaking right now, like people can’t be present in the store or our return system is not working correctly. All those things need to be fixed first. But as you think longer term about in a general economic downturn, and I’ve been through a few, it’s the upside of doing this for 40 something years is that every time you have a downturn, it’s sort of a retrenchment. You go back and you go back to core values of how does this directly benefit the business. And we have not really had a major downturn in what, at least in 10 years, you can talk about whether the great recession, in 2008, 2009 was a significant one.

Richard Campbell (13:07):
It was for some folks, it wasn’t for others. So it’s easy for, and I deal with people all the time, that’s just like they’ve only ever had a growth mindset, growth, growth, growth, growth. That leads to lots of experimentation. And so where you, where the potential return is not obvious. And you have to question, why does that project even exists? Because sometimes they’re competitive projects, well, the competitor’s doing it. So we need to do it too. But they’re experimental where you don’t know what it might reveal. And that’s interesting, but this may not be the time for it. So an example of this would be many of the machine learning and AI projects because it became very hip a few years ago.

Richard Campbell (13:49):
If you wanted to be a relevant business, you needed to have an AI strategy, whatever that may be. And that ultimately means you carve off a little bit of budget, you get your guys training and they’re basically experimenting. They’re trying to find the way forward. It’s hard to hire anybody in that space because the demand was so high. So, you know, getting experienced people was difficult. So you’re mostly growing your own people into that space. And that doesn’t make a lot of stuff at first. You know, I always think about those first projects with a new technology are very much like the clutch in your first car, right? You’re not going to go very far and you’re going to make some bad smells.

Richard Campbell (14:26):
You’re learning, you’re experimenting, right? That’s part of a company growing is maybe we find something important here, but when I’m in this downturn scenario where I’m not sure about revenues, I want to take those resources and focus them on things I know will have return. So I’ll back burn those projects. I’m not saying I’m never going to touch them again.

Mary Jo Foley (14:48):
Right, yeah.

Richard Campbell (14:49):
The biggest thing that I saw in the past few months is everybody going down that to-do list and shuffling it around. You know, we always talked about improving workflow and, you know, improving automations and so forth, but the returns seem to be small at that time. So they were tertiary, where the potential of an AI project and your ability to show yourself as an avant-garde company for your recruiting side and, you know, generally your stock value. Those made a lot of sense. And now we’ve turned that over and said, Hey, everywhere that I can show incremental improvement on a routine basis, that project gets priority. Anywhere that I’m not sure, that it’s experimental, that project is going to lose priority.

Mary Jo Foley (15:31):
That’s a good way to look at it. Just kind of make that your guideline. Right. I also like a point you made in our pre chat about you need to think about ROI more broadly. And you mentioned a couple of things that I think many, IT Pros wouldn’t consider ROI type projects. But like if you rethink how to position the pandemic and the economic downturn, and you think about it as disaster recovery and disaster response and even supporting people when they’re afraid, right. I think those are things people could say I know how to do that I just didn’t think that was really an ROI kind of a case.

Richard Campbell (16:12):
Well, you know, especially when folks feel so uncertain.

New Speaker (16:16):

New Speaker (16:18):
That regular cadence part is important. And then we also disperse them to their homes. So no water cooler talk, no connection. So I, you know, a friend of mine, who’s an, IT Pro started writing a daily email to the whole company and it was, part of it was, Hey, you know, I know it’s taking a while for me to deal with your issue. Here’s the issues we’ve worked through. Here’s what solved, here’s what’s coming next. And so he created a heartbeat of the organization. He effectively became the water cooler. And he always had something funny to say, and he always say like, on this day, 10 years ago, like those kinds of things that reminded us, we’re still a group, right? That we’re still in our organization that we’re working.

Richard Campbell (17:01):
We’re making, you know, I look at, he sent me a couple of the copies of the emails. We talked a lot about that, about what it was doing to morale. That progress is being made, things are being addressed. Your patience will be rewarded, happier times are ahead. We’re still pulling for each other, you know, to the point where folks were talking about, I really look forward to your email. And I think that that mindset of reminding we’re all trying to be compassionate with each other, even though we, and I hate the term socially distant. It’s the wrong term. It was a mistake to use it. We need to be physically distant. We really need to be socially close.

Mary Jo Foley (17:40):
That’s true. Yep.

Richard Campbell (17:43):
More than ever, because we are in this together, even though we’re somewhat separated.

Mary Jo Foley (17:48):
It’s true. It’s funny because like emails that I get now from companies, from PR agencies, they all start out. Like, I know things are hard and I’m sorry to interrupt your day. I’m sure you’re having a hard time coping. I’m thinking, wow, that’s so different from the usual emails that I get, you know.

Richard Campbell (18:05):
Well, it’s interesting to think in terms of emails as interruption, just like phone calls are interruption. And I actually have thought a lot about how I open and close emails differently in the past few months. Where I am asking, I hope you and your family are well, cause I really care. I always have, but I used to be able to presume they were, and I’m not sure today. So just you know, reminding you that this is important to me too.

Mary Jo Foley (18:31):
That’s true. That’s true. I think also the whole idea of having not smaller goals, but more incremental or nearer term goals is important because if you just look at the big picture and are we ever going to go back to the office and are things ever going to go back to the way they were, I think you get discouraged. And if you can kind of find things that are closer or more, what you feel like are more doable, it really helps break things up into a more manageable set of tasks and it makes your days feel a little less, never ending

Richard Campbell (19:04):
Well. And plus anything you’re looking more three to six months in advance, you’re speculating.

Mary Jo Foley (19:09):
Right, we don’t know.

Richard Campbell (19:11):
And if you focus on that, you will make yourself crazy. Take those smaller bites and make progress it’s the only way to get through anyway. And all of those things build up to an ability to respond to the next wave of changes. You know, we are putting our house in order. It’s certainly something I’m seeing on the services side is that we’re doing more maintenance as the immediate crisis has been resolved. And the speculative projects make less sense. What should you work on? And it’s like, are our backups in order? Do we have a fail over strategy? It works that, you know, Satya Nadella certainly talked about. We had two years of move to the cloud that happened in two months. So more of that, our cloud optimization is correct. Do we know how these things work? You know, I’ve talked to a lot of folks. Who’s like, I don’t know that the company’s infrastructure has been in better shape than it is right now. It’s a very good time for it to be in good shape, because so many other things are fragile. We don’t have the bandwidth to have another failure.

Mary Jo Foley (20:14):
Right, right. What do you think about using this time for reskilling and upskilling? I mean, that’s a big theme that we keep hearing, but do you think that is something worth looking at, and is there any kind of subset of that, that jumps out at you and says you should be doing this right now? You shouldn’t even be questioning it.

Richard Campbell (20:33):
Yeah. I mean, I always question everything anyway, It never is one size fit all but the most generalized move, you can count on is cloud, right? In general, utilizing party infrastructure to increase your connectivity and your ability to keep your people bound together rather than through the narrow straw, that is the internet connection into your office or into your data center that is a strengthening feature. But there’s lots of preventative work across the board stuff you meant to get to, but was always, you know, not as shiny, the cool projects that made for good headlines. And, you know, at the time when there’s very little cool or just trying to keep doing the right thing, going into that, you know, using the covey term, quadrant two that you know, preventative, protective, maintenance kind of mindset, those are all about strengthening the whole, because we don’t know the future. And we are going to be more resilient.

Richard Campbell (21:38):
There is going to be more twists and turns. I do not expect us to go back to quote unquote, the way we were. Things will always be different, but they will also not be like they are right now.

Mary Jo Foley (21:51):

Richard Campbell (21:51):
I have a show coming on RunAs that was specifically the return to work show. And I went to Cynthia, who’s a specialist in workplaces, and we really ended up in a conversation about the rethinking of the workspace. You know, starting with that question, why do we go to the office? Once you’ve learned to work from home and you’re productive there, not everybody is, you know, there’s plenty of folks that can’t do that, but there’s plenty of folks that can, what is it about the office that’s useful? And ultimately came down this concept of collaboration. So it makes sense for me to bring my team in so that we’re together because that is more productive.

Richard Campbell (22:30):
However, under pandemic conditions, the current seating arrangement just isn’t going to work. You know, one option is okay, only every other cube is occupied. So everybody’s distant. Well, that means that the whole team is not there. And you sort of eliminate the value of going to the office. Okay, the whole team there, but we still need to be more distant. So suddenly there’s this conversation about redesigning the office? How do I create a pod of eight or 10 people sufficiently distant, that would all be on a team and they would use it maybe once a week, which then it means it can’t be personal desks because I need to use that five days a week. So it’ll be five different teams that are using it. So this idea of personal workspace gets diminished for shared workspace, but safe workspace that allows us to collaborate. And we need to, that’s a lot of different thinking, and it’s not unprecedented. There’s other workspaces like that. If you’ve got a remote sales team and they come in once in a while, you have sort of hot desk environment already. But the idea that you think about more traditional office workers in the same model, where four days a week, we work remote one day a week, we all get together for those specific tasks that are best served by in-person collaboration.

Mary Jo Foley (23:46):
Definitely a lot of things to consider

Richard Campbell (23:50):
For me, you know, that opening question of what do I do as a service business. Like there’s a lot to do, but there are different things. And where your costumer will grab on to you is when you’ve got clear thinking about this, you are thinking about the next problem and the next problem, and the next problem, that they’re all going to encounter. And so that you have a plan, you at least have some ideas so that they can have the conversation it has to happen next. It’s not a long way in the future. You know, this return to work wave is only just beginning now, but we’ve been thinking about it for a couple of months.

Mary Jo Foley (24:26):
Yup, exactly. Well, thanks. That’s a perfect note to end on Richard, thanks as always for all the insights and the good stories and the cannoli and the lasagna.

Richard Campbell (24:40):
I got a couple, even when he was winding down the delivery part, like, before you stop, I need a couple more of lasagnas.

Mary Jo Foley (24:45):
Definitely. Yeah. I would be that too. I would be like, can I stock a couple of extras of that,

Richard Campbell (24:53):
Lasagnas good frozen anyway. But the cannoli you have to eat that day.

Mary Jo Foley (24:55):
Yes, no, it would be rude not to, as they say.

Richard Campbell (24:59):
Well, I share them with my neighbors. Right. I get a dozen and I wrap them up in pairs and just leave them on doorsteps. Cause you can’t eat them all. I mean fun to try, but you can’t.

Mary Jo Foley (25:06):
Exactly. All right. For everyone else listening to this chat right now, I will be posting more information soon on Petri about who my next guest is going to be. Once you see that you can submit questions directly on Twitter for this guest. And in the meantime, if you know of anyone else or even yourself who might make a good guest for one of these MJF chats, please do not hesitate to drop me a note. Thank you very much.