Beginning its third year of business, RAS & Associates has grown from a five-person, $1 million start-up in 2008 to being on track to employ 35 consultants and generate $8 million by the end of 2010. And much of its success can be tied to founder Rob Swanson’s commitment to preparation and patience.
Swanson has an incredibly thorough hiring process—he’s willing to invest years in building client relationships, and commit massive amounts of his consultants’ time and energy on pro-bono assignments in the name of culture and reputation building.
“There’s no reason why our firm should be successful in this economy. We’re an unknown commodity. Aggregate market demand has shrunk. There’s hyper-competition. But I think what sets us apart is that our people are more empowered and hungry to be differentiated,” Swanson says. “When a client hires us, it’s because he’s taken time to get to know us and is willing to see if what we’re saying is true.”
For Swanson, the key to the firm’s growth is hiring the right people. “It all starts with our employees. We spend a significant amount of time recruiting, tracking and training people. We then empower our people to be creative and build relationships that are deep,” he says.
In 2009, the firm hired a total of eight people. Swanson interviewed 175 people to find those eight gems. “Most of the people we’re looking at have outstanding client, consulting and educational experience. But we want someone who also will make a perfect cultural fit,” Swanson says. “Recruiting firms say we’re spending too much time on our hires, but I don’t think so. People are our number one priority. I’d rather wait and hire the right person than hire someone who is just adequate. A merely adequate experience with a client would be detrimental.”
Swanson’s patience in building client relationships is also paying off. He says his firm is on pace to grow from $2.5 million in revenue in 2009 to $8 million in 2010. “Our expectations for 2010 are based on conversations we started to have in 2009 that we expect will result in work in 2010 and 2011. We’re eager to meet executives at our target companies to see if there might be an opportunity for us to work together at some point. We begin to build trust and eventually are invited to step up to the plate to do a small project,” he says.
Much of the firm’s new work has come from clients he’s been slowly building trust with for more than two years. “We’re always looking for ways to find low risk ways to build a professional relationship.” His firm is in the process of building relationships with 66 local companies. “We want to earn their trust, respect and build a rapport to the point that they’d go out of their way to recommend us,” he says.
Part of Swanson’s long-term vision is his commitment to local community building. The firm’s consultants spend a lot of their spare time consulting to the United Way on a purely volunteer basis. “We treat them like any other client,” he says. The firm is currently working on a massive IT project designed to improve donor relations and improve the efficiency of its IT operations.