In January, I made the decision to close the Boston Expert Witness Group after over two years since I had my initial vision for the business.
Though I was making money and helping my clients with a genuine need, I ultimately realized that I was not creating the kind of business that I wanted to create.
Along the way, I learned (at least) six hugely important lessons about entrepreneurship, which I want to share with anyone who cares to read them. For each, I will explain how learning this lesson directly impacted my business and my decision to move on.
But before I get there, let me back up just a few meters in case you don’t know what I have been doing in this business.
About the Boston Expert Witness Group
The Boston Expert Witness Group offered the expertise of a premium group of high-integrity medical expert witnesses. We went to work on a variety of cases that all had a common thread of requiring medical expertise to explain material facts that were the subject of litigation.
We worked on personal injury cases, insurance defense cases, medical malpractice cases, and even some patent litigation. We gave expertise from both plaintiff and defendant standpoints. We worked on cases throughout the United States.
By the end of my running the business, we were revenue positive, and even a little profitable. We contributed essential expertise to our clients’ cases and in some situations were able to do so early enough to prevent litigation from happening in the first instance.
The Group worked with some of the leading boutique firms in Boston, as well as a handful of solo practitioners. We handled some very interesting cases and also some pretty typical ones.
Ultimately, we struggled with finding a product-market fit that could stand on the business’s core values: integrity, efficiency, and legal innovation. The lessons I learned explain why.
Lesson I: Put Markets First, not Ideas
I come up with a lot of interesting ideas. None but maybe two of them have ever been marketable… maybe. These are not good odds.
Contrast the process of starting with ideas to find markets with the process of starting with a market need to develop a business idea. When you start with market need, you know that as long as you can build a product or service that addresses it and connect with enough customers, you will have a business.
The Boston Expert Witness Group started as an idea in search of a market. Though I found the market late in the life of the business, it didn’t look anything like a market that would support a business built on our core values.
Most attorneys I worked with were not in the interest of using my business to find a vetted expert. Rather, they simply wanted a list of people who they could show to the firm’s partner handling the litigation.
The chance that a prospect was going to return to the business to hire our expert was minimal, yet we did not get paid until that happened.
Because our business put a lot of work into vetting experts before adding them to our database, we ended up doing a lot of work for free. That turned out not to be a good business model (obviously).
Catering to the market of attorneys who wanted lists to bring to their partners, we would have had to:
- lower our cost to build and maintain a database of expert witnesses;
- lower the quality of our referrals;
- charge for our lists; and/or
- support the business with another source of revenue.
These turned out to be approaches that were unmarketable, lacked innovative character, did not lead to improvements in the efficiency of law practice, and put our database at risk of containing experts who lacked integrity. These were not acceptable options.
Lesson II: Have a Sales Plan from the Beginning
Prior to starting the Boston Expert Witness Group, I had no sales experience. About a month after turning my idea into a full-time job, I began to realize I would have to learn to sell the services of medical experts or perish.
I embarked on a year of the best sales training I believe money can buy, which is Sandler Training. I got good at setting expectations, digging for pain, and talking about money and decision-making processes. But when I began to calculate just how much time I would have to spend selling our particular products to the prospects we were encountering, I realized I would have to spend most of my waking moments engaged in sales.
It left very little time for me to plan how my business was going to operate and to do what I had to do to support myself while the business still lacked sufficient revenue to pay me a decent salary.
Perhaps I could have hired others to fill either the sales or other functions, but when I thought of doing that, I ran into my next problem…
Lesson III: Ensure Adequate Capitalization
There was not enough money in the business to hire a salesperson. In fact, short of running small, outsourced projects on eLance, there was not much money to do anything.
Had I realized that this was going to present a problem, I may have waited until I had saved some money in order to start the business, or built a business that could appeal to investors. By the time I was going full-speed, neither was an option.
Without adequate capitalization, early-stage businesses may find it hard to do sales, marketing, business administration, product development, or rent an office.
Though I became an expert on doing all of these things on-the-cheap, I believe I made it harder for myself than it had to be by not planning ahead of time for how I could capitalize the business.
Lesson IV: Delegate
Without the money to hire talent, I had very little opportunity to delegate. Perhaps I could have found a sufficiently compelling pitch to attract a co-founder, but I did not feel that the revenue opportunity in this case would support that.
When capital considerations prevent one from delegating, business owners get stuck doing everything from the website to the bookkeeping, to the sales and marketing, to fulfillment.
That was a big problem for me.
As Michael Gerber wrote in The E-Myth Revisited: Why Most Small Businesses Don’t Work and What to Do About It, there was no time left to work on my business, I was so busy working in it.
Lesson V: Lean is Great, But Don’t Abandon Common Sense
I love the lessons I learned from Eric Ries’s book, The Lean Startup: How Today’s Entrepreneurs Use Continuous Innovation to Create Radically Successful Businesses.
Unfortunately, however, along with learning a lot of really great things, I also “learned” a few lessons he did not teach and probably would not advocate. This over-thinking of the book’s content led me in a direction that was hard to move away from once I realized what was happening.
For a long time, I was too lean. For example, I was running things for a while out of my own bank account with a d/b/a. I didn’t take the time to draft contracts until I absolutely needed them in my business.
I did not have a clear value proposition (or even an inkling of one) until I had been working with customers and making sales. I was creating the recruitment and referral processes on-the-fly.
If I could do it all over again, the idea for me would be to work hard at building a cycle for experimentation, learning discrete lessons from each experiment, and clearly incorporating those lessons into my business.
I would not use lean startup as an excuse to run with a disorganized approach to doing business.
And, then, there was one last lesson, which is the most important one I learned…
Lesson VI: Be Convinced of Your Vision, or You Won’t Be Able to Sell it to Others
When you pitch your business to anyone, be it a prospect, an investor, a potential employee, or a prospective business partner, you really have to put yourself out on a limb.
You risk being told that your idea is terrible and does not make sense.
Although people are generally kinder than to say this directly, the fear of this is going to make it hard to promote the business.
But here is the key. If you believe in your business so much that you have an unshakable belief that you are right, those fears go away.
You become confident you are helping people, so you do not worry you are wasting their time. You start to realize that others need what you sell, or that they want to work on the product or invest in it.
Belief in your vision drives the determination and resilience that is the prerequisite for any successful entrepreneur.
Unfortunately, I never got there with the Boston Expert Witness Group.
I knew I was helping. But all the while, I wrestled with questions of just how helpful I was. Sure, I could improve the expert witness recruitment process, but I believed that people could get by alright without my business.
Occasionally, I even encountered an attorney or two who was offended by what I was doing.
For example, one preeminent personal injury attorney spent twenty minutes shouting at me on the phone after I called to reach out to him (not for sales purposes).
Any attorney who did not know the experts useful in his focus area had no business practicing that part of the law, he said.
Another attorney told me he believed I could save him time representing his clients, but insisted that was antithetical to his business model because he enjoyed charging his clients for his inefficiency.
Outrageous as these experiences were, my belief in my vision was not sufficiently strong to withstand encounters like these. They derailed my confidence when it came to performing critical sales and marketing functions such as cold calling, networking, and online lead generation.
Having learned these six lessons from my experience with the Boston Expert Witness Group, I look forward to continuing on my entrepreneurial path.
I am at a very exciting time in another business I am running, and I am totally convinced that I am onto something good. And, I’ve managed to avoid most of the problems I wrote about, above.
I look forward to blogging more fully about what I am up to and what I am learning, over the coming months. Stay tuned.