Your people are your brand… how HFS made it through its first decade


Unlike the large analyst houses where analysts can be swapped in and out like cogs in a machine, HFS has been built on people, their expertise and their personalities.  This is a company where people can shine as individuals and aren’t simply turning corporate widgets to grow revenues and meet targets.

With the 10 year anniversary of HFS coming up, I keep getting asked: “what does it take to build a successful brand and company”.  Well, the first thing I will tell you is I never set out to build a company this size, it just happened as our reputation grew and more quality people wanted to join our firm. The second thing is that this is all about the people you bring in, as they are part of your brand (and your brand becomes their brand too).  You won’t always get it right, but as you get more experienced you will learn from your mistakes and “trust your gut” a lot more… so here are some learnings I wanted to share with everybody.  And am pretty sure this applies to any business where people are core to your success.

13 lessons learned when building a firm:

  1. Get past your ego. Decide why you want to run a business.  Do you really want the stress and responsibility, the 20 hours days and no real vacation for many years, or do you just crave power?  If it’s the latter you will likely blow up and fold…
  2. Have faith in yourself. I’ll never forget when my (then) prime competitor declared “I give Phil 18 months and he’ll be gone”.  10 years later, and we don’t even consider that firm competition anymore.  People will snicker and laugh that you think you can build a business, but remember they are just jealous they never had the cojones to do it themselves.
  3. Have faith in people who share your vision. When you start out, there’ll be some good friends / former colleagues who will consider throwing their lot in with you… but you’ll likely have to pay them.  But people who believe in you are irreplaceable, especially when you are small and building up the brand.  But you have to bring in people to help you, otherwise, it’s a very lonely experience when it’s just you and a few stringers…
  4. Don’t dwell on those who do not…. There will always be people who don’t respect you, but they may be desperate and hit you up for a job. Shy away as they are only out for themselves and will bail on you’re the minute another gig comes along.  They need to believe in you, not just their bank balance.
  5. Invest in talent to support your people. As you grow you can’t rely on your loyal warriors to hold the fort forever… they’ll eventually burn out and reluctantly go somewhere else for more money and less hours. So make sure you are constantly evaluating and hiring good junior folks to support them, with a defined career path. You must have a support system for your key breadwinners or you will fail and end up with a broken firm to hold together.
  6. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes. The best part of being the boss is being able to f*ck up – and there is no one to blame bar yourself… and you can’t get fired for it either =)  Just make sure you always make a point of learning from your mistakes.
  7. Trust your gut and never regret the odd screw-up. If you can’t trust your gut, then give up now.  Your instincts are your life-blood and are those things which will make or break you.  If you sense you need to invest in a certain area, or take a punt on a person you think may be awesome, then just trust your gut.  When evaluating my decisions on business and people, I think I have about a 70% success rate… we have some brilliant people at HFS whom I know I took a “gut feel on” and we also made some wild decisions – and some turned out great.  There have also been some decisions that bombed too… but never regret them. You can’t be right all the time…
  8. Don’t push people to try things that aren’t their core strength. I learned this the hard way, but don’t ask people to do things they are lousy at, or uncomfortable trying out.  There is nothing more valuable that your loyal “swiss army knife” colleagues who can wear several hats, but these people are few-and-far-between.  Asking people to do things they are bad at will always spectacularly fail.
  9. Don’t hire people with a “big company” mentality. Some people are so used to hiding away from doing actual hard work, flying first class and playing “upward management” politics.    Avoid.  Avoid.  Avoid… they will never adapt to a small company “roll your sleeves up” attitude.
  10. Avoid job hoppers. Running a small growing firm will expose you to the perennial job hopper who will see you as their next escape route form their current misery.  Trust me, job hoppers are miserable people who are trying to find some sort of “happiness” when they take on a new job.  And they are amazing at feeding you kilos of succulent bullshit at interview. However, as you watch their careers, their honeymoon periods get shorter and the hops get faster… They like the buzz of the new gig, the ego-stroking, the whole romance of “being recruited”, but as soon as it’s time to roll their sleeves up and do some serious work, they fold and start looking around again… and they will bail as soon as their next loving employer gets starry eyed at their wonderful interview technique.  I would add that you can give someone a job-hopping pass in their 20s, but those folks who still try this in their 40s and 50s are far too gone to ever succeed.  Sadly, there are a lot of primadonnas out there who will always consider themselves too wonderful for any work environment…
  11. Eliminate toxic people… fast. This is imperative, but you will always hire the odd toxic personality, and it can take a while to figure them out.  Some people will always play both sides, can make outrageous lies… will try almost anything to get what they want.  And the more they fail to get what they want, the more toxic they become. Sadly, these people exist and we have all come across them.  All I can say is get them out as fast as you can as they will harm your business more than anything else.
  12. Don’t fail fast… learn fast! To quote the great Jamie Snowdon, “Failing is vital to any business, but simply failing and moving on to the next idea? Throwing your business thoughts against the wall and seeing what sticks, like some perverse infinite monkey approach, is not smart. Failing and limiting the damage from a dead-end pursuit is a good idea, but the real value of failure is what you learn, and how your subsequently apply that learning experience to your business. This is what provides the value.” 
  13. Try not to take things personally. This is one of the hardest things to master, and I am still working on this.  End of the day, this is business and people will ultimately look out for themselves.  Clients are only loyal to a certain extent as are your staff… don’t get too excited when things are great and too miserable when bad things happen… try and stay measured and pragmatic as much as is humanly possible.  Otherwise you’ll burn out or drive yourself crazy.

Bottom Line: Be honest with your people and always look yourself in the mirror

Never get carried away with your own success… it’s really just a combination of good judgement, good business senses, good relationships and a lot of luck.  Celebrate your success where you can, but never get too carried away… remember, you’re just a mere mortal like everyone else who somehow became an entrepreneur.  As a business leader, the more you keep your feet on the ground, the more success you will likely experience.

Posted in : Outsourcing Heros



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  1. Early Congratulations to HFS Research and to you Phil for completing a decade. I remember how the blog stirred up a storm in various topics and applaud your business sense, skills and grit to build and grow HFS Research. HFS has enjoyed a great influence in the industry and is an ‘unmissable’ brand now. I personally still enjoy the (more than a decade old) HorseForSources Blog that provides the nimbleness to be upfront and quick on topics and sub-topics where other research firms’ governance models are unable to catch up. Kudos to you, the team and HFS Research and wish you many more successes.

  2. Phil – Outstanding Insights on building a firm; Hearty congratulations on your hard work and success, and many more years to come. I guess you will not consider engaging with me based on what your thoughts suggest; although, I am pretty committed to what I do, trustworthy, and generally go-getter on the work teams. I focus on strategy and enterprise architecture with a lot of market research and trends in working with my customer partners. Would be delighted to chat with you in elevating HFS brand even higher… Best…

  3. Congratulations Phil Fersht on the 10yr anniversary of HFS Research. Thanks for writing this blog and sharing your learnings on how to build an awesome organization with great people. This is a must read for startups who are in a mission to build long term sustainable enterprise with awesome people.

  4. Congratulations. This is probably your best article in terms of value. I have relished most of your articles for the straight talk and the mirror. Of course the mirror shows the right as left and vice versa but that is the reflection point. All the best to HFS for the next decade.

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