How a Necessary Pause Set This Chicago Company Up for Post-Pandemic Growth
Speed and growth are synonymous with startups. But sometimes, too much change too fast can pose a challenge.
At least, that’s according to Amir Azarbad, the president and chief revenue officer at Inspirant Group.
Back in the fourth quarter of 2019, his consulting firm was thriving. The company had experienced rapid growth in its first three years of business, tripling its staff and revenue year over year in 2018 and 2019. As it closed out its most successful year to date, the startup was only picking up speed.
There were ongoing projects — like transforming the way their clients worked through Agile implementations and business process optimization, or their custom-built low code tech solutions and product implementations — and more on the horizon. Demand was so high for Inspirant’s services in strategy and operations, talent and organization, and technology and data that the company decided to hire more directors, which meant ramping up recruiting and new work to preserve its unique culture as the headcount grew.
“It felt like whatever was going on that day, we were just reacting to it,” Azarbad said.
Sure, the growth was exciting. Hitting every number and checking off every goal even as the numbers increased and the to-do list expanded was stimulating. But Azarbad also knew that moving too quickly could be a double-edged sword. He wondered if the company had the right internal processes for scaling, if they were addressing and planning for the right risks, and if they were putting the right people in the right roles.
“The worst thing we could have done is get to a place where we were moving so quickly that we forgot why we started the company,” Azarbad said. “That's always a tricky problem for fast-growing companies — you can lose the vision you started with.”
That thought occupied Azarbad’s headspace heading into 2020. But soon, it wasn’t a choice to slow down. Across the country, the COVID-19 pandemic halted business. For Azarbad and Inspirant’s leadership team, it presented a rare opportunity to reevaluate.
“It gave us a chance to take a deep breath and realign,” he said.
Azarbad and the C-suite execs each learned a thing or two during this pause. To figure out what those lessons were, Built In Chicago sat down with Inspirant Group’s co-founders to better understand how the company pivoted during the pandemic, along with their vision as they race toward the future.
What was the biggest insight you gleaned from slowing down during the pandemic?
Azarbad: What was eye-opening for us was how fast our company had grown, and how we had not thought about diversification and growth. We were getting one contract after another. But once a couple of those big clients paused business during the pandemic, we were faced with looking at our eggs being in only one or two baskets — and noticing a crack running through it.
Consulting is a business where you just keep running — you never stop. You're rarely able to take a step back and regroup. The pandemic forced us to stop, look inward and ask, “What are we trying to do? How do we better align?”
For example, we were creating great spreadsheets and different manual practices to keep track of hours, clients, billing, etc. At some point, though, we realized that the system would have been unsustainable with our rapid growth. The pandemic forced us to find a holistic solution, and, as a result, today everything is automated behind the scenes.
Meighan Newhouse, CEO, chief people officer and co-founder: I often make a joke that prior to COVID-19, if you pulled back the curtain on our internal operations — not on the tech side — everything was duct-taped together. It’s funny, because we deliver world-class solutions to our clients, but when it came to internal ops, we were kind of like the shoemaker’s children, not providing ourselves with the same treatment to streamline systems or make our lives easier.
Chris VanAvermaete, CTO and co-founder: The biggest insights can be broken down into three areas. First off, the pause gave us a chance to stop reacting to what clients were asking for and be proactive about the work we wanted to do for our clients.
Second, we didn’t have a robust set of internal processes and scalable technologies underlying those processes. Hitting the pause button allowed us to refine those processes and implement the right automation.
We refined what that organizational structure looks like, and how we can help our people grow with us.’’
Lastly, we were rapidly staffing, and perhaps, not always putting our people in positions that aligned with their career goals so they would have more tenure with us. So we took a step back and said, “What are the career paths for our people? What makes them happy?” We refined what that organizational structure looks like, and how we can help our people grow with us.
ENTER, PROJECT VIOLET
How did the acquisition of Project Violet impact Inspirant Group’s strategy?
VanAvermaete: The early part of 2020 necessitated the need to acquire Project Violet and bring in someone like Daniel, both from his operations knowledge and the network of people and resources he had built. We had a need for a COO, and Daniel was the perfect fit.
Azarbad: We also realized that we needed to realign our leadership roles. I stepped out of the CEO role, and the day-to-day operations of the company, and became the president and CRO to help grow and diversify the company, which is one of the gaps we identified once we slowed down. Meg took over as the CEO with a focus on building our brand and growing our culture. Chris continued to run our technology space. We needed that fourth person to help run the day-to-day operations, and that was Daniel.
You mentioned earlier that the pandemic brought to light that, from a business perspective, you’d placed too many eggs in one basket. Can you speak more toward that?
Azarbad: When the company started, we were in the health insurance industry, and our clients were large. But when the pandemic hit, that whole industry stopped doing capital investments in projects because they were afraid of how COVID-19 would affect their business. Our two big clients in the healthcare space slowed down, and that was a bulk of our revenue. Today, we’re diversifying into other sectors and finding additional clients so that in the future, when a major event hits a specific sector, we’ll survive.
The company’s ready to grow. We’re looking for opportunities to do just that, which is a great place to be.’’
What’s the company’s vision for 2021 and beyond?
Newhouse: We’ve always had a vision for our company to grow to a certain revenue amount and headcount, and 2020 threw a speed bump in those plans. But looking on the bright side, it was essential that we slowed down and regrouped. And now our clients are ready to get back to work, and we’re seeing projections better than our best year in 2019.
Now, we just want to keep reinvesting in our people so they can continue to deliver their creative solutions to our clients.
Azarbad: In the past year, our team has really bonded. Everyone trusts each other. Our processes are more streamlined and efficient. Internally, it’s easier for us to do proposals with clients, provide oversight and budget, and glean insights on project statuses. Now, we’re able to scale, because everything is automated.
The company’s ready to grow. We’re looking for opportunities to do just that, which is a great place to be.