From time to time, I am asked by prospective clients/friends “Should we engage an advisor who focuses only on our industry?” The notion goes to the question of whether those who work only with clients in a single vertical industry bring more necessary knowledge or wisdom than those who work in multiple industries. It is an intriguing question to us because our Firm, now near its 80th year, has a clear specialty, but not by vertical industry. We arrange and structure capital gain transactions in the private transaction market for companies in a variety of industries, but in each case, exclusively for those which are owned and governed by Entrepreneur Owner-Managers—only those who have their own capital at risk—their skin in the game.
We used to think having more and more data or information in a specific vertical industry might result in wisdom. Over the years, motivated by our clients’ experiences, we have changed our minds. Candidly, we don’t want to be narrowed by the lack of wide-ranging experience. Our track record is that we leverage hard won experiences and creativity earned in multiple industries to bring fresh perspectives and inspired solutions to client challenges in other industries. Further, experience suggests that the largest determinant for success is not knowing the most about the client’s industry (after all, they are the experts there), but rather gaining intimate understanding of the client’s personal and professional goals, and then translating those into obtaining the best fit investor (which usually values the firm most highly, and increases the probability of sustainability of the business).
The private transaction market is a little like the weather. It is a chaotic, complex, adaptive system. Frequently a given input does not result in a linear output—you have to have perspective. Luckily, technology has utterly leveled the playing field. Where it used to be true that you had to spend your entire career in a vertical industry just to know “who’s who,” today we access information on literally every company in every industry in the world at the same time as the largest or most specialized firms do.
For the brain surgeons among us, we know that familiarity decreases the need for brain function. Neuropsychologists show that brain activity decreases substantially when an activity becomes familiar (Schneider & Chein, 2003). Industry specialists tend to rely on memory and stick with “what has worked in the past”. They get productivity out of going back over and over to the same ideas, the same companies, the same people. The unintended consequence of that (routine that comes with specialization) is the “Einstellung Effect”—the cognitive bias that creeps in without our notice and blocks us from seeing how to do things any other way than what has worked in the past. On the other hand, deliberately multi-disciplined teams stay in the “constant now,” seeing possibilities to which the industry expert is blind.
Entrepreneurial success is a bricolage of character strengths of the head and the heart; it is impossible to mathematize. Scar tissue has shown us that broad synthesis across many industries unlocks inventive strategies that prove vastly more valuable for Bigelow clients. By going from industry to industry serving seasoned successful Entrepreneur Owner-Managers, we are re-fueled; our endurance enhanced.
When considering engaging the help of an industry expert (in any domain), it might be worth asking, “Do they have twenty years of experience—or one year’s experience repeated twenty times?”