Entrepreneurial paranoia Featured

7:00pm EDT January 31, 2007

When Mike McGovern started his Columbus information technology consulting firm in 1990, he didn’t like its technical name — even his employees couldn’t remember it. Seven years later, he renamed it Odyssey Consulting Services Inc. “I like Greek mythology and had seen a definition of ‘odyssey’ as a long journey brought on by many changes of fortune,” says McGovern, Odyssey’s founder and president.

It was the perfect description of the IT consulting industry, and the name stuck. Odyssey later acquired three competitors, and today, the company has 150 employees in offices in Columbus and Chicago. It posted $26 million in 2005 revenue, a 137 percent increase over 2003.

Smart Business spoke with McGovern about how he learned that paranoia breeds success.

Q: How do you recognize business opportunities?

First, it’s got to be profitable, then you find out about the relationships of the current business. Are they going to end soon, or will it continue so you’re getting future potential value?

Then, if it involves bringing on employees, are those people going to match up with your company culture and how you do business? It’s got to match closely with the future goals of the company. You don’t buy a company for the sheer sake of increasing your revenue; it’s got to make sense with what you already do.

You should do due diligence on the company before you purchase it. Check out what their consultants are doing, what clients they have, how long they have been there, what technology they’re using.

The final thing is verifying what’s being presented to you, in case anybody misrepresents how long a contract’s been going or how much margin’s being made.

Q: How do you create a growth strategy?

In our industry, we figured that centralized vendor management systems were going to be the norm, not just a short-term trend. We focused on making sure we had enough relationships intact with our clients so when those lists were created, we were on them.

If you’re not on them, it’s very difficult to do business with clients.

Q: How can a business leader create those client relationships?

Service the clients and keep in contact with them all the time, even when they’re not busy. Also, you have to continue the relationship even if it’s not highly profitable because if you’re only focused on the margin, you’re not focused on the long-term relationship.

Q: How can companies keep employees happy?

Treat them with respect and a competitive pay or better so they don’t get recruited away. We have to treat them fairly and give them training so they feel a connection to our company, not just [like] a commodity.

It’s a relationship — how you speak with them, how often you check with them, how you treat them when they have issues or questions, how respectful you are of them.

I don’t want arrogant, high performers; that’s a short-term, short-sighted goal. You get somebody who’s a high producer, but while they’re doing that, they’re alienating the rest of the world and hurting the morale of the office. It’s just not worth it to me.

When people walk away from Odyssey, whether they worked here or not, I want them to say, ‘That’s a good company. I’d recommend them.’ There’s not much gain to building your database of enemies.

Q: What advice would you give other executives?

Keep your eye on as many clients as you can realistically handle, and don’t allow your current business to be your plan for the next two years. You need to supplement (your client base) at all times. [Intel Corp.’s founder and senior adviser] Andrew Grove said, ‘Only the paranoid survive.’ Founders, by general nature, are that way. I have never rested easy thinking, ‘Things are good now. We don’t have to chase down a lot of stuff.’

If you have five major accounts, you could lose two of those, and then 40 percent of your company could be gone. You always have to be thinking, ‘Who am I going to get next as my client?’

If you want to focus on growth, maintain what you have but look at how you’re going to grow. What new clients are you going to get? What new things are you going to go after and develop? That’s the biggest key for success.

Q: How do you stay motivated?

Most entrepreneurs tend to get a little bored with the mundane, everyday processes. I find it more exciting to brainstorm new ideas of how we can go after this or that, look for new business and new ways to do it. That’s what I enjoy.

HOW TO REACH: Odyssey Consulting Services Inc., (614) 523-4248 or www.odysseyconsulting.com