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by Vault Consulting Editors | March 31, 2009

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"Two roads diverged in a wood and I - I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference."
-Robert Frost

In consulting, the beaten path runs straight to a career with the usual suspects: the big global firms with household names, dozens of offices, and legions of consultants. However, a different path to take is a career with one of the thousands of lesser-known boutique firms out there. This is clearly the road less traveled by, but is it the right choice for you?

Look before you leap

As an unabashed business nerd with a taste for solving cases, I knew that a career in management consulting would be right for me. I have entrepreneurial tendencies and an aversion to corporate bureaucracy, so I figured the obvious choice would be to work for a small boutique consulting firm.

Taking a boutique job is like diving into a lake; you never know what is just beneath the surface. This article should give you a good view of the ups and downs of working for a boutique firm before you take the plunge.

What is a boutique consulting firm?

Much like a small shop that sells beauty supplies or accessories, a boutique firm is a small firm that offers a limited number of services to a relatively local client base. Most boutique firms field less than 100 consultants with a minimum of administrative support staff. These firms tend to be tightly focused in their consulting services offered and/or the industries that they target and serve. For example, a boutique firm might offer only operations improvement services to oil and gas clients. This contrasts with the all-encompassing service lines and industry focuses of the Big Five and other global firms.

The key defining characteristic of a boutique firm is its size. Boutique firms are small, for better or for worse. Small, volatile, and quirky, boutique firms are mice scuttling in an industry dominated by elephants. As a boutique employee (and elephant-dodging mouse), you will experience an interesting set of ups and downs.

~First, the good news

Small firms offer a unique set of opportunities and benefits compared to larger consulting firms:

  • Informal culture
  • You can expect a more informal "start-up" culture within a boutique. Organizational hierarchies and barriers are fluid and relaxed. At my company, we hold frequent meetings with the entire company to discuss our projects. We all stay connected, and ideas flow freely without the encumbrance of organizational barriers. This environment of openness and collaboration makes many boutique firms pleasant places to work.

  • Exposure to high level consultants
  • In my first year on the job, I actually shared an office (and quite a few invaluable conversations) with an executive-level consultant. My direct "boss" was the president of the company. These experiences are characteristic of many boutique firms. Even the youngest consultants will get the chance to work closely with and learn from the "big guns" in the firm.

  • "Real" front-line consulting
  • Unlike bigger firms that put young hires on an analyst track and slowly work them into client-facing work, a boutique firm is more likely to quickly integrate its associates into client-facing activities (interviewing clients, participating in planning meetings, presenting findings, leading meetings, etc.). Simple staffing constraints mean that everyone wears many hats and helps out with client engagements. Young consultants will balance "back room" research and deliverable production with gigs on client work teams.

  • Learning opportunities
  • Most boutiques do not have the time or resources to spoon feed their young consultants along in a training program. New consultants learn immensely from getting thrown into challenging situations. Whether making a presentation in a crowded board room or preparing a report for a key deliverable, responsibility and pressure are constant companions. For mature consultants who are able to learn very quickly, this arrangement is ideal.

~The not-so-good news

  • Business development woes
  • Smaller firms face incredible challenges in acquiring clients and remaining profitable. Without the cachet of a global brand name and limitless advertising dollars, it can be amazingly difficult to sell consulting projects. This is a vital concern, as most boutiques, without major capital backing, are funded out of operating cash flow. A small hiccup in the business development process can lead to a shortage of billable client projects. This can spell the end of the company and launch you onto the online job-search boards.

  • Narrow range of projects and industries
  • To compete effectively, most boutiques operate in a competitive niche, offering a focused suite of services. There are many small firms operating only in risk management, operations, and customer relationship management. Other firms specialize in specific industries such as manufacturing or telecommunications. The downside of narrow service lines and focused industry targeting is that consultants within these firms do not benefit from broad experience across many different industries and types of projects.

  • Lack of formal training
  • Formal training at boutique firms is virtually non-existent. MBA tuition support programs are also rare. Consultants learn and develop on the job with the support of peers and mentors. Much of the "academic" learning is self-initiated and self-directed. This can be irritating to someone looking for structured, subsidized learning opportunities.

  • "Who did you work for? Never heard of 'em."
  • A surprising downside to working for a boutique is that, regardless of how outstanding your experience is, it may not help your resume. Many recruiters care only for "Big Five" or "top-tier" consulting experience. This practice may be shortsighted, but nevertheless, former boutique employees may have their resumes devalued for lack of a "brand name" consulting employer.

  • Spartan office facilities and rare support staff
  • Most boutique firms must carefully control their overhead, so much of the infrastructure one would find at larger firms is not present. Consultants do not have executive assistants. There is no dedicated research staff to dig up data. There may not be a company intranet or an IT staff to maintain it. In fact, many boutiques do not even keep office space for their consultants. The bottom line is that consultants at boutique firms do not work in opulent spaces. They make their own copies, arrange their own travel, and handle the other administrative chores that pop up.

    ~

Don't accept that offer just yet

There is plenty of information available about large consulting firms. Unfortunately, there is virtually no public information available on most boutique firms. Because of this, it is very important to aggressively research the company before signing on. Check out the firm's web site. Speak to employees within the firm. Look for favorable coverage in the press. Finally, make sure that all of your questions are answered before you accept an offer.

Because of the particular nature of small consulting firms, the following questions are especially important to answer if you are considering a boutique job:

  • What is the culture like at this firm?
  • How financially stable is the company?
  • Does this firm have a steady stream of client accounts on the horizon?
  • Has this company delivered good results for their previous clients?
  • What are the core methodologies used by this firm?
  • What types of clients does this firm serve?
  • Is there a career path to follow?
  • What formal training is available to consultants?

The path forward

You have carefully weighed the ups and downs of working for a boutique. You have done your research and asked all of the right questions. Whether you choose a big firm or a boutique, you have made an informed decision about which road to travel by. That should make all the difference for your career.

Chris Sieber is himself a young consultant with James Miller and Company, a managment consulting firm based in Houston. With JM&C, Chris has worked on projects ranging from process reengineering to e-business planning. He holds a degree in Business Honors and Finance from the University of Texas at Austin. Chris may be reached at cosieber@jmandc.com.

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