Avoiding the Bidding Wipeout – Learning from a Career in Consulting￼
By Nigel Dennis, CPP APMP Fellow
Australia is an island nation, blessed with thousands of kilometres of coastline containing some of the best surf in the world. So it’s no surprise that people from the Land Down Under know a thing or two about surfing. You don’t have to look far to see evidence of this.
Australian professional surfers comprise 30% of the current men’s and women’s ranks of the elite World Surf League Championship Tour and since 1964, Australia’s best surfers have amassed 42 world titles between them.
Unfortunately, I’m no surfer. But when discussing ideas for BQ13 with a work colleague (albeit a mad keen Kiwi surfer), he shed some light on the finer points of this maritime pastime. As he was breaking down the steps involved in riding a wave, the connections to the three decades of my professional bidding life seemed uncanny. The genesis of this article became obvious.
So for those who are contemplating becoming a bid consultant or want to grow a bid consultancy, or are just interested in the ups and downs of the journey of Australia’s largest bid consulting firm, then read on.
Step 1: ‘The Take Off’
This is where it all starts. When you sense or see the swell building on the horizon, you have two choices. You can either paddle away to safety or paddle towards the swell to put yourself in the best position to catch the wave.
My ‘take off’ was in 1999, when I left the relative safety of corporate life to start my own bid consultancy of one. I sensed an opportunity to carve out a niche in this emerging profession. In fact, it was so emerging in those days I couldn’t find a competitor in my part of the world to benchmark against.
Step 2: ‘The Drop’
This is the ‘leap of faith’ moment when you turn your back on the fast-approaching wave and pin your ears back. Once you’ve caught the wave, the drop can often involve free-falling and provides a very chaotic but thrilling ‘hang onto your hat’ moment.
My ‘drop’ lasted a little longer than a mere moment, more like a decade. My first consultancy (The Proposal Company) was rapidly gathering pace. I had more work than I knew what to do with, but I was enjoying the unpredictable and somewhat scary drop of my own making.
Step 3: ‘The Bottom Turn’
This is one of the most practised arts in surfing and a key enabler for everything that follows. Using the momentum created by the drop, you have to quickly set your intended direction – right or left, tight or drawn-out turn, the high line or the low line? The bottom turn is less scary than the drop but still offers significant potential for trouble.
For me, the ‘bottom turn’ happened in 2008 when my lifelong friend Dave Lunn and I started our current firm, BidWrite. Boldly, some might say, given the early ripples of the Global Financial Crisis. But Aussies aren’t known for a lack of confidence. So despite the reservations, fear and growing economic headwinds, we set our arc and leaned into the challenge.
Step 4: ‘The Trim’
This is the step most observers would associate with the phrase ‘riding the wave’ – when you optimise your stance and the position and direction of your board so you can get the most speed out of the wave. Sometimes you have to stall, turn back, or just put your foot down and go. Whatever strategy you choose, the ocean always provides a feedback loop.
For the first five or so years of BidWrite (2008-2013), we were trimming perfectly – or so I thought. We had momentum, options, a growing reputation and a thirst for doubling down. ‘Faster,’ we thought, ‘faster!’ But little did I realise that the optimum trim we were enjoying was only hurtling us more quickly towards something all surfers dread – a potential wipeout.
We’d made the mistake of taking our eye off the ocean and the wave caught up with us. Systems were suffering, cash reserves were waning, cracks were starting to appear and, most regretfully, staff began suffering the consequences of our speed-wobbles.
So, like a surfer, we resolved to keep a closer eye on the conditions and then used this experience to anticipate and adapt – all the while practising getting better so we could deal with whatever bidding waves the ocean chose to throw at us next. Thankfully, this adjustment to trim has led to the most enjoyable, rewarding and exciting period of my professional life. BidWrite is thriving, as are our staff and clients.
What’s that on the horizon?
What I see is that the swell around our industry has built. Bid people are busier and have more opportunity than ever. What a time it is to be a part of this fast-growing profession. It is the take off all over again, but at least the profession is no longer oddly niche. Talented and ambitious people can sense a professional bidding pathway leading to a long, rewarding and sustainable consulting career.
But the message I want to leave is this. Don’t be lulled into a false sense of security. The ocean is a fickle master – sneaker waves and wipeouts can happen quickly, catching you completely off guard. Keep an ever-present eye on the conditions and be prepared to adapt accordingly. And while you need to build cash reserves to weather some inevitable storms, remember that this is a give, not take, profession.
Set yourself up for a sustainable future by investing in yourself, your staff, your community and your profession. Clients know what integrity looks like and will reward you in spades.
If these behaviours become part of your muscle memory, they will take you safely back to shore long after the wave has gone. Don’t be scared off by occasional choppy waters, and resist the temptation to be a ‘one wave wonder’ consultant. Their wipeouts could well be career ending, whereas you will live to surf another day.