Why Bain and Company Never Branded Itself as Ex-BCG

And how Bain’s strategy to build its brand is applicable to your career.

It is one thing to run a lifestyle-business doing small consulting projects for clients who cannot afford to hire your ex employer, be it Bain and Company or McKinsey or Deloitte. It is quite another to build a brand new firm that can stand on its own and emanate its unique value unrelated to the founders’ previous employers.

This is why Bill Bain never branded himself or his colleagues as ex-BCG. The goal never was to pick up BCG’s unwanted clients. The goal was for Bain and Company to go head-to-head with BCG and that meant Bain’s value had to be of its own merit and unrelated to BCG or any other competitor.

A consulting firm whose cachet is solely built on the cachet of its employees’ previous employers will never ever amount to anything.

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Deliberately not associating Bain and Company with BCG

When Bill Bain broke from BCG to start Bain and Company in 1973 at no point did he advertise himself as Bill Bain, ex-BCG, or that Bain and Company is a leading strategy firm led by ex-BCG partners.

Is this not what most boutiques do? Even consultants within major firms like playing up their credentials from prior, supposedly better, consulting employers. Many boutique founders set up a firm and use the brand power of their previous employer to push their new firm.

It is such a common strategy that no one even questions it. They should. They can learn a thing or two from Bill Bain.

Why didn’t Bain and Company do this?

They did not do that for a very simple reason. If Bain and Company’s entire value-add was the fact that they are ex-BCG people then why would a client hire Bain and Company if he/she could hire BCG, the firm that Bain apparently thinks so highly of? And Bain would have thought highly of BCG if they had brandished its name so widely.

Think about this for a second because this is a very important point you have to understand.

So the reason why Bain and Company did not advertise itself, during the early days, as a firm led by ex-BCG partners is because they wanted to play at the level at least equal and probably higher than BCG. The only way to do that was to shift the conversation from BCG and onto Bain and Company.

When it pays to say you are ex-Bain, McKinsey or BCG consultant

When most consultants break away from McKinsey, BCG or Bain they absolutely love telling you how they are ex-McKinsey, ex-BCG or ex-Bain. There are people who have worked at McKinsey for just 12 months, or less, and are now in their forties and all you will ever hear about them is their McKinsey background. They will take their experience from just 4 to 6 studies and continuously recite it like a broken record.

Why do they do that?

If you are seriously competing with McKinsey people for consulting work it actually hurts you to say you are ex-McKinsey. A potential client looking to hire you would ask, “Why should we hire you, an ex McKinsey person who is obviously very proud of the firm, if I can hire McKinsey itself?

bain and companyIn fact the only reason they would hire you is due to price. You see this a lot with so-called McKinsey-Mom disrupters: technology platforms that allow ex-McKinsey female consultants to do cheaper work for companies.

They claim to be McKinsey killers. How can you disrupt McKinsey if your entire value proposition is that you must first have McKinsey hire someone and then release them into the market?

Are their business models not predicated on the fact that McKinsey must exist for the technology platform to exist? How can you disrupt something if you cannot exist without it?

As soon as you go out there and say, “The reason you’ve got to hire us is because we are ex Bain and Company partners“, how are you going to compete against Bain and Company?

Of course, there are situations when clients hire ex-McKinsey and ex-BCG people for short-term work, but it is not sustainable. That is the key. So the only time to really play up your ex consulting background is in the following 3 cases:

a) When you are unwilling or incapable of competing against the firm you left (you are basically doing lower level work).

b) When you are using the name of your previous firm because you are targeting clients who cannot, and in many occasions will not, hire the firm itself (you are basically doing lower level work).

c) If you are not in the consulting space and, therefore, not competing with McKinsey and BCG, it usually adds some value to say, “I am ex-McKinsey” (you are no longer a consultant). Yet, it does not add much value for long. In industry you will be moved out pretty fast if you fail to deliver, no matter how many credentials you had at Bain and Company or McKinsey.

Still, a +40 year old with all of 12 months McKinsey experience from 18 years ago, and working in industry or solo, should not be using that short window in their life as their greatest calling card.

And this is even applicable to people who work for large, but weaker, consulting firms and mention that they used to work for a better competitor. Never mention the names of your competitors. Just don’t do it. Because you are advertising for them.

Dealing with this issue at Firmsconsulting

Now one of the things you notice we do at Firmsconsulting is we deliberately underplay the backgrounds of the people who work for the firm. I forbid mentioning previous employers. If you want to see me get upset then watch what happens when someone inside our firm tries to gain credibility by dropping the name of their previous consulting employer.

If we play out our backgrounds, why would clients hire us when they can hire the real deal, like Bain and Company itself? It just does not make any sense.

Credibility will be harder to build if we don’t use names of previous employers, but it will be sustainable and meaningful because we are relying on our results, our intellectual property, our track record and not our previous employers’ brand names.

And that is why we underplay our backgrounds so aggressively. I don’t want the only reason clients hire us to be because we are ex-something. We don’t want to be the ex-men and women. We want to be the now men and women.

We also get a lot of requests from people who run boutique consulting firms who are writing to us to see if we will hire them. They are so proud to say that they used to work for BCG or Bain and Company or McKinsey. And we can’t hire them because their culture is wrong. They are not demonstrating their value to us. They are just saying, “Hey, I worked at McKinsey. Hire me. Firmsconsulting says they only hire ex partners or ex directors so hire me.

But where is the value independent of where they worked? Your future value should never be tied to your past employer.

Building a boutique consulting firm

So when you are building any consulting practice, and especially if you worked in one of those consulting firms like Bain and Company or McKinsey, initially its going to be enormously tempting to say, “I am an ex Bain consultant. That is why you should hire me.

Yet remember this, when you play that card you are explicitly signalling to the client, “Ok, so that means we are not competing with Bain and Company, which means the work we are doing is at the level below Bain and Company. Because if we were competing with Bain and Company why would we be advertising them by using their name and why would the client possibly hire us when they can hire the real deal, Bain and Company?

Now if you are starting a boutique consulting firm or you run a boutique firm I know how tempting it is to say you are ex-McKinsey or ex-BCG. If you don’t play up your background it will be incredibly difficult initially to even get your foot in the door with clients.

We experienced the same issue when we started Firmsconsulting. And we have ex-partners here so using that credential would be magnified for us. But the key is, if you want to become a leading firm you must not talk about other firms. They should not exist in your bio.

And instead what you tell the client is, “Look, this is what we can do. These are our skills. This is how we think through the problems.

bain and companyWe focus on showing how we are different. We demonstrate our difference. In fact, I once received a call from someone, out of the blue, asking me why he should work with Firmsconsulting versus x or y.

I refused to answer the question, because to answer the question implies we have competitors and I believe we have none. I rather spent time discussing the problem he had and how we would handle it. That is demonstrated competency.

Many forget that when you defend yourself, you implicitly signal that there is a need to defend yourself, that you are unworthy. Never ever defend your firm.

Shift the conversation and shift it quickly. If you start on the back-foot you will unlikely regain the momentum and respect you deserve. Most firms think they will regain it, but history shows it is incredibly unlikely.

We will walk away from an opportunity if it requires us to start the discussion by defending our work. That kind of relationship is non-existent because it implies the client does not trust you. You should never serve a client whom does not place his/her full trust in you.

And at no point you should default into an easy option of saying, “Hi. Please hire me. I used to work for Bain and Company” or “I will do an amazing job for you because I am ex-McKinsey.” Because if you do that you are immediately positioning yourself as inferior to Bain and Company or McKinsey.

By constantly building your assets and your marketing material and everything about you around the fact that you are ex-McKinsey or ex-BCG, you are never going to break out of that orbit. You will be a little satellite orbiting BCG or McKinsey and, I bet, this is not why you went out on your own. Who wants to be a little satellite? No one.

You want to build the firm that can stand on its own two feet.

In the beginning it will be incredibly difficult to do that. But I want to make the choice very simple for you.

If you run a boutique consulting firm and you are telling everyone that you used to work for Bain and Company or that you are an ex-McKinsey or ex-BCG consultant, you may convince yourself that you are competing against them, you may convince your wife that you are better than those firms, you may convince your mother-in -aw that you are doing something important. You may even convince a lot of other people that you are competing against major firms. But the reality is, if you link your value to your previous employer you will signal to clients that you have no additional value.

And in the short-term you will make money. Make no mistake about this. The short-term money is why so many consultants assume they can leave and set up their own consulting firms.

You will make money from clients who cannot afford to hire Bain and Company or McKinsey or BCG. That is why they will be hiring you. And you have to decide, do you want to run a business that is only exists to pick up clients that McKinsey or Bain and Company does not want to serve? And if that is your strategy than that is fine.

bain and companyBut you have to decide. Do you want to be targeting the subpar clientele of management consulting or do you want to target the best and go head to head against your previous employer? Its your choice.

If you actually want to build a firm for a long-term, I can assure you you want to take the pain now and not leverage your past experience to build your firm because it is not sustainable.

Your boutique consulting firm will never be seen as a peer to a major firm if your firm’s value is the fact that it is run by alumni of said firm. It can’t happen. And if you think it can happen, I would really like you to explain this logic to me because it is illogical.

So if you are running a boutique consulting firm never go in to see a prospective or current client and volunteraly raise a name of your previous employer because otherwise you are advertising for them. The only time it is going to work for you is if you are targeting lower level clientele.

Demonstrate your competency

And this is something I drive Firmsconsulting people to be very careful about. It is about demonstrated competency. Don’t fall for the trap of talking about your past. Don’t be the guy who only talks about the fact that he worked for Bain and Company or BCG or Deloitte 20 years ago. Never live in the past.

No one aspires to be the high school football star who is 45, working in a tire store and reminiscing about the home run he scored all those years ago. It gets annoying pretty fast. A fancy football move from 1985 is no longer fancy in 2015.

Instead, every day you meet your client you have to demonstrate your competency. You don’t tell them you are clever by telling them you used to work somewhere. You demonstrate it. You should show you are intelligent by the way you analyze problems. You should show you are intelligent and worthy to hire because of the way you think things through, and not because of where you used to work.

Don’t live in the past. Leverage the assets you have. Embrace the value that you have, build upon it and turn it into competitive advantage.

Being the offspring of another organization, even if it is Bain and Company, McKinsey or BCG, is not a sustainable competitive advantage. Bill Bain knew that and branded Bain correctly.

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Image from Trey Ratcliff under cc, cropped, added text.

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