Your pricing is important but understand the hidden factors that go into it. Through my membership of the PSA and the support of my speaking network, I’ve come to learn the very important value that we need to place on the services that we offer. I believe in price integrity; I believe in being fair to individual clients and being as consistent as possible in how you price your services. I also believe in being fair to other people in my industry, and not devaluing what we offer because the cost at the actual point of delivery is negligible. However, I was too tied to this price integrity at the beginning of my career, turning down possible work through introduces and intermediaries because it fell below my day rate. What I failed to recognize was that my sales and marketing costs, in other words the cost to me of acquiring new clients, falls within my pricing. If someone brings the client direct to me and all of the acquisition costs as well as account management costs are consumed by them, then I can drop my price without damaging my price integrity.
As part of my series about the leadership lessons of accomplished business leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Andy Lopata — Author, Professional Speaker & Professional Relationships Strategist.
A specialist in professional relationships and networking for over 20 years, Andy Lopata was called ‘one of Europe’s leading business networking strategists’ by the Financial Times.
Andy is a Fellow and a board member of the Professional Speaking Association UK &
Ireland and a Fellow of the Learning and Performance Institute as well as a Master of the Institute for Sales Management. Andy is the author of five books including Connected Leadership which explores why and how professional relationships underpin executive success.
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
I quit my corporate job in my late 20s and swore that I would never work for anyone else again. I decided that I was going to become a freelance writer, writing about travel and sport. At that point I was the editor of a football fanzine that had been voted the best in the UK.
About six months beforehand my father had co-founded a business networking organisation. He had asked me if I wanted to go and see what they were doing,
But, as it was based around meetings starting at 7am, I thanked him for the invitation and wished him all the best!
But now, six months later I had to start a new venture. My dad turned around to me and invited me to come and support them establishing the new business network while I earned some writing commissions. I said, ‘what a great idea; I’ll get a pub job as well to get some more cash.’ He told me I wouldn’t have time. I should have seen the signs then!
That was when I was 29. I was involved in that business for the next seven years with my father and business partner as we grew it from four groups when I joined to 125 across the UK and even a venture into Europe when we exited.
During that time, I started developing training for members and also went to speak about networking and about our network at external events, introducing me to the world of professional speaking.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey?
Probably the hardest times came when we exited that business network and my father and I decided to set up our own online network. We invested a lot of money into developing the functionality we needed for the network to operate effectively, at a time when social networking sites on the Internet were few and far between. Most of the money that we had made from selling our shares in our previous business was lost and then some. I ended up paying my own wages by credit card for several months while my parents cashed in pensions to keep the business going.
It took several years to pay off the debts that we accumulated from that failed venture and it was only when we pivoted our focus to a different business model that we started to see the light at the end of the tunnel.
Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
At the time our online business was struggling to get off the ground I was a member of a mastermind group known as Wild Card Park. We met on a monthly basis at a private members club in central London where members would share their challenges with each other and work together to find solutions.
I went along one month to ask for support with the new business, explaining that our marketing wasn’t working and we needed new ideas to spread the word.
After several questions about the type of marketing we were doing, somebody asked me the question that would change the course of my career. She turned around and asked me, ‘Is your heart really in this?’
I explained that it wasn’t, that this had been a compromise agreement to exit our previous business along with my father. The group told me, in no uncertain terms, that if I didn’t believe in the business, then why would anyone else? It was never going to work.
From that point our focus of the meeting was on what I really wanted to do and how we could create a business that I would be passionate about. Ever since that day, 13 years ago, I have been working in a business that I love and where I thoroughly enjoy every opportunity I get to deliver my expertise to people who value it and grow as a result.
So, how are things going today? How did grit and resilience lead to your eventual success?
Business has always been up-and-down; I won’t lie about that. We’ve never quite found the magic sauce to take our business to the next level and we’re always trying new things to create a sustainable business that we can build for the future. I’m not a natural entrepreneur, I’m someone who is passionate about what I’m good at and who is good at what he is passionate about. And the best way to deliver that is running my own business.
But that passion means that there is no Plan B for me and when times have been tough there have been no excuses, there is no alternative, we have simply had to find a way through it.
Apart from that single-minded focus, the other key resource that has helped us through these tough times has been my network. The support of other people, who have acted as mentors, a sounding board, or just a shoulder to cry on has been absolutely essential to our business. And over the last few months, even predating the lockdown period, it has been the support from my mastermind groups, the Business Accelerator I have been attending, my mentor and my wider network that has made the biggest difference.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
I’ve always been someone who has confidence in his ideas, often more confidence then they merit! When I was in my 20s this wasn’t necessarily an endearing trait. Coming into my father’s networking business, I used to attend the groups and in a very short time was leading and chairing meetings. As we grew, I started to work with our members who chaired groups to guide them to make them thrive.
However perhaps my self-confidence and self-belief, worked against me. Not that I was necessarily aware of it at the time. My father pulled me to one side one day and explained in general terms that I needed to ‘wind my neck in’ a little bit. He said that I had been attending our prestigious Mayfair group, in the in the most upmarket part of central London, and telling the chairman of the group what to do. The chairman of the group, who happened to be a Partner in one of London’s better known and more prestigious law firms.
It was at this point, when my father made me aware of the incongruence of a young person early on in his career, who had bounced from job to job in his 20s without ever making his mark on the world, dictating to a leading partner in a top law firm, that made me recognise how stupid I was making myself look and see the need for change.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
I’m very fortunate to do what I do in an age where communication across borders is so straightforward and speedy. I remember writing a blog a number of years ago and having comments and likes on it within minutes of publishing from four different continents. This has meant that a small business could operate on a global scale without a huge investment or a big team.
And I hope that I really enjoy the benefits of that opportunity. My career has seen me speak in areas as diverse as Siberia, Iran, Vietnam, Singapore, across the former Soviet Union, and elsewhere. I’ve even gone to the USA and taught the Americans how to network.
I remember an event in Siberia where just after my presentation, expecting to be taken to lunch with sponsors and VIP guests, I was instead whisked across town to a small Italian restaurant with just one of the organisers of the conference. Nobody spoke English. The menus were all in Russian and nobody could tell me even what I could order. I asked for lasagne as a safe bet and enjoyed a rather unusual, if slightly awkward, lunch.
Straight after lunch I was taken back to the conference venue for the afternoon session, none the wiser as to why we were in that Italian restaurant.
Later that afternoon, in between speakers, there was an advert on the screen over the stage for the Italian restaurant we had lunch in. My translator told me that the wording on the advert said “where Andy Lopata eats in Irkutsk’.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
This is a good question to ask me on a day where I’m struggling, having been on a zoom call with the United States until 2:15 in the morning. I recognised that I wasn’t as productive as I would like to be earlier today and just got away from my desk and went out for a long walk and some fresh air.
We have to learn to listen to our bodies. However challenging our to-do lists and however pressing our deadlines, we are no use to anybody if we are not feeling fit, sharp and alert. Exercise on a regular basis is key, even if it’s 20 minutes a day, three or four days a week. Even if it’s getting out for a walk and moving away from the desk.
In 2011 I recognized that I was working seven days a week as a matter of course. My second book was coming out in a second edition and I was writing my third book, the only time I had available to do that work was the weekends. I made a promise to myself at that point that I would only ever work weekends again if it was scheduled client work, or essential for a key deadline. I have a similar rule for evenings. There’s always more to do, but if you work yourself too hard you won’t be in a shape to do it.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
My latest book Connected Leadership, and my forthcoming book Just Ask, are both about the power of strong professional relationships, importance of letting people help you on your journey, opening and being vulnerable. My networks have been absolutely key in my journey, I couldn’t have achieved my success without them. I’ve already talked about the power of my mastermind groups and I never shy from asking for advice, support, insight or introductions.
There are so many people to whom I’m grateful, so many people have helped me along the way.
I have been a member of the Professional Speaking Association in the UK for nearly 20 years and it’s the best investment I’ve ever made in my business. The support of my colleagues, some of whom are my competitors, has been invaluable. Advice, encouragement and referrals have all come on a consistent basis from this network. It’s repaid my membership fees several times over.
In 2016 I recognized that I was going along to PSA meetings and not being honest about where my business was struggling. I committed at that point to encourage that community to be brutally honest with each other and I spoke at that year’s convention about how together we were bigger than each of us as an individual. That really resonated with the audience and was the seed for my next book. Seeing how people cried at the message, how they reached out and asked for help, sharing challenges that they had kept to themselves, really inspired me.
My network has been central to my journey and so it should be for everyone else.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
I have contributed a lot of time to various charities and support organisations, from co-founding an annual conference in my local area that has to date raised over £10,000 for local charities, to teaching Special Olympic athletes presentation skills and partnering them up with mentors to help them on their journey, to being a trustee and ambassador for a performing arts charity for children in underprivileged areas.
I also hope that my message has helped people individually, has resonated with and help them to see their networks in a way where they will offer their support and help to those around them as well as feel confident and comfortable asking for the help they need.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me before I started leading my company” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
1.) Understand what this business is going to look like before you start building it.
Most of us who are not naturally entrepreneurially minded, throw ourselves into our businesses and the first thing we do is look for clients. The business evolves rather than is created with a strategy in mind. The danger of this is that, by the time you understand what you need to do to be successful, it is hugely time-consuming and costly to take apart everything you have built and rebuild it in the right shape.
2.) Your pricing is important but understand the hidden factors that go into it.
Through my membership of the PSA and the support of my speaking network, I’ve come to learn the very important value that we need to place on the services that we offer. I believe in price integrity; I believe in being fair to individual clients and being as consistent as possible in how you price your services. I also believe in being fair to other people in my industry, and not devaluing what we offer because the cost at the actual point of delivery is negligible.
However, I was too tied to this price integrity at the beginning of my career, turning down possible work through introduces and intermediaries because it fell below my day rate. What I failed to recognize was that my sales and marketing costs, in other words the cost to me of acquiring new clients, falls within my pricing. If someone brings the client direct to me and all of the acquisition costs as well as account management costs are consumed by them, then I can drop my price without damaging my price integrity.
3.) Process is key!
I’m not a process person and it’s meant that, although I have a lot of outreach to engage with people and to provide a lot of content, I’ve never had the means of bringing them on the journey to working with me.
It’s only in the last few months, through the Business Accelerator course I’ve been on, that I’ve really seen the hole in our business plan. There may well have been countless people over the years who value my content and would’ve benefited from my expertise, but I haven’t taken them to a point where they could recognize the opportunity to work with me.
Put processes in place from the beginning and make sure that everything that you do is designed to help you to serve as many people as possible.
4.) You need to put your downtime into your diary, nobody else is going to do it for you.
Whenever anyone leaves corporate life and sets up their own business, one of the key attractions is the thought of never having to ask for leave again and to be able to take time out at your own discretion. I’m not sure that it works like that for most of us!
I went four years at one point without taking a holiday. We need to start putting ourselves first.
5.) Always be learning, but have a clear focus on what learning you need right now.
I remember going to my first PSA convention in 2005 and coming away with pages and pages and pages of inspiring notes and ideas. And never looking at them again!
Learning is an absolutely essential part of leadership, the day that you feel that you know it all is the day that you should stop doing what you’re doing.
However, with huge time pressures facing most leaders, that learning needs to be directed. So be okay saying no. Say no to conferences and events if you don’t have the capacity to take away what you need. Say no to webinars if they’re not going to serve your focus right now.
But say yes, in fact seek out the events that are going to help you grow and adapt to the challenges that lie ahead of you. Immerse yourself in learning that’s going to make you stronger, allow the time to reflect and to implement.
Before moving onto the next challenge.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I think for me, with my focus on professional relationships and networks, the movement I started would have to be related to that. I would be tempted to start a movement where people encourage each other to open up, be vulnerable and ask for help but I believe those movements are already in place and growing. And need as much support as we can give them.
I would love to see a mentoring movement that brings together business experience and expertise with those who really need it. Particularly those from disadvantaged communities. Let’s break down the barriers of class and privilege; break down accusations of nepotism by creating strong and influential networks for those who need them.
I remember reading an article in the London Evening Standard a few years ago complaining about the levels of nepotism when it came to internships and job opportunities. There was a call for an end to nepotism. I don’t think you can end nepotism; I think what you can do is create alternative networks for people who don’t have those advantages or opportunities.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!