Tom Keeven came up with the idea for AKF Partners in December 2006. Each of the founding partners would spend a handful of days a month helping interesting companies with their technology challenges. It sounded like the perfect “lifestyle/retirement job” – help fun companies solve challenging problems while having lots of time on the side for personal projects. AKF was born in February of 2007 with 3 founding partners. When we founded the company in February 2007, we had no engagement model and no unique or differentiating approach for the business. Essentially, our company violated everything we had learned in business school.
Our Defining Moment
One early client stands out as helping us to create our unique and differentiating approach as a growth consulting firm. This company was a post-A series internet startup that had recently run into some fairly serious product problems. The company was the darling of the internet, and their CEO was being talked about in nearly every magazine. The executive team proudly proclaimed that they had a new management approach – one that would change the way companies were managed forever. But what the company thought was novel, we felt was contributing to their problems; the lack of management discipline was allowing product problems to linger unsolved and causing significant issues for the users of their product.
An example that everyone can probably relate to, whether you’re a weekend warrior or seasoned athlete, is a strained or torn muscle.. If a doctor prescribes pain medication, the meds will help treat the symptom of the problem (the pain) but they will neither address the cause of the incident (improper form) nor treat the cause of the pain (tear or inflammation). This early client made it clear that they only wanted our pain medication – technical fixes to the problems they had encountered to date. While we were happy to give them the advice they wanted, we also felt obligated to address the causes of their pain. We told the client if they wouldn’t listen to all of our advice, including how they should manage their team and which processes they should implement, we would leave and not charge them. The client could have the technical recommendations we had already made for free.
AKF’s Focus and Approach
From that moment on, AKF focused solely on client value creation. We believe that creating value for our clients will result in the best possible outcomes for our company. We’ve since told many clients that we won’t work with them if we believe they won’t take our advice. We aren’t simply drug peddlers or professional consultants whose primary goal is to sell more consulting. We provide pain relief in the form of architectural advice and injury avoidance through advice on organizations and processes.
Realizing that our approach of evaluating architecture, organizations and processes was unique within the industry, we wrote our first book, The Art of Scalability, to help clients who couldn’t directly afford onsite services. The book was an Amazon bestseller and now has over ten thousand copies sold. We subsequently wrote Scalability Rules, a companion to The Art of Scalability and a third book, The Power of Customer Misbehavior, which explores the attributes of successful viral products and the companies that build them. Together, these books help teach companies how to drive growth within a market, and service that growth within their products.
We successfully followed this approach of treating both the symptoms (architectural/technology pain) and causes (people, organizations, management and processes) through hundreds of clients until the Healthcare.gov debacle of 2014.
Putting Our Values to the Test
Upon launch, the healthcare.gov website supporting the Affordable Care Act simply could not keep up with user demand and repeatedly crashed. People attempting to sign up for government mandated insurance could not comply with the law. For many companies in our business, this would represent an incredible revenue opportunity. We saw it as an opportunity to help and continue our service to our nation.
The founders of AKF are neither registered democrats nor huge proponents of the Affordable Care Act. That said we do believe that expensive initiatives should fail or succeed based on their merits and not die as a result of easily avoided technical failures. When Jeff Zientz, who was appointed by the President to “fix” the ACA called on AKF asking for help, we agreed as long as we were allowed to contribute to both the technology symptoms and the organizational, management and process causes. We suggested that we do all of these things on a pro-bono basis such that taxpayers could sign up for healthcare in compliance with the law.
True to our past experiences with other clients, the technology failures were a result of poor management practices, a lack of coordination processes, and a failure to quickly address the root causes of early technical symptoms. And true to the principles and values of our company, we worked to help create client value (in this case some return on tax payer investment). To us, it was unfathomable to charge a fee for what was already an over-priced solution.
The Past and the Future
The early, unnamed startup (which has since gone out of business) and ACA examples are extremes in our experience. Very few of our clients display the complete lack of management or absence of processes that these examples represent. For most of our clients, simple tweaks pay incredible dividends. Most clients are staffed by hard working and focused people who suffer from the same tunnel vision we’ve personally experienced in our past jobs. Rising above the chaos of explosive growth is difficult. Having a partner can help force companies to make the time to consider their options. We approach every company as though we are extensions of that company’s team, helping to guide the team and leverage their and our combined experience to design the most appropriate solution. Most importantly, we never take on a client without believing we can help them create more value than what they’ve spent on our services. In eight years AKF has worked with hundreds of clients and grown from three individuals working part-time to twelve fulltime people, with still more to be hired in 2015. We continue to grow because we provide value to clients by identifying the true root causes of issues, not just quick technical patches.