Social Media Strategy, Personal Branding

6 Takeaways From 23 Years as a Consultant

This is an interview I did for my friend Debra Ellis for her blog series Lessons Learned and Learning. I write a lot about the importance of humanization here at C&C, so in an effort to follow my own advice, I repost the interview here, hoping you’ll learn something about me you didn’t know.
jay baerI am what the professional sports community would call an “old” 41 years old. I have a lot of business and professional miles on these tires, because I started my consulting career when I was just 18, and have started or owned six companies since then. Other than time off to finish my university degree, I’ve been working as a professional for 23 years.

I’m also not a big self-help guy. I don’t read many books on personal growth. I don’t go to seminars. It’s not that I don’t want to “Awaken the Giant Within” it’s just that I’m an experiential learner, and prefer to figure it out my own way – on my own timeline. It’s a slower, more dangerous, sometimes frustrating process. But it works for me.

Here’s some of what I’ve learned:

Some days you’re the pigeon. And some days you’re the statue.

Seriously, it’s never going as good as you think it is. And it’s never going as bad as you think it is. Letting yourself get emotional about short-term successes and failures is a waste of energy and will wear you down mentally.

Happiness is a process of elimination

Especially from a career standpoint, it’s easier and more reliable to figure out what you don’t like to do, than to figure out what you do want to do. Until you’ve done something (worked for yourself, worked for the government, joined a circus) it’s impossible to really know whether you’ll like it day-to-day.

You may be seduced by the IDEA of that occupation or style of work, but you may find the reality doesn’t match your expectation. That’s why I encourage young professionals to change jobs often, as long as the jobs are meaningfully different.

I know I don’t want to work for a big company, or the government, or a lot of other things, because I’ve done them.

Become friends with whom you hire, but don’t hire your friends

Some of my most rewarding relationships have been and are with people I’ve hired to work for or with me. You end up spending as much or more time with those people than you do with your family, so it’s natural for bonds to be built.

Conversely, hiring your friends to come work with you is a recipe for having fewer friends, and a struggling company.

No is more important than yes

If you’re any good at your profession, you’ll have plenty of opportunities to get involved in projects, take on new clients, volunteer, take a leadership role, etc. But just because you could do something doesn’t mean you should.

Most of the worst projects I’ve ever been involved in were times when I forgot this lesson and agreed to participate when it wasn’t my core strength – or a core strength of my company.

Try to live by the rule Derek Sivers espouses in “Anything You Want”: if the project or opportunity doesn’t make you say “hell, yeah!” then say “No, thank you.”

The inequality of dollars

Your top line revenue is irrelevant. Profit is all that matters. Taking a huge project where you don’t make any money can absolutely kill your company, especially if you’re small. Chasing new business at the expense of keeping your current (perhaps less sexy) clients happy, is another move that’s very risky.

Understand as quickly as possible what represents “good dollars” to your company, and focus your attention there.

Speed wins

I built my largest company based on two principles: telling the clients the truth about Web strategy and online marketing, even if it’s painful; and being the fastest firm in the business.

We live in a world of NOW, and people want their needs met as quickly as possible.

I know it’s all the rage to be a lifehacker and only check your messages a couple times a day. I hope those principles get even more popular, because they just create more opportunities for me. Whenever possible (when not on an airplane) I try to reply to emails, tweets, calls, etc. as quickly as possible. In under a minute in some cases. By being faster and more responsive than the other guy, you’re sending a strong message that you CARE MORE than the other guy. And that’s a profitable differentiator.

Facebook Comments


  1. HowardAllen says

    Jay, you have impressed me more and more every time I hear / read about you. You are one of the most successful people I know. I’m glad to have gone to school with you and call you a friend.

  2. laurenamcmullen says

    Thanks Jay. I agree with all your points especially the last one. Your last statement says it all in todays world “By being faster and more responsive than the other guy, you’re sending a strong message that you CARE MORE than the other guy.”

    We are all looking for someone who truly cares!

    • says

      @laurenamcmullen yes and it’s really easy to mess that one up, given the number of touch points we have to deal with each day. Voice mail, email, Twitter, Twitter DMs, Facebook, Facebook private messages, Linkedin messages, Google + —- it’s a lot of stuff to respond to!

  3. says

    Great post. I have to continually remember “no is more important than yes.” It’s a lesson to learn over and over. Thanks for sharing this with us!

  4. KellyeCrane says

    Excellent insights here, Jay. I had no idea you were an entrepreneur from the word go. It took me a few years of working for the Man before I realized being a solo PR pro was the only way to go for me (I started consulting at 26, which sounded young to me until I read this post!). I think the fact that you’ve always been outside the mainstream gives you a unique perspective — thanks for sharing!

  5. KatFrench says

    Nice retrospective, Jay. As another marketing nerd who’s been working since 18 in the industry, I agree with pretty much every point. Which doesn’t make for good comment fodder (it’d probably be better if I disagreed with something just to be contrary, wouldn’t it?) At any rate, right now the item that hits home hardest is that no is more important than yes. I’m in a place where there’s a buffet of cool projects and opportunities in front of me, but I’m already stuffed from the appetizers. Congratulations on your longevity, anyway. Hope you stick around for another quarter century or so, to smack some sense into the young’uns.

    • says

      @KatFrench Thanks Kat. And congrats to you for getting it on early yourself! I don’t know if I can – or want to – do this for another 25 years. Takes a lot out of you. But, there are A LOT of worse jobs!

  6. says

    Great post Jay. A big take-away for me was – “Chasing new business at the expense of keeping your current (perhaps less sexy) clients happy, is another move that’s very risky.” This is one we often struggle with while wanting to ‘transform’ our practice but making sure it doesn’t harm our current ‘bread and butter.’ Again – bravo and congrats on 23 years.

  7. says

    But Jay, your point about happiness and saying no are a little contradictory. How do you know what you don’t want to do/what makes you happy if you don’t say yes to lots of things? Do you think that as a young professional you should be saying yes to as much as possible at first and then start learning what “hell yeah” really means? I know what you’re trying to say, but I’m struggling with this a lot because I still feel like I’m trying tons of different things because I’m not sure exactly what I want to do. Aside from being a devil’s advocate of course :)

    • says

      @jessostroff You’re exactly right Jess, and I’m glad you caught it. Indeed, for young professionals, you need to try enough stuff so that you get to the point where you know what you don’t want to do. In your case, however, keep doing EXACTLY what you’re doing. 😉

  8. GlennVogelsang says

    I agree with all of this – and can personally attest to Jay’s crazy fast response time. Jay does not know me from a hole in the ground, I run a small marketing company in Toronto, but on a few occasions I have asked his opinion and help, the response was always helpful and almost immediate. Very cool, very cool.

  9. says


    This is a great post and you summed up my biggest problem getting too involved emotionally in short-term successes and failures. It reminds me of that Rudyard Kipling quote “If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster and treat those two Impostors just the same; Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it.” I don’t know about the “Yours is the Earth” part but I fully appreciate the first part. Remembering that and practicing it, though, is something I still work need to work on.

    Thanks so much for sharing!


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  11. AprilLynneScott says

    Hi Jay- Great read! I was with you all the way up until “Happiness is a process of elimination” and then I had to read that part twice. I finished the article and then had to go back and read it a third time. I disagree with this completely.

    I suppose if you have decided to give up any dreams or hope to find your purpose or passion in life this is a good solution for what is left. I tried that way though and it didn’t work for me.

    I have to admit,5 months ago I probably would have agreed with you completely. But I experienced what I’ll refer to here in a public forum as a “major life event” and have since gone through an amazing journey of self-discovery and purposeful living. I imagine this all sounds like a bunch of mumbo-jumbo… I would have thought the same thing too – 6 months ago…

    I don’t want to discount the value of the rest of your thoughts… just wanted to share my experience and feelings about that one little piece.

    • says

       @AprilLynneScott I don’t think it’s mumbo jumbo at all April. In fact, I think we agree more than we disagree. What I’m saying – perhaps not very clearly – is that you SHOULD try to find your passion and try new thing, but in the process of doing so you’ll find that some of those things aren’t what you want. And then eventually, you’ll find it. 

  12. donkincaid says

    @jaybaer Good advice in the post. Best advice = “The inequality of dollars.” Understanding what activities make your profit and building trust by keeping your existing clients happy are two lessons that too many people never learn.

  13. Jeff Ogden says

    Great post, Jay, and great tips for any small business owner.  Love the idea that sometimes you are the pigeon and sometimes the statue.  No is more important than yes. And profits matter a lot more than revenue.
    My blog, Fearless Competitor, by the way, runs on the Genesis Framework too. Check it out at 

  14. says

    I am wrapping you up in this post, topping you with a bow and giving you one big virtual hug. I love this post so much I am giving you a “10 Slim Jim” salute. Thank you – your wisdom continues to inspire and motivate.

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