Negotiating Workplace Flexibility with Jamie Cheney
Conversation with Jamie Cheney, Founding Partner, Prokanga
Negotiating With Workplace Flexibility
May 29, 2019
1. What is your business?
At Prokanga we place highly skilled workers in high growth companies, generally small to medium-sized businesses and emerging asset managers. We work within three industries, marketing, finance, and social impact, to match experts looking for flexibility with companies filling a specific role and offering flexibility as a strategic part of the package. The employers are our clients, and they value the types of consultants and talent that we bring in, and we help them understand and deploy various types of flexibility that work for their industry and organization.
Prokanga began as a marketplace for highly-skilled professionals looking for part-time or project-based work and companies that wanted to hire a part-time or project-based employee. We ended up finding that hiring companies needed to form strategic partnerships with someone like us to guide and educate them on the benefits and logistics of flexibility as part of the compensation package. Now, we have long term relationships with several clients and give advice about how to use flexibility strategically to attract and retain employees.
Because all of the principals at Prokanga have worked in the industries we advise, we understand their needs a bit better than career recruiters. This helps us come up with creative solutions for both the employee and the employers. Many times we find that at more senior levels, flexibility will make an employee leave a job or beat out an offer with the same compensation.
Right now we have three kinds of roles we source: consultants, permanent part-time, and full-time. Permanent part-time is usually someone who needs a COO or a C level hire but doesn’t have the need for that role five days a week nor the budget for a full-time role. They aren’t sure what type of person would be the best fit, and that’s where we use our database to find someone with the right experience looking for flexibility.
The offer to the part-time candidate might be a small cut in compensation and a 30 hour or four day work week, but with the same level of responsibility and respect for their expertise. Our full-time recruiting practice has been a result of happy clients asking for more. Usually, full-time searches come from repeat clients who love the consultant and part-time talent we brought them.
2. What made you decide to start your business and/or switch careers?
The idea stemmed from a conversation I overheard when I was working at a co-working office with my former company. In 2012, I would often hear startup founders comment that they, “Just needed someone good who could come in and do X without any oversight,” and others saying that they wished they knew how to do side projects or be a consultant. Both sides were having trouble finding where to match with the other side.
At that time, I also happened to be pregnant with my third child. I built my minimal viable product (MVP) and ran the bare bones version of my idea over my maternity leave. There was enough demand during those few months that I felt like there was truly a market for this, and I took on the job full-time.
My MVP was really a combination of a splash page and me approaching my extended network about the matching platform. I would use spreadsheets to match companies with candidates. Now we have candidate management software and a substantial back-end platform to manage it all.
One thing I would tell people is that if they have an idea and people will pay you for your minimal viable product in the first three to six months, you probably have a product.
3. What obstacles did you face in getting started and thinking of yourself as an expert in a new setting?
It was finding the right business partner. It’s hard to work alone, but I did it for two and a half years. I wish I had found the right person sooner, but you can’t compromise on a co-founder. It has to be the right personality and skill set match. I ended up finding the right person, but I think my initial mistake was that I was looking for someone that was like me with an MBA skill set and a strategy background.
My partner is the opposite of me; she has a traditional recruiting background so she brings the discipline of instilling a recruiting process to the table. She brought in recruiting professionalization tools, from candidate management software to legal contracts. Incredibly valuable additions to our service offering.
You really can’t do it alone, you need a partner. Otherwise, you’ll drag yourself into the ground. Plus, a partner means a sounding board for every situation. And it’s so important to find someone who is good at the things that you aren’t good at.
4. Was there ever a particularly tough time that in retrospect was a priceless learning moment?
We’ve just launched into our third vertical space. We started in marketing and then finance. We spent a year networking to make the finance vertical profitable, and it was scary. You always wonder if you should just stick with what you already know or keep scaling. But one day, all those conferences, coffees and networking events came back to us and the phones were ringing. Now that practice is the majority of our business.
We just entered the social impact vertical, but now we know what to expect in terms of the timeline to grow the business and to make the vertical profitable. We are also looking into our fourth vertical, and adding on is getting easier from a business planning perspective because we know what the investment will look like.
For each vertical that we go into, we really need to have a minimum of 100 consultants to be able to pitch to a firm. We have to spend time building our pipeline, our database, and we hired someone who specializes in the field to help us determine what makes a good candidate. Annie Davis is a great example of that type of hire. She has built a career in social impact, so she brings both credibility to potential clients and the ability to assess candidates.
5. Were there any partnerships or advice that were particularly helpful?
Someone gave me the MVP advice, and I really appreciated that. Build an MVP and stay lean. Best advice I have received.
When it comes to partnerships, a small handful of established clients have been particularly helpful. The more we tend to work for a client, the more work they tend to give us, along with feedback and advice. That’s how we knew there was a need to transition from part-time consultants to full-time because clients were coming to us and saying “We love working with you, but it would be great if you had full-time recruiting products.”
6. How have you been able to grow professionally? What tools have you used?
I have three boys under three years old, and I was constantly triaging. My husband was so helpful. Once the kids went to bed, we would sit down and talk about the business.
I wasn’t necessarily without a set of tools, because my previous work and HBS prepared me really well to be a business owner, but I drew on my network like crazy when I had questions. I used what I had around me from my education and past experiences.
7. What are some successes you have had with your business that make you proud?
The day when my compensation (and my partner’s) surpassed our previous levels in established companies was a proud one. Building a company from scratch and taking it to a level where you can pay your family’s bills every day is a pretty amazing feeling. And doing that while choosing my own trade-offs (making it to the school play in the morning and putting in more hours after bedtime to make up for it) has made that especially rewarding.
Another success would be relationships with our anchor clients. These are the clients for whom we will develop a product. We become their go-to business partner, and they provide us with valuable feedback.
8. What are some of your current challenges?
Having three little boys with so much energy can make it hard to get work done. But our current challenge is making our own hiring decisions. We have leveraged our own consultants a lot since we have access to highly talented people. But we would probably be more efficient if we had someone junior in the office on the search process and accounting fronts. But we love running lean, so we would prefer to continue to keep it that way and work a bit harder ourselves.
9. What are your biggest sources of inspiration?
I am really inspired by other female founders who get it all done with a low profile. I don’t want my kids to think of me as a founder, but to know that I was around. I see a lot of moms just getting it done, so that’s where I get my inspiration. I love seeing women who are cranking on their laptops during sports practice but still get to their kids’ practices or games.
10. What are some of the biggest positive or negative surprises in your business?
Being a recruiter is a surprise–I never meant to become one. I had this strategic business idea, but fundamentally it meant I would be recruiting people. Coming from a background with an MBA gives me a unique perspective which my clients appreciate and respect.
11. Is your business impacted or helped by government regulations?
The biggest thing is that I can never outright say that a certain job is great for a woman who is looking for flexibility. That’s as illegal as saying that I would prefer a man for a certain role.
12. What would be your biggest piece of advice you would give to yourself ten years ago?
To move into a dedicated office space sooner than I thought I needed to. Being in a home office is an amazing thing, but there is something about being in a dedicated space, closer to clients, and getting out of the house. Having that space was actually more of a growth starter than we realized.
And obviously the partner piece – you’ll get where you want to go a lot sooner if you find someone with a complementary skill set. It’s also important to find a good accountant and lawyer early on.
13. What are your hopes for your business for the next five years?
I would love to see us launch into a few new industry verticals. I’d really like to see Prokanga give others the same flexibility that it has given me to be around for my kids. I want others to be able to say that they are proud to be around for their families, to not have to sacrifice anything economically. I am really hoping we can regularly provide that for more candidates.
Conversation Date: March 13, 2019
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