Doug Fletcher found fly fishing, or more appropriately, fly fishing found him. And it changed his life’s direction.
In 1996 he and his wife left Atlanta, a high paying job, security and a safe career path for Montana, blue ribbon trout streams, mountains and a large measure of uncertainty. The momentum behind this big move was a long trip to Montana after grad school two years earlier, backpacking and travelling, and of course fly fishing, thoroughly enjoying all things Montana has to offer.
This exposure to the Big Sky state and the quality of life he witnessed helped him make up his mind. “It was a huge imbalance with life”, Doug recalls, referring to what Atlanta and his current career path did NOT give him. The couple made up their minds. It was time to jump…
In 1996, after grad school and several years in the corporate grind, Doug found himself in Bozeman, Montana, more or less “chronically underemployed” and looking for his niche and direction. One observation he had at the time was the successful people in town were all small business owners-beverage distributors, a high quality shoe and boot maker, some real estate. They were the familiar fixtures in the community, worked hard, and had carved their own place in the area and were flourishing. This was all Doug needed to realize his own direction-his instinct from his early twenties kicked in-being your own boss is the answer. The soon to be entrepreneur had to step up.
Fast forward to today after a decade in business, Doug Fletcher and North Star Consulting Group is recognized as a leader in the field of global, web-based market and organizational research. This includes projects for employee and client satisfaction surveys as well as comprehensive employee performance evaluations.
I sat down with Doug over a burger and beers to pick his brain, and see what an entrepreneurial Montana transplant has to say about success, the prospect of failure, stick-to-itiveness and fly fishing.
Q: What brought you to Montana?
“Believe it or not, fly fishing. While I had ‘the Life’ in Atlanta, a house, good job, the right choice it appeared on the surface, but it was not what I truly wanted. After grad school during the summer, my wife and I packed up and headed west to travel, explore and fish in Montana, before my job started in Atlanta. And that was it. When I got back I realized that there was a huge imbalance with my life, and I couldn’t do the things I really wanted to do there [Atlanta]. Fly fishing was part of it, sure, but it was just one thing that represented the quality of life I wanted. When we finally decided it was time to quit, pack it up and move, we were bound and determined to make it work-we had to. And, by the way, I did manage to fit in 100 days of fishing that year!”
Q: How did North Star Consulting come about?
DF: “At an early age, maybe in my twenties, I decided that I wanted to pursue an entrepreneurial life-corporate life was not my bag. So, after realizing that the successful people in the area were their own bosses, I collaborated with two friends, kicked in a little money, made some contacts, and the company was born in 1998-with $7500 between the three of us.”
Q: What does North Star Consulting do?
DF: “North Star evolved into a company that helps other companies and corporations do employee surveys, customer surveys, and recently with our release of Rave Review, performance evaluations for professional HR infrastructures. Our clients are small to medium sized businesses, and we are internet based, using proprietary software. With regard to clients, we do not advertise. We built our business in the early days through networking on a national basis and once we got a critical mass of clients, we have grown via repeat business, organic growth with existing customers and word of mouth.”
Q: What in your view are some of the pros and cons of living and working in Montana?
DF: “To a certain degree, starting from scratch in more traditional jobs in Montana can be an uphill battle-prohibitive transportation costs, small, widely dispersed population, difficulty in moving a lot of goods-all make for a complex go of it. Being web-based with a low cost structure has given us the freedom to be national and worldwide. Additionally, Montana has a wealth of talented people, with a very good knowledge base. The ‘white collar’ population is strong here.”
Q: Who is your competition? How do you differentiate?
DF: “We really have two levels of competition. There is the lower end, quick-hit inexpensive DIY sites and the very large, corporate agencies. Both serve a good purpose; the low-end services are great for college students, non-profits, highly bootstrapped start-ups. Then there are the larger ones that we occasionally compete with. But our advantage over them is twofold: one, when you call us, more than likely you are speaking with me or one other person-the level of service is highly personalized and dedicated. Secondly, we are fast. Many times I can be on a call with a client, have a proposal by the afternoon, and be rolling on a project the next day if need be. That is difficult to do with a much larger company, and that is not the business plan or value of lower end sites.”
Q: What are you doing, or will be doing, to weather the current economic climate?
DF: “We are maintaining a low cost structure, we have low overhead, and we are small enough to be nimble-we can change as we need to, so as to ride out anything that comes at us.”
Q: What are some of your personal goals you have set for yourself and your company?
DF: “My short term goals, say in the next 12 months, are growth related. We are not worried about survival of the company; it is in a good place. But, we won’t be able to probably grow it like we did the previous 5 years at a rate of 10-15%. I want to keep it level. From a long term view, the key is diversification. Too much of the company in ‘one big egg and two small eggs’ can be risky; I want to get more of the company in more places.
My personal goal is to train the next generation of senior management. This is two-part: one, to groom good new managers who our clients will see as competent, and really just an extension of me, and the company, and to get someone in place to eventually transition into my role.”
Q: What is your advice to new entrepreneurs looking to strike out on their own?
DF: “My advice to anyone looking to go out on their own and be their own boss is pretty straightforward. First, take a long, hard look your personal strengths and weaknesses. And don’t just trust your own opinion-talk to others, people you respect, who can give it to you straight. Second, be very honest and conservative with your financial resources-we started North Star with $7500, and in the last 10 years, we have done roughly $5 million in revenue, with 2 full time employees and 2 part time. If you drain all your resources to get it going, or go way beyond your means, you can fail. There is no such thing as an overnight success-you hear about the story of Google and the like, but that is not the norm. It takes consistency and that day-to-day presence in the market. Additionally, whether you call it luck, good timing or opportunity, every start-up will get that chance, that time at bat where you will get a shot. The trick is to make it work, recognize the opportunity, and start climbing up.
I think about what it took to get North Star off the ground and start being successful, and really it was like ‘burning the ship’. The Spanish explorer Hernando Cortez would literally burn his ships upon entering uncharted territory, thereby making it essentially impossible to just turn back and head to safe ground. They had one direction to go-forward. That is how I viewed it. There was no safety net, no deep pockets-I felt I had to succeed, and I would.”
Doug Fletcher, 42, is the co-founder and CEO of North Star Consulting Group. He is an avid (you guessed it) fly fisher, bowhunter, traveler, runner and trains and competes in triathlons whenever he can. He has completed an Ironman, the Bridger Ridge Run (more than once), and completed a (nearly) cross-country solo bike trip, from southeastern United States to Montana. He and his wife, Brigitte, have two children and make their home in Bozeman, Montana.