New firms mobilise an army of independents

Jeroen Piersma | 27 May 2016

Intermediaries of independent consultants are, with their lower prices, an alternative to established firms

 

In no other Dutch professional services market do you find as many independents as in consulting. Most of these independent consultants source their own work, but in recent years a number of players have been established, which bring some structure to the market. They offer an alternative to the established firms and are usually cheaper and more flexible, as they don’t have expensive employees on the payroll.

The originally British firm Eden McCallum, since 2008 active from (an office in) Amsterdam, is now more or less an established firm. In 2014 the pure Dutch VirtualCC arrived in the market and earlier this year the German web-platform Comatch decided to establish a beachhead in the Dutch market.

 

Web-platforms

 

All three operate by making use of the army of Dutch independents.  Based on CBS (Dutch central statistics office) numbers, the specialised website Consultancy.nl estimates that there are now more than 100,000 consulting firms in The Netherlands, 90% of which are run by independents. Only a limited proportion of these are considered suitable for the services of the players named here, which all claim to target consultants with at least a couple of years’ experience at a renowned (consulting) firm or former managers with extensive experience in business.

The new players roughly fall into 2 categories. There are the web-platforms, which link supply and demand and the (consulting) firms, who may work with independents, but take direct responsibility for the project. Comatch falls into the first category of web-platforms, although the founder and former McKinsey Germany employee, Christoph Hardt, makes clear it isn’t an open platform, where supply and demand (simply) match themselves.

independent consultants in The Netherlands

 

Matching process

 

Comatch staff play a role in the matching process. Comatch not only selects the consultants, but also intercepts the request, selecting 2-4 consultants who are a match. Comatch also provides administrative support. At the end of the project, they gather feedback on the results and add this to the consultant’s profile.

Primary responsibility for the project lies with the consultant. ‘But we are the contracting party’, says Hardt. ‘If there is a real problem between the consultant and the client, we intervene and if necessary replace the consultant. In addition, a mediocre rating can mean we wouldn’t put the consultant forward for a new project’.

 

Leading delivery

 

The sharing of responsibility is the difference between platforms and a firm, such as VirtualCC, says founder and former Twijnstra Gudde consultant, Marco Cevat.  VirtualCC

takes the lead in the scoping and the delivery of the project. They have a 150 person strong consultant ‘community’ at their disposal. A request from a potential client is anonymised, then released into the community to generate ideas and solutions. Cervat and his staff distill these into a proposal and lead the delivery.

Both Comatch and VirtualCC rely heavily on technology. Algorithms are used to match supply and demand, by matching the profile of the client with the profile of the consultant team. Coupled with the use of independents, this defines the alternative and ‘innovative’ offer of these players.

 

People business

 

Estimates suggest there are now more than 100,000 independent consultants in The NetherlandsHeleen Wachters, partner at Eden McCallum, doesn’t give so much weight to technology. ‘It is and remains a people business’, she says. The two partners and the team at Eden McCallum in Amsterdam select the consultants and facilitate their involvement, maintain the client relationships, scope the projects and put the teams together. ‘In each of these activities there is a soft element for which you can’t rely on IT.’

 

Eden McCallum mainly competes with the established super powers such as McKinsey and The Boston Consulting Group. By working with independents, often from these big firms, Eden McCallum can offer more flexible services at a lower rate. ‘We take off the rough edges for both the client and the consultant. As a consultant at the big firms, you have far less influence than you have with us. And clients also have more control over these projects when they work with us.’

 

Middle management

 

Operating at the highest level in the biggest corporates is not the primary goal for Eden McCallum and other players who work with independents. ‘We do the majority of our work one rung lower in the organisation’, says Wachters. For big projects at listed companies, firms who can quickly mobilise big teams and who have offices all over the world, are still needed.

‘We know our place’ says Cevat from VirtualCC. ‘We don’t serve listed companies or do big projects at the ministries.’ His firm targets the boardroom of innovative and fast growing companies, still being led by the (founding) entrepreneur.

 

The market

 

Comatch targets SME companies and the lower levels of large companies, as well as other consulting firms. ‘The majority of our consultants are currently working for other consulting firms. Medium-sized firms use us to grow faster’, says Hardt.

We don’t operate at the highest level in large corporates.
We work one rung lower in organisations

The alternative offerings, working with independents, haven’t yet disrupted the market. In the Netherlands, Eden McCallum keeps 50-75 consultants busy at any one time. The big international firms on their own have about a thousand consultants in The Netherlands. Comatch expects project turnover of €10 mln this year, but this is across Germany, Austria, Switzerland, The Netherlands and Scandinavia.

VirtualCC expects a turnover of €1 mln this year. Cevat: ‘this is against the backdrop of a zero overhead company. We are not based on the Zuidas and we don’t have marble in the corridors. We only incur costs, if we also generate revenues.’