"I think that the amount of luck that it takes to have the experience that I have - I didn't appreciate it at the time. I just thought: this is what happens. It was my first startup, and I got really lucky. But as time goes on and I work with others, you realize that not too many [startups] do that. Obviously the Venture Capital community has figured out that 99% of startups fail, and it's just something that you need to go into eyes-wide-open.”- Bill Angeloni
Bill Angeloni is the Founder & Director of Tenzing Consulting, a global management consulting firm he co-founded that now has over 850 experts and works with Fortune 1,000 clients and private equity. He started out at the Naval Academy, after which he served as an officer in the Navy for five years (while also earning his MBA from Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management). After his time on Active Duty, he worked at United Airlines doing strategy and operations work, was a Manager at AT Kearney, and a General Manager at FreeMarkets, Inc - a startup where he opened Europe and helped grow to $200M and then took public. After that, he co-founded his own Management Consulting firm, which he has co-led for seven of the last 15 years — he took an 8-year leave of absence to lead a tech company turn around, and start a couple other companies. He has worked with over 30 start-ups over his career and thinks of himself as a bit of a start-up junkie.
Why to Listen:
Bill has had an eclectic career and covers a lot of ground in this interview. In addition to talking about how to find and join a high-growth startup, he also talks about his experience starting his own consulting company. He also has fantastic advice about networking - how to approach it and why it's so important for veterans to learn how to do this effectively.
- StoryBox - People trust each other more than advertising. StoryBox provides the tools and supports businesses need to take the best things customers say about them, and use them to drive more sales and referrals. StoryBox offers a 10% discount to companies employing veterans of the US Armed Forces.
- Audible is offering one FREE audio book to Beyond the Uniform listeners. You can claim this offer here, and see a list of books recommended by my guests at BeyondTheUniform.io/books
Transcript & Time Stamps:
Today is Episode #148 with Bill Angeloni. My guest today has quite an eclectic background. He has done everything from working at United Airlines to working at a consulting firm to starting his own consulting firm to joining high growth startups. One of the things I think you’ll really appreciate about this interview is Bill’s perspective on networking. If you’ve listened to my show previously, you’re familiar with how many of my guests have found opportunities through networking. Bill does an exceptional job of talking about how veterans can network in a way that feels authentic to them.
Bill also talks about how to find a job at a high growth startup. And he talks about what it was like to start his own consulting firm. I think it’s a great perspective on how you can have a lot of different paths throughout your career and you don’t always have to get it right on the first try. So with that, let’s dive into my interview with Bill.
Joining me today from Sonoma, California is Bill Angeloni. Bill is the founder and director of Tenzing Consulting Company which is a global consulting firm with multiple Fortune 1000 clients. He started out at the Naval Academy and served for five years active duty while earning his MBA from Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management. After his time in the Navy, he worked at United Airlines doing strategy work as well as at AT Kearney and FreeMarkets Inc. He has worked with over 30 startups throughout his career and calls himself a “startup junkie”.
What is a blindspot many veterans have about their transition from the military?
There’s a lot of anxiety during the transition. On a positive note, many veterans don’t realize how prepared you are to succeed in the civilian sector. Things like mission focus, resilience, and flexibility are all skills you can apply to a civilian job. I also think veterans have a good understanding of what good leadership looks like. Having that insight gives veterans a leg up.
What lead you to United Airlines?
It was actually a pretty terrible experience. I got out of the Navy in 1992 during a recession. At the time Kellogg wasn’t allowing their part-time graduates to use their career placement services. So I leveraged my Naval Academy network. I picked up the phone and started making calls to learn about what was out there and what I might be interested in. That lead me to a gentleman who was looking to hire MBAs. So I ended up there. It was actually the only job offer I had. It was disconcerting leaving the military with an undergraduate degree and an MBA from a top school and not even be able to get interviews.
What was your job like at United Airlines?
My first role was actually route and fleet planning. One of my first tasks was to build a fleet plan that looked at what our growth was globally market to market and looking at the aircraft we had. I had to figure out how many planes needed to go to different places depending on the capability and capacity of the different aircraft. I later moved to the international side and worked on what is now Star Alliance. We did the first analysis of potential international partners. We ended up selecting Lufthansa and that’s now the Star Alliance.
I never got to understand much of what was going on across the company. I was in my own little cube working long days. So everyday after lunch, I would walk to a different part of campus and introduce myself. In one of those conversations, I ended up talking to a Director that did all the planning for flight attendants. That ended up turning into a job offer for me to come over and update their flight attendant forecasting system. So I worked with our Operations Research team to update their program.
What advice do you have for veterans about getting their first civilian job?
I think a lot of it comes down to being aware of what you like to do. And don’t be afraid if your first job doesn’t end up being right for you. I’ve changed positions quite a bit in my career. Some of that is due to growth - I like to learn and find something new. As you’re attacking the job search, be open to things you haven’t thought about before. I knew that I was analytical so I was focused on those kinds of jobs during my job search. Ironically, during that initial job search, I wasn’t interested in consulting. I had talked to different people that had gone into consulting and it just didn’t seem to be a good fit for me. Obviously that has now changed quite a bit.
I think the other thing too is to be a good listener. Just go out and talk to people about what they do. I would go ask different executives about their jobs and I learned a lot doing that. You would be surprised by how much you can learn just by talking to people.
What changed for you that made you eventually want to go into consulting?
What I figured out about myself was that I like to learn new things all the time. That’s also why I like to work with startups. I didn’t appreciate that at first about consulting. My initial understanding was that I would work in a team to solve a problem for a company. That seemed a little too rote and boring. As I got more and more exposed to consulting, I realized I really liked that environment of going into a company and getting up to speed quickly, performing analysis, and providing a solution.
What would you want people to know about your experience at AT Kearney?
When I left United, I had gotten recruited to join a smaller boutique consulting firm that was focused on aviation and aerospace. I moved out to Park City, UT for a few years to work for that firm. AT Kearney was one of the clients we worked for. After we completed a particular project for them, one of the AT Kearney guys pulled me aside and asked if I would ever consider working for them. At one point, I found out that the consulting firm I worked for was going to be sold and the office was going to move to Phoenix. That wasn’t something I was interested in so I decided to join AT Kearney.
And then how did you end up at FreeMarkets?
On my second project at AT Kearney, we were doing work with United Technologies and we were being introduced to the executive team the same day as this small startup - FreeMarkets. With FreeMarkets, suppliers would be put in an auction environment to bid for FreeMarkets’ business. They were looking for someone to work with. I was given about $100 million to go source. I went traveling around the world to find suppliers to do this and had the market set up. But we didn't have enough time to get the project done - only five months. So I called the FreeMarkets CEO who was a former Army officer. I told him I had everything together and that I wanted to use his process. So we sat down and got it all set up. We ran the auction and saved the client $30 million in about three hours. That was a powerful moment for me to understand the potential of this process. The CEO then asked if I wanted to join them. At the time they had 22 people and I had just moved my family from Park City to Chicago and I told him it just wasn’t the right time because I would have had to move my family again. United Technologies ended up not renewing their contract with AT Kearney but instead hired FreeMarkets. So I got another offer from the CEO and that was too good to pass up.
How big was FreeMarkets when you joined them?
I was employee #71. I joined in August and by the end of the year, we were 105. They had about $1 million in revenue when I joined and that grew to $200 million in two years. I ended up running the Aerospace Defense and Government line of business for us. It was an incredible ride to see an organization grow that fast. And then to go public and see the changes that occur when an organization goes public.
What did a day in your life look like during this time?
I started there running the United Technologies account. Then as I grew into the General Manager role, I had a lot of people working for me across our Aerospace Defense and Government contracts. The typical day for me was similar to any executive type position where you’re dealing with your customers. You’re dealing with your employees. You’re looking across the board about how to balance the needs of all these groups and the available resources. These were long days but I really enjoyed the work. For me the typical day was anywhere from 14-16 hours. But it was a lot of fun. There was a lot of travel, I would travel all over the world to meet with customers or prospective customers. My role as a GM was helping run the business and also provide sales support.
How often were you traveling?
Almost every week. When I was running the tech company in DC and commuting from Sonoma, I did about 250,000 miles. That was traveling every single week. That was brutal, I don’t recommend it. Today, when you’re running a global business, you can do a lot with Skype and video chatting. But there’s still nothing like being face-to-face with someone and helping them solve a problem they’re facing.
If someone wants to get out and join a high growth startup, how can they best go about that?
Put yourself in a position that will allow you to meet a bunch of people in this area. There are pockets of startup communities throughout the country - Silicon Valley, Boston, New York, Indiana, Denver, and quite a few others. By positioning yourself in those areas or being willing to relocate is helpful. And just start networking with people. There’s usually a tech innovation networking group in each of these cities. One of the great things is that a company that is growing fast is always looking for great people. The skills that people have coming out of the military are so strongly suited for something like this. That’s really important.
I’ve worked with over 30 startups now and only over a handful have been successful. So it takes luck for a startup to be successful, too. The venture capital world has figured out that over 90% of startups fail. So just go in with your eyes wide open.
Look at the market and look at the team running the business. This can mitigate some of the risk. In the economic downturn of 2009, I had to shut down two of my companies and two others I was investing in got shut down. None of these was due to a failure of the business. It was something out of our control.
What can someone on active duty now to prepare for a career in the startup industry?
I think just doing some searches on the internet. Just understand the power of your network. Find a mentor and build your network. If you have some ideas about locations you’re interested in, do some searches for tech groups in those locations. As you look to transition, that prep work will be invaluable.
What was the genesis of starting your own consulting firm?
In 2001, the dot-com bubble burst. What’s interesting about FreeMarkets is that we actually had a business. There were a lot of companies that raised a bunch of money against an idea but didn’t actually have a business. We had a business and didn’t go public until we were actually making money. Nonetheless, the downturn of 2001 came and most of us that were on the services side of the business saw the writing on the wall. We needed to be a true tech business and we were a services business with a sexy tech backend. We were in the process of transitioning a lot of that work into tech. During the downturn, a lot of us started at looking what was next. I started interviewing for different strategy jobs. Then I got a call from a former client at Alcoa. They said they were getting ready to kick off a huge initiative. We agreed on a rate for me to come in two days a week and help advise them. Pretty soon, I was making more money working two days a week than I had been working full time. Then Raytheon called and told me they had problems down at their Wichita location and asked me to go down and take a look. So I ended up working 7 days a week from December 1-21 in 2001 to prepare a board document for Raytheon. They called me back on December 22 and told me the meeting went great and asked when I could help implement the idea.
I called Tom McLeod who I had worked for at AT Kearney and FreeMarkets. I told him I thought I had a consulting firm and I didn’t want to do it myself. So in February of 2002 we signed the documents to start the firm. We started in my garage in Pittsburgh. We set up a little office there and we thought about what we could do differently than traditional management consulting firms. We wanted to bring value in a different way. When a new client comes to a consulting firm, they get whoever is available and not necessarily the best person for the job. Consulting firms hire very bright people that are able to get up to speed fast. But we thought that we could serve clients better if we were able to bring in consultants that had strengths in a particular field. We also wanted someone that could empathize with the client. We liked the combination of consulting and industry expertise.
We decided on Day 1 that we would have no employees, only experts. We would staff a team depending on the client’s needs. That was risky and we weren’t sure if it would work but people trusted that we would find the best and brightest. So here we are 15 years later with over 850 experts around the world. Our clients are some of the top firms in the world. You see today that “Uber Model” - a shared economy model. We effectively have been doing that for fifteen years and it has worked incredibly well.
How does that work? Are the experts independently contracted?
Yes, they’re all independent consultants. Some will work one project per year while others will work for six months and then that will cover their costs for the year. These individuals typically have their own relationships with organizations they’ve worked with in the past. And then they also are hired out by us to work on different projects. They are all hand picked individuals by Tom and myself. We like people that like to get their hands dirty. The story behind the name Tenzing is that both Tom and I like to get our hands dirty and get in and do the work. In a traditional consulting firm, at the partner level, you’re not doing that anymore.
We thought, ‘Ok our people are helping clients get to where they need to go in a selfless way.’ That sounded a lot like a sherpa to us. The most famous sherpa is Tenzing Norgay. We reached out to his son who lives in San Francisco. We told him why we’d like to use his father’s name and he told us he thought it was a good way to honor his dad. And that idea of serving others is how we like to run our firm.
Is your primary role at this point staffing the various projects with the right expert?
Yes. Right before this, I was on a call with a client who had a very narrow, specific need. We have a woman that runs our expert system for us. As each expert gains more experience, we update our system to reflect that. As a project comes up, we’ll spitball what expert might be the right fit for the job. It’s really fun and interesting.
How would you explain how to approach networking?
It’s a great question because I remember when I was leaving the military, I was intimidated by it. In the end, I just realized I was going to have to get over it and learn. My message to veterans is that nobody expects you to know everything and have all the answers. What I did was network myself into different industries I was interested in. I would invite people out for lunch or coffee and just talk to them about what they did. I just prefaced it simply as “I’m getting ready to transition out of the military. I’d love to learn about your industry and career”. Nobody turned me down - people were very open to meeting. It was a great way to learn as much as possible about different industries and jobs.
What have you learned from working with so many different startups?
Going back to your network comment - two years after starting Tenzing, I got a call from an executive that had taken a new board position at a company. He asked me to come in and look at some of their documents. It was a joint venture tech company. So I did that. Later, he called me and said that they had fired the CEO and wanted me interview for the role. I was taken aback. The company was in DC and I lived in Sonoma, CA. I ended up getting the position and I commuted from Sonoma. I was excited to be part of the company’s turnaround and grow the company. I gained experience working with a board which was interesting. The board completely changed throughout the three years that I was there. After that, I moved on and started a new business around renewable energy. We built that company up but had to shut it down in 2009 when the economic downturn hit. I then got a call from another former colleague who wanted me to run sales for his business and help grow the business. That business now has an $800 million valuation. At the end of all of that, I was ready to go back to consulting. So in January 2012, I returned to Tenzing. It’s been a wild ride every since. We just had our best year ever and we’ve been growing like crazy. It’s been a lot of fun.
Is there anything else you’d like to share with the active duty and veteran community?
To me, the biggest thing is to build a network. It’s just shocking to me how many opportunities have come to me through friends and colleagues. Something that I try to do quite a bit of is just helping people in their careers. It’s great to talk to people about different things they can do. It always comes back to you. You help someone out over the years and it comes back to you over the years. It can be awkward and off putting to network at first but it doesn't have to be that way. Through things like LInkedIn, you can really visualize your network. My career has been all over the place and lead me to many different places. In today’s market, you can do a lot of different things that you weren’t able to do even ten years ago.
Thanks so much for sharing your story with us, Bill.