This is yet another rejected section from my soon-t0-be-published book Between the buyer and the seller.
In 2006, having just graduated from business school, I started my career working for a leading management consulting firm. This firm had been one of the most sought after employers for students at my school, and the salary they offered to pay me was among the highest offers for India-based jobs in my school in my year of graduation.
The elation of being paid better than my peers didn’t last too long, though. In what was my second or third week at the firm, I was asked to help a partner prepare a “pitch deck” – a document trying to convince a potential client to hire my firm for a piece of work. A standard feature in any pitch deck is costing, and the cost sheet of the document I was working on told me that the rate my firm was planning to bill its client for my services was a healthy multiple of what I was being paid.
While I left the job a few months later (for reasons that had nothing to do with my pay), I would return to the management consulting industry in 2012. This time, however, I didn’t join a firm – I chose to freelance instead. Once again I had to prepare pitch decks to win businesses, and quote a professional fee as part of it. This time, though, the entire billing went straight to my personal top line, barring some odd administrative expenses.
The idea that firms exist in order to take advantage of saving in transaction costs was first proposed by Ronald Coase in what has come to be a seminal paper in 1937. In “The Nature of the Firm”, Coase writes:?
The main reason why it is profitable to establish a firm would seem to be that there is a cost of using the price mechanism. The most obvious cost of ‘organising’ production through the price mechanism is that of discovering what the relevant prices are.
In other words, if an employer and employee or two divisions of a firm were to negotiate each time the price of goods or services being exchanged, the cost of such negotiations (the transaction cost) would far outstrip the benefit of using the price mechanism in such a case. Coase’s paper goes on to develop a framework to explain why firms aren’t larger than they were. He says,
Naturally, a point must be reached where the costs of organising an extra transaction within the firm are equal to the costs involved in carrying out the transaction in the open market.
While Coase’s theories have since been widely studied and quoted, and apply to all kinds of firms, it is still worth asking the question as to why professional services firms such as the management consulting firm I used to work for are as ubiquitous as they are. It is also worth asking why such firms manage to charge from their clients fees that are far in excess of what they pay their own employees, thus making a fat spread.
The defining feature of professional services firms is that they are mostly formed by the coming together of a large number of employees all of whom do similar work for an external client. While sometimes some of these employees might work in teams, there is seldom any service in such firms (barring administrative tasks) that are delivered to someone within the firm – most services are delivered to an external client. Examples of such firms include law firms, accounting firms and management consulting firms such as the one I used to work for (it is tempting to include information technology services firms under this banner but they tend to work in larger teams implying a higher contribution from teamwork).
One of my main challenges as a freelance consultant is to manage my so-called “pipeline”. Given that I’m a lone consultant, there is a limit on the amount of work I can take on at any point in time, affecting my marketing. I have had to, on multiple occasions, respectfully decline assignments because I was already tied up delivering another assignment at the same point in time. On the other hand, there have been times (sometimes lasting months together) where I’ve had little billable work, resulting in low revenues for those times.
If I were to form a partnership or join a larger professional services firm (with other professionals similar to me), both my work and my cash flows would be structured quite differently. Given that the firm would have a reasonable number of professionals working together, it would be easier to manage the pipeline – the chances of all professionals being occupied at any point in time is low, and the incoming work could be assigned to one of the free professionals. The same process would also mean that gaps in workflow would be low – if my marketing is going bad, marketing of one of my busy colleagues might result in work I might end up doing.
What is more interesting is the way in which cash flows would change. I would no longer have to wait for the periods when I was doing billable work in order to get paid – my firm would instead pay me a regular salary. On the other hand, when I did win business and get paid, the proceeds would entirely go to my firm. The fees that my firm would charge its clients would be significantly higher than what the firm paid me, like it happened with my employer in 2006.
There would be multiple reasons for this discrepancy in fees, the most straightforward being administrative costs (though that is unlikely to account for too much of the fee gap). There would be a further discount on account of the firm paying me a regular salary while I only worked intermittently. That, too, would be insufficient to explain the difference. Most of the difference would be explained by the economic value that the firm would add by means of its structure.
The problem with being a freelance professional is that times when potential clients might demand your services need not coincide with the times when you are willing to provide such services. Looking at it another way, the amount of services you supply at any point in time might not match the amount of services demanded at that point in time, with deviations going either way (sometimes you might be willing to supply much more than what is demanded, and vice versa).
Freelance professionals have another problem finding clients – as individual professionals, it is hard for them to advertise and let all possible potential clients know about their existence and the kind of services they may provide. Potential clients have the same problem too – when they want a piece of work done by a freelance professional, it is hard for them to identify and contact all possible professionals who might be able and willing to carry out that piece of work. In other words, the market for services of freelance professionals is highly illiquid.
Professional services firms help solve this illiquidity problem through a series of measures. Firstly, they acquire the time of professionals by promising to pay them a regular income. Secondly, as a firm, they are able to advertise and market the services of these professionals to potential clients. When these potential clients respond in the affirmative, the professional services firms sell them the time of professionals that they had earlier acquired.
These activities suggest that professional services firms can be considered to be market makers in the market for professional services. Firstly, they satisfy the conditions for market making – they actually buy and take on to their books the time of the professionals they hire, giving them a virtual “inventory” which they try to sign on. Secondly, they match demand and supply that might occur at different points in time – recruitment of employees occurs asynchronously with the sale of business to clients. In other words, they take both sides of the market – buying employees’ time from employees and selling this employees’ time to clients! Apart from this, firms also use their marketing and promotional activities that their size affords them to attract both employees and clients, thus improving liquidity in the market.
And like good market makers, firms make their money on the spread between what clients pay them and what they pay their employees. Earlier on in this chapter, we had mentioned that market making is risky business thanks to its inventory led model. It is clear to see that professional services firms are also risky operations, given that it is possible that they may either not be able to find professionals to execute on contracts won from clients, or not be able to find enough clients to provide sufficient work for all their employees.
In other words, when a professional joins a professional services firm, the spread they are letting go of (between what clients of their firms pay the firms, and what professionals draw as salaries) can be largely explained in terms of market making fees. It is the same case for a client who has pays a firm much more than what could have been paid had the professional been engaged directly – the extra fees is for the market making services that the firm is providing.
From the point of view of a professional, joining a firm might result in lower average long-term income compared to being freelance, but that more than compensates for the non-monetary volatility of not being able to find business in an otherwise illiquid market. For a potential client of such services also, the premium paid to the firm is a monetisation of the risk of being unable to find a professional in an illiquid market.
You might wonder, then, as to why I continue to be a freelance professional rather than taking a discount for my risks and joining a firm. For the answer, we have to turn back to Coase – I consider the costs of transacting in the open market, including the risk and uncertainty of transactions, far lower than the cost of entering into a long-term transaction with a firm!