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Celebrating First San Francisco Partners’ First 10 Years

By Kelle O'Neal

Ten years ago this month, First San Francisco Partners (FSFP) came into being, opening our information management consulting services’ doors. The FSFP team and I are celebrating this milestone and, as they say, taking a walk down memory lane. In many ways, it seems like ages ago vs. a decade ago — but in other ways, it feels like only yesterday when it first began …

Back in 2006 when I was working at Siperian, a master data management (MDM) technology firm that’s now part of Informatica, I kept running into clients who were not educated about MDM. Though we were selling an MDM solution, clients had a hard time quantifying why they needed it, what specific value it could provide or how to prioritize an MDM implementation. So when it came to completing a sale, many times our clients hadn’t worked out the business justification needed to prioritize the purchase of the software, above other important initiatives, like a CRM or business intelligence solution.

At Siperian we offered answers from a provider’s perspective, but clients’ questions and concerns often became too time-consuming — and we needed to focus on closing sales instead of advisory services. Sometimes, this lack of priority and justification would mean that a client would abandon the project. And while there were times Siperian would partner with another firm, like Deloitte or Accenture, who could help with the strategy piece, the partner’s fees were often so high that the client couldn’t afford to work with both Siperian and the partner.

FIND A NEED AND FILL IT

Ten years ago, there were no smaller consulting firms really focused on MDM other than doing implementation work. I didn’t see anyone offering strategic planning exercises — nor anyone focused on selling the value of MDM and explaining its myriad “how-tos,” including the size and scope needed based on a business’ many priorities.

Additionally, the consultants and technology firms weren’t looking at business process alignment — like integrating data governance with MDM. It was just a technical solve.

Walking in Central Park with a colleague one day, we envisioned an MDM consulting company that could fill this gap in the market. Long story short, my job at Siperian was changing and since I was considering other options anyway, I thought maybe I can just start that company. And that’s what I did in April 2007.

THE FIRST SAN FRANCISCO PARTNERS NAME

As with any start-up venture, naming my new company was an early priority. Many times, I’ve been asked about the name and the thinking behind it. When I first started the company, it wasn’t me and a bunch of partners. It was just me. I must admit I didn’t conduct a collaborative naming brainstorm. Instead, I thought about what the name should emote, given the target clients I initially wanted to attract ― e.g., financial services firms and pharmaceutical companies. The name needed to be professional and somewhat traditional-sounding and trustworthy. Ultimately, it was my father’s company, First San Francisco Corporation, that inspired our name.

In the early years, I received feedback that First San Francisco Partners’ name seemed almost limiting. Others thought it had a Silicon Valley ring to it — and there was a debate about whether that was a good or a bad thing. Others I spoke with liked the name. Despite the mixed feedback, the name stuck and I can’t imagine our company being called anything else.

First San Francisco Partners' PowerPoint Presentation

An FSFP presentation circa 2007 and one from today. Our logo remains the same, and yes, we still use PowerPoint!

NOW HERE COME THE PARTNERS

It wasn’t long before FSFP needed to grow to accommodate the first few consulting engagements we won. I brought on several former Siperian colleagues and others I knew through my professional network. Soon, my small, focused team of “partners” were in place.

Thinking back to those old days, candidly I can say that our first five years were touch and go. Remember, I started the company in 2007 right before the market collapsed. Timing could not have been worse! The fact we could make it work is amazing, especially given who we were targeting — like the hard-hit and publicly maligned banking industry.

WE’VE ALWAYS BEEN VIRTUAL

Another early decision start-ups make is where their office should be located. Right from the beginning, FSFP was a virtual company ― as we still are today — and that was back when virtual companies and remote work weren’t a “thing.”

Despite our Silicon Valley-sounding name, our first few years were spent consulting with clients based in Chicago, New Jersey and Toronto, Canada, where some of the FSFP team members lived or could easily commute to. It wasn’t until 2011 that we began working with West Coast clients, and that enabled us to hire consultants who lived in California.

In the early years of FSFP, clients were often not comfortable with us being virtual. We had one consulting opportunity where a contact said he couldn’t work with us, because he said it was like “you and your dogs in the garage.” We quickly learned to get the virtual topic on the table right away and to qualify prospects on their readiness to work with a company without a physical location. We overcame most of the objections by focusing on the fact that our remote set-up saved clients money, because we weren’t flying our team in from a central headquarters. (That is, our team was distributed throughout the U.S.) Also, we could hire top talent because we weren’t limited to finding consultants in a specific city or state. Soon, we had clients telling us our virtual set-up was an asset, not a liability!

Now we see clients requesting remote arrangements, because they, too, have remote or distributed employees and see the many benefits. This trend goes beyond our industry, thankfully, as more companies realize that having a fully or even partially remote workforce is an effective, efficient way to run a business. (Consider Forbes recent Top 100 Companies Offering Remote Jobs report, which includes well-known firms like Amazon, JPMorgan Chase, Salesforce and UnitedHealth Group.)

When companies acquire other firms, the trend in the past had been to relocate staff to corporate headquarters. Now businesses are leaving acquired companies where they are in situ. Today, many of our clients are also decentralized. Case in point: earlier this month, some of us traveled to Arizona for a client’s quarterly meeting which included its employees from Colorado, Utah, New Jersey, France and the U.K.

The old First San Francisco Partners website

Our old firstsanfranciscopartners.com served us well for many years …

First San Francisco Partners' New (Circa 2016) website

… but the new site is bigger and better and more effectively tells our story and the people we work with. I also like that it’s mobile-friendly.

ADAPTING OUR SERVICE OFFERINGS

Back in 2007 as a small, unknown consulting firm, it was difficult for us to sell MDM strategy services. We could easily sell implementation, because our consultants could demonstrate their expertise in the area due to their Siperian experience, and we initially found success focusing on MDM implementation. Once we had traction there, we worked strategic consulting back into the mix, adding in business alignment, data governance (DG) and process work and selling a more holistic offering. Soon we had referenceable clients saying we made a difference for them, and over time the strategy area grew.

Today, FSFP does implementation and strategy work because clients still have both needs ― and we’ve broadened our capabilities from MDM and DG to include engagements focused on data insights and analytics, Big Data, data privacy and data-centric development.

NEW INDUSTRIES, NEW DATA CONCERNS

In FSFP’s early days, we worked primarily with regulated industries like pharmaceutical, biotech banking and insurance. Over time, we’ve seen our industry mix change as companies of all sizes now recognize the importance of data and need our assistance. And while we still work with financial services firms, we now count large apparel manufacturers, consumer packaged goods companies and retailers, as well as smaller firms, as clients.

When we used to think about data management, it was data that was created internally, like customer and product data. Today our clients have more data to deal with, more data types and more related concerns. Big companies have Big Data, but smaller companies do, too. (If they don’t create it, they can buy it.)

As data volumes and types increase, the need for control and understanding the data increases ― which means it’s just more complicated today. There’s also more focus on data privacy and security, as well as ethics and appropriate use of data.

The data services industry is growing exponentially because of this environment. Our company has benefited, too, and that makes for an exciting and fast-paced environment.

Kelle O'Neal, CEO and Founder of First San Francisco Partners

That’s me through the years ― older and I hope wiser ― and today
with FSFP’s President and Chief Delivery Officer John Ladley.

A WOMAN-OWNED BUSINESS

I read something recently about how only 10% of women-owned businesses generate more than $1 million in revenue. I realize I’m still in somewhat of a unique position being a woman who owns a business of this size ― especially in the San Francisco and Silicon Valley areas — that has made it to year 10.

Looking more broadly at our industry, I’m pleased to see more women choosing data-related careers. This is a change, compared to 2007 when I started FSFP. I believe the ability to work remote and have some flexibility ― something we offer at our company, but I also see it at other firms in our industry ― has a lot to do with there being more female data management professionals. (Last year I wrote a story for our blog about women working in our field and being visible at industry conferences, in particular.)

The fact FSFP has been entirely self-funded also comes to mind in my anniversary reflections. Going the bootstrapped route kept us on a more conservative growth tract vs. getting venture capital or other seed funding, but the more measured growth has actually been great for us.

WHAT’S NEXT FOR FSFP?

There’s so much to reflect on over these past 10 years, and it’s been fun this month to do so. It’s also been great to share our history with some of our newer team members.

Looking to the future, I know we’re well-positioned in this dynamic, growing industry. As we’ve done in the past, we will continue to reinvent ourselves to make sure we stay in the lead and are not just keeping pace. How this looks specifically for us, I’m not sure ― but I do know we’ll continue to innovate in our methodologies and in how we run the business. We’ll continue to adjust and develop our client offerings to ensure we provide value and innovative approaches.

We’ll need to be innovative managing our team remotely, too, as we are sure to face new demands and opportunities ― not to mention new technologies and ways to work remotely. How will we remain effective and efficient and still make this a fun and exciting place to do great work for clients? I’m up for discovering the answers and know our team is, too. (Here’s a look at how we make remote work work on the blog.)

I didn’t exactly know what I was getting into when I started FSFP in 2007. I just knew there was a gap that I wanted to fill. Now more clearly, I see the business-driven value of data as filing that gap and how we must keep our focus on this.

It’s been gratifying beyond words to see FSFP grow and thrive. I’m thankful for the many clients, advisors, industry connections and FSFP team members who’ve played a part along the way. I truly look forward to all we can accomplish for clients over the next 10 years!

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