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A Look Back on 15 Years


An insatiable hunger for change drives the entrepreneurial spirit. Far beyond dreaming, there is a drive to search for solutions and squeeze every ounce of opportunity from them. There’s a problem that nobody’s solving. “I will solve the problem” (the altruistic creed of every entrepreneur), and problem-solving plays a role in First San Francisco Partners’ origin story.

There’s something romantic about beginnings, but time and free enterprise are remarkable teachers. With time, you see that few successes are built in beginnings. Kelle O’Neal, who founded FSFP in 2007, will tell you that experience helps you discover that persevering — the grit, the grind, the journey — is where success sifts out. And the journey takes time.

We asked Kelle if she could go back before starting this journey to give herself one piece of advice, what would it be? She said, “I would tell myself to have patience. All things are difficult before they become more manageable. Building a successful business takes time — more time than I thought. And there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s reasonable for things to take time, just don’t ever settle.”

Entrepreneurship is not for the faint of heart. It requires a unique constitution to overcome the experiential lessons that grow and shape you. Kelle will attest to that. All the nightmare stories you’ve heard about entrepreneurial life — they’re all true. Kelle has experienced every undesirable, dreadful thing possible. This side of 15 years, though, she wouldn’t change a thing or skip over those moments if given a chance. Why? Because that is where rich opportunity dwells. Every lesson marks us, but the prize is learning from them. The FSFP journey has been different than Kelle imagined, but the value of experiencing and learning so much has authored an inspiring story of growth.

The Pioneering Spirit

In FSFP’s infancy, fighting for legitimacy in a virtual environment was challenging. Clients would say, “Wait, you don’t have an office. You must not be a real company.” Kelle says clients were skeptical. Maybe they envisioned the “Kelle and her dog in the garage” scenario. One milestone day, Kelle recalls a big-brand financial institution client saying, “What’s wrong with them being virtual? They get a lot more done than any other consulting company I ever hired. And they’re a joy to work with. Is there a problem they work from home?”

When “Who” and “What” Drive the “Why”

It’s been said that the only true competitive advantage in any business comes down to one word: people. Indeed, the mission and vision of FSFP are to help guide the most successful organizations in the world to turn information into value and make that information actionable. But at the end of this journey, what matters most is people. How did we impact the world by how we regard the people of FSFP?

Corporate culture begins with the entrepreneur’s leadership. That’s why Kelle feels most proud about the development of the FSFP culture over the years. She knew early in her career that culture was pivotal to long-term success.

FSFP leadership ideated and developed the vision, mission and values almost six years ago with a genuine desire to nurture a company that incorporated those ideals into our consulting business. Many companies want to have a robust company culture, so they build their mission and vision. They establish company values and presume these will be enough to create a strong culture. The “secret ingredient” companies often miss is the crucial understanding that your people’s habitual actions make or break the culture. A solid mission, vision and value system only lay the groundwork for great company culture. Knowing this, the team asked themselves, “How do we find employees that are not only very talented but also a perfect cultural fit? How can we truly incorporate our values into everything we do as a company?”

In asking these questions, FSFP leadership realized that a strong culture begins at recruiting, not hiring. Candidates should have a clear sense of company culture long before they join FSFP. Incorporating company culture into the application and interview process is one of the most successful ways we predict who will be successful here.

In the interview process, candidates complete a “writing prompt” describing what the FSFP values mean to them and how they have demonstrated those values in their personal or professional life. This has proven to be an effective way to understand how prospects feel about being employed (or prospectively employed) in the organization. It measures sentiments, opinions and attitudes about the different attributes of their roles and responsibilities to help predict who will fit well within the company culture and who might not. Though the process can ruffle feathers and gets occasional pushback, both FSFP staff and clients appreciate the rigor they go through from a hiring and onboarding perspective.

FIRST Things First

Growing a company forces you to consider the future, not just the here and now. If you don’t know where you’re going, how will you know when you get there? A successful company needs a North Star to keep focused and on track. FSFP’s five company values are just that. They anchor every decision, every advancement, every communication and show our commitment to focus, integrity, resourcefulness, skillfulness and teamwork (FIRST).

Kelle talked of a situation recently where FSFP encountered a precarious crossroads between a problematic client and our consultants. They stood face to face with a tough decision. Should they turn a blind eye for the sake of revenue or protect the wellbeing of our team members? When your commitment is to your people, that’s a clear decision. Supporting our consultants was the right thing to do, and it showed how our FIRST values keep us on track.

The Future of FSFP

So, what lies ahead for FSFP? They say the best way to predict the future is to create it. That’s precisely what we plan to do. The industry will shift, technologies will shift, even the people will shift, but FSFP will continue driving toward our mission.

As FSFP matures, Kelle hopes to move more into coaching and investing in her staff and the vibrant, bright, hungry people who are graduating from their alumni institutions (there are some great ones). There is a tremendous opportunity to help up-and-coming professionals and build recruitment opportunities at the college level. And, of course, we will continue to shape and put into action highly customized data governance, metadata management, master data management, data architecture and data quality solutions for our great clients.

In 2017 on FSFP’s tenth anniversary, Kelle shared her thoughts and vision about the company’s future. Five years later, our team is celebrating how far we’ve come since then, the goals we attained and our enthusiasm for the opportunities ahead. We know there will be time to have fun together, embracing the quirky, fun nature that helps define the lighter side of FSFP. Kelle and our team understand that without the past — without all of us or the incredible clients and partners who believe in and trust us — we wouldn’t be the FSFP we are today.

Here’s to our next chapter.