Picture Your Strategy: Interview with Susan Low of Directis
We love to sing Contractually’s praises, but our tune would be off-key without our members’ voices. We’re interviewing our members to find out who they are, what they do, and how Contractually helps them.
We caught up with Susan Low, the founder and principal consultant of Directis Consulting. Directis provides strategic planning tools and consulting services for business leaders seeking dramatic improvement.
“A picture is worth a thousand words: we help small businesses run better by putting on visual planning retreats. For businesses with one or two owners, it’s really about creating an “anti-chaos” solution. For larger businesses (say, with 25 employees), it’s about the whole management team confirming the company vision and prioritizing major actions.” -Susan Low
How did you get into doing consultation for small businesses?
I started freelancing in 1995 while I was still doing my undergrad. I then started a web design company, sold it and got my MBA. My context growing up was always small businesses, so I wanted to apply my education in strategic planning and competitive strategy to that setting. I started Directis in 2003 with help from Douglas College Self Employment Program and have been running it ever since, and now we’re approaching our eighth year. Since our seventh birthday, I have been asking myself if I ever expected to get to seven years. Did I ever expect to be doing this in my mid-thirties? I don’t have the answer yet.
What does a typical client project look like?
We have two typical project outlines.The first is a visual planning retreat for a small business owned by one or two people who want to figure out an “anti-chaos” solution. It is essentially a one-day strategic planning retreat for one person. We send them questions in advance and identify their specific needs and concerns. We structure an agenda from pre-set modules. During the retreats, all of the work is done visually on whiteboards. I make graphic action plans that summarize to-do lists and the phases of work to be done over the next year. For one day retreats, we can make up to five 4 ft by 8 ft murals.
The other kind of project is with larger management teams, for businesses with six to 25 employees and annual revenue of $250,000 and $2 million. I create the agenda and facilitate strategic planning. We take five to 12 employees on a visual retreat, where they identify their top priorities and challenges. We help them to confirm their vision and prioritize major actions, usually for a two-year time frame.
What impact do you aim to have on your clients?
What I’m hoping to do is give people skills to analyze their environment in a strategic way, so they can streamline their process and eventually do it for themselves. Using graphics in our workshops brings creativity and meeting productivity. When people see what they’re talking about and have it drawn out in front of them, it gets the conversation moving along and people don’t repeat themselves nearly as often. They can track where the conversation has gone. I often use templates, so people don’t feel the need to jump ahead since they can see that we’ll get there eventually.
Why did you start using Contractually?
I found out about it on Twitter. It was a tweet from Raul Pacheco, @hummingbird 604. I followed the link because I was about to start doing a letter of agreement. I used to mail out my agreements with a big block at the end that said “sign here.” Usually people wouldn’t even fax it back, so I wasn’t getting a contract in place! When I saw Contractually, I thought it was a good way of stepping up my business management and my protection with my clients. Yes, I draw with markers all day, but I also want to build processes for my business that make it sustainable.
What kind of issues did you encounter with contracts before using Contractually?
People didn’t view my letters as contracts, so there wasn’t that awareness that a contract was being formed, with delivery of services and payment being agreed upon. Using Contractually raises people’s awareness that this is a professional business and that I should be taken seriously.
What surprised you about Contractually?
Initially, I was surprised by the fact that it was free. Another great surprise was how easy the signature part was. I thought I would have to download all this fancy stuff on my computer to get a digital signature, but Contractually just has a button. It is very accessible.
How did you introduce Contractually to your customers?
When they have agreed to book a retreat, I’ll say “Great! What I’m going to do is write up the contract using Contractually. You will be invited to the contract via a link in your email. Once that’s signed, we’ll be good to go.” The first person I used it with thought it went really smoothly. She didn’t think it was anything out of the ordinary. No reaction is often the best reaction.
What impact has Contractually had on you?
It has given me a more disciplined way of going about the contracting process with my clients, which in the long-term is part of building sustainable business processes. Directis isn’t a consulting firm based on Susan Low; it has other associates and long term growth strategy. I think Contractually has a lot to offer small business people – it’s a big step forward for me to be able to create contracts online. It gives me protection without seeming confrontational or too formal.