Harnessing the potential of change
The idea of moving south of the Alps to the canton of Ticino seemed crazy at the time. In the spring of 1998, I had a well-paid corporate post as the editor for English-language publications at the headquarters of Novartis in Basel, Switzerland. My future wife, Nina, had an interesting job in communications across town at Lonza, a specialty chemical company. Everything was fine… and yet there was still an undercurrent of change.
Nina had made some preliminary attempts to find a new job, and then she came across a newspaper advertisement. Agie Charmilles, a mid-sized company based in Ticino that manufactured precision machinery, needed a communications manager.
Neither my wife nor I spoke Italian, the official language of the 300,000 people in Ticino. And there weren’t many professional opportunities for me in a region that is known more for its natural beauty and summer vacation homes than for industry.
A calculated risk
That is when I arrived at the idea of going into business for myself as a consultant. I read all the books I could find, drew up a business plan, and talked to people who had been successful and others who had failed.
It was clearly a risky proposition to set up shop so far away from the Swiss commercial centers of Zurich, Basel or Geneva, but with no mortgages or family obligations to tie us down, we decided to go for it. After much searching, we located a house for rent (which happened to have a beautiful view of Lago Maggiore) and the bottom floor became my office.
It’s funny how things that seem relatively insignificant beforehand suddenly loom so large when you are on your own. Take information technology, for example. When you work for a big company, you just call someone to come up and fix your computer when there is a problem. When you are in business for yourself, YOU are the IT department.
Installing a modem became an absolute nightmare, made all the worse by the fact that I depended on e-mail as the lifeline to my first customers. After many days of futile attempts and contradicting advice from every person at the “help desk,” I gave my service provider an ultimatum: either we solve the problem together or I would hang myself with the mouse cord and place their company’s name prominently in the suicide note. That (half-) joking threat turned the tide, and I was on-line the next day.
At key junctions, I received invaluable help. Däny Kirn, an insurance broker from Balrisk, helped me chop through the jungle of insurance offers to find the right amount of financial security for me and my family (our daughter, Thaïs, was born in January 2000). David Taylor, a close colleague at my former company, helped me get a fast start in consulting at Europe’s leading biotech company, Serono. My old friend and mentor, Terry Shroeder, provided me with the necessary inspiration and humor to keep going at critical moments. My wife, now Managing Director of the Executive Masters in Communications Program at the University of Lugano, has supported me every step of the way, given me professional counsel, and even managed to find the charming but dilapidated old villa near Lugano, where FrontLine Communications is currently based.
Learning the ropes
There are plenty of frustrations in this business. You learn quickly that some clients are good project managers, well organized and clear about what they want. With others, well, it is more of a guessing game. In a worst case, the latter can become nightmare projects that go for months beyond the expected timeline without resolution (and without getting paid). While maintaining a professional demeanor with these customers, in private there are times when you consider tossing the computer out of the window (I bought extra insurance to cover “dropped” laptops).
Work often comes all at once rather than being evenly distributed over the year. Inevitably, there are slow periods. You learn to use this time to regroup and tackle that bulging basket on your desk with the “second priority” tasks. Then suddenly comes a new wave of work, at times unsolicited, as if influenced by some external gravitational force like the moon. (If I ever succeed in getting the lunar phases set correctly on my Swiss watch, perhaps I can test this hypothesis.)
“Sense of adventure”
Now, after almost seven years as a consultant and a track record of working for a number of blue-chip Swiss companies, I can recognize certain factors that are essential to success: self-discipline, effective time management, first-hand knowledge of the products and people in each business, lasting relationships with customers based on keeping promises and, finally, a good measure of luck. And the most important pre-requisite for all this is simply having the courage to try something completely new.
I once had the privilege of speaking face-to-face with Bertrand Piccard, the first man to circumnavigate the globe in a balloon as well as a practicing psychologist. During our 90-minute-interview, he spoke about “living with a sense of adventure,” which I found particularly inspiring. He summed it up in the following words:
"Many people base their lives on the search for certainties and control. They are unable to make an adventure out of their life, because they fight against everything that happens. People hate to change, but how can you evolve if you have no change?”