"...desperation for revenue equals compromise on core values. It’s a mistake he will never repeat.”
Carsten Brandt is Managing Director of PMsquare, a business consultancy which deals with computer software supply and consulting services. He is a highly qualified industrial engineer who confesses that, as a German, he has a passion for fast cars and motorbikes. As an IBM Premier Business Partner specialising in Business Analytics, Financial Performance Management Systems, Data Warehousing and Information Management, Carsten has built his company around the strength of his specialist teams.
In less than 10 years he has grown the company into a powerhouse of regional teams who work and interact remotely whilst keeping operations running with the mindset of a small business. Customer-focussed with expert staff, it’s a successful business model which continues to gain traction in the global arena.
Carsten cites calculated risks, confidence in one’s own judgement and resilience when things go pear shaped as crucial ingredients for successful entrepreneurship. The ability to get back up, learn from your mistakes, begin again or change direction is equally vital.
He sees tough times as opportunities for personal, team or company growth, even if that means translating any errors into processes for protection against future failures. Like the finely-tuned cars and motorbikes he likes to drive, Carsten’s business consulting power is turbocharged by focus, stamina and choosing the right parts, i.e. team experts.
Now in Australia and running a global company, he values integrity, passion and dedication in all aspects of his life. He leads by example and is always looking for new opportunities. With offices now in Philippines, USA and Singapore the future looks very bright for this well-oiled IT industry player. Sometimes picked on by his peers at school for not buying into the illusion of superficiality as a way of life –fashion trends, iconic brands, and celebrity worship – his deeper values kept him grounded when the going got tough and helped develop his strength of character. These values, imparted to him by his parents during his childhood, have helped, in part, to form that character strength.
“In general I had a pretty good childhood. I think what I learned early was a certain value and belief system. I think that’s what most of us get from our parents. “One thing I really remember from my childhood was that, in school I was, I don’t want to say “bullied”, but I got picked on a bit. A lot of it came from my parents not really believing in material, superficial things like brands; what you’re wearing, shoes, clothes, and I think it’s the same with kids nowadays. They don’t really appreciate that you’re focussing more on personality and the deeper values.”
Carsten remembers a few formative challenges during his childhood. An “above average” student at school, Carsten had a meltdown in Year 11 and could no longer commit to study. He decided to leave and, surprisingly, his parents supported him. “So during school I learned from an early stage to look a bit deeper, and to be strong as well, because it’s obviously something you have to go through. It wasn’t joyful at that time, but I think it helped quite a bit in building in me a stronger character.”
He recalls, “My father was a tradesman, and thought learning a trade could be advantageous. He encouraged me to leave school and find an alternate path. That began with a motor mechanical apprenticeship, completed in two and a half years.”
Carsten was offered a job with the company following his training but declined, instead taking up an offer of work from friends of his parents who owned a small construction company. He had been doing some work on the side for them and they saw his potential, appointing him Junior Manager overseeing technical implementation. It was a completely different industry, but it allowed Carsten space for growth. He bought shares and helped run the business as Senior Manager until a difference of opinion on strategic direction ended the partnership.
Returning to the automotive industry – a small car dealership – Carsten took on a role of Stock Manager with the task of bringing order back to the chaos left by the previous manager. With an automated stock planning system in place and almost half a million euros worth of unclaimed stock sitting on the shelves, Carsten set about creating an efficient technologically-based ordering system. Within a year he had cut stock wastage by half as well as reducing his own (unintended) daily output. It was this eye-opening cost saver which placed Carsten onto his path within the IT industry. It was this situation which also had Carsten understand for the first time that, “being self-employed and an entrepreneur is probably what I wanted to do. I had jobs afterwards in bigger companies and realised it’s just not my cup of tea.” This huge insight together with the previous business partnership split he’d witnessed meant “I learned a lot of things. When you have to make decisions and when you go through a bit of a tough time there’s a lot to learn from those experiences.”
At age 24, Carsten returned to finish his schooling and achieved excellent results as he knew what he wanted to do and why he was studying. A University degree in Industrial Engineering followed including a broad range of subjects such as marketing and finance together with an international study component. Carsten chose Australia – sun, a good social system and the potential for migration were all deciding factors. “I had a list of countries with criteria where I could imagine living, and Australia was pretty much on top of the list.”
On his arrival, Carsten joined a company selling a sought-after software product on the Australian market, stayed for three years and gained valuable consulting experience. By 2008 he was ready to leap into his own business with a co-founding partner, and he found shouldering the workload and burdens in a fledgling enterprise work well. But again, Carsten was determined about strategic direction and the partnership ended.
Carsten wanted to limit work scope and client capacity to that of a small business. “There was always the fundamental idea – I didn’t want to outgrow a team size of 15 to 20. That was driven by the experience I’d had with previous consultancies. If you go above 20, the team dynamics actually change quite substantially. Your organisational structure changes and you need middle management. That then creates pillars and unwanted practices.” he says.
Another important factor in Carsten’s choice of business model was his sense that the quality assurance a competitive small business could provide often gets lost in a large company. This meant a radical rethink of how such a model would look.
One of the fundamental perspectives in this process was “it’s always going to be a niche consultancy with cutting-edge professionals who are experts in their field. Added to that would be top-class consultants in their specific subject matter and to then build a team around that. In the last few years, with local and international expansion, we’ve replicated the limited size team concept within each location or country in which we’re based.” Essentially, each location is a nimble boutique consultancy assembling a team of industry experts. Each team operates as a singular agency in its region and can also work remotely as a team at any time by hooking up with the virtual ‘mothership’ for advice, collaboration, brainstorming and problem solving.
Of course, arriving as a player on the international market isn’t always easy, and there have been a few turning points and tough years to get through. The opening of the Singapore business in 2011 is one example. Carsten was travelling for one week each month to Singapore, and losing valuable time to dedicate to his Australian team. The Singapore business provided valuable lessons in setting up and running a remote team and it has since thrived as well as highlighting useful insights for future expansion.
Carsten began to have doubts about the business model as it cost him dearly in 2012. Finances faltered and an injection of substantial cash was needed to rejuvenate the business. The experience taught him that desperation for revenue equals compromise on core values. It’s a mistake he will never repeat. Two years ago PMsquare won a multimillion dollar tender with a client for a regional rollout for the whole ASEA region.
PMsquare was competing with larger companies however the client decided PMsquare offered the better value proposition for them. It was a huge turning point which helped the company further establish the remote service model. The success of that model is now truly evident with implementation in more than one country. Of course, there are considerable cost savings in replicating the implementation for the same company across multiple countries.
As PMsquare now operates internationally, Carsten has stepped back from consultancy and focuses on his core strengths account management, strategy and vision, ensuring the geographically distributed teams work together, fostering the strength of the team individually and together as well as identifying further opportunities.
Carsten is quick to attribute his success to the loyalty and hard work of the employees who stuck with him through challenging times. There were a few months without incentives or bonuses and, even though they felt it financially, they weathered the storm.
When asked about his management style and how he motivates staff, Carsten has no definitive answer. Intuition and leading by example come to mind but he also attributes openness and respect of each person’s technical expertise to the success of the team. He says he has never really played into the ‘boss/employee’ dynamic. Things work just fine as a team on a level field as long as you have the right people. He’s learned not to hold on to the wrong people for too long or for the wrong reasons. Those with the wrong mindset can derail the morale of others in the team and the effect on the business can be devastating.
Quality of service, honesty and the building of trusted business partner relationships all rise to the top of the list when discussing Carsten’s business philosophy. As a small company, building a core set of clients for long-term business is a key success factor. From this viewpoint, clients see PMsquare as trusted advisors who they will work with for years to come.
In a field where clients and consultants know each other, building a good reputation is critical for growth. What’s the goal for PMsquare? In the IT industry even a five year plan is a long cycle given the speed with which technology evolves. As a case in point, Carsten’s initial five year plan didn’t include a footprint into Singapore, yet it happened in the third year of operation. He singles out flexibility and adaptation to changing market environments as crucial, as is geographic expansion, the replicating of the current PMsquare model with openings of new enterprises across Asia. Footprints into more of Europe are also likely.
What is Carsten’s recipe for success? First and foremost, it’s the enabling of new technology for clients, although, having come from a financial background, he admits the financial success of the company can be seen as a “nice measurable KPI.” In consultancy, keeping the team working in a happy, healthy environment is a big factor for overall success and the feedback from clients and reputation in the market are probably the biggest drivers for self- reflection and adjustment.
It’s also important to balance putting the client first and putting PMsquare first. Carsten says always having the client front and centre can potentially jeopardise the company. This is particularly relevant on long-term projects when identifying too much with a client can lead to drifting into their speed and habits.
As a consultant, sometimes it’s your task to challenge clients about their approach and what they want to do. So for Carsten, the balancing act between these two avenues is key to maintaining quality control whilst keeping the client informed through the expertise of PMsquare. When contemplating mentors or inspirational figures, Carsten draws a blank on the celebrity entrepreneurs and motivational speaker circuit because he’s not engaged at that level. His admiration and respect are reserved for those closer to home in his field including his team members. Loyalty, hard work, honesty, integrity and dedication are the values Carsten appreciates and admires. During his career, he has found it’s not so easy to find that in people. When PMsquare went through a tough time there were a few team members who stuck with the company although they could easily have gone elsewhere. They showed a tremendous amount of loyalty and dedication to the PMsquare business model which Carsten respects and for which he is truly grateful.
Carsten has participated in the CEO Sleepout. He finds it a very worthy cause and would like to participate more regularly.
PMsquare also provided the donor model for TEDx. Sharing ideas is a concept about which Carsten is very passionate. This harks back to a valued and high-impact experience during his studies at the University of Applied Sciences when guest lecturers simply shared their story about how they ran their business. This was noticeably different to learning about theories in textbooks – this was education through the art of storytelling.
That worked well for Carsten and, through TEDx, this element of learning can be continued in this new paradigm.
Three business tips:
- Find your passion. Find what you’re really good at and what you enjoy in the context of that passion.
- Find the right people, keep them and empower them. One person can only do so much. It is the team around you that builds your success.
- Get used to failure, it is part of being a business. Running a business means making decisions and some of those decisions will be wrong. It’s as simple as learning from failures and making wrong decisions.
- “Australia was pretty much on top of the list.”
- “He has never really played into the ‘boss/employee’ dynamic.”
- “Loyalty, hard work, honesty, integrity and dedication are the values Carsten appreciates and admires.”
- “The experience taught him that desperation for revenue equals compromise on core values. It’s a mistake he will never repeat.”
After his studies, Carsten Brandt initially took a big risk, coming to Australia for the lifestyle and great climate. He then fell in love with the business opportunities his new homeland offered. Now he’s racing cars and revving up businesses.