Conversation with Diana Liu, Founder, and Instigator, The SIX
Designing Better Businesses
February 20, 2019
1. What is your business?
The SIX is a woman-founded Innovation and strategy consultancy that accelerates the abilities of businesses to design better products, services, and experiences. With an average of a decade each in strategic consulting, we use “Design Sprints”, human-centered design approaches, and systematic problem-solving frameworks to solve our clients’ challenges.
We find many non-product related reasons why companies aren’t able to be creative and dig into innovation. Many times, teams can be overwhelmed by ambiguity, a high-stakes work environment, distracting timelines, team-failure fatigue, or a lack of visible progress. Via our consulting, The SIX provides evidence-based solutions that are easy to implement, and measure and our prescriptions take out the noise from the decision-making. Many times, we are able to present an executable strategic direction in as little as one week.
Some examples of the problems we solved recently: co-creating a three-year global digital roadmap, developing a new global business model, and mapping out the future of collaboration and innovation for a company that operates globally.
2. What made you decide to start your business and/or switch careers?
The stars aligned in three areas that made me decide to start my own business.
First, my passion has always been helping clients solve their toughest challenges. I tend to get very familiar with my clients, ideally to a point where I can respond on their behalf and walk in their shoes. Four years ago, I was introduced to design thinking, and I began experimenting with a new method that combined traditional business consulting with a human-centered design. I found that this combination of practices accelerated problem finding and solving process dramatically and helped companies developer game-changing products quickly.
Second, my co-founder Kandis O’Brien and I met four years ago working together at our prior firm, where we built a very successful digital innovation and strategy offering. Although we saw the world differently, our partnership was impactful for our clients. Whenever we joined forces, we found that clients raved about the experiences and outcomes of our engagements, our consultants enjoyed the challenging and interesting work, and the sales teams were over the moon about the subsequent business that came from our innovation and strategy engagements.
Third, one day my husband asked me why I didn’t just go into business for myself, and I did. (He’s the best.)
3. Was there one moment that gave you the confidence that this was a good idea?
I wouldn’t say there was one moment for me. We do retrospectives with our clients after all of our engagements, and in their feedback, we found a few recurring themes. Having this data made Kandis and I think that we had a ton of proprietary information that could be the beginning of a firm.
Clients consistently shared that we helped them shift their mindsets by guiding them to take a step back and look at problems holistically. Many felt that we were able to provide strategies and tools to quickly engage and supercharge their teams. Giving them a path with a clear goal they could execute against with confidence was very important to them.
Plus, we felt good about our ability to recruit employees. At our old firm, consultants vied to work on our projects. Many shared that they loved that we were relationship-driven and that the collaborative nature of our projects gave consultants the best opportunities to learn and excel as we tackled mission-critical challenges for our clients.
And then finally we just decided to take our own advice: be comfortable with failure and experiment. For us, like our customers, rapid prototyping, testing, and experimentation have been key to gaining quick directional insight with minimal impact on resources, time, budget, and the business. In less than a year we have gained 12 new clients, closed 14 engagements, and ended the year cash positive.
4. Were your family and friends helpful or obstacles in launching your business? How so?
My husband is a wonderful partner and my best friend. As I mentioned earlier, starting The SIX was actually his idea. Kandis and I had already built a practice of 75+ people globally. The sales teams, consultants, and clients loved what we were doing, so to have his encouragement and support gave me the confidence to actually make it happen.
5. Were there any partnerships or advice that were particularly helpful?
Our founding team is a partnership. Our team members are very different in personality and skills. We all came together quite serendipitously and quickly aligned with individual roles and responsibilities.
We grow our business opportunities through complementary partnerships with other consulting firms. For example, we are working with several small- and medium-sized firms, and while we may own the strategy business for those clients, we may need another firm to own the technology architecture, implementation, or other areas of expertise.
6. What are some of your current challenges?
Finding our identity and voice are areas where we struggled. We want to be authentic to our quirky and fun selves and also make it clear we are all-business and get “SH&T” done. We eventually had to hire a 3rd-party design firm to help us align and will continue to iterate as we mature our brand and value proposition. The firm and lead designer collected our different yet complementary points of views, visual inspirations, and did a competitive assessment to create the design, visuals, and structure that is our website today. What we have come to terms with is that we are continuing to evolve quickly and will continue to iterate and experiment with who we are. Being okay with that helps us move forward.
7. What are some of the biggest positive or negative surprises in your business?
The positive surprises to date have been from our partners, who are really intentional and thoughtful about how we can work together. There are over 3 partners that we are working with at any given time. How we engage, complement each other’s services, and deliver together is all very different. But we are constantly checking in, validating we are on the same page, reiterating that we are in it together, everyone is working hard to deliver their best, and we are okay with just figuring it out. We learned early on that the opportunities/revenue will come if we just do the right thing for our customers and consistently exceed their expectations with our unique methodology.
Another pleasant surprise is that there is a lot of serendipitous happening around us. People are suddenly available and reaching out at the same time as a potential client is looking to solve a problem, and that person fits perfectly into the problem statement. This has happened for each of our projects to date.
8. What was the best and worst piece of advice you have received as you were starting your business?
The best piece of advice I received when we started our business was that most companies take 18 months to take off. I had lots of grandiose visions and expectations, but this advice helped me be grateful for every new client gained and any accolades or recognition sent our way.
The worst piece of advice was from my husband, who suggested I name the firm “Clear View” because we help our customers see their problem more clearly (he’s the best and the worst at the same time).
9. Do you use social media for marketing your business?
In the last year, we experimented on Instagram, LinkedIn, and Medium. In the new year, we will be more committed to creating thought-leadership content in the form of white papers, educational content, interviews, cases studies, and stories that matter.
10. What are your hopes for your business for the next five years?
In the next five years, I would like The SIX to be known as THE innovation and strategy business design firm. I’d love to be on the cover of Fast Company.
Date of Conversation: October 30, 2018