When Gwen Bortner joined the world of knitting, it wasn't long until she realized that while creative industry professionals are spectacular business owners, they don't get too excited about the "bones of the business." Since then, she's helped her clients as a business consultant, providing advice on accounting and operations. Read about her journey.
AFCI: How did you get your start in consulting? Is this something you always knew you wanted to do?
Gwen Bortner: I have, in some form or fashion, almost always been a consultant. I started working as a consultant programmer my sophomore year of college. From there, I’ve had my own consulting business, and that eventually turned into being a small business consultant for Ernst & Young LLP. I eventually became a vice president of IT for a competitive phone company, but I ended up leaving when the company needed to lay people off. That’s when I got into the knitting world. As I started doing that, it wasn’t very long until I realized that there was a lot of need for my business consulting.
AFCI: Many times, creativity can take precedence over business acumen. How do you make sure everyone is up to speed on business best practices and prepared for major financial decisions?
GB: One of the things that I did during my early stages of computer consulting was become an authorized installer for, what at the time was very new, computer-based accounting systems. These days, nobody could even imagine not using their computer to do their accounting. In that process, my understanding about accounting grew. I don’t have an accounting degree, but I do have a great practical understanding of accounting. I’m able to communicate accounting in a way that tells people what they actually need to know. When I start working with business owners, I really try to focus on what’s really important and why these numbers matter. One of the problems I see is that people don’t understand the numbers, and they don’t know how to apply them pragmatically. I say, “Let’s understand what these numbers are telling you and how they can make a difference in what you’re doing within your business.”
AFCI: In the creative industry space, are there other times during the year that you see an influx of creatives seeking financial advice?
GB: There are two times that I see it most. 1) When business realize that they are being successful, and then realize that they could be doing this even better if they actually understood. 2) When people come to me when they are in panic mode, and everything is falling apart. Unfortunately, at that point, there is only a limited amount that we can do. Most people will not focus on this in the beginning, which is when they should. When they start setting up practices and behaviors at the beginning, it will be so much more valuable one or two year in. That is the challenge. People think, “I can’t afford this,” or “I don’t have time for this.”
AFCI: What would you say are your biggest overall challenges in the consulting space, specifically when it pertains to the creative industry? What is your overall goal when assisting these professionals?
GB: My biggest challenge is that business owners don’t want to invest time in understanding and maximizing the business side of the business. If they want the business to be successful, they need to do this. The other challenge is that many business owners won’t share that using a consultant is making a difference, because they don’t want to look like they didn’t have all of the answers. Referrals are hard to get when nobody wants to talk about who they’re going to. I’ve had business owners who have been in business for 10 years and for the first time haven’t had to put money into the business to maintain it. We don’t want to talk about the stuff that we don’t have figured out, but the reality is that very few have it figured out.
The thing that I’ve become focused on in the last three years is what I call a virtual Chief Operation Officer, where I can work with whoever the owner is to help the business. This allows the owner to stay focused on the visionary side of the business. When they get to the point where they hit an operational issue, my job is to create a partnership with them and suggest changes. Most of the people who are doing consulting in this industry are focused on social media and marketing. My focus is on the bones of the business, such as processes, inventory and accounting. If you get good at it, it changes your profitability in huge ways. The thing that I’ve become focused on in the last three years is what I call a virtual Chief Operation Officer, where I can work with whoever the owner is to help the business. This allows the owner to stay focused on the visionary side of the business. When they get to the point where they hit an operational issue, my job is to create a partnership with them and suggest changes. Most of the people who are doing consulting in this industry are focused on social media and marketing. My focus is on the bones of the business, such as processes, inventory and accounting. If you get good at it, it changes your profitability in huge ways.
AFCI: Can you explain your relationship with TNNA and your role in the development of that partnership?
GB: I’ve been a member of TNNA for around 15 years. Fairly early in my business, I started proposing business-based classes for TNNA. When I started teaching the business classes, that’s when I realized that there are lots of us that need help. That was my foundation. Since then, I’ve taught business classes for TNNA for almost 10 years.
Gwen's goal is to always to help you find your success, but she understands that what looks like success to you may look totally different for somebody else. Thoughout her career, she has seen proof that having people focus on what they’re actually good at can make a huge difference in their business. Visit her website.