Exclusive Interview with Steve Wunker

Steve Wunker is the founder and managing director of New Markets Advisors, a multinational strategy consulting firm based in Boston, and the author of his latest book Jobs to be Done. Steve started his business career at Bain & Co., moved on to lead the development of one of the world’s first smartphones with the London-based Psion and Motorola, and later founded and directed several other companies in South Africa, England, The U.S., and other countries. Steve holds an AB cum laude from the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University, an MPA from Columbia University, and an MBA from Harvard Business School. Steve’s second major business book Jobs to be Done has just been published; his first book Capturing New Markets was deemed one of the top 5 business books of 2011.

BT (Conor Fitzpatrick): Could you describe your education and career path?

Steve Wunker: After College I spent three years in the public sector, got an MBA at Harvard, and went into consulting for a few years at Bain and Company. During the tech boom, I left to work on corporate venture capital and entrepreneurial endeavors, and built and sold a couple companies in the process.

Ultimately, I moved back to Boston and fell in, by chance, with Clayton Christensen, who is a professor at Harvard Business School who coined the term disruptive innovation. He was looking to bring people in to build out consulting practices based on his writings, and I ended up leading three of his practice areas. After a few years, I started up New Markets Advisors to do a similar business albeit for a narrower set of engagement types.

BT: What types of jobs did you have in the time between your public affairs degrees and when you got your MBA? What was your experience as a public policy professional? 

Steve: I worked for several foundations like the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, the Soros Foundation, and a few charitable trusts. I learned a lot about philanthropy, but also about what really effective partnerships are between donors and the organizations that they support. It taught me that there are two sides to the coin, and that it really did need to be a partnership to be effective.

I also learned about the need for patient capital, whether that is in investing or grant making. You can’t expect tremendous returns overnight – you welcome them when they happen, but you have to go in expecting that you might be in there for the long haul. After that I worked for the United Nations, where I met my future wife. I helped with the initial implementation of the first climate change and biodiversity treaties.

BT: What made you transition your career from public policy to business and consulting?

Steve: I realized that in public policy, the bigger challenge you take on, the more people you have to struggle to bring along with you. And that was incredibly clear working in the early days of climate change diplomacy. We were convinced that we were fighting for a noble cause, but it was painfully clear that progress would be very slow. So I wanted to make an impact in fields where my presence really could be felt, and fields where I could ultimately support public-spirited initiatives as well. I have done that in fields including, but also beyond consulting in a few ways.

BT: What factors did you consider while developing one of the world’s first smartphones? What was your role in its development? 

Steve: I led the team. It’s remarkable, when you are close to something historic, how it is easy to ignore the momentousness and be consumed by the day-to-day. I was intently focused on delivering a project, and we knew it had tremendous potential, but there were very substantial technical and business model challenges to overcome. That was my focus.

We realized that people would change behaviors with effective smartphones. We underestimated the time it would take for that to happen. And so, in 1999, we envisioned people using smartphones as they ultimately were doing by 2009. The lesson from that is that you can’t get too bewitched by the power of your idea; you have to understand the context in which it is going to be used. 

BT: What unique approaches set New Markets Advisors apart from other strategy consulting firms?

Steve: We are tightly focused on the challenges of new markets and rapidly changing industries. That means our toolkit is oftentimes distinct from what other strategy firms do. We have a need for high levels of creativity coupled with the analytical rigor you find at big firms. We also tend to have a different structure of our case teams. We certainly employ people right out of school, but they are at a roughly even balance with people who are significantly more experienced.

BT: In addition to founding and managing all of these startups, you have been writing business publications on the side in the form of business books and articles for publications like Forbes. How did you start your writing career?

Steve: I have always enjoyed writing ever since I was in high school. And I enjoyed contributing to thinking. My business is about innovation, and I feel if I’m not contributing to innovation in some way, even if it is in innovation of thought, then I am just riding on the coattails of others. So I think it’s my responsibility to put thinking out there, I enjoy doing it, and the clients that come to us appreciate that as much as people who esteem a research university value their research being done. It makes you a leader in thinking as well as in practice.

BT: Could you describe what you wished to accomplish with the publication of your two most recent books, Capturing New Markets and Jobs to be Done? What do you hope readers will learn from these books?

Steve: I try taking on hard, but important, analytical issues. With Capturing New Markets, it was to decode what strategies and assessment approaches work for markets that are undergoing discontinuous change or those that are wholly new. A lot of the typical strategy consulting toolkits are geared around extrapolating existing trends.

With Jobs to be Done, I took a theory – initially popularized by Clayton Christensen – and built a toolkit around that and a process, so that people can move from the concept of Jobs to be Done to its detailed application.

BT: What does your newest book Jobs to be Done add to the Jobs to be Done framework? What types of tools would you say that you added to this idea?

Steve: We give people a rigorous, repeatable process to step out of their own skin, look at customers from the standpoint of the people actually needing to be addressed, reconceive markets, and develop truly novel ideas. The secret is in the framing of precise questions, and not in the creative brainstorming that follows them. If you ask the right questions and describe the market holistically and thoroughly, great ideas end up being created.

Far too much attention in innovation is devoted to coming up with fancy solutions. Really great innovations come from understanding the market; from asking a different question. If you look at research on Nobel prize winners, a preponderance of them say that their great breakthrough came not with some “eureka!” moment solution, but rather through reframing their problems in a way that other people receiving them had never done.

BT: What do you recommend for those who want to start a career in the strategy consulting industry? What paths should they take and what skills should they cultivate?

Steve: Decide why you are doing this. Is it to get an entry on the resume? Is it to learn a skillset? Is it to learn about several industries? Is it to mark time because you don’t know what else to do? Your motivations will impact the types of firms you choose, and, to the degree you have a choice about it, the sorts of engagements you focus on within those firms. Don’t let it just happen to you. Figure out what you want to do. And even if the ideal firm doesn’t come knocking on your door, go find it.

BT: What was your reason for entering the strategy consulting industry?

Steve: I didn’t have any private sector experience prior to my MBA. I wanted to get that experience in an accelerated way, and learn a skillset that I could deploy anywhere.

BT: What are your favorite memories from your time at Princeton?

Steve: Princeton taught me how to think. It taught me how to express myself both orally and in writing in ways that people would respect, and how to get ideas across clearly without a lot of superfluous stuff that would end up distracting people. Everything else was great, but those skills of thinking and expression are part of the universal toolkit that is useful for any job.

BT: What trends do you think are changing the strategy consulting industry the most?

Steve: There is very rapid growth in firms that broker relationships between large clients and independent consultants so that companies don’t have to go to a very high priced strategy consulting firm anymore. They can go directly to the people who would normally be doing the work, and pay significantly lower fees. Second, clients don’t just want the same insights recycled for half the firms in their industry. The internet and information services have created transparency in data models and other kinds of industry background studies that used to be the bread and butter for consulting firms. They want unique strategies tailored to their particular context. And that means that the staffing model and business model of strategy consulting firms has to change.

Steve (in closing): Our firm tries to deploy the approaches laid out in our book. We took a fresh look at the world of strategy consulting and uncovered a niche of it that was poorly addressed by incumbents. We don’t try to be all things to all people, but we are highly innovative in what we do. You can do that for a big industry like strategy consulting; you can do it for a corner bakery. The approaches are the same. I am trying to make sure that it’s not just the fortune 500 companies who use these approaches, but that these tools are available for anybody.