David Zhao: The Texas Secretary of State’s Office Does a Great Job at Streamlining Everything

David Zhao of Coda Strategy.

Tell us about yourself?

My name is David Zhao, and I am managing director of Coda Strategy. We work with digital leaders to execute business vision through analytics and automation.

I have guided numerous organizations through the strategic design and implementation of large, successful digital transformation programs.

I focus on bridging the gap between business needs and technical implementations, by designing high-performing programs that transform business lines.

I’m a hands-on, former leader at Deloitte Digital and have completed over 40 consulting projects. I earned his MBA and MS in Computer Science from UT Austin. I also have extensive continuing education in analytics and data science. Finally, I live in Houston with my wife and 2 daughters.

What lessons has being an entrepreneur taught you? 

You never work harder than when you work for yourself. As a career consultant in a large consulting firm, I always felt like a cog in a wheel.

I knew what I was capable of accomplishing, but I always felt like I had to keep senior leaders happy. Sometimes, it was a drag. As an entrepreneur, sometimes I’m amazed at how little effort a task will take. In the corporate world, little tasks could be a struggle. But now, my motivation is sky high.

If you could go back in time to when you first started your business, what piece of advice would you give yourself?

Outreach is king. I’ve always been better at creating thought leadership than cultivating relationships. However, consulting is a relationship business.

I would tell my earlier self that I don’t have to do it all myself: be comfortable with your discomfort in reaching out to contacts. My friends and former colleagues have given me amazing advice. I just wish I had their advice from Day 1.

A lot of entrepreneurs find it difficult to balance their work and personal lives. How have you found that?

Consulting is known for having a tough work-life balance. We work unpredictable hours with demanding clients, with their companies at stake.

However, consulting has also taught me how to achieve work-life balance. Back during my MBA, I was working full-time, traveling full-time every week, and studying full-time, all while raising our first child.

The discipline that I had to develop was a life-changing experience. It has made the time commitment for entrepreneurship much more manageable.

Give us a bit of an insight into the influences behind the company?

Coda Strategy is an independent consulting firm. We work directly with digital leaders on their most pressing strategic challenges.

As a strategy firm, we advise clients on how to execute business vision through analytics and automation. Then, we help them implement that strategy by designing transformative programs that achieve their business vision.

What do you think is your magic sauce? What sets you apart from the competitors?

Large consulting firms can talk a great game. However, at the end of the day, it’s the people delivering the work that matter most.

Sometimes, you get great consultants. Sometimes, the people who sold the consulting work turn out to be far better than the people who actually deliver the work. The great thing about working with an independent consulting firm is that you know who you will get.

Coda Strategy offers expertise on analytics and automation. We’re not going to talk a great game and let the B team deliver the work. We can’t afford to have a B team sitting around! Instead, we’re going to deliver what we sell.

How have you found sales so far? Do you have any lessons you could pass on to other founders in the same market as you just starting out?

We use three sales channels. First is personal relationships, especially past clients or colleagues who know our work. The second is inbound requests.

We’re committed to producing thought leadership in our domain. People reach out as a result. The third channel is through platforms that cater to independent consulting firms.

They offer reasonable fees, and connect us with end clients that want to solve challenging problems that we would never have found ourselves.

What is the biggest challenge you have faced so far in your business, and how did you overcome it?

Deciding on what to be known for. Consultants often are stereotyped as being a jack of all trades, master of none.

The reality is that we could be known for several things, and market ourselves as experts in a variety of areas.

Figuring out what areas to target was challenging, because it involved making tradeoffs. We eventually settled on analytics and automation. That was a compromise between expertise and market demand.

What do you consider are the main strengths of operating your business in Texas over other states in the US?

It is really easy to start a business in Texas. The paperwork is straightforward. The Texas Secretary of State’s office does a great job at streamlining everything.

Are there any disadvantages of operating our business in Texas?

Texas sometimes overall is great. Sometimes, a client outside of Texas will prefer somebody based in another time zone, but that’s usually easy to manage, as we are in Central Time.

Texas has a pretty diverse population. How have you found the quickly changing demographics have impacted your business? Have you got new opportunities? Managed to expand your business into new areas?

Texas really is a hidden gem for IT talent. Our cost of living is far more reasonable than California or New York. Universities like UT, Rice, A&M, and UH produce thousands of new tech graduates every year.

Overall, as the state continues to grow, we should expect demand for tech talent to continue to rise.

It is often reported that, in Texas, politics and business are intertwined. Have you noticed this? Has it impacted your business?

In Texas, McCombs is a great brand to have on your resume. The governor is a Longhorn. Texans value associations and relationships. It helps to lead with that.

With rising prices across Texas (and the US as a whole) have you been impacted? Do you have a plan for dealing with inflation going forward?

Coda Strategy actually does quite a bit of cost takeout work for clients. As inflation surges, we’ve seen increased interest in helping firms manage their financial costs, especially their IT costs.

We expect to see interest in cost takeout continue, so long as inflation remains an issue.

What do you want to accomplish in the next 5 years with your business?

We need to scale up. But first, we need more consistency. We need to be more consistent in our sales approach, more consistent in our core offerings, and more consistent in our target markets. Here, selling digital strategy is both a blessing and a curse.

There is no one way to do strategy. Therefore, clients receive a unique approach tailored to their business problems.

However, the downside is that unique problems lead to unique solutions. We need to be more disciplined in building leading practices that are reusable across numerous solutions.

Then we’ll have more consistency. Then we can scale up.

And finally, if people want to get involved and learn more about your business, how should they do that?

You can visit Coda Strategy on our website, and read our articles on analytics and automation. You can also contact us directly on LinkedIn.

Follow Coda Strategy on Twitter or Linkedin.

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