Facing closure, St. Paul consulting firm refined its pitch when pandemic struck

By February, Dean Lincoln Hyers and Pete Machalek knew their small St. Paul consulting company was on track for a record year.

SagePresence, which helps mostly construction, engineering and architecture firms to sell their services when bidding for multimillion-dollar construction jobs, was already booking work through the end of the year and they were expecting revenue in the high six figures.

During a single week in March, as COVID-19 cases spread throughout the U.S., nearly every client that wanted to work with them and nearly every conference where they were planning to speak this year, canceled.

“We almost got blown out of the water,” said Hyers.

The next week they closed their office, laid off their staff and consultants and talked about shuttering the company.

Then, they spotted an opportunity: Some of their clients were looking to turn to video conferencing to bid for work, an untested medium for many. Hyers and Machalek realized that the coaching they were doing with actors more than 20 years ago might suddenly be relevant again.

But there was much work to be done. “We didn’t even have a Zoom account,” recalled Machalek.

Hyers and Machalek knew what it took to make someone look good on a TV screen and they realized that training a business person to sell their services on a video call was not all that different from coaching an actor on how to deliver a spectacular screen performance.

Though the company had spent two decades helping its clients perfect their face-to-face interactions, they went back to their roots. “We cut our teeth on getting people comfortable and powerful in front of a camera,” said Machalek.

And they have refocused serving an industry, commercial construction, that has been fumbling in the pandemic. While housing has remained relatively stable, the latest figures show that spending on nonresidential construction has been weak since COVID-19 sent the economy reeling.

In the wake of its springtime collapse, the company’s founders drew on its experience in TV and film, industries that are also now struggling.

This summer they swiftly developed a series of webinars aimed at helping clients navigate the peculiarities of the virtual world, including how to project a sense of confidence in a two-dimensional environment. An update to a book they had written several years before about improving your in-person performance now focuses on how to make the best use of video conferencing software.

“We’re teaching people screen presence rather than stage presence,” said Hyers.

In an effort to replicate the experience of their clients, many of whom are also stuck at home with only a laptop and often unreliable internet service, the company has taken a relatively low-tech approach. So far, Hyers said, his only tech investment has been an $80 light he uses during calls. Next year he plans to spend a few hundred dollars more on a better microphone and camera.

“We want to match what’s realistic for our customers,” he said.

The bottom line, Hyers said, is that his clients don’t have time to waste. With many new hotel, restaurant and hospital projects on hold, there’s more competition for fewer jobs. Pitches must come together fast.

“You want to make the most of every opportunity,” said Greg Fenton of BWBR Architects, a roughly 150-person architecture firm based in the Twin Cities.

SagePresence has helped train BWBR’s architects and designers to prepare for high-pressure, face-to-face interviews with prospective clients over the years. This summer, though, with employees and clients scattered in homes and offices across the country, BWBR needed a quick boost when it landed on the shortlist of firms vying for a $75 million contract.

“There were not many projects of this size coming along at this point,” said Fenton. “We had to give it our best shot.”

Normally, the BWBR team and the prospective client would gather in a big room for a high-pressure presentation, interview and discussion. This summer, social distancing mandated a different approach.

Only part of the BWBR team was able to be in the room, masked and sitting 6 feet apart at a 50-foot long table. Others worked remotely. The prospective client was also limited to a handful of members in the room, at a table about 25 feet across from the BWBR team. Others from both teams participated virtually.

Making the pitch was complicated to say the least, Fenton said.

“How do you orchestrate that and do that well to make sure everyone on their side is included and feels like they’re part of the event?” said Fenton. “And how do you get the character and feeling and emotion from our team?”

Technically, Fenton said, the biggest challenge was making sure people felt like they were essentially sitting in the same room. There were logistical challenges, as well. As the people in the room took turns using the microphone, it had to be disinfected between each speaker.

“The orchestration was pretty intense to make it work,” said Fenton.

The effort paid off. BWBR won that contract.

SagePresence, meanwhile, is now Zooming its way from near bankruptcy to what they say will be a profitable year, with revenue down about 25% of what was envisioned.

Since the beginning of the pandemic the firm has helped companies win nearly $3 billion in new business, and with no need to be in the same room or even the same state as their clients, SagePresence is now able to pursue clients nationwide.

Still, the company is proceeding cautiously. It is down to a core staff of three and a handful of consultants.

Though Hyers and Machalek are still struggling to make sense of what’s happening in the industry and are scrambling to adapt to the virtual world, they are already contemplating the return of live, face-to-face meetings next year.

The combination of the two approaches, they said, will make the company even stronger and more resilient. The company is on track for seven-figure revenue in 2021 and a geographically much broader market than they had before.

“Virtual will not go away because a lot of people are finding it has incredible advantages,” Hyers said. “But it’s fantastically promising.”