Alumni Spotlight: The Leading Niche
In 2007, Tamara Nall had a successful career at a corporate consulting firm. She was six months away from getting promoted to a top position. But not everything was as perfect as it seemed: “I worked twenty hours a day – that does not include eating, bathing, sleeping. I had gotten to the point where there was a lot of bureaucracy and hierarchy to getting things done.”
That year, she decided that she would soon resign and founded The Leading Niche. Tamara felt that “there was a need in the market for a high-caliber small business/professional services company but with a big business approach.” She aimed to start a nimble and more flexible business that could provide clients with recommendations in far less time than larger and more bureaucratic firms could. Although she was motivated to leave her corporate job by a culture that she disliked, she soon learned that culture is something every business owner must work on.
The Leading Niche is a data analytics and IT consulting firm that mines and refines data, primarily for federal clients. From the beginning, Tamara committed to hiring locally from the communities that The Leading Niche worked in. Their first projects were in West Africa, where there were growing markets not impacted by the Great Recession. Here, Tamara infused this project with its own local character: “I hired eighteen people and we beat another large consulting firm because we decided to hire a third of the workforce locally there to build capacity.” The remaining twelve jobs went to Americans and Canadians, many of whom were very skilled but unemployed due to the economic downturn.
Tamara maintained her commitment to hiring local at The Leading Niche’s headquarters in Harlem. She explained, “Since our conception we’ve always had that [local focus]. 35 percent of our employees come from underserved communities and we’re very committed to that.” But it’s not just about having jobs; she is committed to the quality of the jobs as well. Tamara said, “I always wanted to be the Facebook or the Google of consulting – I wanted to let it be a democracy and people within the organization could just do what they want as long as they do good work.” The Leading Niche also has a program for students in underserved communities who join the company and learn how to conduct research and analytics, rather than, in Tamara’s words, “making copies and stuffing envelopes.”
"We’re different because there are a lot of federal contractors that just hire people, pay them, they don’t have events for them, they don’t focus on all the cultural issues and we do. We do surveys within the organization all the time. Everyone stays because we are an awesome company to work for."
Building this amazing culture came with its share of challenges. It is ironic for many small business owners that as they scale they start to see the necessity of developing their own processes, similar to the corporate businesses they leave. For The Leading Niche, “[there] was this whole cultural shift from being an organization that did not have a lot of processes and just wanted employees focusing on ‘however you get the work done, as long as you get it done, great,’ moving towards really having processes in place.”
The key here, Tamara found, was keeping the processes from turning into that “bureaucracy and hierarchy,” or what caused her to leave in the first place. Now Tamara sees her processes as an important asset for The Leading Niche and its culture. With more employees it becomes essential to standardize processes so new employees feel they are part of the family. “Our managers are still really accessible to our employees,” she maintains.
Today, having a great business culture is helping Tamara and her business succeed with the next important step. As The Leading Niche increases in size, hiring dedicated recruiters and salespeople becomes of paramount importance. The problem? “At least on the sales side, people who are really good are fine in their large companies, versus they [feel like they] take a risk with a small company.” Luckily, culture can often be an important advantage for small businesses. Tamara remains optimistic as she faces this new problem: “You have to convince them that they should work in an environment where there’s not a lot of bureaucracy and they can be an entrepreneur without the risk. That has been successful.” Tamara challenges others to take the same leap she did, to work in a small business and reap the rewards.