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Michael Van der Gaag embodies the consulting spirit

31-Mar-2014 11:06 AM | Steve Royal (Administrator)
By Ruth E. Thaler-Carter

For most RPCN members, consulting is a new venture growing out of a traditional career that ended either voluntarily - on retirement or through burnout - or more forcibly, through layoffs, downsizing and other corporate events beyond our control. For outgoing RPCN president Michael Van der Gaag, principal consultant at Beyond the Interface, consulting has always been his form of work, even when working for others. Of Beyond the Interface, Van der Gaag says that "this is my second incarnation. My first consulting business was User Interface Consultants, from about 1983 to '99."

Here is a video interview with Michael Van der Gaag:
Mike Van der Gaag

The New Jersey native came to Rochester when he was looking to broaden his scope after working in an internal consulting role at Bell Labs. He found an opportunity here with Essex Corporation in 1980 and spent three years on a contract with Xerox for Essex until "I got caught up in their layoffs." He started thinking about his own business and pitched his services to Savin Corp., only to be hired full-time as manager of industrial design and human factors and usability. After a year-and-a-half there, that consulting urge kicked back in. "I first created a DBA, 'User Interface Consultants,' and then called a friend at Xerox who kept me busy with projects for several years," he said.

By the end of the '90s, though, "being a sole proprietor wasn't working for me," Van der Gaag recalled. "I floated my résumé online and ended up as a consultant at IBM for 10 years. I worked everywhere!"

The urge to be on his own eventually resurfaced, and "RPCN helped me decide" what to do and how to do it. "I started going to RPCN meetings in 2010, joined in 2011, took the Bootcamp in 2012," he said. "The Bootcamp helped me focus myself. I'm still working on strategizing, but for the first time, I feel very confident. Not many people did what I did the way I did it. I'm flexible, which our clients appreciate, and I can make my methodology fit the client. I'm about coming up with new ways of doing things."

Through his current business, Van der Gaag provides "research capabilities to help clients understand who their users are and how to make their products easy to use," he said. "We also provide an understanding of value and quality; what motivates people to use or avoid our clients' products; and what they can do to their products, software or services to meet the needs of their customers and attract new ones." In the future, Beyond the Interface could extend into providing mentoring and skills training services as well.

Van der Gaag's ability to be flexible has worked in his favor as his consulting business has changed in some ways from his original vision for it. "My first contract was with Lexis-Nexis," he said. "While providing user testing support of their online services, I took some training in product discovery. After another contract at USAA in a similar area of research, Kodak Alaris's business called me about that methodology - I had not anticipated becoming 'the product discovery guy,' but I went with the flow." One option for the future might be to provide User Discovery training and take that on the road.

Clients find Van der Gaag through his networking activities and "talking to old friends. I don't do cold-calling." He is also active in the Product Development Management Association and has alliances with the IEEE, High Tech Rochester (HTR) and RIT's version of HTR.

Like most RPCN members, Van der Gaag works from home, but "I have three or four offices in the city - including the Panera's in Penfield, the 1872 Café and Joe Bean." Using such locations for meetings helps offset any sense of isolation from being a one-person, home-based business.

Van der Gaag has used subcontractors on occasion and has no expectation of having employees, but "it's possible, depending on the direction the business takes." His daughter helps him with marketing and built the website for his consulting business, and fellow RPCN member Sandy Glanton has provided project management and tech writing support.

For Van der Gaag, RPCN has been "a great place to meet people with capabilities beyond mine," he said. "I can use RPCN to vet potential colleagues and clients, and get to know them as people (rather than just names in a LinkedIn profile)." He was involved in the organization even before joining - he volunteered to help with strategic planning as a non-member. When asked to run for president, he accepted in part because "I thought of things I wanted to do to bring the group into the new century."

As Van der Gaag's term as president draws to a close, he is most proud of having been open to new ideas and projects suggested by members. "As with my clients, I believe in helping people create an organization that helps them achieve their goals," he said. Before he leaves office, though, "I want us to do at least one webinar and make that a habit!"

As past president, Van der Gaag plans to "continue to stimulate the board in three areas: conferences, helping with the Bootcamp, and adding a focus not just on how to create a business but also sustaining and growing a business through marketing and the practice of the consulting skill itself. I'd like to see us become less insular and look beyond business basics to fit more into the community."

Ruth E. Thaler-Carter  is an award-winning freelance writer, editor, proofreader and speaker. She also owns Communication Central, which hosts a conference for freelancers every fall.

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