From the Outside Looking In
Thomas and Julie Assel didn’t enroll in traditional business classes before launching their grant writing service in 2007.
Julie and Thomas Assel
Assel Grant Services
Assel Grant Services offers
prospective funding research,
grant calendar development,
comprehensive case statement
preparation and individual
ARE YOU READY
TO SCALE UP?
program for KC small businesses
—is looking for companies that
want to supercharge their growth.
Learn more at www.scaleupkc.com
It didn’t seem to matter. The business, Assel Grant Services, has been dubbed the “gold standard” of grant writing among cash-strapped nonprofits, school districts, institutes of higher education and other small businesses eager to tap into federal and private donor dollars.
CEO Julie Assel, who spent years writing grant applications, knew how to navigate the complex world of federal grants with ease. It didn’t take long to turn a profit. Yet years later, the couple knew that they needed to grow.
In order to truly scale, they needed to strengthen their business foundation. They enrolled in ScaleUP! Kansas City and made some critical pivots.
“Neither one of us really had any formal business training, and so ScaleUP! seemed like a really good way to get exposed to some of those concepts some of those areas that we might have been neglecting,” Vice President Thomas Assel said.
The free program, which is offered by the UMKC Innovation Center with support from the Kauffman Foundation, offers classes, peer mentoring, professional guidance and more. It’s open to small business owners like the Assels who operate in a market capable of supporting more than $1 million in annual sales and who want to grow rapidly.
ScaleUP! helped the Assels zero in on several business strategies to improve. They reviewed every single aspect of their business, right down to their name.
After listening to branding experts, they changed the business name to Assel Grant Services. It had been known as Assel Consulting, which didn’t tell customers anything about their brand, Thomas Assel said.
They’ve rethought all of their work, including the training sessions Julie Assel often conducts for free. The couple has started recording those sessions and plans to launch online training videos soon.
The Assels also examined their marketing plan. Before ScaleUP!, it was simple. “Primarily word of mouth was our way of getting new clients,” Thomas Assel said.
ScaleUP! experts suggested the couple broaden their reach to connect with more potential customers.
“Now we’re looking at more direct marketing and more of a proactive sales process, where we are considering more strategically where our clients are and how we can reach them,” Thomas Assel said.
The company also has focused on targeting customers better. Julie Assel has a particularly strong knowledge of federal grants—a complex and intimidating process for many grant writers. ScaleUP! consultants pointed out that the Assels can use that expertise to open new markets. They already know who has a lot to gain from using their services—school districts, hospitals, non-profits and the like—so why not seek out the clients who aren’t utilizing those grants?
Some potential clients already have in-house grant writers, so it will be up to the agency to show how much more effective they could be with Assel Grant Services on the team.
The agency, Julie Assel said, is the only grant-consulting company in the country with five credentialed grant professionals on staff. She sits on the Grant Professionals Certification Institute board.
OUTSOURCING TO EXPERTS
The Assels spend a lot of time telling clients the benefits of outsourcing grant writing. Conversely, ScaleUP! showed the Assels just how important it was for them to outsource, too. That’s especially true with accounting, payroll and some other specialized business procedures, Thomas Assel said.
“We’re outsourcing the things that aren’t our passion and aren’t our expertise,” he said.
ScaleUP! provided speakers who offered solid evidence for hiring strong accounting professionals. The ScaleUP! experts also spelled out detailed plans to stay on top of that information even while outsourcing it to others.
“ScaleUP! actually reinforced that idea of not being afraid of hiring out the work that you don’t want to do yourself,” he said.
The diverse line of ScaleUP! speakers also forced the Assels to focus more on the bottom line and billable hours. That will help improve the overall health of the business’s short-term and long-term goals.
NO MORE ‘FEAR OF GROWTH”
The company’s writers have helped agencies throughout the country secure more than $129 million in grant awards since 2007. Metro Lutheran Ministry, which serves the poor and homeless in Kansas City, is one of those agencies.
“I started off 12 years ago writing all of the grants myself, so I have a keen appreciation for the complexity and the language we need to use for our funder community,” said Jim Glynn, the agency’s executive director. “They have followed through in a much more professional and comprehensive technical way than I was able to.”
The agency is thorough, timely, precise and offers gold-standard services, Glynn said. Its success, he said, happens in part because of its values: It’s not simply about business. The Assels understand how critical the grants are to the community.
“It really helps if the contractor embraces the mission of the organization for whom they’re contracting,” Glynn said.
Keeping the clients’ priorities top of mind didn’t happen by accident, Julie Assel said.
“As a former teacher myself, I want to see people grow,” Julie Assel said.
She started writing grants for Kansas City Public Schools and later started contracting for services. It was clear almost immediately
that her skills were in high demand. She could relate to clients because she had walked in their shoes. That’s an essential part of the company’s culture that the Assels will maintain as they expand and seek new markets.
ScaleUP! pushed them to codify those values in a company handbook, which will communicate those personal values in a
clear and fixed tool.
That’s a critical step, given that the Assels see a time when they will go from 10 employees to 100. They already work in several states but hope to expand further.
“I think that ScaleUP! has really removed some of the fear of growth. It has encouraged us not just to think in terms of adding a person here or there,” Thomas Assel said, “but to truly talk about scaling instead of just growth.”