Category 1 Consulting: Utilizing Data to Build Positive Environments

At Category 1 Consulting, it all starts and ends with the desired impact. Specifically, for co-founders and principal consultants Amy McFeely and Sara Roberts, it’s about helping organizations use data and analyses to build positive environments.

“Is this an organization that wants us to come in and help them create a great work environment for their people, or is it somebody that wants us to come in and run analyses to figure out where they can cut costs,” Roberts said.

Data for Good

Before opening Category 1 Consulting (C1C), both Roberts and McFeely received their doctorates in industrial organizational psychology from the University of Nebraska Omaha. They were working at Conagra on its people insights team. As McFeely puts it, their task was to provide the human resources department with evidence-based data to inform policies.

When Conagra hired a new CEO and moved to Chicago their team was laid off as it “didn’t directly produce revenue.”

“At the time, it felt like the worst thing that could have ever happened because we loved our jobs and we loved the team we had built,” Roberts said. “Now I look back, and I think that layoff was the best thing that ever happened.”

After interviewing with multiple companies, they decided to fast-track their 10-year plan and open their consulting practice.

“It’s not that there weren’t organizations that would have hired us … when we were at Conagra we were partnering with Google, Starbucks, and FedEx,” Roberts said.

“But we would have conversations about what they wanted to use the data for and it would be to maximize profits and cut costs. That’s not why we got the degree that we did. We wanted to do something good, to have a positive impact.”

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Answering Questions

Nowadays the team of six works with a variety of organizations, but primarily foundations, nonprofits, and government entities. About 50% of their work falls within the research and evaluation scope.

For example, McFeely said a nonprofit might receive a grant and need an external source to evaluate the implementation and impact.

The second area of practice is planning and facilitation.

“Say an organization has a huge decision to make and they need the data, the buy-in, to do that,” McFeely said. “We’ll facilitate the process of making that decision and creating a plan to implement the decision.”

The last practice area is organizational effectiveness, essentially making sure that processes that are in place internally are effective.

“Although we focus on research and evaluation, planning, facilitation, and organizational effectiveness always get woven in,” McFeely said. “It almost always spans across all three practice areas.”

Leading by Example

While there is merit to building a more balanced practice, the duo said it’s a conscious decision to keep the bulk of the work in research and evaluation.

“We’ve had conversations with our team members, and that is the area that people like to do the most,” McFeely said. “I feel like that’s the best use of our skills.”

This kind of input is not unusual for the team; team members are often invited to take part in major decisions and meet monthly to go over metrics such as customer satisfaction, billable breakdowns, and revenue targets.

“We do democratic decision-making,” Roberts said. “The decision to stay entirely remote, even after COVID-19, was a group decision.”

The team also recently voted to include parental leave and extended leave policies.

“We’re small, but we can figure out how to make it work,” Roberts said.  “We not only want people to stay with C1C, but we want to make sure they’re able to have a high quality of life outside of work.”

For their part, both Roberts and McFeely said they are content where they are.

“I think in the past I was focused on growth, and how do we build this and make it bigger,” Roberts said. “I think maybe that’s not as important to me now.”

McFeely echoed the same sentiment, adding “We just enjoy doing the work so much, and the bigger you get the more administrative your role gets.”

What is your advice for an aspiring entrepreneur?

Amy McFeely, co-founder, Category One Consulting

You have to really want it. There isn’t, I think, a way to just do a little on the side to make some extra money. I think that unless you are 100% sure it’s going to make things a lot harder. You have to commit to it. I can understand not being 100% confident about it. But you have to commit to doing it, more than full time in most cases; because to start a business and learn all the things you need to know, to start the sales process and meet the people that you need to meet, to keep those things going, to keep the relationships going to keep the business going, you need to be all in. 

Sara Roberts, co-founder, Category One Consulting

Make sure the reason you’re doing it is something long-term and sustainable. If you’re just doing it because you hate your current job, and you don’t want a boss anymore, that’s not a good reason. We have more bosses now than we ever had before — [we’re accountable to] every client, every employee.