Bernard’s start-up woos partners

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In a bid to compete with established competitors, Robert Bernard is merging his new company, Form + Function Consulting Inc., with a larger consultancy and has entered a broad joint advisory deal with yet another firm.

Now the question is whether Chicago-based Form + Function can find enough billable hours to survive the grimmest consulting marketplace in a decade, or if it will meet the same fate as Bernard’s last e-business consultancy, now-defunct MarchFirst Inc.

Bernard founded Form + Function in May, a month after MarchFirst shut down. Late last month, Form + Function announced it was merging with Groundswell Inc., a Pleasanton, Calif.-based Internet consultancy more than twice its size.

Form + Function brings 30 employees to the merged firm and Groundswell brings 80. The company will retain the Form + Function name and be based in Chicago.

The making of a merger

The merger announcement came soon after Bernard, former chairman-CEO of MarchFirst, reached a co-marketing and advisory deal with Sysix Technologies L.L.C., a Westmont, Ill.-based software developer and consultancy.

Bernard said Berhman Capital, an investment advisory firm funding both Form + Function and Groundswell, introduced the two companies. He sought a merger because of Groundswell’s expertise in enterprise portal consulting and its West Coast presence. "It extends our client base, intellectual capital and coast-to-coast geographic extension," said Bernard, who will be the CEO of the merged firm.

Form + Function faces many challenges, not the least of which is Bernard’s connection to MarchFirst, a company indelibly linked to the excesses and burnouts of the b-to-b dot-com frenzy. Industry watchers suggested MarchFirst’s failure could taint potential clients’ perception of Form + Function—something Bernard disputes.

"MarchFirst is irrelevant to this," he said. "MarchFirst was a combination of the right services at the wrong time."

Expunging a ‘splotch’

Either way, Bernard’s professional reputation is riding on Form + Function’s success or failure. "What you see is a man on a quest to expunge that splotch [MarchFirst] from his record," said Tom Rodenhauser, CEO of Consulting Information Services L.L.C., an advisory firm. "The confidence will come from clients if Form + Function remains true to its focus."

Form + Function is seeking to market itself as a niche consultancy, focusing on customer relationship management, supply chain and portal projects for midsize manufacturers and consumer packaged goods companies. The firm plans to fly below the radar screen of the Big 5 consultancies by not competing directly for their clients, which are typically big companies, Bernard said.

Most of Form + Function’s marketing will be in the form of white papers and breakfast seminars, Bernard said. It’s a telling contrast to MarchFirst’s splashy, multimillion-dollar branding campaign, which drained its coffers and hastened its demise. "You want to conserve your cash versus spending your money in some marketing venues right now," Bernard said.

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