Grant Thornton BLAST aims high

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B-to-b start-up executives often display as much financial recklessness as they do techno wizardry. Indeed, slapdash spending kills as many dot-coms as does redundant software. Grant Thornton L.L.P., the Chicago-based professional services company, plans to help start-ups get their financial and business strategies in order so that they are truly able to make a go of it.

The company this month introduced Business Launch and Acceleration Services for Technology Cos., an advisory package that gives start-ups access not only to Grant Thornton’s bean counters, but also to its e-business and management strategy consultants.

Grant Thornton’s Big 5 competitors have long offered similar services, but usually at rates that burn through a start-up’s coffers as quickly as a launch party featuring the Backstreet Boys. Sometimes the deals are structured as equity-for-payment schemes that can leave dot-com executives fretting at their loss of control and consultants wishing they’d demanded real money in the first place. What makes Grant Thornton’s offering unique is that it is providing BLAST for a sum nearly any dot-com can afford—$15,000 for a 12-month period.

Grant Thornton executives are not planning to profit from BLAST, at least in the short term, said partner Mike Hartley, who oversees the program.

BLAST is basically a relationship marketing tool for Grant Thornton. The idea is that by providing accounting and consulting services on the cheap, Grant Thornton will cultivate successful future clients that will one day be able to pay standard fees.

"We hope that entrepreneurs see that we’re very serious about helping early-stage companies," Hartley said. "The benefit to us, if the start-up gets venture-backed, we’re back on standard rates."

Potential payoff

BLAST is a bold move that will either pay off big for Grant Thornton or be a drag on its consultants—or perhaps both. "It’s an interesting but risky approach. We know how many of these start-ups fail," said Kevin Knox, research director at GartnerConsulting. "But they’ll certainly get a lot of attention for it. And they’ve found a niche in the market-place. A lot of these [dot-com executives] have cool technologies but don’t know the first thing about finance."

Grant Thornton’s advisers are offering help in three areas through BLAST: accounting and financial help, such as tax, stock option and employee benefit plans; IT consulting services, such as Web security, marketing and Internet strategy; and capital markets programs, for example, introducing start-ups to venture capitalists.

The company is taking on BLAST clients through recommendations from its network of VCs, business partners and sophisticated angel investors. This will create a vetting process that will assure it promising clients. "It’s a vehicle to attract quality companies," Hartley said.

Grant Thornton, meanwhile, will retain clients by providing them access to experienced consultants and accountants. "They aren’t a group of three-year CPAs out of university," Hartley said. "These are people with significant experience in capital markets and technology companies."

Consultancies are increasingly being taken to task for sending out green advisers who know technology cold but have scant understanding of business.

BLAST underscores Grant Thornton’s effort to distinguish itself from the Big 5. The company is getting a buzz for its entrepreneurial focus, and technology and finance acumen. Indeed, it is forgoing some of its work with big clients to focus on smaller customers. In November, it sold its e-business consulting arm, which had primarily done tech implementation projects for Fortune 2000 corporations.

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