Alan Olsen

Standing Out From the Crowd

October 16, 2008

Case categories include: Marketing   

By Robert Sher

We humans like to put everything in its place.  Lawyers deal with the law, and behave seriously, like a judge.  Doctors deal with medicine, and they do it seriously. After all, our life is at stake.  And accountants deal with books and records, and they are quiet and serious, and care deeply about every penny.

But then there’s Alan Olsen, CEO of Greenstein, Rogoff, Olsen and Company, better known as Groco.  He and his firm are quite competent, but are NOT serious all the time.  Their marketing has caricatures of each team member all over it.  They have accounting joke videos on their website, and homespun, humorous commercials that run on cable television.

What a risk!  But the unusual strategy for a professional services firm is working.  The firm for years has handled the accounting for some of the Bay Area’s top venture capitalists, and after Alan took over as CEO and began the new marketing campaign, sales have been growing at a 30% annual rate.  Unusual tactics seem to be generating unusual results. 

Too many companies follow the party line.  If everyone else is sending e-newsletters, they follow along.  If everyone else acts self-important, they follow along.  But that’s a formula for keeping up with others, not surging ahead.  One of the powerful benefits of being in a diversified peer learning group like the Alliance of Chief Executives is that you hear about tactics employed in other industries that might be completely new to your industry. 

Alan became the CEO after one of the founding partners passed away unexpectedly.  It was twelve years after he had joined the firm at 30 years of age, and he decided that unless something changed, the firm would continue shrinking slowly as it had in recent years.  He realized that the reason quite a few mega-rich venture capitalists and entrepreneurs kept working with Groco year after year wasn’t because of the firm’s digs or the notion of formal, well dressed accountants working on their books, but because of their trust of Groco and their relationships with Alan and his highly skilled, team.

And Alan had never been a stuck-in-the-mud kind of guy.  A wry sense of humor and quick wit has always been a part of him, and his personal clients knew it and appreciated it.  So he decided to make that his differentiator.  He would parade who he was for all to see.  He had an artist draw caricatures of him and the staff, and he put that in his marketing materials in 2004.  He started to personalize the marketing literature and web site with his own photo, and photos of his team.

People like to do business with other people, not with organizations.  The first step is knowing who the people are, and photos are a great place to start.  Not just of the big boss, but others too.  Always try and avoid the corporate “we” whenever possible.  The “we” language (“We work for the betterment of all our clients, employees, and the world”) just isn’t really believable nowadays.  Once they know who the people are, the next goal is to get them to like you and your people.  You’re likable if they feel like they know you, if you make them laugh, if you can poke fun at yourself.  If they know you and like you, more often than not, they’ll talk to you, and you’ll have a chance to earn their trust.

So in 2005, long before You-Tube, Alan started making commercials.  As we all know now (but most of us still don’t use it) video is a powerful communication medium.  Viewers see your expressions, hear your voice, and get a much better feel for who you are than from seeing a print ad.  Alan’s commercials certainly each have a point, but you can see that he’s himself, hamming it up, having fun.  As the commercials and ads ran, prospective clients started calling.  They learned the kind of high profile, complex clients Groco has been serving for years.  They discussed their issues with Alan and his staff and found them well informed and professional. They began to trust them, at least enough to give them a chance.

Alan kept the commercials and newspaper ads running.  Sure, it brought in some unwanted callers, but they were screened out.  The ideal client for Groco has a personal net worth of 10 million and above, and in they came.  Since Alan took over as CEO, the firm has grown by four times.

Think twice about letting the world pigeon hole you or your company.  If you want your place to be at the front of the pack, you’ll need to figure out how to stand out from the crowd.

Robert Sher is principal of CEO to CEO, specializing in assisting CEOs and business leaders as they navigate critical passages.  He is the author of The Feel of the Deal; How I Built a Business through Acquisitions.  He may be reached at

1. Your marketing should not be just like your competition.  It should help you stand out from the crowd and catch your prospect’s eyes.  Think about the message, the medium, and the style.
2. Marketing with your people up front is a great way of making your message more personal, and giving the prospect the feeling that you want to develop a person to person relationship.
3. Building a connection with a prospect takes time. First they have to know you, then they have to like you, and lastly, they have to come to trust you.  Keep marketing running (with adjustments) over long periods of time.

Company and Case Facts:

Company: Groco
Person: Alan Olsen, CEO
Alliance Member since: 2007
Business Founded: 1964
Annual Sales Volume: 8 figures, in 2009.
Head Count: Approaching 100.
Service: Accounting services for high net worth individuals and their businesses.
Written: September, 2008
Address: 39159 Paseo Padre Parkway Ste 315, Fremont, CA 94538
Web Site:
Phone: 510-797-8661