Breaking Away from the Big Three: Expert Gavin Payne on the Future of Agile Work

Emily Crookston

At this point, we can all agree that the nature of work is changing rapidly. Due to a combination of shifting labor demographics, technological innovation, and evolving attitudes about what comprises work, more of the world’s top talent is boldly rejecting traditional career paths than ever before.

This transformation has created amazing new opportunities both for individuals and companies. The most innovative enterprises have started to focus on talent access, rather than talent acquisition, borrowing the right skills at the right time rather than trying to own those skills.

Rich Gardner, host of the Reimagining Work podcast powered by Catalant, explores this trend with special guest Gavin Payne, Founder and CEO of Payne Enterprises, an independent consulting firm. In this insightful conversation, adapted below, Rich and Gavin discuss everything from how large companies can take advantage of the new gig economy to what drove Gavin to leave a lucrative consulting position to create his own non-traditional trajectory.

Q | Tell us about yourself and your professional background.

I started out heading down a fairly traditional career path. I was a management consultant at Bain & Company for a total of five years. But, I took several ‘breaks’ along the way and felt continuously pulled in the direction of independence, exemplified early on when I deferred my original offer from Bain for over a year to work at a non-profit in China.

During one of my breaks, I enrolled at Harvard to pursue my MBA. After I graduated in 2015, I spent 6 months traveling around the world. I consulted for companies overseas and worked remotely to pay my way—which is actually how I discovered Catalant. Working on short-term projects through Catalant’s platform allowed me to dabble in independent consulting while not formally employed. This eventually drove me to leave Bain in early 2018, when I went all in on my non-traditional career path to start Payne Enterprises, LLC.

Q | Can you talk about the challenges your firm is brought in to solve and a recent consulting project you’ve worked on?

At Payne Enterprises, we specialize in high-quality diligence projects. These engagements typically take 2-4 weeks, in which time we compile research on a market or a company and present our findings to investors, primarily private equity firms, later-stage VCs, and hedge funds.

Not only is the work something that I deeply enjoy, but I believe that this new model for consulting offers clients the greatest value and is where the market is headed in the long-term. In partnership with Catalant, I am able to provide similar outcomes to those of big consulting firms at a far reduced cost. Using Catalant’s network, we can create a “decentralized diligence team” that is comprised of independent consultants and offshore resources. Given how available research services have become, we can easily tap into global expertise and streamline primary research. Finally, when these team members aren’t actively working on a larger project, we allocate our effort to other work, ensuring that clients aren’t responsible for underutilized time (which frequently happens at large firms).

One thing that private equity clients particularly value is our ability to modularize projects. If you need to complete one component of a diligence project first, our model allows you to do so. We can analyze a particular aspect of an asset, such as sizing up the market opportunity, without performing a full analysis from every angle. Large firms, on the other hand, often won’t disentangle one piece of a full engagement. On short notice, we can pull together a strong team with the precise skills needed for modularized work—basically, we offer the quality of a big firm using a more agile business model.

One recent project we completed was for a client looking at the travel space. We looked into business travel, did a deep dive on the Chinese market, built an integrated market model that sized, segmented and forecasted the hospitality market, and analyzed a number of potential adjacent markets. We had team members spread across two continents and multiple cities within the U.S., including programmers in India, business school students working part-time, and full-time employees. We were able to come together for this one-month period, integrating all of these component parts to deliver a high-quality product for the client. This project — and the invigorating feeling of running an agile team — has been the highlight of running Payne Enterprises so far.

Q | What were some of the drivers that led you to leave Bain & Co.?

While working at Bain, I believed that I had identified a large market opportunity that was not being addressed.  I firmly believe that you can leverage technology and emerging trends in how work is actually completed to disrupt the consulting market.  I wanted to be a part of that.

When I was traveling overseas after my MBA and needed extra money, I happened upon Catalant. This was back in 2015, when Catalant was fairly new. The experience I gained by working on projects took what I’d already been thinking about regarding disrupting the consulting market and elevated it, allowing me to see the market gap. I thought I could fill this gap with my flexible firm model, so I began developing the team and infrastructure to make it happen.

In addition to the market need, there were strong secondary drivers that made becoming a business owner and entrepreneur more attractive. The longer I remained at Bain, the less fulfilled I became. I came to value independence and autonomy when I was working on projects overseas, which was a large improvement over the lower level of ownership I had at Bain. I knew taking the non-traditional path would be a little lonelier and definitely riskier than working at Bain, but I believed there were significant reasons to take that risk. Bain, McKinsey, and BCG are mature, safe firms — but you can have far more control over your life and financial upside by founding your own firm. I’ve seen that already in my first six months. I also saw a lot of opportunities to grow as a leader if I went out on my own.

The ability to simultaneously move into a leadership role while gaining independence was huge for me. The path at Bain that I witnessed was fairly rigid; the managers and partners at big firms are on the road constantly, traveling up to four days per week. I like to travel occasionally, but I didn’t want to be on the road that much. I also just felt like the leadership opportunities at Bain were not as strong — convincing people to hire you, work for you, and partner with you is a completely different challenge when you have a website that only your family members have heard of!  I certainly feel more challenged and more fulfilled in both my professional and personal life with this “non-traditional career path”, and I also like not knowing where it is going to end up.

Q | Studies show that large enterprises are starting to think more deeply about how to become more agile. Is it surprising to you to hear that? 

It’s not surprising that companies have identified this as a crucial area of business development. Economic, demographic, and technological factors have all been contributing to the decentralization of work for years now, and there’s amazing opportunity to be gained by freeing people up from titles to collaboratively design their own careers. What will be difficult for huge enterprises is figuring out how to implement agility throughout an organization that has historically been siloed.

For good reason, large companies traditionally have needed a lot of structure and hierarchy. To run an organization with hundreds or thousands of employees, you need a lot of policies and rules. But this is antithetical to the kind of flexibility and agility the gig economy provides; so, the big challenge will be for large enterprises to figure out how to blend the gig economy workstyle with a more traditional structure. I think that the companies that do best actually implementing and taking action on this trend will do best overall in the long run.

Q | Have you seen strategies for developing that more agile model within large organizations that work?

My clients are mostly investors, so I don’t have a great view into the practices of large organizations. But, I have seen a trend towards divvying up projects across multiple business units and inviting people from non-traditional backgrounds to the table to work together.

I’ve seen my clients insisting upon this with the consulting firms they hire — but I haven’t seen too many organizations successfully blending cross-functional teams. The easiest way is to facilitate this kind of agility is by moving to a project-by-project model. This will free people up and give them more flexibility in their own career paths at firms without being tied to a specific department or pre-defined role. I also think this type of project-based work could motivate employees and help get better results.

Q | What are your predictions for what will come down the pike in 3-5 years’ time in the consulting industry?

People who are associated with companies, both internally and externally, will come together for more project-based work. This could look a lot like the model Payne Enterprises uses, where a team is created for the completion of a single project, then disbanded to make way for a new team on the next project. More companies will be moving to this model of using flexible, on-demand experts. We’ll also see continued growth in the percentage of workers who use platforms, like Catalant or 99Designs, to do their own work. People are already starting to get more comfortable working this way. That was the big bet I made when I founded my company — I can’t wait to see where we are in 5 years.

Key Takeaways 

As the nature of work continues to evolve, our concept of career success will continue to as well. What this means for individuals and companies is yet to be determined. The big question is: Are you ready to forge your own path or will you dig in your heels and watch the world pass you by?


This interview was adapted from an episode of the Reimagining Work podcast powered by Catalant. Guests on the podcast come together from across a variety of industries and disciplines to discuss how the nature of work is changing. From individuals choosing to work in ways considered ‘non-traditional,’ to companies redefining how they engage with talent, to thought leaders with views on the macro forces at play, host Rich Gardner facilitates conversations around dynamic topics for the future of work.