S&C Story

The Original Business Idea: It Still Sustains Schaffer&Combs

Schaffer&Combs started in 2008 as an unusual meeting of minds. Nearly three months of intense conversation produced a fundamental business theory that has served our clients and our firm since.

The kernel of S&C’s original business idea was this: the keys to success for corporations, nonprofits and government agencies are not as different as most people think. The same fundamentals of culture, strategy, execution, and performance management apply equally in all of these sectors. Nonprofits need good strategy, operational business discipline, and internal accountability as much as the corporate sector does. Corporations interested in social or environmental responsibility require more rigorous ways of identifying, measuring, and communicating social and environmental changes that result from their work.

The Founders: A Circuitous Route to a Meeting of Minds

On paper, you might not have picked James Schaffer and Arthur Combs to find a lot of common professional ground. When the two met, they had taken circuitous routes to a battered wooden table in a San Francisco cafe.

James began his career in management consulting, transitioned into tech startups, and was enjoying the fruits of having sold his most recent company, Global Data Vault.

Arthur began his business career as a commodities broker, worked overseas in international development settings, served as CEO of a small application service provider, and had spent the previous decade back in the San Francisco Bay Area working mainly in the nonprofit sector.

The Decision to Hang out a Shingle

Arthur was noodling around with writing a book about what had come to frustrate him most in the nonprofit sector: a lack of outcomes measurement, or even shared definitions among grant-makers and grant-seekers of the most rudimentary elements of measuring results. He was tiring of feel-good projects supported by anecdote and attractive images.

James wanted take what he’d learned in the rough-and-tumble tech startup world, and apply it to his foundational understanding of business: valuation, talent, finance, sales, and project management. He was considering starting a small management consulting firm to serve Bay Area startups, providing the structure and business rigor that is so often lacking in that frenetic setting.

As Arthur tells the story, James Schaffer asked point blank, “Why do you want to write a book that twelve people will read? Why not do something about it?” As James tells the story, Arthur responded to his management consulting idea with this: “That would be good. You know what would be better? Offering those services to organizations that will use them to make real change.”

From Startup to Established Firm

When you found a firm in the depths of a Great Recession, you take the work you can get. And they did.

As the firm and its client base have grown, the work has demonstrated beyond doubt that the fundamentals apply in every sector. S&C has provided solutions for Fortune 500s, grassroots nonprofits, government agencies, startups, global trade associations, and some of the world’s largest NGOs.

It is an ingrained trait of the company and everyone in it to pursue improvement, in every engagement, in every process, every day. The professionals improve. The products improve. But we take a great deal of pride in the fact that our core founding idea has proved both robust and durable.