In a world that’s being consumed by fast-changing software, how do you remain a relevant source of extraordinary value over the course of 20, 30, or more years?
If you’re in the world of software/tech, as many of my clients are, you’ll feel protected from tech-driven change — for a while, anyway — because you’re part of what’s driving the change. Then one day, you notice the reduced lead flow. Or new forms of rate pushback. Your business has slowed because new skills are now valued, and yours are becoming out of date. What’s ironic is that other parts of your own profession — software development — are responsible for slowly putting you, a software developer, out of work.
If you’re outside the world of software/tech, as some of my clients are, you’ll feel threatened by this change. Your ability to create value will feel undermined by the encroachment of software and tech more broadly.
In both cases, the solution is the same: shift your means of value creation away from skills and towards expertise — specifically expertise that combines tech/software with vertical-specific insight or meaningful insight into a problem domain.
Attempted innovation that is based on a pure software model and is lacking in domain-specific experience fails almost every time. Theranos is a recent high-profile example of this kind of failure. Theranos failed along the technical axis because its efforts were not grounded in sufficient domain-specific expertise. The securities fraud and toxic culture where merely a bonus form of failure along a different axis.
Attempted innovation from within a vertical or company also often fails or underperforms due to lack of outside tech expertise. The credit union I bank with has a mobile app, but it flat out sucks because they haven’t recruited the right kind of outside tech expertise to help them design and build the app.
In both cases, innovation works better when you combine the transformative potential of software/tech with domain-specific insight. Consultants who understand how to leverage the power of technology within the context of a specific vertically or horizontally-defined specialization win. They help their clients win. They win over the course of a long, durable career that’s relatively immune to the fluctuations of technology.
I’m very long on the careers of people who cultivate this specific kind of expertise.
My approach to helping folks cultivate this kind of career is based on three pillars: habits, speculative research, and experiential learning.
How do ordinary people accomplish extraordinary things?
For me and others I’ve worked with, we develop a habit of daily production. It might look like publishing in a way that deepens your expertise. It might look like investing in research in a way that doesn’t take you away from client work. Or it might look like some other challenge that you face on a daily or near-daily basis.
The key is embracing habit formation that’s aligned with building long-term career capital and generously, frequently sharing the results of your work.
How do outsiders gain insider status?
I often say — only partially tongue in cheek: unfortunately, you’re in a relationship business. The importance of trusting relationships is absolutely foundational to even an expertise-driven consulting business.
However, the right kind of expertise can jump-start the trust that’s a necessary to getting great client work. A brain surgeon does not need to woo or gradually build trust with a future patient who is suffering from a life-threatening brain tumor. The relevance and depth of their expertise builds the needed trust, and the urgency of the patient’s health situation accelerates the speed with which this trust is built.
You can speculatively invest in lean, scrappy research to collect and interpret a data set in a way that makes you the “brain surgeon” your clients need, partially bypassing the need to painstakingly build a network or key relationships that give you access to great client work.
How do you translate advice about marketing into successful marketing?
There’s a ton of bullshit advice out there on the topic of marketing. And there’s an even larger body of offensively bad marketing that gets executed as a result.
Yet, if I give you a simple challenge, combined with a few ground rules, you’ll do incredibly good marketing every single time. For example:
- Challenge: Find at least 10 people who will willingly join an email list you’ve set up.
- Ground rule #1: Invite them to join your list in a way that would make you feel good if you were on the receiving end of that invitation.
- Ground rule #2: Measure your success not using any sort of “opt in rate” or “conversion rate” but instead measure your success based on the relevance of the people who join. In other words, do your 10 (or more) email list members find what your work highly relevant to their needs?
Of course, you’ll have to solve for a large number of variables about exactly how to execute on this challenge, and you’ll have to face a nontrivial amount of fear as you do so, but… and this is a hugely significant “but”… you will figure out how to do marketing in a way that you feel good about, you’ll figure out how to do it in a way that’s compatible with your personality, and you’ll own what you’ve learned. Additionally, you’ll address their most risky part of your learning curve in a relatively low-stakes, low-cost context (ask me sometime about the client who came to me after dropping $10k on a useless done-for-you “marketing funnel in a box” service and did it right with my help which, critically, involved no “funnel” at all.).
OUTCOMES OF THIS APPROACH
The outcomes of my approach — again, combining habits, speculative research, and experiential learning — will create several sources of power in your business. You can think of these as raw power, or you can think of them as efficiencies that help you lower the cost of sale and increase profitability:
- Knowing who you need to reach
- Using scrappy methods to bootstrap early lead generation
- Having a point of view (PoV)
- Articulating that PoV effectively in your lead generation
- Cultivating deep expertise
- Formalizing your expertise into IP
Not all of these show up immediately. We always begin with #1 and #2 unless you’re already past that point.
But over time, all of these 6 sources of power flow from the simple approach I advocate, and they lead to a successful business and career.
Along the way, you must be willing to face the discomfort that comes from social risk, you must be willing to patiently invest hard work into your business, and you must avoid flinching in the face of uncertainty and short-term threats. If you’re willing to pony up these to precious emotional resources, you’ll be rewarded with a business that is much less susceptible to the ups and downs of the economy and much more financially and emotionally rewarding than any other path I know of.
MORE ABOUT PHILIP
I’ve spoken and written online about specialization, positioning, lead generation, and expertise enough that it’s difficult for me to compile a complete, accurate list. So let’s both let Google do that job for us here:
My work on specialization, cultivating expertise, and monetizing IP helps independent consultants thrive.
I have helped thousands of indie consultants use specialization to find a beachhead that leads to greater visibility, profitability, expertise, and success.
I’m also fascinated by those who cultivate valuable self-made expertise outside the narrow confines of the licensed professions, and I construct group challenges and experiential learning experiences that help my clients cultivate this kind of expertise.
I was born in the US Virgin Islands and have been searching my whole life, without satisfaction, for a commercial ginger beer that matches the fiery home-brewed ginger beer I tasted there.
After living in 28 different houses in 5 states and the aforementioned US territory, I seem to be settling down in Taos, New Mexico with an incredibly understanding wife and two ragdoll cats.
I enjoy hiking, snowshoeing, black and white photography, and building horn and open-baffle speaker systems.
Reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org