Habits, speculative research, and experiential learning

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 Your business has slowed because new skills are now valued, and yours are becoming out of date.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.

Innovation failures

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.

Speculative research

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.

Experiential learning

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 ther 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:

  1. Knowing who you need to reach
  2. Using scrappy methods to bootstrap early lead generation
  3. Having a point of view (PoV)
  4. Articulating that PoV effectively in your lead generaation
  5. Cultivating deep expertise
  6. 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 succeptible to the ups and downs of the economy and much more financially and emotionally rewarding than any other path I know of.

Connect with Philip

I'm a generalist and need help deciding how to specializeI've specialized and am figuring out how to generate leadsI've figured out lead generation and I'm working on increasing profitabilityI'm focused on more advanced consulting challenges like developing intellectual propertyOther (please explain below)

More about Philip


I do not believe marketing is "whatever works". Instead, I operate from a distinct point of view regarding marketing:

  • Marketing is connecting and building trust with perspective clients, not persuasion.
  • Specialize. Orient to your specialization around people or an idea or a specific change you care deeply about.
  • Get good at connecting and building trust with prospective clients in socially risky situations.
  • Pursue organic word of mouth (WoM). Reject opportunities to pursue scale if they would work against your pursuit of WoM.
  • Use direct response methods until you can afford to use generous, helpful brand marketing methods.
  • Seek scrappy, opportunistic use of aggregators. Avoid relying on aggregators. If more than 20% of your leads come from a single aggregator, stop using that source cold turkey (if you're undisciplined), or if you are a  disciplined executor--develop and execute a 90-day lead concentration mitigation plan.
  • Every single thing you do is a filter for the kind of clients you want.
  • Build and leverage daily habits where possible to create a body of work. If you do nothing else, publish daily to an email list.
  • If you don't know what to talk about with prospective clients, ask about risk and/or whether they're up for a promotion this year.

My point of view implies that there are a few marketing skills that matter, and many that don't.

There are 8 skills that indie consultants must cultivate to become effective at marketing their services:

  • Formulating an argument or point of view (PoV) and publicizing that argument/PoV
  • Opportunistic use of aggregated channels (social media) without reliance on those channels
  • Email marketing
  • Identifying partners and building relationships with those partners
  • Speaking-as-lead-generation, either IRL, via online channels, or both
  • Self-direct learning and self-directed research
  • Community-building or...
  • Audience-building

My services help you cultivate these skills.

Words to Live By

  • The smaller your focus, the bigger it is.
  • Specialization is a voluntary narrowing that is in service of a future wider impact.
  • Your work is important.
  • List size is a vanity metric.
  • Profit over revenue.
  • Skill creates deliverables; expertise creates impact.
  • Your market position is a lagging indicator of the relevance and value of your specialized expertise.
  • Profit is a lagging indicator of impact.
  • Conversations first, automation later. Resist premature automation at all cost.
  • Sorry, but you’re in a relationship business. 🙂
  • Replace assumptions with data.
  • Expertise is both the cause, and the effect, of marketing done right.
  • Your marketing itself must be valuable.” - Gary Bencivenga
  • Give a shit. Be extravagantly generous yet focused with your shit-giving.
  • Do not make long-term financial decisions based on what is happening with a single client.
  • Skill satisfies; expertise delights.
  • "I am a walking affirmation that imagination and focus and patience gets you closer to your aspiration." - Black Thought
  • Your email list is a fractional distillery, not a retirement account.
  • Go first.
  • If your services business does not have a plan for innovation, then you're left competing on meeting spec or operational efficiency.
  • If you want KPI's for your marketing, count 1) people influenced by your thinking instead of site visits, 2) unsolicited forwards of your published thinking instead of social media followers, and 3) questions about your point of view instead of conversions. Google Analytics won't help here. Neither will Mixpanel. Only a real relationship with your audience will.

Around the Web

Podcast Guest Appearances

  2. Boutique Growth: The Power of Positioning and Specialization with Philip Morgan:
  3. Under the Radar: Episode 1: An interview with authority list builder Philip Morgan:
  4. Growth Hackers: Podcast: How Smart Positioning Can Make Your Marketing 10x Better:
  5. WP-Tonic: 163 Philip Morgan on Positioning Your Web Agency:
  6. Clients from hell podcast: What’s your favourite position?:
  7. Happy Porch Radio: Episode #4: The Challenges of Recurring Revenue with Philip Morgan:
  9. The Freelancer’s Show: and
  10. Nusii: Creative: A business podcast TCBP: EP04 FROM GENERALIST TO SPECIALIST WITH PHILIP MORGAN:
  11. Double your freelancing: The Business of Freelancing, Episode 22: Philip Morgan on Positioning:
  12. Hubstaff Agency Advantage: Agency Advantage 6: Philip Morgan on Commanding Premium Rates With Focused Positioning:
  13. Jake Jorgovan: 048: Finding development leads with Philip Morgan:
  14. Art of Value: How to Create Value Through Positioning with Philip Morgan – 084:
  15. Bootstrapped Web: [74] Effective Positioning with Philip Morgan:
  16. Buyer Insights: Find out how positioning can make you more money and deliver more value with Philip Morgan, Author of The Positioning Manual:
  17. UGurus: E23: Building a strong pipeline of clients with Philip Morgan:
  18. Developer on Fire: Episode 142 | Philip Morgan – Sharing Hard-Learned Lessons:
  19. The Startup Success Podcast: SSP 3.24 – Philip Morgan – The Positioning Crash Course:
  20. 100K Freelancing: 0118 – Positioning and Professional Value w/Philip Morgan:
  22. Unofficial Shopify Podcast: How To Kill it With Ecommerce Content Marketing:
  23. Duct Tape Marketing: Increase Profits Through Specialization with Philip Morgan:
  24. UI Breakfast Podcast. Episode 39: Positioning Your Services with Philip Morgan:
  25. Productize Podcast: How Smarter Positioning Helps You Grow (by Doing Less) with Philip Morgan:
  26. Freelance Transformation: FT 031: Positioning Your Consulting Business with Philip Morgan:
  27. Traffic and Leads Podcast: How to find your niche:
  28. Everyone Hates Marketers: How Smart Positioning Can Make Your Marketing 10x Better:
  29. Elusive Moose: Episode 26: Lead Generation with Philip Morgan:
  30. Simple Programmer: Philip Morgan identifies the niche to position in:
  31. CURTIS MCHALE: Positioning your business with Philip Morgan:
  32. BMI Podcast: BMI 029: Generating Leads on Autopilot with Content Marketing:
  33. Pricing Power: #41 – Philip Morgan – Get More Leads Without Hiring A Sales Person:

Articles, Mentions, & Guest Posts

Connect with Philip

I'm a generalist and need help deciding how to specializeI've specialized and am figuring out how to generate leadsI've figured out lead generation and I'm working on increasing profitabilityI'm focused on more advanced consulting challenges like developing intellectual propertyOther (please explain below)