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Chapter 4: A Model for Visibility

As we explore how earning visibility works, we're going to need a model to organize what we're seeing. When we look at the world of indie consultants who have succeeded at earning visibility, we see:

  • People who have effortlessly earned visibility (i.e., though not an indie consultant, Matt Cutts is a great example).

  • People who have focused on a platform (I've called them platformers).

  • People who have figured out how to use external infrastructure to earn visibility.

  • People who have built their own infrastructure for earning visibility.

We'll base our model on #2–4, because #1 is not a controllable, repeatable approach to earning visibility. Methods 2–4 are repeatable things any indie consultant can choose to do.

If you look at enough examples of indie consultants using a narrow focus to get better at earning visibility, you'll see five ways of focusing grouped into three categories:

  1. Vertical

  2. Market Vertical

  3. Audience

  4. Horizontal

  5. Pure Horizontal

  6. Platform

  7. Service Specialization

Let's pile up the definitions we need right here so we can quickly get through them and on to more enjoyable and important stuff.

Wikipedia has a useful starting point definition I'll just borrow:

A vertical market  is a market in which vendors offer goods and services specific to an industry, trade, profession, or other group of customers with specialized needs. An example could be software that manages services in hotels—amenities solutions. It is distinguished from a horizontal market  in which vendors offer a nonspecific, broad range of goods and services to a large group of customers with a wide range of needs, such as businesses as a whole, men, women, households, or, in the broadest horizontal market, everyone.

That's pretty good! Wikipedia is talking about pure  market verticals and pure market horizontals. Market verticals and horizontals can range from incredibly narrow to quite broad. Within the seemingly narrow market vertical of "crushed and broken limestone mining and quarrying" (1,034 companies of this kind in the U.S.), there are 15 subcategories ranging from "agricultural limestone mining and/or beneficiating" to "riprap, limestone, mining, or quarrying." And, of course, there are very broad market verticals like "retail," "finance," and "education."

It's very informative to take a trip to  and cruise around long enough to get a sense of the market verticals landscape. You'll be surprised how many there are that you've never even thought about.

An audience  is a group of people or businesses that share something important in common. This shared problem, need, or goal is important enough that it causes the audience to connect and gather at online communities or in-person events. The fact that an audience gathers  in some way makes them function like a pseudo vertical, and so both pure market verticals and audiences function as verticals.

I've discussed platforms already. To quickly recap, platforms are "things"—often, but not always, products—that a lot of businesses use and need help understanding, planning for, implementing, operating, extending, supporting, fixing, optimizing, and upgrading. A platform specialization  is when an indie consultant provides services mostly or exclusively specialized in a certain platform.

A pure horizontal specialization  is when you specialize in solving a specific problem or applying a specific form of expertise and you do not much care which business vertical or audience your clients come from. A client of mine helps start-ups craft a strategic narrative to improve employee alignment and velocity of innovation. His clients range from tech start-ups in the Seattle area to cosmetics brands that have just been absorbed into a larger conglomerate. He is a great example of a horizontal specialization.

Service specialization  is where you specialize your service delivery. This is often synonymous with productization (where you standardize the scope and pricing of your services) or, more specifically, innovative service productization where you standardize your scope in a unique way that's attractive to a narrow spectrum of clients.

One of my favorite examples of service specialization is Worstofall Design [11] , which offers a one-day business branding service. The design of this productized service—along with how the service itself is branded—appeals to a narrow range of prospects, making the service more visible in the part of the market that is a good fit for the service.

A multidimensional specialization  is when you combine both vertical and horizontal specializations. In reality, most specializations are multidimensional, because a hypothetically pure vertical specialization would mean you provide every possible service from cleaning toilets to executive coaching to a single vertical, and no company is ever really that unfocused (or versatile!).

Good Examples of Specialization


12: Things change on the internet. The examples below omit URLs for that reason, but the list includes live URLs and internet archive snapshots for these examples and others.

A few examples will help you identify these various specialization approaches when you encounter them in the wild. These are drawn from a necessarily incomplete but still helpful list I maintain at . [12]

Pure Horizontal Focus:

  • Voltage Control : Designs sprint workshops

  • The M. Ryan Group : Inventory management

  • Maritz : Employee motivation

Platform Focus:

  • Dave Ceddia : React training

  • The Duckbill Group : AWS cost management

  • ABSYZ : Salesforce consulting

Pure Vertical Focus:

  • Hanno : Digital products for health and wellness

  • IndustrialFX : Digital marketing for manufacturing

  • Agrarian : Digital marketing for New Zealand-based agribusinesses

Audience Focus:

  • &Yet : A digital marketing and dev shop firm focused on "weird" businesses

  • Urban Planet : A dev shop focused on mission-driven organizations

  • Cher Hale : PR for social good-focused companies

There are lots of amazing companies that could have just as easily been on this list of examples. Again, see more at