Skip to content

Chapter 6: The Importance of Thinking in Terms of Beachheads

How do we earn visibility for our business?

Well, at one level, we decide we want  to do it, make a few decisions about how , and then implement those decisions. Simple!

The world, however, is a very large and complex place. To use a WWII metaphor, we are attempting to liberate Europe from the Axis armies, but taking on the whole continent all at once is impossible. We need a beachhead.

Specializing is choosing a beachhead, and almost all indie consultants who have become very visible to their prospects have specialized in some way.

The North American Industry Classification System (NAICS) [17]  is a good high-level map of the business world's terrain. It divides the world of business into top-level categories (i.e., Finance and Insurance, NAICS code 52), subcategories (i.e., Insurance Carriers, code 5241), and sub-subcategories (i.e., Reinsurance Carriers, code 524130).

There are 20 top-level categories and 422 bottom-level sub-subcategories. The bottom-level sub-subcategories range in size from eight establishments (Household Laundry Equipment Manufacturing) to 246,888 (Full-Service Restaurants) establishments. A graph of how many there are of each kind of business looks like this:

The detail of this graph is not very useful (that’s why it’s printed so small), but the overall distribution is interesting because it resembles a power law/long tail distribution.

The Right Size Beachhead

David C. Baker offers some well-researched guidelines for market size for small to mid-size professional services firms. [18]  A market with fewer than 2,000 prospective clients is too small; one with more than 10,000 is too large.

  • 105 bottom-level NAICS categories fit David's right-size range (25 percent of the 422 sub-subcategories)

  • 47 are too large (11 percent)

  • 270 are too small (64 percent)

Of the sub-subcategories that are too small, many are subsets of a logical grouping that would not  be too small to focus on. For example, Semiconductor and Related Device Manufacturing is a sub-subcategory with 863 establishments. Too small, but it is a subset of a group that includes PCB manufacturing, PCB assembly, and a few other related sub-subcategories. Grouping these together under the label Electronic Component Manufacturing makes sense and gets us focused on a sufficiently large market—a right-sized beachhead.

When you are defining a beachhead by grouping businesses together like this, what matters is not how you see the market, but how the market sees itself . Do semiconductor manufacturers see themselves as part of the same corner of the business ecosystem as PCB manufacturers and assemblers? Do they all identify with the same “extended business family”? If so, great, your label makes sense to them. If it doesn't, they'll see you as an out-of-touch outsider, which won't help you earn visibility from them.

The error most of us make when thinking about a beachhead is to misunderstand its role. The beachhead's role is not to provide 30 years’ worth of opportunity to your business. To return to our WWII metaphor, the role of Normandy was not to contain and support the entire Allied invading army.

The role of a beachhead is to help you build up access and momentum that you can use to achieve a larger strategic goal. When you specialize to get better at earning visibility, you are choosing both a way of focusing (your larger strategic goal) and a way of building up access and momentum (your beachhead). The beachhead needs to be connected to the larger strategic goal, but the beachhead is just the beginning of a process that takes you to the larger goal.

Don't confuse your beachhead with your ultimate business goal.

Beachheads Are Not Face Tattoos

Beachheads are not permanent. The Allied armies did not invade Normandy, build some fortifications against the Axis armies still occupying the European continent, and then start roasting victory marshmallows on the beach.

Likewise, your decision about how to specialize—your "visibility beachhead"—is not a face tattoo; it is not permanent, especially in the early days.

A specialization is a decision about where and how you will focus your business. Eventually, a consistent specialization will become a reputation ; the market will start to think of you in terms of your specialization. In the world of services, this is known as a market position .


19: “How much is enough,” you ask? That's an unanswerable question; you just know when it happens because you feel it , and it tends to happen faster than you think it will after you decide to specialize and start implementing the decision.

If enough [19]  of the market thinks of you as focused on a certain market vertical, a certain horizontal (problem or platform), or a certain kind of service, then you have a market position.

Just like a reputation, your market position exists within the minds of those in the market. We do not live in the world depicted in the movie The Matrix , so it's not possible to "install" your reputation in every mind in the market all at once. It takes time, and those minds sometimes need repeated exposure to the same idea for your business to solidify into a stable, long-lasting memory.


20: This longer timeline is one of the big differences between specialization/positioning in the context of a small services business and positioning a commodity-like service or product. Products often use scaled impersonal outreach (paid advertising) to quickly establish their reputation/position within the minds of the market, and often require a much larger market in order to succeed.

For most consultants, this process of building up the hundreds or thousands of memories that underlie a reputation/market position takes years. [20]  In years one and two of this process, you have some latitude to experiment with how you've specialized. Those early experiments and tweaks to your specialization don't threaten to undo years of reputation/market position-building work that you've done because . . . you haven't been doing that work for years yet.

Specialization never precludes making changes to your business. In fact, specialization generally leads to more power or profitability in your business, and that means you can make future changes from a position of greater strength.

Specialization is not a face tattoo where if the tattoo artist is having a bad day, you get to live with that for the rest of your life. Later on, after you have built up the asset of a good market position, you will naturally be more thoughtful and reserved about making changes, but early on in the process, you have a lot of latitude to experiment and see how the market responds.

Beachheads Are Not Monastic Vows

I once spent a weekend at the Abbey of Gethsemani near Bardstown, Kentucky where Thomas Merton was a member for 27 years, but I don't really know what it's like to live as a monk.

I do know that many fear that specializing will be like taking the vows of a monastic order and that it will be a life of profound renunciation and monotony. If this person is an employee, there is a small chance they are right. If this person is self-employed, there is a 99 percent chance they are wrong.


21: If ever an actual monk reads this book, let me assure you I believe that monastic life is very rich and rewarding for those who practice it. I'm using the popular view of it as a convenient example rather than actually commenting on actual monastic life, which again, I don't have firsthand knowledge of.

Specializing is not a commitment to monotony. It is, to an extent, a repudiation of chasing shiny objects and unprofitable distractions, but it is not a commitment to boredom. [21]

I'll elaborate on this in Section 2, but for now, I'll just claim that specialization is more interesting than operating as a generalist. It is not a monastery for business owners with face tattoos.

The Basics of Choosing a Beachhead

Specialization helps you earn visibility. Choosing a beachhead helps you build up the access and momentum needed to successfully specialize. So how do you choose a beachhead?

There are many reasons you might choose a particular beachhead:

  • What's going to produce results quickly?

  • What's going to get you to the place you want to be long-term?

  • Maybe that's defined in terms of impact

  • Maybe that's defined in terms of what lets you be of service to those you care about

  • Maybe you seek fame

  • Maybe you seek self-cultivation or personal transformation through your work

  • What's going to avoid overwhelming you with a visibility-earning learning curve you're not ready for?

  • What's going to be an enjoyable-enough specialization for you?

  • What's going to be a lucrative specialization for you?

  • What's going to be a low-risk, long-lasting specialization that lets you settle into simply doing the work you want to do?

There are more reasons, but those are the most common ones.

If your view is that an indie consulting business is a way to make the most amount of income you can while working for yourself, then you'll choose your specialization beachhead on that basis. And I'll celebrate that. If you view your business as a way to get the maximum enjoyment from your working hours, then that will influence how you choose a beachhead. And I'll celebrate that too.

One of the gifts of working as an independent consultant is freedom from the kind of structure and control found in other professions. The price is working harder to earn visibility, but once we've paid the fare for this particular trip, why not enjoy it?

Why not choose a beachhead based on what gives you some access and momentum that you can build on to create the kind of business you  want?