Insight for Independent Consultants

I’d like to help you thrive as an indie consultant

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    Conversational Tics

    Too many of you undermine your intelligence in conversational settings. I’ve seen this across all genders.

    Here’s how it usually goes:

    “SOMETHING SMART, SOMETHING THOUGHTFUL, SOMETHING RELEVANT, but that’s just my opinion. I might be wrong.”



    Here’s an easy self-improvement exercise. Whenever you’re in a conversation, pay extra attention to the last thing you say in a statement. Pay attention to the end.

    Do you say something that weakens or dilutes your point?

    Do you undermine your own credibility or authority?

    If you’re gonna do it, I’ve noticed the end of a statement is where you’ll tend to smuggle the self-undermining part.

    You’re too smart, too thoughtful, and too generous to reduce the impact of what you say by doing this.

    So pay attention.

    And then cut it out!


    I’m working on the workshop and TEI calendar for Fall/Winter 2020. I’ve recently simplified the workshop lineup, you might want to check it out:

    Value proposition stress-test

    Does this feel like a threat to your business?

    - Experiential marketing learning for independent consultants


    If you’re not a mobile app developer, imagine for a moment that you are, and AWS has come out with a “build mobile apps without writing code” product.

    Does it feel like a threat to your business?

    Whatever your answer, don’t stop there. Continue on to ask yourself: “why does/doesn’t this feel like a threat to my business?”

    And if you’re not a mobile app developer, imagine that some 800 pound gorilla in your space has automated or made into a digital product some part of what you do for your clients.

    Does it feel like a threat to your business?

    The sorta-okay-for-now answer is this: “Pffft. Those no-code app builders always suck. Native apps are always better.”

    The ideal answer is this: “No. In fact, it makes my life easier because I don’t have to do that by hand any more. It frees me up to focus on the important stuff.”

    This excerpt from the third edition of The Positioning Manual is relevant:

    Entrepreneur – Craftspeople Spectrum

    There’s another way to generalize human motivation that’s a bit more specific to creative professionals (which includes software developers). It’s another over-simplified spectrum.

    On one end are the entrepreneurs. There are lots of definitions of entrepreneur, but for services businesses I prefer to think of an entrepreneur as one who decouples their income from the time they spend working on client deliverables. You can do this in a variety of ways, not all of which require building a team where you leverage other people’s time. There are plenty of entrepreneurial businesses with one person doing all the value creation and delivery, but in a way where much of that value creation is de-coupled from their time.

    On the other end of this spectrum are the craftspeople. They love their craft above almost everything else. They might be heard saying “if only I could spend all my time on $CRAFT…”. Or alternately, when asked what’s special about their business, their response centers almost completely on their abilities as a craftsperson.

    It’s tempting to elevate one of these types above the other, but that would be completely unfair and arbitrary. It takes both types for modern society to function and thrive. Both types can make excellent business owners. Both types can become successful specialists who build wonderful market positions. And neither type is more likely to have a better or more satisfying career.

    That said, entrepreneur types will usually be more flexible about how they structure their business, while craftspeople will likely be less flexible. Entrepreneurs will be less constrained by the current realities of the market — because they’re more focused on future value creation — while craftspeople will sometimes be more constrained by current market realities. This has real implications for how you choose to specialize.

    If you’re on the craftsperson end of this spectrum, you face two constraints, and certain combinations of those constraints can present a very difficult obstacle to successfully specializing.

    Let’s start exploring this using this diagram, which I often use as a one-picture explanation of how specialization works.

    - Experiential marketing learning for independent consultants

    The entrepreneur has a very large Stuff They Can Do circle, because they tend to be aware of how easily acquired skill is^[Skill is easily acquired because it’s modularized, and easily rented or acquired through just-in-time learning.], so they’ll tend to start with the Stuff Clients Need circle, figure out what clients value and is rare on the supply side of the market, and gravitate there. Thus, they’ll define Stuff They Can Do based on Stuff Clients Will Pay Top Dollar For. They’ll start on the left side of that diagram and move to the right in order to build a business model.

    - Experiential marketing learning for independent consultants

    The craftsperson approaches things from right to left on this diagram. They tend to assume that Stuff They Can Do is fixed and difficult to change, and the Stuff They Can Do is constrained by their current skill as a developer, designer, artist, writer, etc. They can easily imagine increasing that skill (going deeper into it or expanding it), but they can less easily imagine building up an entirely different skill, especially one that has been dictated by marketplace demand.

    For many craftspeople, their skill is part of their identity as a person. It’s a fundamental part of how they see themselves as someone who is a contributing member of society.

    This is the first constraint craftspeople face. They’re relatively firmly attached to their current definition of Stuff They Can Do, and changing it can feel like a crisis of identity, or a major reinvention of self.

    The second constraint is the market (this is the Stuff Clients Need circle on my diagram). You have even less control over what the market wants. In fact, it’s healthiest to simply believe that you have zero control over what the market wants. We’ll assume you have no control over what the market wants, and that’s just the way things are. All you can do is:

    • Understand what the market currently wants
    • Try to predict what it will want soon
    • Guess what it wants, doesn’t know it wants, but would definitely want if you invented it for them

    There definitely are situations where for a given person, there is no overlap at all between the Stuff Clients Need and the Stuff You Can do circles. In this situation, if you’re completely inflexible about changing the size, shape, or position of the Stuff You Can Do circle, what you have is a standoff — an irresolvable conflict — and I can’t imagine building a successful business under those conditions.

    For the craftspeople reading this, I want to soften the above with a few really interesting examples of craftspeople who would seem to be in that standoff situation but have made it work.

    Ross MacDonald specializes in making paper movie props. The copy of A Farewell to Arms that Bradley Cooper’s character in A Silver Linings Playbook throws through the window? Ross MacDonald made that prop. The Pawnee Charter that appears at various places in Parks & Rec? MacDonald made that too, in addition to thousands of other paper movie props. This guy’s an amazing craftsperson, and he’s made specialization work for him.

    Sean McCabe started his business with a surprisingly successful course on hand lettering. I don’t know the guy at all, but he sure looks from the outside like an entrepreneurial craftsperson, because he’s cultivated significant skill in multiple crafts (hand lettering, podcasting, writing, internet marketing) and turned each of those into courses that he sells and seems to make good money selling.

    The takeaway is this: there are many surprising and wonderful examples of craftspeople who have made a business out of their unusual and specific skill. And maybe that could be you! But do be warned that your dedication to your craft can be both an asset in some specialization scenarios or it can be a liability that prevents you from specializing at all.^[It’s worth noting that this entrepreneur-craftsman analogy breaks down entirely if you think of entrepreneurs as craftspeople whose craft is the business they are building. This dissolves any difference between these two types. The analogy is still valuable, this edge case notwithstanding.]

    Bringing this all back to risk: if you are pretty far towards the pure craftsperson end of the spectrum, you will perceive the entrepreneurial aspects of self-employment as quite risky because they threaten your identity. For example, a “pure entrepreneur” would likely see all of the following sea changes as opportunities they could take advantage of. In fact, each of the changes I’ll list below are a key part of a real, successful business model, an example of which I’ve shown in parentheses:

    • The commoditization of WordPress skill (WPCurve)
    • The commoditization of design skill (99designs)
    • The commoditization of writing skill (AudienceOps)
    • The absolute glut of people wanting to build a digital startup and the glut of overseas software development talent that’s qualified to help (Rootstrap has productized the early stages of digital product design — from concept to wireframes+pitch deck — and leverages an offshore team to profitably offer development services to primarily American clients.)
    • The rise of tools like Squarespace that commoditize web design (Knapsack Creative and Worstofall Design use these tools to deliver “website/brand in a day” services.)

    For each of these sea changes in the marketplace there are craftspeople who suffer real financial and emotional damage, and there are entrepreneurs who leverage the exact same change into a great business. The different outcome is more a result of mindset than anything else. For the entrepreneur, everything can be an opportunity.

    If you are a pure craftsperson and feel rigidly attached to that identity, your specialization options will be limited, and you may be better off pursuing other ways of improving your business. Partially productizing the pricing and delivery of your craft is one such option.


    I’m working on the workshop and TEI calendar for Fall/Winter 2020. I’ve recently simplified the workshop lineup, you might want to check it out:


    That’s one heck of a vision you’ve got there, Simon!

    Democratising business strategy.

    Freeing us from the need for management consultants.

    Even if I was a management consultant, I’d love it. I do love it.

    I love the way it describes a simple, clear end state: a world where companies are freed from the need for management consultants.

    As visions go, it’s also flexible enough to serve as a recruitment tool. It’s not quite a slogan the way “Be All You Can Be” was a recruiting slogan for 21 years for the US Army. But it has the same flexibility, the same ability for you to see yourself participating in and owning the vision yourself.

    Simon Wardley’s vision invites you to join in and make it your vision: a world where you have freed yourself from the yoke of management consultants.

    The power of Simon’s vision scales with the number of people who share that vision. That’s why the simplicity and flexibility matter.

    Apple’s “1984” commercial comes to mind when I think of other simple, flexible visions that let lots of people participate in and own the vision.

    - Experiential marketing learning for independent consultants

    I often wonder what came first, the eponymous tool (Wardley Mapping), or the vision his tool supports.

    Either way can work. Tools can come out of the vision, or you can build a vision around a powerful tool.


    I’m working on the workshop and TEI calendar for Fall/Winter 2020. I’ve recently simplified the workshop lineup, you might want to check it out:

    Bizdev on 4chan

    I talk a lot about how we’re all in a relationship business and ultimately that’s what leads to opportunity. But there is something to be said about the context those relationships exist in, how you think about the context, and what signals the context sends.

    (Audio version of this email:

    The Invention of Lying is an amazing movie because of how it tweaks the context — the movie’s world — to be one where lying, or inauthenticity, is impossible. It simply doesn’t exist (at the outset of the story, which is full of LOL-funny lines where characters say what they’re really thinking at all times).

    Thanks to TEI member Jim Thornton, I’ve been exposed to Twitch, which is this interesting combination of sometimes astonishingly high production values and a feeling of complete authenticity. Authenticity so strong it’s like a black hole’s gravitational force: inescapable.

    I enjoy thought experiments, and here’s a fun one: What would it be like to attend a business conference where, while at the conference, it’s impossible for anyone to lie in any way at all?

    Nobody shares impressive-sounding topline revenue numbers and “forgets” to also share that the profit margin is 20%.

    Nobody “rounds up” 700k in revenue to 7 figures in revenue.

    Nobody keeps smiling and nodding during a tedious, irrelevant conversation. They just say “This is a tedious, irrelevant conversation. Thank you for including me, but I’m out.”

    • • •

    I find Twitch fascinating less for the content that’s currently there and more for the context it creates: one where the expectation of authenticity is total and complete.

    I mean, the content is sometimes good. Or interesting. Or WTF-level weird. It ranges from esports with astonishingly high production values, to very handsome people basically being very handsome in a spare room in their house that’s been turned into a prosumer level TV studio, to normal people practicing guitar, to a very serious-looking dude playing songs on a button accordion.

    Contextually, the center of gravity on Twitch feels to me like people doing their thing live while also interacting with an audience that is feeding high speed, high granularity feedback into the chat stream. The serious-looking button accordion dude doesn’t do this, but many other Twitch streamers do.

    They don’t ignore the chat stream. They don’t wait for “the Q&A section of the webinar”. They take their audience seriously and really engage with them.

    It’s interesting to me that I felt I needed to write and then italicize the word really in the previous sentence. The words “engage” and “engagement” have been tortured in so many ways by people talking about using the Internet to sell shit. Most usages of “engagement” nowadays are referring to numbers on a SaaS dashboard indicating a page visit, a download, a video “view”, or some other similarly useless datum.

    The kind of engagement you see on Twitch feels different. Despite it being asymmetric (the streamer is shown via video and audio, the folks in the chat stream are reduced to a username, avatar, text, and emojis), it feels warm and real. It feels like it’s between people. It feels like the interaction between a band and the audience in a small club.

    An audience member yells out a request for an obscure back-catalog song. The bandleader hears it. They can’t quite see the person who yelled the request. The stage lights are bright and the house lights are dim. But they acknowledge the request. They play the requested song, to the delight of the requester and others, who also wanted to hear it, but didn’t feel moved to yell out the request.

    Connection. Interaction. Improvisation. Surprise. Rising and falling energy levels. Co-creation.

    That’s what the engagement feels like on Twitch.

    • • •

    I hear a voice from the back of the room
    I hear a voice cry out you want something good
    Well come on a little closer let me see your face
    Yeah come on a little closer by the front of the stage
    I said come on a little closer I got something to say
    Yeah come on a little closer want to see your face

    ‌—Morphine, “Buena”

    • • •

    Experts don’t have to be performers, but it helps if we can perform.

    I titled this article the way I did because a few weeks ago, the idea of using Twitch to earn visibility and trust would have sounded as ridiculous to me as the idea of doing business development on 4chan.

    Now, I’m pretty sure I’m just going to have to try this Twitch thing. That’s not because I think there’s some massive audience of independent consultants already on Twitch, hungry for new content.

    That is how we tend to think of platforms. What platform(s) already has the audience we want to connect with, and how can we modularize to fit the platform’s requirements in order to connect with that audience as efficiently as possible?

    It’s interesting to set that issue aside and think about the context that platforms create. The norms and expectations of the platform. The cultural center of gravity the platform creates.

    I think I’m going to have to try this Twitch thing because there’s something unique and valuable in the context it creates. Something I suspect more of us are hungry for.

    A bullshit-free zone.

    I work to make this list such a zone. One of the biggest compliments I’ve been paid is this one: “I’ve consistently viewed your offerings and messaging to be among the most fair and charitable in this space, where others are more about the sugar rush of it all. A very balanced approach that is based on fundamentals and really important for anybody who is actually serious about succeeding in business.”

    But this list is text. I wonder how a “no sugar rush” approach would translate to a platform like Twitch.

    Or maybe I should just finish this book I’m working on.

    We’ll see. 🙂

    I hope you get to enjoy some rest and pleasure this weekend,

    “Weed spray” mailbag

    List member Roger sent an example of an Innovator partnering with an Opinion Leader. He references this previous email.

    To make today’s email easy to read, I’ll copy 2 things from my previous article on Innovators and Opinion Leaders. First, this section that Roger references in his email, and then the diagram:

    If I wanted to introduce a new kind of soft drink to the market, there are three ways I could go about that project:

    1. Drive around to all the places in my area that sell soft drinks, and have individual conversations with each store owner, and try to convince them to allocate some of their limited shelf space to this new product the market has never heard of and then deal with getting it off their shelves if it doesn’t sell, etc, etc.
    2. Figure out who already distributes soft drinks to the places in my area that sell soft drinks, and convince them to carry my product on a trial basis.
    3. Set up my own stores and sell just my soft drink there.
    - Experiential marketing learning for independent consultants

    Here’s Roger’s email:


    That diagram is genius!

    I will go back to my favorite example of Presidential candidate, Andrew Yang. He is both Innovator and Opinion Leader.

    However, he did/does not have a large distribution network.

    So, he took down his store, and poured his resources into a near-0 innovative store, called “Joe Biden.” The goal is that ANY movement past 0 is good! In the meantime, Andrew Yang is also now building up his Opinion Leader position (well into its third year), as well as his own new distribution network (

    I think he understood how long it takes for even an Opinion Leader to move an idea into market-adoption, and numbers 1 and 3 are too costly and inefficient compared to number 2.


    Thanks for this really useful example, Roger, of how new ideas need distribution.


    Farmers, weed spray, and you

    Some of you are number 1 in this diagram, some are number 2, and some are the other farmers depicted there.

    innovation for indie consultants - Experiential marketing learning for independent consultants

    This is becoming an important idea for some folks in TEI because I theorize that there is something we think of as market power or distribution in the world of services, and this idea of distribution is important when it comes to getting the market to buy into innovation. Or simply to even buy an innovative service or product.

    • • •

    The image above is from the 5th edition of Diffusion of Innovations, by Everett Rogers.

    Here’s the basic idea: innovations are first adopted by people who are not deeply connected with and liked by the mainstream market. These Innovators (#1 in the diagram above) are part of the market, but somewhat apart from it due to their more cosmopolite nature. When Opinion Leaders find out about an innovation from the Innovators and adopt it, the Innovation starts to spread more rapidly to the mainstream market because Opinion Leaders are more deeply connected with and liked by the mainstream market.

    There’s a symbiotic relationship between Innovators and Opinion Leaders. The Innovators have the social and physical freedom to discover innovations, but the innovations can’t gain wide adoption without the Opinion Leaders, who have forgone this same social and physical freedom in exchange for the deeper connections with their market/community that give them the ability to distribute innovation more deeply into the market.

    Opinion Leaders have more market power than Innovators. They are “distributors” for innovations.

    • • •

    If I wanted to introduce a new kind of soft drink to the market, there are three ways I could go about that project:

    1. Drive around to all the places in my area that sell soft drinks, and have individual conversations with each store owner, and try to convince them to allocate some of their limited shelf space to this new product the market has never heard of and then deal with getting it off their shelves if it doesn’t sell, etc, etc.
    2. Figure out who already distributes soft drinks to the places in my area that sell soft drinks, and convince them to carry my product on a trial basis.
    3. Set up my own stores and sell just my soft drink there.

    This work is on top of all the other work of inventing, refining, and marketing an innovation, which is itself a substantial amount of work. In #1 above, I’m functioning as my own distributor, and in #2 I’m trying to build a symbiotic relationship with a distributor. The distributor already has invested in relationships — physical and social — with the market. Yes, they’re a “middleman”, but in many cases they’re a vital middleman who adds a lot of value. (In #3 I’m acting as my own distributor and retailer. To keep things simple, I won’t discuss this model further here.)

    The Internet lets us cut out middlemen. It’s known for that. Tower Records can tell you all about this facet of the Internet.

    But what the Internet actually does is make it possible to cut out middlemen. What it does not do is:

    • Make it super duper easy to cut out middlemen.
    • Impart to every Internet user the social ability to connect deeply with and be liked by the market they hope to reach.
    • Cause every Internet user to enjoy the work of building “distribution” relationships with the market they hope to reach.

    The value that distributors offer is something they have built. It’s something they’ve worked for. It’s something they have optimized their business for.

    In the physical world of soft drinks, distributors obtain cheap warehouse space, manage a fleet of trucks, manage drivers, track inventory, nurture and maintain relationships with operators of low-margin stores, and on and on and on.

    In the world of digital products or services that can be delivered remotely, some of the value of distribution is nullified. Warehouse space cost goes to zero. Trucks aren’t needed, and neither are drivers. Setting up a store becomes something amateurs can do.

    But there still is that interface with the customer! That never goes away, and a lot of what makes distribution and retailing difficult and valuable in the world of physical products remains a source of value in the digital world.

    A simple yet useful way to think about this is: distribution = access; access to buyers in the market.

    This brings us back to the diagram at the top of this email, repeated here for your convenience:

    innovation for indie consultants - Experiential marketing learning for independent consultants

    Innovations (whether they be a digital product that you’ve created or a service you offer) are not a Genesis Device that you drop on a planet surface to do its transformative work without further help from you.

    Innovations have to be distributed to the mainstream market via a social system. This takes time. Notice the dates on each member of the farming community depicted in the diagram. It’s a 2-year delta between the Innovator adopting the new weed spray and the Opinion Leader adopting. And then it takes another 6 years for that innovation to diffuse through the rest of the social system.

    I’m starting to theorize that in the world of independent consulting, some folks are better at generating innovations than distributing them, and some folks are better at distributing innovations than generating them. Some folks are natural Innovators (#1 in the diagram above) and some folks are natural Opinion Leaders (#2 in the diagram above).

    It’s not that Innovators can’t become Opinion Leaders. Rather, it’s that it takes real work to become an Opinion Leader, just like it takes real work to build up a distribution business.

    To intentionally use a slightly more charged term, it requires real emotional labor deployed over time to build up the access that Opinion Leaders have.

    Opinion Leaders have more market power — access — than Innovators, but I’m not convinced that this means they are automatically able to run more profitable businesses. They can address a larger market because they’re liked and trusted by more people. And they might be able to run bigger businesses. But I’m not sure those businesses are automatically more profitable. After all, nurturing and maintaining relationships takes time and energy, the expenditure of which reduce profit.

    Further, I’m starting to wonder if the standard indie consulting business model — to the extent that there exists a standard model for this kind of business — assumes that the consultant is an Opinion Leader rather than an Innovator.

    If I’m right about this (and I’m not 100% sure I am) then there are some implications:

    • Innovators need to seek profitable relationships with Opinion Leaders, not with the mainstream market directly.
    • Or, Innovators need to balance out their natural weakness and learn how to build up the market power that Opinion Leaders would more naturally have.

    There are going to be indie consulting businesses where this whole Innovator/Opinion Leader thing isn’t a problem, because the consultant is a natural Opinion Leader. They read books or go to conferences where they pick up innovative ideas, and then introduce them to their clients. The relationship asset they’ve built up allows them to introduce the innovation to the mainstream market.

    Where I’m trying to figure things out is with my clients who are more like Innovators. TEI attracts amazing folks like these.

    The traditional indie consulting model is built around monetizing service delivery. But for that to work as designed, the mainstream market needs to be buying your services. This is a sort of “retail” model. What if you don’t have the distribution needed to get your expertise into “retail stores”?

    How, as an Innovator, do you form symbiotic relationships with distributors/Opinion Leaders?

    Or alternately, how as an Innovator, do you get better at distribution/retailing?

    TEI is a community of practice, and we’re all learning through experience how to do this. The current experiment several members are engaged in looks like partnering with less innovative but more connected businesses that have done the work of building up “distribution” in the market. Very early results are promising, but time will tell.


    Bottom-up flow

    When did technology start flowing into businesses from the bottom instead of the top? From Best Buy rather than Bain & Company? From OWC rather than IBM?

    Seems like it was around 2008 that the flow visibly shifted and the iPhone seemed to really heighten the bring-your-own-device issue.

    I think this is a fascinating sea change.

    This article talks about how television shows are getting by with consumer gear. Not even really prosumer gear in some cases, but plain ole buy-it-at-a-mall consumer gear:

    I see this with some of my clients (and myself too). Our home offices do double duty as something like a basic television studio. With event organizers wisely cancelling IRL events through at least Fall 2020, those who speak in order to earn visibility and trust are looking at things like cheap LED lights + DSLR + cheap teleprompter -> HDMI capture card as as way to make their video look great but without it being ostentatiously great.

    Reminds me of this lazy but yet interesting interview with Scott Galloway, on how he uses a garden shed as a TV studio:

    That’s another example of this bottom-to-top flow of technology.

    That’s it. No larger point about business philosophy, and just a few interesting article links for you today.


    Connecting the dots

    Quick tophat: A client of mine has some availability. She’s a marketer with significant open source experience and has done both product and software services marketing. Job preferred; gig could work. Reply if you’d like me to connect you to her.

    • • •

    I thought I’d take a crack at answering a question that came from my post opt-in survey. I’m doing this without the benefit of a conversation with my questioner, so I won’t have all the context and nuance of such a conversation, but as my wife’s grandmother used to say, it’s better than a poke in the eye, isn’t it?

    (Audio version of this email:

    The question: “My biggest challenge is connecting the dots between what I want to do and then finding companies who are interested in those services.

    This is such an important question. To turn it around on you, dear reader, are you happy following the market (building the specs that your client hands you) or do you want to lead the market in some way (design the specs that your clients follow)?

    • • •

    What might be the most popular bit of marketing advice out there boils down to this: find out what the market wants, and then build, sell, and deliver what it wants. This might also be a reasonably good 1-sentence summary for a very popular marketing book called Ask. The actual title is the hilariously long Ask. The Counterintuitive Online Method to Discover Exactly What Your Customers Want to Buy…Create a Mass of Raving Fans…and Take Any Business to the Next Level

    We’ll call this the Market-First approach. This is a good approach, and there’s a phase of our business journey where this approach makes sense. In fact, there’s a phase where this approach is medicine that cures a sickness.

    That sickness is the Idea-First approach. We see this a lot in SaaS software. It’s the ready-fire-aim approach to taking an idea to market. Get excited about the idea, build it, and then try — often with little success — to find the market segment that wants to buy it.

    The Market-First approach informs direct response marketing methods, which use data (opt-in rate, for example) to chase market demand. For example, let’s say that I have a sense that people who are new to working from home have problems I could help solve using a SaaS app. One piece of advice I would come across would tell me to set up some landing pages, pay to run ads that send clicks to these landing pages, measure the opt-in rate of these landing pages against each other, and then move forward with the winning idea, perhaps further iterating it along the way. This is a crude rendition of this advice, but you get the idea. We’re collecting data that we hope informs what we build for the market and how we sell it.

    In a way, the Market-First approach de-emphasizes innovation. Or it can, if you take it too literally. In the n00b context, however, de-emphasizing innovation is a very good thing.

    Most business n00bs suck at innovation in impressively destructive ways, and so de-emphasizing innovation is a good thing for them!!

    De-emphasizing innovation is the active ingredient that makes the Market-First approach a good form of medicine for the n00b.

    We’re all familiar with two stories: Henry Ford supposedly saying that if he’d asked his customers what they wanted they’d have said faster horses, and the iPhone no-hardware-keyboard innovation in the mobile computing world. These are examples of market-leading innovations.

    Alan Klement offers a good perspective to consider when it comes to innovation, and here’s a recent take from him on this subject:

    If we buy into this perspective (I do), then it opens up the possibility of leading a market through innovation.

    Everything thus far in this email has been contextualized in the world of products. We’re all about services here. There are some fundamental similarities, but there are some stark differences as well.

    One difference is that conversations are built into services much more than they are to products, especially if you provide services as a solo consultant. You’re not hermetically sealed away in a corner office with no contact with your clients. You’re talking to them all the time as a matter of course! There is, of course, a time and a place for formal customer research and interviews with your current/past clients and that sort of thing, but in our world, we’re picking up a lot of information about our clients via osmosis.

    Another difference is that personal brands have this outsized importance in our world. We can’t have brand equity accrete around a product, or impersonal company identity, so that brand equity has to accrete around our public identity as a person and our point of view.

    This leads to a third possibility. We’ve got the Market-First and Idea-First approaches. Let me propose a third way: Transformation-First.

    Pausing here to give some credit… I’ve been steeping in the thinking of one of my clients, Kyle Bowen, who applies the ideas we’re discussing here to museums and cultural institutions, and I’m so steeped in his thinking that I worry I’m unconsciously rip\0x10ping off his ideas. I probably am. I don’t want to dilute his email list’s focus by sending him out-of-vertical subscribers, but the thinking he’s doing there is so muscular that I can’t help but recommend it if you’re interested in these kind of ideas, albeit discussed in a different context than ours:

    • • •

    For the next few paragraphs of this email, think of me like a guitarist improvising a solo that may or may not resolve. It might end up like this:

    marketing education for independent consultants - Experiential marketing learning for independent consultants

    With the Transformation-First approach, you know the market so well that you know where they want to go and despite the lack of strong evidence that they want a particular kind of service to get them there, you invent it anyway and the presence of that service creates demand for the service. This the kind of alchemy that Rory Sutherland describes in his book titled… Alchemy.

    This is what I’m attempting, with some success, to do with The Expertise Incubator. TEI is an unconventional service that I invented to serve a market desire for transformational progress.

    With a Transformation-First approach, you’ve been steeped — via your ongoing conversations with the market — in their terminology, their worldview, their office politics, and so on. You just know them really deeply because you’ve been present with them in this intimate way for long enough that you TOTALLY. GET. THEM.

    You’ve collected data on them, but via the experience of being present with them. You’ve researched them, but via the experience of serving them over what probably amounts to years. (You can accelerate this timeline with formal research, but you can also just relax into letting it happen over a longer time by always being curious.)

    What makes the Transformation-First approach different is that instead of just asking your clients what they want you to build for them (and them possibly saying “a faster horse”), you take a risk; you take what you know about their desire for change and improvement and you design a service or an entire business that facilitates that transformation and then you do the hard work of helping them connect the dots between their current condition, their aspiration(s), and the way your service(s) can move them from status quo to Status Woah! Boy, did that feel cheesy to type! But this new keyboard I’m typing on (low-profile Cherry speed switches) feels so good I’ll allow it.

    You are present with them and yet apart from them. You lead them.

    That brings us to the final point: bootstrapping vs. brand marketing.

    I often cast direct response marketing as a way of chasing markets and brand marketing as a way of shaping markets. There’s also the dimension of time. We need to do different things — different forms of marketing — while we are bootstrapping a business. After we’re out of that bootstrapping phase and we’re the custodian of an audience and running a more stable, profitable business, we can invest in brand marketing, which has the fringe benefit of letting us shape our market.

    So dear questioner, the answer to your question is: it depends. Thanks for your question!

    marketing education for independent consultants - Experiential marketing learning for independent consultants

    I’m kidding. I’m not going to leave you with the non-answer of “it depends” and then peel out.

    It does depend, but it depends on your business maturity and depth of connection in the market. Also, let me reiterate the question in case my enjoyment of my new keyboard has become so expansively baroque that you’ve forgotten the question: “My biggest challenge is connecting the dots between what I want to do and then finding companies who are interested in those services.

    If you’re bootstrapping and only superficially connected in the market, you’ll probably want to take that Market-First approach. I’m not saying to read the Ask book, because half of it is offensively terrible, and also because it recommends an approach that presumes having an audience, and you may not have that.

    Here’s what the Market-First approach looks like without the so-called Ask Method: Just imitate an existing business (a specialized one, I hope). If their capabilities are similar to yours, there’s a chance that their very existence is evidence that the market wants businesses like that one, and as a new entrant to the market this demand gives you a fighting chance, though please discount this recommendation heavily for verticals that are not open to outsiders.

    If you have a higher risk profile, you can do some research to understand the progress your market is trying to make and invent a service that helps them optimize their progress towards an important goal. Alan Klement and the aforelinked email list from Kyle Bowen are again good resources here. If you’re bootstrapping and only superficially connected in the market, then make sure to invent a service that is easy to sell. You may not (yet) have the trust asset needed to sell a more ambitious or transformational or risky service.

    And if you are past the bootstrapping phase and more deeply connected in the market, you can consider a service that aims to lead or shape the market. If we take your question’s language at face value, dear questioner, it seems like this is your ambition.

    I support this ambition with my every fiber. Even when you’ve built up a significant personal brand, trust asset, and network of access to the market, it’s still a formidable task. It has occupational hazards.

    For some of us, this makes getting out of bed in the morning worth it.

    Maybe that’s you. 🙂

    I’ll follow up with an email that suggests a market-leadership recipe. Might take me a few days.


    PS: I don’t think it will undermine my point to add this: you can make a shitload of money chasing a market. I don’t mean to dismiss the idea of building what the market provides evidence that it wants, nor do I mean to diss it by framing it as “chasing” rather than “shaping/leading”. An acquaintance recently posted in a Slack channel that she now makes more money in her sleep from a digital course than she ever did from services. I’m certain she’s not exaggerating. Again, chasing a market can be a fan-freaking-tastic way to make money. But just like the word relationship means different things to different people, for some of us, business means earning the opportunity to lead a market, and that implies a different approach to the business.

    “So useless to have to work so hard”

    Quick tophat: A client of mine has some availability. She’s a marketer with significant open source experience and has done both product and software services marketing. Job preferred; gig could work. Reply if you’d like me to connect you to her.

    • • •

    My wife and I were driving back from the Great Sand Dunes National Park yesterday, and Spotify served up a Tom Petty song. This line stuck out at me:

    Every now and then, I get down to the end of a day
    I have to stop, ask myself why I’ve done it
    It just seems so useless to have to work so hard
    And nothin’ ever really seem to come from it

    —Tom Petty, “Here Comes My Girl”

    If you’ve ever found yourself echoing Tom Petty’s sentiment, then the best advice I have is to beg, borrow, or steal the time and energy needed to invest some of that hard work in something that will benefit your future business. That probably looks roughly like marketing.

    I’m partial to publishing frequently to an email list, but there are other things that have a good track record:

    1. A weekly email that teaches readers about a niche topic. Here’s a good example:
    2. Writing a short ebook that teaches what you know about a niche topic. A good example:
    3. Post videos on YouTube that teach what you know about a niche topic. A good example (Marie Poulin teaching about using Notion):

    Some things these examples have in common:

    • Keep it niche. If you worry that you’ll run out of stuff to say in a month or two, you’ve got the focus narrow enough. You won’t actually run out of stuff to say or share. Once you get through the entrance to the seemingly small “cave”, you’ll find that your tiny niche topic expands in scope dramatically.
    • Give freely. If your giving creates value, it will open doors of opportunity for you. The world is starving for value, and has a way of turning freely-given value into business opportunity without you needing to squeeze that opportunity out via brute force.
    • Be consistent. Commit to some kind of event-based deadline, like “I’ll publish my weekly email before I go to sleep on Sunday night” or “I’m a night-owl, so I don’t go to sleep without publishing” or “I’m a morning person, so I’ll set a timer for an hour and do something for my business before I start doing client work.” Keep it simple and don’t do a monthly schedule unless you have a lot of discipline. If you’ve kept up regular workouts over the last 4 months of the coronavirus pandemic, you probably have enough discipline to publish something monthly rather than daily or weekly.
    • Keep the production minimal. The content is what matters. The production values probably matter a lot less.

    I’ve worked with folks where freeing up this time to invest in your own business seems impossible. It might be the demands of family, childcare, the dayjob, or something else. I feel for you, and as a guy with healthy parents and no kids and a measure of good health myself, I don’t know what advice to offer.

    Except to be dedicated to what’s important and be ruthless. Maybe your TV-viewing budget is a good place to start being ruthless? 🙂 Just a thought…

    • • •

    The Great Sand Dunes National Park is really cool. At a distance, the people walking up the dune look like fleas on a yellow dog. Here’s a pic I made:

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    Full size image:

    Oh, and here’s another snapshot showing more of the context, that context being: giant sand dune in the middle of the Rocky Mountains!


    “Ready, discuss, maybe-read” followup

    Quick tophat: A client of mine has some availability. She’s a marketer with significant open source experience and has done both product and software services marketing. Job preferred; gig could work. Reply if you’d like me to connect you to her.

    • • •

    A reader responded to yesterday’s email were I discussed seemingly different conversational norms on different social media platforms.

    They pointed out that drawing conclusions about social media at this moment might not be the best timing. It’s a charged moment, and people are acting differently as a result.

    Their point was well made, and I agree.

    It reminds me about one of the strengths of email marketing, which is the near-effortless conversion from public broadcast medium to private, intimate conversation with a click of the REPLY button.

    Conversations in social media are public. Sure, the reality is more granular than that on most social platforms (private groups, etc.), but the default assumption is that if you comment on a social media post, others can see and react to your comment.

    The default assumption with email is that your message to someone — even if it’s a reply to an email list message — is not immediately visible to the rest of the world. This changes things.

    In email marketing, the reply button shifts the context from public broadcast medium to private, intimate conversation.

    This is powerful. Are you using this power as effectively as you could?