Insight for Independent Consultants

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    RE: Some interesting in-public stuff

    Programming note: I’ll be off for the next 2 weeks, finishing the draft of The Positioning Manual, back on Monday, August 24.

    Chris Ferdinandi, the Vanilla JS guy, wrote me about his experience with un-gated content. Here’s his email, which he said was OK to publish here:


    Just wanted to respond to this:

    I mean un-gating the content, and trusting that the value of the content will do more to help your business than using the content to collect or increase the size of a list of email addresses would.

    Anecdotally, I’ve had a lot of success with this approach.

    Rather than requiring an email address to get the thing, and then seeing a wave of unsubscribes from people who didn’t want to give you their email but reluctantly did just to get the thing, I flip the model.

    I give away a TON of stuff for free.

    All of my articles get posted to my website at the same time as my newsletter comes out. I have an online toolkit of vanilla JS resources. A collection of project ideas and starter templates. An ebook and talk on building a simpler, leaner web.

    On every one, I add a “Like this? Get articles on topics like this sent to your inbox” CTA, and so far, it’s worked out pretty damn well.

    My email list started with 38 people (mostly Twitter friends) three years ago. Last week, I hit 9,800 subscribers. I’m still not at “quit your day job” money yet, but I’ve about doubled my gross revenue every year, and product sales (ie. my side business) now comprise about 30% of my total income.

    And of course, it goes without saying that you gently pushing me to start writing daily and focus on list growth was the single best thing I ever did for my business. Thank you!!!


    I keep wrestling with this brand vs. direct response marketing idea. It seems important, and I seem currently unable to render it with anything more than hedcut-level resolution.

    It’s one thing for me to say “brand marketing uses no-strings-attached gifts to earn visibility and trust; direct response marketing uses data and urgency to sell stuff”. That’s both true and reflective of what we see Chris doing.

    But examples like this one from Chris really help bring this idea to life.

    Thanks for that, Chris.


    I have no magic

    The film “Yi Yi” is a masterpiece.

    It’s an art film. Not the way “The Cremaster Cycle” is an art film. “Yi Yi” is one of those films that rewards close, thoughtful viewing, and it reflects on the nature of life. “The Cremaster Cycle” is mostly just bizarre.

    There’s this particular scene in “Yi Yi” that says something important about consulting. One of the main characters is a partner at a failing software firm. They’re going to work with an outside consultant to re-invigorate the company, and the partner has travelled to Japan to meet the consultant and talk business.

    Over dinner, the consultant starts doing some card tricks.

    - Experiential marketing learning for independent consultants


    The potential client is astonished. The client asks how he does it.

    The consultant reveals that he has taught himself to know where every card in the deck of cards is at every moment. It’s not a trick; he simply pays more attention, more carefully than others, to what’s going on with the deck of cards.

    The potential client, still enjoying his own astonishment at this, keeps asking the consultant to predict what card is next in the deck. The consultant interrupts:

    I have no magic to save your company. Nobody does. I am just like you. I have no tricks. We can work together, but I think your partner wants magic.

    It’s a beautifully-done scene, full of cinematic subtlety.

    At the end of the day, I think every consultant would admit the same.

    “I have no magic. I just have a better process for navigating this decision than you do.”

    “I have no magic. I’ve just seen this situation more than you have.”

    “I have no magic. I just have some data and a framework that you don’t.”

    “I have no magic. I’ve just spent more time forcing myself to think through this stuff than you have.”

    That last one is essentially what I’m saying in this recent podcast conversation with Glenn Stovall, where I talk about daily publishing:

    I really appreciate Glenn giving me some time on his podcast to talk about daily publishing which, even after doing it for 4 years, I find a valuable way to frequently visit the “mind gym” and work out ideas.

    If this sort of practice is interesting to you, I think the conversation with Glenn is worth a listen:

    And if a meditative cinematic reflection on life is interesting to you, you can watch the whole of Yi Yi in HD on YouTube:

    No magic, just a lot of writing and thinking,

    Some interesting in-public stuff

    Two quick items of interest for you today, both sharing a bit of the same DNA.

    1) Sarah Avenir of &Yet is offering a free course on a human approach to marketing.

    The course itself is interesting. I’m especially interested in the way she’s distributing the content using Instagram. It’s a very “brand-marketing-ey” approach [1], and it was compelling enough for me to set up an Instagram account so I could follow along and learn from what she’s doing.

    You can too; her course is available here:

    2) Last week I tried my first livestreamed TEI roundtable event, and you can see the recording here:

    This is also an attempt at moving stuff from behind an opt-in gate and out into the open.

    The roundtable went great, and if the topic of designing online group workshops/trainings is of interest to you, then the recording is worth watching.

    And yet, the roundtable raised a few questions about how to make future roundtables like this more valuable to participants and viewers.

    The next livestreamed TEI roundtable will probably include a “scribe” role — someone who will use Mural or a similar tool to create an artifact of the discussion. There’s probably value to be created by also separating the facilitator/host role from the producer role. Livestreaming tech is relatively simple, but does add the cognitive burden of switching between gallery and presenter view, to name one of several forms of individually small but collectively significant cognitive overhead.

    And then there’s simple dumb stuff like: if you’re going to send out a calendar invite for the roundtable saying it starts at a certain time, make sure everybody’s there and the livestream is up and running by that time. 🙂

    Unlike webinars, livestreams have no software-provided “waiting room” where attendees hang out waiting for the event to start. You can create that waiting room experience by broadcasting a pre-recorded video (Halocene does this at the beginning of their livestreams), or a still image combined with some pre-recorded audio, but it’s still up to the livestream host to actually think about and do these things.

    So there you go; two items that either might have content that’s relevant to you, or have been done in a context that is experimental and interesting.

    Have a great day,


    1: By “brand-marketing-ey” approach, I mean un-gating the content, and trusting that the value of the content will do more to help your business than using the content to collect or increase the size of a list of email addresses would.

    Mental blocks to selling advisory services

    It feels easier to sell services because it’s a concrete deliverable. How can I move past the mental block that advisory work is “harder” to sell?

    This is a great question from my post opt-in survey. I’ll hazard an answer here.

    (Listen to an audio version of this email:

    First recommendation: if you haven’t already, join Jonathan Stark’s email list: Jonathan’s meta-topic is pricing, and gaining a sophisticated understanding of pricing requires understanding the nature of value, and Jonathan is always coming up with ways to help his email list members deeply understand the nature of value.

    Back to the question. Advisory work is “harder” to sell for several reasons.

    Actually, before I get to that, let me remove the quotes from the word harder. It really is harder for us because of the starting point we’re all coming from. We’re all some flavor of self-made expert, and we generally lack the bonafides and pedigree that would help us tell ourselves the confidence-building story that, “of course I should be selling advisory services!”. We sneak our way into advisory services through some kind of side door without the institutional bonafides and pedigree, and as Alan Weiss says, the first sale is to ourselves.

    So it really is harder for us. But we can learn and adapt and grow.

    There are several reasons why it’s harder to sell advisory services.

    First challenge: We know not what we sell

    The first challenge is that many of us start selling advisory services before we start consuming them, and that makes us unpracticed at viscerally understanding the value of good advisory services.

    For most of us:

    • If we’ve hired a tax advisor (aka a CPA), they’ve helped us save a few bucks here and there on a tax bill, but they have not helped us save life-changing amounts of money or mitigate life-damaging amounts of risk.
    • If we’ve hired a real estate agent, they’ve tried to sell us as much house as we can afford rather than helping us make a life-alteringly smart real estate investment.
    • If we’ve hired a doctor, they’ve done the best they could for us within the constraints of an assembly-line appointment schedule, the insurance system, and multiple other constraints.

    I’m not trying to throw these professionals under the bus here, but rather point out that most of the advisors we’ve encountered in our personal lives have not changed our lives dramatically for the better. They’ve done competent but forgettable work.

    When we do happen across an advisor who can alter our lives for the better, it leaves an impression! And maybe at that point we get a glimpse of what’s possible within the realm of advisory services. And maybe we go a step further and start to believe that we have that potential too!

    But again, for most of us in our everyday lived experience, we experience little to no dramatically positive impact from purchasing advisory services, and so we don’t have firsthand experience with the value of those kind of services. That, of course, makes it difficult for us to believe in the value of our own services when they are packaged as advisory services.

    Second challenge: the devil is in the details scope

    The second challenge with selling advisory services is that many of us have difficulty clearly defining the scope of advisory services. They seem difficult to package in a sensible way.

    And you know what? THEY ARE!

    Some of the ways you’ll see advisory services packaged include:

    1. “I’ll advise your company, and we’ll define scope based on who at your company has access to me.”
    2. “I’ll advise your company, and we’ll define scope based on how often we meet.”
    3. “I’ll advise your company, and we’ll define scope based on how much context I consider in my advice to you.”
    4. “I’ll advise your company, and we’ll define scope based on how much research I do on your behalf.”

    That’s not even half of the ways you could package and scope an advisory services engagement.

    A coaching client and I recently had a breakthrough on this front, and it took hours of discussion to get there. If I do say so myself, it wasn’t an inefficient process. It just takes a while to sort through all the ways you could package advisory services and settle on one that’s a good fit for you, your market, and then to describe the packaging in a way that makes the client’s choice as simple as choosing between a cheeseburger and a burrito at a restaurant. Maybe that all sounds easy on paper, but in reality it’s not.

    Third challenge: We lack confidence

    The third challenge is that many of us lack the confidence that is helpful for selling advisory services.

    In selling advisory services, maybe we feel like we have moved from flying a single-engine Cessna to piloting a 747, and that the stakes are way, way higher. That’s not totally wrong, but here’s what I’ve seen personally and via interviews and friendly conversations with other self-made experts:

    • There’s maybe a 60% chance your client will ignore your advice anyway.
    • There’s a similarly large probability that they will heed the advice but screw up the implementation.
    • There’s a lesser but still significant probability that your client will mis-understand your advice and implement something different from or completely opposite to your advice, get great results, and give you credit.
    • And finally, there’s a chance that your advice will not really solve a problem, but it will motivate action you couldn’t have predicted or didn’t specifically advise, and that action solves the problem.

    As David C. Baker is fond of saying, there are good reasons why there’s no licensing requirements for the management consulting profession.

    Massage therapists and dental hygienists are required to undergo more training and certification rigor than indie consultants, software developers, or people who speak on the stage at an event that draws 170k people (Dreamforce 2019).

    Anyway, if confidence is what’s preventing you from selling advisory services, it’s a helpful serving of humble pie to remember that most of the time, your advice won’t work anyway. The times it does work makes it worth it, I think, but selling advisory services doesn’t grant you godlike powers or the responsibility that would come with those powers.

    I’m not trying to let shady or lazy advisors off the hook here, or excuse those who knowingly give bad advice. Rather, I’m trying to speak to that little shit that sits on your shoulder and whispers discouragement into your ear. You’ll be more likely to believe that nasty little gnome’s discouraging words if you also believe that your advisory services have some magical power to alter lives. In maybe 40% of the cases you’ll encounter, they do have a near-magical power to help. The 60% of the time your advice doesn’t help, it’s unlikely to destroy lives or businesses.

    Maybe that knowledge takes some of the weight off of your soul? I hope it does.

    Fourth challenge: Right buyers; wrong package

    The fourth challenge to selling advisory services is that many of us lack the access to buyers who would buy the kind of advisory services that we normally think of; the retainer that you’ll read about in Alan Weiss’ books; the fabled $500-a-minute-phone-call-with-the-CEO-every-now-and-again retainer.

    The fabled $500-a-minute-phone-call-with-the-CEO-every-now-and-again retainer is a way of packaging advisory services but it’s not the essence of advisory services. This topic deserves a deeper treatment, but for now I’ll say that there’s more than one way to package advisory services in a profitable way.

    So if a lack of access to buyers that can pay 5 figures a month or more for an advisory services retainer is what’s challenging for you, then I want to talk about how you could change the game. Because there are other ways to package life-changing advice!

    For now, consider these questions:

    • What if it was a group instead of 1:1 packaging? What if it was a huge group?
    • What if there was a way for you to additionally monetize the advice after you give it?
    • What if giving the advice gave you access to data or insight that you could use as input to future value creation?
    • What if giving the advice was incredibly free of stress or labor for you? What if it felt like play?
    • What if the advice became more useful rather than less useful if you standardized it?

    Because of how the Internet has changed the game, I think it behooves us to think about how we can use creative packaging to change the advisory services game.

    Thank you, dear questioner, for the question, and I hope at least some of this advice helps!


    Open source community and marketing

    “Total global revenue in the open source services market will reach over 17 billion U.S. dollars in 2019 and is expected to grow into a 30-billion-dollar industry by 2022, a number which would represent a tripling in size over the span of just five years.” Source:

    Open source is a big deal.

    TEI member Claudia Rauch is writing about it here:

    Claudia publishes about twice per week, and writes very thoughtful about the topics of community-building and marketing for open source projects.

    It’s a niche topic, but if it’s your niche, then you need to be on Claudia’s list:


    I bought $10,000 of IP today

    (It was discounted to $10 :-> )

    The report comes from Munro & Associates, which I talk about a little bit at the top of this podcast conversation with David C. Baker:

    Munro buys cars, takes them apart, and publishes $10,000 reports describing every tiny detail.

    These reports are a really interesting example of expertise being formalized into intellectual property (IP) and sold for what seems like a ton of money.

    At automobile-manufacturing-scale, $10k is a rounding error compared to overpaying for a part, an hour of manufacturing downtime, or a recall.

    This is part of the secret, I think, to selling IP or advisory services: a very favorable ratio of price (for the IP or services) to impact. Impact can be the creation of an outcome, or it can be the reduction of risk (“insurance”).

    Anyway, if you too want to own $10,000 of IP for $10 and see what it looks like, you can buy this report here: (Not an affiliate link because, really people, I have better things to do with my time 😀. Also, I have no financial association with Munro & Associates).


    Again, if you’re an expert with a mess of content, you can apply for one of the 3 full-participant seats in the workshop here: More details:

    (Another) Invitation: Free online workshop on content organization

    I’ve had a long struggle with the idea of search engine optimization (SEO).

    I want to ignore SEO. I’ve always wanted to. I’ve felt like SEO is the tail wagging the dog.

    I’ve wanted my work to be good enough that it spreads by word of mouth alone. I’ve wanted my POV and insight to be compelling enough that the market I’m focused on beats a path to my door.

    They might, if they could find my site, which they might be able to if Google could make sense of it.

    That’s the problem; that’s the tension that experts who publish a lot on their own site need to navigate.

    That tension, in a nutshell:

    We know more about our topic than almost anyone else, so we can’t defer to Google’s keyword volume tools for guidance on content strategy, but we can’t afford to have sites that are usable only by other experts, and if we put thought into making our sites usable for those we seek to help, then Google will find our site more sensible and likely connect us with more of those who need our help.

    That’s me saying that experts should think about SEO (but not rely exclusively on it, of course). But we should think about it through a particular lens, and TEI member Jim Thornton has done more than anyone else I know to craft and polish that lens.

    A week or so ago, he gave a private seminar to TEI participants explaining how experts should think about content organization, and providing some really clear, simple action steps. It was 90 minutes of 🔥.

    I want to do one thing that accomplishes 3 things:

    1. Helps more of y’all understand what TEI is about, and the kind of transformation that it can produce.
    2. Helps Jim get a recorded video that he can shop around to other places so he can start speaking more about his expertise.
    3. Helps YOU, if you’re also an expert wrestling with this SEO thing.

    So, I’ve scheduled a free workshop. The topic is content organization for experts. You could think of it as “SEO for experts” and you’d be pretty close.

    Jim will teach and run the workshop; I’ll facilitate.

    We’ll meet for two hours online twice. Once on August 25, and once on September 1. Both times at 8am to 10am Mountain time (to get as much combined North American/European coverage as possible).

    There are two ways you can participate. If you’re an expert with a large mess of content, you can apply for one of the 3 full-participant seats in the workshop. I need to keep this number small so that Jim can give you the kind of attention you need.

    Specifically, this workshop will be most useful if you:

    • Consider yourself a domain expert
    • Have around 100 to 200 articles on your site and an email list (can be small)
    • You have a sense of your ideal audience

    If you aren’t an expert blessed with a hot mess of disorganized content, then you can watch a livestream of the workshop and participate via text chat, or you can catch the recording of the livestream after the fact at or

    You will learn how to:

    • Develop a process to turn your website into a useful, authoritative resource for those seeking your expertise
    • Make it easier for website visitors to find your best articles, episodes, videos
    • Improve the signals of what your content is about for Google and users alike
    • Rely on your existing knowledge of your target audience and expertise to inform organizing your content in the way that best helps your users accomplish their goals
    • Simplify hard decisions around what content to archive, consolidate, or elevate by
    • Identify your lowest hanging fruit and estimate your traffic potential from organizing your content

    I’ll send out save-the-date calendar invites for the livestream later.

    So again, if you’re an expert with a mess of content, you can apply for one of the 3 full-participant seats in the workshop here:


    Invitation: a roundtable discussion on designing online group workshops/training events

    COVID drew a line in the sand.

    On the far side of this line stand folks who have adapted their offerings for remote delivery, and on the near side of this line are folks who haven’t, or are curious about how they might create a remote offering.

    I’ve scheduled a 90-minute TEI roundtable to focus on this question. We’ll scope the discussion to things like designing workshops and training events rather than consulting services.

    You’re invited to participate via livestream. Because the livestream shows up in Twitch and YouTube, there’s no need to register. You can just pop in when we go live and chat with us if you like (though I believe you do have to be registered with Twitch/YouTube in order to chat).

    This 90-minute free roundtable happens Friday, July 31 at 9am Mountain time.

    If you want help remembering, you can add the event to your calendar using these links:



    Again, there’s no registration required. This isn’t a webinar with attendees sitting at the “kid’s table at Thanksgiving” while the host presents and saves a few minutes for questions at the end; we’re hoping you’ll join in the realtime chat throughout and make the event even more interesting, so please feel free to drop by and participate via chat if you feel like it.

    Or, catch the recording later if the timing is inconvenient for you but the topic is interesting.

    Again, you can stick a reminder on your calendar using these links: GCAL or ICAL.



    I was organizing my office and came across this picture of my dog Malcolm, who was with me from 1999 to 2017.

    - Experiential marketing learning for independent consultants

    The photo was made with a Polaroid SX-70, and I just love the story of how that camera was developed.

    - Experiential marketing learning for independent consultants

    The source is this article, which is a good read:

    It’s long-ish, and details many of the challenges that Polaroid had to overcome to bring the SX-70 to market.


    PS: Yesterday’s email went to spam for many of you because, let’s face it, I should not be in charge of my domain’s DMARC records. 🙂 Hopefully it’s fixed now.

    Lead generation for value-based design

    Right after people join my email list, ConvertKit redirects them to a survey and I ask what questions are on their mind. Sometimes I answer those questions here.

    This one was submitted anonymously:

    What is the best way to begin lead generation? Because my field (value-based design) is somewhat esoteric, writing about it feels targeted more towards other designers, rather than the clients who will actually benefit from my practice.

    Slightly-snarky-version-of-the-answer: find a way to preserve what is exciting and valuable about value-based design while making it comprehensible and relevant to clients who will actually benefit from your practice, and you’ll almost certainly have found the best way to begin lead generation.

    I know that’s answering a question with a question. 🙂

    But that finding-a-way-to-make-it-comprehensible thing really is the challenge here, isn’t it? Especially with stuff that isn’t commoditized.

    If something is well understood by most of the market, then there’s a good chance it’s also commoditized. If it’s commoditized, then you need to get good at delivering volume and quality at what the market considers a reasonable cost.

    It can be easier to generate leads for a commoditized service/skill (because the market already understands it), but then you have to deliver that commoditized service profitably, which is challenging because of downward price pressure.

    If something is not commoditized, then you need to get good at helping the market understand and value it. As you can see, you’re choosing which challenge you’d rather have.

    I think that’s what your lead generation should look like: helping your market understand and value value-based design. Don’t worry about whether they hire you or somebody else to do the value-based design for them.

    Instead, just make it your mission to help the market (not all buyers everywhere on the planet, but a specific niche market) understand and properly value value-based design. Keep in mind the temptation to think about your peers when you’re doing this, and work to avoid this temptation.

    Some specific lead generation approaches to consider

    Let me end with some lead generation approaches to consider.

    A self-published book could be good. It took me about 3 months of part-time effort to write and publish the first edition of The Positioning Manual. It was great lead generation. I know others with similar stories, so don’t think of a book project as a monumental years-long thing. Fast, lean, and dirty are acceptable, I think, on any first attempt at something.

    An email list could be good. It’s more fluid and iterative than a book. Less intimidating. Instead of having to overcome the temptation to write for your peers just once during the outlining stage, you’ll have to overcome it every time you write, at least until you get in the habit of writing for your buyers. Growing an email list — if you’re not Corey Quinn — can be challenging. Some ideas that might help:

    Something that uses your voice could be good. A podcast, a youTube channel, or some other usage of voice or video to teach could be good.

    No matter which of these you use, you’ll have to solve the bootstrapping problem that all innovators have to solve. I ain’t gonna lie. It’s not easy!

    Some ideas for this bootstrapping:

    Good luck, anonymous questioner!