Insight for Independent Consultants

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

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    What is innovation?

    It’s not going to get you a booth a CES, but it’s still quite valuable.

    Real Quick: Who is an authority to you? I’d like to learn, and will share what I learn with this list next week. Please take 60 seconds to tell me:

      • • •  

    An email list member asked: “AWS was an innovation for Amazon. But what the heck is inovation for the solo expert business?”

    Here’s my response: positioning services - Experiential marketing learning for independent consultants

    Peruse in your browser:

    What do you think when you think about innovation in professional services?


    The cloud migration failure files

    “How to attract clients and deals when your services are more “fuzzy”, such as (technical) management consulting?”

    Real Quick: Who is an authority to you? I’d like to learn, and will share what I learn with this list next week. Please take 60 seconds to tell me:

      • • •  

    I got a great question from the list:

    How to attract clients and deals when your services are more “fuzzy”, such as (technical) management consulting?

    Background: I help large organizations as interim technical manager for failed/troubled projects related with cloud / IT infrastructure.

    The challenge: I’m struggling to find enough clients that are able to understand my value, need my services and are willing to pay my rate.

    I understand that it’s all about earning visibility and building trust with the prospects, and I see how an email list / blog could help me achieve that (as you talk about in your podcast). The problem is that in my particular case, I just don’t know what to write about.

    Beyond that, I can’t find any blog or comparable marketing material of anyone else doing what I do. Everyone I know seems to be relying on either their network or freelance recruitment agencies. And the people I found through the LinkedIn Sales Navigator seems to have the same problem.

    How would you approach this? Thank you for your response and keep up the good work!

    (My answer here is long-ish. There’s a TL;DR at the end.)

    This is a great specialization. It just happens to be one that’s fussy about how you do your marketing. You’re seeing that now.

    Yours is a horizontal specialization. One of the common challenges here is that prospective clients don’t emit signals of need.

    I’m guessing the last failed IT project that did emit a signal of need was the project, and they only signaled need because it was government money and public disclosure is required. I’m partially kidding, but you get the idea.

    People at businesses unencumbered by these disclosure requirements would sooner run naked through Times Square than talk openly about their failed IT projects. Cloud operations is what all the cool kids are doing, and they can’t get it together.

    positioning services - Experiential marketing learning for independent consultants

    Your prospects have to discover you by reputation instead of you finding them via LinkedIn or whatever. You already know this.

    Everyone I know seems to be relying on either their network or freelance recruitment agencies

    Copper is a good medium for conducting electricity. Glass is not. This is an analogy for word of mouth and the spread of a reputation. 🙂

    You’re seeing that others who do something similar to you have found the most “conductive material” for word of mouth/reputational spread, and that is their professinoal network or recruiters.

    Recommendation 1: Invest in your network more than you are now, starting ASAP. Recommendation 2 will provide some raw material for doing that. If you can invest in your network by becoming a critical asset to them in a way that’s aligned with your specialized focus, that’s ideal. That might look like knowing more about rescuing failed cloud/IT infrastructure projects than almost anyone else and sharing that knowledge in useful concise ways (briefings might be a good content format to think in terms of here). Also do what you can to expand/grow your professional network.

    Beyond that, I can’t find any blog or comparable marketing material of anyone else doing what I do.

    Good! Really good, in fact!

    Ordinarily I’d see this “whitespace” as a warning sign. The absence of comparable blogs might mean that nobody cares.

    But something like 50% of IT projects fail in some way, and have been for a long time. That seems to be an ironclad law of IT. Cloud migration projects aren’t going to be exempt from that law.

    The projections I’ve seen about the migration of workloads to the cloud indicate a long, healthy pipeline of demand for this kind of change. The demand isn’t going away anytime soon.

    That’s why I don’t think the absence of comparable blogs means nobody cares. It more likely means the people who know what they’re doing are getting plenty of work rescuing projects and don’t need to do any marketing beyond light investment in their network and pinging recruiters when their current project is close to winding up.

    This resembles the Objective-C boom. For a while, work was falling off the trees, and at very attractive rates for the supply side of the market.

    That boom didn’t last forever. The best time to start building an asset that sustains you past the natural life of the boom is now.

    I just don’t know what to write about.

    Recommendation 2: I might be over-simplifying, but you’d write about what you do for clients, right?

    I mean you wouldn’t name clients or give away protected information, but you’d write about the needing-a-rescue situation they find themselves in, why they got there, and how they can fix it.

    Again, your goal would be to know more about rescuing failed cloud/IT infrastructure projects than almost anyone else, and then to share that knowledge in the most useful way possible.

    That might mean being extremely concise. I can’t imagine folks facing a failed IT project are in a relaxed state, consuming blog articles in a leisurely speculative way. They’re “Terminator T-800’s” with their heads-up displays tuned for 1 target: a solution to the pain they’re in.

    Knowing more about this topic than anyone else might also mean doing some research. The research could be as simple as collecting and organizing information that’s already out there but poorly organized. Or it might be more extensive, like interviewing folks.

    As you do this writing, you are likely to face imposter syndrome. “But I don’t know everything there is to know about failed cloud/IT projects!”

    Beware this false signal; we all face it. Nobody judges your expertise as harshly as you will. 🙂 If you want to have a marketing asset that attracts good clients, you’ll have to get over these false objections to doing the work of serving your prospects by publishing. Please don’t let imposter syndrome stop you.

    There’s no reserved seat at the table in the league of self-made experts with your name on it, but the world needs your self-made expertise!

    If you go this route, you might model what you’re doing after Stephen Quenzli’s work at You might not publish as frequently (or you might publish more frequently!) and your focus would be somewhat different, but the thoughtful opinionated tone you see Stephen using works very well with the kind of audience you need to reach.

      • • •  

    TL;DR, recipe version:

    1. Write a weekly briefing on some specific aspect of recovering from a failed cloud IT project. Make it prescriptive.
    2. Each week, email it to your professional network (just BCC ’em all in your normal email client), with a reminder they can easily stop receiving these by hitting reply and asking.
    3. If you can’t maintain a weekly cadence, publish more frequently (you heard me right) with less formality/structure in the writing.
    4. Also mirror these pieces to a blog. Name the blog something catchy if possible (ex: “The Cloud Migration Failure Files”). If you publish more frequently than weekly, you might mirror to your blog but only email the briefings if people specifically opt in to receive them, so #3 above would be modified if you publish more than weekly.
    5. Make it possible for folks to sign up to receive the blog posts via email. Keep this part simple by using Mailchimp with a RSS-to-email automation rule or something like Feedblitz.

    Hope his helps!


    Your personal business barbell

    When do you graduate from dumbell to barbell?

    Real Quick: Who is an authority to you? I’d like to learn, and will share what I learn with this list next week. Please take 60 seconds to tell me:

      • • •  

    A quick followup to yesterday’s email:

    When can we say that your business growth dumbell has become a barbell?

    I don’t currently have data on this. I’m generally looking at more qualitative signals.

    As a reminder, we start here:

    positioning services - Experiential marketing learning for independent consultants

    And intentional growth takes us here:

    positioning services - Experiential marketing learning for independent consultants

    In terms of the left-hand part of this graphic, there’s a clear qualitative signal about when your “marketing dumbell” can become a “marketing barbell”:

    This happens when you are able to get on a stage for 45 minutes with minimal or no props and no CTA at all and say something so impactful that — assuming it’s the right audience — at least one person approaches you after the talk to ask for a meeting to explore working together.

    The “stage” could be physical (a conference talk) or virtual (podcast guesting, etc.).

    You could be approached by a prospect immediately or some weeks/months thereafter.

    The important part is the impactful nature of your expertise and point of view and the clearly implied call to action, meaning you don’t have to whip people into action, they are self-motivated to act because your expertise has clearly self-evident relevance and importance to them.

    On the right-hand part of this graphic, I don’t have quantitative numbers that distinguish dumbell businesses from barbell businesses. But you definitely feel it!

    You feel the increased margin in your schedule. You feel the ability to translate requests for advice into paid advisory engagements. And you feel that greater amount of unstructured time in your schedule. Time you can invest in your own expertise and the left side of the graphic.

    positioning services - Experiential marketing learning for independent consultants

    Dumbell to barbell

    positioning services - Experiential marketing learning for independent consultants

    Real Quick: Who is an authority to you? I’d like to learn, and will share what I learn with this list next week. Please take 60 seconds to tell me:

      • • •  

    I’ve been reading How Brands Grow. Actually, I read Rory Sutherland’s Alchemy, then immediately started reading How Brands Grow, and that was a fascinating pair of perspectives to consider back to back. They’re both opposing and overlapping perspectives.

    Both books share some context: mass market brands are the subject of interest, and behavioral economics a substantial part of how they argue their respective points.

    For evidence, Alchemy uses well-known colloquial examples (Red Bull energy drink, for example) while How Brands Grow uses academic research.

    The mass market context is so different than ours, which I’ll label as the solo self-made expert context. I think what I’m saying here is also relevant to small firms with staff, but when I write I’m always thinking of people like me, or like David Baker, who have no staff.

    Scalability is one huge difference between the mass market company and the solo expert.

    If every potential buyer of packaged beverages made 100% of their purchases from The Coca-Cola Company’s line of products for the next year, that might stress the company’s production ability, but I suspect they’d be delighted to have that problem.

    100% market share would be just fine with The Coca-Cola Company.

    For every solo expert I can think of, 100% market share would kill them in the short term through over-work, or kill their business in the long term by starving it of the “oxygen” it needs, which is time to innovate.

    I’m craving more books like How Brands Grow, but for the solo self-made expert. These books are valuable because they argue from Data.

    I want more books about solo experts firms that operate from this POV:

    positioning services - Experiential marketing learning for independent consultants

    Most books, at least those about marketing, come from the opposite end of the Experience-Data spectrum. (Which, by the way is fine. I’m just wanting to balance my reading diet out with Data-based perspectives.)

    The reason there’s not much I can export from a book like How Brands Grow and apply to the solo expert context is the scale issue. Solo expert firms can’t scale to 100% market share. That’s not how they thrive.

    When I think about how they do grow and thrive, I think about barbells. More specifically, dumbells and barbells.

    positioning services - Experiential marketing learning for independent consultants

    This seems to me like a decent model of solo expert firm growth.

    We start here:

    positioning services - Experiential marketing learning for independent consultants

    And intentional growth takes us here:

    positioning services - Experiential marketing learning for independent consultants

    We start with a direct response marketing approach because it’s cheap, reasonably effective, and beginner-friendly. The Internet is chockablock full of advice about how to do direct response marketing. In fact, if you just search for general stuff like “how to market consulting services” the overwhelming majority of what you find will assume you want to use direct response marketing.

    You’ll never accidentally be advised to use brand marketing!

    We start with relatively low-profit services because that’s also easy and accessible for us. Those might be services sold on an hourly billing model, or ones that are labor-intensive to deliver regardless of the pricing model. These services are often leveraging skill (knowing how to do things in the context of a project) rather than expertise (knowing when/why to do things in the context of a business).

    Over time, and in intentional fashion, we pursue expertise, which leads to greater profitability, which allows us to invest in more generous brand marketing.

    Brand marketing is “less cost-effective” than direct response marketing. It moves the needle less observably. In the short term, that is.

    In the medium to long term it’s more effective than direct response marketing because direct response marketing undermines your claim to be a genuine expert, and brand marketing doesn’t.

    What fuels the growth from dumbell-size expert to barbell-size expert is investment. Investment in your own self-made expertise.

    You make this investment more effective by specializing.

    The investment in self-made expertise probably requires sacrifice. I know some self-made experts who have made this investment without a painful level of sacrifice, but I think that’s enabled by a some personal quality they have that’s unique to them (ex: they’re OK with living frugally for a number of years, they’re confident enough to charge premium rates for their still-forming expertise, they’re OK with working lots of overtime for a while, etc.).

    For most of us, the sacrifice will probably be somewhere between uncomfortable and painful.


    Durable sources of value

    Removing blackberries, or innovation. You choose.

    Real Quick: Who is an authority to you? I’d like to learn, and will share what I learn with this list next week. Please take 60 seconds to tell me:

      • • •  

    A TEI participant told me he’s read this email at least 10 times. I re-read it and thought it was good. I’d say that justifies a re-run!

      • • •  

    Generally, I think we should ignore every piece of business advice that comes out of the mouth of superstar performers.

    They’re too far ahead of us. They’ve long ago solved for whatever would get us to the next level of success, and the problems they’re working on are so different from our own that their advice is not very relevant.

    On top of that, they might have achieved success quickly. This is the absolute worse, because they might be simply “reading you their winning lottery ticket“, but doing so under the guise of business advice.

    That said, there are a few relevant things Jeff Bezos says in this interview: Bezos is a superstar performer, but he did not achieve his success quickly, and so he’s worth listening to (with a critical ear, of course, but still worth listening to).

    I first came across the Bezos interview in this Farnam Street blog post: I thank them for transcribing this excerpt:

    What we’re really focused on is thinking long-term, putting the customer at the center of our universe and inventing. Those are the three big ideas to think long-term because a lot of invention doesn’t work. If you’re going to invent, it means you’re going to experiment, you have to think long-term.

    This is absolutely relevant to us.

    I assume — correctly most of the time — that over a long enough time window, every skill will become commoditized. What globalization has done is accelerate the time window to commoditization for many skills. What computer technology has done is the same thing for other sets of skills. Between these two forces, most pure skills[^1] can go from rare and valuable to fully commoditized within a single human’s career.

    This means that skill alone is not a durable source of value in the marketplace. You need more than skill alone. For a services business, we’re left with the following durable sources of value:

    • A willingness to focus on skill-based work that can’t easily be commoditized (ex: this is generally unpleasant work that’s not portable, like removing blackberries or whatever the equivalent is in your discipline, or skill that’s niche enough that it’s ignored by those driving the commoditization of skill)
    • An ability to build an economic engine that leverages commoditized skill (ex: certain productized services, or serving clients in wealthy countries with a team based on a low cost of living country)
    • Specialized expertise that requires human judgement (ex: business strategy decisions, or product strategy decisions, or other strategy decisions)
    • An ability to innovate, or innovate on behalf of others

    I like the expertise and innovation options from this list. I do not like — at least for myself — the “removing blackberries” and “managing an overseas team” options.

    And so I like Jeff Bezos’ sentiment that you need to have a long term focus in order to bear the cost of innovation. Because it is expensive, and it doesn’t pay off right away, and it is risky.

    If there was a better alternative, I’d recommend that. But in the face of commoditization driven by globalization and computer technology, I don’t think there is a better way to create durable value than investing in expertise and innovation.



    [^1]: Let’s define skills as things that can be transferred to someone else with a relatively small amount of training, or things that can be expressed as a process or algorithm. In other words, things that require only a basic level of human judgment or a small amount of insight.

    Book mastermind

    Quick tophat: Who is an authority to you? I’d like to learn, and will share what I learn with this list next week. Please take 60 seconds to tell me:

      • • •  

    Hey, I’m wanting to put together a small “mastermind”.

    • A mastermind for people who will publish a book in 2020
    • Focus is very much on accountability/publishing/writing process for the book project, not general business accountability or hanging out as friends
    • Limit of 5 people (maybe we go up to 7 if there’s strong interest, but we keep it small)
    • Mastermind ends after the last member’s book is published or 2020 ends, whichever comes first
    • Maybe we convert it into a book launch/promotion mastermind after most members have published, maybe we don’t

    For this to make sense for you, you need to have a clear shot at finishing the writing/production/publication part of your book project in 2020.

    BTW, does the word mastermind make anyone else’s skin crawl? I can only really think of the Stonecutters episode of The Simpsons now when I hear that word.

    positioning services - Experiential marketing learning for independent consultants

    Anyway, if you think this book publishing accountability group would relevant to you, please let me know a bit about you and your book project here:

    I have no idea how strong the interest in this will be, so I don’t know whether to treat this as something where I’ll be lucky to see any interest at all or something that will need to have a strict vetting process. Thus the form. 🙂

    BTW, I’ll be a full participant in this group. And it’ll be free to participate in. Might be obvious, but my motivation here is to build a small temporary community that helps me be on both the giving and receiving end of accountability/support as I work to get TPM v3 over the finish line.


    Losing fans

    Are you afraid of your email list?

    Quick tophat: Who is an authority to you? I’d like to learn, and will share what I learn with this list next week. Please take 60 seconds to tell me:

      • • •  

    For a while I’ve believed that the rules by which modern audience-based businesses succeed are the same rules by which art succeeds. Or doesn’t succeed.

    On one level, that observation is obvious and dumb. They’re both audience-based things, so of course the same rules might govern them both.

    On another level, how many of us are actively trying to learn what the music business, and those working within it, have figured out and apply those lessons to our little online expertise-driven businesses? How many of us see those similarities?

    There’s the whole-business pespective.

    The music business has successfully transitioned from a labels-and-media-sales economic model to a live-performance-and-streaming one. Neither model was perfect, but a new workable model has emerged out of the rubble of the old one.

    I believe that soon — sooner than any of us would like — anyone who depends on free visibility from an aggregator (Google search, for example) is in for a music-business-level disruption. When I say soon, I measure that in years, not months or weeks.

    And there’s also the artist-level perspective.

    How many fans did U2 dissapoint with the headspinning combination of Rattle and Hum and Achtung Baby? How many of them could survive the 6-year journey from The Joshua Tree to Zooropa?

    If you are an individual business owner publishing to an email list, I guarantee you can identify with the queasy feeling that happens when you consider changing things up, or expressing a more opinionated version of your POV, or trying a different approach.

    “I wonder how this is going to land with them?”

    I love Nick Cave’s take on this, from a recent Red Hand Files letter. I’ll excerpt liberally:

    Q: With your new sound, you don’t fear losing old fans?

    A: We love and respect our fans, both past and present, but, of course, they are free to come and go as they please. What The Bad Seeds are trying to do is to nurture our listeners, to challenge and confront them, to make records that create some kind of dissonance, and perhaps even disturb them, but hopefully ultimately move them.

    Losing fans is the collateral damage that comes from engaging in music from an artistic perspective, rather than a commercial one. Making music specifically to please fans can be patronising and exploitative. Challenging music, by its very nature, alienates some fans whilst inspiring others, but without that dissonance, there is no conversation, there is no risk, there are no tears and there are no smiles, and nobody is moved and nobody is affected!

    For some of us, moments of genuine emotional resonance are rare; we are besieged by insincere forces and have become cynical and suspicious of the world. Many letters to The Red Hand Files signal a despair and anger toward the way the world operates, but they also display a deep love of beauty and a need for meaning. We want to make records that do not add to the hollow clamour that surrounds us but instead challenge people and guide them toward meaning.

    That’s most of Nick’s answer, but not all of it. Reading rest of it, and his thoughts on why Kanye West is the greatest artist working now, is worth the trip over here:

    There are artists and musicians who pretty reliably give their fans what their fans are used to and seem to want every time the artist creates something new.

    And then there are artists who take a lot of risks, and give their fans something fresh, perhaps something unexpected, perhaps even something hard to comprehend or contextualize within the artist’s past work. Maybe not every time, but they do it quite often.

    At some point, usually after those who started the program with no list but have built a small list, I make a point of asking Expertise Incubator participants if they are afraid of their email list.

    However large or small your audience is, are you afraid of them?

    Are you happy with your answer to that question?

    Does it effect your risk-taking behavior?


    Your authorities?

    I’d like to try something.

    Week 1: I get your input on a focused, small question.
    Week 2: I share the findings back with you. (This won’t take the whole week since the question will be very focused)

    If you’re up for it, I’ll start with this question: who is an authority to you?

    An authority combines expertise and trust. On topics where we consider them an authority, we trust their advice.

    We look to authorities for guidance.

    Weigh in on this question using this form, please:

    Using a form will allow me to more easily report back to you with the results.

    The survey is pretty short and I’d imagine it could be completed in 60 seconds or less. It looks like this:


    The survey is anonymous except for some basic about-your-business information.

    Here it is again. I’d greatly appreciate your input:


    Learning through writing

    Expertise Incubator member Jim Thornton sent me this excellent article on learning through writing:

    It’s about a 13-minute read, and well worth it.

    I think it’s a real shame for practicing and aspiring consultants to limit themselves to what they already know how to do. That’s the least risky approach, but again I think it’s a shame.

    The real opportunity that comes from the profitability of consulting work is to expand a frontier. The self-made experts I interview tend to think through writing, and that’s one way they explore and expand a frontier.

    That article again:


    Another POVSpace map

    Let’s keep mapping some folks into the POVSpace.

    This is risky stuff. It’s similar to critiquing someone else’s work without their involvement, or even permission. You just hope that if it’s done in a spirit of fairness and generosity then that intent shows through.

    There’s a very good and popular podcast that some of you probably listen to: 2Bobs. The hosts, David C. Baker and Blair Enns, make for an interesting pair to map into the POVSpace. Here goes:

    positioning services - Experiential marketing learning for independent consultants

    Imagine that whatever topic these two are discussing on an episode of their podcast lies at the center of the POVSpace map.

    You can easily see how David and Blair will approach the topic at hand from differing perspectives. They might agree with each other. That would be alignment between the content of their POVs, but they would arrive at their conclusions by different means (data vs. experience, for example).

    I’ll make a claim: this is part of what makes their podcast so interesting to so many people.

    They’re both funny. That helps.

    They’re both smart. That helps too.

    One of them is conventionally handsome.

    And the podcast is well concieved and produced. That also helps.

    But I can’t get over the idea that them coming from different places in the POVSpace creates a tension — a lively interplay between how they see things — that is compelling and always interesting to listen to.

      • • •  

    A question for you, to help you think this stuff through:

    If you were putting on a niche conference for those you serve, what would you want the POVSpace map for presenters and audience to look like? Would you want everyone operating from the same POV, or would you want some tension baked into it? If so, what configuration of tension would be most valuable?