Insight for Independent Consultants

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    What if authority does a hostile takeover of the business?

    An alternate take on the authority and expertise services markets idea.

      • • •  

    My podcast partner Liston Witherill had some very interesting points about my recent micro-study on authorities. I’ll share them with you below.

    Liston’s response points out an assumption in my thinking: I assume y’all will use authority to feed your expertise services business. That’s what many of us will actually do, but what if you accrue authority (remember, that’s expertise + trust) and decide you want your authority itself to become the business you run?

    Liston explores that angle. Everything below this point is what Liston wrote me in a Slack message yesterday. To make for easier reading, I won’t italicize or blockquote it.

      • • •  

    First off, thank you for your analysis. I couldn’t agree more that the markets for authority and services are quite different – it’s such a useful insight! I’ve personally witnessed this on a very small level with the growth of my podcast. Early on, I positioned my podcast as: a personal brand, on a particular topic, and for a specific audience. Over time, the podcast has evolved to being more topically focused as it became clear that the content was useful to a broader audience than I’d originally intended.

    This has translated into 1) exponential growth in audience size, and 2) linear growth in inbound leads. Now, there are several reasons that monetization hasn’t followed the same trajectory as audience growth, but I bring up this contrast to demonstrate that your central thesis is right.

    Authority and service markets play by different rules.

    I’d like to take your analysis to the next logical step: what should you do if and when your authority could become its own business, separate from service delivery? It’s where I am now and thought it may contribute to your discussion here. I also think it’s useful for your readers to evaluate and make a choice before they embark on an authority campaign.

    Implicit in your discussion is the assumption that authorities should maintain a niche focus in order to elevate their expertise and service delivery. But there’s another option, and…

    This is the fork in the road that some will experience as they develop authority. On the one hand, a topical appeal will attract a larger audience and new monetization options (see: a completely new business model).

    On the other hand, remaining focused on a particular niche will deepen your ability to provide valuable services and extract rents (i.e. premium pricing) accrued from your niche popularity and expertise. So what to do?

    It’s really a question of the kind of business you want to run. Do you love to create content and have a larger-than-expected impact on an audience hungry for your advice? Or, do you prefer to grow a service business, deliver services, and serve a relatively small number of clients in a one-to-one or one-to-few setting?

    Certainly there are hybrid options, but this is essentially the choice. If you’re interested in growing your business, the question becomes what you value more: relative independence and greater reach, or building a team in order to scale revenue to a small number of clients?

    And therein lies the issue for me: scale. I’d prefer to keep my company as small as possible while having an outsized impact. I don’t want to scale through staff, and never have. Content and authority scale really well, while service delivery just doesn’t. The former is algorithmic, the latter is linear.

    My goal is to change the way 1 million people sell, and the audience I have in mind is selling services. As that market grows, I attract a wider audience. Computers do a lot of stuff, but they’re bad at people skills, which makes it likely that services will be an increasing share of our economy. At the same time, many products are now bolting on services to increase LTV and differentiate. And that audience has tremendous business value to people selling stuff to people selling stuff. I know it’s meta, but hang with me.

    The point is that the possibilities for my authority are much farther reaching than I’d originally intended. There’s a nice business there, and one that’s deeply motivating because I can help a lot of people. That’s my #1 goal.


    It’s worth noting that there’s a big difference in business models. As I embark on operating a media business, it’s clear that the activities that drive the business are totally different than a client delivery business. In many ways, I’m still running a service business: I work directly with advertisers to help tell their story, and create deliverables for them. But it’s certainly not consulting. I’m selling influence and attention. I’m also seeing more and more people listening to the podcast from vastly different industries: transportation, health care, accounting, computer software, and of course professional services and plenty of other industries. The topic and intended audience remain focused, but the actual audience I attract is wider-than-expected and mostly out of my control.

    Personally, I like that.

    The question I’d leave for you and your audience is this:

    What kind of business do you want to run?

    Answer that question and you’ll know what to do if and when you ever reach the fork in the road between maximizing authority or service expertise.

    Authorities micro-study, pt3

    Why do consultancies pay attention to Chris Do?

      • • •  

    Today I’m concluding this series:

    Aside from the list of authorities, the main outcome of this micro-study is this insight:

    Authority functions more like mass market brands than specialized services do.

    I mentioned earlier: authorities are not authorities at-large. They’re authorities on a particular topic (like pricing) or a small range of topics. If they go too broad in their topical focus, they dilute the expertise needed to build authority.

    Why then do authorities with a narrow topical focus sometimes have broad appeal?

    Again, my study is constrained to those on this email list, which means it’s mostly a study of a certain corner of the professional services world. That said, three different business types were represented in the study: Software Development/IT, Marketing/Creative, or Consulting/Advisory.

    Some of the people y’all said were authorities are specifically focused on one of these types of business. Usually the focus is vertically defined. Chris Do of The Futr is a good example.

    positioning services - Experiential marketing learning for independent consultants

    It says right there at the top of his website who he’s focused on: creatives. That’s an audience, not a specific business vertical, but it is fundamentally a vertical focus.

    Every person in my micro-study who cited Chris Do as an authority listed their business type as Consulting/Advisory. Does Chris Do have a positioning problem?

      • • •  

    Again, the main insight coming from this study is relevant: Authority functions more like mass market brands than specialized services do.

    A good way to think about this: there is a “market” for authority, and there is a different market for expertise services, and those markets function by different rules. Specialized experts may participate in both markets, and as we think about those experts, we need to remember which set of market rules is in force.

    Imagine some person selling the same product on both Amazon and eBay’s markets. The rules will be different in those two markets even though the product is the same.

    Let’s keep going with the Chris Do example. Let’s imagine that he’s a pricing consulting for creatives (he’s not, he addresses more topics than that and functions as an educator rather than consultant, but let’s imagine a simplified version of his business).

    If we looked at this imaginary Chris Do’s client base and found no creative firms at all, he would have a “positioning problem”. His declared focus (creatives) would be completely mis-aligned with his actual client base. Setting aside whether this would actually cause any real issues for his business, he would at least conceptually have a positioning problem.

    If we looked at this imaginary Chris Do’s email list and found no creative firms at all, he would not have an “authority problem”.

    In the market for expertise services, one of the main rules is this: the expert can say no to a prospective client. They have direct control over who “consumes” their services.

    In the market for authority, the expert ultimately has no direct control over who regards them as an authority. They have no control over who “consumes” their authority.

    Returning to our imaginary Chris Do, if we looked at his client base and found no creative firms at all, we’d really have to ask why he’s so clearly and loudly focused on creatives in his marketing and yet, every time he’s presented with an opportunity to decide who consumes his services, he fails to say no to clients outside his declared focus. Does he really mean it when he says he’s focused on creatives?

    We’d have no such question about why his email list has whatever demographic composition is has because… that’s not ultimately up to him! Anyone who wants to can opt in to his email list, and if we think of his email list as a proxy for consumption of authority, anyone who wants to can view Chris Do as an authority. (Yes, he could manually kick people off his email list if they don’t fit some criteria he has, but comeon… nobody really does that, so my point still stands.)

      • • •  

    To ground this again in my micro-study’s data, I don’t see strong evidence that types of businesses have “special” sets of authorities. If an authority is popular among one type of business, they’re probably also considered an authority by other types of businesses.

    I hasten to add: this is certainly constrained by the scope of my study. If my study sampled manufacturing firms and NGOs in addition to professional services firms, then I wouldn’t say that certain types of businesses don’t have special sets of authorities. Of course the people cited by manufacturing firms as authorities would differ substantially from those cited as authorities by NGOs. But within the world of my email list and this study’s data, if someone is a popular authority on pricing, they’re probably simultaneously:

    • An authority on pricing to Creative/Marketing firms
    • An authority on pricing to Software Development/IT firms
    • An authority on pricing to Consulting/Advisory firms

    And they’re probably an authority to all three of those business types even if their declared focus is only on one of those types of businesses.

      • • •  

    You’ll notice the word “popular” keeps coming up as I discuss this phenomena of authority.

    You’ll possibly also notice that my examples about people that are authorities to different types of businesses have something in common: their topic is one that is relevant to these different types of businesses!

    The topics of sales, or pricing, or project management could be relvant to any kind of professional services firm. The topic of piping engineering… not so much! That topic, and the related authority (this guy: cannot possibly be relevant outside a pretty narrow partition within the world of engineering services. For this guy, his presence in the expertise services market will very closely resemble his presence in the authority market.

    But for folks who are authorities on the topics of sales, pricing, marketing, and so forth, as they become more popular their presence in the expertise services market will become markedly different than their presence in the authority market. In the services market, they can be as focused as their level of personal discipline allows. In the authority market, they will start to resemble a brand like the Coca-Cola Company.

      • • •  

    Blair Enns has somewhere around 20,000 members on his email list. He’s shared this number publicly, so I can use him as an example of a popular authority. Like Chris Do, Blair’s business focus is on creative firms. Like Chris Do, it says so right there on the tin:

    positioning services - Experiential marketing learning for independent consultants

    I have zero access to or detail-level insight into Blair’s email list, but based on the data from my micro-study, I’d feel confident making this prediction about Blair’s list:

    • Between 20 and 40% of his email list members are not from creative firms.

    If I’m right, this is because at a certain point, Blair’s presence in the expertise services market starts to diverge from his presence in the authority market.

    I don’t know if he actually does, but he can say to a services prospect: “Sorry, you’re too far outside our focus. You should find a different expert to help with this.” His presence in the expertise services market can be highly focused.

    He can’t say “sorry, this isn’t for you” to someone who wants to sign up for his email list. They can just opt in to his list and start seeing Blair as an authority, telling their business buddies “you should really check out this Blair guy; he has better advice on pricing services than anyone else”, and any other form of looking to Blair as an authority they want to engage in. The more popular Blair becomes, the more likely this is to happen because the topic of pricing is broadly relevant to a lot of businesses.

    Popularity spreads authority outside the niche it originated in. Popularity does not have to do the same for the application of expertise via paid services.

      • • •  

    Anyone who wants to (and is very minimally qualified) can open a bank account at Wells Fargo. In fact, if Wells Fargo does anything other than very minimal fact-based disqualification of a potential customer, they are looking at a potential liability in the form of an unlawful discrimination complaint/lawsuit. You’ll never hear this from Wells Fargo: “You know, something about the fit here just feels a bit off, and I’m afraid we won’t be able to do our best work for you, so we’re going to pass.”

    The Coca-Cola Company can decide not to participate in a certain geography, or perhaps not engage with some distributor and therefore they’re not available in certain restaurants, but they have no customer-level discretion about who they do or don’t sell to. If they did, they’d have discrimination lawsuits piled up from here to the moon.

    This is how authority resembles mass market products. The “distribution” of your authority might be focused in a certain area (like Cheerwine is only regionally distributed in the Southeastern US), but anyone who wants to anywhere in the world can become a consumer of your authority.

    If you view your expertise as an asset, you need to be careful to avoid letting the distribution of your expertise follow the distribution of your authority because that would be crowdsourcing your business strategy. Over time, that will dilute the potency of your expertise in proportion to your popularity as an authority. It might be exciting to see your broader “authority footprint” yield novel opportunities, but you need to be a shrewd portfolio manager as you decide whether pursuing these opportunities would increase or reduce the future value of your “expertise portfolio”.

    This is also why advice about marketing mass market products is of limited relevance to those of us selling expertise services. The rules of our market are different.

    If we become niche authorities and then become popular niche authorities, we will be participating in two markets simultaneously. We need to remember which market we are participating in.

    Should we say yes to this speaking engagement that’s for an audience that doesn’t match our positioning? Sure! No harm in acquiring more “authority market share” as that may lead to word of mouth and attract good services prospects.

    Should we say yes to applying our expertise for a type of client we have no previous experience with? Maybe, but probably not if our goal is to maximize the value of our expertise asset over the medium to long term.

      • • •  

    Arguing against my own conclusions for a moment, what if I drew the partitions wrong between the sub-niches? Might a different pattern emerge showing that there are certain business types with their own “special” set of authorities?

    Well, I did provide an option for respondents to provide their own partitioning scheme. On the business type questions, respondents could choose Other and supply their own description of business type and/or maturity level. Some did, but their answers there don’t suggest I missed some superior partioning scheme.

    That said, if we add a topical focus to the business type (ex: DevOps consulting firm), I’m confident we’d see a reversal, and I’d say: Certain sub-types of businesses do have a special group of authorities they pay attention to. For example, DevOps consulting firms often cite Gene Kim and Jez Humbler as authorities.

    But what I’d really be saying is a repeat of what I’ve said earlier: The strongest relationship in this data is between topic and authority.

    In other words, we seek out authorities because their topical expertise is relevant to our interests, and once their popularity/visibility rises to a certain level, we don’t care if they’re focused on a different vertical than the one we’re in.

      • • •  

    Let’s boil this down to a few key obsevations and takeaways:

    • The rules of the expertise services market and the authority markets are different. As you consume advice on positioning and marketing and expertise-based services, you need advice that is tailored precisely for the expertise services market. As you consume advice on positioning, for example, be aware that advice for product positioning operates under different rules (product sellers can’t say no without risking discrimination complains) than expertise services do. And then as you consume advice on, for example, growing your already-popular podcast, feel free to consume and adapt advice meant for products or mass market brands. Horses for courses.
    • We seek out authorities because their topical expertise is relevant to our interests, and once their popularity/visibility rises to a certain level, we don’t care much if they’re focused on a different vertical than the one we’re in. So…
    • Stick to your topic, ye authorities! As you become popular, dilution of your topic focus will be more harmful to you than dilution of your vertical market focus because your topic focus (and the resulting expertise) is how folks discover and come to trust your authority. That said, before you are a popular authority, do not dilute anything! Your vertical market focus, for example, is a powerful form of leverage at this early stage.
    • The popularity of an authority is enabled primarily by the popularity of the topic they’re an authority on. If your topic is extremely niche, temper your expectations about broad reach and enjoy the relative lack of competition. Concretely: a 2,000-member email list on piping engineering could have as much market power as a 20,000-member email list on pricing. Ratios matter more than absolute size. Remember this when your authority buddies talk about their list size.
    • Popularity spreads authority outside the niche it originated in. Popularity does not have to do the same for the application of expertise via paid services, in fact it generally should not. In very small niches, find ways to extract greater value from your expertise before you entertain applying your expertise outside the niche.

    positioning services - Experiential marketing learning for independent consultants

      • • •  

    Thanks for coming on this journey with me. It took me to a somewhat unexpected place!

    That’s what I love about these micro-studies. More of them to come. I’ll probably do one a month for a while.

    A similar slightly-larger-scale study took a TEI participant from these findings to this; from a question about security practices to research findings to a piece of exterprise security software he built based on the research and is getting strong interest in.

    Here’s my source data for you to inspect, use, and re-mix as you see fit:


    Authorities micro-study, pt2

    All the authorities.

      • • •  

    Continuing on from!

    Here’s the list of authorities by topic. I pretty liberally normalized the list of topics to make navigating this list easier, and to perhaps make it more useful as a “dictionary” of authorities. Apologies for fuzzing out some of the fidelity in the list of topics, but fear not, I will link you to the full source data later.

    • Blogging
      • Tim Denning
    • Business
      • Alex Hillman
      • Brian Casel
      • Chris Do
      • Dave Snowden
      • David Baker
      • Doug Hubbard
      • Jason Fried
      • John Cutler
      • Kim Scott
      • Paul Jarvis
      • Perry Marshall
      • Peter Drucker
      • Richard Koch
      • Roger Martin
      • Sean D’Souza
      • Seth Godin
      • Simon Sinek
      • Simon Wardley
      • Thoughtbot
      • Yvon Chouinard
    • Coaching
      • Steve Chandler
      • Tony Robbins
    • Consulting
      • Alan Weiss
      • Blair Enns
      • Brennan Dunn
      • Jonathan Stark
      • Philip Morgan
      • Rochelle Moulton
    • Copywriting
      • Joanna Wiebe
    • Customer experience
      • Matt Watkinson
    • DevOps
      • Gene Kim
      • Jez Humble
      • Nicole Forsgren
      • Simon Wardley
      • Yan Cui
    • E-commerce
      • Ezra Firestone
      • Kurt Elster
      • Steve Chou
    • Email Marketing
      • Alex Berman
      • Andre Chaperon
      • Ben Settle
      • Brennan Dunn
      • Dorie Clark
      • Litmus
      • Meera Kothand
      • Val Geisler
    • Expertise
      • David Baker
      • Philip Morgan
    • Fitness
      • David Sinclair
      • Pavel Tsatsouline
      • Peter Attia
    • Freelancing
      • Brennan Dunn
    • Knowledge Work
      • Cal Newport
    • Laravel Framework
      • Taylor Otwell
    • Linux kernel development
      • Linus Torvalds
    • Marketing
      • Bill Bice
      • Catherine Howell
      • Claire Suellentrop
      • Dave Trott
      • Donald Miller
      • Gia Laudi
      • Jason Leister
      • Jay Abraham
      • Kai Davis
      • Malcolm Gladwell
      • Mark Ritson
      • Neil Patel
      • Perry Marshall
      • Philip Morgan
      • Rand Fishkin
      • Robert Cialdini
      • Ross Hudgens
      • Russell Brunson
      • Sean D’Souza
      • Seth Godin
      • Steve Gordon
    • Not provided
      • Brian Love
      • Dan Kennedy
      • David Baker
      • James Clear
      • Jay Abraham
      • Kai Davis
      • Ken McCarthy
      • Rochelle Moulton
      • Thomas Burleson
      • Tim Ferris
    • Personal Development
      • Dan Pink
      • Davidji
      • James Clear
      • Leo Babauta
      • Marie Foleo
      • Matt D’Avela
      • Matt Sandrini
      • Maxwell Maltz
      • Naval Ravikant
      • Pema Chodron
      • Will Sentance
    • Personal Finance
      • Pete Matthew
    • Piping engineering
      • Tony Paulin
    • Positioning
      • Jonathan Stark
      • Philip Morgan
    • Pricing
      • Blair Enns
      • Chris Do
      • Jonathan Stark
      • Patrick Brennan
      • Phil Barden
      • Ron Baker
    • Programming training
      • Jeffrey way
    • Project management
      • Eli Goldratt
    • Research
      • Erika Hall
      • Indi Young
    • Research thought leadership
      • Randi Korn
    • SaaS
      • Amy Hoy
      • Brennan Dunn
      • Dan Martell
      • Nathan Barry
      • Patrick MacKenzie
    • Sales
      • Blair Enns
      • Heather Morgan
      • Jill Konrath
      • Liston Witherill
      • Louis Nicholls
      • Neil Rackem
    • Self Development
      • James Clear
      • Ryan Holiday
    • SEO
      • Brendan Hufford
    • Social Media
      • Gary Vaynerchuk
    • Software architecture
      • Jeff Nickoloff
      • Stephen Kuenzli
    • Software Development
      • Avdi Grimm
      • Corey Quinn
      • Don Reinertsen
      • Dries Buyteart
      • Jacob Beningo
      • Jeff Sutherland
      • Jim Coplien
      • Joel Spolsky
      • Kent Dodds
      • Martin Fowler
      • Michael Drues
      • Paul Akers
      • Ryan Singer
      • Sandi Metz
      • Scott Cantor
    • Startups
      • Nathan Barry
      • Paul Graham
      • Rachel Rogers
      • Y Combinator
    • Structural racism and bias
      • Ibram Kendi
    • Thought Leadership
      • Bob Lalasz
    • Training
      • Amy Porterfield
    • UX
      • Jared Spool
    • Vue.js Framework
      • Evan You

    Hell of a list, eh?!

    Again, my normalization did some violence to the nuance that’s actually there. You’ll see that nuance if you inspect the underlying data, which I’ll unleash in tomorrow’s email (I just need a bit more time to dump it into a new spreadsheet that isn’t cluttered with all my scratch tabs and experimental pivot tables).

    That’s the topical grouping.

    What if I group the authorities by business type?

    I won’t lengthen this email with an un-necessary copy/paste of that view of things. Instead, I’ll simply say: it feels like looking for faces in clouds. There might be a pattern there, but I doubt it.

    I don’t think that businesses that are just starting out (vs. stable or growing businesses) have a “special” set of authorities they pay particular attention to. I don’t think that creative business (vs. IT or consulting) have a “special” set of authorities they pay particular attention to.

    As I say this, I’m going on gut feel + a data set that has 41 more data points that you probably do, and I’m not using sophisticated statistical analysis. I don’t think that diminishes the strength of my conclusions at all.

    The strongest relationship in this data is between topic and authority. That means if you look at the topic of pricing, for example, a few names keep coming up. Jonathan Stark, Blair Enns, etc. That suggests (but by no means guarantees) that if we sampled 100 or 1,000 people similar to those I sampled here, the same set of names would keep surfacing as authorities on pricing.

    This is the essence of uncertainty reduction. We’re not certain about this trend, but thanks to my little scrappy micro-study, we’re less uncertain about it.

    Based on looking at this data, if we sampled 1,000 people working at creative agencies and asked them who are their authorities on the topic of pricing, and then sampled 1,000 people from consultancies using the same question, and then we compared the two lists of authorities, I think those lists would look very similar. That’s what I mean when I say that based on this data, I don’t think that creative business (vs. IT or consulting) have a “special” set of authorities they pay particular attention to.

    The evergreen caveat with these micro-studies is, as always: My data comes from my email list, which is a niche sample population (my email list is definitely not a mass-appeal list). It’s inherently biased data, collected with convenience opt-in sampling. We certainly might get different results with a less biased sample. We’d also never get that sample because of the expense and difficulty of more rigorous methods. So bask in the glow of uncertainty reduction, my friends! Imperfect as it may be, bask. in that. glow!!

    Tomorrow, I’ll go out on several conceptual limbs as I attempt to conclude this report to you.


    Authorities micro-study, pt1

    Are there “localized authorities”?

      • • •  

    I’m reporting back to you on a “micro-study” I conducted last week.

    The starting point question was simple: who is an authority to you, and on what topic? I asked 2 additional questions about what kind of business (marketing vs. IT, for example) and asked about business maturity (just starting vs profitable and growing, for example).

    I asked my email list, 42 of you responded (thank you!), and I used only simple tools to analyze the data (I loaded it into a Google sheet, scrubbed responses about the philosophical nature of authority, and set up a few pivot tables to group data in interesting ways).

    There are three simple ways to slice this data, and in aggregate they lead me to interesting conclusions.

    I was quite curious whether there are “localized authorities”, meaning people who are authorities to folks with only a certain kind of business or at a certain stage of business maturity. The pivot tables helped with this.

    And of course I was curious about the relationship between topics and people regarded as authorities on those topics.

    And finally, I was curious about the popularity of various authorities.

    If I squint too hard at data for too long I can convince myself that almost anything is there, kind of like looking for faces in clouds. So I’ll try to avoid that and just take shorter glances and allow myself to be moved by only obvious clear patterns.

      • • •  

    What do we see in the data?

    131 people were listed as authorities. Here’s the top 5, along with how often they were cited as an authority:

    • Philip Morgan – 18 (sampling bias, anyone? 🙂 )
    • Jonathan Stark – 11
    • Seth Godin – 11
    • David Baker – 6
    • Amy Hoy – 5

    Authorities are not authorities-at-large, they are authorities on a topic or small range of topics. For example…

    Jonathan Stark, topics he’s cited as an authority on:

    • Authority / hourly billing
    • Building a consulting business
    • Consulting & pricing
    • positioning, marketing, freelancing
    • Pricing
    • Pricing, marketing
    • Pricing, Positioning
    • Solo consultant pricing
    • The business of software consulting
    • Value based pricing
    • Value-based pricing

    I avoided cleaning up that list of Jonathan’s topics so you could get a sense of how folks express this stuff. Those 11 topics would collapse down into ~6 if I did normalize the list.

    I looked at two other slices:

    • Authorities grouped by business type (ex: marketing vs. IT, for example)
    • Authorities grouped by business maturity (ex: just starting out vs. profitable and growing)

    In tomorrow’s email I’ll present the full summary of data for you, and further explore those latter two slices, which are where I’d hope to find an answer to my question “are there certain people who are considered authorities by certain types of businesses?”.


    Localization, not invention

    Innovation does not always require invention.

      • • •  

    You’ll notice that maybe 1/3rd to 1/2 of the methods of innovation on this mindmap are importing innovation from elsewhere to your area of focus. They’re localization, not invention.

    positioning services - Experiential marketing learning for independent consultants

    (Peruse in your browser:

    This style of innovation looks like one of two things.

    1) It can look like importing existing innovation from the left of the Rogers curve and applying it to your more conservative, late-to-adopt clients.

    positioning services - Experiential marketing learning for independent consultants

    In this case, you’re not inventing anything, you’re simply creating real value by helping your clients apply what the more risk-positive in their industry have already invented and refined.

    2) Invention-less innovation can look like importing from other domains.

    It might not be a perfect example, but I think of lean manufacturing. It’s arguable that the genesis of lean in manufacturing predates the application of lean to software development by 50 years.

    Significant value was created by importing and adapting the lean manfacturing concept to software development.

    Invention-less innovation is why the idea of the “T-shaped expert” is important.

    Suggested Reading:

    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.