Insight for Independent Consultants

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    Survey customers -> positioning statement?

    The next cohort of The Expertise Incubator begins Jan 13, 2020. If you’re interested, let me know.

    • • •

    The reader question: “How do I effectively survey my current customers to help me create an accurate positioning statement?”

    The recommendation: Decide which direction to point the car first, then maybe use this one question to survey your current customers.

    • • •

    I am very often envious of:

    • Those who are content with easy-to-sell optimization work
    • Those who are not thirsty for significant, even radical, change in their clients
    • Those who are happy to build stuff to spec rather than try to innovate

    If this describes you, and you’re generally happy with the kind of clients you’ve currently got, then do ask them this question:

    What part of your business have we done a good job of improving?

    Start with that 1 question, then follow up to learn more from those who respond. Fashion your positioning statement around what you learn.

    If on the other hand, you share in the wonderful burden of wanting to push things forward…

    In that case, don’t point the car backwards. Don’t derive a positioning statement from what current and previous clients tell you about your work.

    Design a positioning statement that accurately embodies your desire for change, transformation, or progress in your clients. If it scares you a bit, GOOD. If it seems like it only appeals to the small minority of highly motivated prospects, GOOD.

    If you can see further down the road than your clients can, don’t ask them for directions.

    Instead, offer them a free map with your company logo on it.

    A reminder: Would you like more detail on the LinkedIn lead generation process described here? If so, please reply, I’ll send you a payment link for $150, and when you pay I’ll give you access to a Gdrive folder containing ~5 hours of video training on that lead generation process. It’s worked really well for folks who are specialized and willing to do the work.

    High value architecture work

    The next cohort of The Expertise Incubator begins Jan 13, 2020. If you’re interested, let me know.

    • • •

    The reader question: “How to attract and close deals for high value architecture and project planning work, rather than just coding by the hour.”

    The recommendation: Get asked for your advice about architecture first before you attempt to close a deal for high value architecture and project planning work.

    I don’t say this because I doubt your skill. However, sufficient skill is rarely the problem.

    Instead, visibility is almost always the problem. (Access is the secondary problem, but sufficient visibility generates access, so we’ll focus on visibility today.) You can solve the “get asked for architecture” problem without earning visibility, but it will be a temporary solution.

    Let’s talk about the durable solution, which is earning visibility.

    Our mental model of experts is: their expertise is so valuable that their “hobby” is generously giving back to the industry or pushing forward the state of the art.

    You need to find a way to give back to the industry from your wealth of knowledge/skill about high value architecture, or push forward (in a visible way, ex: open source work, speaking, or publishing) the state of the art in high value architecture. Or project planning.

    You need to find a way to do this consistently for 2 to 3 years. It can be done on a time budget of 10 hours/week.

    A TEI participant recently told me about shaking loose some advisory service prospects from his TINY email list. It happened after he dared himself to express his point of view more clearly and bluntly.

    With certain topics, you don’t need much visibility to generate new advisory services opportunity. A microscopic list can be enough.

    But you do need some visibility.

    Where, dear questioner, will you start earning visibility for yourself?

    Go deeper: Ponder this: what would a weekly briefing on architecture/project planning look like? Would you curate the best articles from this week? Would you use a point of view to help readers know what to pay attention to and what to ignore?

    Can you find 10 people who would agree to receive this briefing?

    If so, you might be onto something. The next question is clear: why not begin today?

    Take action: If you want a supportive small group environment to take risks like this, The Expertise Incubator might be for you.

    Effective authority and lead generation

    Admin Note: I am making some back-end changes on my email list. If you see anything weird on your end, let me know and we’ll fix it up.

    • • •

    The questions (two perfectly-matched ones that appeared adjacent to each other in the spreadsheet where my post opt-in survey stores responses): 

    1. “For now… As a non-Dev… How to create content to build authority and improve lead generation. I guess that’s two questions blended into one. ;-)”

    2. “How to do it effectively. While running my business.”

    The recommendation: Do whatever it takes to free up the same 10 hours a week. Find or build a niche audience and serve them generously and consistently. Make it obvious how they can pay for more of your help.

    Here’s one tested way to spend that 10h/week budget. It won’t work forever, but it works now:

    1. Make your LinkedIn headline into a simple positioning statement ($THING-YOU-DO for $MARKET-YOU-DO-IT-FOR), and your summary into a list of the problems you solve or the improvement you create.

    2. Use LinkedIn Sales Navigator to find ~1k people who are prospects for your services or referral sources.

    3. Use a LinkedIn automation tool to invite those people to connect. Do not sell to them or drip them an automated sequence. Merely invite them to connect.

    4. Repeat 2 – 3 indefinitely.

    5. Write and publish on LinkedIn something meant to be helpful or thought-provoking 3x/week or more. Some of the audience you’ve built via steps 1 – 2 will see your writing. Some will seek your help if what you offer helps with an important need.

    The caveats: The first paragraph above is the entire answer, but there’s some important nuance:

    Free up the same 10 hours a week means that you’ll find and colonize some time on your calendar. Maybe it was used for client work, and you take a cut in billings so you can invest in marketing. Or maybe it was used for relaxation or entertainment, and you choose to work more. 

    Ideally it was used for client work and you find a way to become more profitable so you can invest more while working the same amount.

    It works best if it’s the same time slot each week so that you can build a habit. Find the time and protect it.

    Find or build a niche audience means if they’re already out there, join up and contribute. If they’re not, build the audience yourself.

    Where they might already be:

    • Forums

    • Slack channels

    • Facebook groups

    • Podcast listenership

    • Conference attendance

    How to build the audience if they don’t exist already:

    • Any of the above, except don’t try to run a conference

    • LinkedIn connections

    • An email list you build

    Serve them generously and consistently means that you might create content, or you might “merely” create connection.

    If creating content, prioritize PoV or filling an information gap, and publish 3x/week or more.

    Take action: Would you like more detail on that LinkedIn process described above? If so, please reply, I’ll send you a payment link for $150, and when you pay I’ll give you access to a Gdrive folder containing ~5 hours of video training on that lead generation process. It’s worked really well for folks who are specialized and willing to do the work.


    The next cohort of The Expertise Incubator begins Jan 13, 2020. If you’re curious, let me know.

    I’ve gotten questions from y’all via my post opt-in survey. I’m answering the most difficult ones for you here.

    The question: “How to be confident in not knowing everything”

    The recommendation: “Come down off the cross, we can use the wood.” – ‘Come on up to the House’, Tom Waits

    I’m being a little rough with you here, but only because if you can handle the tough love, there’s a club you can join, and it’s wonderful.

    This club is full of self-made experts who have figured out how to run unique, profitable businesses that generate significant impact and revenue. The price of admission is simple: discipline, and a willingness to endure years of mild discomfort.

    For many of us, that discomfort is the pain of exceeding our natural supply of confidence. Those in this club plow into a domain that excites us while simultaneously building expertise and charging clients as we go. We are dealing with 3 simultaneous forms of uncertainty as we do this:

    1. Is the domain you choose (a problem domain or a market vertical) the best one?

    2. Will you be able to build rare, valuable expertise within that domain?

    3. Will you push things too far in your paid work with clients?

    I have three encouragements for you that I hope reduce your uncertainty in those 3 areas:

    1: Specialization is 20% good decision (about where to specialize), and 80% implementation (robust followthrough, good marketing, hunger for opportunity). If you do a good job with the implementation, specialization screwups are rare.

    2: The overlap between technology and any other domain is a fertile, dynamic place. Innovation in this overlap is 33% being curious, 33% being industrious, and 33% learning to be a visible, influential outsider. Expertise often takes the form of importing best practices from elsewhere — which requires no special brilliance — or doing some basic legwork like primary research or assembling easily-available data.

    3: You won’t push things too far with clients. You’ll use increasing profitability to build mutually-beneficial risk hedges like money back guarantees on your work, etc. Early successes will build confidence which helps you seek more ambitious work. Early failures will hone your own sense for risk, making you a better advisor.

    Go deeper

    • Good stuff on confidence:

    • Listen to enough of this podcast episode to notice the pattern of how the coach, Rich Litvin, helps increase people’s confidence: Once you notice the pattern, you’ll be able to use it on yourself. If you find this stuff underwhelming, good!, because Rich Litvin charges $100,000.00 per year for 1:1 coaching. Seriously. There’s a lesson about confidence in there. (And one about market segmentation, too.) (Oh, and another one about the nature of value.)

    Take action: This week, reduce uncertainty for one person. Could be a client, friend, or stranger. You don’t have to solve a problem for them 100%, you just need to reduce their uncertainty in a decision. It doesn’t have to be a major decision for them, either.

    Make customers come to you

    The next cohort of The Expertise Incubator begins Jan 13, 2020. If you’re curious, let me know.

    I’ve gotten questions from y’all via my post opt-in survey. I’m answering the most difficult ones for you here.

    The question: “How to make customers come to you?”

    The recommendation: You can’t.

    This question touches on something hugely important. I’m going to guess that the usage of the word “make” — as in compel or force — was probably accidental. But if it was intentional and the intended meaning was cause/compel/force, then we’re talking about a common, toxic attitude in marketing.

    It’s an attitude that comes from fear, at least when you believe your job or career is on the line.

    You can’t compel customers to come to you.

    You can’t “drive” traffic.

    Here’s what you can do.

    1) You can offer something that is worth the attention, effort, or cost it takes to act on it.

    2) You can earn visibility for your offer.

    That’s it. Those are your two degrees of freedom in marketing.

    And critically, as you do the above, you can earn trust. Or… you can erode trust.

    You earn trust by offering something that produces a strong ROI on the attention, effort, or cost it takes to act on it.

    You erode trust by offering something that is barely worth the attention, effort, or cost. Or worse, by having the belief that you can “drive” traffic. That you can “make customers come to you”.

    Visibility for your offer has to be earned through relevance, uniqueness, and persistence. A point of view (PoV), generously filling an information gap, and good connections (access) are very helpful in earning visibility.

    Go deeper: Seth Godin’s book This is Marketing does a really good job of illuminating this idea despite the book’s just a bunch of essays (JBOE) format.

    Take action: My group coaching program can help you build the kind of offers that earn trust and visibility:

    # [Indie Experts] Right approach, wrong client?

    The next cohort of The Expertise Incubator begins Jan 13, 2020. If you’re curious, let me know.

    I’ve gotten questions from y’all via my post opt-in survey. I’m answering the most difficult ones for you here.

    The question: “I still don’t fully understand how this approach (specialization and productized consultancy) would work with the type of clients that I usually engage with (large organizations, mainly financial institutions). I’ve never been involved in any engagement in which a member offered his services this way. Is that normal? What am I missing?”

    The recommendation: Some industries do have a “cultural center of gravity” loaded with norms or expectations that are incompatible with specialization or productized services.

    I think often of the debacle. The initial failure of that project was virtually guaranteed by the culture that gave birth to it. (Interesting read on this:

    Could the scrappy outsiders that ultimately helped rescue the project have been hired to do it right the first time? (“Why aren’t planes made out of black box material?”) Could they have started with a productized roadmapping session?

    Not in a million years. Besides not having the manpower to deal with an 800-page RFP, they would have gotten laughed out of the building during the selection phase.

    Cultural centers of gravity sometimes resist certain solutions — even good ones — to their problems.

    But there are edge cases. “Side doors” that can be entered. Perhaps there’s one or more of these in the finance industry?

    Sometimes the side door is moving from the green to the blue triangle:

    positioning services - Experiential marketing learning for independent consultants

    That’s not always the ideal solution, but it’s one potential side door.

    Sometimes the side door is moving from low-profit implementation work — entirely or just partially — to higher-profit advisory or coaching or training work. It’s possible those folks are literally in the same client office building as you, just in an opaque part of the org.

    Sometimes the side door is moving from clients that want bundled expertise to clients that want unbundled expertise. This is often a move from small to larger clients, but — as you’ve pointed out — not always!

    Sometimes the side door is moving from a mature skill market (ex: Java) to an immature skill market (ex: React as of a few years ago).

    And sometimes, just sometimes, the side door is a few blocks down, in a different industry.

    The caveats: Finding the side door usually requires enduring a fair bit of change. Ain’t no shame in putting on the right suit and shoes so you can be accepted via the front door if that’s more to your taste!

    Go deeper: There’s really no substitute for talking to someone who has found one of these side doors. Here’s a LinkedIn Sales Navigator search:

    It’s 9,232! results for a search for self-employed consultants in the Financial Services industry. Because of the fuzziness of LinkedIn’s search algorithm there won’t be that many, but…

    positioning services - Experiential marketing learning for independent consultants

    My God, that search is full of stars. 50% of those you reach out to will be happy you asked and happy to give you 15 minutes to tell you how they found a side door.

    Ask ’em! Don’t be afraid to be direct as you do so. You could do a lot worse than: “Hey, you seem to have found a way to thrive as a solo consultant in the financial services industry. I’d like to do the same. OK to say no, but do you mind if I ask you how you did it?”

    Take action: I specialize in helping folks find these side doors. It takes work, but some of us don’t wanna wear the “right” suit and shoes:


    Is specialization always right?

    The next cohort of The Expertise Incubator begins Jan 13, 2020. If you’re curious, let me know.

    I’ve gotten questions from y’all via my post opt-in survey. I’m answering the most difficult ones for you here.

    The question: “I have a lot of experience and am good at several disparate things (design/coding/marketing). Is specialisation always the right choice?”

    The recommendation: It is not always the right choice. It is sometimes the wrong choice, and sometimes the only choice.

    An important sidebar on decision making: It’s tempting to measure the quality of decisions based on their outcome. That sets up an anxiety/OCD loop. Don’t do it.

    Measure the quality of a decision based on:

    • Whether there’s alignment between what your vision for the future and your choice in the decision
    • Whether you’ve done sufficient work to reduce uncertainty in the decision (de-risking)
      • Whether the specific uncertainty reduction work for this decision delivers desirable second-order benefits (useful learning by-products)
    • Whether the chosen action matches your risk profile

    If the decision making work above can’t get you to the lowered risk burden you need, then go smaller and more iterative in your approach to the decision using the Lean methodology. Make small sequential bets with good feedforward loops between them, or set up and execute a portfolio of bets.

    Back to the recommendation: Specialization is the right choice if you need one of the two things below more than you need the emotional ROI of highly varied client work:

    1. Outbound or inbound marketing that actually works
    2. The ability to cultivate rare, valuable expertise

    The default condition of marketing is failure. Failure to earn attention, to be remembered, to be understood, and to be acted upon.

    Specialization helps you engage in marketing that fails less often.

    The default movement in a skills market is towards commoditization. To be more standardized, interchangeable, and cheap.

    Specialization helps you resist the trend towards commoditization.

    The caveats: Even as a specialist, your workday will be very varied and rewarding. You are, after all, running a business and very likely wearing lots of hats.

    If you stopped offering design and marketing to your clients and just focused on coding, you would have become more specialized, but your day-to-day will still involve significant marketing work. ~50% of your time, if you’re doing it right.

    Take action: Try this free experiment in vertical specialization. Assuming you have a LinkedIn profile, sign up for LinkedIn’s Sales Navigator (SN) product. It’s free for the first month.

    Use SN to search for every first-degree connection that has a management role within the retail industry. Every one of those qualifiers (connection closeness, job role, industry) matches to a SN search field. You have a list of names now.

    Every one of the companies these people work for is thinking about how to deal with Amazon. How could your skills be valuable to them? How could you be of service in a free capacity to them in order to connect and earn their trust and have the opportunity to serve them in a paid capacity?

    See how we’re using this simple experiment to reduce your uncertainty in decision making? 🙂


    PoV and Information resources

    The problem: I’ve got some ‘splainin to do.

    Last week’s email about building a list of followers, which was really about point of view (PoV) and information resources, spurred some discussion in a TEI meeting. I want to share with you how that discussion clarified some things.

    The context: A quick recap of last week’s email: Want to build an audience of some kind? If you’re vertically specialized, cultivate a compelling PoV. You’re dead in the water without it. If you’re horizontally specialized in a platform that’s a new “rising star”, build an information resource, like a curated links email list.

    This recommendation contained enough truth for me to continue to stand behind it, but it could be framed in a better way, and with more nuance.

    The solution: The initial framing was vertical vs. horizontal specialization. That works OK, but I think the more useful framing is immature vs. mature domain.

    The tech world is wonderful and weird. I sometimes like to imagine the tech world as 5 parallel Golden Gate Bridges. The first one was built because it was necessary, and each subsequent bridge was sold based on hyped marketing promises about revolutionary new bridge tech, built at great expense, and offers a mix of advantages and drawbacks.

    Mainframes -> PC’s -> PC servers -> Virtualized workloads -> Cloud computing.

    The tech world is re-creating infrastructure on a nearly constant basis. Some of it is genuine improvement. Regardless of the actual improvement, new whitespace is opening up all the time.

    Whitespace is an information gap. Whitespace is what Corey Quinn leveraged when he started his Last Week in AWS newsletter. AWS was growing rapidly, and staying up to date was a challenge. Enter Corey and his weekly list of curated links. Whitespace, meet information resource.

    People who succeed at building a valuable information resource become “overnight authorities”.

    Not every time, but often enough to make it worth the gamble.

    Not literally overnight, but way faster than most other routes to authority.

    And critically, you can get there without a PoV.

    To be clear, building an information resource that’s filtered through a compelling PoV is really good too! But if your only real filter for your information resource is “best” or “most useful” or “most underrated”, you’re going to be fine as long as the whitespace has sufficient gravity and you do a competent job of addressing the whitespace.

    A few current whitespaces with gravity:

    • Tech ethics
    • Serverless

    There are more. Lots more! And those whitespaces will close up as enterprising individuals (it’s usually individuals) build valuable information resources and become overnight authorities. Whitespace is transitory and rewards first/early movers. [^There is a sort of whitespace that’s available to late movers, but it’s a whitespace that only folks with a PoV can really thrive in. I think of Tom Goodwin as occupying that sort of whitespace. I don’t quite have a full grasp on Tom’s perspective, so rather than fail to summarize accurately I’ll point you to his Twitter feed if further self-study is interesting to you:]

    Generally the following is true of whitespace:

    • Whitespace is created by the emergence of new technology
    • Technology moves rapidly enough that new whitespace is constantly available to colonize
    • You colonize whitespace by creating a useful information resource
    • Some whitespaces have more “gravity” than others
    • A PoV can create new whitespace
    • A PoV can amplify an information resource

    I need to say more on those last 3 points. But not today.

    The takeaway: Immature domains have more naturally-occurring whitespace, and that’s why those are the domains where building a valuable information resource can help you build authority quickly.

    These immature domains and their attendant whitespace tend to be horizontal in nature (ex: insurance companies are just as likely to use AWS as manufacturing companies), but there’s no systematic reason they — and your information resource — can’t be vertically defined. For example, if you aimed your information resource at the whitespace created by tech ethics within the legal profession, that could work fine assuming the gravity of that vertically-defined whitespace is sufficient.

    Mature domains have less naturally occurring whitespace. The whitespace that was there has been filled with best practices and established ways of doing things. That’s why it’s more likely that you’ll need a compelling PoV to earn attention within more mature domains. The PoV is interesting in its own right, creates fresh whitespace that you can fill with your own information resource, or the PoV has a polarizing/magnetic effect. These all allow you to earn attention within a crowded space.

    Finally, I’ll note that building an information resource is not a magic bullet. It’s a lot of work, just like cultivating a PoV is.

    It just happens to be more beginner-friendly work. It feels less emotionally risky too, since you are unlikely to polarize your audience with an information resource that’s genuinely just trying to be helpful.


    First step out of staff aug

    The next cohort of The Expertise Incubator begins Jan 13, 2020. If you’re curious, let me know.

    I’ve gotten questions from y’all via my post opt-in survey. I’m answering the most difficult ones for you here.

    The question: “For the mildly risk-averse, what are my first tactical steps to separating from this “consulting” (read: staff augmentation) firm to start my path towards becoming an independent, real consultant where I’m paid for my expertise rather than my time?”

    The recommendation: Getting asked for your advice is a precursor to getting paid for your advice.

    The probability of getting asked for advice increases as a function of:

    • (The problem’s) Importance
    • (Your client’s) Uncertainty
    • (Your) Visibility

    You need to find a repeatable way to get asked for — and subsequently paid for — your advice. Here’s how you do that:

    1. Identify important business problems. They must be important from your client’s perspective.
    2. Prioritize them according to the amount of uncertainty clients experience when trying to solve those problems.
    3. Find one way you can earn visibility as a reducer of uncertainty around a problem that a) is important to clients, b) is cloaked in uncertainty, and c) is a problem that interests you. This method of earning visibility must be something you can implement as a side hustle.

    The caveats: Your risk profile is a combination of your emotional response to risk and your ability to survive a loss. Your question suggests you have a low to moderate risk profile.

    Do not leap and wait for the net to appear. You need a repeatable system for generating opportunity before you leap. I’ve seen few that are better than the kinds email lists I described in Tuesday’s email.

    True consulting (improving your client’s condition by selling them advice) might be a long-distance leap.

    Because of your low to moderate risk profile, consider adding an intermediate step in your move to consulting. That intermediate step is independent implementation work where you generate your own leads. That might be enough of a leap, and from that “lily pad” you can then move into full consulting.

    Go deeper: This free ebook from Hinge Marketing helps you understand the issue of visibility:

    Take action: Individual coaching with me has the flexibility a FTE needs to build up the ability to generate your own leads on the side before you leap to independent work:

    Building a list of followers

    The next cohort of The Expertise Incubator begins Jan 13, 2020. If you’re curious, let me know.

    I’ve gotten questions from y’all via my post opt-in survey. I’m answering the most difficult ones for you here.

    The question: “Where should I put my efforts for developing a list of followers?”

    The recommendation: “Followers” implies social media; “list” implies email marketing. Let’s go a bit deeper than either as we think about this.

    • If you’re vertically specialized, your effort should first focus on cultivating a point of view (PoV). You’re dead in the water without it. If you’re horizontally specialized in a narrow problem you should also focus on PoV first, though you can survive without a PoV if you identify the thing described below.
    • If you’re horizontally specialized in a platform or a narrow business problem that actually is important but few are taking about, your first effort should focus on finding an information gap. Dan Oshinsky did this with his Not a Newsletter newsletter, Mike Julian did this with his Monitoring Weekly publication, Corey Quinn did this with Last Week in AWS, Chris Ferdinandi did this with his Vanilla JS list, and Thai Wood did this with his Resiliance Roundup list. There are many others, and the information gap — not CRO or good landing page design or even ultimate content quality — is what powers the growth of their list.

    After you’ve solved for the question of why anyone should pay attention to you, then you can move on to how you connect and communicate with them (email list vs. social vs. other options).

    Go deeper: These interviews will help you think through this more deeply:

    Take action: My group coaching program can help you take action on cultivating a PoV or finding an information gap so that lead generation actually works: