Insight for Independent Consultants

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

My Indie Experts email list is a place where I do that. If getting better at attracting opportunity via your expertise is interesting to you, please join. Two ways to get this insight; inbox or RSS:

    “Sorry, our legal team doesn’t let us give case studies or quotes”

    Summer always seems to find a way to throw me off my game.

    I try to add 3 new examples each weekday to I’ve been, to say the least, inconsistent in this effort as of late.

    As I write, wildfire smoke in the atmosphere is filtering the sunlight down to an eerie orange glow, which is distracting. The southern border of the largest wildfire in California history is an 80 mile drive from my house. After last year’s Tubbs fire deposited a half-burnt page of an Ann Coulter book in my yard and burnt down the houses of 6 people I know, even 80 miles feels way too close for comfort. 

    We’ll probably be fine though. As Omar Little used to say, all in the game yo.

    Anyway, while I was adding a vertically focused marketing firm to, I came across an example of an interesting “plan B” for when it’s hard to get clients to go on record with a quote or testimonial. This often happens with larger clients who have legal teams that see everything as a potential threat.

    The usual plan B for this is to stick the client’s logo on your site and call it a day.

    But check out this interesting alternate approach:


    It’s from if you want to see a bigger version in context.

    TwoScore is looking at their clients as a group, and focusing on areas where their client cohort outperformed their peers in the industry.

    It’s not as strong as a great case study from a client who is a household name in the industry, but it’s far more compelling than a block of client logos on the site! And if your client won’t agree to a case study or testimonial, it’s a pretty great plan B for making your client’s success part of your credibility.


    “Ground game” mailbag

    I once slept 15 feet from some railroad tracks for about a year.

    Of course I didn’t plan on this.

    I was young, had just read James Howard Kunstler, and I was going to live in a loft dammit!

    When I returned from a 6-week road trip all over the US and Canada in 2002, I found an honest to goodness warehouse loft I could rent in Nashville. Here’s what it looked like with a much younger version of me inside it (film photo panorama scanned and stitched together):


    (Here’s the 4,869-pixel wide version of this photograph if you’re curious:

    The place is still there. It’s called Big Red Lofts. Back in ’02, it was a funky warehouse–barely converted to barely functional habitations–tucked away behind a surplus electronics store, across the street from a strip club and, IIRC, a methadone clinic. These days, the images I see of Big Red Lofts on Google Images make it seem almost upscale.

    The loft I rented had no kitchen, but it did have a bathroom. That was a problem I easily solved with a table, camp stove, crock pot, and refrigerator. I know exactly what you’re wondering. Yes, I did in fact wash my dishes in the shower.


    All of my food prep happened in the makeshift kitchen, but I really did wash dishes in the shower. When you’re in your 20’s, why not?

    Anyway, it took me exactly 3 seconds to say “I’ll take it” to the landlord when I first visited the loft to check it out. It was just so cool.

    It actually wasn’t until I was well asleep on my first night there after moving in that I realized how close it was to the railroad tracks. My bed was butted up against the exterior wall, and I swear the tracks were no more than 15 feet from where I slept that night.

    You just can’t really appreciate how immensely heavy a diesel locomotive is until one rolls past you at 30 mph. It shakes everything. And you also can’t appreciate how loud it is until you’ve been that close to one. The super thick brick walls of the old warehouse did a little to attenuate the noise, but not much. And since the building was not far from a railroad crossing, the engineers had to blow the horn at about exactly the point when they rolled past Big Red. That first night I woke up with 3 gallons of adrenaline in my system, convinced that the locomotive was headed straight for my bed.

    I got used to it, to the point where I routinely slept through locomotives rolling past at all hours of the night.

    Maybe this is why I’m so big on evidence and insight when it comes to making the specialization decision. I’d hate for one of my clients to get excited about a specialization and then find out it has some serious problem like that loft had. ??

    List member Anthony gave me permission to share his perspective on the “ground game” email from last week:

    _True about consistency and the long term view. Don’t expect the seed you planted yesterday to bear fruit today.

    That said, I see choosing a market position as a big exciting play: the very breakthrough. For me, that breakthrough has been a long time coming, and I feel I have only just broken through the cloud near the top of the mountain. Suddenly, you have articulated your own pain and theirs so well (techies who can’t sell, but know they have to), people start thinking of you, just because you were willing to break free from the pack of generalists who were trying to play it safe.

    So, sometimes it pays to be the motorbike rider zipping through the traffic, rather than the bus driver. You have no idea how much positioning played a role in this transformation (and it’s a transformation within me as much as within my marketing).


    P.S. That last sentence about the transformation is, I think, the key. We like to change the marketing as a Thing out there, a tactic to change our website, but it’s interior as much as anything. Almost an identity, even while also being a tactic._

    Thanks for sharing that, Anthony! And I agree, there are pivotal moments. I don’t think those alone are enough (and I know that’s not what Anthony was saying), but it doesn’t diminish the importance of those moments.

    Hey, I haven’t mentioned it very much, but I have written a very good, very small book on how you decide how to specialize. If you’re curious how you make this decision for your business, this is the best $29 you could spend:


    More “Good ground game” mailbag

    I’ve mentioned Red Adair before on this list.


    Red was a famous expert in fighting oil well fires.

    List member Joe brought the idea of firefighting into the “good ground game” discussion we’ve been having around here. Shared with permission:

    _Is this the same sort of thing?

    I remember from when I was in IT that the “firefighters” get a lot of praise and excitement. By firefighters, I mean the tech folks who plan very little and prefer to let things fall apart until a series of minor disasters become a complete disaster.

    And then they swoop in and work a late night or several, to stomp out the fire.

    On its face, you might not think that people enjoy working late nights for no good reason, but these folks got to be heroes who saved the day every two or three months.

    I suspect it was the most heroic thing they had going on in their lives, so they seemed happy enough with the arrangement.

    I left that job and worked my way up until I could let major fires happen on my own, if I wanted to.

    But as much as I would have loved some public praise on a regular interval, I tried to prevent disasters, and I gave my bosses a heads-up and suggestions when potential tech “fires” were on the horizon.

    Unlike the years I spent with my emergency-prone colleagues, I felt more accomplished when I made steady progress and built things that made a lasting impact.

    Slow and steady was rewarding in its own way, and some of the lessons and skills transferred over to my personal like and my new-ish life as a developer.

    Wonder if others on your list have experienced something similar.

    Thanks, Philip. Have a nice weekend,

    Thanks for sharing, Joe! This is actually a really big topic when you get into it.

    It involves personality, professionalism, risk management, and lots of other complex issues.

    A few really simplified observations from my perspective:

    If your work creates its own “fires” that you have to extinguish later, there’s room for improvement. It might feel exciting to save the day, but like Joe points out it’s better to not set your client up for days that need saving.

    Being a professional “firefighter” and putting out other people’s fires can work just fine as a market position. I remember a client who ended up with the reputation as an effective custom software “firefighter”, and it was a good market position. As part of proactively managing his career he was questioning whether he might want to specialize elsewhere in order to change that market position (because it’s a stressful one), but it was working fine for him in terms of market demand, premium rates, and that kind of thing.

    Would a horizontal market position as a professional software firefighter work well for you? I have no idea without knowing more about you, but my book, Specializing Without Failure can help you find out for yourself –>


    “Pride” mailbag

    List member Tom shared a good answer to a question I asked recently.

    Again, the question is:  What would cause your buyers to feel a sense of pride in having chosen to work with you/your firm?

    Here’s Tom’s response:

    _Great question!

    I’d like my buyers to believe they bought the best because they feel pushed out of their comfort zone _just enough_ to change how they operate. 

    Or perhaps because I told them the truth: that _nobody_ knows what the right answer is for their business, but that we can find out what works together. And that anyone who claims they know all the answers for sure is probably a charlatan. 

    This needs more thought…


    P.S. the latest episode of The Knowledge Project podcast with Annie Duke is an absolutely killer conversation. I think you’ll enjoy it._

    Thanks for that, Tom! And yeah, I agree that Annie Duke interview was fantastic. 🙂


    “CPA who can’t sell” mailbag

    List member Anthony sent an interesting reply (shared with permission) to my recent rant about a CPA who had no process for engaging with a prospective client:

    _My answer: my client was challenged by me in the first minute she spoke to me ever.

    We’d already been introduced over email by a guy who we both respect as one of Australia’s top IT sales guys. I knew my prospect (now my client) had been selling consulting for 16 years.

    My prospect on phone to me: “ sent  me to you, because I don’t know how to sell.”

    Me: “you’ve been a consultant to government for 16 years. How did you manage to eat all this time? Who sold your services to the government?”

    Prospect: “I did. I didn’t go through agents.”

    Me: “well then, let’s not start the relationship on a false premise. So, what exactly makes you say you can’t sell?”


    Great example of tactfully challenging a prospect early on in the sales conversation!

    Again, there’s an artful way to do this, and there’s a not-artful way to do it.

    In print Anthony’s approach might come across more blunt than in real life, because in real life Anthony is very kind and thoughtful in how he speaks. So with the benefit of knowing Anthony, I can tell you that his “let’s not start the relationship on a false premise” challenge would actually come across as very supportive of his prospective client.

    In other words, he’s found a succinct but provocative way to say “you probably are better at selling than you think, so what’s the real problem here?”

    I imagine that very quickly he moved the conversation past superficial issues and excuses and got more quickly to talking about root causes.

    Well done, Anthony, and thanks for sharing!


    Free Craigslist

    I tried to give away $500 worth of speakers for free today on Criagslist.

    One after another, the seemingly-excited takers failed to follow through, went dark part way through the email conversation, never showed up, or talked a good game but behaved like complete flakes.

    The speakers were “free”, but there was a cost to the recipient. They needed to act quickly, show up when they said they would, and find a way to pick up some heavy-ass speakers without my help.

    This is a pretty good example of the low importance, low urgency value proposition.

    I’ve seen this surface when folks are deciding how they will specialize their business, and it’s always a bit heartbreaking. 

    It’s heartbreaking when you can’t find prospects who assign high importance and urgency to, for example, your skill in making WordPress sites load wicked fast. I’m not saying those buyers aren’t out there, but it’s heartbreaking if you can only find ones that assign low importance to your expertise. 

    It can also be puzzling, because–like my free Craigslist flakes–buyers who see your expertise as low in importance may act excited about it at first, but when it comes time to follow through, they’ll go dark or act like flakes.

    A variation of this are buyers who assign high importance but low urgency to your services. You can sell services like this just fine. I know because this describes my services. 🙂 But you need a good lead flow to make sure you’re not dependent on just a few prospects who can take a long time to decide to take action.

    Does this concept make sense to you? If not, what could I clarify? And if you feel like sharing, where do your services land in the importance/urgency quadrant and how did you discover their importance to your buyers?


    Long-term unemployed

    In my mind’s eye, I imagine the members of this list as doing well but looking to improve their business, intelligent and interesting, and above average in most ways. Sort of the Lake Wobegon of email lists.

    Every once in a while, I use this email list for the benefit of a single member. I’ve published a project opportunity or two that’s right for a specialist, for example.

    Today I want to ask if there are any long-term unemployed folks here. Some context…

    I’ve got a list member who is doing some research for a consulting business idea around helping folks who have been unemployed 3 months or more. This person has nothing to sell you, they just want to learn more about a market they might be interested in focusing on. This means they’ll want to speak to you and ask questions to learn about your world.

    If you’ve been unemployed for 3 months or more and you’d like to connect with this person, just hit REPLY and let me know and I’ll make the connection. You don’t have to give me any details, just a quick “connect me” note and I’ll forward your email along to them.


    Jedi mind trick

    Hat tip to one of my favorite podcasts–the Mark Butler Show (–for today’s question:

    How much of what you do is busywork that you’ve Jedi mind-tricked yourself into believing is important work?

    I think this is a really valuable question, and hearing Mark subject himself to questions like this is one reason I love his podcast.

    Maybe you will too?


    14,662 words

    I just checked my Bear note of ideas for this email list. It stands at 14,662 words.

    Some of those ideas have been turned into emails, some await the right timing, and some–like salmon swimming upstream–will never make it. I’ve got an archived note that has another 6 thousand or so words worth of ideas.

    You’ve seen “Gremlins”, the 80’s film, right? That’s what high frequency publication can be like. Combine daily publication with a small email audience and a point of view and boom, it’s like a Gremlin getting wet: ideas for future emails out the wazoo. (Prediction: Hollywood is getting so desperate for 80’s films to remake we’ll see a remake of Gremlins by Christmas 2021. Travis, I know you’re typing /remind in a Slack channel somewhere right now and… I’m cool with that.)

    Reaching into the mailbag here, list member Michael (whom I have personally shaken hands and broken bread with) had this to say about the “pride” question (shared with permission):

    _ What would cause your buyers to feel a sense of pride in having chosen to work with you/your firm?  I hate this question because I know I should have a clearly defined answer for it and I don’t.

    Two responses:
    1) Can I share this question with my FB Group of Home Improvement Contractors?

    2) I think my answer would be our process. This is my gut reaction.

    We do have a systematic approach to all of our projects from onboarding to launch and beyond. The system helps clients feel protected, educated, sure of their decision, well taken care of and confident in reaching desired outcomes. 

    Digital agency owners know that outcomes are difficult, at best, to guarantee. They are also the most important components of any project and without reaching desired outcomes the project is ostensibly a failure in the client’s eyes.

    “We want to be first on Google.” “We want to generate leads that are prequalified to work with us.”  “We’d like the website to help us increase revenue by 250K by next year.”

    “We want the website to convert leads to appointments to relieve some pressure from the sales team.” These are all valid desired outcomes but there are too many variables that we may not be in control of. 

    However, if the client allows us to help them by working within our process we eliminate as many of those variables as possible mitigating our risk exposure. We feel better guaranteeing outcomes which makes them feel prideful about hiring us on.

    I think having a clear well defined process and working successfully within that process is our best bet in having clients feel a sense of pride in their decision to work with us.

    (NOW I HAVE MY ANSWER! – Thanks Philip!!)_

    Thanks for sharing that, Michael!

    I’ve also had some success with “writing my way through” problems/questions I don’t have a good answer to.

    Thanks everyone who sent CPA suggestions. I’m following up some good leads.


    Good ground game

    I’ve never been a sports fan but at some point in my 20’s I got interested in football.

    A roommate at that time had cable and a TV (I’m one of those insufferables who points out that he’s never owned a regular TV in his life) and liked football, so some Sundays I’d watch the Green Bay Packers with him.

    This was back in the late 90’s when Brett Favre was the Packers’ quarterback and he was probably at the top of his game.

    I quickly developed an opinion (probably a pretty uninformed one) about football: big exciting passing plays that got the ball way down the field were better than running plays that steadily and methodically marched the ball down the field.

    I thought they were better because they were more exciting for me to watch.

    I haven’t had many big exciting “passing plays” in my business. But I have managed to execute a reasonably good “ground game” over multiple years.

    As a result, I’ve come to believe that businesses like ours–solo services firms or small shops–benefit a lot more from a good “marketing ground game”. Consistency over years rather than big dramatic breakthroughs. The ground game seems more do-able and less risky for folks like us.

    What about you? What kind of game are you playing in your business? Your replies and thoughts about this appreciated.