Insight for Independent Consultants

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    Can’t we all just get along?

    Which of your pet peeves have a meaningful relationship to the results you get for your clients? Keep your thoughts on that question comin’! I’ll do an anonymized roundup with commentary later this week.

    Let’s keep talking about having a polarizing point of view. Some of what feel like pet peeves to you might be good raw material for this “polarizing point of view” thing. Not all will, but some can.

    Now, what about this potential problem: “what if some of my prospective clients don’t agree with my point of view on this issue?”.

    The short, blunt answer is, if you want all your prospects to agree with your point of view then get a job as a waiter at a restaurant. In other words, that’s the mindset of an order-taker.

    Think of good medical practitioners. They absolutely have your best interest at heart, but they are going to tell you what to do, not the other way around. That’s what Blair Enns calls the “expert practitioner” role, and it’s the position from which you can best help your clients. The position from which you can create the most possible value for them.

    So in short, it’s a fact of life that if you have a strong, specific point of view on an important issue, somebody will disagree with you on that issue. And if your point of view on this issue permeates all of your marketing, then some prospective clients will never approach you for a sales conversation because they disagree with your point of view.

    The exciting part of this is the relationship you’re going to have with prospective clients who do agree with your point of view. 

    It’s likely you’ll have a shared vision about how to move the needle, and that shared vision will already be in place from the first sales conversation onward.

    Now that’s worth ruffling a few feathers for!


    The iron lung and the platform doomsday clock

    I’ve always thought iron lungs are fascinating.

    My fascination with them began with T. Herman Zweibel’s column in The Onion, a spectacular example of which you can read here: (yes I know this is a made up character in a satirical publication, but it’s more fun to think it’s real)

    Here’s an example of Zweibel writing about his iron lung:

    Anyway, there are, according to Gizmodo, perhaps a half-dozen iron lungs in use in the US:

    This is mostly a good thing. Hulking iron lungs have been replaced by positive pressure ventilators like CPAPs. Apparently they’re mostly as good. Gizmodo:

    When Lillard is outside of the tank, she can breathe using a positive-pressure ventilator, a smaller device that pushes air into her lungs. But that instrument doesn’t provide the same relief as when she puts her entire body into the 640-pound, 7-and-a-half-foot-long apparatus. Plus forcing air into the lungs can cause inflammation or damage the air sacs. When she’s sick, she can only heal if she spends full days in the iron lung.

    This will sound familiar to readers of The Innovator’s Dilemma.

    And this part of the article will sound familiar to folks who work with legacy systems:

    Her iron lung has portholes and windows on the side; a pressure gauge at the top. The machine is actually cobbled together from two iron lungs. One, the March of Dimes gave her when she was a child. The other, she bought from someone in Utah, after she haggled him down from $25,000 to $8,000. The body has also been modified over the years. Her grandfather invented a motorized pulley system that closes the bed tray into the tank after she climbs in. He also replaced the brushed aluminum mirror above the neck slot with a real mirror so that she could have a clear view to the rest of the room when she’s locked in the canister. A local engineer used a motor from an old voter registration device to build a mechanism that tightens the collar around her neck after she slips her head through the portal. The fan belts and half-horsepower motor have been replaced about ten times.

    So it goes with technology. Platforms get supplanted with what’s newer, even if it’s not as “good” however it is that you define good.

    I think I’ve pretty well documented the constraints and shortcomings of platform specialization. Any situation where your core skills become commoditized in 5 to 7 years is, to me, a young person’s game. You can make a decent living with commoditized skills, but without licensing and other barriers to entry, fully commoditized tech skills can leave you charging less per hour than a plumber or car mechanic.

    If you’re committed to the platform specialization route, the answer is to cultivate a genuine interest or sympathy to the business impact of the technology you’re focused on.

    I recently had a super interesting conversation with Corey Quinn, who has done just that. I’m gonna publish this conversation on my podcast in a few weeks, and so if you aren’t subscribed to the podcast now might be a good time to do so:


    The AI race

    I talk a lot about the fragility of certain horizontal market positions.

    I’m not the only one. Check out this report by CB Insights:

    The estimated reading time for that article is 5m22s. If you don’t have that much time, let me point you to a few key items:

    • “Just weeks ago, China-based AI startup SenseTime Group received one of the largest venture capital investment in the AI space — a $600M Series C investment led by Alibaba. Before this, according to data from CB Insights, AI startups secured 1,349 separate equity financings in 2017 totaling a whopping $15.2B in investment.”
    • “Companies appear ready to pay top dollar, especially via larger-than-normal equity awards, for candidates with critical skills related to AI.”Looks pretty awesome so far, right? If you can credibly claim AI-related skills, now is a great time to be you, right?

    The CB Insights piece goes on to say the following:

    “In every case, you run the risk of paying someone top dollar for a skillset that will inevitably get cheaper over time, and may no longer be as critical to your business. This could lead to serious internal pay equity problems as well as allocating resources to a small group of employees who aren’t actually going to make a lasting impact on your business. With this in mind, we counsel companies to think beyond short-term talent acquisition when considering hot skills premiums.”

    The key phrase there is “a skillset that will inevitably get cheaper over time”. In general, you could say that about any skillset that doesn’t involve tacit knowledge. Another word for it is commoditization.

    Can AI or machine learning skills help you cultivate a desirable, durable market position? Yes. Are they enough on their own to cultivate that kind of market position? Nope. They will inevitably become more widespread and less rare. Stuff that currently has to be invented by super smart people will become codified into frameworks, code samples, and best practices that ordinary people can use. If your value to your clients is something more than AI, this is awesome news. It increases your profitability and decreases the number of hair-graying points in a project. If your value to your clients is only your AI or ML-related skills, it’s bad news.

    Which of those positions do you want to be in? Allow me to make a prediction…

    If you’ve been in software development for less than 10 years, you’re excited by the prospect of jumping to the next new hot technology area. Once AI skills become commoditized, you’ll happily climb the next learning curve and reinvent your business as you do so.

    If you’ve been in software development for more than about 15 years, this exact same situation is not exciting to you. You might do it anyway, but with a heavy heart, or a sense of resignation. You might even wonder if there’s a better way to offer value to your clients.

    There is. 🙂

    The key, as I alluded to above, is to develop economically valuable expertise. That almost always involves some form of tacit knowledge. That could look like any of the following:- Understand how a particular type of company works and how custom software can create value for that type of company.- Understand how a particular evergreen-ish business problem can be addressed with custom software.- Understand how a particular type of buyer of software dev services thinks and acts, and use that to gain a competitive advantage. You still deal with the non-stop changes in the tech landscape, but with an evergreen competitive advantage that buffers you from the ups and downs that software generalists face.- Cultivate a critical mass of relationships in a particular vertical market. You still deal with the non-stop changes in the tech landscape, but with a “Rolodex” and a reputation within the vertical that acts as a “flywheel” to buffer you from the ups and downs that software generalists face.- Cultivate a reputation that helps buyers perceive you as the safest, most innovative, or most [something] option. You still deal with the non-stop changes in the tech landscape, but with a “fame flywheel” to buffer you from the ups and downs that software generalists face. I’m not kidding when I compare the people who do this to Madonna. (compare Madonna’s career to Kelly Clarkson’s. Madona: Kelly Clarkson: you’re ready to start building one of these evergreen ways to defend against commoditization, the Decision Making workshop in Specialization School might be right for you. It’s 4 weeks to move you from where you are now to clarity and confidence in your thinking about how to specialize.

    If you’re a previous client or customer of mine, you get the best price I offer on this workshop. Check it out now: and if you’d like to check for fit, set up a short call with me:


    Reasons for optimism

    For me, there’s a pretty direct inverse correlation between my general sense of optimism and the amount of mainstream news media I consume.

    Stuff like this really helps though: This long article talks about localized innovation and progress in America, much of which gets lost in the approach national-level mainstream media takes to news. The article mentions Steve Case.

    I wasn’t previously aware of Steve Case’s book The Third Wave: An Entrepreneur’s Vision of the Future. Steve was co-founder of AOL, which doesn’t necessarily qualify him to make predictions about the future of technology, but I find the main idea of the book compelling and relevant to what we talk about here on this list.

    Here’s an excerpt from the marketing site for Steve’s book:

    We are entering, as Case explains, a new paradigm called the “Third Wave” of the Internet. The first wave saw AOL and other companies lay the foundation for consumers to connect to the Internet. The second wave saw companies like Google and Facebook build on top of the Internet to create search and social networking capabilities, while apps like Snapchat and Instagram leverage the smartphone revolution. Now, Case argues, we’re entering the Third Wave: a period in which entrepreneurs will vastly transform major “real world” sectors like health, education, transportation, energy, and food—and in the process change the way we live our daily lives. But success in the Third Wave will require a different skill set, and Case outlines the path forward.

    This book is written for entrepreneurs, and that word can mean a lot of related but subtly different things. I think in this case the book’s audience is entrepreneurs who want to build product companies.

    There’s another kind of entrepreneur, though, and you might be in that group: entrepreneurial service providers who scale their value and impact with economically valuable expertise. I think the idea of the “Third Wave” is relevant to us too.

    Steve’s argument is that domain-specific tacit knowledge will become increasingly valuable–indispensable in fact–during this Third Wave. This has always been true to an extent. How much of Facebook’s dominance in social media is due to great code, and how much is due to a deep and nearly insidious understand of human psychology and addiction, clever lawyering to skirt regulation, and aggressive work to build business partnerships and so on?

    The difference in the Third Wave is that software-driven innovation moves out of tech innovation hubs like Silicon Valley and into “the real world”. In other words, the innovation starts happening within specific verticals like transportation, medicine, manufacturing, and so on. It’s less a case of Silicon Valley tech companies trying to “disrupt” other industries, and more a case of those industries using advanced technology to improve themselves. 

    Here’s a relevant excerpt from that Atlantic article I linked to above:

    Case points out that venture-capital support for start-ups is still heavily skewed toward the coasts. Nearly half of the total funds in the U.S. are directed to companies in California alone. But he says the balance is shifting, as part of a “third wave” of technology businesses (the first the building of the internet, the second the building of companies using it) based on applying advanced technology to “real” enterprises, from agriculture to health care to manufacturing. “It’s going to be more important to know how doctors work and farmers think and to build strategic partnerships,” he told me, “than just to work on coding and software.” The coding and software centers are in a handful of big cities. These other businesses are dispersed across the country, and start-ups will follow. “We see the ecosystems developing—mayors working with entrepreneurs and university presidents,” Case said. “Things are bubbling in these cities. It’s an untold story.”

    It’s not just product business entrepreneurs who benefit from domain-specific tacit knowledge. Service providers can too.

    To paraphrase a line from Steve: it’s going to be more important for self-employed software developers to know how doctors work and farmers think and to be expert innovation partners with their clients. This is more important than just knowing how to code and build software.

    Said differently: knowing how to code and build software are the table stakes. That’s where the bar is set for “minimum viable competence”. To move beyond that bar, you need something extra. That something extra could be domain-specific tacit knowledge. Understanding how farmers think. Knowing how a certain type of medical business makes money. Etc…

    Focusing on a specific vertical helps you more quickly cultivate domain-specific tacit knowledge. Understanding how clients in that vertical think. Understanding how they make buying decisions. Understanding what specifically, in their world, reduces risk or represents opportunity.

    If this approach to making your business better interests you, then the first workshop in Specialization School is worth a look. It’s specifically designed to move you to a place of clarity about where you could focus, and it does so quite reliably in 4 weeks.

    It’s a combination of structured curriculum and live Q&A meetings. The live Q&A meetings are a mix of accountability (keeps you moving through the assigned work each week), quick consulting (get my specific feedback on your specific situation), and group support (see that you’re not alone and others are having similar struggles and similar breakthroughs). For the July group, the live Q&A meetings happen at 9am Pacific time on Wednesdays, starting on July 11.

    More information on this workshop:

    If you want to join, I need to speak to you briefly to answer any questions you might have and make sure you’re likely to get a good ROI on the cost of the workshop. You can set that up right here:


    Aging followup

    I got a few interesting responses to my pet peeves comment on Friday, so I wanted to ask again so I have some examples to use this week.

    Which of your pet peeves have a meaningful relationship to the results you get for your clients?

    In other words, is there something you have a strong opinion about? And just as importantly, does that thing help you get better results for your clients?

    If so, I’d love to hear about it. I want to riff a bit this week about the importance of a point of view in content marketing and would like to include some member-contributed examples.

    I’m recovering from a head cold today, so I’ll keep this email short.

    Hit me up with your peeves,

    Oh, and if you’re interested in the Decision-Making workshop that’s happening in July and want to take advantage of the $200 early-bird discount, get off your butt and schedule a call with me to check for fit and get answers to your questions about the workshop: I’ll gladly hoist myself out of my sickbed to speak with you. 🙂

    The real reason

    The real reason the United States hasn’t adopted the metric system is that “kilometers, and kilometers, and kilometers” doesn’t make nearly as good a country music lyric as “miles, and miles, and miles” does.;)What’s the real reason why you haven’t specialized your services?Maybe it’s not the right time? It definitely is a good idea to have some client-facing experience under your belt first.Maybe it’s too scary or difficult a transition? It certainly does take some courage to move through it.Maybe you don’t know how? Well, that I can help with. :)I’m seeing very good results from folks who have been through the Decision Making workshop in Specialization School: structured inventory, risk assessment, market sizing, and insight assessment processes in this workshop are having the intended effect for participants, which is making a “squishy”, chaotic-feeling decision into one that’s far more objective and structured.I’m going to be talking a lot more about Specialization School in the coming weeks.If you’ve been waiting for the next offering of this Decision Making workshop, I’d like to speak with you about fit to make sure it’s right for you. Just book a call here:

    The broom and the vacuum cleaner

    Sometimes a broom creates more value than a vacuum cleaner.The broom is almost certainly cheaper than the vacuum cleaner. It’s a dramatically simpler machine. It’s even cheaper to operate cause there’s no electricity cost.Yet, in some situations, it creates far more value than even the world’s best vacuum cleaner would. Tight quarters are one example where a broom creates more value than a vacuum cleaner. Quick, simple cleanup jobs are another.Have you ever seen a client decide they want to deploy a vacuum cleaner when all they really needed was a broom?How much value would be created by them recognizing that mistake and choosing the broom instead?Registration is open for the Decision Making workshop in Specialization School.If you’d like a structured process for deciding where your best specialization options lie plus regular check-ins with me as you move through the process, check it out here:

    Would-be specialists interested in mission-driven orgs

    Apparently lightning does strike twice!

    A few weeks ago I let y’all know about a project opportunity for a specialized developer. I don’t know what ultimately came of that since I purposefully didn’t make myself an intermediary (recruiting is not a business I want to expand into 🙂 ), but I’ve got another one that might be relevant to some of you.Here’s the quick-and-dirty version of what Scott’s looking for. There’s more detail further down:* 1% for the Planet is the org you’d be helping. They’re a community of companies that have committed to donating 1% of all their sales to nonprofit environmental causes.* They have a modest amount of funding to redo their online business and nonprofit directories. This is basically a light-duty web app project, not a web design project.*  Seems like a good fit for someone who is looking to position themselves in that space (the audience of mission-driven orgs), and would like to have a high-profile client like 1%FTP.My friend Scott (you’ll find his company West Arete in my Specialization Examples database) reached out to me about this, and he added the following:“I attached the project summary that I drafted with Jon Cocina, the COO of 1% for the Planet. We tried to make sure that we provided adequate background on the audiences, goals, and dreams of the project. If you just want to know the MVP (minimum viable product), you can focus on the “minimum requirements” section. And if the requested budget just isn’t in the right ballpark, we’d welcome feedback there too.   “Here’s that project summary: before, there are a few rules about responding to this:1. Do not contact me about this. I’m not the one screening candidates for this.2. Normally I’d say don’t pursue this unless you have relevant, domain-specific expertise, however as you saw Scott indicate above, this is a potential “bootstrap your way into a specialization” opportunity, so if you’re a generalist wanting to specialize in the audience of mission-driven organizations and you have relevant technical skill, this could be a nice opportunity for you.Want to check this project opportunity out? Please contact

    Would you pay someone else to think for you?

    Why would you pay someone else to think for you?Isn’t that something best done ourselves?Whelp, I do that, and lots of others do too. I pay a personal trainer.She doesn’t lift the weights; I do. But she does all the thinking about which ones, how much, and how frequently. And I’m happy with things being this way.Now of course she’s not doing all my thinking for me, just the stuff where I’ve repeatedly failed to make progress on my own. Because of my inexperience with strength training and habituated apathy around it, it works out way better for me to offload the thinking around this to someone who knows more about it than I do.Therapy can work the same way.In what way would your clients be better off hiring you to do some thinking for them?If you really can’t think of anything, then change the question: what kind of clients would be better off hiring you to do some thinking for them?And again, if you really truly can’t think of an answer to that second variation of the question, then ask: what do you need to learn or experience in order to make better decisions when building software than you see others making?-P

    Selling advice was the weirdest thing

    List member Alessandro sent me the following and I immediately asked him for permission to share here because it’s such a crystal clear illustration of a super-important concept.I’ll follow this up with a few comments after, but first, here’s what Alessandro wrote me (shared with his permission):——Hey Philip,Recently, I’ve been on two calls with two different people to see if there’s a fit to get them on as a case study project.During the calls, I helped them figure out what their current situation is, what’s their goal, and what could be a possible road map to get there.I was freaking out. It didn’t feel like I was being useful at all, I was trying so hard not to sound stupid and incompetent, and the feedback I’ve given to them sounded like something anybody could know.That’s what I thought. But they didn’t seem to notice!Both of them ended the call telling me how much I had been clear and helpful, and how they were excited to move forward on this path.Plus, even though neither of those are a good fit for the service I’m trying to promote, I could tell they were hoping they were! They were the ones suggesting things I could maybe help them with!Now, I didn’t charge for those calls and I don’t know if “selling advice” looks anything like that, but it was the weirdest thing for me. It felt like I was doing nothing for them, while they seemed to be impressed and willing to find ways to work with me.That’s it, just wanted to share this with you ;)——A bit of context: Alessandro was in the Decision Making workshop in and is now going a great job of doing deep market research into a vertical he may specialize in. That’s why you see him talking about not charging, etc. He’s doing deep market research, so all that stuff is a normal part of the game.The part I hope you notice is how strange providing advice felt to him at first.I’ve really struggled to put this into words for you, and in the past the best I’ve been able to do is say “it feels really weird at first to get paid for advice”.If you’re used to believing that your value is in building stuff for companies, then the first few times you find a prospect who is excited to pay you for your advice, it feels… well, again, Alessandro did a great job of describing what it can feel like.In fact, I bet lots of you are more used to building stuff for companies and then having your client fight you when you do try to offer advice. This is a by-product of filling a staff augmentation role. When your client is measuring you by coding productivity, anything that threatens that metric is going to be seen as a potential problem, and you offering advice about in-progress software can come across as an obstacle to coding productivity.One of my goals for this list is to help those of you that are stuck in staff augmentation roles make the transition out of staff aug work (if that’s what you want to do). Now as I’m sure you know, getting paid to help your client make better decisions (my definition of advisory work) comes with additional risks, demands, and responsibilities that staff augmentation does not. So this transition is not right for everybody.But if it’s something you’re interested in, you’ll probably have to deal with the kind of discomfort that you see Alessandro describing so well above. Just know that this strange feeling is usually very temporary, and it’s a nearly-unavoidable part of this kind of change in your business. You might even think of it as a rite of passage or an initiation ritual on the way to something better.A quick heads-up that I’m opening up registration for the July cohort of the Decision Making workshop in Specialization School ( soon.You’ll see me start promoting that quite a bit throughout the first few weeks of June. Two of the 7 seats in this workshop are already spoken for, so if you’re hoping one of the remaining 5 seats can be yours, you’ll want to apply as soon as possible.Instructions here –>