Insight for Independent Consultants
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As I’ve helped people through the generalist to specialist transition, I’ve realized that success really comes from the how good the implementation of the specialization decision is, not how high quality the decision itself is. You can make the most amazing, high quality specialization decision possible, but if the implementation of that decision is low quality then you’ll get dissapointing results.
The paragraph above needs a serious footnote, so here we go. There are places in the maturity of a self-made expert’s business where the quality of a specialization decision absoluely does matter a lot. This is generally true of more mature businesses.
But at the very outset — at the generalist to specialist transition boundary — what’s much more important is getting in motion. You can’t steer a parked car, can ya?
Those of us who have learned to ride a bicycle have learned this lesson in a very physical way. During those first 1 or 2 seconds of getting the bicycle moving, what matters the most is… getting the bicycle moving. If you obsess about steering the bicycle in a really accurate way during this time period, you’ll get distracted from the primary task, which is again, to get the bicycle moving. You’ll wobble. You’ll risk falling over because the wheels aren’t contributing gyroscopic stability and your small steering corrections don’t help you stay upright.
Once the bicycle is moving, how you steer it matters a lot more.
That’s why the upcoming workshop on specialization focuses on momentum rather than accuracy. If you’ve never specialized before and have a business that is relatively newer, this is the correct approach.
This Kevin Hillstrom guy is fascinating to me, and his latest email/blog post is quite illuminating for us.
I don’t know Kevin personally, but I’d like to interview him for The Self-Made Expert because he seems to have turned a long career in retail marketing into a really interesting consulting business. He’s cultivated a strong point of view along the way.
Two things from his latest email: https://blog.minethatdata.com/2020/04/like-taking-bat-to-beehive.html
The first is a keen, universally true observation about marketing:
You devote excess energy to any marketing channel you have excess control over. — Kevin Hillstrom
We all know this.
I’e been writing about it for a while, but framing it in terms of Ben Thompson’s idea of Aggregators since last year: https://philipmorganconsulting.com/indie-experts-list/pmc-make-hay-while-the-sun-shines
Jake Jorgovan recently wrote about it in terms of outbound and the specific wannabe-aggregator called LinkedIn: https://jake-jorgovan.com/blog/the-outbound-industry-is-evolving-and-what-to-do-about-it
A secondary point Kevin Hillstrom makes is that you don’t just use those channels you have excess control over, and you don’t just try to use them well. Instead, you get spectacularly, incandescently great at using them.
I’ve been writing and publishing daily for since January, 2016 — over 4 years now. I’ve missed a few days, but if we don’t count those, that’s 1,118 working days. I’ve had 1,118 chances to get better at publishing insight via email. Even so, I send plenty of duds. I phone it in some days, and it shows. And every once in a while, I reach that point of writing something great.
I keep thinking some day I’ll back off the pace, but the opportunity to rapidly cultivate deeper insight into a subject I care a lot about keeps me going. Being really great at something is too enjoyable to quit.
The second thing you’ll notice in that email from Kevin Hillstrom is something I would bend a bit to support my claim that direct response marketing has been optimized to sell superfluous stuff to bored people.
When you seek advice about marketing, the default style of marketing that’s recommended to you is direct response marketing.
I just searched Google for “marketing for consultants”. Here’s the advice from the first page of search results:
- 10 coaches/consultants asked about marketing that works for them, 7 answer in terms of direct response marketing.
- 7 tips, 4 of which focus on direct response methods
- 5 tips, 3 are focused on direct response
That’s not a cherry-picked list. I could keep going, but you get the point. There’s nothing wrong with direct response marketing being the default. But it is inarguably the default.
What’s problematic is that direct response marketing, over the years, has been optimized to sell superfluous stuff to bored people. And if what you’re selling is expertise, that’s problematic.
Again, from Kevin’s latest post:
Question: Why would we work so darn hard to personalize email campaigns via the merchandise the customer wants when I can just tell the customer to SHOP NOW and let the customer click on the link and buy whatever the customer wants to buy? Isn’t my approach more customer-centric than your approach?
- The reason email marketing doesn’t work is because we all just tell the customer to SHOP NOW. Do we really think that the customer, after 250 email marketing campaigns a year for 15 years across a dozen brands a day doesn’t realize that the customer can SHOP NOW?
- Lead the darn customer.
- Be a marketer!
- Tell the customer what to buy.
- Tell the customer WHY the customer should buy something.
- Show the customer the merchandise you already know the customer loves (via prior purchases and website visits/views).
- Work hard.
Imagine applying this thinking to selling your expertise-driven services!!
Realize, please, that we’re dealing with a domain of subtleties here. We could tweak just a few points from that excerpt and have excellent advice for the self-made expert.
s/Lead the darn customer/Shape the market with your thinking or POV or research
s/Tell the customer WHY the customer should buy something/Tell the market WHY your expertise will improve its condition
I’m changing one word — substituting “customer” with “market” — but that changes everything. Direct response marketing, with its focus on collecting and leveraging data on individuals, morphs into something that looks more like brand marketing, with its focus on leading and shaping a whole market.
Anyway, I’m not disagreeing with Kevin Hillstrom. He advises B2C retailers, and I suspect his advice is quite helpful for them.
But do be careful where you import marketing advice from, especially if what you’re selling is the impact of your expertise.
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The workshop on specialization is open for registration. The workshop meeting time will be weekly at 10am to 11:30 am Mountain time on Fridays, from May 15 – July 3.
You can learn a bit more and register here: https://philipmorganconsulting.com/pmc-csw-specialization
A client has a way to help medical teams accelerate their Covid-19 responsiveness.
It’s a tool that consolidates critical info onto mobile devices so frontline healthcare staff don’t have to check multiple locations and wonder if they’re getting out-of-date info (procedural info, schedules, etc).
They’re offering it at cost during the Covid response. I’m using the bully pulpit of my email list to mention it in case you know someone who might benefit from the tool: https://doclauncher.com/covid-response
If you do, please pass this along to them.
A POV workshop participant reminded me of something we all need to hear from time to time.
It takes more than one day to go from wherever you are now to the kind of life where a can of beans over a hobo campfire counts as a nice dinner. Disaster generally doesn’t happpen as the result of one decision.
Yes, you’ll see stuff in the news that makes you think this can happen, because the news loves both rags-to-riches stories and riches-to-rags stories.
And yes, things can get worse in life because of decisions and actions we choose. But the real world is a world complexity and feedback loops operating over the passage of time.
Business decisions are not bets that are decided by a mechanical roulette wheel of fate. Decisions select a course of action, and action generates information, and information informs subsequent decisions, which can lead into different action.
If you were kayaking from one side of a large lake to the other, how many opportunities would you have to make course corrections? That’s what most business decisions are like. They’re an initial decision to do something followed by action, new information as a result of that action, and then adjustments to the next action based on the new information.
Decisions have an implemention period, and are not really separate from that implementation period.
If you’re kayaking across Lake Mead, and you end up kayaking straight into one of the intakes for Hoover Dam, it’s because you ignored a TON of information that could have been used to refine your initial decision about your course vector. You’d get sucked into the intake along with about 30,000 cubic feet per second of water because you screwed up the implementation of your decision, not because the decision was bad.
With specialization, it’s the same way. The risk of specializing is so low because during the implementation phase, which ranges from 3 months to 3 years, you get so much new information that — if you’re open to it — lets you refine your initial decision.
I’ve long wanted to design and deliver a workshop that emphasizes this aspect of specialization; the implementation aspect. Can’t nobody tell me no, so I’m doing it.
I’m going to promote this workshop a lot this month. It’ll begin next month, perhaps the second week of May. I think it’s the right workshop at the right time in history because it emphasizes interacting with the market as a way to validate or refine a specialization decision.
All my previous workshops on specialization have been inward focused. They’ve helped folks decide how to specialize using decision making inputs like identifying where you have the biggest head start, or where you have the deepest interest. They helped folks incorporate risk tolerance into the decision as well.
But the main risk with specialization is not the decision, it’s the implementation of that decsion. So my old approach to specialization workshops was incomplete.
This one will be better. We’ll quickly cover the fundamentals of how specialization works, and quickly generate a shortlist of specialization options for you. Then, we’ll carefully implement an experiment to see whether you can get the market to do something other than its default.
The market’s default is to ignore you.
If the market does anything other than ignore you — even if it criticizes or offers negative feedback — you’ve got a chance of your specialization working. You’ve de-risked your specialization decision by generating new information through action.
That’s what this workshop will be about.
More details soon.
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1: Yes, I know there are trash racks on the intake towers, which are certaintly designed to keep out both trash and kayakers who screw up the implementation phase of their decision to kayak across Lake Mead. 🙂 So you wouldn’t actually get sucked into the penstock on the Hoover Dam.
Some of you know I’m working on a book.
You know this because I’ve talked about it here and on the podcast Liston Witherill and I do together, I’ve blown deadlines, set more self-imposed deadlines that I’ve then blown again, whinged about the difficulty of it all, and in general been a source of much authorial sound and fury, but not a source of a new book.
At least, not yet!
I’m closer, though. 🙂
At the risk of more authorial sound and fury, I am making progress. The book publishing accountability group I set up earlier this year has been helpful. Proof:
I have a pretty solid beta version of the book. I wonder if you’d like to be a beta reader?
I’ve been hacking through the underbrush of this project with a dull machete. I need a birds-eye view now. As a beta reader, you help me get that missing birds-eye view.
If you did a beta read of this book, I’d ask you for pretty high-level feedback, like:
- What could be explained better? (the curse of knowledge is real, people!)
- What seems like it could be cut?
- Does the book give you what you need to successfully specialize?
- If not, what might be missing?
I’m specifically looking for beta readers who have not yet specialized, but are curious about it or planning on doing it soon. I’m looking for specialization-curious generalists. 🙂
If you become a beta reader, I can send you a PDF or a printed version of the book (Kinkos-level printing w/spiral binding). The book is not smol. The draft is at about 58,000 words, which translates to about 90 double-sided, single-spaced letter-size pages with a wide side margin. My editing software estimates this is a 5-hour read. Finally, if you do become a beta reader, I’m asking that you try to meet a timeline of a 2-week turnaround for your feedback (mailing time not included).
I don’t know if interest in this will be large or small, so let’s just use this quick form I set up in Airtable to let me know if you’re interested in doing me this favor: https://airtable.com/shrAo3oP7IdpMwhxV
I hope you have a restful-as-possible weekend,
It is possible to specialize without specializing.
To do this, you have to build up a big headcount. You specialize in being big.
I’ll lean into the generalization that bigness is correlated with fragility. And that the coronavirus pandemic is our time’s great exposer of fragility. A stress test for resilience and litmus test for the essential-ness of sources of value.
I once read that part of the reason it’s so dangerous to walk along active train tracks is because the size of a train creates a sort of optical illusion where it appears to be moving slower than it really is, and so a fast-moving train can literally sneak up on you. (source: https://theonlinephotographer.typepad.com/the_online_photographer/2015/09/a-plea-to-photography-teachers.html)
A colleague who advises small firms told me that among his clients, the pandemic pain is distributed unevenly. The big generalists are getting more of it.
At the same time, some very big companies that seem to have built resilience into their businesses are creating exceptional value right now. Going alphabetically, I’d start with Amazon.
Pandemic or not, I really like small businesses.
|• • •|
If one of the following two things is true, I’d like to offer you a free 1h phone or video call consultation on your business strategy, primarily on the specialization and lead generation parts of that strategy:
- You’ve lost your job and have said some version of “screw it, I’m going indie” to yourself.
- You’re a self-employed generalist, have lost revenue as a result of the coronavirus, and have said some version of “screw it, I’m going to specialize now” to yourself
In other words, the fallout from the coronavirus pandemic has triggered something that was latent in you, and now you’re ready to start down the risky road of the indie self-made expert because you’ve realized it’s not actually more risky than what you were doing.
If that’s true, I’d like to help you either make a plan, or I’d like to serve as a sounding board for your thinking.
I have limited time to do this because I’m busy building workshop content for upcoming workshops, getting the update to The Positioning Manual finished, and so on. So I’ll offer 2 such calls per week for the next few weeks, and then re-assess.
If you’ve lost your job or revenue and want to specialize and want my brain in the mix on that, hit reply and we’ll set up a time to talk for no cost to you.
Keep building; keep investing y’all,
If you neglect the following “defaults” of human behavior, you will find that your marketing often fails to work:
- The default response of a human being to seeing your website or other artifacts of your marketing is to misunderstand or ignore it.
- The default response of a human being to hearing what you do for a living is to quickly forget it. (How quickly have you forgotten just the name of a person you’ve just met?)
- The default response of a prospective client to hearing about what you can do for them is to not trust you.
These defaults are what causes most marketing to fail. Al Ries, in his book on positioning, describes the problem of information overload from the perspective of someone living in the early 1980’s, before we invited the Internet and ubiquitous wireless computing into every corner of our lives. The level of information overload Ries was describing circa early 1980’s has been amplified many times over since then. It’s primarily this modern information hyper-overload combined with our ancient human hard-wiring that causes the default human behavior that causes most marketing to fail.
Each of the three human behavioral defaults I described above has an inverse quality that can be helpful. If you recognize and work with these inverse qualities of our human defaults, your attempts to earn visibility and trust from prospective clients can avoid failure. In fact, they can be effective.
- The default response of a human who is a member of a social group is to treat other members of their social group better than outsiders.
- The default response of a human who has a problem that they are aware of is to be on high alert for a solution to that problem. The more important and urgent the problem, the greater the solution-awareness.
- The default response of a human who encounters another human with high perceived status is to treat that high-status human better than lower-status humans, including trusting them more by default.
Specialization helps you use these helpful defaults in human behavior to earn visibility and trust from clients more effectively.
Graham Binks, who has built a great technology consulting business, volunteered to be a beta reader for the third edition of The Positioning Manual. This made him question everything about his business and choices in life.
I’m kidding a bit, but reading the first part of the book did bring up this question about whether he might be specialized in a certain kind of relationship, rather than specialized in a market vertical or problem space.
He and I got on a Zoom call last week to talk through this question, and we’re both sharing the conversation today with our audiences. I uploaded the conversation to my on-haitus Consulting Pipeline Podcast feed which, amusingly, continues to attract the attention of lazy, no-homework-doing podcast outreach services the world over.
Anyway, here’s that conversation with Graham: https://share.transistor.fm/s/654f5d7c
Coronavirus is stress-testing institutions.
I think it’s fair to say that the relationship between people and institutions won’t emerge from this pandemic unscathed. I think formal institutions will suffer long term damage. It will be possible to explain this using either “a fatal blow they couldn’t recover from” or “an acceleration of decline that was already ongoing” narratives.
This is interesting because brand marketing tends to rely on institutional platforms. Or at least it integrates with institutional platforms.
What’s especially interesting is the way direct response marketing bypasses institutions. I mean, it’s right there in the name: direct.
Now, there is a wide range of stuff out there we might think of as institutions. Not all of them have marble columns in front of the building. Some go by names like Dreamforce, Inbound, WWDC, and so on. These are more fluid institutions than ones with names like The Fed, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and so on.
If you wanted to get a message about your expertise to an audience of let’s say 20,000 people, there are many ways you could do that. Here are two:
- Build an email list of 80,000 subscribers and use that self-built platform to get your message out. (The ~25% open rate you’d probably have means your message reaches closer to 20k, not 80k).
- Get yourself on stage at Inbound, a conference with an attendance of about 25,000 people, in a capacity where you can address the entire audience.
Neither of these methods is easy. The first one uses direct response tools, and the second one is an example of integrating with an institutional platform, which looks more like brand marketing.
It’s easy to see the immediate way in which coronavirus is stressing institutions. If the institution relies on IRL gatherings, those just aren’t happening right now. A critical ingredient of some institutions’ relevance has been 86’d.
If there’s an obvious recipe for resilience, it’s this: genuine value + optionality in delivery of that value.
To stick with the restaurant analogy, the recipe for resilience is being a great chef and being good at ingredient substitution.
The “Darwinian” view is this: over the next year or two we’ll find out which institutions are based on genuine value creation, and which are (to pick on IRL conferences for a moment) merely an opportunity to expense some travel and eating out. Of course, it’s not that simple. Even the most extravagant junket to an IRL event creates some kind of value. But just like business tend to cut spending during volatile times, the stress that coronavirus is placing on institutions will reveal which institutions best combine essential value with optionality in their delivery of that value.
Keep building; keep investing, y’all,
This recent research, from The Digital Society (SoDA), might be relevant to some of y’all: https://www.dropbox.com/s/7eow15537tpb1ky/SoDA%20Study_2020%20Outlook%20and%20Agency%20Readiness.pdf?dl=0
I’m thinking it might be relevant because I some some of you subcontract to dev shops or agencies.
Bear in mind that as a group, agency owners lean towards optimism. As I look at this report’s numbers, I’m downrating some of them by 20% — maybe 30% — to adjust for that optimism bias.