Here's what struck me from an initial read of Mary Meeker's 2019 Internet Trends Report, seen from the lens of how these trends might be interesting or useful to the indie consultant.
Slides 28 - 30: "Effective + Efficient Marketing = One's Own Product + Happy Customers + Recommendations"
This section tells a story of generally rising cost of acquiring new customers (CAC), which is really a larger story of rising cost per click for online paid advertising1. This is my main concern with over-relying on super-aggregators for online lead generation, because super-aggregators start out by making things very attractive for the supply side (that's you, as someone who is supplying content to Google for their search engine, for example, or supplying content to LinkedIn to use another example) and then once the supply side has critical mass they start making things incrementally less and less attractive for the supply side as they seek to grow and retain their real asset, which is the demand side (their users/customer base, which is often an awkward and unholy combination of free users and paying advertisers).
Mary highlights a few digital product companies (Zoom, for one) that aren't currently suffering from rising CAC driven by the rising cost of paid advertising, and notes that they use a freemium model, which leverages a delightful free experience + network effects to acquire new customers at lower cost than paid advertising could. She goes deeper into this later in the deck.
Consulting Takeaway: The first principle of my Expertise Incubator program applies here: "Anything you create in this program should be good enough to spread by word of mouth alone". What could you create that is so good that it spreads by word of mouth alone? If you try to answer this question with the whole market you serve in mind, you'll drive yourself mad. Instead, think of one specific really good client and think about what you could create for them specifically that they would find so useful, so valuable, that they might spontaneously share it with two other people.
Slide 98: "Interactive gaming might be recreating reality around play + problem solving"
Wow, this is a great way to think of consulting. I know the "play" part might be surprising, but how far away is "play" from "flow state" or other more "consultant-ey/business-ey" concepts?
If we think of play as a lighthearted, enjoyable state of being, might not we have defined a very helpful context in which to do problem solving? Perhaps even an ideal context in which to do problem solving?
Of course, not every moment of play is fun (cue memories of skinned knees or broken bones from childhood), nor is every moment of problem solving. But if the larger context in which we solve problems looks more like play than anything else, might be have created the most effective context in which to solve problems?
Here are some common problem solving techniques, seen through the lens of play:
"Rubber ducking". Isn't the main thing you're doing here communicating or connecting, while the secondary result is gaining clarity or solving a problem? Seems more like play than problem solving, yet problem solving is a very desirable secondary outcome, no?
Brainstorming. This can be fun! My experience with brainstorming is that it starts out kind of stiff and forced, and then if you stick with the intent, it becomes more fluid, veering at times into wacky stuff, and sometimes yields the kernel of good ideas. Along the way, it can be fun, and at some point you can enter a flow state. Sort of like play!
Design thinking. When I was doing copywriting work ages ago, I'd occasionally subcontract for an agency that was heavy on design thinking, and they'd do all sorts of play-like exercises with clients. Really, they were facilitating problem solving, but often it looked like some variation of a McDonalds Playland but with whiteboards and oversized post it notes and adults trying not to feel awkward.
Exercising as a way to get unstuck. This is another pretty common recommendation for problemsolving. This is often prescribed as literally playing--going for a fun run, or a bike ride, or working out--in order to problem solve. It gets your mind in a different state, which opens you up to different solutions.
Consulting Takeaway: Even if you think your clients would hate it, how could you incorporate some element of play or fun into the problem solving work you do with clients?
Slides 100 - 120: The Freemium model
This section of Mary's presentation is just really interesting stuff, period.
One way to think about the lead generation you do is along similar lines to a freemium model: what free experience could you create for your market that is so delightful and compelling and valuable that the next natural step is to either spread the word or "upgrade" by becoming a client?
My friend and podcast partner Liston Witherill is experimenting with this right now, though I don't yet have a website to point you to so you can see it in action yet. Liston sells sales training, and he's creating a strong differentiator by giving away the training content instead of hiding it behind a veil of mystery. In so doing, he's hoping to (and I think he will) create a freemium dynamic, where there's strong value in the free thing, and even more strong value in the paid upgrade to the free thing. He's also creating real differentiation, since most of his competitors would blanche at the idea of giving away their content.
Consulting Takeaway: Again, ask yourself: what free experience could you create for your market that is so delightful and compelling and valuable that the next natural step is to either spread the word or "upgrade" by becoming a client?
Slides 123 - 151: How data collection and its usage in product development is changing
This is a sea change in the tech world that trickles down into stuff like marketing automation, then the way these products are marketed starts to influence how the people I care about think about connecting and building trust with prospective clients, and this concerns me. The data that gets thrown off when we do stuff (lead gen, etc) online is potentially interesting, useful, and valuable. And it is also potentially a great way to systematize and bake inefficiencies and a sort of "Brazil"-like horribleness into your business. This deserves a longer treatment, but there are ways to structure your business development to accomplish the promise of data and personalization and marketing automation without any of the complexity of that stuff.
Continuing this idea: you are less malleable than a digital product, so you must play by different rules. Using a bunch of data you've collected plus design thinking to create a "different you" doesn't work the same way using design thinking to optimize product market fit or move a product into a better market position does. You can easily change how you dress to fit into a C-suite setting, but once you open your mouth it'll be obvious whether you "belong" there or not. This is part of why I'm suspicious of caring much at all about the data that your online interaction with website visitors generates. The prospect of you thinking that you can crowdsource your business strategy to random internet traffic actually terrifies me.
Consulting Takeaway: There's currently a massive gravitational pull towards collecting and using data. The general idea might not be bad, but the particulars of how it's done for digital products or big tech platforms have almost no relevance for you, and if you forget this, you do so at your peril. What data about your prospects and clients is actually meaningful to your business? What data helps you make better decisions for your own business and what helps you move the needle more powerfully for your clients? At most, that's the data you should care about. And then you need to ask how best to collect and understand it. There might actually be no software tools that are needed to collect it, and the software tools that claim to collect it might encourage you to collect low value or flat out useless data.
Slide 171: Expressed vs. demonstrated preference
This slide talks about how despite our expressed preference for news that's not negative, what we humans actually do is choose to consume negative news instead.
I wonder if this explains why Direct Response marketing that focuses on problems is so brutally efficient and fast-acting while brand marketing that focuses on aspirational outcomes is more expensive and slow-acting.
The niche famous direct marketer Gary Bencivenga once said: "Problems are markets". This is a succinct expression of the way that direct response marketing tends to focus on problems moreso than general improvements, or rather the improvements are usually contextualized in the context of a painful, urgent problem.
Slides 229 & 231
These slides discuss the rise of "remote workers" from 3% to 5% from 2000 to 2016. This is an increase, but jeebus, are we still a small minority!
Slide 231 mentions the most-cited benefit of remote work is Flexible Work Hours. Cool, but notice how that's not a hard ROI-defined benefit, it's a "squishy" "lifestyle" benefit.
Consulting Takeaway: How often are your clients operating from "squishy" decision drivers, ones where the outcome/benefit is hard to measure and defined more in emotional terms than measurable, objective terms? If so, how could you get better at selling to these desires?
Ah! Now we have our first non-tech sector called out. I'm leaning in as I read this, because this is (maybe) where we start to see the power of specialization, where you as a technologist focus on a non-tech vertical in order to help that vertical create new value using technology.
Incidentally, if you want to see a nice sea change narrative in action, this section of Mary's deck is a good place for that. We have:
The sea changes themselves: presented as a curated collection of data points from a collection of sources that point to one simple conclusion: decline in traditional education delivery.
The general opportunity: presented as quantitive graphs depicting the growth of the new opportunity and qualitative quotes from founders reinforcing this growth story.
A key complicating factor: completion rates vary.
A key benefit: lower cost to consumers.
If this were a proposal you would go on to present the last part of the narrative, which would be: The specific opportunity for you, dear client.
Slides 269 - 292
The next non-tech sector that's called out. Healthcare! Not a surprise to me, probably not to you either.
The fact that Mary called out education and healthcare is interesting to me. It would be fair to think of education and healthcare2 as non-tech sectors that tech has "colonized" first, though you could certainly include others in this shortlist (finance would be another).
Consulting Takeaway: If you fit my mental model of an ideal member of this list, you're a technologist of some stripe looking to move into advisory services. As you do so, the tech sector is the last place I'd suggest looking for opportunity to create value as an advisor. I wouldn't suggest avoiding it outright, but I'd suggest starting elsewhere to find opportunities to create value because as tech "colonizes" other sectors and verticals, it creates all this disruption and change and uncertainty where you can get in the "side door" to consulting more easily.
Of course, the Mary Meeker whole deck is well worth a read. Again, here's a link: www.vox.com/recode/2019/6/11/18651010/mary-meeker-internet-trends-report-slides-2019
I'm kind of ignoring that previously in this deck, Mary called out e-commerce. That is an interesting sector, and I often get questions about whether it's a vertical of its own, a subset of retail, or something else.
It's also interesting to wonder if it's a subset of the tech sector, a subset of retail, or a completely different animal.
In one sense, it's a retail business enabled by tech.
In another sense, it can be a tech business that just happens to use products as the basis for forming a customer relationship where some of the value is the delivery of a product but much of it lies elsewhere.
This almost chimeric quality of e-commerce is why I'm not listing it as a non-tech sector that Mary calls out in her report, even though if you think of e-commerce as retail enabled by tech, it would be a non-tech sector. ↩