Discarding a Head Start


A good question from the post opt-in survey:

Beyond refining what I do, I’m bought in that I need to specialize more (maybe vertically), but my vertical experience is in CPG and that’s not necessarily where I want to work.

I’ve seen quite a few folks express some variation of this question, though the usual “not necessarily where I want to work” vertical is finance. 🙂 But the pattern is the same.

That pattern is this: your specialization head start doesn’t take you somewhere you want to go.

There are 3 ways that people decide how to specialize:

  1. Identify and build on a head start. A “head start” is a relative advantage you have in terms of access, credibility, expertise, insight, or trust-earning ability.
  2. Identify the kind of people or opportunity you are best suited to focus on.
  3. Identify the kind of entrepreneurial opportunity you want to invest in.

I’ve listed those 3 ways of deciding in ascending order of riskiness.

Dear questioner, if your best head start is in consumer packaged goods (CPG), it’s fine to discard that head start. Some parts of that head start might be transferable to other forms of specialization (certain kinds of expertise, for example), but others are not (relationships and industry-specific insight are often the non-transferable part). Or maybe you have another head start that is nearly as good.

If not, you are going to use one of the other 2 approaches to deciding how to specialize. They’re both more risky. They both require deeper investment from you.

That’s the fundamental tradeoff at play when you discard your best head start.

I tend to be pretty optimistic about a motivated, self-employed person’s ability to build access into a vertical where they have no head start, but it definitely is a process of building and investing, and it entails uncertainty and the possibility of that investment not paying off.

When you’re deciding how to specialize, be careful not to over-focus on the vertical. It’s not that different than a long-term relationship like marriage. Even the most “perfect” partner will have “imperfections” that you don’t notice until later, and you’ll inevitably need to work at repairing, maintaining, and improving the relationship for some reason or another over time. Have reasonable expectations about the fit between you and the vertical you focus on. On this topic, here’s a thread to pull on and see where it takes you: https://twitter.com/minethatdata/status/1272667768765075456

Additionally, think of your business as a portfolio of activities that you engage in. Even if you’re a soloist, the client work is just a part – sometimes a relatively small part – of this portfolio of activities. You may find that a feeling of stagnation in one area is offset by a feeling of growth in another, and the whole portfolio itself is quite dynamic and interesting over time. I’ll go so far as to say that if you can forsee a time when your core expertise might start to feel stagnant to you, that might be a good thing because it means you’ll have mastered it to the extent that you can do the often interesting, always challenging work of more deeply or profitably monetizing that expertise. A good thread to pull on starts here: https://twitter.com/davidcbaker/status/1318645578193162243

You can find much more detail on the specialization process here: https://philipmorganconsulting.com/specializing-and-positioning-an-independent-consulting-business/

Thanks for the question!

Keep building; keep taking risks y’all,