Dumbell to barbell

Philip Morgan

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I've been reading How Brands Grow. Actually, I read Rory Sutherland's Alchemy, then immediately started reading How Brands Grow, and that was a fascinating pair of perspectives to consider back to back. They're both opposing and overlapping perspectives.

Both books share some context: mass market brands are the subject of interest, and behavioral economics a substantial part of how they argue their respective points.

For evidence, Alchemy uses well-known colloquial examples (Red Bull energy drink, for example) while How Brands Grow uses academic research.

The mass market context is so different than ours, which I'll label as the solo self-made expert context. I think what I'm saying here is also relevant to small firms with staff, but when I write I'm always thinking of people like me, or like David Baker, who have no staff.

Scalability is one huge difference between the mass market company and the solo expert.

If every potential buyer of packaged beverages made 100% of their purchases from The Coca-Cola Company's line of products for the next year, that might stress the company's production ability, but I suspect they'd be delighted to have that problem.

100% market share would be just fine with The Coca-Cola Company.

For every solo expert I can think of, 100% market share would kill them in the short term through over-work, or kill their business in the long term by starving it of the "oxygen" it needs, which is time to innovate.

I'm craving more books like How Brands Grow, but for the solo self-made expert. These books are valuable because they argue from Data.

I want more books about solo experts firms that operate from this POV:

Most books, at least those about marketing, come from the opposite end of the Experience-Data spectrum. (Which, by the way is fine. I'm just wanting to balance my reading diet out with Data-based perspectives.)

The reason there's not much I can export from a book like How Brands Grow and apply to the solo expert context is the scale issue. Solo expert firms can't scale to 100% market share. That's not how they thrive.

When I think about how they do grow and thrive, I think about barbells. More specifically, dumbells and barbells.

This seems to me like a decent model of solo expert firm growth.

We start here:

And intentional growth takes us here:

We start with a direct response marketing approach because it's cheap, reasonably effective, and beginner-friendly. The Internet is chockablock full of advice about how to do direct response marketing. In fact, if you just search for general stuff like "how to market consulting services" the overwhelming majority of what you find will assume you want to use direct response marketing.

You'll never accidentally be advised to use brand marketing!

We start with relatively low-profit services because that's also easy and accessible for us. Those might be services sold on an hourly billing model, or ones that are labor-intensive to deliver regardless of the pricing model. These services are often leveraging skill (knowing how to do things in the context of a project) rather than expertise (knowing when/why to do things in the context of a business).

Over time, and in intentional fashion, we pursue expertise, which leads to greater profitability, which allows us to invest in more generous brand marketing.

Brand marketing is "less cost-effective" than direct response marketing. It moves the needle less observably. In the short term, that is.

In the medium to long term it's more effective than direct response marketing because direct response marketing undermines your claim to be a genuine expert, and brand marketing doesn't.

What fuels the growth from dumbell-size expert to barbell-size expert is investment. Investment in your own self-made expertise.

You make this investment more effective by specializing.

The investment in self-made expertise probably requires sacrifice. I know some self-made experts who have made this investment without a painful level of sacrifice, but I think that's enabled by a some personal quality they have that's unique to them (ex: they're OK with living frugally for a number of years, they're confident enough to charge premium rates for their still-forming expertise, they're OK with working lots of overtime for a while, etc.).

For most of us, the sacrifice will probably be somewhere between uncomfortable and painful.