The Fire Swamp of Ideation

(Readin’ time: 6m 35s)

Onward with the second of three ideation pathways. (BTW, if you’re like “what the heck is this guy talking about”, I’m continuing a series that started here.)

It’s possible that your corpus of prior client work won’t provide you the raw material you need to identify patterns. That means your lowest-risk method of identifying client needs/problems is off the table. You can either deal with the situation that causes that lack of insight–which is an underlying lack of focus in your business–or you can forge ahead into higher risk territory. That’s what I’m about to discuss here. The higher risk territory. The Fire Swamp of Ideation.

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What you’re going to do with this ideation pathway is look for patterns in a specific market vertical. You’re going to choose a market vertical that you have some sort of connection to. That could be one of the following:

  • A head start in terms of access
  • A head start in terms of credibility
  • A head start in terms of love


Short aside: I don’t think I’ve used the word love enough to describe the ideal relationship between a consultant and their market of choice. That’s because in the past I’ve tried to make the idea of specialization accessible to more people. I still want to do this, but need to temper my missionary zeal.

Specialization makes a lot of things work better, but specialization alone doesn’t make entrepreneurial self-employment all that much easier. Self-employment is hard and that’s why more people don’t do it. So I think you either need to lean pretty hard mercenary in your orientation towards your business, or you need to feel genuine, flat-out LOVE for those you choose to focus on serving.

Obviously–like any real relationship–you won’t feel intense love at all times for your market of choice, but when you do feel that love it’ll get you through the hard times, and that’s why I frame things here in terms of love rather than some less powerful emotion like interest or curiosity.


The first part of the process is something I’ve talked about a ton. This is how you decide on a vertical that’s new to you:

  1. Build a list of market verticals you have access to, credibility with, and feel love for. Don’t self-edit during this stage.
  2. Go to www.naics.com/naics-drilldown-table/ and find possibilities you hadn’t considered before. Add them to your list.
  3. Now ruthlessly edit the list. Characterize the verticals on your list based on the strength your access, credibility, and love. Combine those scores to create a synthetic score that helps you identify the verticals with the best combination of those three important attributes.

Now you’ve got a shortlist. Maybe you have a clear obvious first choice, or a few clear obvious top choices. Either way, it’s time to choose one as a starting point for your ideation.

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You’ve got two ways to research this vertical and find problem patterns there. Remember, it’s a vertical where you lack direct client experience, or you lack significant insight into what clients in that vertical struggle with. So your research looks different than “just ask your past clients”. It’s a more challenging form of research.

There are two specific forms of research you can try: watering hole research, or interview-based research.

Watering hole research

I’m borrowing a lot from Amy Hoy here. She advocates strongly for this form of research, bakes it into her excellent 30×500 course, and articulates the benefits of this form of research better than anyone else I know.

The idea is that you’re going to do “ethnographic research”, where you carefully observe folks in their natural habitat. This is both a feature and a bug of this form of research.

As a feature, it means you get accurate information much more easily because you’re observing folks who don’t necessarily know they’re being observed, and therefore don’t act differently because they know you’re paying attention.

For example, imagine that you wanted to sell your services to companies that make high end audio products. There are between 3 to 5 specialist forums that cater to the consumers of these products. By hanging out in these forums, you would start to get a sense of what the consumers of high end audio products think and care about. You’d “get inside their heads” eventually. And that insight would make you a more savvy, valuable consultant to those companies. This is an example of watering hole research.

It’s both powerful and limited. The “bug” or flaw in this kind of research is that some people simple do not hang out in online watering holes at all, or the ones they hang out in are private and have an armed security guard at the entrance (figuratively speaking). Yet, I have numerous examples of my clients getting access to these people. They just do so differently. They don’t observe them in online watering holes because these people just aren’t there, so instead my clients ask them for an interview. More on that in a moment.

I don’t mean to unfairly diss watering hole research. It’s absolutely where you should start if you’re headed down this second ideation pathway. Only if you find that it doesn’t work would I suggest you move to interview-based research, which is less beginner-friendly than watering hole research.

If you want to learn more about the how of watering hole research, check out Amy Hoy. Her free articles have a ton of useful information on the topic, and her paid stuff even more.

Interview-based research

The second research approach you can use to figure out the patterns of need and problems in a new market vertical is interview-based research. It’s pretty much what it says on the tin: you’re going to interview people and look for patterns of need or problems.

First question/objection: “how the hell am I going to get the CEO of Target to speak to me?”

Red herring alert!

You almost certainly won’t get the CEO of Target or any other similarly famous business to speak to you. But again, that’s a red herring. You don’t need to speak to the CEO of Target to know what meta-concerns they have because the CEO of a large famous company is essentially a public figure who has been interviewed to death and doesn’t have that many secrets to reveal anymore. Everything you need to know can be assembled from interviews, press releases, and looking closely at the words and actions of competitors in Target’s ecosystem. And finally, would you even be working directly with the CEO of a company like Target? Probably not unless you coach executives on speaking or something like that. As a tech consultant, you might interact with the CIO or a VP, and the chances of getting an interview with one of them make it worth trying.

Second, you absolutely can get the CEO or other C-level folks at a midsize or small business to speak with you. You just need to approach them the right way.

Another important note about interview-based research. We tend to focus on interviewing potential clients when we do this kind of research, but that excludes what is actually the easiest, most effective group to speak to!

Those are competitors. I use the term competitor with some reluctance. It’s probably the best single word to describe others who do something similar to what you do, but every time I connect with a competitor of mine, I end up having a very convivial relationship with them. So it’s the undertones of fear or danger in the word competitor that I find incongruent with actual experience. Anyway!

You can interview 1) your actual competitors and 2) non-competitive experts who serve the same field. My clients find that about 50% of actual competitors will agree to speak to them. Part of that is so the competitor can “sniff their butt”, and part of that is because many people feel life has been good to them and want to pay things forward when they can.

Non-competitive experts are other consultants and authors who focus on the same field. They are non-competitive with you because they offer something really different. So if you’re a developer, speaking to management consultants and marketing firms would be two examples of interviewing non-competitive experts.

This is getting long, so let me wrap it up.

The second ideation pathway is where you explore a vertical you have no real experience with. By some accident, though, you might have connections or credibility there. But more likely, you just love those people. Not in a romantic way, but in a way that keeps you motivated to serve them even when the going gets tough.

So if you want to learn more about this vertical you’re not experienced in but are connected to, you’ve got to do some research. You can either try to observe folks in this vertical “in the wild” at some online watering hole, or you can interview them enough times that you start seeing patterns of needs or problems.

Tomorrow I’ll talk about the third ideation pathway, which is to look for a purely horizontal problem. That one’s quite interesting, so I look forward to layin’ it out for you.

As always, I can help with this stuff. Just hit REPLY.

-P