How can vertical specialization improve your ability to do business development?

Last Friday, I said this:

Fact: Axel Grell has left Sennheiser.

Question: Do you know what this means for Sennheiser the company?

I don’t know if I got any great answers to this question because I’m writing this email a few days before it publishes to my site and list, but here’s why I asked the question in the first place: it highlights how vertical specialization works.My business is not vertically specialized in the headphone manufacturing industry, or what’s now morphing into the slightly broader vertical of “personal audio”, which is a subset of the audio equipment manufacturing vertical. But, I’m kind of an audio nut. I didn’t fully realize how far gone I was until my friend Marcus Blankenship asked a really innocent question and got this as a response:

Send your condolences to Marcus. He had no idea what he was getting into when he asked. 🙂

Anyway, I follow the goings on of the personal audio industry pretty closely.So I know what it means that Axel Grell left Sennheiser.I know that it’s equivalent to Jony Ive leaving Apple or Ira Glass leaving This American Life, except that Sennheiser is a much smaller, still-family-owned company than Apple, and one that is less famous than This American Life. But among headphone enthusiasts who appreciate a good combination of balanced tonality and high resolution, Sennheiser’s HD600, HD650, and HD800 headphones are revered.

Axell Grell designed those headphones. And beyond that, he’s responsible for the Sennheiser “house sound” which–aside from the HD800 which has a difficult to control 6k peak coming from headphone cup resonances–tends towards a smooth but dynamic, slightly dark but resolving sound.

So Axell Grell leaving the company means a moment (perhaps a several-years-long moment) of elevated risk for Sennheiser. Sennheiser’s most loyal customers will notice and worry. If Axell hasn’t groomed a replacement or helped build a culture that makes him personally unnecessary, Sennheiser may be less able to innovate or design excellent products.Here’s the main point: if you were vertically specialized in the personal audio industry, you would sure as hell know that Axel Grell left Senheiser.

You would have found out the same way I did: through a small weird forum, not through the front page of a major publication. And you would know what a big deal Axell leaving is for Sennheiser. Yes, you would be focused on keeping whatever your core skillset is sharp, but you would also care about and keep up with the context in which your skills create value, which is the industry where you are focused.

You might reach out to someone you know at Sennheiser and say “Hey, I heard about Axell. How’s the mood over there? Anything you might need my help with once the dust settles from this?”

Or alternately, you might say something like: “Hey, I heard about Axell. Does this mean Sennheiser is re-focusing on the consumer market and leaving the high end music market to Focal? If so, we should talk because [reason].”

This is business development, and this level of bizdev is enabled by you being somewhat of an “insider” to the vertical you’re focused on.I’m not saying everybody should vertically specialize, but it does have some nice upsides that are specific to going vertical.

The value you can create scales in proportion to the amount of relevant context you bring into your client engagements.


Seemingly small hidden events for a generalist are key opportunities to informed industry insiders

It’s almost impossible for a generalist to see this kind of stuff.

The key takeaway? The value you can create scales in proportion to the amount of relevant context you bring into your client engagements

Recently I put together a 7-part email course that speaks to many of the issues you’ll face as you become a self-made expert. A significant theme of this email course is that many of us enter the world of consulting through the side door, meaning we’re not handed the credibility we need as a result of parachuting out of a job at a big consulting firm; instead we have to build that credibility (and the underlying expertise) ourselves. Sign up here:

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