Beachhead Thinking

Indie consultants have amazing opportunities to do challenging, satisfying, lucrative work. On that front, we have nothing to complain about.

However, we have constraints, too. Even if we can invest 40 to 50% of our working time into marketing and running the business, we need to be brutally frugal with that time and energy budget. We face a little bit of competition from our direct competitors and a lot of competition from the status quo bias and the general noisiness of the world.

Thinking in terms of beachheads helps address these constraints.

Beachheads Consider The Passage Of Time

Nothing is unconnected from the passage of time. When we’re seeking to enjoy a moment in life, it’s good to forget this and just enjoy that moment as if it does stand apart from the passage of time. But when we’re seeking to make a good decision, or to understand something, I think it’s best to mentally overlay the past, current, and future state of things into one composite view and, from that perspective, seek to understand the thing or make the decision.

It’s relatively easy to overlay the past and present state of things, but difficult to include the future state because we can’t predict the future. We can, however, guess. That is what beachhead thinking insists that we do.

Beachhead thinking poses this question over and over again: “If you want to arrive at location X, what is the best starting point?” This frames what we do now in the context of the future state(s) it could lead to.

If we combine this framing with an anxious, negative mental orientation, beachhead thinking is maddening and probably unhealthy — it becomes a way of cataloging imagined disasters; a sort of mental disasterporn. But if we combine this approach with a more grounded (and I would argue, realistic) optimism about our human ability to build, create, improvise, and improve (after all, we’re not living out nasty, brutish, and short lives in caves anymore…), then we both make better decisions and better manage our current constraints.

If I wanted a new tree to shade my south-facing patio, I have options ranging from expensive + immediate to inexpensive + long term. The latter is more like establishing a beachhead and it looks like planting a sapling tree obtained for maybe \$50 from a nursery and nurturing it into a full-grown tree over time. The former looks like finding a full-grown tree to transplant (I don’t know how much this costs, but probably thou$ands), renting a tree spade (\$300/day), and transplanting it. Under the often-constrained circumstances of indie consulting work, we’re often looking for beachheads rather than expensive+immediate fixes.

  • Beachheads are part of a campaign; a process that unfolds over time.
  • Beachheads are not the whole enchilada; they are a starting point from which to establish momentum.
  • Beachheads do need to be connected to the whole enchilada. There needs to be a plausible path from the beachhead to the larger objective. You can’t think about the beachhead and the larger objective in isolation from each other.

Beachhead Thinking Forces Clarity & Long-Term Thinking

Beachhead thinking requires that you have some clarity about your larger objective or purpose and that you do some speculative thinking about what beachhead and what path from that beachhead might work best for you. This also forces a commitment to playing a long game.

This is why I’m a fan: life will present you with beachheads that serve other people’s purpose and they’re made so attractive as to foreclose thinking about your purpose. Choosing your own beachhead requires that you consider your purpose.

Both of these requirements — clarity of purpose and playing the long game — create positive second-order consequences that are especially valuable for indie consultants:

  1. Playing a long game will help you avoid or move away from a heavyhanded use of direct response marketing as soon as possible, avoiding the inevitable conflict between expertise and direct response marketing.
  2. When you play a long game, you start to wonder what — beyond immediate revenue — you are actually building, and this often leads to offering the market an aspiration, idea, or method of enduring value; something that benefits all those you serve whether they buy from you or not.

I think it’s fine for your larger objective to be defined solely in terms of your business ($X in revenue, or xx% growth in revenue each year, for example) or in terms of your business’ status within your market (I’ll be known for providing the most useful information/consulting on X). But I do think that beachhead thinking gets you evaluating the uncertainty and potential for harm that is connected to your self-employment in a clear-eyed way, and this can push you towards a certain pregnant moment where your internal dialog goes like this: “If I’m going to take on this amount of risk, then why don’t I invest that work and risk-taking in something that’s actually worth it, cause otherwise there are a lot less risky and less difficult ways to make a living.”

In other words, I hope beachhead thinking pushes you away from half-measures and towards a more full commitment to making a difference in your market. This doesn’t mean a Mother Teresa-style of service. You can run a fundamentally altrusitic and profitable indie consulting business. I just happen to favor starting the work of building that business from a beachhead chosen based on its potential for positive impact and then moving on to figuring out how to increase profitability as you travel towards your larger objective of purpose or impact.

A certain amount of cowpathing as you get to your objective is natural. That doesn’t mean you lack clarity about the objective, it just means the exact path from the beachhead to the objective is a bit fuzzy when you select and land on the beachhead (you know there is a path, you just don’t know exactly what it looks like), and you accept the uncertainty and need for experiential learning that exists along the path that connects beachhead and objective.

Ways Of Choosing A Beachhead

It might be obvious, but choosing a beachhead is an act of working backwards from your objective or purpose. Given that you want to arrive at X, what is the best starting point?

You might answer that question through one of several lenses:

  • What beachhead will provide the fastest path to your objective?
  • Which one will provide the safest path to your objective?
  • What beachhead is a way to start small and gain momentum towards an extremely ambitious objective?

As you make this decision about the best starting point, you will face low uncertainty about your objective/purpose, a medium level of uncertainty about the specifics of the journey there, and a relatively higher level of uncertainty about whether you’ve chosen the best beachhead. This uncertainty profile is totally normal, and I hope it’s comforting to remember that any beachhead that helps you gain momentum and reduce overwhelm is a potential “best” beachhead for you.

How Beachhead Thinking Addresses Constraints

Earlier I said that we face a little bit of competition from our direct competitors and a lot of competition from the status quo bias and general noisiness of the world. Here’s how beachhead thinking helps.

A lot of competition from the status quo bias:

Beachheads help by lowering the barrier to getting started moving away from the status quo.

  • The beachhead might be to start by offering clients a non-threatening level of transformation, or start engagements by solving a painful + urgent problem and from the beachhead of that solution invite further/more significant improvement.
  • Or a low level of commitment (webinar attendance, email course subscription, YouTube channel subscription, etc.) that invites a deeper/bigger commitment.
  • Your marketing might offer a steady drip of content that results in prospects making a “quantum state jump” in understanding or commitment after they’ve had sufficient exposure to that drip.

The general noisiness of the world:

Beachheads help by allowing you to “be everywhere” for your prospects.

  • Narrowing your focus (specializing) is a beachhead that helps you seem to “be everywhere” for the market that you have specialized in.
  • Choosing a marketing approach that prospects enjoy subscribing and paying attention to leads to prospects habitually choosing to focus on what you have to say, which momentarily suppresses the noise of their world while you are speaking. Podcasts and email lists with a frequent, regular publication schedule are particularly good at this.

I alternate between thinking this idea of beachhead thinking must be painfully obvious to everyone and then, anytime I come across oversimplified advice online (quite often, I’m afraid), thinking that it must not be obvious at all. The truth is very likely somewhere in between.

I hope you’ll embrace this idea and that embrace will lead you to a bolder, more generous, more ambitious vision for how you could move from a beachhead to an objective that helps your entire market level up.