Things I've Changed My Mind About, 2022 Edition

Bizdev low-hanging fruit

TL;DR: I'm changing my service offerings and there's a new offer -- somewhat different from what you know me for -- that you might be interested in. If you're a digital agency or indie developer wanting to harvest the low-hanging fruit that comes from professionalizing your business development, this offer is relevant:

One of the biggest a-ha moments I had in 2022 was realizing that I first learned about marketing from copywriters and digital product/SaaS people, and this created a foundational belief that I've spent an inordinate amount of effort interrogating and reacting against. It's been interesting, but I wonder if the past 8 years would have been more productive if I'd had different teachers creating a different foundational belief.

There are exceptions here and there, but for the most part copywriters treat marketing as the task of persuasion at scale with the purpose of selling an already-defined and already-existing product or service offering. If there's an archetypal "copywriter's hero's journey", it goes like this: they're a scrappy, unknown junior copywriter. They get a chance to write some copy for famous product X sold by famous direct marketing company Y. They do it for lunch money, because they're unknown and because, deep down, they've got that fire in their belly and they know they can "beat the control". They research harder than any human has ever researched. They write the copy, getting pushed closer to the deadline than any human ever has. You can almost hear "Eye Of The Tiger" swelling in the soundtrack. Their sales copy beats the control and becomes the new, un-defeated control for a decade. They become a famous copywriter and write the book you are now reading their hero's journey story in.

What's in the background of this story, and the background of the typical copywriter approach, is the assumption that the product or service offering is already fixed and defined, and so the real work and value of marketing is the work of persuading better, or persuading more people and therefore increasing sales.

Many definitions of marketing gesture at how marketing can include product design/creation. The AMA's, for example:

Marketing is the activity, set of institutions, and processes for creating, communicating, delivering, and exchanging offerings that have value for customers, clients, partners, and society at large.

But the idea that marketing can include product design/creation never really got through to me; it never changed my foundational assumptions.

To give away the punchline here, my big-year-2022-a-ha-moment was: good marketing absolutely does start with service/product/offer design. It doesn't have to be persuasion bolted on to an existing, un-changeable offer. It's likely I will write more about this later, and about the "service design attractor states" I've had some experience with.

Another story I need to tell to make my larger point here: For a while my wife and I used a mobile vet to get yearly checkups for our 2 cats. Mobile vets are awesome. They come to you, preventing a stressful car-trip for your animal. The one we used in Sebastopol had a Sprinter-size RV with the ability to do surgeries right in her van. The one we used here in Taos had a smaller setup, but was great to work with. Then one day, she dissapeared.

She stopped taking appointments and didn't return phone calls to explain why or what was going on or even if she was OK. She ghosted.

Our neighbor has seen her driving around town, so we know she's still alive, but that's it for intel on what's going on with her. We couldn't find another mobile vet, but we found a brick-and-mortar vet. They've also been great minus the stressful yowling-cat car rides.

As soon as I could not-totally-awkwardly work it into the conversation, I asked our new vet if she knew the now-ghosted mobile vet and she said something that I've thought about a lot since then. The new vet said "we all knew of her, but she never came in and introduced herself to us."

As someone who got into self-employment somewhat accidentally, I sometimes feel like half of my career has been re-inventing basic stuff that more experienced entrepreneurs or licensed professionals have known forever. For example, once I specialized I never formally introduced myself to my more established peers in the space I'd specialized in. It never even occurred to me to do this.

What struck me so about our new vet saying "she never introduced herself" was the content of what she said but moreso than that, it was the mild scorn with which she said it, conveying this obvious subtext: THAT'S JUST WHAT REAL PROFESSIONALS DO, DUMB-DUMB!! YOUR NOW-MIA VET WASN'T A REAL PROFESSIONAL!

I might have left this story -- and others like it -- in the mental compartment of "works for them, but not for us in the unlicensed professions" were it not for continued disappointing mediocre results from my efforts to help clients cultivate expertise and implement authority marketing via workshops, TEI, and coaching and some small-scale research I started earlier this year. (If you want a very personal update, read more about this in My Year Of Being A Loser.)

As I mentioned, I've been doing some small-scale research meant to help me understand how those who have bought custom software development services went about finding the developer/agency they hired. I am using a method known as grounded theory, which is a subset of qualitative research. With grounded theory, you start developing a data-backed theory very early on and update the theory as you gather more data until you get diminishing returns on additional data gathering.

The theory that's emerging from my research is this:

  1. There are professional services buyers, and non-professional services buyers (this is an artificial but useful binary). Because sourcing, vetting, and procuring services is a primary job responsibility for them, professional services buyers approach things with a rigor and level of process that non-professional services buyers do not. Non-professional services buyers source, vet, and procure services using more ad-hoc or casual methods in order to solve a problem at the project level rather than at a core-job-function level.
  2. Non-professional buyers are satisficers who source service providers by querying their memory and social network and, if they don't find a satisficing solution that way, they engage in the more effortful and risky task of finding a solution outside their social network through web search, marketplaces, and specialized listings.
  3. Most small custom software shops and indie developers work with non-professional buyers most of the time.

I talk about this as an "onion" with 3 layers. A client helped me name them in a memorable way:

  • In Memory: People/companies you've worked with or heard about in the past that might be a fit for your current need
  • In Network: People/companies you discover via your social network
  • In Google: People/companies you discover by querying the web, browsing directories, or using marketplaces

Another assumption that I bought into somewhere along the way: the way you get better bizdev results is to use digital marketing generally and content marketing specifically to become an authority. However, I've noticed that some folks give the authority marketing approach their all and get shitty results. I'm starting to think that that's some kind of X-factor and, without it, you can do all the authority marketing things and not become an authority to your market.

The authority marketing model sometimes giving bad results doesn't mean there's anything wrong with the model; it just means it's being misapplied. I think another one of my shortcomings has been over-applying the authority marketing model; basically overselling its potential.

I want to be extra clear here: the market does have a demand for authorities. Human herds need sheepherders, just like Ovis aries do. Dreamforce needs people to put on stage for their show. There's demand for authorities because when authorities act effectively and ethically, they create tremendous value for the social system they're within by reducing waste, accelerating progress, and increasing performance, and they can monetize a fraction of the value they create. Authorities don't just look good on stage, they create real value.

I'd argue based on recent experience, however, that some people just don't have it in them to function effectively as authorities for their market. (The long term may prove me to be in this cohort too!) I'd bashfully confess to over-estimating how many do have it in them. I'm not sure talent or genetics is the right model, but just like a talent or genetics mismatch can prevent you from ever being on the roster of an NBA team, there does seem to be some kind of X-factor involved in successfully building and monetizing an authority position in the market, and without that X-factor, you can do authority-building but not become an authority.

So there's been this recent confluence of my research, my unimpressive results using the content/authority marketing model to help clients, and my realization that I have probably been overselling this model. That all translates to me making some changes. I might not get it on day one, but I do eventually get it. Shit's not working; time to fix that.

That's my apologia for the previous approach.

The new approach is described as best I currently can at I'll write more about it in future emails, but this one's close to my soft limit of a 5-minute read so for now I'll close by saying:

  • OpportunityLabs is focused on harvesting the low-hanging fruit that comes from professionalizing your business development.
  • We focus on the inner 2 layers of the onion where the bulk of non-professional buyers start and end their search for developers/agencies.
  • It's for digital agencies and indie developers, and will probably create the most absolute and relative value for the 1 to 25-FTE demographic.
  • If you're interested, please let me know.