I’ve been asked to post this excerpt from chapters 2 and 3 of The Positioning Manual for Technical Firms. It will help you understand the biggest barrier to getting the benefits of positioning your business: your own emotions.
Why is Positioning so Difficult?
I wouldn’t be writing this if properly positioning a privately owned services business was easy. And you wouldn’t be reading either if it was easy. So why is it not easy?
It Brings Up The Fear
I’m going to fully explain this in the next section, but for now, know that you will face some gnarly fears as you move through the work of positioning yourself. Moving from operating as a generalist, “A to Z”, or “full service” firm to operating as a differentiated specialist will almost certainly cause you to fear that:
- You have chosen the wrong thing to focus on
- You are not worthy of commanding premium rates
- You are cutting off access to desirable, profitable work
- You will quickly become bored with your choice
Collectively, I call these fears The Positioning Fear Reflex. It’s like the reflex that makes you pull your hand back from a hot stove, except in the case of positioning, it’s not protecting you from anything that’s actually dangerous.
Positioning Challenges Your Sense of Identity
Properly positioning your professional services business is also difficult because it is so personal. A lot of us start our self-employment under a personal brand. We don’t really think of ourselves the way that a manufacturer of backpacks or wallets or speed controllers for electric motors would think of their business. They would almost certainly have a non-personal business identity from day 1.
When we in the professional services business try to position ourselves as a differentiated specialist, it’s so wrapped up in our identity of who we are, even if we have a non-personal business name. As Blair Enns says, we are creative people, and we love the thrill of exploration and new learning curves. Even more, we often take real pride in how our personality attributes are woven into our businesses.
It just comes with the territory of being creative that we don’t like to think of ourselves as narrow specialists. In fact, we jump to unfairly characterizing narrow specialists as “one-dimensional”, “wonks”, and even “boring”, while we neglect the incredible potential for exploring the intricate depth of a specialty.
Positioning: It’s Gonna Hurt
If you specialize your marketing, you will for sure face The Positioning Fear Reflex (or simply, The Fear). Because of this fear, I find that coaching and consulting clients tend to retreat into generalizations and excuses to not position their business as a specialist.
I can identify. I resisted specializing for the first 5 years I worked for myself. At first, it was because being a generalist seemed more interesting and exciting, and I didn’t understand the benefits of specialization. Then, it was because of The Fear. Eventually, I transitioned away from being a content generalist for anybody with a pulse and a checkbook to being a consultant that helps custom software development shops get more leads–a differentiated specialist. But I lived on the brink of financial ruin for those 5 stressful years before specializing. So I get it… it’s a challenging process!
Here were my fears about positioning myself as a specialist. I’d bet money they are the same ones you face when you consider specializing:
What if I pick the wrong niche?
What if I am unknowingly committing career suicide?
What if I can’t deliver on my claims of expertise?
What if I pick a really boring niche and before I know it I’m crying myself to sleep every night on $900 silk sheets while my soul slowly dies?
The good news is threefold:
- Almost every person who has positioned themselves as a specialist has had good things to say about it.
- The Fear is pretty common to everyone who makes this transition. By knowing what to expect, the entire process will be a business development power play on your part rather than an exercise in battling your own demons.
- There are ways to reduce the risk of what feels like a very risky transition. You do not have to bet the farm on a new, untested positioning.
As you position yourself as a differentiated specialist, be prepared to experience these four common fears.
You will at some point feel like you are excluding desirable clients by narrowing your marketing and by saying no to clients that you could potentially help but fall outside your defined focus.
The truth is that you are doing this, but you are also opening up access to a more profitable, desirable, deeper niche market that has greater earning potential for you. You cannot gain access to that niche market without becoming focused and demonstrating your expertise through your marketing.
Unless you are an unusually self-confident person, you will question your expertise and your worthiness to charge premium rates. This goes away after a while, but I believe this particular fear does cause some people to shrink back from the path of specialization, because deep down they know that they must believe in their own value, and they really don’t at first.
The good news is that with focus comes confidence. If you are a generalist, you are always dealing with learning curve and unexpected issues. When you specialize, you quickly learn how to deal with these common issues and your confidence increases very quickly as a result.
This confidence will give you the strength you need to tackle bigger challenges within your area of focus. Tackling those bigger challenges will help you believe in your own value. This self-reinforcing feedback loop will quickly put an end to your imposter syndrome.
It’s common to fear that if you specialize, you will become bored with your work very quickly because you are narrowing the scope of what you do. In other words, you are solving a narrower range of problems for clients. You may fear that “doing the same thing over and over again” will get boring.
The fear of boredom is a false fear, rooted in an unrealistic picture of what it is really like to specialize. To outsiders, the world of specialization is perceived like that gray, drab world depicted in Apple’s famous “1984” TV commercial. Those who inhabit it are perceived as out of touch geeks who lack the interpersonal skills needed to communicate with others, or who are so consumed with their own enthusiasm for a narrow topic that they simple can’t relate to others.
To get a more realistic picture of specialization ask yourself: “who gives the most interesting TED talks? Generalists or specialists?” In fact, who gives any kind of TED talk? (I’m not talking about TEDx, which has a lower barrier of entry.)
Specialists get invited to speak at TED.
Specialists get to solve interesting problems all the time. Solving interesting problems is not doing the same thing over and over again, it’s drawing close and going deep into a subject. Specialization may from time to time involve tedious or unpleasant work to be sure, but who can better afford to hire help with those tasks? A $90/hr generalist, or a $350/hr specialist?
Fear of Shrinking Brain Syndrome
Finally, I have to mention that for almost any person working in the technical end of professional services (software development, IT, etc.), much of our identity is wrapped up in how much we know. I’m no different–it’s a point of pride for me to understand a wide range of subjects at some depth. I want to be perceived as having a big brain.
I think we technical folks fear specialization in part because we won’t want to narrow down our knowledge domain, and we don’t want to give up our identity as people who can speak intelligently to and actually solve a wide range of problems. Ultimately, we don’t want to have to say, “I can’t help you with that.”
Again, this particular fear is a symptom of misunderstanding the pleasures of going deep with a specific subject. Furthermore, your business positioning may have little to do with the subjects you explore in your down time. And again I’ll ask, who can afford more down time to explore matters of personal interest–a $90/hr generalist or a $350/hr specialist? Yes, you may have to adjust your expectations around getting paid to learn on the job–which is one of the ways the $90/hr generalist gets to tinker with so many interesting toys “on the clock”–but I trust you can see the benefits of making that shift.
Picking the Wrong Niche
When you move from “A to Z software development” to a specialized subset of that work for a well-defined market vertical, it feels like you are facing a tremendous loss of potential work. You wonder if your chosen niche is large enough to support your continued growth. And then when you try to pick one of the many things you could do to create value for clients, you get overwhelmed at all the choices!
If you are used to a “take all comers” approach to business development, making a choice and putting a stake in the ground feels incredibly risky. You are used to perceiving yourself as “following the money”, and you can fool yourself into thinking that it’s “smart” to be “flexible” and “accommodating” of the variety of clients that come your way. This mindset will tell you that choosing a single type of client to work with is like rolling the dice or playing Russian Roulette: very, very risky.
Moving Through The Fear
Dealing with The Fear of focusing on a single audience and a single expensive problem is a big part of The Positioning Manual. I want you to be successful with positioning, and a big part of that is being prepared for the emotional aspects of the process:
“The fear is real. Our business was struggling with almost everything Philip mentions in the book—we felt like we were treading water and operating from a position of weakness with fees… and we needed to make a change.
We felt a lot of hesitation about choosing a niche, but since we read The Positioning Manual,we see our strengths more clearly and we now have a MUCH better plan for growth. We can’t recommend this enough. Frankly, it helped us feel ownership of our company again.”
Media and Production | Presence Agency
There are financial benefits, of course. If you’re struggling to attract the kind of clients who will pay a premium rate for your services, positioning is the first tool I would recommend you use to address that.
“Since I started focusing on positioning, my year over year income is up $70,000+ (120%+) and my month over month income in January 2015, was up 250% and in May 2015, up 400%+!
When I first heard of The Positioning Manual, I thought “my business is doing fine as-is — why would I want to change my positioning?” Reading this book forced me to challenge my assumptions about the audience I wanted to work with and focus on a specific audience of best buyers for my services.
Since reading The Positioning Manual, the quality of clients I work with has increased, clients have started to seek my out, and I’ve established a foothold as an authority in my space.
I cannot recommend TPM highly enough to any consultant who wants to make more money, work with better clients, or build a reputation for themselves in their space.”
Coaching for Consultants | KaiDavis.com
Finally, even though positioning itself is challenging, doing it makes a lot of other things much easier. Focusing on a narrow audience and narrow expensive problem will help you reach that audience more easily and market to them more effectively:
“Philip’s advice on positioning has helped us go from flailing and not having a direction in our business to having a very defined target audience. We now know who to talk to in our marketing and what projects to take on (and which to decline!), and as a result get more and better referrals than ever before.”
Online Business Strategist | The Bright Agency
If you want the only book on positioning with step-by-step instructions, worksheets, and actionable guidance designed specifically for software developers and dev shops, grab your copy here.