The problem with the advice to specialize is that it’s not even wrong! The advice is correct - IF you can create a narrow positioning, if you can become a visible, trusted expert in a particular niche then you will attract clients. It will solve your problems. But it’s a big IF… The advice is not even wrong because most independent consultants can’t create a narrow positioning. The problem is that we think choosing a specialization and positioning is based on looking at the intersection of work we’re good at and what the market wants.
You can separate most work into two buckets: well-defined and ambiguous. Well defined work is the kind of recognizable work where the client has clarity around both the problem and solution. This is the kind of standardized work that you see agencies pitch - things like “content strategy”, “user research”, “SEO audit” or “website design”. Well defined work has clear naming and down this path you see work that has an RFP and multiple competing vendors. Well define work is won by tight positioning. Ambiguous work on the other hand is where either the problem or solution are not fully formed. Perhaps the client has a goal like “how do I expand my business into a new country?” but an unclear solution. Or perhaps they have a problem “growth has stalled for our agency” and lack clarity about both what is causing the problem AND what a solution would look like. Here the client doesn’t even know the shape of the work - so they need to rely on a kind of vibe to select the right consultant.
Part 1: Strong Opinions Let’s return to the goal: sustainable client leads for well paid work without sacrificing our personal identity or narrowing our focus. It turns out that having strong opinions with a distinctive vibe works remarkably well. Strong opinions: Travel well - they’re designed for distribution and visibility in our networked age Allow you to get good client/consultant fit for senior, ambiguous projects Signal a creative energy that clients are looking for to catalyze change in their organization But, unlike specialization, strong opinions don’t narrow down your options or grind against your identity as a generalist. Strong opinions allow for divergent, generative futures.
Publishing Strong Opinions Gives You Visibility This might seem obvious but it’s important to restate it: strong opinions are what distribution is made of. Every independent consultant should be working in public in some form - it’s how you generate awareness, clients and visibility. But working in public is more than just publishing content - it’s about creating connections. We’ve explored before how working in public leads to expanded connections and how content drives leads even from weak ties. Working in public, producing content is about creating connections. About shaping your image in other people’s eyes. It’s how you build friends, collaborators, advocates and clients.
For many indie consultants who have rejected the 9-5 of full-time employment, trying to specialize and box yourself in is a path to burnout and failure This second group of weird indie consultants is often just as successful as the first group (if not more so) - they’re just less vocal about it
Specifically, many independent consultants are generalists - trying to find interesting, senior work. They crave an escape from the narrow confines of 9-5, and it’s incredibly difficult to reconcile a narrow specialization with your quest to be a senior generalist. This is a classic failure mode that I see time and time again: generalist indie consultants trying to fit themselves into a narrow positioning just to try and manufacture clients and in the process causing themselves stress, anxiety and ultimately burn out.
But once you start to figure out some kind of product/market fit for your consulting you start to uncover a third, hidden agenda: This third agenda is why specializing can lead to burnout. We’re not just looking for product/market fit for our consulting work - but our consulting work is deeply tied to our identity and we need a way to make it sustainable. This third hidden question is why specializing is so hard and even impossible for many independent consultants. Even if you can choose a specialization that meets the top two circles - something that you are good at that the market wants - can you reconcile that with your sense of identity? Can you craft an identity that you feel comfortable with, that gives you energy? Are you comfortable with who you might become?
The biggest fear of independent consultants when specializing is not just that it will narrow your options - but that will take you down a path you already know. Many independent consultants are independent for a reason - we’re contrarian, we’re attracted to a myriad, varied array of work. We chase novelty and surprise - we’re often seeking an alternative path. And specialization doesn’t lend itself well to novelty and surprise.
Good specializing is hard, because if you don’t do it well, you can end up trapping yourself. By creating a narrow positioning or specialization you make yourself more legible and understandable - you’re essentially optimizing for well-defined work. And well-defined work is less senior, less well paid and less interesting.
In short, not only is ambiguous work more fun and interesting - but crucially, it’s more senior. If you want to push into more senior work with long term well paid retainers, then you need to push into ambiguous work.
As you get more senior, the focus and emphasis on narrow domain skills gets replaced with a more ambiguous blend of skills and expertise, a kind of executive presence.
The problem with a carefully crafted positioning is that it typically makes the wrong part efficient - it makes it easier for clients to hire you for well defined work. It allows greater legibility, trust and expertise around work which is well defined
Instead, what senior clients want from a consulting engagement is not just skills or expertise, it’s experience and momentum. They need to move their org in a direction that it’s currently resisting - and so they look to outside help to kickstart a new direction and provide fresh energy and momentum to get something new off the ground. (This is capacity building consulting like I’ve talked about before).
This is a rare breed of specializing - that allows you to both define a senior audience and define the work, while still leaving room to drive a bus through in terms of how this work is actually delivered. Note that Andy’s use of “strategic narrative” is essentially defining a proprietary approach and type of work. You easily imagine how this specialization allows for senior, ambiguous work that leads to ongoing retainers - I can imagine how this strategic narrative impacts every part of the organization so it could easily lead to all kinds of work. But - you have to ask yourself carefully if you’re able to create this kind of senior and ambiguous specialization… Most can’t. (And as we’ll see later much of Andy’s success is due to his strong opinions, not just his positioning)
Specifically, clients need trust that you can navigate the ambiguity reliably without close supervision. And you need to be visible, not just publicly but inside their inner circles. After all this senior ambiguous work often flows through dark leads in cozy spaces.
The key of course is to make content that’s memorable and distinctive. In short: content that has a point of view. Whether it’s a clearly articulated point of view with a rational argument or just an aesthetic and vibe.
How do you tell if you’re doing it right? As you build your publishing practice the only measure is connections. How many conversations are you having because of the things you publish? Forget audience size, forget pageviews - focus on crafting your voice. Focus on building a voice that makes people want to have a dialogue.
Vibe Fit and Trust in Navigating Ambiguity More than raw distribution though, exposing your style and sensibility is important. Not just for standing out in the networks and generating dialogue and discussion - but also because senior, ambiguous consulting work relies on navigating a trust gap like no other.
Having an opinion is like having taste. It demonstrates a sensibility and way of thinking that is key when a senior client is considering a consultant for a project.
For ambiguous work it’s not so easy. In this case the client is relying on the consultant to both diagnose the problem AND provide potential solutions. It’s often the case that the client is operating in unfamiliar territory and needs to simply trust the consultant in all kinds of ways. There’s no easy way to replace the consultant or verify the advice being given. Simply put, oftentimes the client (and sometimes consultant!) are operating outside of normal boundaries.
Vibes & Destabilizing Energy More than just trust however, ambiguous work requires a specific kind of energy. Consulting is about changing clients. You’re often an outsider, brought in to catalyze some kind of change that the client has been unable to change on their own. Playing this role of catalyst (or, said more strongly: destabilizer) is challenging. Push in the wrong direction and clients will reject you. Push too hard and the client will collapse into chaos.