Our panel discusses what positioning is, why it’s important, and how to get started choosing your positioning.
- Erik Dietrich
- Kai Davis
- Meg Cumby
- Reuven Lerner
PanelPicksEach episode, the panel (and guest) share their picks: a book, app, service, resource, or something else that they’re enjoying and recommend you check out:
- Jonathan Stark on Laser-Focused Positioning Statement (Erik Dietrich)
- Calm (Meg Cumby)
- Make Money Online Episode 18 – What’s Your Favorite Positioning (Kai Davis)
- Make Money Online Episode 97 – Positioning: How Specialized Should You Be? (Kai Davis)
- The Positioning Manual for Technical Firms by Philip Morgan (Kai Davis)
- Podia (Reuven Lerner)
Never miss an episode
Help the show
WHAT IS THE BUSINESS OF FREELANCING?
If you’re a freelancer, then you’re not just an expert in your field. You’re also a business owner, responsible for everything from bookkeeping to marketing to customer satisfaction to business development.
On the Business of Freelancing, our panel of experienced freelancers discuss the issues that they have encountered while building up their business — and give you practical, actionable advice to take your career to the next level. We also invite expert guests to provide their opinions and perspectives on how you can better succeed in your freelance career.
Reuven: Hi, everyone. Welcome to the Business of Freelancing podcast. This week we’ll be talking about Minimum Viable Positioning. On our panel, we have Erik Dietrich.
Erik: Hi everybody.
Reuven: And Kai Davis.
Kai: Howdy, howdy.
Reuven: And Meg Cumby.
Meg: Hi, folks.
Reuven: And I’m Reuven Lerner. So if we’re going to talk about Minimum Viable Positioning. We should start off by defining what is positioning and why is it important. So, what is positioning? Why is it important?
Kai: I rapidly shuffle through my notes in my mind and through conversations with my buddy, Phillip Morgan, who I think of as this ultimate specialization and the prince of positioning. It really is being known for something unique in the mind of your audience, your target market, your clients, but being positioned as a particular solution to a problem or to help particular people.
So, when you market your services when you’re talking with people. It’s not like what the heck do you do? Instead, it’s much more specific, “Hey, I help apparel stores on Shopify breakthrough to seven figures with SEO.” So people are able to easily say, Okay, this is who you help. And this is how you help them.
Erik: I think it would be succinctly as like the answer to the question, why would I hire you in particular? Yeah, maybe they give the shortest sweetest form of it I can think of. Then common thread of it that I see is like I help the who do want statement like I help X do Y, is maybe the most succinct way to think about it.
Meg: Yeah, exactly. That and just holding what space do you hold in anybody’s mind? Really, I guess it could be potential clients or people that could refer potential clients to you, just what space are you holding in their mind?
Reuven: I’ll just add that when I started consulting if someone had said that positioning, and niching down was a good thing. I would have laughed at them. Indeed in practice, I remember explicitly saying to potential clients and on my website, “We will use whatever technology you want to do whatever you want because we, we want to service you and we want to be good too.”
In retrospect, I can see how I made that mistake, and it seems so foolish now, my work has gotten more interesting, satisfying, lucrative, and clients self-select, because they know what I do. Instantly, they don’t have to ask the question or shall I be giving him a call a waste of everyone’s time.
Erik: To that point, if you go off and you’re hanging out, and you’re single and you say I’m a freelancer and you’re doing general SEO or general application development, whatever you may be doing. You have a default positioning even if you don’t realize it, and what you’re really saying, if you have no positioning, to your way of thinking is that you either for the same price as a million other people, you do a slightly better job. Or you do the same job as a million other people, but slightly cheaper.
That’s how you’re positioning yourself. Like if you go on Upwork, you make a profile and you’re like, I’m one of many millions of Java software engineers out there, then what you’re really saying is, I’m the person that’s going to answer your RFP, and I’m going to be slightly cheaper and maybe a little better than the other people. So even if you don’t think of having your positioning, that’s your default positioning. I would argue it’s not the best one.
Reuven: We’ve all seen online, plenty of people doing that whole race to the bottom. I can be cheaper, and you’re going to lose.
Erik: Yeah, turns out there are a lot of people out there. So if you’re trying to be the cheapest or the best Java engineer, you’re probably not going to be and what’s going to happen is you’re going to be answering RFPs or you’re going to be applying for jobs, and it’ll feel probably more like a job interview than like really doing a structured sales call.
It’ll feel more like you’re contract staff augmentation than a consultant or somebody who’s making a pitch to a client. So in that context, if we’re talking about Minimum Viable Positioning, it’s how do you get out of that sort of pseudo job interview to get work? How do you get into having more meaningful sales calls where you’ve differentiated yourself?
Kai: Part of it really strikes me as stepping towards… I’ll use the phrase expensive problem here, something that’s costing an ideal lead or client or whatever money that you’re able to help with. Even just having that as a lens in these conversations, or your marketing overall can really help shift it from, I’m one of a million Django engineers too.
Hey, is your Django-App crashing, but you don’t know how to fix it so your customers can continue paying you money? I help solve those problems. It makes it so much easier for somebody to say, “Oh, you’re around a pole. I have a round shape problem. Let’s get together and fix this problem.”
Meg: I think you just hit the nail on the head which is maybe biggest shift from somebody going from let’s say, the I’m a writer who does anything you need words for her, taking it or I’m a developer that will work with any technology to having a more specific positioning. It’s going from, I do the thing too, I solve the problem.
Kai: I like that. I like that presentation at it a time. There definitely can be like a scenario that freelancers or consultants or Indies get into where the clients are going after they’re just looking for a cog who could fit into their existing machine, but that often isn’t a position of strength to end up in for your business.
You don’t want to be a commodity developer or marketer or writer who can be subbed out for another one if something happens. You want to be a bit of a unique offering. You aren’t just anybody you’re Reuven Lerner, Kai Davis, Erik, Meg. It helps you better market yourself if you are a bit of a unique offering and not just the same thing dried.
Reuven: How do you then choose a position like out of the universe of possibilities, especially if you and I’m guessing all of you folks are like this, too. I’m really interested in lots of things. The moment that someone said, “Oh, you should really specialize.” I was like, “But I love doing so many things, and that wouldn’t be good for my clients and a million other excuses.” So how do you even begin the process of choosing how you’re going to specialize?
Erik: That’s a tough question. A lot of people write into me through my website, because I talk about these topics a lot. I have a blog that people follow. That’s a common one, like, how do I choose a niche or however they’re putting it.
That’s one of the hardest things for people to wrap their head around. The advice I usually give is, “I can’t look at your resume and give you one, I can maybe look at your resume and give you like 20 ideas for one, just based on your work history.” But it’s really going to be… When it comes down to is having a lot of conversations with people in the beginning.
So if you know a platform, or if you engage with a lot of a particular like buyer persona, maybe you talk to CIOs all the time, whatever it is. You start having conversations with those people, and you listen to them and what patterns, what problems do they have that are coming up over and over again, and all of those, what might you be well equipped to help them with?
That’s where you start to iterate. You’re not just going to sit down one day and say, “This is my niche, I now help this person do this.” You’re going to probably do a lot of generalized work and then see patterns, you’re going to interview people see those patterns and then refine that until you’re having sales calls where you say like, “I can help you with this specific problem.” And people, “Yes, I want that.”
You’re iterating toward it that way more than you’re picking one you’re like taking a shot in the dark like firing a tracer bullet and then working your way towards one.
Kai: Yeah, it’s very, very much an iterative process. There’s no like magical moment where bolt of lightning comes out of the blue and suddenly, “I shall work with Shopify.” It’s honestly like for me similar what you said Erik, looking at projects I’ve done in the past, are there any through lines or commonalities or types of companies I want to work with more? Or even, is there an area or an industry or a market that I have some personal interest in?
If that happens, I’ll say, “Okay, I would love to work with.” Here’s what I’m honestly looking at gaming supply companies on Shopify, people who say you like the D&D, minis, and dice and all those related fun things.
So I’m starting this by saying, okay, I’ve identified some, now let’s go out, have some conversations, look at them, and see if common problems they’re running into are things that I am already equipped to solve.
So this is very much starting with that market saying, I want to work with these people. Now can I find a spot where I can add value or solve a problem? That’s another pattern to follow to iterate towards a positioning that works definitely takes a couple of attempts, though, even with the same market, learn a little bit, see if an offering or a problem would work. Learn a little more after a couple of engagements and refine down to who you really want to be working with as you get more experience.
Meg: Jonathan Stark, who I’m sure many listeners are familiar with. He’s made the point about to focus on for a target audience, part of your positioning as a service provider, it really makes sense to start with, to pick some audience that you actually care about.
Because if you’re not invested in helping them that’s just going to add a lot of friction, and I find it works very well for me working with people that I actually care about to help them achieve what they want to achieve. If there’s a mismatch there, and you don’t actually care about helping them that could be a problem.
Kai: Yeah, completely, completely agreed on that point. It makes me think of a Patrick McKenzie pattio 11 on the Internet’s, ran his site Bingo Card Creator for a number of years. That fell into that anti-pattern you described Meg where he picked that he was like, “Yeah, of course, it’ll work out. I like this problem. I will learn to love this audience in a few years.” He was like, “No, that did not work. I have not fallen in love with healthcare data for healthcare-related organizations.” So, he exited.
It was great that he shared that experience so publicly because it acts as a really nice line in the sand to say, Okay, this is not how to do it. This is what he and followers learned through that experience.
Reuven: One of my big worries when I started positioning myself more and more, and it is definitely an iterative process. I started to stop doing everything. Then I finally came to conclusion, I should do training. I said, well, maybe I’ll just do training in Python.
When I was thinking about doing that, even just the training, I said, “Boy, that’s going to be really boring. I’m just going to do training all the time. How can that possibly be as exciting and fun, let alone have all the opportunities of doing many more things?”
I have discovered about Philip and his book and everything else. You will find that there’s infinite depth to whatever you do, and it can be really interesting. I definitely [inaudible] to be the case, but it’s it seems counterintuitive. Have you found the same thing in what you folks do?
Erik: Yeah, I would say I have. I don’t do boredom easily. But I must say for the first, 10-12 years of my career, I did various flavors of software engineering, like climbing the org chart. I was always bouncing around from tech stack to tech stack problem, problem domain to problem domain. Back when I was doing that would have been hard for me to picture zeroing in on something.
Then I wound up doing exactly that when I went off on my own and started to be a business owner. I never after doing that, and even though I thought I would never enjoy that. I did, because doing a deeper dive, it’s not… If you’re going around superficially doing a bunch of different things, then you’re getting the variety by virtue of, and with superficial understandings.
It’s like if you learned a little bit of eight different spoken languages. But there’s a difference between that and learning how to compose poetry in one of those languages. You’re not going to get bored you’re still going to be solving different problems all the time. It’s just to borrow from a programming background, are you doing a breadth-first your depth-first search? You still are encountering different things, different challenges, and I promise you it doesn’t get boring.
Kai: Yeah, my evolution overall. I definitely started off super generic with real WordPress marketing stuff for money. It was an iterative process to say, Okay, I want to focus a little more on this topic, a little more on this audience, a little more on this market.
That only came from learning as I went forward and discovering Oh, I more like this, viewer like that. How do I better hone in or optimize towards the things that spark joy and make the bank account go up?
Meg: Yeah, I don’t know if I had a slightly different foray into my positioning which I started off as a more generalist communications specialist writer and started with just this one, I wanted to get a little bit more control of my business. So I started with this one service of doing testimonials for consultants, without the awkwardness.
So, I started with really experimenting with positioning, but just having this one service to one side of my business and I just slow… I was able to, and it’s funny when you think like, yeah, I don’t know if I was ever worried about getting bored per se, but I think I was worried about whether or not I could turn it into a whole business.
But having that small service to start with to experiment with and then grow slowly over time and have it take more of my business and ramped down my other work. I’ve enjoyed the journey of getting more specialized and getting that deeper specialization, expanding on that one service into, multiple services to help consultants and coaches get social proof without awkwardness like I did.
You wouldn’t think just something that’s simple is a deep problem. But there’s lots of little nuances that come up all the time. Everything that you’re going to keep learning about what’s working for you by just trying something. That might be something that stops people.
Reuven: Meg, I’m curious. So, how did you come up with this positioning? Did someone approach you and you said, Oh, this what I should do this more? Or did you come up with it yourself after speaking with enough freelancers that you saw it as a common problem?
Meg: Yeah, I really wanted to come up with a service. Like I said, I was seeing that I was hitting a plateau with subcontracting so I did just start with conversations with people. I honestly can remember exactly what the conversation was. I can’t remember if I brought up the idea or the other person did about, “Hey, well I have trouble getting testimonials. Could you help with that?”
I don’t remember if that was or if I was talking to the person that just came up with the idea but somehow it came up within a conference with some fellow freelancers and consultants. What’s funny is after that one conversation and it didn’t really go anywhere afterward, I dropped it for a year until I brought up the idea again at another conference.
One person’s not a data per se, I thought, “Oh, that’s dead, that person wasn’t interested.” So it just evolved from there. So I started with two fellow attendees as a beta testing of the service and then I just started talking about it more and put my shingle out on the window.
Even though I was still doing, I was still keeping my old clients that were wonderful and helpful, but I was trying this out for new clients, and yeah, just over time it started to build a little bit more very slowly. It took about three years before I flipped the switch… Completely two and a half or so years before I flip the switch and said, Okay, now I’m just doing testimonials and case studies.
Erik: Something in what you said there strikes me as important, which is I was doing the general practice and then I can appeal off and decided to do this one offering. For someone listening out there, if you are generalized and you don’t really have any positioning, it’s not all or nothing like you can do exactly that. You can go and say, “No, I’m going to try out this one thing, I’m going to put it on my site. I’m going to mention it to people when I talk to them and I’m going to see how that goes.”
So you can dip your toe in the water that way and see if it gains traction. It’s probably actually how a lot of people wind up iterating towards their eventual positioning rather than sitting down and saying like, “Alright, I’m going to go from being a generalist to having this one specific thing that I do and gosh, I hope this works.” So that’s important for anyone listening to make note of.
Meg: You don’t even have to change your website copy right away. It was six months, eight months before I changed copy to match what I was doing, something like that maybe six months.
Reuven: Yeah, I decided for a while that I was going to just do training, even though I was mostly doing that. So, it was easily over the space of a year that I changed my website, only to mention that because I really wasn’t getting that many leads through my website anyway. So this way, I could just change that branding. I changed what I had on LinkedIn.
Little by little when people would ask me what I was doing, I wouldn’t say, Oh, I do X and Y and Z, I would just say I do training. That also helped me to build confidence that oh, I can describe this in a really succinct sentence, and people get it. If people get what you’re doing that quickly, that’s also a good sign that your potential customers will know how to identify you and gravitate toward you.
So, when I finally did flip the switch and get rid of all the projects stull and consulting stuff and just talking about training and Python training especially. It was really a very liberating moment that I felt like, Okay, this is what I’m doing. What do you know? People really needed this particular expertise. Sure enough, like since then it’s going, it’s going pretty well.
Kai: Touching on something you brought up there and connecting to the earlier idea of how do you transition in if you’re already known for one thing, or your site already says, like, hey, I do X? At least for me, a moment of both fear and calm that comes from making a step forward like that fear from, oh, gosh, if I step away from being a generalist, even just a tiny bit, what if the big generalist project comes through and I’m not there to catch it? Compared with that freedom of like, oh, gosh, I don’t need to be preparing myself for anything by anybody at any time instead, this is the best way I work with people.
Yeah, I could do other things too. But this is sort of the pointy tip of the spear. This is where you really want to start working with me, makes it easier and a little more emotionally free.
Erik: Along those lines, one of the things that I think if you’ve never made an attempt to really position yourself. If you accept what I thought of as the default positioning, which is I’m either better for the price, or I’m cheaper for the same level of skill or whatever. If that’s your positioning, your sales calls will probably kind of suck.
They’re probably you being interviewed, and you not really having good answers to questions. But if you position yourself, like I think of our business, Hit Subscribe. When I’m doing sales calls, those are pretty easy because it’s a blue ocean space, there aren’t really people doing what we’re doing.
So if there’s, “Why should I hire you?” It’s like, “Well, what else would you do if you want this?” There’s just not a ton of options, you could, instead of hiring us to supply you with all this content, I guess, you could go manage a firm of freelancers, you could incur a lot of effort, you could have a part-time job, but if you don’t want that to be your job, and you should hire us, there’s just not much else out there.
So if you’ve positioned yourself you’re going to have the sales calls that are easy to ace, like if you’re the only person that does SEO or something in a very small geographical area. Then if you’re going in and you’re talking about… Hopefully, right now, you’re not going into these places, but if you’re talking to them, and they say, “Why should I hire you?” Well, you’re looking for somebody who’s a real expert in this small area that we both live in. That’s me, nobody else you’re going to find on Upwork, how’s that going?”
So there is that, the moment of calm, Kai that you mentioned, where I feel calm before sales conversations because if I’m talking to the right person, there’s nothing, there’s no real convincing to be done. It’s just are you ready to spend the money or not or do you like the cut of my jib? It’s not telling me why I should hire you, instead of these 50 other similar people that responded to me to which I wouldn’t have a good answer if I were just saying, “Well, I’m better, I guess.”
So that calm comes from having good sales conversations and as you do that as your focus, building up credible expertise, so you’re probably writing about this topic, maybe even talks about it. It’s so much more narrow, that you’re not just the only one that you easily enough become the expert in it because you’re the only one or close to the only one doing it, and you get really good at it.
So I think of those sales calls, it becomes easier when you get in front of the right person by far to win business, and to dictate the terms of the arrangement. You’re not just hoping for the business and doing and say, well, you do content creation. So if I were just a content writer, they’d say, like, we needed in this form, and we do it this way, and we prepare the briefs in this fashion.
Like on a sales call, I would say no, that’s not how it works. Here’s how we work and you take it or leave it. So the positioning makes your pretty sales and your sales way easier, even though you have this fear like oh, I might be precluding myself from some business.
Kai: I didn’t catch it until now. But what you just shared there Erik made me realize whenever I’ve made my positioning a little more crispy or targeted, sales conversation shifted from exactly as you put it like, “Tell me what you do to.” Okay, let me tell you about my problem since they already knew sort of what I’d be able to help with the shape of the problem. There was no like, “Okay, do the song and dance so we could see what you’re good at, okay, then we’ll have a conversation.” Which makes it so much easier as an Indie consultant on this side of the line.
Reuven: I very often probably twice a month, have conversations with companies that wanted to do training of some sort. It’s typically the training manager bringing in between one and three different group heads, leads, tech-heads, whatever it’s going to be to tell me all about what their needs are, and to make sure that I can really supply it.
These are such easy conversations to have because first of all, they want to hear themselves talk. They want to tell me all about what’s special about them. Then I say, “Oh, well, I have XYZ course that will solve your problem.” They’re like “Yes, that is exactly what we’re looking for.”
Now, we could have avoided the whole hour-long conversation, but I can’t tell them that. I hope they’re not listening to the podcast. It does improve our relationship, and then we’re on the same page, but it’s not easy. No one’s asking, “Can you do this?” It’s let’s make sure it’s the right fit, or let’s make sure that what I’m offering really, really solves their problem exactly.
Here, they’re sometimes some changes necessary, but it makes me more confident. Yes, what they’re looking for is what dozens of other companies have been looking for before, and I could definitely provide it.
Erik: So, maybe the million-dollar question is what do we think of as Minimum Viable Positioning? In a sense, you could hang out your shingle and just take what I was calling the default position. But if you were going to, if our listener is going to get serious about position, what are some basics that they should have in order to say like, I have an actual piece of thought through position and I’m just curious about people’s take on that?
Kai: It’s a hard question since it’s sort of like how long is a piece of string? Well, you got to measure it first, do I have minimal positioning? Well, or do you have the default position? Do you at least have some positioning, you’re there, in my mind, to sort of take it a step further. It’s a combination of both the market and the niche, maybe the problem gets mixed into a tiny bit, but we can leave it aside for the truly minimal.
That might look like a market of Shopify, eCommerce stores. It’s allied, but it’s not including WooCommerce, or eBay, or these other ones. So it is starting to get there. But when we mix in a niche, it becomes so much easier for us to understand who we’re going after. So that might be women’s apparel or gaming products or Magic: The Gathering cards.
It’s easy for us to say, okay, is this a good client? Or is this a good marketing opportunity? Well, does it lead me closer to better understanding my market and my niche or does it put me in contact with people there? If it does, I think of that as sort of a good Minimal Viable Positioning. If it doesn’t, it’s a strong sign that it might be either the default positioning or you might not quite yet know who your market is or what niche to go after.
So you almost want to start a search process a little further up and say, Okay, what are the niches here but in my mind really comes down to both having that target market and having a niche within that market you’re going after.
Erik: I’ve thought historically of the who do like I help who do what. So that might be an indicator that if you can articulate that, because if you roll back to the initial, the default positioning is just a generalist, freelancer. It’s like I help anyone do anything with software engineering, or I help anyone write anything.
If you say something like that, it will sound hollow to your own ears like I help anyone do anything. If it’s on the other hand like, I help companies like this, or I help CTOs or whoever if you pick that, and then you say what you’re helping them do. That sort of at least forces you into being able to have a conversation where you trigger someone to know whether you’re probably a good fit for their problem or not?
Unless you can articulate whether you can strategically help someone with a problem that you really got any clear concept of positioning. So I think of that as a minimum viable positioning potentially. Although I think Jonathan Stark who we could do as a pick with this, his Laser-Focused Positioning Statement then adds, unlike my competitors, IX.
So that’s maybe even clarifying it a little more. But that’s what you want to be able to articulate. I help these people, I help them do this, and I have a differentiator of some kind. Once you’ve got that, even if it’s not perfect, even if you don’t have sales or a lot of success, yet you’ve got something that you can iterate on or grow with.
Meg: I’d say even the differentiator can wait for later. Later iteration. I’d say I didn’t start with a differentiator per se. I don’t think there’s more people that touch on the thing I do now. So, that’s something that I’ve got differentiators now, but it’s not something, I don’t think people have to get too caught up.
But I think too, not worrying too much about filling like a full blank slate, but if you can, and people get hung up too on the industry idea, but even if you can articulate some guardrails around who you work with, it does not have to be a particular industry, like your dentist as used a lot as an example or Shopify start like.
But if you can put some guardrails, pre-funding tech startups, something, businesses that serve the wedding industry. Something that puts around consultants, coaches, something that puts something around it, maybe it’s not a specific industry, but help web developers. That’s an industry thing, but it does not have to necessarily be one particular industry, but just something that defines it that excludes other people, would be minimal.
Kai: You hit the nail on the head there. One important point to share with listeners is really the true value on positioning is excluding folks. It always makes me think of Gerald Weinberg’s, The Law of Raspberry Jam. I think of this in the marketing context, the wider you spread it, the thinner it gets?
So if you’re marketing to everybody, for every problem, it’s not going to be that deep, there’s not going to be a lot of jam on that toast. But as you refine your positioning and say, Okay, this is my market. This is my niche, my specialization, my expensive problem, how I’m unlike other people. All of these factors really just shrink it down until you’re like, Okay, my ideal clients, there might only be 50 companies in the world or in the States that match up with this, but they know who I am, I know who they are, I know the problems they are experiencing.
So really, the positioning exercise just helps you crystallize an idea of who you want to be marketing to, and as you’re able to make it more focused and more niche, you’ll be more effective with your marketing.
Meg: One of the biggest things there too, is actually talking to the people that you’re going to try to serve, and hopefully it will be. A lot of people logical step is to look at who you’ve served in the past and who we’ve enjoyed serving in the past. But I came up with these very wordy statements.
Like I was trying to do it on my own with a scratchpad and I hope I’ve saved them somewhere because it was far from what I ended up with. It wasn’t until I ended up in a bit of a discussion with four or five other freelancers and the word awkwardness just kept coming up like, “Oh, how do I do the testimonials? This so awkward. I don’t like it.” I’m like, oh, there we go. Awkward only came up about 10 times in the conversation, maybe that’s the problem to be focusing on.
Erik: Yeah, that’s how I associate with asking for testimonials.
Reuven: One of the advantages of having a tight position is not just in terms of your specialization, but the market you serve is that you start to use the same language as your clients. They like that, they really like the fact that you’re getting it and you’re using the same words as they do, even if the meaning would be roughly the same using other words. So, paying attention to what they say and using that language and reflecting it back to them, it just works to your benefit.
So, you don’t have to position inside of one particular industry, but it helps, it’s like one part to this whole thing. When I was in graduate school, I noticed that everyone does their Ph.D. thesis on something like a hobby of theirs and interest of their something they grew up with. At first, I thought this was like a cop-out, and then I realized no people work well with the sorts of things that they’re used to and they enjoy and they want to spend time in.
So, I don’t think there’s any shame at all in saying I enjoy working with such and such type of people or in such a type of technology, or such and such industry, starting there, talking to people in that industry, seeing if there’s a need, and if there is fantastic now you’re able to work in something that you’re good at and you enjoy with people you get along with and whose language you speak.
If you have to adjust them tweak that, that’s normal. Jonathan Stark did this. We keep mentioning him. He’s a good source for information about this stuff. But I think it was about two, three years ago, he said, “I am going to start niching down and talking to credit unions and helping them with their technology problems.” He spent a ton of time talking to them and discovered yes, he could help them. Yes, he spoke their language, and no, they’re just not a good client audience.
So, all the ingredients need to be there, and speaking to them is the only way you’re going to really verify that it’s a good one for you.
Erik: One thing that’s worth mentioning as a caveat or a thing to be aware of, and I say this coming from the world of software engineering, where it’s going to be particularly appropriate is when you’re thinking about who you’re helping and how and you’re thinking about speaking their language. It’s important to differentiate between who might be at that company and who your economic empire might be.
The reason I say this is I hear there are software engineers out there thinking that maybe I’m going to zoom in, and I’m going to say that like, I really help in my positioning is that I really niche down on helping people with like the JDBC, MySQL driver or something. But then the person who’s actually not by your custom App development is a CIO, or someone who does not care about that at all, doesn’t speak about that at all, won’t even know when to hire you.
So that’s this subtly mismatch positioning where you’re going with something where the company might care. It may be what you actually do in the nuts and bolts sensitive, but your actual buyer, the person you’re going to have a sales conversation with just wouldn’t care. So you need to make sure that whoever that buyer is, at the companies you’re talking about in your positioning, that you’re teeing up a way of helping them that they understand and that you can articulate to them.
Kai: Yeah, knowing that knowing how to best tee it up often comes out of market research conversations with those types of people, other people in the market just understand, oh, the CIOs right now they’re really focused on cutting costs because it point to economy. Well, okay, if you come in saying, hey, it’s driver thing or whatever, we’re going to make it cost less to do XYZ. It’s going to be so much more resonant with them, and they want to move forward with it because you’re speaking their language.
Reuven: Yeah, and as a consultant, you’re often dealing not with, especially if you’re in like a tech sector, you’re not dealing with the V engineers. They’re not going to be paying the bills. You’re dealing with the CEO, CIOs, CFO, someone like that. So speak the language of I will help you either make more money or save money. That’s what they want to hear. Then you can say you’re going to be implementing COBOL they couldn’t care less as long as they’re going to save money or make more money or preferably both.
Kai: So for listeners in the audience who are wondering, okay, what are one or two steps I could take today or this week to move towards slightly crispier or a better positioning, what would each recommend they consider or they do?
Erik: I would say, try to schedule some exploratory conversations. One of the most valuable things that I’ve done over the years was just to pick the brains of people who I thought might be buyers. So to put this more concretely, the way I went from IT management strategy consulting to of all things, founding a content marketing business is while I was doing that consulting, I would write for tech blogs because it was fun.
The more of them I did that the more of them called me up or emailed me and said, “Hey, I saw you writing for this company. Would you also write for us?” After like five or six of those my wife and I said, “Hey, maybe there’s a business here that’ll get me off the road away from 100% management consulting.” The rest is history. But in the early going there, I scheduled conversations with all those people who had been writing and I started to ask, “Why me? Why pay me or why would you pay us to do this? What sorts of things do you value?”
Those conversations were just incredibly important. So I would say if you have a bunch of engagements going behind you, or maybe it’s just former employers, whatever it is, call those people up and start to ask them, “What did you find particularly good about me as an employee or as a freelancer? What did you really value? Why did you want this project done in the first place?”
People are pretty receptive to this conversation because you’re not really trying to sell them anything. You’re picking their brain and people like to be interviewed and people like to offer expertise. So my vote would be schedule as many conversations like that as your calendar allows for and start to learn from people what it is that valued about your past work.
Meg: Starting with people that you’ve got a relationship with of some sort of… Even when I say relationship, it doesn’t have to be a deep one. But sometimes some people and I know when I was starting, the idea of cold emailing someone to ask about for 15 minutes conversation asked about do you experience X problem?
That’s a huge barrier to try to get over and I did. I haven’t done it as a practice and it’s not something I’m comfortable with. But if you start with people you’ve got some relationship with or you’re in a business community, you’re in something, any excuse that you’ve got that connects you already, it’ll make it easier to have those conversations.
Kai: Yeah, past conversations with folks market research conversations is my go-to recommendation as well. You learn so much just by sitting down for a half dozen 20-minute conversations with people in a market who have purchased a similar service or are somewhat adjacent to it, just learning what they have to share.
One a typical outcome of experience from market research conversations is people saying, “Can I pay you to solve this thing that I didn’t realize was a hair on fire problem until we had this conversation?” Again, not a standard outcome but a lucky roll of the die, and sometimes those market research conversations are just one turns into a paying project within a positioning, you’re evaluating.
Erik: A metric that I’ve heard, I can’t remember who has talked about it is, maybe it was Philip or Jonathan, is, is there a conference? Or are there conferences for a particular industry? If so, that means there are enough people probably for you to target it in your positioning.
So you can say, “Well, I know that there are conferences for X. So let me try contacting people I know in the X industry, see if they’d be interested in my services, or more importantly, what problems do they have that I might be able to solve?”
Again, you might discover that it’s a dead-end, but you got to have the conversations first. I found this, you folks have found this, you’re going to hear the same words repeated and then you can just use those and people will light up Oh, you get it, you get the problems we have. Then once they understand that you sort of get them or what they believe you get them, they’re going to open up and tell you about all sorts of problems they have, which will then feed on itself and give you more information, and so on, and so on and so on.
So it’s not a matter, certainly, we used the term iterative before, this is a hugely, hugely iterative process, and it doesn’t necessarily need to stop. Every single time I teach a course, I go around the room and have everyone introduces themselves. I ask, why are you here? And I jokingly say, “Is it because your manager forced you to be here.” Everyone giggles a little bit.
But this is not like idle time. I will not remember their names. I might remember some of the other languages they’ve learned, and so I can key into that. But the most important part of that is why are they here so that I can then see the patterns among my students. I’ve used that that’s why I started teaching data science. That’s why I started teaching for non-programmers because a whole lot of people mentioned that in those introductory comments.
Then when I came back to companies and said, “I think you might have a need here.” They’re “Like, how did know” “Because I’ve been using your own employees against you. That’s how.
Meg: Oh, dear.
Kai: Yeah, it’s both a simple step to take just having the conversations of people, and feels like you’re allowed to do that. I could email somebody on LinkedIn and say, “Oh, you work in this industry? Can I buy you a coffee and ask you half a dozen questions?”
It’s true. It works. Like 60% of folks will respond and say, “Sure, let’s do it.” Because again, people like talking about themselves, people like sharing what they’ve experienced.
Reuven: Any regrets may be about any of the positioning that you folks have done?
Kai: I have shifted my positioning, too often in a haphazard way where I was committed to like, all my content should be on kaidavis.com. So, when I switch, I guess I should just erase all the other things.
Now a couple of years after the fact I’m seeing it’s like, oh, no, the smart or wise thing here is have just a separate domain or a separate landing page for the different areas. In practice, like as my positioning evolves, that might look like telling folks Oh, you could find me for the next six months over here at this URL.
That’s where I’m just creating the content around a market or a pain or just my positioning. So make sure that you are keeping that old data or that old information or old content around when you do change your positioning. Since a year or three later, you might realize, Oh, I’m heading back in that direction. Let’s get it out of storage.
Erik: Honestly, this might sound a little like episode thematic or whatever is an answer. But the only regret I can really think of was not going from too general to more specific sooner than I would. Over the course of time, I would get more specific and then realize like, Oh, this makes things so much easier. I really wish I’d done this earlier in the game. If I’m being perfectly honest, that’s the only real thing I can think of.
I’ve never gotten more specific and thought like, this is too specific. I need to zoom back out. Even if that happened, I don’t think it’s hard to get a little bit more general. So, my final takeaway would be, at least try it, at least have the conversations, at least considered it, and maybe spin up a landing page on your site or something with it just to run the experiment. Even if you’re not going all-in for it just do the exercise.
Meg: I’d say possibly dropping, pursuing positioning. For me for as a regret not having more conversations earlier. There’s a whole year of time that I could have been pursuing and move by. I’d say just doing that earlier. Even if I’d spent that whole year just gathering data that would have been valuable to do. That would be probably my only regret that I could think of.
I don’t regret moving slowly as I did. I think that that gave me confidence that this is working, this is working. Okay, let’s just slowly build that up and not throw out everything else until I’m confident to be able to ramp up that time more and more. So, I definitely wouldn’t regret moving that slowly. But I do regret not moving on the idea sooner.
Reuven: Yeah, I’m just going to echo what you folks have just said, which is I should have done it way sooner. I was surprised that the more I specialized again, the happier I was, the more work I had, the clearer I was as a target for my potential customers and vice versa. So, it does not feel right at first, it feels like no, “I’m leaving money on the table. I’m saying no to all these people. How can I possibly do that?” But try it. Try it. You will benefit.
With that let’s move into picks. Erik, what do you have for us this week?
Erik: Well, once again, I’ll go with something I just mentioned offhand. In the episode of Jonathan Starks, Laser-Focused Positioning Statement. He has a whole exercise around that and you’ll find the link, but it’s like, how do you get to a piece of positioning? So it’s worth checking out. He in general puts out a lot of good information on this topic.
Reuven: Excellent. Meg, what do you got?
Meg: Yeah, I don’t have a business focused on this week. But I’ll go with an App called Calm for building a meditation habit, which is very important. I found is very important to and it links to my business life, that it helps just sort of building meditation habits have been really helpful with building mindfulness with what I’m working on.
So, Calm Mix it. It’s a paid App. Yes, you could find free meditations online, I’m sure but this guided meditations, but this one just makes it so easy to build the habit. A lot of them are 10 minutes or less, so it’s really tiny, or sometimes the two or three minutes and it’s got lovely tracker and reminders.
It’s just got everything. I gladly pay, I suppose $80 Canadian, something less than American. But gladly pay that each year for the App. It’s one of the few ones that I know I’ll keep on using for a long time to come.
Reuven: Excellent. Kai, how about you?
Kai: I got a couple picks and you’ll find these in show notes. Two episodes of my now-retired podcast with Nick Disabato, Make Money Online, Episode 18. What’s Your Favorite Positioning and Episode 97 Positioning: How specialized Should You Be? If you’re listening to this podcast and enjoy listening to podcasts, I recommend checking those episodes out.
The other resource I will also suggest, echo a suggestion for honestly, The Positioning Manual by Philip Morgan. It’ll also be in the show notes and it truly is worth the money. It will help your business, be it an Indie consultant or a software developer or something else. Better understand how to position yourself, strong recommendation.
Reuven: Absolutely. My pick for this week is Podia. I’ve been selling with them online for about two and a half years now. I am so, so happy that I’ve made the switch. I tried a few other platforms, few other sites. Not only have they made it really easy for me to sell courses and videos and content, they’re now doing webinars.
They’re constantly adding new functionality, their service is amazing, easy to work with, even if you’re not a techie. So a very strong recommendation for at least trying them out if you want to sell things online, and you should, but we’ll talk about that in another episode.
That about wraps it up for us. Erik, Kai, and Meg, thanks so much. Thanks to you, dear listener for tuning in. If you have suggestions, ideas, thoughts for future topics, please let us know. We would be delighted to hear from you. We will see you next week on the Business of Freelancing podcast.