10.10, Wednesday 13 Nov 2019 Link to this post
About three weeks back, fellow traveller Tom Critchlow shared his annual notes on being an independent consultant: 5 years on the road: Thoughts on sustainable independence.
And: coincidence! I work via a consultancy vehicle called Mwie Ltd. I am its sole employee. Mwie was incorporated in October 2014 and issued its first invoice in November 2014, so that also puts me 5 years on the job. Happy work anniversary, I guess (which is absolutely not a thing although LinkedIn insists it is).
Inspired by Tom, I started writing a blog post retrospective. What I’ve been doing, what some highlights have been, etc.
What I’d like to do more of.
What am I any good at.
Oh my god where is it all going anyway.
Ok so (a) I shouldn’t have tried to write to write a retrospective on my own on a Friday night; and (b) wow it got way too personal, there’s no way I’m sharing it.
The thing is that for the past five years, I haven’t been talking about what I’m up to, and there hasn’t been a plan. My strategy has been
- talk with interesting people about what I’m interested in
- don’t chase too hard: allow as much time as necessary for win-win situations to make themselves obvious
- only do interesting, stimulating work — but never just because I need it for the cash or positioning (granted, it’s privilege to be able to be choosey like this, but I’ve previously worked to earn that)
- no marketing except word of mouth: marketing can’t abide complexity. Crafting a message that will carry, any message, requires reifying my practice and I haven’t been ready to do that.
That last point all about what we’d call in other contexts product-market fit. That hyphen is an arrow of influence that points both ways.
Marketing requires a view on what the market finds valuable; what will resonate. In my case, how clients will find and understand business value. Not only have I lacked up-to-date knowledge of what value I, personally, can unlock, but prematurely working on marketing will shape the product before it’s ready.
And what is the “product” here? Well it’s me, my practice — it’s some overlap of what I find stimulating, what I’m good at, and what helps me get future work which is the same but better. But can I articulate that? Not a chance.
So if I look at the last five years, the strategy has been
- follow my nose
- discover what I want, because I can’t articulate it
- discover what the market wants, because I don’t know.
If it sounds like I’m starting from the ground floor here, I guess it’s because I am. BERG (the design consultancy turned tech startup I co-founded) shut its doors in 2014, and I carried on working on various loose ends well into 2015. My “voice”, needs, patter, platform, and intellectual interests had been mixed with the studio, in one incarnation or another, for 10 years. It’s… confusing. Moreover, I had been surrounded by some of the most talented, unique individuals I have ever met — and one of the jobs of a CEO is to do only what can’t be done by others.
All of which means I came into my current five year stint as “Independent Consultant” (according to my LinkedIn) with very little real idea of what I was good at and what I wanted out of my work. And, if I’m honest, a bit afraid that the expectations of others — potential clients — would shape my practice into what they needed and thought I could offer, before I could figure that out for myself.
Let’s call it product discovery and market discovery. Business-speak as camouflage for feelings.
I wish I could find the source of this quote. I remember reading Kevin Kelly relating something he heard from his mentor Stewart Brand:
We have time for three 15 year careers. In each career, you’ve got five years to learn and work your way into it. Then five years to do it as well as you can. Finally you have five years where you can offer a new spin from your own individual perspective.
I think about this period I’m in as my second career. I’ve been in no hurry to figure out what it is.
But… five years in. Maybe it’s time to finish the discovery chapter and focus on execution for a bit.
Where were we? Oh yes, Friday night a little over two weeks back. On my own at the kitchen table with my laptop and a class of red, writing a career retrospective that was rapidly devolving into a career existential crisis.
Here’s what I did.
- I wrote down everything I would regard as a career highlight from the past five years, and looked to find themes.
- Then I went back to looked at extracurricular activities from the past five years. I’ve always got a side-project or two. Well, I decided, if they fit into one of my themes, they’re retrospectively now a work project.
- I listed everything that I felt was missing. What do I wish I had done more of?
- And then, at the end, there is this section:
If I met me, and was advising me on what to do, this is what I would say:— and after answering that title I went to bed.
Before I go into the results of that personal career review, it’s worth saying why I separate myself from my consultancy, Mwie Ltd, even though the two are often the same.
- It’s practical and means I can work with bigger clients. Incorporating means I can safely subcontract (which I’ve done frequently for clients) and relate to companies on the basis of product supplied rather than hours done.
- I can invest in assets. Through Mwie Ltd I have run a bookshop in a vending machine, and I’m building Job Garden. Both cost money. But because they stick to the consultancy, even if they don’t wash their face by their own account, they can be worth it for the marketing, creds, or capabilities benefits.
- Separating the company bank account from my own provides a psychic buffer. For years I’ve paid myself a regular monthly salary. Company revenue goes up and down. Clients sometimes pay late. Sometimes there’s a good month and the company looks flush. But so long as there’s a six month runway in the bank, none of that affects my sleep.
You get what you do. Or rather, you get what others see that you do.
It’s funny. Jack and I gave an interview to the Daily Telegraph business section (I’m not even kidding) way back in 2007. I just went back and read it, and the advice in that article is exactly what I had to remind myself about that Friday night. Here’s the article:
“We started turning down work,” says Webb, describing the duo’s slightly different approach to building a fledgling business. But Schulze and Webb had an unusual problem - when they spoke to potential customers they would get offers to design websites or graphic material. But that wasn’t what they meant by “design”. “Bits of plastic and microcontrollers,” says Webb, “the future world of products.” These were the things that excited them.
Friends advised two strategies. One: find a way to communicate to people what you do in language they can use with others (such as their bosses). Two: make things that encapsulate the kind of work you want to do and hope people discover them.
And at the end of the article:
Do: Start with the smallest thing that’ll work. The learning you get from ‘doing’ is huge, it gives you pace, and big plans are always bigger than they look from the outside.
Don’t: Take work only for the money. You get what you do, so work that makes you unhappy is not progressive. And it’s better to structure the business so you don’t need the cash than take work that kills the opportunity of much better work.
Bloody hell. Thank you very much Jack-and-me-from-2007.
My personal career review includes some course-correction points.
- I’m not doing enough public speaking of the sort that I enjoy — I feel I’ve lost touch with my tribe, and I miss that.
- And while the function of the work I’m doing is rewarding, and I enjoy and I’m good at it… I’m missing the opportunity to chase down intellectual avenues which — because of my individual perspective — fascinate me and I believe are important. I have a list of these.
- I also have a couple of points which boil down to: this isn’t the consultancy, but do more of it!
I’m not going to share details on the above points if that’s ok.
Mainly, and this is what surprised me, when I looked back over five years of projects
- there are indeed themes!
- the kind of value I can offer and enjoy is supported by credible previous work!
- I have opinions about the industry that I’m in, and what should be done better and differently!
- I would like to do more of those things!
None of this was necessarily going to be the case. So, good news.
You get what you do.
Long story short, I redesigned my website. Between other things that took two weeks and I put it live yesterday.
I thought about renaming. But switching away from Mwie Ltd felt like it would be inauthentic — it is just me, after all, operating as a limited company, and I have no intention of building it into another agency. Been there, done that.
Secret origin: “Mwie” stands for Matt Webb Import/Export because when I was a kid, visiting family in Nairobi, we would pass all kinds of import/export businesses and I still remember them as exotic and mysterious. I always wanted one of my own. And so.
Yet Mwie is a dumb name. So in the spirit of celebrating that which binds us, I figured I would lean in and put the expanded version on the homepage too.
Actually writing the case studies was pretty simple. This isn’t a launch of a new offer. There’s nothing aspirational here, and no new positioning. All I’m doing — very incrementally — is reinforcing existing word of mouth marketing by stating exactly what I already say in person.
So I just wrote down how I already talk about my projects.
Putting them in one place, and grouping them: that’s new.
Oh, and the design. I get my hands dirty with web design every year or two. It’s fun, although of course now I can’t see anything except what I think is wrong with it.
Here’s a screen grab of the old mwie.com website from November 2019. Single page. Useful mainly for the boilerplate which shows the company registration number.
Here’s the new one:
As always, I’m up for hearing your thoughts. There’s a contact page on the other side of that hyperlink should you wish to get in touch.