April 8, 2020

The Quarantined Independent

A new blogchain on surviving a global pandemic as an indie

For the past few years I’ve been writing a book, serializing the posts on my blog: The Strategic Independent.

I’ve always thought of this book as trying to be a “201” level reference - useful for those who already figured out the basics.

It contains things like how to effectively embed yourself inside client organizations, balancing strategy & execution & the theatre of work.

But we’re all beginners now.

These topics feel out of touch with reality, while the underlying goal is the same: help indies survive and thrive. So I’m putting the book on pause and launching a new mini-series - a more urgent and hopefully more actionable series1:

New Blogchain: The Quarantined Independent

The series home will be here: The Quarantined Independent. Posts will drop out serially on my blog (and there’s always the rss feed).

My plan is to think through what indies can do to find & keep work, stay alive in the crisis and generally.

Here’s some quick and dirty notes and ideas to kick us off:

1. Indies are f-ed

No one knows how this ends. And no one knows how long it’s gonna last. At the beginning of this 3-months of runway might have felt safe. Now I’m not sure 12 months of runway feels safe..

And indies are due for even less support than everyone else.

So shore up reserves, collect on your invoices right now, check your free cash flow…

The new world order that emerges after this may well be more indie-friendly, but for now we’re in for a rough ride.

2. Mutual aid for indies

The last thing we need in these times is a cult of personality. Now more than ever we need collaboration and cooperation between indies.

What does this look like?

Pitch work with collaborators, pull in other indies to help out on projects, look for ways to extend contracts around to other indies. This also helps protect you psychologically from clients balking at your fees - it’s not only a self serving proposal but you’re gonna spread that money around.

3. Focus your engagements

In the current environment you should expect: shorter cycles of planning, execution, investment. Think projects not retainers, think actionable in 30 days not actionable this year.

This is true for existing client work and any future leads that come in. Look for ways to establish a foothold with a smaller project before closing the larger retainer.

For many clients there is still budget floating around but it’ll get spent in smaller, more clearly defined chunks. Everyone is going to have more scrutiny on SOWs and finance is gonna have real teeth in these discussions.

So look for defined projects with clear scope that you can execute on quickly. Note this doesn’t necessarily mean it’s cheap - don’t undersell yourself just because money is tight - if you can stomach it you should hold rates steady. Even if you close your usual rate for a project work is going to get scarce so it’s important to get well paid where you can.

4. Start your writing

Let’s be clear - we’re not going to blog our way out of the slump. But writing is like compound interest - investing in a blogging habit now will pay off next year in spades when the economy gets going again.

Every independent I know generates leads through their writing.

Some reading:

And, crucially - don’t forget to keep it weird. This age is the great weirding and the world that comes next isn’t going to want your LinkedIn “10 ways I….” bro-post. Let a little blogpunk creep in.

5. Show the Process

If you’re tempted to spend some time getting your case studies in order might I humbly suggest that your time would be better spent becoming a thought leader. Thought leader?! Ugh. Well, actually no:

If you want to be good at “thought leadership”, the last thing you should do is say on your home page: “We are thought leaders,” or “We do thought leadership.”

Just declaring your organisation “thought leaders” does not make it a leader of anything, except perhaps PR. 

Instead, you should actually lead with some thinking. 

Start blogging or writing about what your thoughts are. It doesn’t matter if they’re half-formed or thoughts-in-progress (you can be explicit about that from the start, nobody will mind). The main thing is to show that you are capable of thinking about things, and to write clearly and simply about what your thoughts are.

From the great Giles: don’t say you’re a thought leader.

Ok - how do you lead with some thinking?

For me - it often comes down to showing the process. The main thing most case studies miss is any real notion of showing the thinking and process behind the work2.

Craig Mod has been doing this wonderfully. Nothing braggy or showy. Just showing up and livestreaming the work. Note how the work here is not even client work - but it shows off the range of capabilities wonderfully.

6. Find community

Every indie is already part of 12 slack channels and groups and forums but right now these mutual-aid support communities are more important than ever. These communities are a great place to practice and get feedback on all of these ideas from writing to coping.

Community only works when you contribute though - so don’t lurk in 12 slack channels. Instead be active in 3. Find the high value ones you want to engage with and double down.

The art of gig newsletter run by Venkat now has a community discord attached to it and is shaping up very nicely if you don’t know where else to go ($5 / month).

7. Go subterranean

Finally - if you have the cash reserves to see you through this (big if…) then you should consider going subterranean and working on projects that won’t see the light of day until next year.

Side projects might be regenerative for your emotional reserves right now3 but if your client work dries up it’s not the correct response. Take the time to look after yourself then start preparing for the regrowth.

If you can cobble together the reserves spend 2020 working on a project that will generate revenue in 2021. Here’s what that might look like for me:

Creating a course with full syllabus, videos, materials ready to launch and accept signups next year would be a great investment in future you..

If you can invest $X of sweat equity in 2020 you gotta believe those dollars are worth more in 2021….

What other tips and tricks are indies gonna use to stay alive? Post some comments.

Stay safe. Much love.

  1. The only blogging I’ve been doing has been “domestic cozy” blogging as a retreat from reality. As Toby says: For three weeks, I have wondered: how much of what I’ve thought and written about on this site is even relevant now? - but Toby concludes there is a way through - urgently and critically through reexamining our core values. Thank you Toby. 

  2. Yes I know the best case studies do both - but most don’t so don’t @ me. Also - you can only write one case study per work object! You should publish more frequently than that. 

  3. I actually have a side project cooking right now but I’m firmly positioning this as self-care. It’s not work, and when I’m ready I’m gonna get back to work. 

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This post was written by Tom Critchlow - blogger and independent consultant. Subscribe to join my occassional newsletter: