November 10, 2020

6 Years on the Road

From independence to interdependence

This is a post celebrating my 6 year indie-versary. 🥳

On October 24th 2014 I stepped out into the unknown wilds of independent work and each year I write a recap of the year behind. This year’s post is late because I was not only metaphorically on the road but literally on the road - I’ve been spending 2020 on an extended road trip across the US with my family as a way to make the most of the pandemic situation.

I’ve written before about how being independent feels like being on the road so it’s a nice metaphor that we’re spending the year actually on the road…

I feel incredibly grateful, humbled and privileged to be able to take off onto the road with my family - to be able to still have work, let alone be able to work from the road. In the mess of 2020 I feel very lucky.

Last year the theme was “sustainable independence” - this year I feel like there’s a been a subtle but powerful shift from independence to interdependence. More on that - but first, some reflections on 2020:

The Quarantined Independent

Clearly the dominating theme for the year was the pandemic and navigating the economy, WFH etc. Throw into the mix the elections and my son Indy being born and it was a wild year full of strange contradictions.

I started a blogchain the-quarantined-independent in April to navigate the new world of work exploring:

Overall as I worked through these challenges - I had one client lose their budget and cut the project short, and one client cancel the contract after signing. But I was mostly just glad to have any work at all during these times. Here’s the story so far:

I think the pandemic probably took off 20-30% of this year’s income - and in a heart stopping moment gave me the first month with zero income in over 5 years!

Notes from Consulting

Aside from navigating the pandemic - some notes and themes from the year’s work:

  • Even though I had a sharp dip in work when the pandemic started, by late summer it was clear that new clients were out there and work was beginning to reboot. This gave me the confidence to take a real vacation and hit the national parks in Utah/Arizona with the family in October. A magical trip to remember so I’m glad I could do this and feel like there would be work waiting for me when I got back.
  • I did a project with Google, briefly working in the Google NYC office before lockdown and it was a surreal psychological experience… I thought being back in the Google office as a consultant would be a nice way to exorcise the memories of my time there full time but honestly I just kept glancing at the nooks and crannies of the office where I’d cried when I worked there….
  • I did some of my best work this year - helping a large client draw up an 8 figure content/SEO investment and then put the plan into practice via org design, hiring and strategy work. I realized that working directly in the SEO sphere again was a unique opportunity to leverage a wide range of skills at the executive level to really be effective.
  • I did a bunch of work with innovation labs. More on that below but helping clients develop new capabilities is increasingly the only frame I need for the work I do, and this year that meant working in the tech industry and working with innovation labs.
  • Since being introduced to Figma last year on a project with Toby it’s really dominated my workflow, allowing for new modes of collaboration and new forms of deliverables with clients - creating knowledge work that is not “design” but lives in Figma.

Independence vs Interdependence

If last year was “sustainable independence” this year shifted from independence to interdependence. I wrote recently about the amount of collaboration and partnerships I’ve done this year - it’s been a foundation of my consulting. I wrote about the economic power of the DMs.

Not only have I worked on more partnerships in my consulting work but I’ve also built a discord community for indie consultants that has been deeply rewarding and important. We ran a series of salons on topics like:

Thank you to everyone who’s been active member of the discord - I’ve really enjoyed the discussion and collaborations. While I’ve been traveling this community has been in prototype phase - watch this space for much more.

If you want an invite, DM me.

Writing - The Blog

Blogging continues to be a continual source of joy, friends, collaborations, clients and creativity Some of my fave posts this year:

In addition to the posts on my own blog I recorded a bunch of podcasts and even wrote a guest post for Venkatesh’s newsletter Art of Gig which I’m very proud of: Sparring as Tenure

And as if blogging wasn’t already important enough to my identity, over the summer Toby Shorin and I built a tool for bloggers called Quotebacks.

Writing - The Book

What with gestures vaguely at 2020… I’ve not progressed quite as much as I’d like with the book but it’s coming! I wrote two posts which are some of my all time faves:

I’ve written roughly 45k words so far in the book - peep the outline and read all the posts so far here.

Working title: The Strategic Independent - theory & practice for independent consultants.

I have big plans for the book and hope to get the writing done by early 20211.

Little Futures

Brian and I re-booted Little Futures for season 2 and shipped 6 more issues. Really proud of this project and this writing:

While we’re still figuring out what Little Futures is exactly - it’s increasingly obvious to me that this is my vehicle for helping companies understand innovation and build and structure teams for doing new things (aka “innovation”)

Sign up for season 3 coming soon.

So what’s in store for the year ahead?

Book + Community

I’m gonna talk more about this soon but I’m beginning to realize that the way forward for my book is self publishing2 - and bundling the book with a paid community for indie consultants. There’s still a ton to figure out here but I’m excited to really create something of value for other indie consultants.

Setting up Innovation Teams

I spent a bunch of time doing work for innovation labs this year - and while I have enjoyed this work it’s clear that there’s an opportunity to help organizations build, structure and organize innovation work. My work across narrative strategy, org design and capacity building feels well suited to this work. So I’m hoping to level up from doing work for innovation labs to helping clients set up innovation labs.

This is where Little Futures fits - creating a practice and body of work around how companies organize around for “new”.

Narrative Strategy

I’ve been writing about the idea of Narrative Strategy in a few places and I’ve yet to write the definitive frame for it but it goes a little something like this (from my last Little Futures):

Narrative strategy to negotiate with fractured publics

This new world of permeable firms with fractured publics require a new kind of corporate comms and a new approach to strategy work. Strategy is no longer a moment in time internal activity - but rather an “always-on” negotiation with these fractured publics to coordinate strategic vision inside and outside the organization. (I’ve been calling this narrative strategy in my own work).

For larger organizations - this reframes “corporate comms” as something more essential - the public message increasingly becomes intertwined with the internal strategy. The keynote not only announces the product roadmap, but the product roadmap is shaped by the narrative the keynote can support.

For smaller firms and independents - it reframes blogging, working in public and weeknotes as acts of negotiation with a variety of fractured publics, from partners to clients to employees past and future.

One could say that we’re moving from a product-first environment to an ecosystem-first environment as per Bob Moore, CEO of Crossbeam:

Your place in an ecosystem of tech partners is just as important, if not moreso, than the quality of your product itself. Marc Andreesen was right when he quipped that “software is eating the world.” But in today’s marketplace, ecosystems are eating software. 

I’m increasingly betting on narrative strategy as a way to create alignment between story and strategy. Removing barriers between “internal strategy” and “external comms”. A philosophy of strategy work that is alive and works for the networked age.

What else is coming next year? Who knows. But I’m deeply grateful for the friends, partners, collaborators and mentors who have made this all possible and who I’ve crossed paths with out on the road.

  1. Related: I’m terrified of finishing the book, because it’s been such a useful narrative foundation for my consulting journey. Ha. 

  2. Unless Stripe Publishing wants it 😊 

More blog posts:

A Lil' Website Refresh

March 20, 2024

Work is a Place

March 6, 2024

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