The Strategic Independent
Theory & Practice for Independent Consultants
The Strategic Independent
Theory & Practice for Independent Consultants
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Book Chapters
1. Becoming Independent
  • The Strategic Independent
    How to do better work for more money, whether you're a designer, writer or strategist.
  • Narrative Institutions (draft)
    How to manage your identity during the transition to independent
2. Finding Work
  • Small-b Blogging
    Network topology and the ghost of the digg homepage
  • Strange Attraction
    How to generate leads for an independent consulting practice
  • Weak Ties & Strong Intros
    How to find the “dark leads” hiding in your network to generate client work
  • Speak, Consultant (in draft)
    Examining the unreasonable effectiveness of "voice" (podcasts, conferences etc) on generating consulting leads.
3. Ways of Seeing
4. Yes! And...
5. Chronos & Kairos
  • The Consultant Out of Time
    Mastering Chronos & Kairos to deliver just-in-time consulting
  • The Jigsaw of Independence (in draft)
    Balancing time management and energy management as an independent
6. The Inner Life of Consultants
  • I, Consultant
    The struggle to define who you are as an independent and the promise of charging more for your work
  • Compound Narrative (draft)
    How to create a narrative arc through your career as an independent

Weak Ties & Strong Intros

How to find the “dark leads” hiding in your network to generate client work

December 10, 2020

The biggest challenge independent consultants face is generating new clients. When you sit down and analyze your lead flow it’s hard to draw meaningful conclusions - there aren’t that many leads to begin with so you’ve got a small sample size - and many leads appear to land in your lap “out of thin air” with no obvious way to trace back the source…

So how do you generate more leads? In particular - how do you find good leads that are warm and primed for strategic work. In my previous post, Strange Attraction, I talked about the power of your network and why warm leads for strategic work is important:

It’s important for leads to be warm - because it’s hard to convince someone to spend $20k / month on a consulting contract without them already thinking they might spend money on consulting (and having some kind of budget earmarked!)

It’s important for leads to be primed for long term strategic work - because you want large enough problems that the senior leadership of the business is talking to you (this helps you get paid well and helps you have a bigger impact) and you want retained work that lasts.

Building a resilient and strong network around you is obviously important but in this post I’m going to argue that weak ties are often at work behind the scenes - and that weak ties are where opportunity scales beyond your immediate close network.

This works because of two key ideas:

  1. Weak ties are more likely to be a bridge between disparate networks and so scale your reach beyond your strong ties
  2. Weak ties can still make strong intros - not because they care about you but because they gain social capital by making a strong intro.

In this post we’ll take a look at some network theory and a classic paper “the strength of weak ties” to examine these ideas and then explore ways to cultivate weak ties in your network.

The Cozy Web & Dark Leads

Who recognizes this kind of request - posted in a private Slack group?

In this image I’m playing the role of client - fielding a client lead out into a Slack group.

A ton of leads flow through these “dark” or “cozy”1 online spaces - Slack groups, discord groups, telegram groups, whatsapp chains, email lists and more. When a client is looking to hire a consultant or agency they first turn to their network, often in a closed space (vs an open space like LinkedIn or Twitter).

Let’s call these asks for referrals “dark leads.”

As an indie consultant - these “dark leads” are fascinating. It’s a hugely valuable source of leads, but by definition they’re hard to visualize, hard to grasp. Like dark matter, we can feel the gravitational pull of these dark leads but can’t see them.

The key to unlocking these dark leads is through understanding our weak ties.

The Strength of Weak Ties

To understand the flow of information and connections I went back to the original 1973 paper the strength of weak ties from Mark Granovetter. It’s a foundational paper and reading I was really struck by the core concepts. In essence - your weak ties are deeply valuable. Take this example from the paper:

In a random sample of recent professional, technical, and managerial job changers living in a Boston suburb 16.7% reported that they saw their contact often at the time, 55.6% said occasionally, and 27.8% rarely! The skew is clearly to the weak end of the continuum, suggesting the primacy of structure over motivation.

In many cases, the contact was someone only marginally included in the current network of contacts, such as an old college friend or a former workmate or employer, with whom sporadic contact had been maintained […]

It is remarkable that people receive crucial information from individuals whose very existence they have forgotten.

“Suggesting the primacy of structure over motivation” - let’s pause on that. What this is saying is that the shape of your network, the structure of the ties, is more important than the motivation of your strong ties. Said another way, while your strong ties are motivated to help you and actively working on your side they also generally know the same people you do, while it’s your weak ties that are likely to be able to connect you to opportunities outside your core network.

This concept of weak ties being powerful is actually not immediately intuitive - the original paper has some light maths but I’d encourage you to read it to get a feel for why this is true. One of the core reasons is because weak ties are more likely to be “bridging ties” - i.e. those that connect you from one group to another group. You can read the whole paper for more detail but in summary “except under unlikely conditions, no strong tie is a bridge” - or said another way, all of your bridges to other groups are weak ties.

Look at the following image (from the paper) - where solid lines are strong ties, and dotted lines are weak ties:

You can clearly see that there is no possible connection between D and B except via a weak tie.

A more modern version of this chart might look something like this - where the only way to traverse these dark/cozy networks is via weak ties (note how the only lines between groups are dotted lines):

Let’s return to that Slack request where I’m playing client - on the hunt for a UX designer for a client project:

In my search, I posted in two Slack groups I’m part of and pinged two close friends I thought might have good referrals. The above chat with Elan was the one that struck gold - the next day I had an intro to a UX designer (thanks Elan!) who successfully partnered on the project with me.

But, from the perspective of the UX designer, it would seem like this client project fell in his lap “out of nowhere” - a “dark lead” that he had no visibility into.

Ok, so we know these dark leads operate via weak ties - but it’s still seemingly random. Is there a way to be more intentional? Is there a way to optimize our presence in the network to capture these dark leads? Let’s explore.

Dark Leads have limited reach but are rich in social capital

Let’s look at the anatomy of a typical “dark lead.” In the example above it was a 1:1 DM that gained me the intro but in many cases these requests are put into group spaces:

This request is in a #referrals slack channel in a group I’m part of with 121 members. There’s two interesting characteristics of dark leads:

  1. Of the 120 people in the channel, it’s very rare for someone to re-share it into their own networks. Unless I have a strong tie with Jenna I’m highly unlikely to risk my social capital and invest time and energy in re-sharing the request. So these dark leads typically have a very low r0 (in 2020’s parlance!). They have a short half-life and don’t get re-shared. Their reach is limited to the immediate audience they’re shared to.
  2. People are motivated to make intros because they gain social capital by doing so. Making a good intro to Jenna raises my social capital both with Jenna and with the group.

The idea that these dark leads are rich in social capital - but have limited reach - is why weak ties are so valuable. For this dark lead to reach you, you need a weak tie to be present and able to make an intro - in other words you need to be able to source leads from people you don’t know in places you’re not in.

Weak Ties & Strong Intros

So what does this mean for indie consultants? There are two key insights here:

Firstly, you need a network that has reach - not just close ties but rather enough weak ties and adjacent people who you’re connected with that one of those 100 people in the Slack channel can make an intro for you. And they don’t need to like you, because:

Secondly, people gain social capital from making good intros. People only gain social capital from making an intro that’s a good fit, and you only gain clients when you get a good client/consultant fit. So you need to educate and explain your work in a way that even weak ties have a good enough understanding of the kind of leads you’d be a good fit for.

So what we’re looking for is a large surface area of weak ties - people capable of making a good intro. Remember that weak ties don’t need to like you, they just need to understand your work well enough to be able to make a strong intro (because it accrues them social capital).

Cultivating Weak Ties - Why the “1000 true fans” model is unhelpful

It’s obvious that a strong network and audience helps you gain clients - but often when people think about building an audience and expanding their network, they think of something like the “1000 true fans” model from Kevin Kelly. They believe that building a network of fans - people who are really rooting for you and pay attention to you - will drive clients and strong intros.

I see many independent folks building intimate, deep connections with their audience. Tinyletter spaces often feel like this - places to foster deep connections with your audience. And certainly building 1000 true fans and deep connections is powerful and useful! But it’s not the whole picture - in my experience many indie consultants over-index on the smaller stronger network at the expense of cultivating a broader weaker network.

The key is to look for balance - to build the kind of online presence that can support BOTH intimate relationships AND a broader surface area to cultivate weak ties.

Example: I cultivate my network in a variety of ways broad and deep. My Tinyletter is a more intimate space while my Twitter profile spans a variety of topics and groups. My discord group is a more intimate, smaller group while my blog reaches all kinds of folks.

For more on this idea see my post on setting up a discord server for my blog.

The trend du jour is Substack - and it’s a great model. But I’d argue that many Substacks are about building deeper relationships with a subscriber base - where the goal is to engage a portion of your audience in every email.

The difference between Substack and blogging might seem academic but it highlights a key point.

Substack is a great way to build an audience and it can be a great way to build 1000 true fans. But the model is optimized for reaching the same audience consistently - not for building new audiences.

Blogging, conversely, isn’t designed for building an audience in quite the same way - but is a better tool for reaching new and different audiences each time you publish. When blogging, you can feel more free to roam across subjects, themes and ideas while Substack’s form suggests a tighter and more consistent frame.

Neither is right - but the blogging model can be useful for cultivating weak ties. Blogging reaches a slightly different audience each time and that’s a feature not a bug!

Ensuring Weak Ties Have a Good Mental Model of your Work

Building weak ties however is only one part of the equation - we also need those weak ties to have a good enough mental model of your work that they can make a good intro. Remember - people only accrue social capital from making an intro if it’s a good match, and that requires them to remember you at the right time.

Take this example, no offense to the tweeter here, I really love people trying to make intros for me! But this is not a great fit for my current work:

Instead, this intro is a note from someone I barely know in a slack group:

Note how the intro is primed around the kind of work that I’ve done in the past (audience growth strategy) and they have a reference point from a previous client project. This eventually turned into a client project that was a good fit for my skills.

This is the key to ensuring weak ties can make strong intros - ensuring that they have a memetic image of your work in their mind so that they can correctly connect you to the right kind of leads.

I use the word memetic here to suggest not only that people need to know clearly what kind of work you do but also that your brand, your image and your work needs to be memorable and designed to be re-shared in response to one of these dark leads.

So how do you provide a strong mental model of your work to your weak ties? There are three key ideas:

  1. You need to provide real examples of the work, not just the output
  2. You need to project the right level of seniority
  3. You need to be visible, sustainably

Let’s break those down:

1. Show the process, not just the output

A great way to provide a look at your work is to peel back the curtain on your process. To demonstrate what the actual working relationship looks like - not just the output2.

That’s why I’m a big fan of thinking in public, it’s a great way to give your network a feel for the actual work, and why I think typically this kind of publishing is more valuable for indie consultants than case studies. Case studies are difficult to produce, limited in scope and tend to overly focus on the results, while thinking in public is an approach that emphasizes sharing as you go, sharing half-finished work and ideas and allows you to roam across disciplines, industries and themes.

Example: my writing about consulting (meta alert!) showcases a bunch of real examples of my work. From recent posts: “working inside an organization attempting a large re-org each VP presented their own budgets and headcount plan to the c-suite” and “I was working with the market leader in a category who was getting complacent with growth” and “working with a media company to overhaul their strategy”

Bonus points for describing your work in memorable language. From Strange Attraction:

What’s the story here? The lesson is that language is a virus. Design your case studies to be pithy - talk about your work in small fragments that can be repeated in oral culture:

  • “Commerce and content”
  • “Hired a team of 10”
  • “Interim CMO”

These short phrases can sum up and signal so much to the right person at the right time - and you can use many of them at once. This is an ongoing project of listening to how people make intros for you - and noting the little phrases they use. How are people understanding and describing your work in the two-line email?

2. Project the right seniority

A key ingredient for getting client/consultant fit is finding the right seniority. These days I’m rarely working with anyone below VP-level, and typically working directly with the C-suite. It’s important to project the right signals here to ensure you don’t have a mis-aligned intro even for a project that you might otherwise be a good fit for.

Example: My post about navigating power and status is all about engaging with the VP/C-suite of client organizations. This kind of signaling correctly anchors my audience at the right level of engagement. Testimonials can do this well too - see Andy Raskin’s site that lists a whole bunch of founder/C-suite quotes.

Projecting seniority is typically about as straight forward as name-dropping job titles… But there is a sensibility you can project of having a contextual view of a client’s business - see my post the strategic independent for more on the concentric circle of context idea.

3. Find a way to sustain visibility

While all this theorizing is cute, one of the aspects most correlated with generating leads is simply being visible. Tweeting, posting, commenting, blogging, emailing. It doesn’t matter the medium, humans are hardwired for recency and if you’ve been visible recently you’re more likely to get a referral, especially from your weak ties.

This is why building a network can be exhausting - there’s a constant pressure to publish, to promote, to ping. So it’s important to think about ways to build a sustainable way to be visible3.

For some nuanced advice on this topic - I love Willa Koerner’s advice in “strategic digital gardening” about creating a digital presence that not only works for your audience but that works for you too. For anyone who feels like networking or blogging makes them want to vomit then this might be for you.

Ultimately to find a sustainable way to be visible you’ll need to find your own medium, voice and style that works for you. This can take time to develop so seek some ways to get started in low-risk ways and look to create things that you want to create, not things that you think some abstract audience wants. And it doesn’t need to be writing - if you’re a visual thinker share a figma file or a deck, if you’re improvisational try a vlog or a podcast, if you’re a poet try poetry! You’ll have a lot more success by being sustainably visible in a medium where you feel comfortable than trying to force yourself to create content because you think you should in a way that makes you cringe.

Conclusion

When you first start out as an independent you won’t have a clear vision of the work you do and you’ll inevitably lean hard on your strong ties to generate clients. That’s fine! It’s how it’s supposed to work. But to succeed in building a sustainable practice you’ll need to learn how to cultivate a large surface area of weak ties and create a clear, memorable image of the work you do so that your weak ties can make strong intros.

Of course, in practice work will flow through both strong ties and weak ties - I’m 6 years in and run roughly 50/50 for revenue generated through strong ties and weak ties.

But perhaps by understanding the power of weak ties we can demystify the “random acts of client work” that come to us and learn how to be more deliberate in building networks that generate client work.

  1. For more on the idea of cozy and dark spaces online see Venkatesh’s writing on the cozy web 

  2. A key idea related to this is vibe. By working in public, sharing your approach and ideas, not just the finished work you can project a sensibility or vibe - and this can be a key attracting factor. Clients often look for a consultant that they can resonate with and form a working partnership with - this requires a shared sensibility and “way of looking at the world” beyond skills or experience. 

  3. And don’t forget to close the loop when you do generate referrals via your network. A simple “thank you for the intro, it was a great fit” not only builds good will but also reinforces the memorable image of what a good lead looks like for your contact.