7 Years on the Road
The Winds of Change
7 years ago I became an independent consultant.
Well, that’s not entirely true is it? 7 years ago I quit my job. But it took a while longer to feel comfortable in my own skin, to settle into an identity and to really feel like I could call myself “an independent consultant”.
This process of becoming is never ending. Discovering and crafting an identity you feel comfortable with is hard - and not something that full-time employment prepares you well for. I know that a lot of people find the “consultant” label distasteful but personally I’ve always felt comfortable using it which has resolved a lot of mental anguish1. I know indie “consultants” who are still struggling to define themselves 5+ years into being indie and I feel for them…
But the winds of change have begun to blow. Last week I launched the SEO MBA course and started building non-consulting revenue for the first time…. Am I creator now? Am I in the creator economy? Let’s talk about that in more detail.
First, some highlights from year 7:
- We spent the first 18 months of the pandemic on an extended road trip across the US which was an amazing wonderful adventure against the backdrop of such an awful year. The kids learned to love nature and hiking and we saw so much!
- Nowhere on our travels felt quite like home though and we’ve been back in Brooklyn since August. Feels peaceful to call this place home.
- Roxy started Kindergarten, lost her first tooth and got her first vaccine. Life comes at you fast!
- Indy learned so much about everything and just this past week learned how to hop.
- Partly driven by our extended road trip and partly by the pandemic consulting has been way less consistent this year than in previous years. But I’ve worked on some amazing projects recently and am excited to continue to explore interesting consulting work.
Here’s the full arc of my consulting career. Each color is a different client, size = revenue. Note, this is just consulting revenue and it doesn’t yet include SEO MBA course sales…
Some big themes and reflections from year 7:
The SEO MBA - Look Mum, I’m a Creator Now!
While hiking through Arches, Bryce and Zion last year I had a lot of time to think. At times I’d be hiking with Indy in the backpack, Roxy would be hiking next to Erin and I could just let my mind wander.
I kept thinking about this idea of “the business of content” and how I had a lot I wanted to write about. Maybe I could start a substack! But I kept coming back to this idea that I had plenty on my plate between consulting work, traveling and writing my book.
However the idea wouldn’t let me go and as I continued to lead building SEO teams and hiring senior SEO talent for my clients it suddenly struck me that this “business of content” theme could be given a very valuable and concrete focus by making it about SEO x business and directly addressing the skills gap in the industry that I was seeing.
And thus the SEO MBA was born. I registered the domain in January 2021 and got to work.
- The initial email launch far exceeded my expectations and made me realize I struck a chord with the positioning
- The continued feedback from the emails validated that not only was the positioning strong but people really appreciated the content
- I ran the first course beta in April with a small cohort. Tickets sold out in 20 mins
- I ran the second course beta in October with another cohort. Tickets sold out in 8 mins.
- Last week I launched the full self-paced course and have been humbled by the response.
This is the first time I’m generating meaningful revenue that’s not directly consulting revenue. I guess I’m a creator now?
I’ve had a lot of conversations with people who assume that the SEO MBA course was motivated by trying to “get off the treadmill of consulting” and “generate passive income”. And… that’s not it. The dust hasn’t settled yet since I launched the course so it’s too early to tell what the true impact is going to be, but my core motivation for the course was:
- Teaching is something I draw deep satisfaction from. I really enjoy it and value it and unfortunately have not had a lot of opportunity to do this being an independent consultant. The SEO MBA is at it’s heart about education. Designing a curriculum, helping shape people’s mental models, creating effective teaching tools. These are all fun and interesting and meaningful!
- The most rewarding thing I’ve done in my career was leading a team of consultants at Distilled and watching junior talent become more senior and spread their wings. Supporting people through career growth is extremely rewarding. My aspiration with the SEO MBA is to bend the arc of people’s careers a bit - to help people get pay rises, promotions and new jobs. To feel more confident in their work. I don’t know how many people I’ll reach this deeply or how effective this course will be but that’s my dream.
- Honestly from working in SEO and working outside of it, I can feel the skills gap so keenly. The SEO MBA kept calling to me as something that needed to exist in the world. It’s hard to fight that.
- Putting together an online course (and a well-read Substack) is a whole new set of skills! Learning about curriculum design, video shooting, lighting! Oh my. It’s fun to scratch some new itches and explore some new skills, even if not super deeply. I’m happy with how the final video content came out, though I can already see how the next course (hmm?!) might be even better.
While launch week has been amazing - it’s already clear to me that passive income is anything but. I can see now that if I wanted to, the SEO MBA could be 100% of my income in 2022. But it would require a significant time investment! From where I’m standing now it feels on par with consulting.
What’s been unexpected is that impact on consulting. Already a lot of my consulting work this year has been generated through the SEO MBA email! Just positioning myself there and writing that content has generated some interesting work.
All in for 2021 I expect the SEO MBA course + consulting clients will account for 2/3 of my overall revenue.
That said, I just kicked off a new consulting client this week so I’m not hanging up the gloves just yet :)
Four Dream Consulting Gigs - All Very Different
Speaking of consulting - when I look back on the last 18 months, I’ve had four major clients that have all been dream projects - despite being wildly different. This is the promise of not specializing down or crafting a single coherent positioning for my consulting work…
#1 - Spreadsheet Innovation
A decade ago, when I was a young-un I created a little video2 thing with Appsumo and Noah Kagan about how to use Google Docs to write scripts, scrape the web and do things it seamed unreasonable for a spreadsheet to be able to do. But that was the magic and promise of an internet-connected spreadsheet back in 2011.
Fast forward to 2021 and the magic and promise of an internet-connected spreadsheet became the thesis for a product R&D sprint with a client. What a dream gig. Working on everything from user research and synthesizing existing academic HCI research to playing producer on a little technical prototype was tons of fun.
Last year I worked on some R&D stuff for the New York Times and I really enjoy these projects. Specifically, I think I have a lot to offer when we need both market/brand positioning and we need to sell the idea into the wider organization.
I’m going to keep chipping away at these R&D projects until I get the chance to structure and build an R&D team for a client…
#2 - Brand Positioning x Content Strategy
When a large enterprise level client approached me for content strategy I was initially a little skeptical. The project seemed a bit too tactical for my liking. But after the client gave a free license to expand the brief I ended up creating a content strategy that aligned brand positioning, business objectives, customer insights and content strategy (yes, with a little SEO thrown in too).
Far too often I see organizations where the brand strategy and the content strategy are misaligned or just completely disconnected. So being able to zoom in and out from the brand positioning to the details of the content strategy meant a very cohesive piece of work. Something that felt like it hung together well as a whole.
I think this might have been some of my best work.
#3 - Agency Transformation
I wrote a piece for the SEO MBA newsletter: How to turn your agency into the “McKinsey of SEO” and then promptly closed a consulting gig to transform a digital agency off the back of it.
That gig turned out to be tons of fun - what started with a brief of “help us deliver projects better” turned into a very open ended and ongoing project to drive change all the way through the agency starting with external and positioning, overhauling the sales process and then changing both the contract and delivery model.
That project has required wearing lots of different hats and working on all kinds of outputs. The final piece we’re assembling now is a Notion hub of embedded knowledge to help the organization retain these practices and processes after I’m gone.
Getting to work on this project end to end so to speak all the way from external positioning to delivery model was very satisfying and validated a lot of my experience working with and coaching agencies. Agencies are complex systems where all the pieces are very closely related and changing one part without also changing another is often a recipe for disaster.
Interestingly one special wrinkle that made this project fun to work on was that they had Gong recording all their sales calls AND their consulting calls. So in the age of a pandemic where everything is virtual I was able to follow clients all the way from initial sales call to kickoff and delivery. It was like I was a football coach reviewing game tape. This both allowed me to get up to speed incredibly quickly, but also back up my arguments with real examples, quotes and case studies from client projects.
Never underestimate how powerful it is to use real quotes (from users, clients, stakeholders etc) to convince people of an argument.
#4 - SEO Investment Case
I talked about this project last year but it spilled over into this year too. Working with a large organization to help them restructure their SEO program all the way from strategy and investment plan through to hiring a VP and working with them to plan the org chart. While on the one hand this was firmly in the SEO space, on the other it involved zero “SEO” and was all about securing budget and buy-in from key stakeholders and then putting it into practice through recruiting.
The project was a lot of fun - especially because working with the CEO directly helped sharpen my thinking and my executive skills in new ways. I love working with CEOs who listen carefully and then ask hard questions.
Ultimately this was the project that really opened my eyes to how urgent and widespread the skills gap in the SEO industry is. There are plenty of companies trying to hire for senior SEO roles that just can’t find people who are both technically competent AND able to operate as a senior executive.
And thus, the SEO MBA was born.
Ah the book. Between traveling, consulting and the SEO MBA the book hasn’t made a ton of progress this year. That said, I wrote two pieces on Chronos & Kairos that I’m incredibly proud of and I think is some of my best writing:
- The Consultant Out of Time. Chronos & Kairos - a framework for just-in-time consulting
- The Jigsaw of Independence. Putting together an independent life without falling apart
And after 3+ years of slowing writing this thing in public I’ve finally figured out the point of the book. I’ve got a tight theme and a coherent idea that’s going to make it come together nicely. I think I’ve got one or two more chapters to write and then it’s into editing, re-writing and publishing.
I’m pretty committed to self publishing at this point and I’m 80% confident that I can string together enough code and the Lulu API to create a self published hardcover where every book has a unique generative cover design. Something like this maybe:
Last year I was nervous that “finishing” the book would leave me adrift without a coherent frame for my consulting journey. But now, poised to enter 2022 I’m embracing the winds of change. I don’t know yet where next year will take me but I feel some big changes brewing and finishing the book is going to be a meaningful part of the journey.
Don’t let me write one more yearly update without having published the book!
Blogging was a big casualty this year. I barely published at all, at least not on my own site. I wrote 15 issues of the SEO MBA though so I’ve been pretty active, just not with blogging.
Partly that’s been ok because I’ve had other priorities but in addition I’d really like to figure out some smoother workflows for writing. I’m especially jealous of Simon’s “stream” posts that are shorter and more link-blog-esque. My workflow feels cumbersome for those posts today so I want to try and build a better workflow, probably while still using Jekyll + Github Pages… If anyone has ideas I’m all ears.
I’m also due a blog re-design. Not just because the photo on the homepage is almost a decade old but because I want to make this site feel fresh and fun again - I’m bored with the white stark design. I’ve got something 90% designed in Figma, I’ve just got to find time to turn it into HTML….
What’s in store for the year ahead? Honestly who knows. I feel like it’s a year of reinvention and change for this indie consultant and I’m excited to see where the winds of change take me.
As ever, thank you to everyone who’s supported the journey so far. Much love.
This is a great thread that dissects a viral tweet about consulting and explores where the term “consultant” sits in the cultural discourse. ↩