9 Years on the Road
A year of stuck-ness
October 24th is my indie-versary, the anniversary of quitting my last full time job. Every year I write a set of reflections about this strange and magical journey.
This year’s post is… about two months late. Symptomatic of how overwhelmed I’ve been this year I guess. Since having kids, deadlines are a mere illusion, shadows of their former selves.
I ended last year’s recap with this note:
I’m going to pull myself out of this identity slump by sheer force of will. Watch me (tune in next year to see how that goes).
Oof. What a year it’s been. I think I’ve finally crawled out of this slump but it took me ALL. DAMN. YEAR. For most of this year, something was blocked. I felt stuck, paralyzed and confused.
First, the Highlights
- Roxy is 7.5 and full of a burning desire for independence and autonomy (where could she have gotten that from I wonder?!). This has at times made our home an us vs them environment of parents vs Roxy. Thankfully we’re finding a much better balance in the second half of the year. Roxy is now a committed Taylor Swift fan and I love it.
- Indy is now 4 and really coming into his own with personality, pizazz and a deep love of Ninjago lego.
- Instead of putting the kids in summer camp we took an extended European vacation as a family, taking almost 7 weeks off. This is the first year that both kids are officially in school schedules and it’s weird to start to think about every year having a specific “shape” - of summer holidays, school dates and more.
- I took three week-long work trips and.. this was too much. The projects were exactly the kind of projects I want to work on, but I’ve got to find clients in NYC (or at least the east coast!) that I can work with in this capacity.
This year was a strange narrative violation. It wasn’t my best year for consulting (that was 2018) and it wasn’t my best year for the SEO MBA (that was 2022) but combined, this year nudged into my best revenue year ever (blue = consulting, red = SEO MBA):
This year the SEO MBA is back in balance with my consulting revenue, about ~30% of my consulting income.
This chart does mask some sharp peaks and troughs though - almost all of my consulting revenue this year came in Q1! Which means that while the whole year is very healthy, the last 6+ months have been much more quiet.
Stuck to Unstuck
I tried therapy, I tried an executive coach, I tried joining random slack communities. I tried yelling, I tried crying. I tried sitting at my computer for days, hours, weeks at a time. I tried hiding.
Acknowledging that I was going through a transition and leaning into the playful nature of it could have helped:
In Working Identity, Herminia Ibarra argues that the process of transitioning from one career to another is both usually and necessarily messy and disordered, more like playing than like planning. During a transition, it can seem like nothing is happening, or too much is happening, or somehow both simultaneously. Often someone in the middle of a transition experiences a lot of pressure, both internally and from kin, to stop fucking around and get on with it. But that may be profoundly the wrong advice.
This is much harder to do though when you feel the slightest money stress and despite the strong year I felt some anxiety around that in the second half of the year as consulting dried up. This happens every single time I get quiet with consulting… You would think after 9 years I would have learned to trust the process by now, but with all the tech industry layoffs and tough economic climate it wasn’t hard to feel some economic anxiety.
Ultimately, the most powerful thing was working with my executive coach (thank you Sunil). It really helped remind me why I was working on the various projects I was - how they fit together and why they’re important to me.
I’d also like to give a massive shoutout to Paul Millerd for both having me on his podcast to talk about being stuck as well as being an absolute massive champion and energizing for getting my book finished (more on the book in a second).
Would I call myself unstuck now? I think I would. Launching the NEW MBA I think was the final puzzle piece that allowed me to feel free to move and play again.
The central question for 2024 is how to keep hold of this feeling. I’m not going to get stuck again.
I just f*(&^)ing LOVE consulting
One of the things that emerged out of my work with my executive coach was a reminder that I really, truly love consulting work.
There are many indie consultants that like the lifestyle and freedoms it affords, but don’t actually love the client work itself - but I’ve worked so hard over the last 9 years to both attract the right kinds of clients and to hone my approach to working with clients that client work energizes me and lights me up.
More please, I love it.
At the root of this is the idea of consulting being a conversation with clients. Niko Canner articulates this beautifully in his piece:
I’d gone back to consulting because I loved doing my work in conversation: both the real-time exchange of ideas and the way that writing down my thoughts for clients created the opportunity for a slower, more extended form of dialogue. Those were practices to deepen every day.
At one point I think I felt like perhaps my consulting chapter was waning or winding down as I focused on courses and whatnot. But this conversation with clients is too deeply rooted. I think I’ll be doing some version of consulting for the next 20 years. You have no idea how exciting that is to write.
What did consulting work look like this year? Here’s a few vignettes:
- After reading Cedric’s blog post series on becoming more data driven and in particular the Amazon Weekly Business Review - I worked with a long term client to create a Monthly Business Review (MBR) packet that has a TON of charts and data in it. The CEO now carries it around with him at all times - scribbling notes in the margins and I love it.
- As mentioned last year - most of my work is now P&L first which really means that the primary context I’m considering work through is a resource-constrained and financial perspective. This is a continuation of the idea that’s powered my entire consulting career: how to do effective consulting work. Good ideas are worthless if you can’t get them done.
- Working with Directive Consulting on their branding and positioning was very rewarding - Garrett the CEO is an amazing operator with a deep understanding of his own P&L and this positioning work wasn’t just words, it was designed to change the whole delivery cycle from marketing and sales through to operations.
- I dabbled with some executive coaching - but the biggest realization here is that I’m too much of a consultant to be a pure coach - I want to be like a performance coach, working directly with individuals and executive teams on management performance. My ideal client would be running a management team weekly meeting - getting more operational than coaching typically allows.
- Surprisingly, I’ve ended up integrating design work into my consulting offering. I’ve ended up designing new page templates, product experiences, landing pages, keynote presentations and more. Design isn’t the main thing people are paying me for but I’m starting to take design more seriously as as thing that I can deliver as part of a strategic project.
Looking ahead to the new year - obviously AI is going to dominate the conversation. I’m involved in a few very interesting client projects around AI and it feels like clients are finally starting to realize they need to get started, you can’t hang around waiting for others to figure it out for you…
From SEO MBA -> NEW MBA
At the start of the year I ran a live cohort for the SEO MBA. It was…. fine? The people that went through the experience absolutely loved it, but the cohort was smaller than I wanted it to be and I overloaded the schedule so it was quite exhausting to run.
Partly because of this and partly because of a general desire to broaden and expand the ideas in the SEO MBA I went into hibernation mode. Out of that emerged a new idea - it’s an evolution of the SEO MBA brand, but designed for a much broader audience:
The NEW MBA is already deeply rewarding and generative. The ability to sit with ideas around business, management and leadership that I’ve been playing around with on the SEO MBA is very exciting. The aspiration here is to reach a much bigger audience with the ideas - and to align the writing and courses more directly with my consulting work.
There aren’t (yet) any courses and classes on the NEW MBA but all of that is coming this year so watch this space. Just like my consulting, I think I can commit to the NEW MBA idea for the next 20 years.
This project is live, but actually is in a kind of “soft launch” state - because there’s something I’ve gotta do first….
A Winter of Word Craft: The book is coming!
My close friend Brian created a little book of collected testimonials and blurbs for my book and handed it to me on my 40th birthday party. It floored me. I cried. You are the best Brian. And thank you to everyone who included a blurb. The overwhelming support for the book is a real driving force and I love you all.
The good news is that the book is coming! I’ve been jamming with fellow indie consultant Tim Casasola on the outline and structure for the book and I think I’m finally arrived at somewhere I’m happy with. But/and I’ve realized that actually getting this book over the finishing line is going to require a period of focused effort and dedication.
My good friend Toby wrote an incredibly moving and lovely December note where he talked about naming seasons and intention setting:
Winter is upon us now, and I don't have a name for this season yet. But December and winter for me is always dream season, so perhaps I will call it that. Winter is for reflecting and clarifying, and dreams are for knowing and for inventing—for we know in part, and we prophesy in part. I have recommended to you the benefits of dreaming, and of naming your seasons. I hope that you join me in the great experiment.
So I’m dedicating this season to the Winter of Word Craft.
To say that another way - on the first day of Spring I will be done with the book.
Thanks to Paul Millerd and Erica Heinz for countless self-publishing questions AND emotional support and encouragement. They’ve both put incredible and beautiful self-published books out in the world and I’m grateful for both of them.
A Very Bad No-good Year for Blogging
Writing has given me everything. It’s been a deeply, deeply generative and powerful force. And yet when I became stuck my writing stopped.
I haven’t written anything of substance since April.
Blog you fool! Writing is the way through! Find the strength to publish!
A failed year with very little writing. Some of the highlights:
- Writing, riffs and relationships - an ode to using writing as a way to connect with others
- The magic of small databases - I’m still baffled at how hard it is to maintain a library of things using computers….
- Input metrics for SEO - Over on the SEO MBA.
- Reframing what it means to be an executive - at the NEW MBA
- The Capital of ideas - at the NEW MBA
It’s important to keep pushing this year. To write DESPITE the resistance. To write THROUGH the resistance. Blogging is the way out. After all, a blog post is a very long and complex search query to find fascinating people and make them route interesting stuff to your inbox.
It’s always the people. I feel deeply grateful and thankful for my friends who have shown up in spades this year. Twitter, Discord groups, DMs, coffee shops, cocktails, walks and phone calls. Many of my best friends are indie weirdos like me and I love it.
Much love to you all.
So, What’s Next Kid?
Well, this is year 10. Buckle up.
I simply refuse to be stuck in 2024 like I was in 2022 and 2023. Not through determination and force of will but through forgiveness, play and lightness. As Italo Calvino once said: “One should be light like a bird and not like a feather.”
I’ve used the metaphor of a road trip before to describe being an indie consultant. I’ve always imagined it like driving around in a car. But perhaps after almost 10 years it’s time to expand my ways of being in the world. Moving through the world not on wheels but on wings.
Writing this in the depths of winter it’s time to manifest the owl as my spirit animal for the year - wise and quirky, beautiful and alive. Like a snow owl gliding through time and space with temerity and grace.
Hoo hoo motherfuckers.
February 16, 2024
February 9, 2024
January 31, 2024
This post was written by Tom Critchlow - blogger and independent consultant. Subscribe to join my occassional newsletter: