Podcast

Episode: 220 |
Paul Millerd:
Creating an Online Course:
Episode
220

HOW TO THRIVE AS AN
INDEPENDENT PROFESSIONAL

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Paul Millerd

Creating an Online Course

Show Notes

Our guest today is Paul Millerd, who has been on the show before, on Episode 62. It was great to welcome Paul back to hear what he has been up to.

I’m so inspired by Paul, who has been incredibly deliberate about designing a life.  He has built a practice that allows him to work completely remotely, and recently left home in Boston to spend a stretch of time working in Bali and then in Japan and now in Taiwan.

He has developed several online courses with over 4,500 students on Udemy alone, he writes a very popular weekly newsletter that I love, and he is incredibly generous with his time: on his website you can book time to have a “curiosity conversation” with Paul; he has spoken with hundreds of people around the world who have reached out to him in this way.

Check out Paul’s website, think-boundless.com

Follow him on Twitter @p_millerd

Check out the consulting skills course he created at strategy.co https://strategyu.co/

Paul has written one of the most authoritative articles on the evolution of consulting talent platforms https://think-boundless.com/the-failed-promise-of-freelance-consulting-talent-platforms/

One weekly email with bonus materials and summaries of each new episode:

Will Bachman: Hello Paul, it’s great to have you back on the show.
Paul Millerd: Excited to be here Will, let’s dive in.
Will Bachman: So Paul, first I want to ask, you have been doing some traveling. What are the three most common questions that you get when you tell people that you’ve been working and living in Bali and Taipei?
Paul Millerd: Yeah that’s an interesting … so I don’t know if I can come up with three on the spot. But I should be able to as a former strategy consultant, right?
Will Bachman: They come in threes.
Paul Millerd: I think the first thing, people often kind of project their vision of how they’d react in that situation. A lot of people will say, “Oh, I wish I could do that,” or “I could never do that.” And it’s not as much about my journey. I think other things that people ask are, “Aren’t you worried about finding work?” A lot of worries about kind of work and then we talked about this another time, but how would you do this if you had kids? Or is this something you’re going to do long term? So there’s a lot of questions and the funny thing is, I have all these questions and I’m grappling with them every day. And it’s funny how when I talk to people about taking this journey or path, which most people in my life know I’m on, it is a very intense moment for them often, because they see all these stresses and things I’ve been worrying about for a few years now, all in one moment.
Will Bachman: Right, right. And tell us a little bit about your travels there. So you were in Bali, I think, for six weeks and you were doing projects while you were there? Or tell us where you’ve been traveling and what you’ve been doing on the road.
Paul Millerd: So two and a half years ago, I took the leap to freelance consulting. And then was in New York for a bit, and then ended up moving to Boston where I lived most of my twenties and some of my thirties. And I was working on a couple clients in Boston, both remotely. So I was doing work for them but sitting at coffee shops at random places around Boston and I was thinking to myself, “Well maybe I should be a little more adventurous.” So I ended up booking a one month trip to Asia, did some of the work I was doing for the client, while still there. And I had never studied abroad or really lived abroad for an extended period. And really just had the imagination then to think to myself, “Well why don’t I try a longer trip?”
And that’s what brought me to Asia last fall. I ended up meeting someone along the way, and deciding to stay in Asia. But had plans as part of that, planned to go back to Asia to go to Bali to actually meet up with a couple other freelancers I knew who were trying to spend some time together and work on creative projects.
Will Bachman: I’m curious about some of the practicalities of this kind of global nomad lifestyle. What are some of the tips you have about how to do this?
Paul Millerd: Yeah. So I think going off the default path brings up a lot of questions for anyone, right? I think even shifting from full-time employment to independent working can be a dramatic shift in how you’re orienting towards work and life. For many people, it raises the question of, well, if I don’t have to go to work, how much do I want to work? And then if I can decide that, how much do I want to make? And those are the questions you’re grappling with to an even more extreme degree, I think, if you’re prioritizing travel. So if you’re saying, I want to be location-independent, you’re adding an additional constraint, which is that, you need to be able to do work from anywhere. Now I’ve been mostly in Asia, so the time difference has been pretty consistent, but that’s what I’ve been designing around. And being with a partner who’s from Taiwan and I’m living with in Taiwan, I kind of know this is a longer term constraint.
So it’s really just thinking about what are you designing around, right? And I’m actually grateful for that constraint, because it’s very focusing. It helps me orient to say, “Okay, these are the type of consulting projects I can do.” These are the kind of ventures or creative projects I want to experiment with that actually work with this life I’m trying to design and build.
Will Bachman: In terms of some of the practical factors, there’s, depending on the country I guess, there’s some visa issues. You have to get work permission to live abroad or work abroad?
Paul Millerd: Yeah. I’d say the hardest country to drop in and work as a nomad is probably the United States. So leaving the United States is rather easy if you have a good passport, like from the US or other western countries. Most of Asia, for example, you can come in for 90 days and work visa-free, work remotely. I know Europe, in the main western Europe areas, you can go for 90 out of 180 days. And you can just go back once 180 days has lapsed. But what a lot of people do, is kind of design around those and go to different parts of the world at different times to optimize around weather, instead of trying to optimize around work per se or something like that.
Will Bachman: In terms of your kind of just physical set up, have you kind of got a hotel room? Have you rented a room by the month? Or I’ve read about these kind of global nomad kind of work co-working spaces. How have you physically set up your work living space?
Paul Millerd: So I’ve been in an apartment since March. Because I’ve decided to stay in Taiwan for a while. And before that, I was pretty much month to month. You can rent things on Airbnb or Facebook is actually fantastic for this. You go in [inaudible 00:06:06] group search the place you’re going, like Bali housing on Facebook. You find these very vibrant communities where you can find locals who are looking for rooms to fill or even other nomads who are sharing their space or renting out the space short term. So it’s been pretty easy. I was actually staying in hotel that just opened when I was in Bali, yet I think it was running me about $430 a month and that was through a connection. And that price was actually even a little high. So yeah, housing costs have been anywhere between $300-$500 a month. Which as you can imagine, once you start lowering that kind of cost lower, you have a lot more freedom to design and experiment with different working modes.
Will Bachman: Yeah. It’s a little bit lower than New York City rent.
Paul Millerd: Little bit lower than New York.
Will Bachman: Let’s dive into some of the courses that you’ve developed. I’m super curious to hear about these. So you have two online courses. I think Reinvent and Think Like a Strategy Consultant. Tell me about both of those. I want to hear what the courses are about, how you created them, let’s get into that.
Paul Millerd: Yeah. It might help to just start with the first online course I created, which was for a different purpose a few years ago but that kind of gave me the confidence that there was something more there. Do you want me to talk about that a little first?
Will Bachman: Yeah, sure. Let’s jump into that, sure.
Paul Millerd: So I was doing some career coaching on the side, kind of dabbling with, okay do I want to go off as a freelancer, coach, whatever, and learn from that? And one of the things people always reach out to you for is resume help, right? So I decided I just did not want to help people with resumes anymore. But I developed all these materials and decided to develop a course. Now this course is still up and I give this away for free. I can send you a link to it, but it gave me a taste of what creating a course was like. And one of the things I learned through that process was, the creation of the content, created this higher-level learning loop, which made me master the materials even better. Because I had to think, not only about what I knew, but how do I explain this to somebody and in a simple way, and in a way that’s accessible.
So I ended up putting that on Udemy, ended up giving it away for free and like a hundred people a month still take this course. Which kind of just blew my mind and gave me this data point that it was saying, okay there are these people all around the world, I think 95 plus countries have taken this resume course. Now this resume course is not all that impressive, but I think what blew me away and gave me this feedback to say, go a little deeper with this, was that’s so many people across the world who were taking this.
Will Bachman: And that course, by the way-
Paul Millerd: Yeah, go ahead.
Will Bachman: … let me hear a little bit what’s involved in creating a course like that? Is it just lectures? Do you have lectures and then assignments? Is there downloadable stuff? What was involved in creating that course?
Paul Millerd: Yeah. So with that course, it kind of gave me the sense that this whole world I didn’t really realize when I was just taking the leap to be a freelance consultant. So I was just thinking about, “Oh I’ll just become a freelance consultant.” But this made me realize there are probably other paths to make money. I think just in the past five years, so many people have realized there’s all these avenues to create things and sell them on the internet. So I ended up creating a consulting course, and last November I ended up basically just devoting a month to creating this. And this was on feedback from people over the years just sharing stuff I learned at consulting firms and teaching people. I did a couple small experiments with the mindset that I would create a course and I prototyped some of the stuff with a client in Boston.
But basically take a lot of the content, I kind of create an outline, I create massive amounts of presentations. I then will record my video if I’m speaking. And I’ll do short intros of just me speaking, and that’s a video of me, and then there will be lectures. I will walk people through concepts. I use combination of audio, sometimes animation, sometimes diagrams or kind of fun transitions or images. And then basically put that all together. One of the first things I did, with the consulting course last year, was just give it away to a bunch of people for free. And said, “Hey would you check out this course, what do you think?” And just got a lot of feedback. I ended up selling, I think, two copies of the course. And then nobody really paid attention to it for several months. Kind of didn’t really think anything of it.
And actually I ended up meeting someone in Bali who said to me, “This is incredible. What are you doing? Why aren’t you putting this more out there?” And that caused me to kind of double down and it and take it to the next level, which has kind of lead me to a whole new way of thinking about courses as well.
Will Bachman: Okay so I have a bunch of questions about that.
Paul Millerd: Yeah, we can dive in.
Will Bachman: So the video of you speaking. I want to get into some of the nuts and bolts in this for people who are interested in … well, okay, to be honest, for me. So the video of you speaking. How did you do those? Was that just an iPhone, looking into the camera? Did you have lights? Did you have someone helping you? How did you do those videos of you speaking?
Paul Millerd: Yeah, so at first it was just webcam of me, and recorded on my computer. And I used external mics that were pretty good. The same mic I’m using for this podcast actually.
Will Bachman: Oh, what mic is that?
Paul Millerd: Oh, this is the ATR2100. It’s a USB and mic that can be plugged in to a regular mixer as well.
Will Bachman: All right. Okay, cool.
Paul Millerd: I think it’s like, 70 bucks on Amazon.
Will Bachman: All right, cool. We’ll include a link to that in the show notes.
Paul Millerd: And I think there’s a key thing here too, which is I know that if I try to master something or perfect it, I won’t actually do it. So I’m totally comfortable with things not being perfect. I do review of, okay, what are some of the tips I should think about to create a video, but it’s usually not perfect. My whole goal is usually just to complete something and ship it.
Will Bachman: Yeah, complete and ship.
Paul Millerd: And then what happens is people either purchase it or give me feedback and then I go, “Ah, this is not as good as I want.” And I kind of try to take it to the next level incrementally.
Will Bachman: Yeah. So I’m particularly interested in this because I just finished recording a course myself and it was quite an adventure. I’m currently having it all edited, all these lectures. So I’m curious how you went about it. So you recorded those with a webcam and then when you stepped it up, did you start recording with a phone, or did you get a DSLR, what are doing now to record video?
Paul Millerd: I still use webcam.
Will Bachman: Really.
Paul Millerd: And same microphone.
Will Bachman: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Paul Millerd: And I have a lapel mic I use too, that a Rode smartLav.
Will Bachman: Yeah.
Paul Millerd: And for my course I just developed, Reinvent, I invested in a light. But I didn’t do that just to make everything perfect, I did it to raise the stakes on myself to make an initial investment, it was kind of this ceremonial, we’re getting started, let’s start creating today. We have the light.
Will Bachman: We got the light.
Paul Millerd: Yeah. So I have been experimenting with that and using that. And that’s been fun, just to kind of raise the stakes and continue to improve.
Will Bachman: What about the-
Paul Millerd: Right, yeah. It’s pretty simple set up. I don’t try to over complicate these things.
Will Bachman: When you speak to the camera, I’ll admit, I first tried to use a teleprompter app. And was trying to write what I wrote for this course and then read it off a teleprompter but then my eyes were flickering back and forth from the iPad to the camera, it just was no good. So I ended up having to kind of write the stuff but then memorize it enough that I could just ad-lib it to the camera. How do you do the actual recording piece? Do you just sort of make notes of what you want to say and then just talk?
Paul Millerd: Yeah. So it’s notes and say what I want to say. I was trying to over complicate this using video editors and my iPhone camera because it was better, and then I went back to the webcam. And actually started using PowerPoint. You can record video in PowerPoint and go slide by slide, in a way that you can put the video wherever you want on the slide. You can make it bigger, smaller. And you can record one slide at a time, which is really nice because you don’t have to memorize a whole bunch of material.
Will Bachman: That’s interesting. I hadn’t heard of people doing that. So you’ll actually show the PowerPoint on your screen and then you’re recording using Microsoft PowerPoint to record?
Paul Millerd: Yeah. So I have my webcam set off to the side, I have the light set up, and then I have my microphone plugged into the computer with an extension, and then I am back to wall, talking to the camera.
Will Bachman: Wow.
Paul Millerd: And then once you record the video, you can trim the video and trim the slide timings in PowerPoint, and you are good to go.
Will Bachman: How do you do the animations?
Paul Millerd: So I don’t get too excited with the animations. I basically try to add fun elements. I try and think about how to make people laugh or make them focus on what you’re trying to talk about. I don’t get too detailed with the slides, it’s usually big words or graphics or quotes. And I’ll use the animations just to highlight key phrases as I’m talking and I can control the timing so they pop up in yellow when I’m talking about it, or red, or something like that. So, yeah. I’ve experimented with a bunch of different things. I think every time I create this, I’m always coming up with new ideas and it’s part of why I love doing this is, as you’re creating it gives you the framework for coming up with more ideas. And you’re kind of creating and upping your game as you go.
Will Bachman: Yeah. So let’s talk about the course itself a little bit. So you sold two copies and then someone you met in Bali said, “This is fantastic, you should put some energy behind it.” What did you do then to promote the course and raise awareness of it to get more customers?
Paul Millerd: Yeah. So I knew there was interest and desire to understand these skills because I had basically been offering free workshops to founders, people I’d meet, over the previous two years. I was also advising an undergrad consulting group where I was so frustrated on how do you teach consulting skills to undergrads doing real projects. And basically figured out how to dumb down enough of what I knew in my brain to explain some of these things. And then had tested it, I had a client and was getting good feedback. So I knew there was demand. And had written a few articles on consulting. Basically what I did was spin out those articles into a site called StrategyU and built a site around it. And started writing a bunch of articles. I think I wrote 10 to 15 articles about strategy consulting and really just dove in. And that was a way for me to even learn more. From the writing, I came up with more ideas that I then put back into the course to continually improve the content. And I’m always adding more and more content and improving it.
So I did that, put it over there and we did a couple experiments with creating an email mini-course and giving people a preview of the course. We did a free workshop online and also experimented with ads. But we didn’t even spend that much on ads. And started getting a bunch of sales. And it was just kind of happening organically. And people were giving me good feedback, reaching out. And it was kind of this virtuous cycle, that once this was happening, and I think around June, this past year, it was first two months in a row that it was covering my cost of living, which is not high. It’s not a high cost of living. But it was like, “Oh wow.” If this can support my living, maybe I double down on it. This could be really something that sustains this kind of life of living and working remotely all around the world.
Will Bachman: So you would be giving some free workshops and how would you kind of spread awareness of those? Was it just posting it on LinkedIn, or do you have an email list now that you send stuff to? Or would you reach out individually proactively to people? How would you spread the word of these different free workshops and things?
Paul Millerd: Yeah, it was a mix of those. I think my general demeanor in everything I do is, I actually just love making friends. And that’s what is so energizing about being on my own is kind of free association with the type of work and type of people I get to collaborate with. I’m pretty much always looking for people to help. So instead of thinking in goals of I need to make X amount this quarter, it’s, okay, who can I help this week. Who are the communities I want to engage with? How can I reach out to people and offer things? And I’ve done that so often and it so often leads to things I actually want to be doing and can make money from that it’s basically my only model for thinking about sustaining this kind of life and business.
So, yeah. It was a mix of those three. Posting on social, reaching out to friends, but it was always small things. It was never more than two to five people.
Will Bachman: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Okay. Let’s talk about your new course. So you have this one course to think like a strategy consultant, and by the way, where’s the best place for people to find that course?
Paul Millerd: So you can find a link to that strategyu.co.
Will Bachman: And StrategyU, that’s Y-O-U? Or Strategy, U period.
Paul Millerd: StrategyU, it’s just the U.
Will Bachman: All right.
Paul Millerd: University.
Will Bachman: All right. So we’ll include that link in the show notes, strategyu.com.
Paul Millerd: Co. Dot co.
Will Bachman: Oh, dot co. Okay strategyu.co. All right. And tell us about your new course.
Paul Millerd: Yeah. So it’s worth mentioning, once I got a bunch of people starting to sign up for this consulting course, I wanted to raise the stakes even further and run a live cohort of it. So what I was learning from online learning is people sign up for these courses, they don’t complete them. And I was trying to figure out, how do I raise the stakes on both ends. One, for me to just create an exceptional experience. And two, steps that people, when they purchase, are actually going to finish.
So I did a live cohort of the course in, I believe it was August this year. So basically shut down registration and said, “If you want to sign up, it’s for the live cohort kicking off in August.” I created four live workshops. I created three assignments that were pretty demanding. And then we used the live calls to basically model what a team room environment might feel like in McKinsey. So we’re working out a problem statement, we’re collaborating, we’re challenging each other, we’re trying to figure out what this looks like. And that just kind of blew my mind open because people reacted so positively to that experience and being involved in the live learning sessions. That said, okay, maybe online learning is really part of something I want to be investing in and doing over the next two to five years, and not just this one-off course.
Will Bachman: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Paul Millerd: So in August, I decided after that course was done, to create this course that had kind of been simmering in the back of my head, called Reinvent. And this was based on another experiment I ran the previous year, which I called solopreneur shift. So a year ago, I had been doing all this kind of pro bono, helping work with people navigating the leap to freelance consulting and navigating solopreneurship. And put a landing page up, this was a year ago. I didn’t have a course. I said, “I’ll take you through a four week experiment. We’ll do four live calls, we’ll do these exercises, here’s the outline.” And got eight people to sign up at varying price points. Some I gave as a gift, some paid a higher price. Basically, that buy in said, okay. People want this, now that they’ve signed up, I’m going to create the content. I had some of the frames of it. But I created the content and did that. That was a positive experience.
And didn’t do anything with it for a year, until this past August when I decided okay I want to really take that and turn that into an online course based on what I was learning with the strategy consulting course. So yeah. I’ve been a bit of a course creator over the past couple of years and none of it was really planned. It was really always just how do I experiment in new ways of using the internet, video, bringing people together, and trying to solve all these things that seem to be emerging at the same time.
Will Bachman: Give us the kind of overview of the Reinvent course.
Paul Millerd: Yeah. So this is designed for re-imagining your relationship with work, which comes from conversations I’ve had with many people who have gone off the default path. People who are independent consultants, people who are solopreneurs, entrepreneurs, taking sabbaticals, remote workers. And basically what many people are discovering is that they’re moving from a full-time environment, in which their life was designed and oriented around a job. And then they moved to this other environment and they don’t really have a lens to navigate this new space. How do I think about carving this career without a career path? I mean you’ve been navigating this for years now. But many people haven’t, right? And they’re new to this space. Even remote working is doing this because it removes the constraints of even having to be in a certain location, even though you still have a full-time job.
So I started combining a lot of these exercises I was doing with people. I’d basically been doing coaching on the side as a gift. So I do a lot of pro bono discussions with people, I call them curiosity conversations. So I have had probably one or two of these every week for the past two or three years. And learning from those creating experiments for people, writing about this. And so, Reinvent was basically the way to take the past two to three years and turn it into something.
So I created a four week roadmap of lectures. I published that. I shared that on Twitter, on Facebook, and said, “Hey, does anyone have any comments? I’m going to create this and public and show you how I’m creating it along the way.” So still have a big tweetstorm you can follow of my creation process. And through that, got a bunch of people to sign up. And it was kind of a collaborative co-creation experience. And at the same time, just taking everything that was kind of dancing around in my head, making sense of it and turning it into something I was kind of proud to put down and be able to give away to people in the future and also experiment with running this course around the world, either in person or virtually.
Will Bachman: Can you give us some examples of some of the exercises that you’ve included in that course?
Paul Millerd: Yeah. So the course is designed around one big shift. So for example, the shift could be experimenting with taking a leap to freelance consulting in the next six months. And I’m going to use the next four weeks to kind of try on this shift. One of the big things it centered around is what I call an action challenge. So the goal of an action challenge is not to write a book, for example, it’s to challenge yourself in one week to do something bold that puts you outside your comfort zone that helps you understand what you actually like about moving towards that goal. So it could be writing a chapter or something, it could be reaching out to a publisher. It could be telling people you’re writing a book. And then figuring out, what do you like about that, and where do you want to go next? Another exercise is the best self challenge, where people have to email three to five friends and say, “When have you seen me at my best self?”
So it’s really a combination of personal development, there’s things around figuring out your ideal lifestyle cost. There’s another exercise around designing your life. Another around fear setting. And it’s really designed to be a really intense course. Really high standards. Really a lot of things you need to kind of reflect, read, respond to do in the course. And we do it together as a group. We have a chat room on Discord and we also have five weekly calls.
Will Bachman: That sounds fascinating. Tell us a little bit more about the best self exercise. So practically how does that work if a listener wants to go ahead and try that? And what are some of the things people have learned or insights they have gained from it?
Paul Millerd: Yeah. We were just talking about this yesterday on the call. So one of the insights people have is that they’re terrified to send emails, asking people either for help or feedback. And almost categorically, people get 100% responses to these within a day. It’s almost as if people are craving asking for feedback in more intimate and vulnerable relationships between people so I definitely encourage people to try this. I’ve done it a few times over the past couple of years and I think the most interesting things are realizing there are these great things we’re doing that we’re not aware of. They’re kind of just who we are, right? And you do them over and over again and then somebody’s like, this is when you’re being your best self. And you’re like, “Oh wow. I’ve never even really thought about that.”
Will Bachman: Yeah. I mean, as you talk about it I’m just reflecting. It’s interesting even just to consider yourself of when are you at your best self and what really makes you come alive. I imagine that’s a real interesting layer to ask other people to reflect on that, to get that outside perspective. You have written a lot and thought quite deeply about talent platforms. In fact, I think that if someone Googles talent platform, some of your writing is on the first page. Tell me a little bit about your thought process and what you’ve been thinking about in terms of talent platforms?
Paul Millerd: My first job after business school was working for one of these early talent platforms called A-Connect. And these were a number of firms that were established in the early 2000’s. There’s Eden McCallum, Business Talent Group, A-Connect, and this was kind of early internet, right? You’re getting some information, you’re able store talent profiles and databases and connect people globally. And I worked for one of these firms so I was really fascinated with the space. While I was there, I was kind of doing a mapping of what are the competitors in this space, what are the emerging trends. And one of the emerging trends when I was there, this was back in 2013, there was this firm called MBA & Company, which is now called TalMix. And they created the first two-sided platform.
So one-sided platform is when the firm, the talent platform, knows the client and the client projects, right? But the talent doesn’t actually see inside that. They don’t know what the pipeline is, they don’t know what the opportunities are. And TalMix was creating the first two-sided platform. And I thought this was going to be revolutionary because it was going to dramatically increase the opportunities, people were going to be able to see, independents were going to have more control over their opportunities. And long story short, I think I was wrong about that. But it’s been interesting to see the shift. I think you’ve seen a ton of two-sided platforms enter the space.
Will Bachman: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Paul Millerd: And no one’s really taken off. We’re operating in a world in which, if you’re able to reach escape velocity on a platform, think of Facebook, and dominate the whole market. There are then benefits because everyone’s on the platform, right? So these are the arguments places like Amazon and Facebook use, right? Because they control everything. The benefits are tremendous because everyone uses the platform. There’s one point of reference. What happened with the talent platforms 2.0, as I call them, the two-sided platforms, was that a number of them entered the space. And I think the short term effects were dramatically increase the opportunities to freelancers. But then more freelancers entered the market and there was almost this equilibrium reached, and it was suddenly more competitive for freelancers.
I know many of the people that probably listen to the show have experienced this. I had a ton of Umbrex people reach out to me after I published my article, The Failed Promise of Talent Platforms. And essentially it’s more competitive and what’s happened is the two-sided platforms, what was at first an innovation on the operations side to outsource all the work to the freelancer, right? Instead of screening, vetting, and scoping the projects, now the freelancer does that. But the freelancer is competing with 25 other freelancers so doesn’t put a lot of effort into it and you basically have all these projects, which aren’t scoped or vetting, nobody knows if they’re real, people lose trust in the platforms and then people kind of get disillusioned. And then you have this second effect of the best freelancers are all realizing this and saying, “Well I don’t want to use the platform.”
So there’s almost this short term boost in the number of projects and opportunities but then as more platforms and more freelancers entered the market, it was kind of worse for everyone. And you’ve seen this, firms like [Catalant 00:33:20], at first people were really excited by. Catalant now, their business model is not even oriented towards freelancers anymore. They’re trying to sell a talent management platform for companies to use internally. Which if you think about it, is just a much bigger business opportunity, because you’re looking at the entire employed workforce as opposed to a pretty small portion of freelance consultants.
Will Bachman: Yeah. How do you see this whole space evolving?
Paul Millerd: So I’m not sure if you’ve read the article but at the end, I’m optimistic about collaborations like Umbrex. I really think the opportunities are when you’re aligned on the incentives, right? I think one of the challenges with two-sided platforms is the incentives are aligned for employees, investors, and the client. But the freelancer is not part of that formula. I think what you’re doing with something like Umbrex, you’re clearly want to share in the upside in any freelancers, you share knowledge, you create things for freelancers. And you’re trying to create this virtuous loop where it’s kind of a smaller closed community, it’s selected around certain characteristics and it’s saying, your goal is not to be a VC-backed scaling platform, right? It’s to really deliver on a mission of increasing opportunities for freelancers. So I think you’re seeing more and more of these sprout up across different industries, different geographies.
So I think that’s probably the most optimistic side. I honestly don’t know what’s going to happen with the two-sided platforms. LinkedIn is obviously the billion dollar beast in this question but I just think they haven’t really figured out how to do it but it’s definitely something that’s going to keep evolving and changing and I don’t really have clear answers.
Will Bachman: Yeah. Yeah, LinkedIn has made little baby steps toward it with the pro finder and so forth but it seems really not to be taking off at all. I don’t really see anybody using it and occasionally I’ll see projects posted there-
Paul Millerd: Yeah, they’re not free.
Will Bachman: … and there always like on credit, small little wimpy projects. There’s no cost to post there, so nobody serious, I think, is using that that I have seen.
Paul Millerd: Yeah, and I think reflecting back on my time in A-Connect, you realize that they were onto something, it wasn’t scalable, what they were doing, but for good reason, because scoping a project is extremely hard, right? Anyone that’s worked in consulting knows that scoping a project is probably one of the most important things. And how do they do that? They hired ex-consultants to scope the projects, which is a really in demand talent pool and it’s hard to build a firm around that, right? So you just don’t find a lot of ex-consultants that want to work in a freelance staffing consulting firm. There’s some but it’s just limited.
And I think another thing worth noting and you’ll probably resonate with this, is I had multiple founders of platforms reach out to me after I wrote this article. And they wanted to know what can we do. And I said, “Well what do you think freelancers care about?” And all of them say something like, client opportunities and money. And they’re missing a whole lens and this really gets to kind of how work is changing. They’re missing a human side of work, right? Most freelancers are trying to design a life. They want to know that they’re not going to go broke and there are opportunities but usually their number one priority is not maximizing income. It’s usually interesting projects, it’s usually freedom to work on other creative ventures, freedom to spend time with family, do other things that are meaningful in their life.
And there’s still just the disconnect between understanding this gig world and people that are running a business. One platform executive said to me, “Well, it’s great that freelancers care about these things but what are the business sense to me?” How do we think about the bottom dollar, right? And he was talking about hosting events and obviously you’ve figured this out, you sent a newsletter packed full of information and value every week. And you’re just giving value, right? You’re trying to invest in trust and generosity, rather than say, what’s the business impact here?
Will Bachman: Yeah. It’s not about trying to sell cottonseed oil or something, right? I think the firms that focus purely on just trying to … the project opportunities alone it’s not creating community, not engaging people. And people sense that.
Paul Millerd: Yeah. I challenged the platforms. I’ve said this multiple founders and people working at these firms. I say, “If you care so much about freelancers, just tell them they can come work at your office anytime.” And they’re like, “I don’t know if we could do that, people take advantage of it.” And it’s like, well you’re missing the point here, right? You need to operate in a framework of trust in the gig economy, which is super vitally important to winning over gig workers and freelancers and creating these feedback loops of saying, “Oh this person offered me space two years ago, why don’t I throw them a project.”
Will Bachman: Tell me a little bit about these curiosity calls that you do. I’m curious to hear what those are about, what you’ve learned by them. Tell me a little bit about those curiosity calls.
Paul Millerd: Brian Grazer wrote a book called A Curious Mind. And he directed several movies. The movies are slipping off the top of my head right now, but he wrote this book called A Curious Mind, in which he said his whole approach to his career was, try to find interesting people and ask them if they could have curiosity conversations. And he would always say the same thing. He would say, “I want to have a curiosity conversation. I don’t want anything from you. I just want to hear your story.” Right? And he would say this to higher ups in his organization and in the movie business and people were like, “Oh, that’s different. Let’s do this.” And he would never ask for anything after. But anyone, and you know this through running a podcast, if you do this and you actually learn about somebody’s story in a genuine way, they feel this sense of gratitude and connectedness to you. So he credits a lot of his career success to this.
So I decided to implement this in my own work, and just said, “Anyone can call me for any reason and I’ll chat with you for 45 minutes, and let’s just see what happens.” And that’s lead to friendships, it’s lead to people I engage with about my writing and ideas. And it’s really just been fun because it doesn’t have this, well you need to network and you need to make money. It adds a little bit of fun and randomness to the journey.
Will Bachman: And practically, do you have some kind of scheduling link, or how do you set those up?
Paul Millerd: Yeah. It’s through Calendly. So I have a link in my site and it usually two days a week, I have certain time blocks. And I just let people schedule at will. So I had one earlier today and he was a Brazilian guy working in Berlin, working on some online courses, ran across my story and wanted to just kind of share ideas and see what we could explore together.
Will Bachman: You talked before about … and I know how passionate you are about helping people along their journey. You’ve done a lot of coaching. Tell me a little bit about that. Are there kind of a set of go to questions that you start with or a standard process that you follow? Just tell me a little bit about that coaching and how you help people kind of scope out their journey.
Paul Millerd: Yeah. So I’ve decided not to pursue coaching as a central thing. Mostly because if you’re doing with a lot of clients, it kind of becomes a grind and then the incentives didn’t really feel right to me, which is you want to have people have as many calls as possible. And I just thought other people could do that better me. Oftentimes I start with the curiosity call, that’s how they find out about me and then we just stay engaged. One thing I’ve realized, is that people that reach out to me are typically not the, “What are the 10 steps I need to build $100,000 business,” right? The people that reach out to me are typically the, “Hey there’s a little bit more to life, how can I think about this while still being practical about business and making money but thinking about a broader perspective?”
So what I’ve found is that there’s kind of these four phases that people go through. And I think about them along these four phases and I wrote an article about this but the four phases are restlessness, imagination, first steps, and then commitment. And I think for many people, there’s a short-term cycle along these phases, especially people that are working on their own. And then a longer term cycle. So I know for me, before I left my job, there was this, probably five to seven year explorative phase of just being restless and slowly broadening my imagination. And then experimenting, taking those first steps and probably realizing in the past two years, that this is a longer journey I want to be on. And then there are kind of micro cycles where I experienced that with the Reinvent course, for example. I kind of have a restlessness, feel like I need to do something, there’s imagination, somebody makes a comment or says, “Why don’t you do this?” And then I kind of take first steps and then commit to it and follow through.
So I’ve been seeing that over and over again. I’d be interested to see if that resonates with your own journey as well.
Will Bachman: So my own journey is, I left McKinsey, I took a full-time job for a few months and then I realized that that was not a great fit. And then I left that role and that was August of 2008. And folks of a certain age will recall that Lehman Brothers was exploding, it was not the best time to go look for a consulting job. So I probably didn’t follow that standard four-part model, it was super compressed because, I think there’s probably an alternate model where people kind of fall into independent consulting, where I hadn’t really heard about it. I managed to get a consulting gig with a Fortune 500 company serving the CEO. Of all things, someone introduced me and it worked out awesome. I managed to make in two weeks what I had been making in two months at McKinsey. So I said, “Well this is kind of interesting.” And then I was able to get another fall on gig through one of the kind of intermediaries and did that for a couple months. And then got my own project.
So after about three or four months of independent consulting I said, “Well, this is awesome. I get my freedom, I’m enjoying the work, I make as much money or more than I did before, so I’m just going to do this.” So people who kind of have a safe, secure full-time job and are thinking about it, pondering, “Should I make this jump to independent consulting?”
Paul Millerd: Right.
Will Bachman: That wasn’t my experience, I kind of got thrown into it and then found out this really works well for me. But I can imagine that if you’re not kind of forced into it, then it would be kind of a little bit harder to make the leap.
Paul Millerd: Yeah and I think there doesn’t have to be this painful like, “This is not right, I need to make a move.” It can almost be this imagination of, “Hmm. There could be different ways to this. Are there different paths?” And I’m wondering if you experienced some of this in starting Umbrex. Was there an initial kind of curiosity or frustration and then a way you kind of took action on it?
Will Bachman: Yeah. So that was a little bit of a process where I had been, very early on, right after I started my own practice, I knew how to be a consultant from five years at McKinsey but I didn’t know the first thing about running a consulting practice. How do you do accounting, how do you get insurance, how do you get life insurance, new contracts? How do you write a statement of work? So I didn’t know any of that stuff and I figured I had read this book, Tribes by Seth Godin, right around that time. We talked about building a tribe of your kind of peers and I didn’t know how to run a consulting practice. So I started reaching out to folks that had left McKinsey a little bit before I had, [Joachim Fisher 00:46:50], [Rosina Samadani 00:46:51], and some others, who helped get me started. And I figured that would helpful. So for a number of years, it was just connecting with other independent consultants, sharing lessons learned.
And then in 2013, Mary Kate Scott got introduced to me, she had been organizing some in-person events for independent consultants and she invited me to help her organize one that year and I did. And after that it was organize more in-person events for a couple years. So had been doing a lot of the things of trying to connect independent consultants, help share lessons learned, help people collaborate. And then in 2015, people were saying, “Hey you’re doing these events, but there’s no website, there’s no name to it.” And [Jane Lang 00:47:45] helped convince me to, okay, let’s do this. But the tough thing I think was, not so much necessarily a resistance to it, but it’s tough when you’re out there trying to execute your own projects.
Paul Millerd: Right.
Will Bachman: And you’re doing independent consulting gigs to carve out the time and energy and focus to do some other experiment or set up something. So that was probably the biggest challenge was not necessarily reluctance, it was just kind of carving out the time and energy to do something like that.
Paul Millerd: Well it’s funny. A lot of people I talk to, they’ll look back and something they do, maybe Umbrex is like this for you, seem obvious looking back. And it’s often the friends around you or community around you that kind of force it onto you. Sounds like that might have happened a little with Umbrex. I mean, that’s the best way it happens.
Will Bachman: That’s right. And then you wonder how many sort of obviously things did you not do. Right?
Paul Millerd: Yeah.
Will Bachman: That you could’ve done. But certainly having other people encourage was super important and helpful. So what are some kind of pieces of advice that you’d give to somebody who’s in that, maybe that restless phase of having go beyond just sort of pondering things and kind of moving to the imagination or the first steps phase?
Paul Millerd: Yeah. So I’m still trying to figure out what the right names of those for but one of the interesting things I’ve noticed over and over again is either a book, like you read Tribes, a conversation, a travel trip. And sometimes it’s forced upon you, either through a health crisis or getting laid off. But thinking about what are these ways you can kind of shift perspective, shift state of mind, shift language, shift the conversation, to kind of broaden the possibilities.
One of the things I do with people is a designing your life activity. And this is adapted from the Design Your Life book. But the goal is to come up with three life designs. Five year maps of your life. And the goal is not to pick a five year plan, like some employers still ask people. It is to generate new ideas. So it’s to challenge yourself to dream in a wider perspective, right? Because most people can come up with, “Okay, here’s what my five year plan look like.” And so you do one plan, which is your life but a little more experimental. Then you do, what is your craziest possible life? And then a third one is, what if no one would laugh? And then you could do other ones, you can do, what does a freelancer life look like? What a novelist life look like? And start just experimenting and pushing yourself to dream in new directions and do that through writing.
Will Bachman: I like that idea of starting with the writing piece, of writing it out. And what’s insightful for me from what you just said is not just doing one but-
Paul Millerd: Yeah, that’s the power.
Will Bachman: … you’re forcing yourself to do multiple because if you do one, it just kind of … doing multiple forces you to come up with this range of ideas as opposed to here’s my one ideal thing. I love that.
Paul Millerd: Yeah. You could do this with your clients. I mean, what would be the five year strategy if no one would laugh at you, right? A lot of business creativity is limited because executives are worried about what their CEO or board’s going to think of them.
Will Bachman: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Paul Millerd: What is the broadest possible imagination. And whenever I say this to business leaders they get scared. But I love throwing the challenge out there.
Will Bachman: Now Paul, some people listening to this show might ask, and I’m curious as well, beyond creating these courses, doing all these goals, are you doing any more kind of traditional kind of management consulting stuff right now? Are you doing industry market landscape, due diligence kind of stuff? Curious what sorts of independent consulting work you’re doing outside of what we’ve talked about so far on the show.
Paul Millerd: Yeah. So a lot of my freelance consulting dried up moving 12 hours away. I think there’s just so much benefit to being in local networks. And I basically, with the low cost of living, decided to experiment on creative projects and the strategy consulting course kind of took off. I did one project earlier this year where I was helping on an Australian company think about entering the US market. And I was working on a global team. I realized I didn’t want to work on team projects globally. There’s just too much frustration. You wake up and everyone’s freaking out. So moved towards more one-on-one kind of coaching consulting. And it’s actually happened through the consulting stuff. So I’m working with a couple clients now who are senior executives, who are either delivering strategies or developing presentations. One’s developing it for her board at the next … she was just appointed to a senior position and is presenting to her board.
So it’s combining these strategy consulting things that are emerging for me and the one-on-one coaching and working with people one-on-one. I’m seeming to really enjoy that. I haven’t got it to a sustainable point yet but I really just keep focusing on one engagement at a time and trying to just do great work for people and get feedback from them and have them tell me what I should do next.
Will Bachman: And where are all the sites and we’ll include these links in the show notes, that people can find you. So we talked about strategy, then the letter U.co for that course. You also have think-boundless, right? What’s the best way for people to find all your stuff online?
Paul Millerd: Yeah. If you go to think-boundless.com you’ll find me. And I’m pretty easy track down. I put all my socials up there. I put my curiosity conversation link, so you can find me on LinkedIn too. I’m pretty easy to access. But yeah, think-boundless.com or strategyu.co. And honestly, love sharing ideas and helping people. So if people want to reach out let’s jump on a curiosity conversation and see what happens.
Will Bachman: Fantastic. And did we mention this already? I’m talking to you today, I’m in New York City and you are today in?
Paul Millerd: I am in Taipei.
Will Bachman: Taipei. All right. And you plan to be there for the intermediate, near-term future?
Paul Millerd: So I’ll be here for, another, I think, four months. And then me and my partner are thinking about taking a year long trip traveling around the world. So …
Will Bachman: That’s amazing.
Paul Millerd: Continuing to explore and experiment with these adventures and creations.
Will Bachman: Would you plan to kind of be blogging that trip and documenting so we can follow you around and …
Paul Millerd: I will be, yeah. It’ll be on think-boundless.com. And I do a weekly newsletter as well, where I write around the history, philosophy, and of work and creative adventures I’m experimenting with. You can find that through my think-boundless. And also do a weekly five reads email every Sunday as well. So yeah. I’m pretty easy to find. I write all over the place and you can follow along.
Will Bachman: Paul, thanks so much. It’s been fantastic catching up with you again and I am so inspired by the range of activities and the course you’ve created and the writing. So thank you so much for being on the show.
Paul Millerd: Thanks Will.

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