Unleashed. 488. Tom Critchlow
Tom Critchlow, Will Bachman
Will Bachman 00:02
Hello, and welcome to Unleashed the show that explores how to thrive as an independent professional. I’m your host will Bachman. And I am excited to be here today with Tom Critchlow, a writer who had been following for a number of years, and who is also running his own practice. Tom, welcome to the show.
Tom Critchlow 00:20
Thanks for having me on. Will, excited to be here.
Will Bachman 00:23
So Tom, I thought we could start with a piece that you wrote recently that really caught my eye, which was strategy rejecting specialization. I don’t think that’s the full title. But that was like my, my key takeaway, which is opposite of the advice that many people give independent consultants, which is, you know, Define Your Niche, you know, define what it is, what problems you solve what clients you want to work on, and define it very carefully. And make sure you communicate that to everyone. You have different advice, tell me about it.
Tom Critchlow 00:54
Yeah, I tried to take a bit of a contrarian view, with my, with my writing. And I think that this really started from seeing a lot of different independent consultants kind of burning out. A lot of people launching their independent consulting practice, or trying to go into freelancing and just feeling like the whole thing was a bit of a grind. And this kind of common advice, this this perceived wisdom that you’ll find all over the internet, which says you should find a specialization, pick a niche, you know, you’ll get more clients, that way, you’ll make more money, all this kind of stuff. I think counterintuitively, sometimes that advice is actually the wrong advice. Because positioning is really hard. And I think one of the big mistakes that people make is they kind of fence themselves into this box, right? So so if you create a positioning, for example, like, I do email marketing for ecommerce websites, or I do SEO, consulting for b2b sites, right? What you’re accidentally doing, you’re making your work legible. But you’re also putting a work in a box, right? So the kind of clients that are going to hire you are the kind of clients who have like a well defined need that like, Oh, I’m an e commerce website, I have an SEO need, I’m going to hire this consultant. But at this point, it’s kind of fungible, right, like, they might hire you, they might have somebody else, they might hire an agency, you’re basically accidentally optimizing for work that is, you know, straightforward, legible, interchangeable, right. And that just leads to Yes, sometimes it can lead to more work, right, because you’ve got good positioning, you’ve figured out who your audiences, your clients, and so on. But it’s all kind of low level work, it’s not super senior work, it’s not really well paid, you’re constantly fighting against other vendors or the consultants. And so there’s this kind of trap, right? The if you if you over specialize, don’t do don’t do your kind of positioning statement. Well, there’s this danger that you just kind of burning out, right becomes a grind. And so I tried to take this kind of alternative perspective to say, there is another way to do this, which is you don’t really need to pick a niche as much as you need to have strong opinions. So this is kind of the basis for the piece that I wrote, which basically says, you know, try not to put yourself into a box, right and say I do X or Y. But instead, if you can have strong opinions, and if you can kind of demonstrate a kind of vibe, as I like to call it a kind of a kind of persona or a kind of way of thinking, then you’re going to attract the kind of work and the kind of clients who appreciate that way of thinking and appreciate that vibe. And you’re going to attract clients who have problems where they say, I don’t actually know what my problem is, right? Or I have this kind of well, that’s why it’s like not well defined problems, ambiguous problems, messy problem, maybe you can help, right. And in my own experience, those kinds of consulting jobs tend to be more senior, more well paid, more fun, more interesting, and also less competitive, right? You’re no longer pitching against just an SEO agency, or an email marketing agency or some other consultant. And it’s really just about somebody on the internet, if you find your stuff, and it’s like, I want to work with this guy seems interesting. It seems like we think on the same wavelength, I think maybe he can help. So that was kind of the basis for the for the whole thesis. You know, I think positioning is still can still be a useful tool, if you do it really well. But I think it can also be a bit of a trap.
Will Bachman 04:09
Okay, so a lot of areas to explore here. So strong opinions. Give us some examples of what you’re talking about
Tom Critchlow 04:18
there. Good question. So in my own work, for example, I used to do SEO consulting work, you know, this kind of strong opinion would be I don’t believe that SEO audits are useful. And that’s kind of a belief that I come to you from many years, we’re in the industry where every SEO agency and every SEO consultant will try and sell you an SEO audit, quote, unquote. And I just think that whole process is fundamentally broken, right? You’re starting from a kind of process driven approach to consulting rather than a problem driven approach, which says, you know, what is your problem? What are your opportunities? That’d be one example. Another example might be something like, You believe in the Creator icon. Let me know something and you want to believe that brands should be investing in kind of influencer partnerships rather than doing you know, like, like TV ads, you can have all kinds of opinions. Again, I think the magic is often in the nuance of them. That kind of explains that you have, you have a particular kind of way of viewing the world that is a little bit unique or a little bit different.
Will Bachman 05:23
Okay, so. So you’re, let’s say you express strong opinions, right? And you get people who think, Wow, I like the way this person thinks. Seems to me that you need to at least have some degree of explaining what it is you do, because you probably wouldn’t want someone coming to you say, Tom, I like the way you think, you know, I need a, you know, help on a supply chain transformation effort or something like that is outside of my space. So, I mean, you would probably need to do something related to digital marketing and SEO, but you know, or whatever your space is, right. But again, people need to know, please, broadly, when to call you.
Tom Critchlow 06:05
Yeah, sure. Yeah. And actually, I think people, I think more than that, actually, I think that people often rely too much on kind of like, like a building like a services page on the website, which says, you know, I do SEO, I do content, marketing, et cetera, et cetera. And again, you’re trying to fit your work into a box. In my experience, I really enjoy writing these lengthy blog posts, right? Sometimes, these essays are like, you know, 234 1000 words. And in them, and given these little vignettes of the work that I do, and, and, you know, I might say something like, you know, this one time, I was working with a CMO, and they had to, you know, build out an SEO team. And so I helped them hire, you know, five to 10 people and their SEO department, you know, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. This gives this kind of really strong mental model for somebody reading that to be like, I have a really rich understanding of what that work looks like, right? I haven’t a label necessarily, like, quote, unquote, SEO, consulting, or, you know, email marketing, or whatever it might be. But I suddenly have a kind of sense of when I might make an intro to Tom, or when I might reach out to work with Tom right? So yes, you absolutely need this, this kind of clear sense of the kinds of things that you do. But again, giving them giving them a kind of tight label isn’t always the right approach, right? So so yes, I think, again, this goes back to this idea of, if you’re going to have strong opinions, and you know, my favorite medium is text, I like to like to write a lot. He’s gonna write long essays, or you’re gonna do YouTube videos, or whatever it is, I think it’s great to embody that stuff with real examples, right? And these little kind of vignettes and case studies of the work that you’ve done, and I think that allows the, what you’re talking about, right, which is this kind of giving clients a sense of what it is that you do, without, again, having to resort to this kind of like, putting yourself in a box, right? It’s like, I have a page on my website that says, I do SEO consulting, and you can hire me through that says, you know, that kind of path is, I’m not saying it doesn’t work, I just think it leads to a different kind of work.
Will Bachman 08:02
Okay. So a good friend of mine, and someone I respect a lot, David A fields, he’s been on the show here a bunch of times, you know, he has a concept, which is, you know, just I think some degree as opposed to what you recommend, which is the idea of having a fishing line, right? Having a crisp explanation, not necessarily what you do, but his way of framing that is, I work with this type of client, who are struggling with, like this type of problem, right? So it’s not so much exactly saying I do SEO, but in some cases, and I’m not sure, actually, if you necessarily agree or disagree with this approach or not, because they might be saying something similar. So that kind of fishing line, I don’t think necessarily bounds you in to a tight, low end, kind of commodity box, because it can be framed in a way that something like I work with, you know, mid market CPG companies that have, you know, sort of achieved high market share in their niche and are now struggling to find new growth paths, right. So that can be pretty high value work, that sort of strategy work for mid market, CPG companies. Its strategic, it’s working with the senior leadership. It’s not like a commodity thing. But it does give people a sense of, you know, roughly what you do. And if you meet someone at a cocktail party, and you say that they might remember it, and six months later, they have a friend who has a $300 million snack bar company, and, you know, no to refer you. So if you’re taking your approach, and you meet someone at a party, what would you tell them about yourself? You can’t say, hey, read everything I’ve written for the past 10 years and you get my vibe, right? Like what would you tell people Pull in a snapshot to let them know when they should, you know, introduce someone to you.
Tom Critchlow 10:06
Yeah, good question what so first of all, I don’t disagree with that, you know, I think that that’s, that’s good advice. And I like the framing that, you know, one of the caveats I write in my, in my blog posts and in rejecting specialization is that I try and make the distinction between, like, good positioning and like great positioning and mediocre positioning. Right. And I think the part of the problem here is that, like good positioning is really useful and can be done really well. But the problem is that most people can’t do it, right, they spin their wheels, or they don’t have a good enough understanding, or they can’t define the market well enough. So if you can get to a statement, like you just described, I think that is useful. I think that’s great. And if you can do it, especially if you can do it through the right senior lens, then I think you are going to attract some of the right kind of clients. You know, in my blog post, I used the example of Andy Raskin, who I think has has really great positioning was, I think, I think he’s lying, I might be butchering it, but something like I do, I do strategic narrative for CEOs. And, you know, it’s kind of that’s once a kind of tight, tight positioning was also being, you know, wide enough to drive a bus through and senior enough that obviously, you’re gonna get all kinds of ambiguous, interesting projects. Right. But again, I think a lot of people will see that advice, and they’ll see the the adviser to create a positioning statement and end up putting themselves in a box. Right. So I think I think the a good positioning can absolutely work. And to answer your question directly, you know, the, the line that I have been using for a while is I help content companies start new initiatives. And that’s kind of being the the kind of one line of vision, but honestly, I don’t think that that captures, like, I don’t think I’ve created a strong positioning statement yet. Right. I don’t think I’ve I don’t think I’ve nailed that, that fishing line as you describe it. Because I think there’s still a lot of ambiguity in the work that I do. And it’s also evolving, right. I think the other aspects here is that a positioning statement feels like it, it, it feels like it is a static thing. Whereas a lot of independent consultants are continually trying to change the work, they’re doing moods, new industries, trying new types of work, getting new types of clients, it feels more alive and more iterative. And I think that again, when you try, and it’s almost like, you know, putting, like a, putting a firefly in a in a glass jar, you know, it’s like, if you’re, if you’re trying to cement it like a moment in time, it’s this positioning statement. Again, it can feel like you’re trapping yourself, versus giving yourself optionality and kind of freedom to move, which again, was kind of the thrust of my piece, which is like, there’s this other way to think about it, which is by writing, by having strong opinions, you can kind of evolve your point of view and your positioning over time.
Will Bachman 12:39
What benefits have you derived from writing consistently? You’ve been doing it now for 10 years, you have a ton of stuff on your web, just printing out the the the list of posts is 14 pages. Talk to me about what what benefits you’ve you’ve you’ve received from all that work?
Tom Critchlow 12:57
Yeah, I mean, all kinds of benefits. I mean, you know, the last full time job I had, when I looked at I was interviewing at Google was a decade ago. Now. I remember there was several of my pieces of writing that came up in the interview process. They’re like, Oh, tell me about this thing that you wrote. Or, you know, I would say I wrote a blog post about this kind of email to you after the interview. And, and you’re like, Yeah, sure. So even in kind of more straightforward things like, you know, like job searches and career searches, it’s been helpful. I know that when I was running in running an agency in New York, over a decade ago now, make you feel old. When I first moved to New York, I was I was running an agency. And writing was one of the ways that I attracted people to apply to the jobs. You know, one of my, one of my closest friends, who was one of the guys who joined my team, when I opened the office here in New York, he applied for the job because he read a post that I that I wrote on with like, I like how this guy thinks I want to go work for him. So those are some of the kind of more straightforward benefits. And then, you know, above and beyond that, obviously, as an independent consultant is generally a lot of work, a lot of people reach out because they know me through my writing, you know, we’re having this conversation right now. Because my writing, I’ve also, you know, tons of friends, you know, kind of less, less easy to quantify, but certainly valuable interactions from all kinds of different people. Even just moving to New York City itself. I remember when I first moved here, you know, and feeling like I don’t know, anyone, never been here before, but I feel like I can hit the ground running because I can reach out to folks people are reaching out to me, I can find a network I can find people. You know, I’ve been I’ve been toying with this idea recently. You know, people think that blogging and kind of being active on social media, they think about it as kind of, quote unquote, building your audience. And I think that phrase is a really bad phrase, right? It kind of conjures ideas of people being put into marketing funnels, and, you know, mildly marketing activities and so on. But when you use the phrase, finding your people, I think everyone wants to find that people. Right. And I think that’s, that’s the thing that writing has done for me, is it’s allowed me to find my people it’s allowed me to find and people that think the way that I do the interesting, they’re doing interesting things. And yeah, I wouldn’t replace that for the world.
Will Bachman 15:08
All right, so just a podcast timeout here. On that note, I’ll just say hello people who are interested in Unleashed and following the show. So Okay, back to a regular programming. So and to what degree have you found that, beyond all those relationship benefits, the kind of consistency and the habit of doing that, as it helped clarify your thinking? Or help you even discover what it is that you think?
Tom Critchlow 15:39
Yeah, totally, you know, I’ve been, I have a blog where I write all kinds of things all over the shop. And there’s a kind of a certain slice of my blogging, which is specifically about independent consulting, which hopefully is going to turn into a book shaped objects sometime soon. Um, I’m about there in terms of the number of words I need to do some editing and so on. But writing about independent consulting, has been this kind of kind of accidentally, really generative thing for me. You know, I started it by accident, I wrote a single blog post, I think it was called, like a, like a field guide to independent consulting. And it was because a friend of mine reached out was like, What do you know about independent consulting? Like, you’re doing myself? What do I need to know? And so I wrote a blog post with a bunch of bullet points, just kind of jotting down some thoughts, and it did really well. And from there, I thought, I thought I thought I should write more about independent consulting, I’m really interested in this thing. It’s, it’s for one of a better term, it’s my career now. So maybe I should be interested in I should, I should, you know, take a take an interest and read what others have written. And so over the last, like six years or so, I’ve been kind of focused on writing about independent consulting. And what that accidentally done for me, it means that every single client engagement that I get, I can I can put through this kind of generative lens to say what new things have I learned about the practice of independent consulting. And it’s allowed me to reframe what otherwise I think can sometimes be a little it can feel like a bit of a grind, like the hamster wheel, right, your your one client in front of another, okay, this client ended, I gotta go get a new client starts to feel this day and starts to feel like a job, you know. And instead, by looking at it through this kind of this kind of meta game, to say, you know, what is the practice of independent consulting? How do I do that I know about it. And then every new client, I can kind of think of as building on that body of knowledge. Accidentally, I didn’t try and do this on purpose, but accidentally, that’s a really great way for me to stay engaged and active in the work that I’m doing and not not, you know, tune out not feel like it’s just another client, it’s just another job. But to feel like, I’m actually interested in the work that I’m doing all the way up to, most recently, in the last kind of 12 months, I really started reading kind of academic papers about independent consulting, and strategy consulting, which, which, again, has been another way to kind of keep myself interested in in the practice, right? Again, I think, you know, I’ve been an independent consultant now for almost eight years, when you’ve been doing it a while, you can just feel just, you know, you can’t you want to keep things fresh, you want to keep it interesting. And so writing for me, to come back to original question, writing has been this way for me to keep myself interested to explore how I think to clarify my own thinking, and also just a pressure tests these assumptions against other people, right? Again, the idea of writing on the internet, or working in public, allows other people to give me their opinions. And so you’re, you’re wrong, I disagree with this, or I really liked that thing you wrote, you know, that really resonates with me, and so on.
Will Bachman 18:34
So we obviously started this conversation talking a bit about strategy and positioning. Beyond that. Talk to me about some of your other strong opinions that you’ve formed over the years about independent consulting. That’s the world of me and my listeners and curious to, to hear, kind of, you know, your strong opinions and maybe how they’ve evolved over time.
Tom Critchlow 18:56
Yeah, sure. You know, one of the, one of the things that I come to believe quite strongly, you know, when I first especially working in the marketing field, when I first stepped out on my own as independent consultant, I relied very heavily on frameworks. You know, there’s a lot of like, I’m going to use the jobs to be done methodology, or I’m going to use this, you know, hub hero habit framework that I’ve that I read in a blog post, or whatever. And I feel like you lean quite heavily on the frameworks, because I think every every strategy consultant knows that a framework is a really useful tool, you go into a client, and it’s not just like, hey, I’ve got some ideas, but you want to have like a framework behind you or a methodology, you know, some kind of rigor to what you’re doing. And so you, you, you reach for these, these frameworks that you’ve heard about, or you’ve used before, and so on. And then I did a workshop with Yan Chase. I’m not sure if you’re familiar with him, but he’s been a big inspiration for me. He is an independent consultant, but does a kind of infield ethnographic research often in difficult to reach places all around? In the world, and I did a workshop with him on on doing user research and how it all works and so on. And it was this really interesting thing that he did in his work, where he showed doing a kind of ethnographic field study, right. They were I think they were working with rice farmers in Myanmar. And they were in the field for a week, whatever, team of researchers doing interviews, and over that week, they basically put all these pieces of paper up on the wall in their studio. And, and over the week, this kind of framework emerged, where it was like, this is the way that rice farmers think about the value of crops. And it was like four different categorizations of the way that the rice farmer think about crops, or I’m gonna butcher some of the other examples, I can’t remember off the top of my head, but there were these kind of really simple frameworks, right, and they’re frameworks, but they were they were completely original and tied specifically to the problem and the work that they were looking at. And that was a big inspiration for me, where I realized that frameworks that you pull off the shelf are usually overly generic and not really fit for purpose. And I, on the other hand, doing things like simple categorizations, is really powerful. And so I’ve tried to, I tried to push my own work further away from things that are generic and, you know, sound useful or sound nice and flashy, but ultimately, just aren’t, aren’t that applicable aren’t that useful. And instead of doing things like, what if we just, you know, I do a lot of digital stuff, right? So you’re looking at websites and said, what if we just segment all your content into three buckets, and we’re going to call these buckets, you know, A, B, and C, or this type of content, that type of content, and, but we’re going to do it based on our business and our understanding of the problem in front of us and so on. And when you can do that I find it’s just so much more useful, and you lose a little bit of that kind of flashiness, right, because the framework that everyone’s heard about has a fancy name, and there’s probably fancy graphics that you can pull for it off the internet. But it’s just not I just find it’s more useful when you can get to the real specifics of what you’re looking at. And ironically, I think I think people like McKinsey have been doing this for years, right? Like, when you look at a like a, like a McKinsey presentation, there’s almost always that kind of dull, boring looking kind of like segmentation, or kind of a categorization in that. And I think I’m I’m finally starting to get an appreciation for how powerful that is.
Will Bachman 22:22
What are your strong opinions about pricing and fees.
Tom Critchlow 22:27
So again, playing the contrarian aspects a little bit, you know, again, you’ll you’re the kind of accepted wisdom that you’ll read about on the internet is that you should never trade time for money. value pricing is the is the thing that you should be aiming for. I’m not necessarily convinced that that’s wrong. But I also think that trading time for money can be fine. I’ve been doing this for eight years. And almost all of my consulting is still based on a daily, you know, the client says, I want to do this project, I say, that sounds like three days a week, well, that sounds like a 15 day project back into a direct and then back into a price from there, and, and so on. And that seems to be working fine. For me, again, maybe I’m leaving money on the table by not doing value pricing. But I think that it can be totally fine. And I think in particular, if you’re doing some of the ambiguous work that I talked about at the beginning, right, this kind of idea of working with clients, when we’re not even sure what the problem is, yet. Sometimes I feel like trading, you know, basing the project on time and days, it gives you more freedom, to work around the problem to work on different aspects of it to do different types of work, and so on. Because you’re not tied to a specific scope. You’re not necessarily saying this project is me delivering the following three projects, but instead, you’re saying, I’m just gonna, I’m just gonna do a bunch of work for you across a bunch of different things. And that’s going to be helpful, because we don’t know what we don’t know yet. We don’t know what the problems are. We don’t know what solution can look like. So again, you know, I think part of part of I mean, the whole thesis for the book that I’m that I’m writing about independent consulting, is you have to, you have to take a contrarian viewpoint, and you have to craft a setup that works for you. And I think a lot of the generic advice that you read is that it’s generic, right, and isn’t always going to work for you. So again, I think it isn’t that value pricing is wrong, but I think that I don’t think we should be so black and white about trading time for money.
Will Bachman 24:23
So on that one, I agree with you. So I don’t know that makes us both contrarians or if we’re just agreeing with each other. But I think that, you know, value pricing can be great. My friend David fields is a big proponent of it. I find that in practical terms in the independent world. To kind of a daily rate is easy to understand. For the client, it’s more flexible if they want to extend it a little bit or ended a little early. They want to change the scope of it or change direction just makes a lot of things easier. So it certainly helps to get an SF W signed like with a lot less hassle and Instead of trying to fuss around upfront about exactly defining the scope, so there’s a lot to be said for daily rate. Usually I don’t like hourly rates, it feels like then you’re starting to measure your lunch break or whatever. But
Tom Critchlow 25:12
I would agree with that. Yeah, hourly rates start to get a bit too much. But I think their rates are pretty flexible.
Will Bachman 25:17
Yeah. So okay. So I’m not sure if I’m a contrarian or we’re both are. And that one. What about business development? What are some of your thoughts on that piece? It sounds like you’ve had some inbound flow from your writing, which is awesome. What? What’s your thoughts about just how to reach out to former clients reach out to potential clients? How do you go about it? What’s What’s your thoughts around that piece, which is one of the biggest struggles obviously, for, for a lot of independent consultants.
Tom Critchlow 25:43
So yeah, I mean, I think writing for me is probably 95% of my deal flow one way or another, right, you know, not necessarily writing as in generating kind of brand new clients out of thin air, but writing as a way to engage people I already know, or to build relationships with people that I know a little bit. To stay top of mind for people, I think, generally writing has been the way that almost all my clients, it kind of stopped, or I should say, conversations off the back of writing, right? It isn’t just the writing itself, but the conversations and so on and having around it. I don’t think that is, I wouldn’t necessarily recommend that. I think not everyone feels as comfortable writing, not everyone can write all the time, it works for me. And so I’ve kind of settled into that groove. You know, I mentioned a little bit earlier, but I’ll say it again, which is, you know, I think having strong opinions is really valuable. And having strong opinions paired with this, you can have vignettes of the actual work, right? I was just talking to a friend of mine, just recently, who is just about to launch an independent consulting studio that just had a full time job this going back into independent consulting, and I was chatting with him about about, you know, the brand hasn’t been consulting, and your website is launching and some of his writing. And I was like, you show me the work, right? Like he’s he is one of the best people that I’ve ever worked with in terms of kind of positioning and branding. But he has an incredible commercial, right, you have to understand where we’re positioning and branding, meet product development, product roadmaps, and kind of, you know, the actual business model of his clients, which is very unusual, I think a lot of people that do positioning work, you know, stay at that kind of positioning level, they don’t always understand the kind of practicalities of the commercial side of the business. And I was, I was trying to explain to him, I was like, You got to show that in action, you’ve got to show a bit more of the actual work, you know, calling yourself a positioning consultant is fine, but you’re gonna miss the what makes you special, you’re gonna miss the magic, right? So again, I think, that idea of writing, having the opinions and showing showing those vignettes of the actual work in action, the perspectives, the action, the case studies, and so on, and trying to get to that richness, right, trying to get below the surface level of just I did a project with this client. But as you’re getting into, like, we had this challenge, and we navigated it this way, or the work ended up feeling like this, you know, I think that the stuff that makes other clients can lean forward and pay attention, right? They’re like, Hi, I have those same challenges, or I would love somebody who thinks that way. You know, a lot of a lot of this is a phrase that I hear a lot with, with clients that come to me as they, they they find me for whatever means. And then then when they reach out and we have that conversation, they’re like, you know, there was just something about the way that you think that I liked it. It’s like it’s kind of it like we were on the same page already, even though we haven’t met we don’t know each other well is like, they can trust that we think the same way about problems. And I think that for for senior projects in particular, that’s what they want. They don’t necessarily want solutions. They want somebody who can think the same way that they can. So can you talk about business development? For me, again, a lot of it is writing and having those opinions.
Will Bachman 28:59
And then do you put it solely on your blog? Or do you also distribute that with a newsletter? How do you get in front of people to remind them, you know, about what you’re what you’re putting out there?
Tom Critchlow 29:09
Yeah, I mean, honestly, I probably have a little bit. You know, it’s like the couple of shoes. I have an email newsletter, I put stuff on Twitter and LinkedIn, but I’m not particularly diligent about it. A friend of mine, Nigel green, who’s also an independent consultant. He kind of kind of gave me gave me talking to the other day exam, you know, how many people you have followers on LinkedIn and I was like, I know like a few 100 or something and you just had a hot random me it was like this huge platforms huge opportunity. Like you have opportunity you have opinions and writing like you should be all over LinkedIn. It’s like he’s getting millions of views on his stuff. And I think there’s definitely opportunities there that I’m probably not capturing. I think that that is that is partly come honestly also from from a place of kind of privilege also like I have clients that I work with, I’m not necessarily starving for work. So I think I probably under invested in some of those things. But yeah, I think LinkedIn is LinkedIn, I think these days is a huge opportunity. I think it’s very, it’s very, it’s very friendly platform to people that want to post their opinions and share content. And it’s quite easy to get reach these days. So, for me, personally, it’s my blog, mostly. And then I have an email list, but it’s kind of ad hoc, and Twitter is where I’m probably more active than I should be.
Will Bachman 30:29
Let’s talk a little bit more about your practice. I think that you said, you help content companies start new initiatives. I don’t know if I got that a word for word. Give us some examples.
Tom Critchlow 30:41
Yeah, so I think I mentioned this one in passing, but I worked with Fortune 500 company to build out an SEO practice. So they came to me with an SEO team of three people. And it would with the knowledge that they wanted to make that team bigger. And so I work with the CEO and the board to put together a kind of a multi year plan and a proposal that turned that team into a team of like, like 45, in the end. So that was the front end of the project kind of strategy and putting that proposal and business case together, and then turned into a hiring project. So actually running, running, hiring and interviewing. But certainly the most kind of senior heads of what would be that big team. So that was kind of interesting projects, and I think, showcase a few different aspects of the work that I do both from a strategy perspective, understanding SEO perspective, understand content, but then also kind of building teams and so on. So actually running the interviews, that kind of thing. I worked with a big media publisher, to set up a new kind of new content marketing practice. So this was a kind of old school media publisher who produce a lot of SEO content, but didn’t really understand how to do anything more interesting than that, how to get how to build brand, how to do content marketing. And so I kind of helped them stand up a whole new function team division. And again, that was a great example of kind of the ambiguous work that I talked about, because it was a mixture of what should content marketing even look like? For us, as well as, who do we have across the organization that can help in the early days? And then as the, as the engagement progressed, turning into, okay, who do we hire? What seeds do we need? And how do we kind of formalize this thing that we’ve been doing ad hoc across the organization up until now, into its own team, its own unit, and so on. So those are a couple examples. I also did an innovation project with the New York Times, that was a little bit different in nature, but was basically saying, you know, we want to build a new, a new vertical, it was, this is perfect timing is actually building a new travel vertical on New York Times. And we did this project in Feb. 2020.
Will Bachman 32:54
Oh, good timing. Good timing.
Tom Critchlow 32:55
Yeah. We were like, look at all the great things we could do in travel. I think he presented it in March, you know, it’s like, Okay, let me assume that one that one didn’t, didn’t really go anywhere, as you might imagine. But that was a really fun project, I really enjoyed the, you know, there was already an innovation team or an r&d team inside New York Times who was working on some of these ideas. And I came in as some kind of combination of somebody who understands content really well, somebody who understands how to run an innovation project and do new things. But also a kind of a little bit of a safe pair of hands. Like, you know, part of my part of the work that I really enjoy is shaping presentations and shaping narrative. And so again, I think the innovation work, I think that is critical, right? The idea that you have to actually kind of pitch this into various people explain these ideas, these ideas that are very fragile, and probably untested to some degree, trying to get budget and buy in and build a kind of roadmap and momentum behind them. So that was that that was a really fun project. But again, you know, the, as you might expect, from the way that I’ve talked about my work, it varies a lot. You know, there’s, there’s a lot of different, different aspects to it. Most recently, I launched a new business called SEO MBA last year, which is a like an online education and training course, for SEO professionals to learn kind of business and leadership skills, so nothing about how to do SEO, but all about how to do the stuff that I just talked about, get a budget and buy in for your ideas. And so most recently, I’ve been doing some consulting work around that which looks like your training programs and things like that, which has been a slightly different change of pace, but I’m finding I find it really interesting.
Will Bachman 34:34
Fascinating. So that’s a tell us a bit more about that course, that’s it’s a cohort based or is it asynchronous, or tell us about that? Yeah,
Tom Critchlow 34:44
yeah, it’s a self paced course. But there is if you buy the professional tier, which is kind of the higher tier, I give you one on one feedback on the assignments, and there’s weekly office hours. So it’s a little bit of a blended model between synchronous and asynchronous, and the whole thing came out of that that engagement that I just told you about with the fortune 500 company where I built that big SEO team, you know, when I spent almost a year, interviewing senior level SEO professionals for this VP of SEO role, and that there are almost no VP of SEO roles at that company. So it was a really big role. And I was interviewing a lot of different senior people, almost all of which knew more about SEO than I did. I just couldn’t put him in front of the CEO, none of them could could confidently kind of lead a program at that level and manage a team at that level. And it all came to a head when we found this one candidate in particular, we already liked them. And I went to the CEO. And I said, I think we want to hire this person, that just just missing a little bit of that executive presence. That’s my only kind of reservation and the CEO turned to me, he’s like, Well, what if we hire them, and you just teach them, that executive presence. And that was a lightbulb moment for me where I was like, I just spent a year being frustrated that no one in the industry has the skills, I have those skills. And I know that industry, and maybe I can teach these skills to people. So that was kind of the impetus for me something that I had the name, those kinds of the idea came first. And then I found the name, SEO MBA, and I was like, Alright, this is the thing that I got to do. So it’s been really, it’s been really fun. It’s been really a different different change of pace, learning how to shoot video, learning how to put a course together, how to do teaching, and training and all that kind of stuff. But it’s been really rewarding. And I think it’s definitely a gap in the in the industry. You know, there’s a ton of stuff out there that will teach you how to do SEO. But there’s almost nothing out there. That’ll teach you how to present your ideas to a CEO how to build a business model, you know how to actually kind of lead a change program inside an organization, honestly, these things that aren’t really specific to SEO, but I’m just teaching them through an SEO lens for an SEO audience. So trying to make all of that stuff that I do day to day and kind of what you were kind of quote unquote, call strategy consulting, bring those ideas and those skill sets back to people who work in the SEO industry. And, yeah, it’s been it’s been fun.
Will Bachman 36:54
So that’s something that individuals can purchase. So new, but you’re also offering it sort of as a corporate professional thing. So companies can get their teams to go through it.
Tom Critchlow 37:03
Yeah, absolutely. I think I think I don’t have the exact stats, but I think probably two thirds of people are expensing it. So so two thirds of people are getting that agency or that company to pay for the course, to put them through it. And then obviously, you have some, some teams come to me as a as a team and say, We want a group discount, or we want a live version of the training for our team, or whatever it might be, you know, kind of just me over here. So I can, I can do all kinds of customization or flexibility. If a team wants a live version of the cohort based version of the course for that, that team of 10, then I can do that for them to kind of privately, if people want some kind of other structure, I can do that, you know, one off training, whatever. So it’s kind of, it’s led to a bunch of conversations like that. But it’s also just been a thing that people can buy, either individually or as a team. And, yeah, it’s been great, I’ve really enjoyed putting it out there. And so, you know, I think that the timescale of the scale of feedback is very different, right? You know, when you do a good consulting project, you feel like, Oh, I really helped this business, you know, launching a new market, or, or make some big moves, or, you know, grow revenues, whatever. And those, those things feel intellectually satisfying when you do them well. But teaching and training, you get these individual stories, and people emailing me, like, I just got a new job, or I just presented to the CEO and they loved it, or I feel more confident at work, or, you know, these kind of individual one on one stories that you get. For me, I don’t know that better, necessarily. It’s just different, right? It’s just kind of heartwarming to get a different kind of feedback, a different kind of satisfaction from from the work itself,
Will Bachman 38:40
a lot of independent consultants listening to this show, and some of them have built websites for their practice. We actually just published a resource on how to build a website for a consulting practice for the about 100 examples.
Tom Critchlow 38:55
I just saw that was great. Thank you.
Will Bachman 38:57
What are your tips on SEO for an independent consultant? And maybe I’ll preface that by asking does it even make sense? Like for an individual person, there’s kind of two levels, right? So there’s one level of for website of just establishing credibility for people that are already checking you out? You know, there may be introduced you they’re gonna meet with you. They just looked at your website. Oh, yeah. Lots of good stuff services. All right. They’ve written some stuff on that’s one level of aspiration. The second level of aspiration higher level is for our clients to actually discover you from your website by search. It’s a much harder thing to do. Is it really realistic for an independent consultant to strive for that should people you know, think about SEO or maybe just ignored? Is it just too much? What’s your thoughts?
Tom Critchlow 39:50
You know, with a background in SEO, it may be controversial, but I would say that for an independent consultant SEO is almost never worth it. I think that there are some some times when it makes sense specifically around more on the kind of content side, if there is a, there’s less around like people googling like strategy consultant, Brooklyn, but more about maybe people Googling, like, I don’t know, like, you know, content strategy template or something, right. So the bit more on the on the top of the funnel. And sometimes you can get a lot of traffic and kind of audience that way and build an email list and so on. But honestly, I would say, for most independent consultants, the kind of leads and the kind of audience you’re going to build to SEO is not going to be the right kind of audience is not going to lead to the right kind of senior work that you want, and it’s going to lead any leads you get that way, are going to be more are gonna be smaller, they’re going to be less well paid, less, less senior, and so on. So I don’t think SEO is a big is a big concern. But I do think that content is a huge piece of it, and there will be no surprise from the conversation we just had. But you know, I think I think your website has to be alive, right? If you if you imagine that you build a website, and it has this, you know, whether you have a tight positioning, or whether you have strong opinions, whether it’s a really beautiful website, or whatever it is, you have to get people to the website, right. And so I think you have to make sure the website is alive, you have to keep putting stuff out there and keep sending people back to the website. Right. And I think this is also part of why I think opinions are so useful is because you got to keep writing, you got to keep putting stuff out there. To feel like you have people coming to the website, you know, there’s a there’s a steady stream of traffic going through and so on, you’re giving yourself the kind of the most opportunities for those serendipitous introductions or connections to happen, you have somebody to see the website and be like, Oh, I’m gonna send this to my friend who is running a startup or I’m gonna send this to a friend who’s who just got a new job as a CMO, or whatever it might be. You want those those things to happen, and you want to give him the best chance of happening. And so you need people coming to the website. And I think it’s not going to happen if you don’t write, if you’re not putting stuff out on the website. Broadly speaking, no one’s gonna go look at it.
Will Bachman 41:54
All right, cool. clarifying point, you said that it’s not really worth the investment or the time to focus on SEO? Is that because of A or B? So A could be because, hey, if you’re trying to rank for an independent consultant for the retail industry, let’s say, it’s just too hard to get to the first page. So just don’t bother? Or are you saying like, even if you could get to the first page and be the first listing, the kind of person who searches on that term is going to be some, you know, crummy small project, like an actual Macy’s is not going to just Google for independent retail consultant. So is it more just it’s too much trouble? And too hard? Or is it the kind of flow you’d get is not is not good?
Tom Critchlow 42:42
Definitely, the flow is not good. I think there’s a little bit but it’s also hard for actually, you have any keywords that are kind of useful keywords, and it is pretty hard. But I would say no, it’s almost all because the kind of leads you get that way. And the kind of clients that come through googling for those kind of terms are not the ones you think, right. You know, I think I rank for independent strategy consultant in some some kind of variations of that keyword times Doesn’t anyone know, senior client is going to Google that phrase, and land on your website cold, and then you know, reach out to you, you’re much more likely to it’s an introductions based thing. You know, it’s all about getting, it’s all about, like I said before, is about finding your people, right. It’s about finding the right kind of people who are interested in the kind of things you’re writing about, and that that can permeate itself through slack groups, and through via email, LinkedIn, and so on. So that it can kind of land on the right person’s desk, more than just ranking for these kind of generic terms that I think is, is generally generally not the right way to do it.
Will Bachman 43:50
Okay, interesting. So, so then, for an independent consultant, listening here, who has built a website, it sounds like your suggestion is really don’t fuss and bother about all the meta tags, and all the fussing around with SEO and getting all that stuff perfect. Rather, put your effort and time, which is limited into just creating actually good content that will help you find your people that the kind of person you wouldn’t want to, you know, get to know would be interested to read. But don’t worry and fuss too much about all the keyword optimization stuff.
Tom Critchlow 44:24
Yes. 100% agree the key thing that you just said that is writing for the audience that you want, as clients, right, the right you want to you want to write the kind of thing that the right person is going to want to read. I think too often when people hear think about content creation and writing, they think about writing for a kind of more junior audience, right? So so if you’re a, like a paid media consultant, you might write this like, I’m gonna write the definitive thing about how to optimize your Google ads. And it’s like, that isn’t what a CEO is interested in. A CEO is interested in, you know, should I’d be pausing my brand spin during COVID. Right or whatever. And I think that it’s less about writing the the kind of definitive guide to something, I think about that as being a kind of closed form of content where you’re saying, here the problem start to finish. And I’ve kind of done it, I finished this topic, instead of like to think about the open style of content, which is like, here’s some things that I’m thinking about around these topics. And maybe you’re thinking about them to maybe I maybe I leave the post with some unanswered questions, right things that I’m still wondering about or haven’t figured out yet, that kind of content I tend to find is much more effective at reaching a more senior audience, demonstrating the way that you think more clearly, giving more of your personality maybe. And I think those things again, like I said, I’m more effective at building those, that kind of senior senior level dealflow.
Will Bachman 45:53
Wow, I feel that we could keep exploring these topics for hours and hours. I want to ask you to share for listeners, if they want to learn more about your work, and where would you point them online, and we can include this in the show notes, any links that you want to give here?
Tom Critchlow 46:11
Yeah, Tom cruise.com is is where I do pretty much all my writing, I suppose got my weird kind of personal blogging and the writing that I do specifically for independent consulting. That is where we’re pretty much everything lives. If you’re interested in the SEO MBA, that’s just Seo mba.com. And that’s kind of got a very specific kind of focus and whatever. But yeah, it’s it’s pretty much all
Will Bachman 46:34
fantastic. Tom, I really enjoyed this today. Thanks so much for joining.
Tom Critchlow 46:39
Thanks so much. I really enjoyed it.