Dorie Clark has transformed herself from a grad school reject to an expert in her field. She is a marketing strategy consultant, professional speaker, and frequent contributor to the Harvard Business Review. The New York Times described her as an “expert at self-reinvention and helping others make changes in their lives.” Dorie is the author of several popular business books — Entrepreneurial You, a guidebook about how you can make money doing what you love, Reinventing You, a book on professional reinvention, and Stand Out, how to become a recognized expert in your field. She is also a part-time professor at the Fuqua School of Business at Duke University. Dorie is passionate about helping entrepreneurs and talented professionals get their true talents noticed, appreciated, and recognized, in today’s noisy marketplace. Dorie currently splits her time between teaching, consulting, and writing. On this episode of Consulting Success® Podcast, you’ll learn how that diversification has both preserved and enhanced her career, and ways that you can use her examples to find success as you are growing your consulting business.
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I’m very excited to have Dorie Clark joining us. Welcome.
Thanks for having me.
For those that don’t know you, tell us a little bit about your area of expertise, where you’re based, and your backstory.
I am in New York City in my apartment looking out on the financial district. How I spend my time is I write business books. My most recent one is Entrepreneurial You. Before that, I have written about professional reinvention. That’s a book called Reinventing You, and a book called Stand Out, which is about how to become preeminence or a recognized expert in your field. I teach part time for the Fuqua School of Business at Duke. What I’m passionate about is helping entrepreneurs and talented professionals make sure that in an increasingly noisy marketplace that they know how to get their true talents noticed, appreciated and recognized.
You work with organizations and you consult with them. How do you spend your time between teaching, consulting, and writing? What percentage would you put to that?
It’s evenly split across the board and that is very deliberate. When I started my business eleven years ago, I was almost exclusively making money from one thing, which was doing marketing strategy consulting for organizations that help them with a marketing plan or social media plan. It was good. I earned a good living. What I came to realize was that ultimately, if you’re not diversified, you have a lot of market risk. Situations can change, budgets can be cut. Even if you are an entrepreneur and you have a number of clients, if you’re doing the same thing for everybody, it becomes a little bit perilous. That was one of the things that inspired my book, Entrepreneurial You, because I very concertedly decided that I needed to find ways to develop multiple income streams. I make my living in seven different ways. I still do some consulting. I do executive coaching, write books, teach business school, do paid professional speaking. I have a number of online classes that I offer. I also do affiliate marketing. With those seven income streams, it’s a way to leverage what I do and also de-risk what I do.
You started off doing strategy and consulting for organizations. How did you end up there? Were you working in Corporate America first? What was the background before launching into consulting?
I have never worked in the corporate world. I was a philosophy major in college. You could definitely say I learned by doing. The way that I got into my business was pretty circuitous. I had to reinvent myself a lot, which led me to write my first book, Reinventing You. I started out as a theology student. I got a master’s degree in Theological Studies from Harvard Divinity School. I thought I was going to go into academia and ended up getting turned down by all of the doctoral programs that I applied to. That didn’t work so well. I became a political journalist. That was a cool career, but I got laid off from that because journalism was collapsing. I shifted over into working for political campaigns. I worked for some high-profile ones. I was a spokesperson for a governor’s race, for a presidential campaign in the US and both of my candidates lost. There were a lot of fits and starts along my journey to entrepreneurship, which many can probably relate to.
What turned the tide for me was after the presidential campaign ended, I decided to go back to Boston where I’ve been living at the time and I took a job running a nonprofit. I did that for two years. Oftentimes people imagine that nonprofits are so different from the corporate world or the world of entrepreneurship, that they’re the polar opposite. In some cases, the pace is slower or it’s a bureaucratic thing, but I was running a tiny nonprofit. We had to be extraordinarily scrappy and extraordinarily resourceful in order to stay afloat. Those were principles that helped me realize, “This is what it means to run a business. This is how you do it.” After two years of that training on the job, I decided that I would go out on my own and run my own business. That’s what I’ve been doing for the past eleven years.We had to be extraordinarily scrappy and extraordinarily resourceful in order to stay afloat. Click To Tweet
You shared a lot of challenges along the way, from applying to a PhD program, getting turned down by multiple schools, to the job that you’re working at, not ultimately achieving the success that people would consider to be success, but you kept going. What kept you going? A lot of people would potentially get stalled or get pushed down and it’d be very hard for them to get up, but you did keep going. What was your mindset at that time when you were encountering those challenges?
I needed to support myself. I was in my early twenties. I knew my parents wouldn’t let me starve. I always had a place on their couch if I needed it. Unfortunately, their couch was in a small town in North Carolina. That was not where I was wanting to be. I was going to do anything possible to be able to keep myself going and living in what I considered to be a place that I wanted to be. You can wallow for a little bit for a day or two, but after that you have to start figuring out how to support yourself. One of the steps that was critical to me later on as an entrepreneur was during the period between being laid off from my journalism job and then getting hired to be a spokesperson on gubernatorial campaign. That was a period of about six or seven months, not a huge amount of time but you need to be earning some income while that happens. I started picking up freelance journalism work. That was the greatest training because if you’re a freelance journalist, you eat what you kill. You are only getting paid if you can convince an editor, “This is interesting. This is news. This is a story that needs to be told.”Very quickly, you have to hone your sense of what is interesting in general and what will be interesting in particular to that editor, and how to pitch it and how to frame it in a way that he or she will pay you money to do it. That was great because as an entrepreneur, what are you doing? You’re trying to get inside the head of your customers and figure out what will get them to part with money that they will say thank you and find it valuable. Just having that mental exercise and knowing that you’re not going to be able to pay your bills if you can’t do it was a high pressure situation, but one that was extraordinarily impactful to me.
When you started your business, you looked back at the steps that you took or the strategy that you used to win your first clients. Compare that to when you were three years in and even more recently, does the marketing approach that you used back then differ from what you’re doing now? If you can talk about the different types of marketing or the different approaches that you’ve used as your business has developed just to compare and contrast?
My marketing has changed substantially over the eleven years of my business. I wrote a piece for Harvard Business Review about this. I have developed a framework for how to think about this, which is the marketing versus sales spectrum. People talk about marketing and sales and we know what they mean definitionally, but a lot of times people don’t consider the fact that they work hand in glove. Early on in your business, when you’re first starting, the most important thing early on is you have to get business in the door. You have to get clients today or tomorrow so that you can pay the bills and give yourself runway. That’s job one. Early on, your business is going to be over-weighted, over-indexed with sales activities, which means literally like emailing or calling your existing contacts, asking for referrals, pressing the flesh so that you can get a sale quickly to get money in the bank.
Once you’re able to do enough of that, once you’ve got a little bit of leeway, once you’ve got some recurring customers and you’re not stressing about how to pay your bills, that buys you the time to do marketing. Marketing is much more long-term horizon-oriented. Marketing is the activities that you do that are probably not going to pay a dividend today but will pay a dividend next month or next year or in five years. The more you can spend time doing that, the higher the plateau you can reach. What you want to be able to do is shift your ratios so that you were doing far more marketing and far less sales because it’s marketing that will have a greater long-term benefit. In the beginning, I almost exclusively did sales. At present, I basically do no sales. I do marketing fully, meaning I spend my time on content creation, giving speeches, writing books, with the goal of attracting customers to me so that the sales process is not me knocking on their door and asking or begging. The sales process is them coming to me and saying, “Can I work with you?”me quoting a price and, them saying, “Great.”
In the early days, having to do a lot more on the sales side, did you ever feel uncomfortable about reaching out to people or asking for referrals or having to do ongoing, consistent follow-up or did that come very natural to you?People want to choose to do something, not feel forced into it. Click To Tweet
I wouldn’t say it came naturally to me. I would be skeptical if it comes naturally to anyone because societally, we’re conditioned, almost all of us, that it’s an awkward thing and you’re going to have to psych yourself up to do it. The key thing that I kept in mind that made it easier and better for me is that I am personally repulsed by high pressure sales tactics. I know that any business relationship that is founded on them is not going to last very long because people might besiege to them, but they will resent them. Before long, they’re going to find a way to fight back and shut that down. Whenever I ask for anything, whenever I ask for business or for referrals, I always made sure to make it very low pressure and give people an out. People want to choose to do something. They want to choose to buy something or to choose to do business with you, not feel forced into it. I always peppered it very liberally with phrases like instead of saying, “Will you buy this?” or, “I want a break into your company, will you hire me?” I would say something like, “It’s been a long-standing goal of mine to do business with your company. I would love to find a way to do that. Do you have advice for me about the best way to break in?” There’s a lot of room. They can either say, “We’ve been wanting to do business with you, too. Let’s do it,” or they can say, “I don’t know, but Michael is really the person. Let me introduce you to them.” If they don’t want to, that’s okay. You’ll find another way in. It’s a lot better to have someone who’s helping you do so willingly. You give them room to make the choice to help you or to bring you in.
How quickly did you find, in your own case, that from the time you started to be active in the sales area that business started to roll in? Was it quite quickly or did it take a matter of months? What did the timeline look like for you?
I always advise people that if they’re starting a business at a minimum, you should have six months of cash reserves just because sometimes that is how long the pipeline takes. It’s even better if you have a year. For me, it took me about two months after starting my business to be able to land and sign the contracts for my first client. It felt like it was moving pretty fast because within a few weeks, I was setting up initial meetings. Sometimes it takes a couple of meetings with different decision makers to be able to get the contract signed. It’s important to keep in mind that for probably almost anyone who is starting a business, the folks who are going to be your earliest customers are people that already know you. You don’t have a track record. There is no reason for a stranger to take a chance on you. The people who are willing to take a chance on you are those that have some prior connection. They might say, “We’ve never done business with Michael in this way, but we know he’s a good guy. We’ll sign the contract.”Reaching out assiduously to your existing network and letting them know about what you’re doing is going to be crucial. That was certainly how I was able to get my first business. It was almost exclusively people who had worked with meat past jobs.
You’ve written several books. What role have they played in the development of your business?
The books have been substantial for me. Prior to the release of my first book, Reinventing You, all I did was a marketing strategy consulting. I didn’t have a high enough profile to be able to do some of the other stuff like public speaking.
You weren’t doing any speaking before you launched your book?
I was doing free speaking, I was doing like Chamber of Commerce workshop. It was maybe a local business development thing, but nobody would pay me money. The book was useful in terms of creating the gravitas and credibility that would show an event organizer that I was a legitimate voice that was distinguished enough in the marketplace that it warranted paying me.
You published your book. Did you publish it yourself or do you have a trade publisher?
The success that you’ve had with your books, would you connect that to the role of the publisher in marketing or promoting the book, or did you have to do a lot of that yourself?A book is never going to succeed on the strength of what the publisher does. Click To Tweet
Every author would pretty much tell you the same thing. Frankly, every publisher would probably tell you the same thing, which is that a book is never going to succeed on the strength of what the publisher does. The publisher can help around the edges. The Harvard Business Review brand was helpful to me. They’re a great powerful branch to be associated with. They have some advantages that other publishers don’t. For instance, they market directly to consumers. They have extensive email lists, for instance, which a lot of publishers do not maintain. It gives them some additional channels to reach people through. You have to get out there and beat the bushes. I think about some of the activities that I did for Stand Out in 2015, I appeared on a 160 podcast interviews that year between February and October. That was a huge cornerstone of my strategy. I also traveled a lot. I gave 74 speeches, which if you break it down, is it’s about one to two a week. I was spending a significant amount of the time on the road traveling, hustling to try to get the book exposed to new audiences.
That’s a significant amount of activity. How do you look at your work versus life balance? How do you ensure that you’re not only taking care of your business but you’re also taking care of yourself?
There are certain things that I certainly try to emphasize. One thing that’s important for me is I don’t compromise on sleep. Every once in awhile, you might have to get up early to go to an airport, but that is a very much the exception for me. I do not push myself when it comes to sleep because I feel like that’s the cornerstone on which everything else is built. I’m not going to write well, I’m not going to speak well, I’m not going to be in a good mood if I haven’t gotten enough sleep. I’m with Arianna Huffington on this one. I certainly get seven or eight hours of sleep a night without fail. The truth is it is difficult on work-life balance. The best way that I think of it is that there are phases and there are waves. I recognized that when the book was in release mode, it was important for me to take that time and double down and say, “This is work time. There’s only a limited moment where people care about your book or are willing to listen, so I have to take advantage of it.”That being said, you do that and then you change tack. You can’t do the same thing forever. In 2015, I was going nuts promoting Stand Out. I was traveling all over, flying. In 2016, I said, “Enough.” I cut my travel literally in half. I did about 36 talks that year as compared to 74. It was a stark difference because I viewed it as a much more internally focused year. I was able to stay at home. I was working on writing my book, Entrepreneurial You. I also made a commitment to myself. I felt that I was not taking sufficient advantage of living in New York, which of course is a great cultural city. I was staying at home and working all the time. I decided that I would make a resolution, which I kept. I would write it down and keep a list. Every week, I would do at least one “uniquely” New York cultural activity, whether that was visiting a Broadway show or a museum or some cool thing that they have in New York and not in other places. I made a concerted effort to do that and to try to take advantage of where I was living and my personal life.
I talk with a lot of consultants and many who are busy delivering on projects or that have a full client schedule or even those in the early stages can often feel overwhelmed with the process of going out and getting clients and building their business. Here you are, you’re speaking, you’re doing executive coaching, you’re consulting, you’re writing books. You’ve got a lot going on. How do you manage all of that? How do you stay productive and stay at high levels of performance and output? What’s your approach and mindset to that?
I too at times feel overwhelmed. The emails crash into the inbox. As soon as you clean it out, they’re back again. It’s a struggle for all of us. Some of the strategies that I have used to be able to focus on this, one that has made a big difference in my life is adopting a philosophy that was laid out by Paul Graham who’s a well-known Silicon Valley thinker. He has a strategy called Manager Days versus Maker Days. He wrote an essay about it where he talks about the ideal day for a manager is meeting, meeting, meeting every hour, every half hour. You are talking to somebody on the phone or you’re having a meeting or conference call or webinar. Your job is to just keep projects moving forward. You’ve got to talk with people, touch base, answer questions. A maker day is something very different. A maker, typically in this case, would be a software developer. It could also be a writer if you’re writing a book, or anyone who’s trying to create something that is a little bit bigger, long-term, original project. That does extremely poorly if you try to shoehorn that into half-hour segments. You need time for the process to unfold and for you to get into your flow state so that you’re able to be productive.You need time for the process to unfold and for you to get into your flow state so that you're able to be productive. Click To Tweet
I have a lot of maker tasks that I do. I write books, I create online courses, I have a flagship course called Recognized Expert course. I do all these things that require a lot of substantive deep dives. What I try very specifically to do is designate certain days on the calendar as manager days versus maker days. This, for instance, is a manager day. I have eight phone calls. Three of them are podcast interviews. Three of them are calls about potential business opportunities. One is a coaching call with a coaching client of mine. I had a marketing call with a Harvard Business Review to talk about the release of Entrepreneurial You. I sandwiched them all in today. It’s back-to-back. It’s relentless, honestly. It is for the purpose of having another day this week that is completely unscheduled so that I can do the creative work that I need and make traction on it.
How much in advance do you schedule those days? Do you look at a month’s advance or several months in advance or week-by-week where you decide which day is going to be what?
If I did it week-by-week, the days would probably have already been eaten up. I use a scheduling tool called ScheduleOnce. It’s an automated calendar. You can set the days that you want to have your meetings. I just send it out to people. Anytime somebody wants to have a phone call with me, if I agree to the premise of that, I’ll send them the calendar. If they can’t make the days that I’ve specified, if it’s important, I’ll come up with something else. It’s a good initial pass because it helps funnel all of the meetings onto certain days that I pick. I usually set everything about two months in advance, which days are going to be manager days versus which days are maker days.
I want to thank you so much for taking the time to share some of your story here and experiences. I really do appreciate it. What’s the best way for people to learn more about your work and to connect with you?
Thank you. I appreciate the chance to talk with you and have this conversation. The best way for folks to connect with me is on my website, DorieClark.com. I have more than 400 free articles that I’ve written for places like Forbes and the Harvard Business Review. Even more to the point, for entrepreneurs and professionals who want to be able to stand out and get noticed amidst all the competition and all the noise, I do have a free resource. It is a 42-page Stand Out self-assessment that helps people hone in on what their breakthrough idea is. It walks them step-by-step through how best they can spread that breakthrough idea. They can get it for free on my website, DorieClark.com.
Thanks again so much.
Mentioned in This Episode:
Reinventing You: Define Your Brand, Imagine Your Future, by Dorie Clark
Stand Out: How to Find Your Breakthrough Idea and Build a Following Around It, by Dorie Clark
Entrepreneurial You: Monetize Your Expertise, Create Multiple Income Streams, and Thrive, by Dorie Clark
“Manager’s Schedule vs. Maker’s Schedule,” an essay by Paul Graham