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Episode #108
Tom Critchlow

Growing A Solo Consulting Business

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Independent strategy consultant Tom Critchlow was at the right place and the right time when he started working alongside his brother who founded a digital agency called Distilled. Doing SEO for national chains in the UK, Amazon UK, and big retailers, they quickly scaled and moved to New York, opening up his eyes to digital marketing and the broader digital landscape that was happening. With the increasingly changing digital landscape, Tom made the leap to go work at Google and eventually started doing digital strategy consulting. Today, Tom talks about his path to growing a solo consulting business, the challenges that come along with it, and the advantages of hiring a one-man consultant versus hiring an agency.

I’m here with Tom Critchlow. Tom, welcome. 

Thanks for having me. 

Tom, you’re an independent strategy consultant. Your clients include The New York Times, Gucci, Complex, Fundera and you even worked with Google. Take us back, how did you get into this business? 

It’s a meandering path. I got started working in SEO. My brother started a digital agency called Distilled. This is back in the UK. I helped grow that agency working alongside him from doing SEO for restaurants, hairdressers and businesses down the road that we could knock on the door. We were at the right time at the right place and quickly scaled up doing SEO for national chains in the UK, Amazon UK and big retailers, people like that. In 2011, I moved to New York and I opened up the New York office of my brother’s company, Distilled. That was eye-opening to me and it did two things. One was it gave me a chance to manage a team and open an office under my own team. It almost feels like I had my own business but with a paycheck, which was nice. It also opened my eyes to the things going on in New York and some of the interesting things like digital marketing and the broader digital landscape that was happening. 

I had got my start in SEO over the years, but then quickly realized that there was a bigger world out there, a bigger fish to be fried. The SEO was only a piece of the puzzle and increasingly the digital landscape is changing. Content marketing, PR and general digital strategy were all evolving and maturing. I made the leap to go work at Google for a couple of years and I worked at the team that I called the Creative Lab where I did some things I had never done before like run some TV ads. I had worked on some wonderful projects and did that for a couple of years. For the last few years, I’ve been out on my own doing digital strategy consulting, which is lots of different things depending on who the client is and who’s trying to pay me. It overlaps very strongly with my background, which is content marketing and SEO. Most businesses that I work with have foundation in some scaled content, whether they’re a traditional media company like The New York Times or whether they’re a company like Gartner, for example, which you wouldn’t think of as a media company, but produces a huge amount of content across their various business.  

I like to think of myself as a one-man consultant. One of the things that are different versus hiring an agency, which is often one of the competing paths if one client is looking for help, is that I like to be embedded with clients. A lot of my work is in the office one to three days a week. I’ll try and become an extension of the team, trying to embed myself very heavily in all parts of the business and then stick around for a long as I can. A lot of my clients end up being eighteen months to two-year engagements. That gives me the satisfaction of getting to understand the industry, getting to understand our client and feel like I make a difference. That’s what we were doing for the last few years. 

Being more embedded with clients is what makes being a solo consultant different than an agency. Click To Tweet

There are a lot to unpack there and a lot that I want to dig into, your time at Google, coming over from the UK to New York and building the office there for that SEO company that you and your brother had. You mentioned something interesting, which is you try to embed yourself very deeply into your client’s organizations. When you do that, how do you ensure that you are able to consistently work on your marketing because it sounds like you’re working in the business for your clients? How do you ensure that you’re working on your business while you’re so deep in with them? 

It’s something that I’ve definitely struggled with and gone back and forth on over the years. Most of the marketing work that I do for my own business is on my blog. I write actively on there. I’ve been making an active effort to put together some writings that are eventually going to become a book targeted at other independent consultants. The good thing about writing about consulting is that every consulting engagement gets me further for the book. Every time I’m on site with a client, I’m either actively or passively getting inspiration, ideas and things to write about, challenges that I’m coming across and things that I’m facing. Finding time to write is a different matter. 

When I get very busy, my writing goes down. When I get slow, my writing goes up. If you went and look at the time stamps of all my blog posts, you could accurately chart how busy I’ve been over the years. I don’t know if I’ve got any magic tips. I feel that feast or famine pressure a little bit. When I’m busy with work, blogging necessarily takes a backseat. The good news is that I’ve built up a body of writing now that at least has some passive activity. There’s enough writing there and enough content that people are finding on their own and sharing on their own. Even when I’m not writing new things, some of it is still put to work, but it’s a challenge. One that I haven’t always found the right balance on. 

The idea of content is a real investment of time and commitment. If you do it properly, then you win longterm. It’s not like you can get the result that you want tomorrow or next week or even next month, but you fast forward and many months down the road or even years down the road, you can still be benefiting from that. What you’re doing is working for you to be able to land some prestigious clients. Let’s go back when you said that you went from the UK to New York. It reminded me of the time many years ago when I went to Japan to open up a branch office for our consulting business over there. I’m thinking we share that, but what I’m interested to hear and people could benefit from is when you land in New York, it sounds like you don’t know tons of people. You don’t have a big client roster yet. What was the first thing that you did at that time to go and start winning business for your consultancy? 

When I moved to New York, I have never been to New York before. I was learning fresh. I was lucky that the business Distilled that my brother owns and runs had a pretty good reputation. They’ve run conferences around the world and they’ve done a lot of their own blogging. I was blogging actively for them at the time. I was lucky to land in New York and have enough of a presence to put a call out and say who wants to meet up. That was elbow grease and hustle. It’s like, “Who wants to grab drinks? I’m going to be out this evening. Who wants to come to this meetup?” 

How did you know those people? Were these relationships you had built from conferences? 

CSP 108 | Solo Consulting Business

They are industry people for the most part. Square one was connecting with other SEO professionals. I was lucky, at least back then that the SEO industry is small enough that I felt like I could reach out to people either cold or put a call out and say, “Who’s in New York? Who’s in SEO? Who wants to meet up?” There are already meetups going on. I went from meeting a few people. In that first year, we hosted a number of our own meetups. Those informal drink and gatherings that then turned into a couple of short presentations. It’s more like slightly more formal meetups and anywhere between 50 and 100 people would show up to those things. 

Eventually, when we get a bit more mature, we ran a full-on conference in New York like a two-day SEO conference, which put us on the map. All of those things combined added up to clients. We didn’t do a lot of outbound sales or direct marketing or anything like that. I was lucky enough to have people through the extended network know who we are and seek us out. We were a small team. When I opened the office, it was four employees and me. Thankfully, we didn’t need a ton of business to keep us alive. Once we found those first few clients, then it was like you flipped the switch to being heads down doing good work for those clients. 

How important do you think it was that you put all those calls to people and said, “Let’s meet up for drinks and let’s chat. I’m from the UK. I don’t know anyone here.” A lot of people look at that as potential competition if you meet with other SEO. That’s what you do, why would you want to connect with them? I can see there’s a value in doing that. What would you say to someone who’s saying, “I want to build up my business, but I’m a little bit hesitant to go out and try and connect with other people in my industry?” 

I’m lucky in the sense that the SEO industry has always been very tight-knit. People have always been open in terms of sharing knowledge and connecting with each other. In 2011, it was still very much a booming industry. Even direct competitors and other SEO agencies didn’t feel particularly threatened. We felt like there was enough work to go around. The business is booming. Broadly speaking, even though we are competing and would appear side by side to pitches and so on, it still felt like there were a camaraderie and closeness. We could hang out for drinks and so on. 

There is a very material difference between going to somebody else’s meetup and hosting your own meetup. There’s an order of magnitude of influence and impact that you can get by doing a lot of that. You’re going to have to start by going to other people’s meetups. We very quickly switched to trying to run around even though they were small. That felt like a very good way to approach it to be able to say, “We’re going to put the programming on that we want to see. We’re going to do what we’re interested in and try and get the momentum behind us to have people come.” It’s hard work and there’s no way around it. It’s a lot of hustle and back then, I didn’t have a wife or a kid. I could do a few more of those late evenings drinking and going to random meetups in different parts of the city and those things that feel a little bit extracurricular to working out. 

Content is an investment of time and commitment. If you do it properly, you win long-term. Click To Tweet

You spent time at Google for a few years. Looking back, what was one thing that you learned that made an impact that you continue to benefit from and use now in your business? 

I worked with a team called the Creative Lab for most of my time at Google. They are an internal ad agency/innovation unit within Google. The biggest lesson or skill that I learned was how to pitch ideas. The entire Creative Lab was filled with designers, videographers and copywriters. It’s full of creative talent. When I was there, there was only a single engineer in the whole team. The whole place ran on ideas and so your ideas had to be polished. They had to be refined. They had to look, sound and feel incredible because you are often pitching vaporware. You’re like, “This is an idea we just made up.” Everyone there had an ad agency background, which is a big difference to the rest of Google, which is very engineeringheavy. I learned a lot about how to package ideas and how to present ideas. Even the basics of design, how to design slides, how to design all kinds of things. I’ve worked alongside very talented designers and so on that I hadn’t had the exposure to work in the SEO industry. 

On that topic of design, it seems like from what I’ve seen of your work and what you’re sharing also right now, you value design and the power they can have in relation to your brand and communicating and positioning you. What are your thoughts on that? How big of a factor do you contribute to design and how much do you focus on that in terms of the development of your brand? 

I’ve always been a little bit of a design geek. Back when I was working at SEO, I had always valued it but had never taken the time to study it or understand how it works. I always appreciated it, but I couldn’t do much with myself. It was my time at Google where I felt like I had enough pressures. There was a forcing function where if you presented something that didn’t look nice, people would instantly throw it out. That was a forcing function to actively get better at it and actively work on it. NowI find myself often in a very interesting position where when I’m in a room without designers, I’m often one of the best people at designing. That’s an interesting position to be in because it lets me make mock-ups or sketch out ideas with a level of fidelity that gets people excited. I find that’s a very compelling and powerful concept. I also talk about it the other way, which is when I’m in a room full of CEOs, I’m the one that can code the best.  

When I’m in a room full of engineers, I’m the one that can present ideas the best. I always try and find the edge in the room where everyone has the least skill to be able to stand out or do something differently or present an idea in a new way. Sometimes that is making a functioning prototype in a room full of designers that can only make things look nice or sometimes making something look nice in a room full of people that only work in spreadsheets. I value that ability to be a little bit of a shapeshifter or a chameleon and be a bit of a Jack of all trades. I wouldn’t call myself a designer. I wouldn’t call myself a coder, but having enough of those skills can be dangerous. I find it valuable. I find it fun. It gets me in trouble sometimes also when people are like, “Did you design this? Are you a designer? Where did this come from? What am I looking at?” It sometimes trips people up, but it helps keep things interesting and creative for me. 

You have a lot going on there and in connection to that, you’ve been hired by large media companies to focus on content strategy, by mid-size startups to be an interim CEO and then also product companies to do design sprints for their product road maps. Those are three very different types of ideal clients and also different types of offerings. Did you always have those three distinct offerings? Does that cause confusion for you that you have three distinct ideal clients that you might serve rather than having one? What are your thoughts about that? What have you learned and how do you interpret that? Is that something you would recommend to other consultants? 

CSP 108 | Solo Consulting Business

One of the things that I’m realizing is positioning is a bit of a fool’s errand in consulting, as like in a single solo consulting. When I first started out, I was very eager to try and find a market position in the content marketing consultant for media companies. I felt like I had to have a positioning statement and a very clear part of the market that I was chasing and so on. What I have learned over the last few years is that’s not why any clients come to me. Clients come to me because they found my writing or somebody recommended me. It tends to be a much more human-led on contract-driven business and that the positioning almost gets in the way. If I try too hard to either exclude certain types of business or fit a certain project into a certain mold, I’m almost trying too hard.  

The thing that I focus most on is being adept enough to adapt the skillsets that I have into a variety of different situations. There are some commonalities and there are some consistent threads between both the clients I’ve had and the types of work that I’ve done. I’ve focused much less on positioning and more so on building a network, authority and a variety of skillsets. For me, that has worked well, especially with that lens of trying to be embedded in organizations and do work for long periods of time. The number of leads that I need and the number of clients I can take on at once is very small. I’m not constantly out hunting for new business and leads. Different types of work in different types of consultants have different experiences. For me, positioning has been a thing that feels like an abstract concept more than a useful and tangible benefit. 

It’s an interesting point because the distinction is you create this ecosystem where business and opportunities come to you based on the relationship that you’ve established, the value that you’re adding through your writings and the network that you’ve built. It allows you to engage in many different conversations and figure out how can you best serve that marketplace or add value. Whereas, the consultant who doesn’t have that ecosystem and network established, where they can generate those inquiries, then they need a point of focus. That’s where getting very clear on who their ideal client is, how they can help them and distinct set of offerings for that market gives them people they can go off and get in front of that ideal client. 

If they said, “I can work with these three, four or five different types of industries, organizations or types of clients, then it’d be spread very thin by trying to reach out. That’s the distinction and it’s good that we’re looking at this with you because oftentimes people are at the stage where they need that focus, but that may not be appropriate for everyone if they already have that network and ecosystem established. I did notice that on your website you talk about workshops as something that you offer. Do you find that workshops are a way to get your foot into the door with an organization as a typical starting point for you? 

It’s funny you talk about that but I’m working on a blog post about all those workshops right now. When I stumbled on this technique a few years ago, it felt a little bit like cheating. Almost every single client that comes to me or potential client that comes to me, the thing that I often proposed first is a workshop. We’ll just get in a room for two days. What that does is a variety of things from building trust with the client, getting a much better sense of what their actual needs are, understanding who the people are and the stakeholders. It also is a great opportunity to say on an hourly or a day rate, that it’s a very well paid work. The total sticker price is low enough that clients don’t have too much trouble signing up on it. You’ve anchored yourself in a nice high day rate and you’re like, “Everyone is prime now for this to be a high value and well-paid project that is also going to work on the things that matter.” 

We’re not going to put anything in the SoW that is extraneous, nice to have or something that you think you should do. You’re going to spend two days in a room hashing out what the actual problems are. It’s almost like a shortcut to a bunch of things. One of the things that it directly solves that I’ve heard is a pain point from other consultants is when I put the SoW together for the long-term retainer or the ongoing retainer, sometimes the SoW will be one line, “I’ll be in your office two days a week.” That’s what you’re buying. You don’t need any more than that because you already have the trust and the contact from the workshop to be able to sign up on that. 

There is a very material difference between going to somebody else's meetup and hosting your own meetup. Click To Tweet

Whereas if you try and leap to that retainer without having the workshop, it’s very easy to get bogged down and be like, “What are we going to get? How is this going to work? What are you going to work on? Do we know if we trust you?” That can be a legitimate pain point. It’s just that you can get stuck in that SoW phase and either end up delaying the project or miss coping the project or over-engineering the scope. You’ll feel like even once you’re in the door, you’re working on the wrong kinds of things. You have to put in the SoW and you have to put it in writing. It feels like a very weird specific thing to get yourself on. When I started selling workshops as an entry point, I started doing them first. A lot of things became easier in closing those long-term retainers. It started to work well for me. 

We call ours a discovery offer and we do a lot of work with our coaching clients on this because it does exactly what you shared. It lowers the resistance that a buyer typically has by rather than going and trying to sell a $50,000 or $100,000-plus engagement if you’re starting off with a $3,000, $5,000, even $10,000 engagement, it’s easier for them to say yes. Everything that you mentioned there is so key. They don’t have to think about the complexities of how do we get the most out of this big engagement and how do we bring all the right people together. There are many different nuances and components that a buyer has to think through if they’re going to a bigger engagement. If they’re starting with the discovery offer like a workshop, it’s easy. 

It’s like, “Let’s spend a day or two days together, operate together and figure things out. This will be the outcome from that day. This is how it will help you.” You get your foot in the door. You can demonstrate your expertise and show them that you can do what you say that you’re going to do. Now that hesitation, resistance or potential risk that they might feel if they haven’t yet engaged with you into going into a larger product, they don’t have that because they can see that you can deliver the way that you said that you were going to. That makes moving from a workshop into an ongoing engagement or to a larger engagement much easier. 

The one thing that I’ll also point out there and this suits different people in different ways, but the thing that works for me is that those workshops are very much like free jazz jam sessions than prescribed, “We’ll spend the morning doing this and the afternoon doing this. There will be exercises with sticky notes.” I put as much structure and prep into the workshop as the client needs and some clients want to see more. Where I can get away with it or whether the client is happy with it, we’ll have a one-page outline of what we’re going to talk about. We get into a room and we just jam. We talk about all of the things. 

I approach that in the same way that I approach any consulting engagements, which is the first thing you got to do is ask a ton of questions. You just have to ask like, “How does the business work? How many people do you have and who runs that? What have you tried previously? Why do you not do this? Why doesn’t it work that way?” It’s everything to be like a sponge, you soak up all of the contexts. Along the way, you necessarily end up adding value. Obvious things that will fall out of that workshop already started being my experience. The biggest thing that you learn is you end up with such a clear roadmap and articulation of what the problems are. 

Those can be very simple as well. The other thing is trying to sell a big consulting contract right off the bat for what sounds like a very trivial problem is hard. You spent two days talking about the problem and you realized that it’s a hard simple problem. We don’t have somebody running that part of the business, for example. That’s a very easy thing to articulate. Holding it, on the other hand, you know it’s not going to get solved overnight. You either need some recruitment or you need some training or you need some strategy or you need me to come in and lead that part of the business for a bit. There’s no easy answer but the problem is incredibly straight forward. You’re like, “We now have some clarity and we’ve agreed on this very core single point of failure. Let’s address that and attack that.” 

CSP 108 | Solo Consulting Business

Oftentimes, consultants will find that if they’re speaking with a buyer, the buyer doesn’t yet necessarily know what the issue is. They don’t know what the value is. It’s very hard then to go to a larger engagement because they haven’t yet felt like they understand the value. By getting together or going through whatever that discovery offer is, whether it’s a workshop or some audit or an assessment that someone does with the client. That helps both parties to better identify and to communicate the value to each other. That leads to greater success in moving forward. You mentioned that you’re a solo independent consultant. Has that always been intentional for you? Did you ever consider building a company going back to like what you were doing with your brother where you had more of an agency so that you could get bigger, take larger projects and grow revenue? All of that stuff a lot of people desire. Clearly, you haven’t gone down that path. Tell us why and then any background to that. 

That’s a part of it, which is having run an agency previously, I know how hard it is. I’ve got no desire to go do that again. The devil sometimes is the thing that stops you. Especially early on, I considered it and thought about bringing on either partners and/or employees. The more that I realized that I could do so much of it myself and that there weren’t obvious gaps in the value that I could offer to clients. The more that I realized the lifestyle it affords me is very valuable. The ability to be my own boss and not to feel beholden to on either an office or employees or even the overhead of keeping those wages coming in. 

My daughter is about three and a half. While she’s been young for the last few years, it’s been great to have that flexible schedule, be able to take time off, either to be around family, walk her to doctor’s visits or whatever it might be. That’s been a big focus for me is being able to balance the lifestyle and the personal life needs and things that I value whilst running the business. It was an intentional decision in the sense that this path that I’m on seems to work. I’m not ruling it out. I’ve thought about bringing on partners in particular or even launching joint venture partnerships in addition to the consulting work. We might have a team that would better design for certain types of projects. I’d been lucky to be busy enough with the work that I have and being able to be somewhat self-sufficient. It worked out well for me. 

Have you ever found yourself in a situation where you’re not able to win or have an advantage on a piece of work because you don’t have that team? For a lot of people, it’s a mindset thing. It’s the belief that, “I can’t win that business with that big company because I’m just me, myself and I. I don’t have a big team around me. I don’t have all this other stuff that these other consulting firms have.” What’s been your experience with that? Specifically in terms of winning business at large organizations because you have clients that are large organizations. 

Because of the nature of the way that I get work, that hasn’t been a problem. 

Do you mean mainly because people are coming to you versus going to them? 

By being thoughtful to what you're doing and creating a time for yourself, you see clearly and bring more energy to the work you’re doing. Click To Tweet

Exactly, because the leads in almost all instances are warm leads or warm referrals. I get talking to the people. I’d say almost every piece of work that I work on has very few competitors. The alternative to hiring me is usually hiring a full-time employee or not doing the work, more so than another agency or another consultant, not usually very competitive. There are instances where I could imagine being unable to close a big piece of work if the project came along or if the client came along. That said, I’ve done a pretty good job working with trusted partners. There are some designers and copywriters that I’ve worked with. I’ve worked with some other strategists and pulled people in on projects where I needed to. Now, every time I’ve done that, they’ve always been built through the client. I haven’t passed any of that revenue through my business. I get in the client first and then use the client’s money to pull in other contractors and talk confidently and competently about being able to do that. Being able to assemble a team has helped me do some bigger pieces of work. In terms of winning the business or losing work hasn’t been a thing for me, but that’s a function of how I get leads. 

What’s been your mindset and the reason behind, because you will be wondering if you’re assembling these other resources and experts to help with a client project, why not run through that all through your business? One either be the source of everything. You’re building your brand and capabilities, but also potentially for some people, they would charge an additional fee on that and earn some upside on it. Why have you not done that? 

Honestly, I think it’s simplicity. It’s been so much more straightforward to do it, to treat the way that I get paid as the client paying me directly money. Bringing in all the consultants or other designers or other specialists is just a value adds to the consulting work that I’m doing. I also haven’t done enough of it. I’ve flirted with it a little bit where I’m like, “In hindsight, maybe I could have brought that designer in through my own business and added a mock-up, etc. I haven’t quite done enough of it and it hasn’t been core enough to the work that I’m doing. It felt like a big missed opportunity. I appreciate that everything about my business runs incredibly lean. 

I don’t have an office. I just have a laptop. That was my only expense. Being able to keep my business overhead and admin and headspace of running the business low has been a big value add for me. In theory, I can imagine leaving some money on the table and maybe it’s the thing that I’ll do a bit more of in the future, especially now that I’ve done a few more of these product designs, sprints in particular. It’s the kind of work that I could imagine pitching for upfront. If I’m pitching for it upfront, then it makes a bit more sense to bundle all that costs together and then pass the cost one billing provider, which would be my business and so on. I can imagine a world where I start doing more of that, but it hasn’t been a thing for me so far. 

You mentioned about that one alternative or consideration aside from being new and the client would have is bringing someone in fulltime. We hear it from time to time with clients in our coaching program that they’re going out to try and win business. The buyer is saying, “We could go with consultants, but we also maybe just bring someone internally and have them fulltime. We want to build that capability. What’s been your experience? What best practices can you share for the consultant that is facing a situation where the buyer’s interested in working with them but they’re maybe leaning towards bringing in someone fulltime? How can they position or communicate the value of working as a consultant over someone coming in fulltime?  

I’ve been in that situation a number of times. I’ve come in as a consultant and then I had to get replaced by a full-time employee or that’s been the consideration between myself and a full-time employee. I see it very much as a compliment. Even if you’re going to bring in a full-time employee to be a VP of Marketing or a CMO, there’s a value in having a consultant do some work first for two core reasons that I think of. One is speed. Typically, I can start on Monday or soon, depending on my availability, but often there’s a way to get started very quickly. Two, by doing some work ahead of time, you have a better articulation of what you need in that full-time employee. 

CSP 108 | Solo Consulting Business

I see this quite a lot, especially of the companies who are hiring their VP of Marketing or CMO for the first time. The first senior marketing hire, a lot of companies and a lot of startups imagine it’s like hiring a unicorn. They’re like, “I’ve never seen one. I don’t know how they work. I don’t know what they do, but I think we need one.” Trying to hire a VP of Marketing when you’ve never had one with no marketing knowledge in-house is terrifying and you’re almost certainly going to mess it up. Having a consultant both do some of that work quickly, but also define what that role should be and have some of that expertise and then hire a full-time employee makes a lot of sense.  

I’ve either helped bring in the VP of Marketing and then step away or I bring in the VP of Marketing and then stick around. I’ve done it both ways. I replaced myself and that worked well, I’m done or I replace myself and then move on to other things. I always remind people that once you’re inside a client’s business, there are never-ending set of challenges. You’ll never run out of things to do. As long as you’re smart enough about grabbing those opportunities and embedding yourself inside the organization to see those opportunities, there’s always more stuff to be done. Often, the case is to stick around in some capacity. 

You have a lot going on between your work and writing and family stuff. What habits have you created that you do on a daily basis that allows you to work at high levels of performance, but also maintain good concentration and focus? 

I don’t get up early in the morning or at least not by choice. My daughter gets me up early, but I’m not a morning person by nature, which I know is that’s the first rule of success when you look at LinkedIn. I’m not a morning person. I think exercise helps. I try and fit in an exercise routine where I can. I went to Kung Fu class during the day. If you had a way of measuring peak consulting performance, exercise would be one of the most correlated things. I try and get exercise. I try and get sleep. Both of those things are pending, having a small child, which disrupts both of those patterns. The process of writing my book, I’m treating the practice of consulting as a discipline to be studied or examined in that way. It has been very beneficial for my consulting work because it helps me question the paths not taken. I’m able to train myself well to constantly look and say, “How could I have done that work differently?” It’s a thing that you often forget to do, especially when you’re the only one doing the work and you’re trying to manage a million different things with clients and do work, etc. Thinking critically about, “I presented that big strategy piece and I put it in front of the CEO and everyone seems happy, but could I have done that differently and how would it have looked like?”  

What is great about being embedded inside organizations is it’s a path not taken and incredibly varied. I could have presented it to the CTO first and then put it in front of the CEO. I could have not done a presentation at all. I could have done a pilot project or I could have not done either of those things. I could have brought in an external consultant or a specialist to help. There are many different ways to try and get the same results. Having the writing practice has helped me try and think critically through those decision trees and question what I’m doing, which I think has been a healthy practice and has helped me spot some very concrete things in my own work. I’m like, “Even though the client was quite happy with that work or that project, I think I would do it differently next time.” It’s not necessarily a daily habit. There’s no, other than the writing output, that isn’t a routine associated with it. Training myself to try and do that self-reflection and introspection has been useful in my work. 

It’s a great point because a lot of people are busy and don’t often slow things down enough to give thought to really deep, meaningful thought as to what’s working, how can things be better and different. People run and keep things moving, but then don’t allow themselves to slow down so they can speed up and find the things that are working best and eliminate the things that aren’t working. That’s where typically the greatest improvements happen. If you’re just running like a chicken with its head cut off, you’re not going to make real progress. 

If you’re able to be thoughtful about what you’re doing and create a little bit of time for yourself, it’s why you see people who take some time, whether it’s holidays, a day off, a half-day off or whatever, to think about their business and think about strategy or go away and go to a different environment or go to the nature for a walk. Things that help you to slow your daily activities and existence down that are going to help you to see a lot clear and bring a lot more energy to the work you’re going to be doing going forward. 

Being nimble enough to try and adapt to the changing priorities wins you a huge amount of favor inside the organization. Click To Tweet

The SEO industry trained me well because it’s true now, especially back in the early days of SEO, there was a reputation in the industry for agencies and consultants that would deliver audit documents that would just sit on a shelf and never get implemented. There are these big dense, theoretically complete and correct documents that never got implemented. They were either too technical for the client or too irrelevant to the client or not prioritize well enough or whatever. At Distilled, my brother’s agency that I worked at, we prided ourselves on trying to get past the deliverable to the outcome and holding ourselves accountable to make sure the client did the things that we recommended. 

That focus has been useful because when you look at the set of things that you’ve recommended over the last six, twelve months and the set of things that got done over the same time period, you think critically about that gap. Even if I delivered work that people were happy with, if it didn’t get done, if it didn’t go anywhere, then it wasn’t good enough. It’s a standard there that something went wrong somewhere. It’s easy to throw your hands up and blame others like say, “Their CTO left halfway through the project, what was I supposed to do?” 

A lot of people find this, they’ll deliver an assessment and audit whatever it might be and the client doesn’t take action on it. Is there one thing or a couple of things that you could very briefly share that you found that helped you to be able to get clients to implement on those recommendations? 

If I had to sum it up in one word, it would be context. The context of the work that you’re doing. Every piece of work, every department, every project, every team member sits within some circle of context. I wrote about this in a blog post. Let’s say that you’re redesigning the marketing website. When you’re doing that project, you’re very focused on all the things you need to do. The website needs to be made, we need some copy, we need to understand our goals, we need to set up measurement and tracking, etc. If the company is about to acquire another business, then everywhere from the board to the executive team down, their focus can get radically shifted overnight. If you’re not aware of that context, then you have no idea what’s going on. When you deliver the new marketing website and nothing happens for six months, you sat there being “I did my job. I did it well.” You met all the goals and all is well, but you had this missing context. Whenever I’m doing work, it’s a never-ending game, but as best I can, I understand all of the various competing contexts. 

Let’s say there was an acquisition or merger or something else is going on, what would you do then differently? What could some of them do to ensure that the client doesn’t just get the website and do nothing with it or get everything and not launch the code? What steps does someone take to ensure that the client implements, given that there might be other distractions and things going on in the business? 

One of the things is not being precious about the work, especially if you’re several steps down inside the organization, being able to say, “Priorities that were true yesterday are not the priorities that are true today.” Maybe we don’t need that marketing website anymore. Maybe we need to put up a landing page or maybe we need to change the copy on the existing site. Being nimble enough or agile enough to try and adapt to the changing priorities wins you a huge amount of favor inside an organization. Being able to say, “I’ve been working six months on this website, but what you need is a landing page for an entirely different thing that seems irrelevant. Let me do that for you because it’s going to tick your box.” You need to show your boss that the integration is happening or the acquisition is possible or whatever it might be. 

I always think about what those contexts are. It sounds ridiculous to say it out loud but just ask for them. Train yourself to ask the client, “What do I not know about the business? What else is going on? What are you working on that isn’t what we’re working on together?” Ask those questions and do not be ashamed of them. Some people are like, “It’s not my place to ask those things. The client will be annoyed if I’m asking for these irrelevant things.” You’d be surprised at how much a complete picture of a business can help you with the work that is in front of you as well as help you understand when those things are changing. 

It’s like shifting from being a vendor or provider to being a partner. That’s a powerful dynamic. Tom, I want to thank you for coming on and sharing some of your story and wisdom over the years that you’ve collected here and assembled. I want to make sure that people can learn more about your work. Where’s the best place for them to go? is where it all goes on. I’m pretty active on Twitter as well. I’m @TomCritchlow on Twitter. Both of those places are where I put out my thinking. I’m in New York, so anyone in New York who wants to get a coffee, I’m always up for that. I’m always down for making new friends and talking about indie consulting. Thanks so much for having me on. It was a blast. I enjoyed the conversation. 

It’s my pleasure. Thank you so much, Tom.

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2 thoughts on “Growing A Solo Consulting Business with Tom Critchlow: Podcast #108

  1. Kumar says:

    Hi Michael,
    This was an extremely valuable interview with Tom.
    I am a freelance B2B writer and would like to progress towards a consulting role. Creating a content marketing agency is an option but like Tom, I’d love to have more personal time. What value can I bring to my clients (mostly industrial companies) as a solo consultant with my experience in content.

    • Glad you enjoyed the interview Kumar. We’ve helped many consultants make this shift to create more personal time and freedom. Get in touch if you’d like some support with that.

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