These days, consultants take their profession too seriously and customarily that they tend to forget to make room for innovation. To innovate is to add value with an incredible hint of creativity to whatever you produce. Jeff Gothelf is a pro in injecting valuable content to market his consulting business. A consultant, coach, keynote speaker, and author all wrapped up in one, Jeff shares his transition out of the corporate world and into starting his own business. Co-author of Sense and Respond, Lean UX, and Lean vs. Agile vs. Design Thinking, he shares how you can create your personal brand in the consulting field and attract opportunities towards you. Taking the leap from New York to Barcelona, he also reveals the extreme perks and challenges of working solo and remotely.
I’m excited to have Jeff Gothelf joining us. Jeff, welcome.
Thanks so much, Michael. I’m happy to be here.
Jeff, for those who don’t know you, take a moment and explain what you do.
I’m a consultant, a coach, a keynote speaker and an author. I work with large and medium-sized organizations helping them build great products and great product teams. I work with leaders to help them build the cultures that help build great products and product teams.
Before you got to where you are, looking at your career going back a little while, you were in UX and UI, user experience and user interface design for many years prior to becoming a consultant and a coach. Was going out on your own and starting your own consulting business something you thought about for a long time before you made the leap? Take us through what was going on in your mind around that time when you decided to transition out of the corporate world and into starting your own business.
It was not what I had imagined for myself. I was headed down a fairly traditional career path. I was working my way up the corporate ladder and I had no intention of going out on my own. I never even considered myself an entrepreneurial person. If you were to ask me several years ago if I was an entrepreneurial person, I would have said no because to me, entrepreneurs start companies. They move to Silicon Valley and that wasn’t me. I was working as a designer. I was a design manager, a product manager. I was working my way up through some software firms and tech firms primarily. I happened to find myself in a situation where I was leading a couple of teams at a company in New York that was dealing with a specific challenge that software development teams and software design teams were having globally.
We had the same challenges as everybody else, which was how to integrate good software design practices into modern agile software development methods. That was the problem and it continues to be a problem for a lot of organizations. My team, after several iterations and a lot of smashing our heads against the wall a little bit, we came up with a solution that worked for us. I started writing about that solution. That started to change everything. There’s a coincidental occurrence here. I believe it was coincidental though others could argue it was not. This was roughly ten years ago.
A few years ago, I woke up on the morning of my 35th birthday and I was terrified. I was terrified because I was rising through the ranks of the digital design profession. I was heading towards the ceiling quickly. I was terrified that within five years or less, I was going to be overpaid and unemployable. I was the sole provider for a family of four and it terrified me. I vowed on that morning of my 35th birthday that I would never look for a job again and that work would find me. This was not an explicit plan to be a consultant or to go out on my own. I simply said I was going to create the situation were opportunities found me as opposed to me seeking them out. It was right about the same time that we had started to solve this particular problem.
What were the next steps? You had this realization. What did you do to start having opportunities coming to you? Take us through the transition when you’re still in the corporate environment. How do you then exit that corporate environment, start your first business and start to attract those opportunities towards you?
The first thing I did was start writing. That was the immediate first thing I did. I’ll be honest with you, it’s not a particularly natural skill for me. It’s not something that had you asked me, “Jeff, are you a writer?” “No,” but I started writing. I started blogging regularly. The topics initially felt ridiculous 101 level stuff. Everybody knows this. There are lots of material on this. No one’s going to read my stuff. The conversation shifted to the solution that we were discovering as part of this work with the team and that caught fire.Even if you're not naturally talented at something, the more you practice, the better you get. Click To Tweet
With that material, I began to submit myself for talks at conferences. Because this was such a relevant topic at the time and it continues to be a relevant topic now, I was readily accepted. I was quickly accepted to speak for initially meetups and eventually some larger conferences and some actual international events. That started to build that personal brand for me. I’m still in-house at this point. Everything is still progressing because my plan is to elevate my personal brands so that other companies then try to come and poach me for my current job. That was the plan.
At that time, you were still in-house but you were writing and developing your own personal brand. As part of that, people were finding you. You were submitting yourself to give talks. That was building up your visibility and the attention for your personal brand. The company you were working for at the time was also benefiting from that.
I was attracting better talent. I was attracting attention to the culture there. It was mutually beneficial. They were happy to let me do it because I was speaking as an agent of the organization.
What’s interesting about what you’re talking is the writing piece because you said you didn’t think of yourself as a natural writer. I felt the same way for a long time. English wasn’t my first language. I don’t know if that played a role in it or not. I didn’t read a whole book until I was well into high school. My English teachers always criticized my work. I never thought that I would amount to anything in the writing department. Yet, now I’ve written books and I’ve written hundreds and hundreds of blog posts. What’s interesting about the writing component as a way to build a brand is that even if you don’t see yourself as a writer, as both you and I didn’t see ourselves as writers at that time, it was simply a way. It was a format to demonstrate knowledge, to demonstrate expertise, to talk about issues we had a lot of understanding about. Would you agree?
Initially, it was simply a way to get these ideas out and to test whether or not there was even an audience here. The nice thing about writing is even if you suck at it, the more you do it, you get better. It’s like any craft that people are naturally talented at it. Even if you’re not, the more you practice, the better you get.
For everyone reading this, please don’t overlook what we’re talking about. I know it sounds simple, but this idea can be implemented and implanted into everything you do. Whether it’s your marketing, whether it’s validating your messaging and come up with new product offerings and launching a new business. Getting out there, testing things, seeing what resonates with the marketplace and those that you want to attract more of their attention is key. Jeff, let’s come back to your story. You were doing this and once you made the decision, “I’m going to exit from my current company. I’m going to go on my own.” How did you get your first clients?
It seems ridiculous to not have realized this in hindsight. It turns out that publishers go to conferences specifically niche publishers and tech publishers, etc. They go to conferences to understand the latest topics and to find the people speaking on these latest topics. I was out there speaking about this idea of lean UX, lean user experience design, which was the idea. It was catching steam online. Lots of people paying attention. I ended up with two offers to write the Lean UX book from two different publishers, which was a terrifying prospect for me. Writing a blog post was tough enough, but a book is like climbing Everest. There was no way I could write a book. As an opportunity, they offered. I got them to play off each other a little bit. I ended up with a book deal. I wrote along with Josh Seiden the Lean UX book. The Lean UX book launched before I left the in-house world. As soon as it went live, the people who read it began to ask me to do different works. Up until then, people were asking me to design software, lead design teams, lead product teams. As soon as the book went public and people began to read it, people started saying, “Jeff, come teach us the stuff that’s in this book.”
That created almost your first engagements or first client projects outside of your job. Did you do a lot of promotion for the book? Did the publisher do a lot of promotion? I’ve said this on many episodes before. There are a lot of people who write content and even write books, but don’t see much in terms of results because they’ve written the content but hasn’t been promoted well.
I did the overwhelming majority of the promotion. I am a book publisher. Book publishers don’t do a whole lot of promotion.
What did you do or what do you even see from your experience? What are some of the best practices that you implemented then and that you would suggest that people do now to promote their book to see a better result with it?The more you give away, the more it comes back. Click To Tweet
You have to engage with the community. You engage the community whatever the community is. The design community, the tech community is on Twitter. I’m on Twitter and I’ve been on Twitter for several years building a following, building a conversation, engaging, injecting myself into the conversation, trying to participate sometimes successfully, sometimes not successfully. I’m injecting myself into conversations on LinkedIn, Meetups and specialized groups on LinkedIn. I’m injecting myself into these social media conversations and then writing and saying, “This is an interesting idea you’re talking about. I wrote about this too. The link is over here.”
I’m actively promoting, engaging, debating. I’m trying not to be a pain, but actively participating that I’m creating a name for myself. People go to these events and they see me on stage. That puts a face to a name. Here on my social media credentials when I’m on stage and that adds. It’s this virtuous cycle of writing, tweeting and speaking that feeds itself over time. I’m talking about the Lean UX book for a full couple of years that it took me to write it and get it published. When it’s published, I’ve got a list of people that I’ve collected or are interested in getting it. It comes out with a bang.
Number one, you’re talking regarding Twitter. That’s where your audience is. That’s where you’ve invested time and energy. A lot of people are looking at, “What platform should I be on because someone else was talking about it?” That’s not the right question. The question is, “Where is your audience?” The people you want to create relationships, where are they? That’s where you should be investing your time. The second thing is you didn’t go with the idea of, “I’m going to spam these people and promote hard.” You engage in conversations, you added, you participated and then connected like, “Here’s a link that could be a resource or I’m coming with a book.” You did it in a relevant way. This is important for everyone who’s reading to be also thinking about your marketing and how you’re engaging in conversations. Are you going to the place where your ideal clients are? Are you trying to add value to those conversations or you’re trying to say, “Here’s what I do?”
I’m sure you do as well, Jeff, and probably a lot of people reading this get inundated with messages through LinkedIn or other platforms from people who are essentially saying, “Here’s what I do. Buy my stuff.” If you’re buying socks, maybe that works or toothpaste. When you’re buying consulting or coaching services, we’re talking significant investments and that’s not how people buy. They buy through relationships. What you’ve illustrated there is powerful. The book was a big factor in getting your early engagements. What about now? What’s working for you in marketing? How are you attracting ideal clients into your business now?
The formula remains relatively unchanged in that it’s the content. You have to add value. That’s what I want. The biggest realization for me and this is counterintuitive still to me and to almost everyone that hasn’t experienced the power of this is the more you give away, the more comes back. If you go to my website, all of my keynotes or a good chunk of them are on there. If you go to YouTube and Vimeo and search my name, you will find videos of me giving all of these keynotes. The people said, “Why do you do that? People won’t hire you to give these keynotes.” That’s crap. People watch the video and they say, “I want that guy to give that talk here.” What I’ve learned over time is that the more I put online and the more value it adds with any real sales pitch. It’s more like, “Here’s me. Here’s what I know. Here’s why I’m credible and judge for yourself if you buy my ideas. If you do, you know where I live online. Click the Contact Me link and let’s have a conversation.”
The conversations now take place. I have a newsletter. I’ve built up a newsletter of roughly 12,000 subscribers. It took a long time to get there. I blog on Medium because fish where the fish are. My target audience largely reads content on Medium. Plus, there’s a good viral component to medium for the articles that I post on there. I’m tweeting a lot more marketing stuff these days and less valuable content. I feel guilty about that. Partially, it’s because there’s so much noise on Twitter and it’s not the place it was a few years ago.
What do you mean about that specifically? The marketing content versus value. Give an example so it will illustrate for everyone reading here what you mean by that.
I teach workshops and sometimes they’re public workshops. I’ll say, “I’ll be in New York City on these dates. Please join me. I’ll be teaching a class in Denver, London, Berlin or wherever it is. Tickets available now and we’re almost sold out.” It’s stuff like that or maybe promoting a conference that I’m speaking at. It’s less, “Here is a thing that I wrote, a video you should watch or contribution to a conversation.”
Does it work? Does putting out those marketing messages work for you? Does it help to fill those workshops?
It does.To get that information, run experiments. Click To Tweet
Do you feel guilty putting it out? Why?
Yes, because I want to add value. I don’t want to be a billboard nonstop for myself. It works, but what I’ve learned over the years, especially with any public event that I’m promoting is that if you don’t hit people over the head with it, then they miss it. There’s so much noise and people are being yelled at from many different channels and venues. They miss it. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve yelled about an event on Twitter 30 to 40 times and then the event passes. Some said, “I heard you were in New York. I had no idea.” I was like, “How could you not know?”
It’s interesting because a lot of consultants do have that feeling of guilt. There’s some fear around being direct about what they’re doing promoting their skills or their work for fear of coming across as being too salesy or being too pushy. It’s also interesting that it works for you and at the end of the day, what you’re looking to do is to add value to people, to add value to the communities to make an impact. The people who are attending your workshops or working with you are getting value. You have to push sometimes a little bit to make sure the message is seen. If the end goal is to deliver value, then getting more people to these workshops creates and delivers more value for them.
I’m trying some new ideas now to promote workshops and the other things that I’m doing where there are more conversations. I tweeted a poll based on a book that we published, Sense & Respond, a book about hiring women. It was a poll about what would you do if you found that you were being paid unfairly. I’ve been using the results of that poll to have a deeper conversation about the merits of diversity in hiring, fair compensation and so forth. I’ve been carrying that across platforms. It started on Twitter, but then I posted the results on LinkedIn and engaging people in conversation there. I’m doing my best. I hate to say that there’s always a content marketing angle to it. It’s always promoting something, but there’s always value being added as well.
Your branding clearly positions you as the brand on your websites. It’s work with me. You’re not using the we that many consultants use. What’s the reason behind that?
The company that I work for is a company of one. It’s me. There’s no one else. You’re hiring me. That said, I’ve built up a network over the years of consultants who I know, trust and who do good work where we help each other and we source each other. If I get a gig that I know I can’t deliver by myself, I’ll pull in a few trusted colleagues and we build a team around it. Generally speaking, there are no we in that sense. I want to be clear about that. If you want to hire a consulting company with multiple people who will send you a team, that’s fine. That’s not me. If the opportunity that we’re talking about requires more than I can provide, I will tell you that. I will tell you that I can bring in a couple of trusted colleagues to do that together.
Did you ever wrestle with that in terms of making the decision around the branding and what you have on the website, thinking I might lose some opportunities? This large company would not want to work with one person?
I never wrestled with that. I never thought about that deeply. Since going solo, since going into practice for myself, I have run into situations where I’ve had to put on the impression that I was a bigger organization than I was to go up against the BCGs, the Accentures and the McKinseys of the world. That’s when I bring in my colleagues and say, “If you would hire us, here’s the team. There are three to five of us.” Therefore, it becomes a bit more compelling. Since then, I’ve had to deal with it but originally, I didn’t even think about it.
You have world-class clients, Target, 3MG, Telefónica, Autotrader, CNBC, Capital One and some well-known names. I know a lot of consultants do grapple with that question. They wonder how they should position themselves and is it better to use we and our or I. It’s interesting to get your perspective on that. As we speak, you’re in Barcelona. You spent many years in the US, but you’ve taken your family across the ocean and you’re living in Barcelona. That is a city that I love and I’ve been to many times. Why did you go to Barcelona? Why uproot your family from the US and move to Barcelona?
The easy answer to this question is because we wanted to and we could. The benefit of being self-employed is that you can make these decisions, especially if the work that you do, like the work that I do is location agnostic. I go where the work is. I’m working on producing my travel schedule as much as possible, but there’s still a significant portion of the delivery of the work that I do that has to take place in person and onsite. I work all over the world, primarily in the Northern Hemisphere. I’m making an annual pilgrimage to Australasia. Other than that, generally speaking, I work in the Northern Hemisphere. It didn’t matter where we were positioned. We had been in the New York City metro area for a long time. I grew up there. There were all these amazing cities that I was traveling to. My wife was interested in moving abroad as well. The story here is interesting because I dogfooded the material that I teach. I live my life with the content that I teach.The nice thing about writing is even if you suck at it, the more you do it, you get better. Click To Tweet
My wife and I both wanted to move abroad. We couldn’t agree on where to go. We had different perspectives, different points of view and different perceptions. What that says to me is that we didn’t have enough information to make a decision and to get that information, we ran experiments. We did the minimally viable relocation experiments. We took the kids for one month every year during the summer over the course of four years to a different country. We lived there in the summer in an Airbnb for a month. It’s an ideal circumstance. It’s summer. There’s no school. The weather, in theory, should be the best it’s ever going to be in this place. There’s little work if any, but we’re living in a neighborhood, in a house, doing laundry, going to the grocery store, walking around the coffee shop, etc. That at least gave us a taste of what it was like to live in this neighborhood in these particular cities. The winner of this experiment was Barcelona. At that point, we’d put in the effort, we decided to do it. We pushed forward and made the move.
What I find interesting about that in my observation is that many people want to do something like this. Even if it’s not to necessarily move completely to a different country or continent, it’s to travel more or to take their work and make it more location independent, but something holds them back from doing that. That something often is themselves. You’re working all around the world, but you still have quite a few clients in North America from what I see. You could have said, “Why uproot our family and why make travel to see the companies that I see in New York or wherever in the US farther for me?” You still took that step. I’m wondering about the conversations that you had. What was it that helped you and your family to say, “Let’s make this leap? Let’s let go of some of these things and make it happen.” A lot of people do have that desire, but they don’t follow through on it.
For us, it was a longstanding desire to consider moving abroad. We had moved around the United States at the behest of companies in the past. You end up doing it that year of forced service because if you quit during that year, you have to pay back your relocation. We decided that if we’re going to move again, especially make a big move like this, maybe we’ll do it on our own terms. Once the consulting business proved viable in the US on a continuous annual basis, then the next experiment was can it be viable from anywhere and look what’s it for. Why are you self-employed if you can’t use that freedom to live the life you want to live? For us, as avid travelers and curious people, that was a logical next step.
It’s a significant move. We’re only a year-and-a-half into this. It’s still a significant challenge to be in a country where we don’t speak the language fluently. In fact, there are two languages here in Barcelona and there are daily challenges that make life that much more difficult than they would be back in the New York City area. It’s the weather, it’s the people, it’s the food, it’s the culture and it’s the access to all of Europe within a two-hour radius with an airplane. It’s what we wanted to do and we could do it. It was a risk. I’ve built up a bit of a safety net in the event that I would lose US clients because of it. I have not lost US clients because of it. I have picked up European clients because I’m here. Overall, it’s been a tremendously positive experience so far.
There are some great nuggets from what you shared. I’m glad we went down that path. What’s been the biggest challenge you faced with your business?
We’ve talked about content marketing. The biggest challenge that I face is two-fold. One is finding the time to create more material. I spend a significant amount of time doing sales calls and content marketing that I struggle to prioritize the time to create new ideas and to refine the delivery material. That’s a big challenge that I’m working more towards. I feel like if I don’t stay on top of the conversations, if I don’t stay active in these discussions, if I’m not a part of these for too long, people would forget about me. That may or may not be true, but that’s how I feel about it. I’ve always got this burning sensation to not be away from the conversation for too long. That’s part of it.
What are you doing to tackle that?
I’m trying to automate some things as much as possible. In other words, there’s a lot of social media stuff you can automate in advance for a couple of weeks. I’m trying to do bulk writing. I try to write three or four newsletters in a row and then ship them out monthly. I spend the weekend doing that and that saves me hours of time later downstream. I could schedule them to go out on a regular basis. I’m still trying to figure it out. In my calendar, I’ve closed off Mondays and Fridays to meetings. That’s in calls, but I break that. I try not to. It minimizes the amount of distracted time I have on Mondays and Fridays. If the only time a sales call can happen for a month is on a Monday or a Friday, I’ll break the rule because I want to talk to the client. That’s tough. The other thing I’ve started to do more of and that I struggled with forever is delegation. I’ve hired an assistant. That’s the first time I’ve ever had an assistant. She’s not full-time. She’s about halftime with me. She’s here in my time zone in my city. She’s great. She’s a native English speaker, which was important to me. I have been delegating the stuff that eats up my days to her increasingly.
Give us an example. What does that look like? What have you found has been the most effective for you in terms of delegation? What things?
Scheduling alone cuts a hundred emails out of my inbox every week easily. I don’t even know how much time it saves me. As far as the number of emails per week, scheduling calls and meetings, client things and that thing, that’s 100 emails. She books all my travel. That’s got to be hours of my week. I started her on invoicing. That’s going to start to take care of itself. Dealing with it, there’s a lot of basic logistics for the management of these workshops that I teach and that I sell. Selling tickets, issuing invoices, giving refunds, moving one person from one class to another. All of that stuff is now being handled by her. Little by little, I’m putting more on her. That frees up the time to do the creative work.If you don't hit people over the head within, then they just miss it. Click To Tweet
It’s important for many because there are always things that we should be delegating so we can spend more time working our zone of real value creation as opposed to the lower value tasks. They’re still necessary tasks that have to be taken care of in the business. Jeff, I want to thank you for coming on and sharing some of your journeys, best practices, and story with us. I want to make sure the people can learn more about you and your work. Where’s the best place for them to go?
LinkedIn is a great place to start always. I’m happy to connect on LinkedIn. If you go to my website, it’s Gothelf.co. It has everything you need to know about me. I write a monthly piece on Medium and then of course on Twitter. If you’d like to chat with me, my username on Twitter is @JBoogie. The lesson learned there is take usernames seriously because the service might catch on. That’s where I am on Twitter as well. Those are all good places to start.
Jeff, thanks so much for coming on.
My pleasure, Michael. Thanks so much for having me.
- Jeff Gothelf
- Lean UX
- Medium – Jeff’s blog
- Sense & Respond
- LinkedIn – Jeff Gothelf
- @JBoogie – Jeff’s Twitter