"Specialization" with Philip Morgan (Interview Transcript)
Kai: Philip, tell me why specialization is so important for freelancers?
Philip: Well it deals with a main thing that I felt like was always frustrating to myself as a freelancer and a lot of other freelancers, is you feel this ceiling on what you can do. That ceiling shows up in rate, it shows up in how clients treat you, which you could describe as power or you could use the word respect. It shows up in ... In a way it kind of limits your career. Now, I know some generalists will hear that and they're maybe at the beginning of being a generalist freelancer and they're going to say, "Hey, you just insulted my whole business." I'm going to say, "I'm really sorry, but that was my experience. It may be different for you but my experience and a lot of others I think also will say the same." It's just you reach a ceiling at a certain point. That's the primary benefit.
I think we can drill into what that means to break through that ceiling, but you're faced with a ceiling and you can't just get through it. Luck sometimes helps. Being really charismatic in the sales process sometimes really helps. Being really confident in yourself that helps, but those are all things that I found a lot harder to do personally than to specialize.
Kai: Jumping back to that ceiling you mentioned, what sort of form does that take for let's say freelance developers, is it hitting them in terms of leads they're able to attract, quality of leads, revenue they're able to generate, something else?
Philip: Well, it depends. There are people who are systematically lucky as developers and then there are people who are systematically unlucky. It all depends on whether you are riding the gravy train of a hot technology right now. So React JS, hot right now, IOS not as hot, but it was hot in three to five years ago. If you're in one of those hot technological moments then you're riding a gravy train and you're one of the lucky ones. You're going to hear me talk about a ceiling and all these problems and you're like, "I don't know. I don't know what you're talking about dude. That doesn't affect me."
If you're a developer and you're not riding that particular gravy train then you know exactly what I'm talking about when I say that around $100-$150 an hour you start to get rate push back as just a sort of, "Hey, I'm a developer," or, "I'm a full stack developer," or you fit into this very, very big pond and you're a small fish in that pond. As a result, you get some rate pushback. Finding new clients is something you don't feel very in control of, that's the second thing. You have things that have worked in the past, but they're not repeatable or systematic. They're things like, "Hey, I just email my network and work sort of shows up," or I go to this particular job board and post something and generally something decent comes through. That's great, but it's not a really robust business development process for a business that would therefore be robust as a result.
I would just say the rate ceiling is the first thing and then there's a second thing, which some people are just not going to care about ever and that's fine. The second thing is the ability to develop really valuable expertise, the kind of expertise where if you wrote a book people would be excited about buying it, or the kind of expertise where you're sitting in a sales conversation with a client and that expertise becomes very apparent very quickly. All of a sudden you're driving the sales conversation rather than just saying, "Okay, tell me what you need done here and we'll figure out the scope, and we'll get started." Expertise, and rate, and then marketing efficiencies are the three things that really are where the ceiling manifests.
This is so funny, my beloved cat Rotha is making trouble here so I'm going to take a chance to remove him. Hold on.
Philip: All right, I'm back.
Kai: Thinking about the flip side of the [inaudible] of not specializing, what do we see for developers that do take that leap and specialize in a particular vertical? What benefits do they achieve?
Philip: Usually the first thing that I'll hear when I'm working with people is it actually shows up on an emotional level. There's this like oh my God, I finally know what to say or I know who to reach out. It's a feeling of relief of an uncertainty or a sort of subtle pressure being removed, that's the first thing. Very quickly thereafter you will sometimes see really dramatic successes in doing outreach. I'll give an example.
I was working with a guy named Devin and he was trying to figure out the inbound lead generation problem, which that's what we all want is leads showing up. There's a lot of types of businesses he could help because he works with digital startups. He has this really relevant experience in AI. We said, "Okay, let's pick a place where you have a little bit of a headstart, and advantage," which for him was medical because he worked on a project that had been through the FDA approval process. Then within a week of making that decision, and that was just what we call a beak head, a temporary decision to say, "Let's focus on medical. That's not written in stone, that's just as sort of an expedient way to focus our efforts." Within a week he had a meeting with the head of some kind of doctors association that helps doctors with technology stuff. What he was doing was proposing doing a workshop that he would do for free to generate leads because doctors often take their ideas or their innovations that they developed in the field and turn them into digital products. There was a real potential match for him there. That's just one specific example of you make a decision about where to focus and then all of a sudden things are different quite quickly.
Now, other things take longer to show up, that expertise advantage I talked about earlier, other types of marketing benefits. They're not overnight changes by any means. Some of the more immediate stuff is that clarity and that feeling of I know what to do, I know who to try to reach out to now. You'll change your messaging sometimes fairly quickly on a website or you'll change how you talk to prospects and there's sometimes an immediate effect, sometimes that turns into work very quickly. Other times it's like having the right fertilizer for the plant you're trying to grow. All of a sudden that orchid, which are notoriously difficult plants to grow, all of a sudden you're like, "Oh my gosh, this orchid is doing so well," because you put the right fertilizer on the ground. That's maybe an analogy to think about it.
Kai: That's makes perfect sense. I really like the fertilizer analogy because it helps you grow what's already there. It won't necessarily act as a silver bullet if you don't have a plant in the ground, pouring fertilizer there won't make it grow any faster.
Philip: Yeah and it takes time is the other part that we have to acknowledge. Some of these more important business decisions they're hugely important but they're not going to just immediately make everything better. I think you have to have realistic expectations that if you decide to specialize that's good, that's indispensable, but also you're not going to wake up with a fairy godmother tomorrow who brings you amazing leads.
Kai: Tell me a little more about the types of outcomes you've helped your clients or people in the Specialization School achieve through specializing in their business.
Philip: Well one outcome is people my website makes sense. Maybe that sounds like really ... Okay, makes sense to whom, makes sense to the people you're trying to reach. Actually I was talking yesterday interviewing a guy for my podcast. He had done a 30-40 minute strategy call with me years ago and was reporting back to me on the results of this. One of the things he said was, "People started ... They would go to my website and then I would have that first sales meeting with them and they would say 'Your website really" ... He didn't say, "Spoke to us," but that was kind of the thing he was saying was prospects would say, "Your website actually made sense to us. It really connected to us." That's an outcome that it makes a real difference. Your website isn't the only business develop tool that you have, but oftentimes it's the first place where perspective clients start to check you out and start to really think about whether there's a fit. Them seeing that kind of fit early on makes a real difference.
Another outcome is marketing. You can start to lay the groundwork for marketing. You can start to do things like writing content marketing with the expectation that it's going to be more effective. Now again, that's not the fairy godmother bringing you amazing leads. That is the fertilizer making the plant grow better. So that's another outcome.
I've trying to think if I have ever had anybody make this decision and immediately raise their rates. That tends to be more of an issue of confidence actually. I would say no on that. Later yes, but immediately, no.
Another outcome is permission to do things that you might not have done before. I'm thinking of a guy named Garret that I worked with. He was wanting some help moving out of being a coder and into selling his advice. He had this feeling of like well this is what I want to do, we worked together. In a way, I gave him permission to do that. He did it and all of a sudden he was now making money in an entirely different way, or not entirely different, but very different, far more satisfying to him this idea of getting paid to give advice. Sometimes you just get permission to do something you've been wanting to do, but you don't have all the pieces in place to feel like you an do it credibly, that changes. I could go on.
There are other changes, but again, they all fit under the umbrella of your marketing starts to work better, so you address marketing inefficiencies. The second is you start to develop expertise. That also takes time, but again, that shows up in that sales conversation when you're talking to a prospect and all of a sudden you're not the order taker. You're not just the very highly flexible freelancer who is willing to do almost anything as long as you get your rate. All of a sudden, you are somebody who has an opinion and has something to back it up with. That's different.
Kai: No, I like it. It really is, in a sense, like the business of expertise. It's specializing to identify where you're going to become an authority.
Philip: Yeah, that's the title of book David Baker wrote. I think he chose that for that reason. It's because I see this more with the clients who, like me, are starting to to get a little gray hair. They're past that 30 year old mark. They're pushing into their 40s. They're looking for something different in their business and they're saying things like, "I'm a developer." Actually, a guy literally said this to me just a few days ago. He said, "I'm 48, I'm a developer now. I think about myself in 10 years, I can't imagine myself doing the same thing in 10 years because I'll be almost 60 and I just can't imagine working this way." So it's a little bit of a bummer to think that something you would love in your 20s and 30s is not going to sustain you for the rest of your life. But for a lot of us it's true.
So making that transition to being able to sell something other than your law technical skill. You could call it your wisdom, you could call it your ability to help people make decisions, you call it your perspective. It helps them make better decisions. That's huge. I don't think I've ever seen a generalist sell that. I'd love an example of it. We get moments when we can sell that in the course of a project, but selling that separately or selling that as the main thing, I think that's only the domain of people who've focused and specialized.
Kai: That makes sense. As people start that process of focusing and specializing are there any common challenges that they run into as they try to do it themselves?
Philip: There's a couple. One is this sense of, and the answer is so dumb, the answer is you just write it down. The problem that solves is you start to second guess yourself along the way so you say okay ... I'll just go ahead and give away some of that's in this Specialization School workshop that I offer. We're looking for an advantage that you can build on, that's the main thing we're looking for. So you say, "Okay, I get that. That's simple I can do that. What advantage do I have?" Maybe I worked with 50 clients and 10 of them are in finance and I kind of like working with finance clients, so that's a head start. That's an advantage I have, I can build on that. I could maybe specialize in working with clients in finance.
If you're doing this and you're going through a process where you're writing things down at some point, some part of your mind, maybe it's a saboteur, I don't know, is going to start throwing up this fog of war sort of thing and you're just going to be like, "I don't know. Maybe those clients were really not as great as I thought." What I do is I force people to write things down in very simple ways. That's a problem or an obstacle to clarity in this process is just our natural, the fluidity of our thinking, actually interferes with this process, so you write it down. That's one thing.
The second is not knowing what is important in making this decision. If you're like, "Okay, great. I get the idea of specializing. I'm bought into the fact that this is beneficial for a lot of people. I think it could be for me. I think I'm at the right place to do it." Then you say, "Well how do I make this decision?" Do you choose your most recent client and your most recent experience? Is it okay to look back at old experience and dredge that up and say, "Well that's where you're going to focus." Does credibility matter more than access or does my natural feeling of interest about vertical A versus vertical B, does that matter more than credibility. Really not knowing all the factors that are involved in making the decisions and which ones are important and how to compare them against each other, turns out to be an obstacle to making the decision.
What's always the easiest, for me, I'm not different then anybody else, is I know what worked in the past, I'm just going to repeat that. I know it kind of worked, it's not as good as what I want, so I'll just stick with the status quo. It's very easy to look at this decision, kind of want to do it, and then say, "Well, I don't know. I don't understand that little thing," and you've got a speed bump that's one inch high and you're like, "Well I don't know, I guess not." I'll just keep doing what I ... those one inch high speed bumps. A lot of these speed bumps I'm describing are literally one inch high if they were a physical speed bump on the road. They're just not that high, you just need a little bit of somebody telling you, "Do it this way. It works for other people. I promise it will probably work for you and trust me," and then you get over that speed bump.
What have we talked about, this sort of fog of fluid thinking, the fog of war, and these one inch high speed bumps look like I don't know what's important in making the decision. Then I think just lacking a process and feeling like you're winging it and not having a step-by-step A, B, C, D kind of process is maybe the other biggest barrier.
Kai: It makes sense from personal learning I've done over time, it compares exactly with what you're saying. If I'm just trying to think it out in my own head I get too wound up in it, I get too anxious, and suddenly those inch high speed bumps feel like oh my gosh, this is a mountain I need to climb over. But it's that perspective that somebody else could bring, hey you know what, this is a tiny thing, here's how you get over it. Hey, you got over it. Great, here's the next thing you need to do. That seems to make the specialization process that much easier. Would you agree?
Philip: I would. I want to add another one. Not having examples of how others have done it can be a bit of a barrier. I'm working on that. If you go to specializationexamples.com you'll see my growing database of examples of specialized companies.
Some people doing it alone I guess is a little bit of an obstacle, so feeling like other people are doing it with you can be helpful. Then for other people, probably doing it in a group is an obstacle. It depends on your personality there.
Kai: That makes sense. What would you recommend is the most efficient way for a freelance developer to get started with the specialization process?
Philip: If you're going to DIY this, here's what you do, make a list of every project you've ever had. Rate those projects on a simple three point scale how interesting were they, how much credibility did they contribute, how much access do you have to other clients in the same vertical? A vertical we'll say is an industry. That's an inventory. Add to that inventory, go to the NAICS drill down table, just Google it. Add to it verticals that you find interesting. Now you have a longer inventory. Some of the options on that inventory are risky, some are not. I have a process that I work with people on to figure out where their risk threshold is and which of those options would be too risky. We don't have time to go into detail on that here. But that's an element to think about.
Now that you have an inventory you have some objective things that you put on the inventory, how risky is this, how interesting is it, how much access do I have to other clients like this. Figure out a way to narrow down that inventory. One way is by making sure that each of these verticals are not too big or too small of a market. I have a process for that. We don't have time to go into it here. Narrow this down to a short list based on market size and risk. If in doubt, just know that if you're like most people I work with the most powerful thing you have going in your favor is not actually that your previous credibility or your access, although those things help, it's your level of interest. If you had to choose based on one factor it's like how [inaudible] this. With software developers in particular, that's what usually pulls them forward in their career is they find something fascinating and trusting. If you can find something other than pure technology, fascinating and trusting [inaudible]. If you can find a business problem or type of client, interesting, I promise if you focus there it will work out pretty well because you'll have the emotional and other resources that you need to make your business work.
That's a variation of the process that I use. It's a simplified version. It's something that is way, way, way better than just going on a spirit quest in the wilderness and trying to figure it out. It's an actual process that you can follow. Hopefully that gives folks a taste of it. I'm sorry, if we had literally an hour I could step you through every aspect of it. We don't have that hour, but yeah that's the process.
Kai: Makes perfect sense. Tell me a little bit more about Specialization School, what it is and who it's ideal for.
Philip: It is doing that process as an online four week workshop. That's what it is, is here's the process, here's each week a batch of videos that walk you through let's say 25% of the process, roughly, it's not quite so evenly divided. Each of those 4 weeks tackle the first 25%. Then we have a Q&A call. Tackle the next 25%, it's that. It's my best effort to help people avoid any kind of overwhelm that can happen with this. It's easy to get overwhelmed with this process even though there is a process. It's even easier to get overwhelmed without it, so it's breaking it up so there's no overwhelm.
I had one bit of feedback, I guess I could call it a complaint. It wasn't really a complaint, it was just someone was like, "I would have rather blazed through this without the breaking it up."
But I really do think that most of the people who find their way to Specialization School are looking for hey, make this manageable, make this not overwhelming for me. It's that. It is some proprietary tools that I've developed to understand your risk tolerance and your ability to manage risk. It's taking stuff that we would call market research. It's not in-depth market research, it's how big is this market. How many potential buyers are there. It's just breaking that down into very simply easy to understand steps that you can execute. It's videos, it's a Q&A call every four weeks. It's a forum for questions in between the calls, and it's a maximum of seven people so that if like me you're an introvert you're not going to get lost in the crowd. You're not going to have two minutes to check in during a Q&A call and that's all the time you have. It's hopefully a very sensible way to take a small group of people through this process and at the end, arrive at clarity and confidence about where's your best options for specializing.
Kai: Sounds like a great option for any contractor, or any freelancer, or any consultant out there who wants to start this process of specialization. Is there any audience that you say is a better match for Specialization School that in other words, who is it best for?
Philip: The bias is I'm normally speaking to self-employed software developers. I've had some folks who are in the worlds of UX design, or other types of design, copywriters, have applied this same process and gotten great results.
Philip: They have to do a little bit of translation. I'm putting all my examples in terms that are great for software developers or native to software developers. Folks who are not software developers are having to do a little mental translation. That said, the other big important thing is if you haven't been working for yourself for a year or two then you're going to come into a process like this with very little bit of a head start because you just started a year or two ago. We were all there, but unless you're just working for a million clients very rapidly, at the end of a year or two you might only have worked for gosh, I've seen people who have been in business for themselves for multiples of years and have like two clients because there's these big long-term projects. That's a bit of an extreme case, but that kind of person is going to come into this process and say, "Okay, it took me two seconds to do my inventory because I had two clients on it and I still don't feel like I have that much to go on." You'll be at a disadvantage if you don't have a few years of experience under your belt. That would be the other thing that I think that's important.
If you're just completely composed to the idea of specialization I don't think this workshop is going to sell you on that. I think it would be a waste of your money, in fact. It needs to be for folks who are asking this question, how do I get to the next level in my career, either in marketing, or lead generation, or in how your clients perceive you? Specialization is almost always part of those kinds of transitions for people. Have you seen this guy? I feel like I have. Maybe it's just particular to the work I do because there's a selection bias. Have you seen this as well like to get to that next level you've got to focus?
Kai: Very, very much so. I think of a few of our mutual friends, Kurt Elster who went from, I think back four or five years ago, he was positioned essentially on, "Hey, we'll build a mobile responsive website for you." Now he's the face, literally the face of Shopify's partner program!
Kai: I think of Jane Portman, Nick Disabato, Jonathan Stark, so many colleagues of ours who made the specialization jump and saw great rewards from putting in the time, putting in the energy to figure out where they needed to concentrate to build that authority to demonstrate that expertise.
Philip: Yep, yep. I feel pretty confident. There are always these sort of wonderful examples of people who are super charismatic, super something and they can make it happen without following these patterns that work for most of us. But the pattern that works for most of us is if you want to become a consultant you're going to specialize in some way or you're going to get an MBA and work for a consulting firm. That's fine if that's what you want to do. But if you want to go the other way you're probably going to specialize in something that lets you deliver this really exceptional value. Yeah, I think it's almost mandatory if you're wanting to really level up out of the world of freelancing and into the world of consulting.
Kai: So if one of our listeners is interested in having that level up, exiting freelancing, moving into that world of consulting, where should they go to learn more about specialization?
Philip: Well they can go to specializationschool.com. They can go almost to anywhere on my website and find something about that. I'm very interested in folks knowing about Specialization School so that if now is a good time for them to make this change, if this just happens to show up at the right time for them I've got a workshop starting on October 10th. They can dive into that. So specializationschool.com. There is three workshops listed there. You're interested in the first workshop, that's the one that talks about decision making. That's the one we've been discussing here.
Kai: Excellent, excellent. Well Philip, thank you so much for taking the time to join me and have this conversation about specialization. Any final thoughts you'd like to add?
Philip: It's my pleasure. It takes courage. There's nothing that I can do about that. It takes a bit of courage because you will feel like you're cutting your own legs out from underneath you. If you'll just talk to people who've done it you'll find that is not the case. I guess it may be a little of dun, dun, dun, kind of a dramatic note to end on, but it does take courage. Most people have it in them, that's what I find. Most people can do so much more than they think. I don't know if this is coming out as video or audio, but they're comfortable with this, I'm putting my hand about halfway up the screen here. What they can do is significantly more.
I don't want to stress people out, but I also know that a lot of people can do this if they'll dig a little deeper than they're probably comfortable with. Moving outside your comfort zone is what contributes to growth. I guess that's my parting thought it you're probably stronger than you think. You can probably do this, but also know that it will take some courage. I'm not going to go log into your website and change it to some specialized version of what you are now. You get to decide when you take action on what happens in this workshop, but it will set you up to do some pretty bold stuff in your business.
Kai: That is wonderful. Again, thank you so much Philip. That URL is specializationschool.com.
Philip: Thanks Kai.
Feeling confused or frustrated in deciding how to specialize?
In Specialization School, an online workshop from Philip Morgan, you'll step through a process for moving from confusion to clarity about how you can specialize.
What can you expect in Specialization School? Lots of valuable information, processes, tools, and answers:
- You'll get walked through your process for moving from confusion to clarity & confidence in specialization over four weeks.
- You'll take part in a 7-person learning group. Participation is limited to 7-people so that you have lots of time to get your questions answered by Philip during the Q&A calls. You won't be doing this alone.
- You'll get personalized "spot consulting" assistance during each of your four, 60-minute live meetings.
- You'll receive a simple framework you can follow that gets you 80% of the clarity possible on specialization for your business with 20% of the effort and time.
- You'll 'get outside your head' with exercises that help you think about things in terms of the value your prospective clients see in your services.
- You'll get multiple "plug and play" tools and processes for specializing your business, unique to this course, bringing as much ease as possible to your decision making about how to specialize.
- You'll receive accountability towards making progress with bite-sized homework tasks that you can do on your own time between live meetings.
Specialization School is an $800, 4-week online workshop.
As a special discount for you, loyal reader, I put Philip Morgan in a headlock until he agreed to give you the best pricing he could.
That's his 'Previous Customer Only' pricing.
You can enroll in Specialization School for $500, saving you $300. Now, this special offer is only for you, my friend.
When you get in touch with Philip, let him know that KAI SENT YOU. That way, he'll be able to apply the special pricing for you.
In total, you'll be receiving:
- Specialization School (Workshop 1: Decision Making), a 4-week online workshop that will teach you how you can specialize ($800 value)
- BONUS: The Positioning Manual (Complete Package), Philip's best selling book on positioning for freelancers, consultants, and coders ($99 value)
- BONUS: Quick Start Roadmapping Sessions, teaching you how you can sell, run, and deliver Roadmapping Sessions to your clients. Once you've paid for Specialization School, forward your receipt to me and receive access to Quick Start Roadmapping Sessions. ($129 value)
Altogether, that's $1,028 in value for $500.
Sweet deal, huh?
If you want to go from confusion to clarity about how you can specialize (in just four weeks), then you want to check out Specialization School: https://philipmorganconsulting.com/specialization-school/part-1-decision-making-workshop/
Or email Philip Morgan right now and tell him that you want in: email@example.com
— Kai Davis