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Alastair McDermott, Voiceover, Tom Critchlow
Tom Critchlow 00:00
I think I’ve always been kind of opinionated just by my nature. But I think writing has been the tool with which I’ve kind of refined and crafted a point of view on all kinds of things.
Welcome to The Recognized Authority, a podcast that helps specialized consultants and domain experts on your journey to become known as an authority in your field. So you can increase your reach, have more impact and work with great clients. Here’s your host, Alastair McDermott.
Alastair McDermott 00:25
So today, my guest is Tom Critchlow. Tom is an independent consultant. He’s based now in in Brooklyn, and he works with senior executives to build capability and drive change. And he works primarily with media businesses. He’s also writing a book for independent consultants. We’re gonna talk about that a little bit. And I’ve been following Tom online for what must be a decade at this point. Coz he’s been in the SEO world. I think you, you worked in that field for a little bit.
Tom Critchlow 00:48
That’s right. Yeah. Thanks for having me. Yeah, got my, got my cut my teeth online in the SEO world.
Alastair McDermott 00:53
Yeah, that was the actually the first thing that I sold. That was the first kind of consulting that I did, when I went independent, because it was pretty much the only skill I had that was that was a saleable at when I started my own business. Because I was I was a former software engineer going independent, and I was looking for something. So SEO was where I started. I’ve been following you for a long, long time. And I love the stuff that you you’re writing what you’re putting out, let’s talk a little bit about the book, you’re writing a book for independent consultants, can you tell me a little bit about what what you’re writing about and what topics you’re covering what you think’s important?
Tom Critchlow 01:26
Yeah, so the book has become a little bit of a kind of manifesto, if you like about how to run a sustainable independent consulting practice, it started just as a kind of collected writings of kind of advice that I have about being an independent consultant, you know, tips on how to deal with clients how to manage some of the situations that come up. But over the years, that writing has morphed into this kind of point of view, that is to be a sustainable, independent consultant, right? To have a career in doing this over many years, you really have to find your own groove. And there’s a lot of advice online about how to be an independent consultant, podcasts, blog posts, books, you know, who we are. And there’s tons of advice. And I think that what I wanted to do was try and create a kind of a point of view that says, It’s okay to be yourself, right? And if you want to be an independent consultant, you have to reconcile both what is kind of best practice, like what is good advice, but you have to reconcile against, like, who you want to be, and how you want to behave, right, and the life that you want to structure. I think a lot of independent consultants became independent, because they were kind of contrarian, right, they either got kicked out of the system, or they rejected the system. And, and because of that, you know, you have to kind of let lean into your control, or at least deal with your own strangeness, right. And I think so the book has become this kind of, I think it’s gonna be a little bit more esoteric, perhaps than people might expect from a kind of book about independent consulting. But that’s what that’s what the book is, what’s been most interesting about writing the book, for me personally, has been that every new consulting client I get becomes an opportunity to write something in my book, right? And so it’s actually been this really great vehicle for keeping things interesting for myself, right? You know, it’s allowed me to have this kind of like story that I can keep telling myself over time, which is, oh, I’m, I’m learning about the practice of intermittent consulting, I’m studying the practice of independent consulting. That means that over time, every new client becomes interesting to me, rather than thinking like, oh, another year ahead, you know, more clients more the same, same same. And so that’s been really interesting, and also means that I’m terrified of actually finishing the book.
Alastair McDermott 03:29
Yeah, you got to hit publish sometime.
Tom Critchlow 03:32
Hopefully, this year, it’s gonna be so yeah.
Alastair McDermott 03:33
Are you publishing? Like, are you blogging? As you know, are you blogging the stories and then taking those blogs and turning them into the book? Or is it all, is it, is it written in private?
Tom Critchlow 03:43
No, it’s all it’s all written on my website right now. You know, it started out as blog posts over the last, I’d say a year or two, those have become more like chapter length blog posts that like five or 6000 words, kind of essays. And my hope is that I can kind of string them together pretty easily into a book. But that’s kind of the that’s the next step on my on my list is to hire an editor and actually kind of turn what is currently a kind of mess of writings on on the site into something a little bit more coherent. But yeah, it’s all published on the site, so you can go go.
Alastair McDermott 04:10
Yeah, I thought that was the case. And I wasn’t sure if it if you know, if it was you that that talked about, you know, writing in public like that. But you know, I thought it was it was something that you believed in, and obviously you do. So we will link to that in the show notes as well. So people can go check that out. Let me ask you about, there’s a couple of things you mentioned. And you said, find your own groove. And you talked about point of view. And this is something that I’m really interested in, is helping people find their point of view, create their point of view, if they don’t have one, or I’ve heard people say, you know, you always have a point of view, you just need to uncover it. And I’m not sure if that’s the case, and I’m still thinking about this and learning about this. So I just want to get your perspective on, like, how do we create our point of view or find that?
Tom Critchlow 04:54
Yeah, that’s a great question. I think so. So for me, I don’t I don’t know how generalizable this is, to me writing has been the vehicle to develop a point of view. I think I’ve always been kind of opinionated, just by, by by my nature. But I think writing has been the the tool with which I’ve kind of refined and crafted a point of view on all kinds of things. There’s a great blog post by Venkatesh Rao called “The Calculus of Grit”, which is a very long blog post. But he has this framework in there about how to kind of know, if you’re on the right path with kind of developing your own your own path, right. And he has these three tenants of you should be releasing things, you should be reworking them, and you should be referencing them. And it basically the the basic thesis there is that, I think when-when-when people hear that the advice to kind of start writing or to, you know, publish their thinking or to, you know, be online, what they don’t quite understand is how much of that can be self referential. And that how much of that is building a body of work that that actually kind of compounds over time, rather than feeling like you’re just throwing out blog posts, or whatever. And so I think that that’s been a model that I very much followed is it you know, you write something, you put something up, you test some ideas out, but then you can keep, keep scratching at those itches, right, you can kind of keep coming back to those themes, keep coming back to those topics, to refine them, keep exploring them going deeper on them. And what I’ve found, you know, especially interesting about the magic of the web is that when you write about stuff that you’re interested in, you attract other people who also aren’t interested in that thing, right. And so it’s kind of this compounding effect of, you know, the media industry, for example, as a thing that I’ve been, you know, very much involved in for a long time. And that started out more of the kind of, I was an interested outsider. And I started writing about it, and I started engaging it. So we’re doing some client work in the space, I started to formulate some opinions about about some things. And that led to a kind of more writing about it that led to, you know, people sliding into my DMs, and then that leads to, you know, making new connections that leads to new client opportunities. And so I think there’s a kind of this, this kind of a creative or kind of compounding effect of publishing. But, you know, I think that it’s, it’s, it’s hard sometimes to develop a point of view. Like, if you if you haven’t got a point of view, somebody’s telling you to go develop a point of view, it’s not necessarily helpful advice. So I don’t know if I have the answer that but I do think that for me personally, writing has been a kind of vehicle to, to kind of deepen and expand, you know, a kind of perspective that I have.
Alastair McDermott 07:20
Yeah. And a friend of mine, Guillaume, who I’ve had on the podcast, Guillaume Wiatr. He says, I don’t know if he’s the originator of this quote, but he says, I don’t write because I have ideas. I have ideas because I write 100. I think that’s, I think, I think it’s really important that we make time another another guest I have I don’t know if that episode, where before this one, somebody else I’ve had on this Molly Angel. And she says it’s really important for her to have a cap her client work 25 hours a week, so that she has time for writing and things like that, I think it’s really important as well. In fact, I’m probably, I’m probably going the opposite way. Now, I’m probably spending 25 hours a week of, of non client work of publishing and research and things like that. I only spending about 15 hours a week on client work, which for me also feels like it. I like that. And that 25 hours that I’m spending on, that just feels to me like I don’t know, that doesn’t feel like real, that doesn’t feel like real work in air quotes to me, because it’s more fun, you know?
Tom Critchlow 08:21
Yeah, the other thing that I’ll say, the one of the one of the insights that I had, as I as I’ve done more of this kind of a longer form writing for a year, I took a year to kind of write my book. And the the kind of process that I go through with those pieces is writing a draft in Google Docs, and then sending it out to a set of kind of close friends and you that that circle of close friends has kind of gradually expanded over the years to include, you know, other independent consultants, people that want to read your draft chapters, people are really into the content. And what’s fascinating about that, that process is the very often the first draft, I the feedback I get back is that everyone’s like, Oh, this this little, this little throwaway comment you made and like paragraph seven, that’s gold. And I’m like, Oh, really? That seems very obvious to me, right? And so I think that sometimes, developing a point of view isn’t as much as developing a new point of view, as much as recognizing which bits of your current opinions distinctive or interesting or resonate with people, right? And so I again, that’s why writing is such a powerful tool is because you don’t know which bits are most interesting to other people until other people read it, right? And so that’s that’s been a it’s been a surprise for me. It’s just some of the things that I’ve thought were very obvious or straightforward or just natural. Other people are like, wait a second, you do what? Like, how do you think about that? That-that’s strange. So yeah, that’s another benefit to the writing.
Alastair McDermott 09:41
Yeah, this this very much parallels what actually another guest at Rob Fitzpatrick or Rob Fitzy calls himself. He wrote the book write useful books. Yeah, I know, Rob, do you know, Rob, but yeah, this This parallels, you know, his his approach to kind of writing in public and actually that’s where that was coming from earlier. And, you know, getting feedback quickly from people and, you know, incorporating that feedback in your next draft, sharing it again. Yeah, I really liked this idea.
Tom Critchlow 10:09
Alastair McDermott 10:10
So okay, so just as an independent consultant, what are we doing wrong? Like, in your experience? Like, you know, a lot of you know a lot about this business? And what mistakes do you see people making that that you’d like to say, hey, you know, there’s a better way to do this?
Tom Critchlow 10:26
So many, I think probably the number one thing that I see people doing wrong is trying to over productize their offering, you know, and again, this comes back to my perspective on being a little bit more contrarian than most. You read a lot of smart advice, and smart thinking about how powerful it is to kind of create a narrow positioning of your work, prototype, or service, and so on. And I don’t think those people are wrong, right? I don’t think there’s a lot of smart people say that said this thing. So I’m not I’m not gonna say they’re wrong. But what I think is, is neglected, or kind of glossed over a little bit is that you can’t do that work until you have a really strong kind of perspective on your own work already deep understanding of yourself. And, you know, for that positioning, and kind of productizing work to actually work well, it has to mesh with your identity, it has to mesh with the kind of work that you want to do has to mesh with the market, like has to have, it has to have that sweet spot of being something that people want to buy and resonate with. But it has to also respect like, who you are, what you want to do. And I don’t think you can do that very effectively, until you’re a few years in, like, I don’t think you can, I don’t think I’m not sure that you can do that out the gate. And so, I always try and push people and again, this is kind of the thesis of the book is do a little bit more self discovery work, right? Meander around a little bit first, right? You will do writing in public, you know, do do think the public, and try and kind of try and create a more organic environment that allows those conditions to emerge, rather than trying to think that that’s not the answer, it’s gonna solve all your problems, because the other thing is, like, you know, even if you create a good positioning and a good prototype offering, you’ve got the same problem. So you’ve still got to go find clients, you’ve still got to, you know, write, you’ve still got, you still got to do all the other things, right, it’s not magic, it’s not a bad bullet, that’s gonna, that’s gonna, you know, solve your problems overnight. So, again, I think a lot of folks that are just starting out on the path, I think spent a lot of, they have a lot of anxiety and spin the wheels a lot, trying to kind of create this stable persona, or in this kind of defined position. It’s identity, that’s very solid. And, and, you know, the, the both the, the joy and the terror of independent consulting is that, you know, we gave up a fixed stable identity, when we set out on this path, right? It’s, we have, we have a luxury and the hard work ahead of us, which is that we’re constantly updating our identity, we’re constantly revisiting who we are the language we use, what kind of work we want to be doing. And that is incredibly freeing, but it is also terrifying for a lot of people who have, you know, had a full time job and a stable career, and they find a job title on LinkedIn, and all these things, right, like abandoning those things is not, it’s not so easy. So I think that’s probably my best advice to folks who are kind of starting out is just, you know, not not trying to do that work too soon, or at least trying to do it in parallel with the inner work to make sure that you’re, you’re integrating that properly with actually who you who you really want to be and how you want to spend your time.
Alastair McDermott 13:26
Yeah, I am one of those people who believes that specializing and niching down is really important. And I also believe that, you know, productizing services is a great way to go. But I do think that, you know, the initial path should be meandering. And in fact, I have a diagram that I’ll share with the, with the podcast, show notes, which is my visualization of this journey to authority. And it starts out with with people who were who were starting out having a kind of a winding path back and forth and trying different things and write testing different things and finding what kind of what works for you what types of projects you would like to work on, what types of clients you’d like to work on what your communication style is, and things like that, I think it’s really important to have that winding road at the very start. And then later on, go into that position of saying, Okay, now now I can niche down now that I can make a specialization decision, I can make it based on based on experience and based on data that I’ve gathered, because you’ve got that broad experience, and I think you can’t do that too early. So I do agree with you. I very much a fan of specialization and niching down. It’s a big topic that I, that I talk about on the podcast and that I talk to people in webinars and in coaching about but I think you do have to get that broad experience first. Okay, so one of the other things that we talked a bit about. So it’s all about right writing and public finding, finding that point of view and I think that that, you know, doing that writing is really important and even writing and publishing and thinking, even when you’re on that early meandering road, I think that’s really important as well, because that will help you to formulate your thoughts about things. So that that is something I think you should do at every stage along your journey, and make the time for that, I think is really important as well. What should people do more of? What should people do less of?
Tom Critchlow 15:19
I mean, I’m going to come back to, to writing something that people should do more of or thinking in public sharing, sharing, you know, the kind of the, there’s a lovely quote that I forget where it came from, because the, the the sawdust of the work, right, it’s the kind of kind of showing the the off cuts or the byproducts of the…
Alastair McDermott 15:40
Tom Critchlow 15:41
I think that that is,
Alastair McDermott 15:43
Kind of behind the scenes or the…
Tom Critchlow 15:45
Alastair McDermott 15:46
Under the hood…
Tom Critchlow 15:47
Like, it’s a little bit more of just like, it’s kind of this, it’s, it’s kind of, a kind of mental model of thinking, like, when you’re writing and producing stuff online, it’s, it’s less about being absolutist. And it’s less about kind of being like, here’s the ultimate guide to something or, you know, here’s the complete solution to something and it’s more like, here’s a few kind of interesting tidbits that you can only get having been in the weeds, like how having done the work, right. And that’s what that’s where that’s where I think writing is a thing that can be very attractive to the right kinds of people is because the right kinds of people recognize that, oh, if you hadn’t been running a media business, you wouldn’t quite know those things, or you wouldn’t quite have seen those experiences or whatever. So I think that’s what people need to do more writing, I think, more sharing of their ideas.
Alastair McDermott 16:34
I get this all the time, where I’m talking to consults and I say, Look, I just don’t have time, I don’t have time to do that. It takes so long to write you know, you know, you’re talking about writing 1000 2000 3000 word article, that takes me half a day, I just don’t have that kind of time a week, what would you say to that?
Tom Critchlow 16:50
I’d say you haven’t got time not to write if you’re too busy, but you’re still feeling like you need to be getting more clients and more work, then, you know, you’re you’re doing it wrong. I think I mean, that’s, that’s, that’s a little bit harsh. But I mean, you know, I think you have to look at writing and investing here as a kind of long term compounding growth, right? It’s kind of this is the this is this is going to create the conditions view do better paid work with more senior clients, I think that that that kind of goes that can go hand in hand with what I was gonna say, for what people should do less of which I think is project based work. You know, I think that, again, you can build a perfectly fine career doing projects and kind of, you know, defined like fixed scope, fixed length work, but in my experience, retained revenue is this kind of magical force. If you can figure out how to get clients or retain revenue, then everything else becomes easier, right, your your, your revenue gaps are smooth, you can line up clients back to back more easily, you have more predictability and more understanding of like, you know, where the money is coming from, and you don’t have to constantly chase for new clients. So I think that, again, I don’t want to go to failure mode. Because we’ve all been there. I was there when I started out as well. But I think when you first set out on the path, you do a lot of projects, because a, you don’t have the senior connections or kind of trust to do the ongoing retained work. But you’re also just kind of like you kind of kind of tilting at windmills, right? You’re kind of you kind of try to find anything that sticks, you kind of be like, you know, any email and your inbox, you’re like, Yeah, I can do that. Sure, why not. And so you kind of constantly say yes to things and trying to figure out what kind of work you want to do, who you are, whether you can pay the bills, all that kind of stuff. And at some point, hopefully, you can kind of elevate out of that and start shedding the small one off projects and start to kind of focus on the longer term ongoing relationships. Because I think that that’s where that’s where you’re going to end up. You know, lowering your blood pressure, feeling, feeling less stress, feeling less pressure to kind of constantly be chasing new clients. And like I said, the, the when you when you look at the kind of financial mechanics of project-based work, and having to line them up so perfectly back to back versus retained revenue that just keeps rolling. You really understand that retain revenue is just, it just better, like all around.
Alastair McDermott 19:07
Yeah, yeah. I was talking to Ron Baker, who is one of the defenders have the concept of value pricing. And it’s a previous podcast episode. And he said that value pricing to dot zero is recurring revenue is so so that’s for him is is like the future value pricing is his writing. So if you can, if you can find some sort of recurring offering. Yeah. And it does, it makes things so much easier. And I think I’ve mentioned this on the podcast before, but I’ve been able to fund an experimentation. This podcast is an experiment in my business that I’ve been able to fund for the last year because I have recurring revenue from my previous business, and that has basically funded the journey and allow me to, to kind of take the risk and take the time to do this. And I wouldn’t be able to do that if I didn’t have that recurring revenue. So yeah, I think I think it’s really, really crucial. Yeah, thank you. So let’s see. So so more, more writing, make the time for it, just find the time for it. It’s just it’s, it’s, it’s essential. And the other thing about that he talks about being compounding. And one of the really important things to think about anything that is compounding is the earlier you start the better. And, and because you get these exponential differences at the end of that process, the earlier you start, so I think it is really crucial to start that earlier on. Yeah. So let me ask you about marketing for you. Like, how do you approach marketing yourself and your services?
Tom Critchlow 20:33
I don’t really apart from apart from writing, which obviously kind of a big, a big caveat. Yeah, I really don’t. You know, I think that, again, this is part of part of this kind of recognition and work that I’ve done to understand who I want to be. And what kind of work I want to do is that I’ve, I’ve kind of rejected a particular niche or positioning. And I haven’t done a lot of defined marketing. But the clients that I end up working with, they end up forming very deep relationships with and working with for a very long period of time. You know, I think that the book that I’m writing and publishing online, although it doesn’t look like marketing, because it’s aimed at independent consultants, one of the one of the kind of funny accidents is that they’re kind of a little bit like Trojan horses, these these essays, because I’m using real examples for my consulting work throughout these throughout these pieces. And it actually, this is kind of going back to the sawdust piece, like it kind of gives a very, very clear picture, actually the kind of work that they do. And I think that that’s one of the most important kind of, like, when we think about marketing, you often think about kind of acquisition as in, like, how do you reach the right people? Like, how do you get to them, which is obviously, you know, a piece of the puzzle. But I think the independent consultants, a lot of the a lot of the hard work is actually in getting people to understand what does a good engagement look like? Like, it’s not just about reaching the right people. But how do you actually get people to understand where you can really add value in the exact kind of work that you’re going to be doing together. And that’s where my essay writing and the kind of the case studies and examples that I that I kind of littered throughout those that essays, they give a very clear picture of the kind of what it’s like to work together. Oh, I see. So Tom was like, building a team for this media company. Oh, I see. Tom was doing a content strategy for this, you know, tech company, like, you kind of gives this very kind of rich, like, oh, I can see scenarios and real examples of where how I’m able to bring time into my business. Right. And I think that when we talk about marketing, I think that that’s the thing that people need to do more of, is not relying so much on things like I’m a marketing strategist, or I’m an organizational designer, or I’m an SEO consultant, like whatever those kinds of labels are. Because they mean, so many, they don’t really mean very much, right? Like, they mean different things to different people, there’s a huge umbrella range of like, the kind of work that you could be doing the kinds of situations you could be useful for. And so I, you know, I think it’s really important to get beyond just the, the label to actually, how do you give a sense of who you are? How do you give a sense of what this work feels like? You know, I’m, I’m a big fan of Andy Raskin. I don’t know if you’re familiar with him, but he is an independent consultant who has this kind of strategic narrative, kind of, kind of work that he does. And on LinkedIn, in particular, he spends his posts a lot on LinkedIn. And a lot of the stories that he shares are, like literal, back and forth exchange of the clients. It’s like the client said this, and I said this, and the client said this, and I said this, and it’s like, you know, it’s kind of it’s dressed up for LinkedIn. Right? So I’m sure it’s kind of like, they’re always like approximations of real life, I’m sure. But, but the point is that these conversations give such a such a very clear sense of like, what situations and defines himself in with whom, for what kinds of projects, right, and I think that that kind of that kind of showing that kind of given that surface area, making people aware of that is really valuable. And I think that’s, it’s valuable for two reasons, right? It’s valuable, both for the people that are actually going to hire you, right, directly clients, but it’s also valuable for the people in your network. And I wrote an essay about this as well. But it’s like, you know, when what you have this kind of circle of people around you, your first and second degree, second degree connections, who want to who want to send clients, right, their friends, ex colleagues, people, you know, people in the industry who are like the primes, to send a client your way, but you don’t want them to send the wrong kind of client, you want to send the right kind of client, right. So again, you want everyone in your network to have this really good understanding of like, Oh, I’m not just going to send an SEO project to Tom, I’m going to send this, you know, this, this, somebody who owns a media business, and it’s struggling to, you know, find growth and it’s like this weird set of complex challenges. That isn’t just SEO, but SEO is a piece of it. And, you know, it’s like you want people to make those intros, right. But they can’t do that unless you’ve given them this kind of rich texture of what actually is it that you do, right? We’ve all, we’ve all we’ve all struggled to define that and I’ll take like that, but you know, in some senses, what I’m saying is instead of trying to find the the one line of what you do try and find the 10 thousand word essay, what it is that you do you know that you give the richness right, you give the context and the detail.
Alastair McDermott 25:13
Yeah, yeah, I mean, it’s very much showing your work. Like you’re you’re literally showing people your work. And I like the idea of Trojan horse marketing, that you’re putting it in there. So, yeah, and, you know, I looked at Andy there. So we’ll link him in the show notes as well have seen some of his stuff. And his LinkedIn feed looks interesting. So what about the actual audience? Because a lot of people are starting off. And you know, they’ve only got a handful of followers. And they say, well, so well, good Tom talking about this, but he has 30,000 followers on Twitter, say, you know, people don’t have this network of people that you have. And so they’re publishing kind of the it’s more like they’re shouting into the void. What how do you how do you deal with that?
Tom Critchlow 25:55
Yeah. So, you know, first of all, you don’t get to an audience without starting. I think it’s like, you know, it comes back, like compound compound returns thing, like, you have to start somewhere, right? I haven’t always had an audience. And I’ve certainly rebuilt my audience a few times, right? You know, my audience on Twitter, so has a lot of legacy kind of folks in the SEO industry. But I built an audience in a year of independent consultants from scratch, right, that didn’t happen overnight. And so you got to start somewhere, you know, putting up a blog, putting up an email list is, you know, something that you can do today. The second thing is, you know, again, when you’re first starting out that this stuff is, what people I think don’t realize about writing is that you don’t need a big audience, right, I actually wrote a blog post about this called “Small B Blogging”, kind of, as opposed to big b blogging, which I kind of think is like the blogging industrial complex. But, you know, this idea that you can write a blog post and have a couple 100 people see it, and it can still lead to coffee meetings, clients, you know, podcast appearances, etc, etc. You know, some, I think, you know, my blog gets, like, you know, a few 100 visits a week, probably, something like that, you know, obviously, there are a few spikes here and there if I publish something as popular, but, you know, for the most part, the stuff that I’m writing is not super well read. And I think that what you don’t see is kind of you see the tip of the iceberg, which is the blog posts, but you don’t see the email conversations behind the scenes. And you know, when I post it in, like a little slack group that I’m in, and that they have a long chain, that you have a conversation. So I think writing is is different than like the act of writing and publishing something, isn’t the totality of like, a push notification, right? It’s what it is, it’s creating, like a like a, something that’s interesting, that can travel around a network, right? You can email it to people, right? This is one of the best pieces of advice is just, you know, find people that you respect, who’s thinking you appreciate or you admire in the same industry you are or like, you think you got something to say, write something and then email it to them. Right? You know, I did this with Seth Godin. A long time ago, I wrote something and I was like, Hey, Seth, I wrote this post. And like, if you reply to my email, and was like, Yeah, great, thanks. Like, you know, it’s not hard to have a dialogue with people, if you’re, if you’re writing something that is worth writing, right. But it’s hard to have a dialogue with people, if you’re trying to write, like shitty content, excuse my, French, you know, like, if you’re trying to write, like generic or planned content, or you’re trying to write an app, solutionist piece of content, right, which is, like, you know, like the ultimate way to write LinkedIn updates, or whatever. People just don’t want to read that, like, you’re gonna have a hard time sending that to people that you respect, and starting a conversation over it. You know, I but again, if you take this approach of kind of inquiry and exploration and writing things that a bit, you know, based on real experience, then it’s not that hard to have a conversation with people, right. And so I think that, when you’re first starting out, it’s less about this kind of push notification of writing something and having a prebuilt audience, but it’s about writing something as an excuse to kind of travel around the network to send these things to people to gain connections and so on. And again, in the early days, you know, like, especially when you first start out in consulting, that you’re getting clients however, you can, right, it’s like you, you know, you send the mass email to everyone in your, in your address book, right, and kind of a BCC being like, here’s my life update, you know, I’m now an independent consultant. And, of course, you do those things, right? Because you’ve got nothing else to do and you don’t know what you’re doing. And you don’t have to, you don’t know what kind of work you want to be doing. You’re just trying to look around for clients, however, you can. Totally fine. And in fact, that’s what you should be doing. Right? But don’t forget to kind of translate that writing into something that actually compounds at some point, right? It’s kind of making that transition from spinning the wheels flailing around trying to find what works into or I’m starting to find things to say I’m starting to build an audience and it’s it’s a long journey. But I do think that it’s it’s one that you’re really paying off. The other thing that I’ll say about it for people that are hesitant or, you know, don’t feel like it’s kind of for them is, you know, writing is only one factor, right? Like, you can easily just as easily start a podcast or a YouTube channel, or an Instagram account, right like that. If your medium is visual, not textual, then then lean into that, right? Like, I don’t think writing is necessarily this kind of magic, technology that’s kind of better than other mediums. I think it’s about finding your voice, but it’s just about finding the voice where you can be unblocked. Right? I think that’s exactly the key is like, what what kind of where, where are you most comfortable just kind of getting in flow, you know, for spoke to a couple of independent consultants who come from a more kind of consulting background, right, kind of the big four consulting groups, it’s like, well, I’m comfortable making presentations. So make presentations, like, make make decks and share them around, you know, it’s like, if that’s your happy place, then just go for it. Right. It’s, you know, I think that’s the magic of the internet is it’s, it’s entirely forgiving, and kind of content agnostic in many ways, right? Especially, especially in the modern era. It’s just make whatever you want to make, but make something right.
Alastair McDermott 31:06
Yeah, yeah. And start, what what am I getting ideas? And, you know, I do find sometimes that people say to me, you know, I’m struggling to come up with ideas for my blog, for my email, emails to my list, things like that. Where would you start with that?
Tom Critchlow 31:23
Yeah, that’s always a hard one. I think that for me, personally, everyone has their own approaches that for me, personally, I maintain a long list of drafts. Like, when I say drafts, I mean, literally kind of titles for the most part, it’s like a just a list of kind of blog post titles, where I noted down, you know, I’m in the shower, I’m gonna walk on the subway, whatever, late at night, whatever it is, I’m just like, oh, this would be a fun, your perspective, or title or whatever. And I noted down. And what’s magic about it isn’t that most of those turn into blog posts, it isn’t like, I have a magic archive of like a long list of blog posts, where I’m just like, Oh, I could write anything tomorrow, because I have this archive, the magic is that most of them suck. And most of them are never going to see the light of day. But by writing it down, it forces you to like, it forces you to kind of create this list. And then you go to you scan down the list. And you’re just like, oh, yeah, all of these ideas stuck that I wrote down in my, in my drafts. But oh, what was this one that I wrote down two years ago? Oh, that’s kind of interesting. And what if I combine that with this other thing? It basically just gives you kind of raw materials to work from it isn’t a blank page, right? So you’re not just sat down? And being like, what do I want to write about today, you always have this archive of kind of kind of like get like running ideas that you can just go back to and be like, maybe I can cherry pick something from here and dusted off. And, you know, like I said, most of the time, it isn’t actually going back and dusting off an idea. It’s going back and being like, what if I wrote the opposite of that, that idea? Or what if I combine these ones or like it’s, it’s, it’s just something to react to. And I think that’s really important, right? It’s like a blank page is kind of the the worst thing to start with. So that’s one, that’s one kind of piece of advice. And this has worked for me, the other piece of advice that I’ve kind of, I would say, taken most of all of the pieces of writing advice that I’ve ever seen or received, is actually from John Steinbeck. When he talks about writing, and he talked about writing, whenever you’re writing something, having a single person in mind, like a real person in mind, you’re writing it for, and that has two very clear benefits. And so, so I think, again, kind of going from that, the paralyzing fear of I’m writing to everybody to oh, I’m running to disperse. This is why I’m writing for just choosing somebody to keep in mind just allows your writing to, to be a bit more distinctive, a bit more punchy, but more opinionated and so on. One is it allows you to know who you’re writing for, so that you can figure out should I write it this way? I should write it that way. Should I write it at this seniority level of seniority level. So it allows you to make the piece very, very, like a guarantee and is relevant for one person. And by doing so you always end up making it relevant for other people. But the second magical thing about it, especially in the kind of internet age, is that then you’ve got somebody to send it to, right. Like every single blog post I write gets emailed to at least one person, right? There’s at least one person that I have in mind when I’m writing a blog post where I’m like, I’m gonna send this to this person, because they are gonna love it. Because we have, we’ve either talked about this before, or I know that I’ve heard them talking about it, or I know that they’re in that situation, or whatever it might be.
Alastair McDermott 34:25
Yeah, very cool. And I heard that before from Jonathan Stark and I didn’t know this from Steinbeck originally. That’s, that’s really cool. Okay, I want to shift gears a little bit. I wanted to ask you about pivoting. Because I know that you’ve pivoted several times in your business. So can you can you talk about why you did that? And, like, how would that mean for you in kind of reinventing yourself each time?
Tom Critchlow 34:48
Good question. I don’t know if I would necessarily say that I’ve been through any kind of hard pivots. I think I’ve made some deliberate choices, to kind of get kind of bend the arc of my, my career if you like, you know, I think probably the biggest course corrections kind of thing. Yeah, I mean, the biggest probably kind of pivot I made was when. So I worked in the SEO industry for a long time. That’s where I kind of cut my teeth and kind of first built my audience, first learn how to blog, all those kind of things. I was working at an agency that that my brother ran, that was brought me to New York, back in 2011, I opened the New York office, my brothers agency did that. But I felt like SEO was was limiting. I felt like like a purely being being SEO was limiting me limiting myself. And whereas SEO had been this kind of secret source, SEO was becoming I could see back in 2011, it’s becoming more commoditized. Right? Web designers are getting better at SEO, PR people are getting better. SEO wasn’t becoming such a thing that was kind of a specialist topic as much as it was becoming, you know, more more widely accessible. And so I deliberately moved to go work at Google for a couple years, not doing anything to do with SEO, just to get into like creative marketing, brand marketing, product strategy, doing a whole bunch of stuff that you know, honestly, I was not very good at. Because, because because I hadn’t didn’t have a background it was it was brand new to me. You know, I ran my first TV ad while I was at Google, and had no idea what I was doing. I, you know, I did like a product strategy work. And I was way out of my depth, doing all kinds of things. But I learned a lot. And it was a deliberate, it was a deliberate move to get me out of the narrow frame of SEO. So when I came out of Google, after a couple years, I kind of went out on my own it, you know, the very first client I got out the door was an SEO client, kind of obviously, because that’s what my audience was. But it was very demoralizing, right? I was like, Oh, I thought I was going to be doing like, like brand inventions and your product strategy for Samsung, and like, the kind of projects that I’ve been working on inside Google. And it was kind of demoralizing to go back and be like, Oh, I’m doing an SEO project again. But that was that was a, it was a journey, right. And I think I made a deliberate choice to, to steer my consulting work away from just SEO work, right. And I think that’s where it took me a long time. But eventually, I kind of found that if I can get more senior inside clients, and if I can work in a broader context of like, a media environment, for example, then my SEO skills can still be useful, right? The background and SEO can still come into play. But it isn’t an SEO engagement, right? It isn’t, we’re not doing I’m not doing an SEO audit or keyword research when when the client asks kind of thing. And so that’s been a real journey for me. I think that was kind of the big, I guess, kind of like course correction or kind of change changing direction that I want to go in. You know, I had a there was a fork in the road, a couple years into consulting, where I almost launched a brand for my consulting practice. So I actually kind of created like a, a name and a visual identity and all these like a new website and all this kind of stuff for my consulting so that I could kind of separate Tom Critchlow from what was going to be yes, and yes, and consulting. And I pulled the plug on that the night before I launched it. After a long conversation with a close friend of mine, Ron Garrett, who basically kind of told me off the ledge, he was like, none of this feels like you. And I kind of ended up backing away from that and kind of staying on the, you know, what, I’m going to run my consulting practices as Tom Critchlow, not as a as a brand name. I still don’t know if that was the right choice. But that was a choice that I made. And I’ve kind of stuck with it. You know, eventually I might revisit that. But that’s been that’s been a choice. And then probably the most, the most recent change that I’ve had in my consulting career with being last year, I launched the SEO MBA, which is like an online course and kind of training platform for SEO professionals. And so that’s that’s suddenly kind of opened my eyes to a whole different kind of revenue, like for the first time in seven years independent consulting, I finally have revenue that is not pure consulting revenue, of course, sales and that kind of stuff. So that’s been an interesting, I’m still still figuring out what that means that that change. But that’s been the kind of the most interesting kind of pivot. So I don’t know if I’ve really kind of, like thrown everything away and pivoted in a kind of hard sense. But I’ve definitely made some deliberate choices over the years to change direction or kind of, you know, a skate in a slightly different way.
Alastair McDermott 39:15
Yeah, yeah. And was that scary for you at the time? Like, did you feel I’m taking a risk here?
Tom Critchlow 39:20
Yes. And no, you know, the, the great thing about independent consulting is that no single choice feels so risky because every client, it’s like a Lego block, right? It’s like the, you know, in the, in the, in the full time world, taking a job in a full time job feels like a very, it’s like a big commitment, both in terms of you’re committing, like full time work to that company, but also like you’re probably going to stay there for a while. Whereas independent consulting, you can kind of twist and move and change a bit more iteratively right. You can kind of like I still had SEO clients when I was trying to not do SEO anymore. You know, I still had consulting clients and I liked the SEO MBA so you can kind of stand into these things a bit.
Alastair McDermott 40:02
You don’t have to divorce all your clients and or fire all your clients.
Tom Critchlow 40:05
Alastair McDermott 40:06
Tom Critchlow 40:07
Yeah. Which I think is also, you know, I also talked about this on in some of my essays is, that’s also terrifying because if you want to try and be someone new, like, you can change your website like if I wanted to be a UX designer, I could UX consultant, I could change your website, I could start writing about UX. But when I feel like a UX consultant, right, like what I really like, would I would I feel like that I was drinking my own Kool Aid, right? Do I believe my own bullshit? Like, like, like you can I can I can. I can iterate some things, but like, do I really? Am I really doing? Am I really who I want to be right. And I think that again, it’s kind of comes back to this, this piece that, you know, working on your own self identity as an independent consultant is this kind of deep internal work that that never ends. And I think it’s very scary, until you kind of embrace it wholeheartedly, right? Until you kind of like fully just be like, You know what, I do have to go inside myself and figure out who I want to be because no one else is going to tell me, you I’m going to be right, there’s no, there’s no promotions, there’s no job titles, there’s no career progression as an independent consultant, right, you’re on your own. And so you’ve got to you got to make your own path. And you’ve got to be comfortable with that. And I think the sooner that you can really internalize that and be okay with that, the better off you’ll be.
Alastair McDermott 41:18
Very well said. Thank you. Okay, I’m going to I’m going to wrap up because we’re coming close to time. So I have a couple of well, we’ll see. I have two quick questions, that one thing I’d like to ask people about is what is your biggest business failure and what did you learn from it?
Tom Critchlow 41:34
What is the biggest business failure? That’s a really hard question to answer. You know, thankfully, fingers crossed, Touchwood. I don’t think there have been any catastrophic failures. Probably not starting sooner. Probably should have done this, you know, before I did. But yeah, that’s probably the biggest, biggest regret I have, I guess.
Alastair McDermott 41:54
Me very much. And I’m in that same boat as well.
Tom Critchlow 41:56
Alastair McDermott 41:57
Yeah. I wish I’d started earlier.
Tom Critchlow 41:58
Alastair McDermott 41:59
Okay. Is there a book or resource of some kind that you think that will be useful for people to check it? Apart from your own which we will link, obviously.
Tom Critchlow 42:08
Thank you very much. Yeah, that’s um, you know, I think Venkatesh Rao has some great blogging about independent consulting, if you kind of go back to his archives a little bit, that he’s been really foundational for some my own thinking, also the book “The Business of Expertise”, but it would make it I know, you had David Baker on recently. But that book was it was really interesting to me, I think both of those things are kind of, kind of directly in the line of independent consulting, something that’s a little bit more from left field is there was a group called the Helsinki Design Lab, who were kind of a small group of consultants, essentially, working with the Finnish government, funded by the government to kind of be like a think tank research group. And one of the things that is interesting about them is they very much kind of had this working, working public mentality, right, because they were government funded, and they wanted to make all that work kind of transparent, and so on. And they published a couple of books online that you can, you can just download as PDFs free, and there’s one in particular called recipes for systemic change by the Helsinki Design Lab, and that book, has probably shaped my independent consulting more than any other. It has this wonderful concept of strategy and stewardship, which I’ve referenced in my own writing a bunch of times now, but just as concept that, that changing something like an organization or a government or whatever, changing something requires both strategy to kind of know what you’re doing. But the the execution of the strategy is not mundane work, right, it requires the stewardship as kind of a more a more strategic way to think about execution. But that that is where all of the hard work happens is that is that you know, you can you can make the strategy but until you try and apply it in real life, you don’t know what you’re doing. Right? And so it was kind of they have this wonderful concept of, of strategy and stewardship being this kind of interwoven, iterative process that, again, for me, was really foundational as I think about consulting and, you know, especially the point when I read that book, you know, I was very much trying to, quote unquote, do more strategy, right? I was like, why don’t why don’t clients hire me for strategy, like I want to do strategy work, right, not really knowing what that means, necessarily, but knowing that I wanted to do it. And the book really helped me open my eyes to the fact that sometimes the doing work is strategic. And it can be strategic and that you can learn things by doing that can be that can come back around to the strategic insights and and and so on. And so that really, you know, and some of the consequences of that book are when I work with clients, I’m not afraid to roll up my sleeves, right? You know, if they if a client needs keyword research, I’m going to do the keyword research if they need me to, you know, go go browse LinkedIn for a couple hours to try and find some candidates to hire. I’ll go browse LinkedIn. for a couple hours, like, I don’t care any more about what I quote unquote, should be spending my time on or like how expensive my time is or anything like that. And I’m very, very much focused on what is the thing that we can do right in front of us is, is going to either give us an insight or move the project forward or create some momentum? Because that’s the only thing that matters, right? Creating a deck or, you know, a strategy is, is, you know, several steps away from from value, oftentimes. So I but but you know, this strategy and stewardship frame helped me realize that by doing that kind of grunt work, if you like, doing work, doesn’t stop you from doing the strategy. It’s actually the opposite, which actually unlocks strategy for you, right? And so it’s kind of I can obviously, ramble about this for a long time. But that’s, that’s a book that I think everyone should read. It’s, obviously it’s framed around kind of organizational change, and the built environment, right cities and architecture and so on. But I just think that, you know, they have the hardest job of all right, working in a highly regulated space, convincing stakeholders to spend your huge sums of money to actually like build buildings. And all I’m doing over here is trying to convince somebody to rebuild their website. So So you know, I think there’s a lot of lessons that can be learned from them.
Alastair McDermott 46:13
Yeah. And that’s really cool. And that’s, that’s free. And I’m gonna link I’ve actually downloaded it. I’m going to link that in the show notes as well. So thanks. That’s a really great, that’s a really great recommendation. And okay, so and yeah, we could talk about that one for a whole other podcast episode. So, so we got to cut it short for time. Last question is do you read fiction at all? Do you have any favorite fiction books?
Tom Critchlow 46:37
I yeah, I pretty much only read fiction. So I’m not really a big nonfiction reader. Yeah, I’m actually. So I think during the pandemic, everyone is going to look for a little bit of a kind of cozy retreat from the world are a kind of a bit of a scape. So I’ve actually gone back to one of my favorite fantasy series from an author Robin Hobb. She wrote the there’s kind of the “Assassin’s Apprentice” series, which I read when I was a teenager and absolutely loved and only recently discovered that she’s written about 17 books in this whole arc. And so I’ve gradually been reading all 17 of them. I think I’m on book.
Alastair McDermott 47:12
Tom Critchlow 47:13
Alastair McDermott 47:14
Tom Critchlow 47:15
Yeah, yeah. Yeah. Yeah, yeah. So So it’s about her ability to do well building is is astonishing, like really like the fact that, you know, she has these distinct trilogies in the series, but they each layer on top of each other in non obvious ways, right? It isn’t just like the same characters each time. She-she jumps around the whole world into different characters and different lines of storylines. I think it’s, I think it’s great. And, you know, unlike a lot of kind of fantasy and sci fi, she’s not afraid to spend a lot of time doing character development, tackling issues of things like gender and politics. Like there’s a lot of really interesting stuff in there that that you wouldn’t necessarily expect to find in, in a fantasy series. But anyway, so that’s, I I’ve read nothing but Robin Hobb for the past 18 months, because I’ve just been, I’ve literally just been leaving rereading the series…
Alastair McDermott 48:04
We have enough dystopia outside the door, so?
Tom Critchlow 48:07
Exactly, exactly. It felt like the retreat that I needed from the from the real world. So,
Alastair McDermott 48:11
Yeah, and thank you, I think, in in think this will be episode 49 or so in 49 episodes, you’re the first person to have a fancy sci fi book, I think so. As they get as a fellow sci fi fantasy nerd. I appreciate that.
Tom Critchlow 48:26
Alastair McDermott 48:27
Tom Critchlow, so where can people find you if they’re interested in learning more?
Tom Critchlow 48:31
Probably no surprise, but TomCritchlow.com is it’s kind of my home for everything. I’m also pretty active on Twitter, @tomcritchlow. Those are the two primary places and if you follow those, you can link off to everything else. So…
Alastair McDermott 48:44
Awesome. Tom, thank you so much for being here with us today.
Tom Critchlow 48:47
Thanks on having me, Alastair.
Alastair McDermott 48:47
If you would like some help with the journey to authority, I have a free webinar available at TheRecognizedauthority.com/webinar, and there’s a link to that in the show notes. You can sign up for the live webinar. If you can’t make it, there will be a replay available. It is purely an informational webinar. There’s nothing for sale. It is just a webinar to help you take that next step on the journey to authority. I’ll have some free downloads and tools to help you with that available if you sign up. So that’s at therecognizedauthority.com/webinar
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