From Quora to Consulting Niche - A Casual 7-Year Journey | #169
February 5th, 2022: Greetings from Austin. I got sunburned playing tennis on Sunday and then fell on ice on Thursday (I’m okay!). I turn 37 tomorrow and I’m not sure what I think about that yet. Perhaps I’ll have some thoughts next week.
LIVE Convos About The Book: I’m hosting two fun events this upcoming week talking about my book with two people that have been inspirations along the way:
Stories From The Pathless Path with Khe Hy (Wednesday @ 3pm Central)
The Magic of Writing with Sasha Chapin (Thursday @ 2pm Central)
This newsletter is sponsored by my book. If you haven’t bought it already, maybe this review will convince you:
#1 From Quora To Consulting Niche
January has been a weird month. It’s been the launch of my book but also my best financial month since becoming self-employed. As people are calling me “author” I’ve actually been spending more time playing a different identity: consultant.
I thought it might be interesting to share a bit of how this all happened and how through small and incremental tweaks over 7-8 years, I ended up finding a unique consulting niche and work I really like doing.
Since I didn’t plan any of this, I don’t advise trying to use this as a playbook, but perhaps it might help you think about planting your own seeds that might grow into something interesting.
Step 1: Quora
Sometime in 2014, I started writing on Quora. I wrote about what I knew - things like college basketball, getting into an MBA program, and strategy consulting. I liked Quora a lot because you could scroll around, find questions that I had never thought of and then attempt to answer them.
Some of these answers, especially ones about tools like MECE and the pyramid principle and McKinsey’s problem-solving method, got a lot of attention. This surprised me. Most of the writing about consulting at that point was about how to break into the industry. But working in consulting, I was shocked at how differently people worked than in the corporate world like at GE where I had worked right after college.
One of the most interesting posts was one I wrote trying to break down how BCG and McKinsey teams turn information into compelling presentations (link here). I was fascinated but didn’t think others would be. I was wrong. One cool thing about that post that gave me confidence to keep going was seeing Ramit Sethi upvote the post.
I don’t know why that was such a boost of confidence but it was…
Step 2: Advise Undergraduate Consulting Group
In 2014 while I was working at BCG, I met a fellow alum from my school. He told me about an ambitious undergrad at our school who wanted to start a consulting group. I love working with students so volunteered to help. Over a number of years, we ended up building something pretty amazing. Before the group existed no one from my school had ever landed an entry-level job at a top consulting firm (I had done it only after working at GE). Now there are several that have landed jobs at McKinsey, Bain and BCG.
At first, this group was pretty bad at learning how to be consultants and my friend and I were responsible for figuring out how to teach them. The first couple of years we literally embedded ourselves in the projects because we struggled to teach the skills.
Learning how to teach them the skills was hard. I had to unlearn a lot of what I knew and get back to the basics. Through trial and error, I stumbled into some things that worked.
Step 3: Start Training My Peers
After teaching the students, I started taking a more active role in helpign my peers improve at work.
At BCG I decided to dedicate my “magic time” (a consulting term talking about the time after you finish your project work which doesn’t really exist) to the training team and just started doing whatever they needed help with. I gained the trust of the training manager and got to travel around the world working with her and a professional training consultant on consulting skills training. It was an amazing learning experience and a seed was planted: “I’d like to do this one day!”
In my last couple of years of full-time work, I continued to proactively volunteer to train my peers. At my final job, I was helping run consulting skill training for a global team of researchers of hundreds of people. I wasn’t getting rewarded in terms of promotions or pay but I found it work worth doing.
Step 4: First Freelance Projects
When I finally quit in 2017, I didn’t really know what I was doing. I was desperate to take any project that would fulfill my plan of becoming a freelance consultant. One of my first clients was a small executive search firm. I got to work with them and help them think about their strategy and culture while also doing some coaching with their junior team. I liked the projects and didn’t really think that it might be a niche (client service firms) that I could focus on.
However, in my second year, I worked with another consulting firm in Boston. I helped them build and facilitate a training program for their first-year consultants. I really enjoyed this and decided that I should probably try to keep doing this kind of work.
It’s clear now that serving this niche was possible but like many things - only clear upon reflection.
Step 5: Build Online Course Version Of Training
After building that training program for the firm in Boston, I decided to move to Asia. While I had a few conversations with other companies to do similar work, everyone thought training should be done in person.
Without much to do in Asia, I decided to build an online course teaching people the skills I had been teaching people for years. The first version was pretty good content-wise but I put no thought into the structure, marketing, branding, or selling. When I launched it, it was called the “Strategy Toolkit” and included pictures of ninjas jumping around
Eventually, I figured out some things and moved the course from my Boundless site to a site I now still run called StrategyU. I renamed the course Think Like a Strategy Consultant, got rid of the ninjas, wrote a bunch of stuff based on the Quora posts I had written, applied Nat Eliason's SEO mini-course, and then let it run.
Almost immediately, random people from the web started buying the course. This was wild and it was the first time I had made any substantial money without having to trade my time.
I shifted all my attention to the course for the next year. I ran two live cohorts, upgraded the materials, and eventually developed the right structure for it that seemed to resonate with the audience I was targeting (a self-paced version, or a hands-on coaching version where I work with them 1-on-1).
Step 6: New Opportunities Emerge
In 2019 and most of 2020, I more or less just tweaked my course, focused on writing, and spent a lot of time in non-work mode. If you want more of that story you should probably buy my book.
In 2020 I tried and failed to land some clients doing this kind of work remotely.
Fun story: In Jan 2020 I won a project working with a company in Philadelphia. They wanted me to run my online consulting skills course for their internal strategy team. They paid me a decent amount of money upfront to test and pilot the program. We were a couple of weeks away from kicking it off in February when they emailed me: “sorry we just don’t think online training works well, we are going to stick to in-person training.”
They told me to keep the money which was great but it would be a while longer until companies would actually embrace virtual options for learning and development. Most companies were in an endless state of thinking they were always a couple months away from “returning to normal.”
In 2021, companies started to see virtual training and learning as a real option. This was great because I was ready.
I just had to figure out how to package and structure my offerings.
Step 7: Packaging My Offers
In consulting firms, there is a tendency to communicate your services with a high degree of ambiguity. This works for a number of reasons. The firms have existing relationships, are good at solving ambiguous problems, and charge high enough rates that it makes it worth it to have long sales cycles or parts of projects that are unpaid.
Many former consultants take a similar approach and will advertise things like “Strategic Consulting” or “Organizational Change Consulting” as a service on their sites. I’ve increasingly come to think that this is a bad approach and the more clear and direct I’ve been in communicating my services, and price, the more people have reached out to me.
So through 2021, I started creating very clear pricing and offers for everything I was doing. Here is an example of my 1-on-1 coaching offer:
This way of positioning 1-on-1 coaching and consulting work helps signal two things:
The “entry-level” price is to lower the friction of getting people to talk to me but still charge something that filters for people that really want to work with me.
I have higher tier pricing as a signal to companies that says “I’m a serious professional and am willing to customize something that works with you.”
As soon as I added pricing to my site, I immediately noticed a dramatic increase in inbound requests. This is something I wish I knew earlier and I think more freelancers should consider. There are likely a lot of people that don’t reach out for help because they either don’t want to go through the pricing dance or simply just want to know what something costs.
The result of this is pretty amazing. Because of my inbound SEO traffic, I now have a steady stream of clients reaching out to me that are already vetted for being willing to pay a high rate and likely agree with my approach and style of thinking about problems.
In early 2021, I ran my first corporate cohort-based course with a data sciences firm in the US. It went way better than I expected. Through that process, I tested and then developed a package for that offering as well. You can check out that whole page here but my offer is clear and signals that its a serious training program:
I’m now running variations of this with a company in the UK and one in Dubai and in addition to this, I’ve held workshops and done strategy work with consulting firms in Canada, the US, and Nigeria.
The more I do, the more insight I get from working with these companies, and the more valuable my offers can be.
The crazy thing? I’m absolutely loving this work and I find it a lot of fun.
I find this all a bit too good to be true, but I’m riding the wave.
I hope this helps you think about your journey too.
I met Tina He this week in Austin who’s doing some cool stuff in crypto but also has a shared love of writing. I really loved this essay on The New Frontier of Belonging:
This may be a story about a new species of corporate governance, a better internet, a path to true democracy, a rebel against gatekeepers, and we’re probably on chapter 1 of that story. Yet I hope this is also a story about the modern individualist’s awakening to the power of the collective.
Definitely check out her writing and her projects!
#3 Book Update
Here’s the dashboard on Book sales. Ali Abdaal wrote about my book last weekend which likely drove a spike in sales. Also gifted my book to a bunch of web3 friends I met in Austin this week which was pretty cool (and someone paid me Krause House tokens for the book - that’s a first too).
I posted a short video on my 10-year writing journey
I went on Amanda Natividad’s YouTube show this week to talk about the book and also did some Yo-Yo tricks live in the first couple of minutes
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