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Writing the Plan:

Defining Uniqueness in a Crowded Marketplace

A blog chronicling the up's and down's, trials and tribulations, fear and happiness of moving your life from the expected 9-to-5 job to a life of consulting. While it is a big and often scary decision, it is a time of discovery, rejuvenation and introspection that will help you remember who you are and who you were supposed to be. It's a wonderful journey.

For more than 20 years I reveled in the role of extolling the benefits of my employers with detailed marketing plans and well developed and tested messages. Why then, did I stumble so significantly when I sat down to do the same for myself? The thought of marketing yourself, even when you are an experienced marketer, is a little intimidating.

When your livelihood suddenly comes from your own hands and talent, defining your uniqueness in the market and what you can do to help clients meet their goals is an obvious beginning step. But when you sit down and put pen to  paper, you suddenly struggle. I found I could not just sit down and write what it was that I did best. I actually knew what I wanted to do, but somehow my mind went blank when I went to organize it on paper. I am including an image of where I started – crazed notes on a notepad, but it was a great first step as I began to build my plan.

You will find many articles on how to write your own business plan. You will find many companies talking about how they can help you write your marketing strategy. But where do you start when you are developing your own brand strategy? Here are a few thoughts on where I began:

Be Honest. I can do a lot of things sort of well and a few things really well. I had to list out my skill sets. The list was pretty long (after 25 years of experience), but after I wrote it out, I layered over the most important question: What on this list makes me feel fulfilled and happy? The list dwindled. I did this second assessment over the course of a week. I wanted to be fully honest with myself about what I thought I could do that would add value to others, but also make me proud and satisfied with my career. Many of us can do many things and our lists will be long. But getting to the happiness part – that takes some real honesty.

Uniqueness - I work in a field that has a lot of incredibly talented professionals. The next layer of thinking was to craft a list of things that I do uniquely well or at least in a way that is different from others. All my career I have had the ability to climb above the clouds and take multiple problems into shared solutions. I also have a great hiring sense, having made dozens of great hires in my career. But I also have a future-thinking personality and know that how you build infrastructure impacts your ability to succeed. I know that my value proposition isn’t just that I can write marketing plans and define messaging strategies that target the right audiences, I also have an innate sense of strategy and how many pieces fit together to make an organization effective and that includes bringing an entire organization together around common themes and goals. After defining my core skills, I had to truly spend some time thinking about how unique they were – again, with an intense honesty. The last thing you want to do is exhibit hubris and build your plan on something that is not real. Many people have told me that they tried consulting and failed. Most of them say it was because of one of two things – the first being that they never defined their niche honestly and took on work that they were not always expert in. Word spread and reputations were damaged. And their businesses failed. (The second reason will be in next week’s blog post.)

Who will care? Always an important step before you begin – who will want to invest in your services or take advantage of your new company? I spent a good bit of time making lists and considering how I can diversify into several markets. By the time I launched, I had a clear idea to whom I wanted to message.

How much do you love this work? I have met several folks who define or defined their business by the hours they wanted to work. Some did not want to work weekends. Some wanted to have two weeks off a month. I realistically knew I was entering in a 24/7 mode and was willing to make the sacrifice to build my business. I begin my days often at 4:30 a.m., with east coast conference calls starting at 5 a.m. PST. I find Sunday evenings are also popular times for clients who want to talk outside the office. That said, I also know I want to take time off. I want to hike more, have fun with my family and see more of the world and I have a plan now to allow that to happen. I also can plan my meetings and calls around picking my son up at school or shopping with my daughters. I don’t mind working a lot of hours. I just want to do it around my family’s schedule.

How far are you willing to go? I am comfortable with taking clients from all over North America. I have clients mostly in the United States, but some in Mexico and expect to have some in Canada as well. I spent a lot of time learning about market structures in those countries and how they compare to American practices. I do not have that same understanding of markets in all other countries, so I determined it would not be authentic for me to consider clients outside of this continent. I had a friend who took, early on, a client in China. Somewhat familiar with their customs and business practices, she spent years doing what she expected to be a few months work and was paid only for a few months work. She did not fully understand the country and its culture and was not successful in managing the relationship.

How much are you worth? This was a very hard conversation I had with my team of “me, myself and I.” I am charging less than peers I benchmarked, but much for some of the markets I am working in. I knew I could not undercut myself and undercharge in order to get business. Deciding on my comfort level that also was competitive in the marketplace took a few weeks of homework. It is not easy discussing your fees with clients. I cringe when we get to that part, but suspect that I will get used to it, in time.

As I got serious about building my consulting business, these were some of the first considerations I had in writing out my plan. Next week I will talk about the second reason I heard from my friends and colleagues who did not make it work – marketing yourself and getting the word out about your new business. More to come….

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