When I first started working at Bottle Rocket Studios helping clients craft world-class mobile experiences, I thought I was an expert. I had spent years telling the world I was on my blog. Had even finished my pages for a book on building apps that I’ve bored you all about more than I should. I was the expert and I was expecting to be recognized as such there.
Only to realize everyone knew the amount that I did and were deeper in the thought experiment than I had bargained.
Walking into meetings, I had these amazing concepts I’d written about that I was excited to share. Most were kind about it, but often I would hear it had been discussed weeks ago and overall moved past it. Instead of wowing people with my insight into revenue models, simplified UI strategies, and data migration patterns, they would smile and point me to the comprehensive notes in our wiki on the topic.
That’s not to critique the work I’ve done thus far. I have the ability to communicate verbally and in writing very well, so there’s something to be said about taking ideas and helping others hear them.
Eventually, while everyone was talking about all things mobile, I found what became my new thing. Watching all of these humans wave their hands in front of whiteboards trying to find the next amazing animation every app would use, I became fascinated with them.
What makes humans interact the way they do while making stuff?
I immersed myself in books like the Checklist Manifesto, the Control Heuristic, Drive, Blink, and so many others. My boss noticed our 1:1s became more focused on seeing how internal and client interactions developed and how I wanted to help improve them. Let to a promotion and my first “assignment” as a process champion.
Instead of selling myself as a mobile expert (are there any of those left and does my 11-year-old count as well?) I became more interested in how things were made. Many of us are just as enamored with the topic, hence my involvement with this community I love dearly.
I found a “product,” or so I thought.
At a weekend retreat years ago, dear friend Bob asked, “what is our product in coaching?” It’s a simple enough concept. We find our lane, our niche, our dent in the world we wish to make. Whether you run your own business, or work as part of someone else’s, you should be able to carve out a path as “someone who does this for us.” The conversation tickled every creative bone in my body and it became a really popular post for my space at the time.
My worry at the time of writing was related to the services I desired to sell being dumbed down. I had started exploring big A agile and if that was a good thing for our work. The desire was to package what we did into reusable decks that pitched positive change to one and all and simply change the client logo in the slides.
Like it or not, that ship probably sailed before I had even written a word on the topic, and I wrote that nearly six years ago (thanks time for the reminder).
In some way, I have spent that time swimming in different seas of confusion over what exactly it is I did to separate myself from others. If I’m headed to an interview or client pitch, what exactly am I supposed to say that isn’t the exact same as others?
We all have letters after our name with certifications, which have become just as much a commodity as others. I’ve worked at some amazing companies that tell my story of experience, but so have many of you. Even if you haven’t worked at a recognizable org, that doesn’t minimize your experience. I can speak, write and wave my arms like the next consultant…so there goes that notion.
Then there’s the whole framework-expertise discussion.
Maybe you are the one who says you’re an expert in the latest and greatest from one of our many very capable and usable models of working. Packaged with the appropriate certifications, of course. Perhaps you differentiate yourself as someone who knows how to take the parts of the framework that make the best sense for an org and know how to customize it best for them.
Either of those talking points is valid and equally able to sell yourself to someone wanting the work done. Unfortunately, I still don’t think that’s enough to make me solely me. There are many who take either side of that coin and sell it better than me.
That sounds depressing, Murman. Is this going anywhere?
Fast forward to last week and yet another riveting interview with Stephen Dubner of Freakonomics fame. I love how he structures his interviews (lots of reps will help you craft that). He has a knack for hearing a nugget of information and stating it in a way that makes it seem to have always been right in front of my eyes. This round of questions was pointed at Samin Nosrat of Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat fame. She’s a lovely person to listen to, and the heart she puts into her words leaps off the page. Plus she has a giggle I could hear 20 times a day.
Having written a book (her first) that sold over a million copies, she’s facing a fair amount of internal pressure writing her second book. I mean, how in the world is she supposed to top a worldwide best-seller that captured the hearts of us all during a time when we needed a dose of feel-good?
I have no idea what that kind of fame feels like, so it’s a challenge to really relate. My version of that was after I first got accepted to speak at conferences. It was a topic brewing inside of me for years, and I spent a couple of years going from event to event sharing what I learned. After that, I stared at many a blank screen trying to formulate my next topic. Got rejected a ton and the feedback from peers wasn’t super positive.
Eventually, I found my next topic. Then, the next one. Ideas flow out of me like crazy now. Did I have some mind-bending realization or find the key to unlocking my creativity? I’d rather point to a quote from the Nosrat interview that feels the truest.
“It’s something I think or privately lament to myself…I’m the product. Increasingly, when you’re an author and especially a cookbook author, you become the product,” she said. “When you go to the store right now to find a cookbook, the face of the chef is on the cover. I understand I’m the subject [of people’s connection with the material].”
She is not an expert in cooking, complete stop, per se. Nosrat is stating she is an expert in her way of looking at food. The hope is when you make food the way she does, you will find a connection to the material in a similar manner.
In the best way possible, I am my own product.
I wish I was the creator of the next big thing that everyone is gonna want to include in pitch decks to clients. So many people I respect have written amazing books, delivered keynotes to open conferences, and found an actual thing that is their product to sell. Trust me, I’m able to admit my jealousy because it would set my family up big time if I had that in my pocket.
That’s just not where I’m at in my journey. For now, at least.
The pie chart of people in my world that do well for themselves doesn’t have anything fancy to sell. They may have inroads to work because of some product they use or professional associations. That said, they are the product they sell. When I was exploring going into business for myself at the end of last year, I queried so many of them to find out how in the hell they find work and sell it.
It’s just them. They know themselves and how to describe their approach to helping others.
As I’ve described previously, that’s no easy exercise to find a way to productize yourself. It takes years of discovering how you show up every day (for yourself and others). In many conversations where you question your answers as much as the person who asked. You can’t fall out of bed knowing you are your product and what exactly that is.
It takes work to know exactly what it means for you to sell yourself. It’s also very rewarding. If we can deconstruct the pieces of us that make us special and unique, we can describe who we are in daily conversation. It’d be the beginning of understanding we aren’t just someone who shows up to work. I’m a product worth buying, and I can’t wait to tell you more about it!
How have you explored what your product is? Would you mind sharing with me the activities you performed to understand your product better and how you sell it? This is not just for independent practitioners. You can sell yourself as an FTE just as amazingly as folks on their own. Would love to share some of them in a future post or podcast.