The Laboring Strategist, A Free-Agent Anti-Pattern (And How to Fix)
I’ve got what might well be a new term for you. You’re probably going to love it, assuming you haven’t heard it before.
It’s the sort of poorly-named Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon, so maybe just call it frequency bias. This is the term for when you learn a new word, and then you immediately start hearing it all the time.
Naturally, this is just another instance of the many ways that our brains constantly tricks us. It’s not that you’re suddenly seeing this thing everywhere.
Rather you’re seeing it the same amount you always have. But you now know what it is and are flush with having just learned something, so you’re actually paying attention.
I mention this, obviously, because the point of this blog is to expand your vocabulary. That goes almost without saying.
But frequency bias is also going to serve here as a great hook and segue to talking about a freelancer role as a “certified content marketer.”
Introducing The Solo Content Marketer
I got this email the other day:
I get a lot of emails like this, actually. They ask me to link to things or they ask me to publish their articles on my blog.
Mostly, I just send them to spam.
But this one made me curious, so I clicked on the portfolio link and looked at the guy’s website a little before sending it to spam.
And, ooh, weird!
He was another certified content marketer. And this was weird because I’ve suddenly, in the last 3 weeks or so, started seeing this term everywhere. Basically ever since we started a new division of Hit Subscribe and needed to find writers en masse in a different discipline.
And I’ve since realized something.
This guy, a self-proclaimed strategist, doing his own spammy outreach labor, is another discipline’s analog for an anti-pattern that I see all the time in the software world. My hope is that seeing it happen in a different discipline might jog some of you out of your reveries of slinging code and calling yourself a “consultant,” to the detriment of your own prospects and business.
What Does Solo Content Marketing Involve?
Some weeks back, someone interested in writing for our new venture mentioned a content marketing certification as a value-add in the context of potentially writing for us. “Interesting!” I thought.
Then I saw it again, and yet again. Another interested writer and someone I’d worked with in the past both had this credential. And then, of course, the afore-screenshotted-email. Damn, you Herr Baader and Frau Meinhof!
Since I am more given to impostor syndrome than Dunning Kruger, I took notice. Here I am running a content marketing business and I was only distantly aware that a solo “content marketer” was a thing and not at all aware that one could earn a certification for it.
So I started to ask these folks some questions and to do a good bit of research. This included reading up on the various programs that would offer such a certification, and watching the Hubspot Course about the same, since I have an account.
Much to my relief, I didn’t find any dramatically new information or embarrassing blind spots to which we’d subjected our clients. The information was good, and the programs are definitely covering material that you should know if you’re serious about using digital content to market your offering (or someone else’s):
- Creating content plans
- SEO basics
- The theory of content marketing (i.e. leading with free value to build trust)
- Tips for writing well in general and, specifically, for digital media
- Working with buyers and dealing with content briefs
But the idea of people using this education as the basis for a solo business started to vaguely unsettle me on their behalf. The idea crept into my head that these programs were teeing folks up for a professional slog.
And when I figured out why, I started writing this post.
Content Marketer: A Laboring-Strategist
Let’s set aside the salaried employees who would go through a course like this. Those are probably product or brand marketers suddenly in charge of their employer’s digital content marketing, or something along those lines. Whatever it is, they’re seeking out this information as a crash course for running their organization’s digital marketing efforts.
I’m talking instead about people looking to turn this learning into a freelance practice. They’re aspiring to become laboring-strategists.
I’ve talked about this before, but here’s a quick recap. Commercial problem solving has 4 phases, ordered here both chronologically and by descending value:
- Diagnosis of a problem.
- Prescription of a therapy.
- Application of the therapy.
- Re-application and maintenance of the therapy.
A regular old freelance writer is decidedly camped in bucket (3). Someone in marketing or whatever has, for some reason, decided that their company needs content. So they hire a freelance writer to write that content.
So how do you stand out as a freelance writer?
Well, by learning some about the strategic context for your labor, the content marketing training courses tell you. You can stand out from your competition for labor by learning about prescription and maybe even a touch of diagnosis.
(For those of you waiting for the tie-in to the programming world, think of hanging your shingle as a freelance developer. The equivalent is that you learn some project management 101 and business basics in order to stand out from the other coders on Upwork.)
On the surface, this seems like a great strategy. Wouldn’t buyers have a much easier time working with a strategy-savvy laborer than a clueless one, who would unwittingly blunder?
You’d think that… but…
The Plight of the Laboring-Strategist
Who is the actual buyer of the laboring-strategist’s services? The devil is in the details.
Jim and the Content Marketer
For our content marketer, it’s probably the director of digital marketing and Medium Sized Inc. Let’s call him Jim.
MSI is big enough to have a digital marketing budget and has bought in enough to apportion a generous helping of it for content. So Jim creates a content strategy, an editorial calendar, a style guide, a CMS with analytics and marketing automation, and then, finally, sets about looking for freelance writers.
And then he gets a bunch of them, much to his delight. One of them — more than being “just a writer” — is content marketing certified. Nice!
Well, nice in principle, anyway. But for Jim the luster wears off very quickly.
You see, 9 out of his 10 writers take the content briefs and write the posts. But the content marketer really wants to flash strategy skills. This takes the form of healthy and good-natured debate over pretty much every decision Jim made prior to hiring his stable of writers.
This quickly gets old for Jim. You see, to Jim, phases (1) and (2) — diagnosis and prescription — are settled canon that he has no desire to revisit. The content marketer’s enthusiasm becomes Jim’s headache.
Writ large, the Jims of the world have no interest in paying extra for the supplemental strategy skills that separate content marketers from freelance writers. They may even come to view them as a detriment rather than a benefit.
This leaves the content marketer who leads with writing labor to chase buyers that don’t have any expertise in-house. But tiny companies without a single marketing staff member tend not to have the kind of content budgets that keep the content marketer in business.
Sandy and the Software Consultant
What does this look like in the world of software? It might involve a salaried software engineer earning an MBA or becoming a “six sigma black belt” or whatever the less-campy, modern version of that is.
Or, perhaps more likely, it takes the form of the software engineer that fancies himself a “consultant” because he either doesn’t have a W2 or he writes code for someone other than the company that issues it.
You see, he’s not just a software engineer.
He’s read up on emotional intelligence and knows what a rate sheet is, and here he is, ready to dole out advice to any passing VP that will listen to it.
Let’s get inside that VP’s head for a minute. We’ll call her Sandy.
Sandy is getting some coffee in the break room one morning, when she bumps into the “consultant,” the hero of our little tale.
“Hi Sandy! I’m one of the consultants writing the code on the API team, and I was actually giving some thought to the ROI, and whether we should even be creating an API in the first place and according to my notes — hey, where you going — okay, bye, good talk Sandy!”
I was once wrapping up a strategy consulting engagement where I was subcontracting for an agency that also furnished app dev. It happened that they were also furnishing “consultants” for app dev in this particular engagement, and I was chatting with those folks one day.
It was some years ago now, so I forget the exact exchange, but one of the developers basically asked “if you’re a consultant and we’re consultants, why do they want your opinion about their program management methodology and not ours?” Off the cuff, I countered with something like:
“rightly or wrongly, if your charter coming in is to furnish expertise, they’ll view your opinion as that of an expert, but if your charter is to write code, they’ll view the same opinion as that of yet another developer with unsolicited opinions about everything.”
You and Your Personal Trainer
Finally, to drive the point home fully, cast yourself as, well, you. But this time, instead of trying to write prose or code as a laborer, you’re consuming the services of a laborer.
You recently went to the doctor, who diagnosed you with high cholesterol. Rather than just put you on medication, however, the doctor suggested that a regiment of cardio and strategic weightlifting might do the trick (diagnosis, prescription). The doctor even recommends visiting a nearby gym where he thinks they might have personal trainers to help you.
You head to the gym, expecting the personal trainer to show you some exercises and coach you through them. Well, back it up a second, bucko.
He isn’t just a personal trainer — he’s a holistic medical professional. And before he shows you the arm angle to use for curls, he has some questions about your parents’ genetics and some opinions about the existential nature of cholesterol.
What’s your reaction at this point?
Are you content to re-litigate the medical diagnosis of your family doctor with some dude at the gym? Or do you sigh, roll your eyes, and look for a different personal trainer?
Here’s the thing. Even if the “holistic medical professional” is right and your doctor is wrong, you’re probably going to look for a different trainer.
Why? Because you’re already good on strategy and you’re just here for the execution.
Buying diagnosis and prescription is an entirely different mindset and phase of problem solving than buying the therapy.
Overcoming the Laboring-Strategist Slog
Why the bait and switch (probably unintentional and subconscious)? Why do our content marketers, consultants, and holistic medical professionals sell labor and then tack on the rider of unsolicited strategy advice?
Once a Laborer, Always a Laborer
Well, in a bemusing philosophical sense, they’re looking to give themselves org-chart-style promotions. In an employment context, a lot of people spend their early careers doing a thing (laboring) and then move on to managing people that do the thing (more and more like strategy). And they earn bigger paychecks as they work their way ‘up’ from labor to strategy.
So it goes in a tighter feedback loop with our freelance laboring-strategists. They’re taking labor work because that’s what they can get.
But they’re constantly and opportunistically looking to parlay it into strategy work, since that’s more prestigious, higher pay, and higher leverage.
They’re just, unfortunately, doing it in a way that tends to go over like a lead balloon.
If a company hires you as a salaried laborer, you have to spend years, or even decades, getting that same company to start viewing you as a strategic player and promoting you into leadership. This means that when a group of people view you as labor, the timeline by which they re-assess you up to prescription or diagnosis is positively glacial.
For all practical purposes, your clients will never change how they view you. Once a laborer, always a laborer, no matter how much unsolicited strategy advice you volunteer.
Once a Strategist, Always a Strategist
But if you come in diagnosing or prescribing, that positioning is yours to lose (and the main way to lose it tends to be diving into labor, but sliding down the value chain is a story for another time).
I’ve experienced the dichotomy firsthand in two different industries now. When I stopped accepting gigs where companies paid me to write code, it marked an inflection point between positioning myself as a laborer and a consultant. I then spent a number of years doing nothing but pure strategy consulting.
I’ve seen it again in the content marketing field. When we started Hit Subscribe, I wrote the articles and Amanda edited them, and that was it. I planned content for our clients with no marketing staff, but the ones that had in-house marketing were super-not-interested in Hit Subscribe’s strategy offerings back then.
Fast forward almost 3 years (wow, time flies). As we’ve built a business, hired staff, delegated the composition of blog posts, and grown our book of business significantly, that’s no longer true. Now when clients don’t take advantage of our strategy offering, it’s a question only of budget. They still ask for our input and take on strategic matters.
What’s the difference?
In the simplest sense, it’s my role, as the face of the business to the clients. I’m not a freelance writer (laborer); I’m the owner of a business that must know how to do something right to achieve the client results and growth we have.
But beyond that, it’s the way that we engage. We can deliver you labor to your heart’s content, but we have a non-negotiable process for diagnosis and prescription that clients or us have to do, or we won’t engage. In other words, we WILL NOT engage unless we’re involved in diagnosis and prescription in some fashion.
So, on that note, let’s close out with a series of practical ways to avoid the laboring-strategist anti pattern.
1. First and Foremost, Take Inventory of Your Current Positioning
Before you can do anything else, you need to be honest with yourself. Are you selling labor or strategy — your hands or your head?
Given that most reading this are knowledge workers, this might not be quite as easy as it sounds. So here’s a few questions to ask yourself by way of heuristics:
- Can you articulate how your engagement will make or save your client money, and how they’ll earn a return on the investment?
- Are people paying for your advice?
- Is your deliverable a blueprint for someone to execute?
- Do you define the process by which clients engage you, or do they?
Not bulletproof, but if you find yourself answering “no” to these questions, you’re probably toiling way applying therapy. A bunch of “yes” answers means you’re offering strategy.
If you’re giving a bunch of “yes” answers for all of your engagements, you probably don’t need any further advice, though I invite you to read on if it amuses you.
2. Declare Bankruptcy on the Laboring-Strategist Model
Next up, a simple step.
Stop what you’re doing and resign yourself to the need to retool your approach and positioning. I’m giving this its own section for emphasis, since I spent so many words and the thesis of the post calling this an anti-pattern.
If you asked yourself the questions above and got a lot of “no” answers, you’re a laborer. Resign yourself to the fact that your existing clients will never you view you as strategic and stop bothering them with your strategic overtures.
You’re at a crossroads.
If you like laboring, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. The world needs writers and marketing strategists, software engineers and consultants, personal trainers and doctors. So decide whether you even care about getting into diagnostics and prescription.
If you do, though, time for thing 3.
3. Bifurcate Your Offerings into Strategy and Labor
Now, assuming you’ve been a laboring-strategist up to this point, you’ve got some simple de-tangling work to do.
Make a list of the activities that you’ve performed for clients historically (or would perform for them). Then put them into one of two buckets:
- Strategy: phases 1 and 2.
- Labor: phases 3 and 4.
With that done, pull some of the things in the first bucket into a first class offering. You’re going to look to market that offering to future prospects. These prospects — these sales you haven’t met — are the future clients who will be your first “once a strategist, always a strategist” clients.
For some quick examples, if you’re a software pro, your discovery process is a great example of a strategic engagement. It might also involve current state assessments, retainer advice arrangements, etc. If you’re a freelance writer looking to break into content strategy, consider things like content roadmaps, existing content audits — things like that.
Keep paying the bills by serving your current clients, but favor the strategy-only clients when looking for new business.
4. Assess the Possibility of Owning all 4 Phases
I alluded to this briefly when describing the content marketer as a laboring-strategist. It’s tough sledding to find a company with no marketing staff, a decent budget for content, and a willingness to put you in charge of their (heretofore nonexistent) content marketing, soup-to-nuts. Most likely this buyer would just hire an employee in this situation.
I know that with tech companies looking for content, finding this type of client is nigh impossible. But you might have a shot at threading this needle in another industry.
For you software developers out there, this is a lot easier. You just need to look for organizations that don’t have in-house development staff and need some work done.
This might mean specializing in website revamps for non-profit associations or specializing in customization of a piece of software used by specific manufacturing companies.
Whatever it is, the idea here is that they engage you for strategy. “Do I need a new website?” “What sort of customization should we do, given our budget?” You answer those questions and then take care of all of their implications.
This is effectively how you interact with most contractors and service providers in your civilian life. You hire an electrician both for his advice and for his labor.
So your task is to become your clients’ electrician for whatever you do. “Here’s my advice, and I’ll take care of all of the details.”
But this requires more planning in the B2B world than the B2C world, simply because businesses have larger projects than wiring up your new porch lights. And they also have more in-house expertise that might contribute some or all of the strategy.
You’re going to need to do some market research to figure out whether you can own strategy and labor.
5. Cultivate a Referral Network for Labor
At this point, many experienced business owners might advise you to get out of the labor business altogether. Subcontract it, hire it, refuse to do it — whatever.
But I wouldn’t actually suggest that, because it’s a step more than you need. For the purposes of positioning yourself during sales calls, you don’t actually need to be out of the labor business altogether.
What you do need to do is cut the figure of someone who is experienced, willing, and able when it comes to delegating labor.
If you strip it down to bare wiring, you want to be able to say during a sales call something like, “look, once we do the discovery engagement, the next step is typically to start executing the resultant roadmap, which I might refer out, handle with subcontractors, or handle myself, depending on how discovery goes.”
Doesn’t that make you sound a lot more like a true strategist than “alright, let’s have a call about what you need, and then I’ll get started?”
Clients will steamroll you with the latter, spending that entire call dictating tasks to you. But, almost by definition, they can’t steamroll you about tasks when your process is to do a paid discovery engagement and then make labor recommendations.
I feel a little dirty saying it, because I don’t mean to trivialize execution/labor. But, to the strategist, labor isn’t the focus — it’s a relatively trivial implementation detail.
6. Gradually Thin Out Your Laboring Engagements
You could always go cold turkey, but most people have bills to pay.
What I mean is, you could certainly slam your laptop closed right now, stand up and scream, “from this moment forward, I do NO LABOR!” But I’m guessing that most people would rather slowly backfill labor engagements with strategy.
This the route I’d recommend anyway.
As you sell more strategy business, sunset your existing labor relationships. (As an aside, if anything will boost you out of labor mode and into strategy mode in a client’s eyes, it’s telling them that you want to end the labor engagement.)
This is easier said than done, however.
One advantage of labor relationships is that they’re easy to sell (often because they recruit you), but another is that they’re often open-ended, durable, and long-lasting. As a result, you can toil away for months or years without stocking your pipeline with new business.
Not so the strategy engagement.
That’s more expensive and typically ephemeral in nature (with long term strategy being handled by the company’s executives). This means that you’re going to have to flip from a few clients per year to a few clients per month, most likely.
To help with this, lay out a plan. Price strategy engagements flat, as productized services, and timebox them in order to allow you to plan their fit into your existing work calendar. This will also help you identify the critical mass at which you need to sunset a labor client.
7. Market Your Strategy Offerings Like There’s No Tomorrow
I’ll close with a piece of advice that you should start on immediately and never let up on. And that’s to market (NOT SELL) your strategy offering like crazy.
Stop scoring CoderWars points, earning Stack Overflow badges, impressing people in the freelance writers Slack, tuning your Upwork profile etc. None of that is good marketing even for laborers, but it’s kryptonite for strategists.
You need to switch gears and spend a lot of time talking about your strategy offering and related concerns. What is your special 4 step discovery process to create a product backlog?
Talk in depth about each step. Write blog posts about them, create videos about them, and, above all, make case studies about them. Promote that content and do AMAs about it.
But do it in a way that is designed to genuinely help people who have, historically, struggled with discovery.
Answer common client questions about discovery, both with your content and your actual offering, imagining the sorts of things that companies commissioning software might ask:
- Every time we do an RFP, why is there such a ridiculously wide range of estimated prices?
- Why won’t anyone ever just give us a flat rate; I hate time and materials!
- What are red flags to look for in an RFP response?
Hopefully you get the idea. (And, as an aside, this might be a decent business model — I’ve consulted on a number of small company RFP processes, and these are actual questions that actual clients have actually asked me.)
Get yourself out there, answering every question you can think of in and around your strategic offering. It’s not going to land you business today, but the business will trickle and then pour in a year from now, when you’re ready to make the full jump from labor to strategy.
No Shade to Laboring-Strategists
I want to close on what I hope is an upbeat note. I didn’t write 4K words on this subject because I wanted to dump on the laboring-strategist.
Everything about it seems like a rational approach, especially if you’ve come from the salaried world. Start at the bottom, punch above your weight until you impress people, wait your turn, and gradually bask in the recognition and eventual promotion.
It is entirely rational to start a laboring-specialist practice, especially early in your independent journey. I totally understand why you would do this (and I can kind of recall doing things like this myself many years ago).
But I’m trying to talk you out of it.
And I’m not trying to do that because the existence of this approach somehow offends me, but rather because it’s just going to be such a frustrating slog for you. It’s going to mean months or years of not being able to understand why you have all of this knowledge that could legitimately help the right person, and why nobody seems to care or listen to you.
And the reason for that is simple.
The laboring-strategist has the right knowledge and advice. But they have the wrong audience because it’s a disinterested one.
The path out of this quagmire and into a higher leverage, more successful business is really just a question of finding the right audience.
To me it seems that becoming “certified” as a content marketer isn’t a particularly good idea. I’m highly skeptical of other industry certifications as well. All it proves is that you can pass a test that’s usually easy to hack and doesn’t require a lot of effort.
It especially sounds bad if a marketing specialist things that’s good marketing. Those who sell those certifications on the other hand…
I honestly don’t know a whole lot about certifications in any field. I’ve never earned one and, in a hiring capacity, have never paid attention to them. I feel like it’s a thing some people are looking for, sometimes, or it wouldn’t exist. But I’m admittedly ignorant on the subject.
Erik, dude, I like your articles. There is truth in them. But they are too long. Could you make an attempt to convey the point in fewer words?
I’m glad you like the posts. As for whether or not I could be more brief… probably. But, (1) I wouldn’t really enjoy it and (2) I’ve learned that if I try to make someone happy (say, by being more brief), it’ll just make someone else unhappy (i.e. in a few months someone would tell me to expand more on what i’m saying).
I have no real profit motive with the blog, so I’m doing it purely as a hobby. If you like it, then great. If not, totally understood.