Testing a specialization hypothesis with a live market test

Philip Morgan

A TEI participant said he was feeling guilty about not publishing as much as he wanted to. I said: open your calendar, go to the Monday 2 weeks from now, and add a calendar item that says "Resume feeling guilty". Until then, I've granted you a guilt vacation. He just returned from that guilt vacation and said it helped. What do you need a guilt vacation from?

Events of note

  • Remember the upcoming livestreamed TEI Talks series. You don't really need to register since you can just show up during livetime on my Twitch or YouTube channel, but you can see those livetime date/times and get calendar reminders here: https://www.mixily.com/listing/6423681705591831629 I'll be talking about using publishing and research as a "side door" to rapid expertise cultivation. Hope to see you in the chat window during these talks.
  • Jim Thornton is offering a free workshop on how experts should organize the content on their website. It's a 2-parter. The first one is tomorrow, September 1 and the second part is a week later. You can watch and chat with us via livestream. Links to further details for part 1 and part 2.
  • David Baker did a really interesting webinar deep dive into his own content marketing approach. David's business model is the kind many of us are building towards: solo indie consultant, expertise-driven, powerful personal brand, excellent leverage of IP. So this is a particularly relevant one of his webinar series. I didn't find a page where the links live, so I'm instead ripping the video and audio links from the recent email where he provided them.
  • Join me and 29 other experts who’ll help you attract, win, and service better clients. Catch a new talk Monday through Friday at 10am PST, September 21 - October 30, including people like David C. Baker, Blair Enns, Sean D’Souza, Jonathan Stark, and more. Registration is totally free - grab your spot now at https://servedontsell.com/clientcon.
  • Warley Mapping is a lightweight strategy tool. I've been learning more and finding Simon Wardley's live talks the most useful way to do so. There's an all-day online event called Map Camp coming up on October 13. I don't know how basic/advanced it's going to be, but I'll probably drag my ass out of bed at 1:30am Mountain time to be a part of this event: https://leadingedgeforum.com/events/map-camp-online/ I'm interested in both the content and seeing how they structure a 1-day online educational event.


A question from my post opt-in survey: What is your vision for impact? I want to use my expertise as a design consultant to help Shopify stores make more money by teaching them how to make informed design decisions and provide clarity and insights into their customers’ motivations. What's your #1 question about specialization, positioning, lead generation, or moving into advisory work? How to test if there is a market for my positioning This is a juicy one! I'm copy/pasting the next bit from this guide to specializing/positioning, but it's relevant and important in thinking about this question. The most beautiful specialization hypothesis in the world is worthless if the market doesn't care within a timeframe that matches yours. That's why we seek validation for our ideas — our hypotheses — about how we might specialize our business. There are 4 ways you can validate:

  1. Blind pivot
  2. Guardrail-and-go
  3. Deep market research
  4. Live market test

Blind Pivot: A blind pivot is only considered validation based on a technicality. With a blind pivot, you choose the specialization hypothesis that seems best to you and go with it. You assess, create a shorterlist, choose the one that seems best to you, and implement. You "just do it". Validation or invalidation of your hypothesis eventually happens, but it takes months or years, and risks business failure and opportunity cost. A blind pivot is post-validation rather than pre-validation. Guardrail-and-go: You choose from your head start or your heart and apply sensible guardrails (healthy market size, documented interest, etc.) to eliminate excessively risky options. After that, you choose the specialization option you like the most and implement. You can also simply copy a specialized competitor and implement. With the Guardrail-and-go approach, you are not validating directly with the market, you are looking at proxies for market demand (presence of competitors, etc.) and using the presence of those proxies as evidence of sufficient market demand. The guardrail-and-go approach is quick-and-dirty pre-validation. You'll notice I've already told you to apply some guardrails in the previous step of this decision making process. That's because the ROI on this work is high enough that it's worth doing no matter what. I don't consider it an optional validation step; it's just a natural part of the right way to make a specialization decision. Deep market research: With this approach, you reach validation through market research interviews with buyers in the market you might focus on. Your research might actually generate the hypothesis, as is done in innovation-focused research, or it might validate/invalidate your specialization hypothesis. Research styles include Customer Development (Cindy Alvarez) & JTBD (Alan Klement). The deep market research approach is time-intensive pre-validation. I rarely recommend this approach anymore except in cases where you're pursuing an entrepreneurial thesis. Live market test: With a live market test, you build a free gift of knowledge for the market, directly distribute it (1:1 emails or LinkedIn messages, posts on intimate forums or Slack/Discord channels), and ask for feedback on the gift. There are other ways you could run a live market test (run ads pointing to a landing page, etc.) but for indie consultants, directly distributing a free gift of knowledge and pointedly asking for feedback on it is the best approach. For most indie consultants, the live market test is a good middle ground between the deep market research method, which has considerable time cost, and the guardrail-and-go method, which generates no actual evidence from the demand side of the market. Again, the most beautiful specialization hypothesis in the world is worthless if the market doesn't care within a timeframe that matches yours. The live market test delivers visceral evidence about whether the market cares about your potential way of specializing. But! How much validation you invest in is up to you. It's your decision. Some of you will have the risk profile and existing business momentum to do less validation. Others will want to extensively de-risk the decision by carrying out more validation. If you decide to de-risk by doing some validation before you implement your new specialization, I recommend the live market test.

Back to the question at hand

Our questioner here has a hypothesis. I'm going to reword their vision for impact as a specialization hypothesis: I believe there is a market of Shopify stores that see a clear connection between knowing how to make informed design decisions, gaining clarity about their customer's motivations, and making more money. Further, I believe these stores are owned, run, or staffed by people who are motivated to learn how to do the above themselves. What I've done by rewording this vision statement is taken the consultant out of the picture and described what the market wants. Or rather, what the market might want, pending validation of that market desire/need. Also note that I've described the market's needs/wants in terms of existing needs/wants, not ones that could develop in the future or ones that could develop if the market is led or shaped by thought leadership. If I was the consultant with the vision statement being re-worked here (I'm not, again this comes from my post opt-in survey), I'd feel humbled by this. Or, if my ego was particularly active that day, I'd feel like you're calling my baby ugly; I'd feel attacked. All this is healthy. We need to realize that having a bold vision that we care deeply about is important, but it's not sufficient. There needs to be at least a small beachhead-like market that cares about our vision, or wants something our vision can provide or enable for them. Taking ourselves out of the picture and thinking about our vision for impact from the perspective of market need/desire can be humbling, but it's a pragmatic, necessary part of thinking like a business owner. So how should our questioner validate this hypothesis? I'd suggest they create something that fits all of the following criterial:

  1. It's meant for people who own, run, or work at a Shopify store.
  2. It's designed for people who are already motivated to learn how to get more insight into their customers motivations and use that insight to make better design decisions.
  3. It makes a bold, unvarnished claim about the connection between #2 on this list and making more money.
  4. It's tiny. Like 2 pages or less of text, if possible. Or 3 minutes of video or audio. Again, tiny in scope (so you can execute the test quickly and relatively easily).

Then, I'd find 30 people who own, run, or work at a Shopify store, reach out to them directly (email, LinkedIn messaging, or PM in a private community setting), give them this free gift of knowledge, and — critically — ask them for their feedback on it. What happens next will be a qualitative measurement, not a quantitative, algorithmic one. Judgement calls will have to be made. Risks will have to be weighed. Decisions will have to be made under conditions of reduced but still persistent uncertainty. But even if you get crickets in response to this live market test, you will have information gained through movement. And you can build on that. I liken this to getting a bicycle going. At first, only one thing matters: translating those first few pedal strokes into movement in some kind of direction. Once the bicycle is moving, you can make more subtle fine-tunings to its direction. But until that point, as long as you haven't pointed the bike over a cliff or into a tree, nothing other than getting that first bit of momentum matters. This, by the way, is what we do in the Specialization Workshop. I'm running that (and the POV workshop) again in October. Sign up if you want support, encouragement, or direction with this live market test thing: https://indieexperts.io/workshops/pmc-csw-specialization/ Early-bird discounts available for those who are decisive at the level of both mind and wallet.

What you are up to — notes from readers

This is a new part of my email list, stolen whole cloth from Exponential View. I want to share what you're up to. What are you doing to create impact in the world, for your clients, or for your future self? New things take a while to get going, so I'll prime the pump. When folks opt in to my email list, I redirect them to a survey they can fill out if they want. One of the questions I ask: "What's your vision for impact?" Here are some recent ones I've received:

  • "Manufacturers will raise their value by being better prepared for disruption and disaster."
  • "My expertise stems from experience and pragmatism therefore I can help potential clients in finding technical solutions that optimize for time of delivery and save costs."
  • "By making tech training more engaging, companies will have the staff to help boost future competitiveness."

To share your news, projects, and events, fill out this mercifully brief form and I'll share the relevant ones back to this list: https://airtable.com/shrggV8bWtGa2JMxG Keep building, keep taking risks y'all, -P