Is your positioning statement supposed to be a leading or lagging indicator of how you're perceived by the market?
Can you use your positioning statement as a lever to level up?
The short answer to both: yes. There's nuance you should understand, though.
Your positioning statement should be clear. But can you talk about a desired future state for your business as if it's what you do now?
Imagine that every time you help a client with their pitch deck, you end up facilitating deep conversations about their business strategy. They walk away with both a much better pitch deck and a much deeper ability to articulate their business strategy. You start thinking that you could specialize in strategy instead of pitch decks.
Claiming that you are a business strategist feels like an audacious level-up. You don't have an extensive track record with business strategy work. In fact you've never sold a strategy consultation at all! You've sold pitch deck consultations to clients who really needed strategy work, and like the smart entrepreneur that you are, you saw the opportunity to deliver value and you delivered.
This kind of situation is common among my clients. Almost any indie consultant who works within an open system will face this question because the high levels of novelty, chaos, and flow within an open system will be regularly presenting them opportunities to level up in some way, or to pursue more impactful or interesting opportunities with little track record of previous success. So how do we think about this situation?
1: Can Your Positioning Statement be Purely Aspirational?
Literally can you do it? Yes.
We practice an unlicensed profession, so there are literally no rules about this. There is no cosmic or physical enforcer of rules who will stop you from having a big fat headline at the top of your website that says you now currently do some thing that you have no track record of doing.
If you follow enough shady direct response (DR) copywriters at some point you'll pick up on this semi-secret anxiety they all have about an FCC false advertising slap. I've never heard of any indie consultant coming anywhere close to anything like this. The DR copywriters are unconstrained by the integrity-increasing forcing functions of facetime with clients and promises you might make in a SOW that is paid part up front and part on delivery, with the shared expectation that you will actually deliver. So this FCC penalty thing also does not constrain us from crafting a positioning statement that exceeds our track record.
2: Should Your Positioning Statement be Purely Aspirational?
Should you do it?
This is really a question about how it is that we get access to more/better opportunity.
Do we get access to better opportunity because we want it (and therefore do things — maybe bold and audacious things — to get it), because we've earned it, or because opportunity finds us? Please take a beat right now to reflect on this question. How do you actually believe that you get access to more or better opportunity?
If you believe you need to earn it, that's totally fine. You are likely to think the job of your positioning statement is to summarize your track record. The positioning statement represents past success, and future opportunity is earned one inch at a time by doing increasingly-better client work.
If you believe you get more/better opportunity because you want it, then you are likely to think of your positioning statement as a means to get opportunity that exceeds your track record. The positioning statement represents future competence that you will create by taking on a series of projects that stretch your capabilities somewhat dramatically.
If this stretching thing appeals to you, the next question to ask yourself: do you want it enough to live in the gap between your ambition and your track record? Not every prospect will blithely accept your claims about what you can or could do. Some will want a track record to back it up. Are you OK with having those kinds of conversations?
Rogers Curves and Open Systems
If you are focused on an innovation that is on the left side of the Rogers Curve or you work within an open system then you will find lots of prospects who do not insist on you having a track record to back up whatever ambitious future capability you are claiming in your positioning statement.
These prospects won't be completely uncritical of your capabilities, but because you and they are operating within a context of high novelty, chaos, and flow, the shared focus is more on the capability you have to unlock the opportunities presented by the context and less on the capabilities you have to create reliable, consist, and low cost delivery. In other words, a track record is simply less relevant in this context because the context is new or ever-changing, so nobody has much of a track record in this context!
Maybe you want a super stable business that is a reliable, low-stress income generator? Especially if that's you (or if the voice inside your head snidely said "Is there any other kind?" in response to the previous sentence), avoid crafting a positioning statement that exceeds your track record. Yes, summarize the best parts of your track record in the positioning statement, but don't promise anything that would disrupt your progress towards that reliable, low-stress, income-generating business.
If you're more like the pitch deck consultant who is actually doing strategy work and loves this and is hungry for more, then do craft a positioning statement that is aspirational. Think about where you'll be in 2 to 3 years if things go moderately well along your current vector of growth and describe that future state in your positioning statement.
3: How Aspirational Can Your Positioning Statement Be?
By how much can your aspirational positioning statement exceed your track record? There are three scenarios:
- The wholesale pivot. This is generally driven by dissatisfaction with the current market focus combined with a desire to not "start over" in the new market. Imagine that you've been helping startups prototype digital products. You've become dissatisfied with the shaky funding situation and high levels of uncertainty in this world, so you want to pivot to helping mature businesses create digital products. Can you just pick up in the mature business market where you left off with the startup market? Is it pushing things too far to have this positioning statement?
"I help mature businesses prototype and successfully launch their first digital product"
I'd think about this from the open/closed systems perspective. Startups tend to be working in areas of relatively high novelty, chaos, and flow — in open systems. Mature businesses might actually be operating in a larger context of an open system, but generally they attempt to resist or control these kind of novelty/chaos dynamics, so I'd think of mature businesses as more like a closed system.
Within a closed system, the scrutiny of your track record will be higher, so I'd recommend supporting this pivot with a positioning statement that does not greatly exceed your track record.
- The incremental level up. Imagine that for years you've been building embedded software for medical devices. You're a skilled and experienced senior developer; you've seen some shit in your time. You feel very ready to tackle architectural level work. As an employee, this would be a promotion one level up in the hierarchy.
As an indie consultant, this is not a huge leap, it's a more incremental evolution of your expertise and impact. Even though medical devices are a context where novelty and chaos are controlled (via FDA and other forms of regulation) meaning that prospects are more inclined to scrutinize your track record, you're not asking them to take a huge risk when the delta between your track record (senior software engineer) and aspiration (architect) is relatively small. So a positioning statement like this is not too much of a stretch:
"I help medical device companies architect reliable, easy-to-maintain embedded software"
- The quantum jump. Finally, we have the quantum leap that's similar to the pitch deck consultant-to-strategy consultant transition I described earlier (this is based on a real person, BTW). I think you know by now that 1) if this is in the context of an open system or an innovation that's early in its adoption lifecycle and 2) you want it, then I think this is fine. You can significantly exceed your track record.
In fact, I think you should. :)
Final Thoughts on Aspirational vs. Track-Record-Based Positioning Statements
Because we indie consultants typically practice an unlicensed profession, we can do all kinds of crazy stuff. If you want to use your positioning statement as a lever to level up and you operate within a relatively open system, then you can craft a positioning statement that represents where you see yourself being in 2 to 3 years. Some prospects will look for the risk-reducing effect of a track record, but because the high levels of novelty and opportunity in your context are the primary focus, most won't.
I hope that this article has helped you understand how far beyond your track record you can push your positioning statement. If you’re looking for more context and detail on specialization and positioning, then read my free guide to specialization for indie consultants.