This is a (long) unsolicited, thinly veiled testimonial for Philip Morgan’s The Expertise Incubator, that, because it’s so long I am calling a review. If you aren’t familiar, this is the landing page and this review might not make too much sense without that context.
TL;DR and Disclaimer
As a disclaimer and the TL;DR, I’m completely biased. I am just about halfway (8.5 months) through it. It’s helped me see a path, develop a process, and feel confidently about cultivating expertise around serving my target market. I’m also seeing some traction and momentum around that, which I think, is exactly what the program was intended to do.
It’s a big commitment to take the journey to becoming indispensable to your market/industry, work through that with a group of likeminded people in a supportive and challenging way, and reduce risk and uncertainty in the process by being guided by the guy who helps people become self-made experts.
You’ll meet weekly for 60 to 90 minutes at a time that is convenient for everyone. Between meetings you’re expected to do about 15 to 20 hours of work. Because of life/work things, some weeks you can’t do much more than a few hours and other weeks I’ve taken a full weekend to just work on TEI things. Rinse and repeat for 18 months and that’s a major time commitment. Like deciding to do a master’s program part time while still working amount of time commitment.
Ultimately how you spend your time is up to you, but if you skip putting the work in between meetings, you can start to lose momentum.
This is a new section I’m adding because it’s become growingly important. The whole process is extremely personal.
There is an emotional weight in doing the program that’s a subtle and hard to describe. It’s a bit like what Philip describes as the Fear. While that’s something I experienced in choosing a direction, as you move forward, you’re still managing uncertainty, (for me, some self-doubt), slumps when you’re putting the work in but not seeing the returns you want, and the slogs of getting through things like more labor intensive parts of the research project.
There’s also an element of doing things because of uncertainty that’s hard to describe. It can feel like being intentionally wasteful, exploring an idea deeply enough that it feels like you’re picking at something or turning over rocks and then turning around and looking back, tired, at a bunch of turned over rocks.
I think everyone in our cohort has ended up not feeling great about how this or that aspect of the process was coming along. I think that’s an important indicator of the weight and value of the program.
There are lots of ways you can invest in yourself, courses, conferences, coaching. But how many are designed to nudge you to some edge that will make you uncomfortable? How many along with a group of somewhat likeminded people also working through discomfort.
Then there is the money. Compared to the time/energy/emotional toil, the financial commitment is meh.
If in considering the program, it feels like a big financial commitment to you, it may be because there is nothing out there to compare it to. It’s about the time commitment of a Master’s program but there’s no courses. It’s self-directed like PhD programs, but it’s more practical than academic but then also a lot of the work feels exploratory in nature and you could spend a week or two writing on a topic and feel like you aren’t seeing returns.
The other possibility is just that it’s not good timing for you if the money is a concern. The way to get the most out of the program is to trust in the process for a long enough period to see returns. If you don’t have a comfortable amount of runway, it would be harder to commit yourself to spending 15 hours a week writing emails when you’re having trouble putting food on the table.
Plenty of experts have done what this program helps you do on their own. A few off the top of my head: David Baker, Rand Fishkin, Rochelle Moulton, Jonathan Stark, Seth Godin, of course, Philip himself.
A lot of authority types out there, those people who are drawn to thinking in public, doing independent research, developing intellectual property, becoming indispensable to the group they seek to serve, by definition, those are outliers. This stuff just isn’t taught in school.
You can’t know what it’s going to look like for you because it looks different for everyone. The journey is windy, fraught with pitfalls, requires lots of little decisions, and for the rest of us, encouragement and accountability.
What I can discern from Philip’s own trajectory, he’s gone from helping technical types specialize/position themselves to helping specialized technical types become self-made experts and follows this TEI process himself.
I think that shows that where you start and where you end up is not a result of making a decision and sticking with it, but instead:
- taking that initial step deciding to specialize (which feels like a leap)
- committing to a journey to evolve by developing expertise in that direction
- letting the goals (and related market feedback) of serving your chosen group take you where it takes you
“What you’ll get out of this program”
From a structure standpoint it looks a bit like a mastermind group meets a group coaching program:
- quarterly-ish themes for phases of work for 18 month period
- 60 to 90 minute weekly meetings with 4 to 5 others, sharing what’s working or challenging with support and feedback
- Slack channel for your cohort and all cohorts and integrated wiki with some systems documented for getting traction on the different phases
- Expectation and some accountability that you’ll spend 10+ hours/week
Beyond structure though, thinking of it as something like “group coaching” would be inaccurate. I’ve done a lot of group coaching. It’s often somewhat impersonal. You can’t DM the person running it. Those groups always feel a bit transient, or limited to something like video courses plus commenting format.
Some are further along in their area of expertise than others (I feel like I’m very much on a new journey) and it’s very clear we have different strengths and challenges. So on a given week, especially the further into the program you go, everyone can be working on completely different things.
There’s no homework, or “this week we’re working on x” type stuff, it’s much more personalized and self-directed than that. I think if you’re looking for a formula or a do x, y, and z step-by-step solution, you might be disappointed, because this isn’t that.
The common threads I’ve seen is that a group of people that get to know you and your situation better and better will focus on your problem and plan weekly and you’ll be expected to commit to some action around the clarity that will ideally provide enough to go on for the next call.
It’s truly personal and personalized.
As part of my research project, I’m learning about graph databases. So Philip had to learn a little about graph databases to have a sense of what I’m trying to do to provide feedback. That’s not group coaching. That’s ownership, investment, support.
Of course, you won’t see that on the landing page.
Speaking, with permission, to those in my cohort
Current TEI participants are a pretty mixed group in terms of how far into their current specialization they were when accepted into TEI. Lauren OMeara (ex Salesforce consultant), her partner Andy Grooms (drummer turned marketer) and I all have more recently chosen new directions while others definitely had a better footing and idea of where they were and where they were going coming into it, and still others, it seemed to me at least, were super established in their industry.
I’m thinking of Kyle Bowen who had already been frequently publishing to a list with some traction around a strong direction.
Kyle is in my cohort so I can speak a bit more to changes I’ve seen in him. To be fair, he already had a voice, publishing regimen, clients in his target market, things that looked like traction, that if I had, I’d feel well on my way with.
He went from that to:
- having some serious mixed method research done surveying hundreds of museums
- working with a data scientist analyzing thousands of reviews of museums
- a bunch more content
- confidence to charge for daily emails as a subscription
- new daily subscribers through word of mouth with list size in the hundreds now and many of his email list members being super legit
- seems like almost weekly I’ll hear about regular interactions he’s having with top people at museums and in his field
In the next few years, if not already, if you know anything about design research for museums, you will know who Kyle is, and if you want to stay relevant as someone who cares about museum audiences (patrons, donors, etc.,) then you will be subscribed to his list.
2/3/2020 update: Kyle published some of the findings from his museum audience research a few weeks ago. It’s quite awesome and it’s already been shared around in his field (cultural orgs/museums) and led to other opportunities.
How cool is that?
6 months now 10 months in I can honestly say we all have a good amount to show for in the program. That said, progress looks different for everyone. Some people were overwhelmed with leads within their first four or five months and others have taken on such big hairy problems that they’re still looking for the best way to punch through the noise.
All this is to say (again), there is no easy way to predict where you’d end up or when but the progress is just really all around impressive to see. You’re sort of expected to read everyone else’s emails and keep up, even outside your cohort, and it’s literally a rising tide across the board.
I suspect most if not all TEI students would agree, you can compare us all against our pre-TEI selves and we’d all be very happy with the progress, time and financial investments made.
What I’m getting out of this program
Even compared to other business owners who work long hours, I spend a lot of time working and a lot of the rest of the time thinking about work. Combining caring about work a lot and not feeling great about progress with work before TEI was not a fun place to be.
I didn’t feel “stuck” as much as I’d look at my progress before and think, “if I maintain this pace, in five years my business will look basically how it does today with bigger clients and incremental increases in revenue.” Basically inching in every direction each year.
Even after caving in and “deciding to specialize,” I had no idea what that would look like. I had lots of ideas for directions, little ability to focus on any of them, and even less confidence in execution. It was just decision, doubt, decision, doubt.
In addition, the workaholism hamster wheel was/is becoming a real issue for me. It affects my ability to be present spending meaningful time with my wife, or have proper hobbies outside of work things, or even exercise regularly because I’m not too burned out at the end of the day to do so.
If that at all sounds familiar, you could be a good fit for TEI.
Me, mid-TEI: some mindset shifts
To go from those feelings of being stuck working a lot of hours, to, with some support, guidance, and a little accountability, a point of clarity and something resembling confidence in a direction, for me, is a world apart.
That’s the first mindset shift and it took a few months to get to.
Being okay with where I am because I’m in a process I feel good about
I’m about 100 posts in and still feel like a very weak writer, I know my content doesn’t resonate with my target audience, I’m having trouble getting subscribers in my actual target audience, and I still have so much to do.
But the messiness of writing the first 100 posts was something I had to get through, and now I’m through it. Like Philip said, if you’re just getting started it will probably be bad. And you just have to be okay with that enough to hit publish anyway and resolve to be better tomorrow. When you’re weekly checking in with others in the same boat, some getting traction, some also feeling stalled, it makes it a lot easier to keep going.
Little lessons like that are things I’d previously read a blog post about or hear on a podcast, maybe nod my head, and then been like, “cool,” and go back to watching Netflix.
Now my mindset there has changed, I just think of it as, “this is where I am, that’s okay, what can I do today to get more momentum in getting where I’m going, let me spend some time on that.” All the while really enjoying the process and challenge and complexity of the work I’m doing in the program.
That doesn’t mean I’m cured and have all this free time to hang out with my wife or find hobbies because I reached some overnight success through TEI. If anything it feels like I have less time to do the things I want to do.
But I have a path and some confidence and feel good about the consistent incremental improvement in the right direction.
2/3/2020 Update: I’m now about 160 posts in and do feel like I’ve hit a bit of a stride. Funny, Philip’s been talking about the 100 post mark. Here’s an interesting audio clip of him describing it. I’ve also been able to hone in more on a point of view which is finally a nice guiding force. It’s easier when I sit down to write now to say “okay, what point am I really trying to make here?” and then cut anything not in service of that point or save it for later. At the time of writing this (in addition to the 159 published posts) I have 86 drafts of post ideas and checking the word counts, a lot of them are already pretty long:
From perfectionism to getting things done
For Inbound Found (the tiny boutique digital marketing agency I run with my wife), I always felt like I’d need to code things myself so our sites wouldn’t be bloated with WordPress plugins or look like theme templates. I’d spend lots of time on little things clients didn’t even care about.
Now I’m fine doing those things the fast way. It saves time, it makes little difference for most of our clients, and we have a good process for selecting quality dependencies.
In the excitement of the new specialization in the direction of content strategy, I don’t have the time to care about the little time suck things that take up big chunks of work hours without moving the needle for clients.
This website is on a template. And not even a good one!
Pre-TEI me would think that was just lazy and everything that was wrong with WordPress development and how could a template perfectly portray a visual identity in a way that positively impacted the bottom line and blah blah blah.
But post-TEI me puts on some emoji sunglasses and says to pre-TEI me, GFY.
Pre-TEI, I’d also take at least a day to mock up a homepage in Illustrator. Now it takes me an hour or two. I did two mockups in 15 minutes last night and passed them off to an offshore resource for development.
I don’t futz around with trying to add complexity to design anymore. Sites should be practical and economical. If a client doesn’t like it, we get to revisit the conversation about what actually matters, and I have even more time to incorporate their feedback back into the design and still be into it for less than half the time.
Over the next six months, I have a clear path to not building websites anymore. I’ll still do design strategy things with clients on organizing content and information architecture around sites, which requires mocking things up, which I enjoy, but I’m not doing anything resembling commoditized technical work that someone in India can do faster and cheaper.
Update: About three months into the transition and it’s going well. Pretty sure I’ll be able to stop doing any web development related work by March 2020.
I’m also better with replying to emails. I’ll wait until I have 10 to 20 and touch them all at once, with curt but polite replies like, “can you have this other person do this?” or “sorry, that wouldn’t be in scope.” If an email doesn’t need a reply, I don’t reply.
To be fair I’m still working on improving this habit and slip back to reacting to emails given real deadlines exist, but I’m better.
The “old thing” takes much less time now and I’m able to do that without work quality suffering because the things that “had to give” are trivial things I shouldn’t have been letting eat up time in the first place.
I look forward to working on the “new thing” so much that the pressure to get stuff done when it comes to the old thing is welcomed. Philip told me some variation of this “pressure” between the old thing and new thing would happen, then helped me see what that was when it was happening.
Again, as I say all this, I can tell it’s not a concrete feature or benefit of the program, it’s weird and deep and intuitive and reflective. Or maybe I’m just those things. But either way, it’s a subtle but really enjoyable thing I value about being in the group.
The loyalty shift thing Philip talks about
There are all these weird little stages and inflection points that exist.
One of those things is the loyalty shift. You go from “being the hero” in the sense that you’ll do whatever a client needs, to choosing a target client profile and being more motivated to help the client be that hero around a specific important problem. It’s the role reversal/power dynamic switch that Philip talks about a lot.
This shift is more internal, from making it about you to making it about service. Writing that, it feels like a cliche, but TBH I’ve always had trouble with not being mostly focused on self in client-agency relationship.
Sure, “it’s about the client,” but it was really about what I can do for the client vs how can I really serve this client’s best interests. It’s subtle but a significant difference.
By committing to the process, the shift from it being about me to about them is, ironically, very freeing because that breeds confidence. I now have a guiding force that isn’t about me.
In a roundtable discussion type thing, I said (and meant) something like, “I feel like I could reach out to anyone in my target market without fear, because the premise wouldn’t be self-service, it’s instead more like, “hey I’m trying to help people like you solve this problem you care about, do you want to have a conversation about it?'”
It’s such a subtle but important internal switch I had to make.
From thinking you’re an expert to getting (more) right-sized and committing to actually becoming an expert
Expertise as a concept is a weird thing. We all think we have it after working at something for x years. But the moment you try to teach something for the first time, or write about it, or say something unique, important, and interesting, that’s the moment you realize you’re really not as much of an expert as you thought.
2/3/2020 Update: I feel even more so this way now, that I know very little. And with that, it’s actually a pretty good boost to my urgency about staying the path to go deeper in a pursuit of expertise.
I think aiming for that right-sized-ness of being able to see yourself for where you are in your journey of expertise (the moving target between the imposter syndrome and the “I’m already an expert” at a thing) is very hard to do. It’s also really nice to have a group of people get to know you and help point out the progress as it’s made.
TEI was a no brainer because doing all of that alone is untenable.
You can’t “see your label from inside the jar” as they say, you can’t “position” yourself, and you can’t become an expert at something that matters in a vacuum, or you risk becoming an expert as something no one gives a shit about.
No seven figure barrier crossed
If you can’t see the patterns yet, most of what I’ve gotten from this program so far is pretty abstract. It’s not a “how I landed my first $40k client in two weeks following Philip’s automagical formula.”
It’s significant risk-reduction bringing some stability to confidence on what I should be doing day in and out, a stronger growth mindset, better focus, and clearing out the junk blocking up progress that was how I operated before. Or, at least doing that enough to be able to hit my 10 (now 15) to 20 hours a week working on this stuff, all in a way I can feel good about.
Getting to expertise the hard way
I feel like you’ll read on a lot of sales landing pages something like, “this program is not a magic/silver bullet,” and it’s 100% a bullshit reverse psychology mind trick tactic.
But. That’s especially true here. In fact, I think, and Philip sometimes mentions, that very few people go this route because it’s such a hard way to go.
It’s hard to describe the hard way, so to make this entirely too long of a review, I’ll describe my experience with the rough curriculum of first few quarters:
Meet the pre-reqs
Have committed to specializing, ideally with some vertical focus so you know who you’re talking to.
I didn’t feel ready to do this and had trouble describing the specialization, but made the decision in time for the program.
QTR 1: Theme of Thinking in Public Regimen
Weekly, meet for 60 to 90 minutes and discuss challenges with and get feedback from Philip and group about what’s normal or to be expected when starting to “work in public.”
You get to do this with others trying to do a similar thing in a supportive and challenging environment, with an always positive, nudging in the right direction), action feedback loop. Rinse and repeat until what feels awkward and clunky becomes a habit, and you find a rhythm that will eventually result in some momentum and excitement.
My personal Q1 experience
I was initially in my head, not confident in a direction, and it was clearly reflected in my writing (I was publishing to a blog with RSS feeding that to an email list). I can be a bit self sabotaging and for the past few years, felt like I was moving an inch in every direction, like a blob just trying to stretch myself until I was a puddle of nothing. A generalist blob.
One of the really beneficial things was that as I chose topics to write about and dive into, they either felt flat, like it’d be hard to keep it up, or there’d be some excitement about the next post. I think that’s part of the process, learning how to listen to that inner compass.
At the same time, our cohort was all consuming each others’ content, which you’re loosely expected to do. So you get to see and participate in how others are going through something similar. As Philip and the TEI cohort got to know me better, they’ve gotten pretty good at holding up a clearer and clearer mirror over time and say, “this is what we see.” Which is great medicine for the sludge of self-doubt and imposter syndrome.
Between the help and support, the market feedback (which I was accountable to get), and developing an ongoing regimen around building expertise (which I got more and more excited to do), I got some confidence.
Q2 Theme of Research
Start to develop the makings of a research project that your market would actually care about: typically, some resource around what’s working, what’s not working, and how that might be changing for things your market cares about.
Be flexible and willing to go where market feedback, your strengths, TEI cohort support, homework and prompted (usually by Philip) introspection leads you because it cannot be predicted, or summarized in a landing page, or email sequence.
My personal Q2 experience
This is a bit hard to quantify. The hodgepodge of skills accumulated from being a generalist over the years and scrappy ability to cobble things together is something the group pointed out to me was a strength.
My research question (currently what’s working, not working, and how is that changing re traffic for audience-first businesses built on content) and what the group pointed out about me has guided the current approach to research, which is currently mostly focused on building a repository of rich information about websites of those in my target market using a graph database technology called Neo4j.
I’m combining data around website structure, internal linking, external links, Google Analytics data, and quality metrics from tools around Google rankings and traffic estimates. It feels like the makings of a PhD dissertation or something. No way I’d have woken up one day and decided to do that on my own. I even got help getting to a Hello World in Neo4j, the graph database technology, from Lauren, mentioned above, a badass dev in my cohort.
Q3 Developing intellectual property that is attractive to your market
This is what I took away from the Q3 theme. A common example of intellectual property is the development of an assessment tool based on benchmarking clients against their peers, which is directed by the research findings of survey or other data collected.
I don’t have anything I can personally share about Q3 or beyond (we aren’t there yet). But I can see a path for everyone in my cohort, I can see where the first cohort is, and what they’re doing is awesome.
For me, I will have to pivot a bit back into doing survey and interviews to collect self-report data from my target market to start this process.
The graph database is going to take a few months to stand up the scaffolding for and layer different types of data on. But I feel good about the direction and no fear crops up when I think about this as being a big part of a multi year plan.
I think this goes back to what you can expect from the program: some traction and confidence in a direction and your ability to cultivate relevant expertise for your market.
2/3/2020 Update: A little late to the party re the curriculum outlined for intellectual property, but I’ve started to do some of this.
You can see an example here, where I share how to power your site search results with Google Custom Search. I’ve also been working on more systems around machine learning stack of python and Neo4j. For example, I have python scripts that allow me to load CSV data from Google Sheets into Neo4j and then query that database to return some data visualizations for insights. Still pretty early in the machine learning part of the journey, but it’s been a fun and challenging angle with which to approach problems of working with existing content at scale.
In addition I’m also working on some intellectual property around information architecture planning. Right now that involves a framework for approaching homepage layouts based on situation.
The other cohorts
You will not find anything about this on Philip’s landing page. It’s not a formalized feature or benefit. But it’s important.
Seeing those in a cohort ahead of you makes it real. In a way it makes you think, “if I do this, maybe I can be like that.”
A few times a week I read something written by someone in my cohort or the one before us, and it gives me a little charge to lean in or recommit if I’ve been slacking.
Not guaranteed, but in my experience, when reaching out, people in the other cohort are happy to help or provide feedback.
Of course, interacting with them is optional, but everyone is doing such cool stuff that you want to get to know them. And the further along a cohort in front of you is, the more of a resource they become for what’s working as you get to the next step.
If it makes sense, when you’re up against something someone else has gone through, Philip will recommend seeing if that person would be willing to help point you in the right direction.
I’ve reached out to two people from the cohort before us, and both were super friendly and helpful, and (again, this isn’t formalized or anything) but happy to be a resource, just like I would be happy to be given what a great experience TEI has been so far.
As an example, I emailed Bob from the first cohort, an expert on thought leadership for research organizations (see! what? that’s so cool!). He was super friendly, and replied saying, “Hoping the first quarter of TEI has gone well for you. It certainly changed my life — for one thing, writer’s block isn’t much of a problem anymore.”
I feel similarly.
Six months in, hard to imagine what I’d be doing without TEI. Actually, that’s not true. I would probably be doing general marketing and design or dev work at a “competitive” price for everyone who has reached out to us in the past six months.
I would not have ~100 posts or a point of view on a handful of topics actually related to what I want to be doing, or any real data points contributing to my current understanding of my market.
2/3/2020 Update: Another four months and ~60 posts in plus some assets and intellectual property in progress, I’ll also say that I have a much clearer idea of what the next year is looking like, positioning, and clarity on the direction and problems I’m most interested in as well as a multi-pronged approach of thinking through publishing, working with sites, and learning machine learning things to improve processes and workflows.
I think maybe more importantly, in a few conversations with prospects and clients, I’ve been able to point them to something I’ve written on a question they ask or an issue that pops up. That feels really good just in and of itself.
If you work for yourself or run an expertise-based business and are interested, go find out more about the program.