Developing products with the help of Confucius and Lester Freamon from the Wire

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Tales from my entrepreneurial path from consulting to developing products, following the money and the meaning

This post belongs to a series. For the first two episodes you will need a special skill. You see, they have been written in Italian: the first one is on innovating in Europe and in the USA, the second about my choice to move to Germany. The latest episode – written in the language of the Bard – is called “My path to product”. This new episode has become a talk that I have give to the Berlin’s Product Camp and to Berlin’s 4 Hour Work Week Meetup.

Developing products with the help of Confucius and Lester Freamon from the Wire

Slides from my talk

You can find the content in form of slides.

Want to keep the slides? You can download them here.

Video of my talk

Here’s the video of the talk recorded at Betahaus in Berlin.

The talk last until 19:40 and after that you have the Q&A. After that some mysterious black and silent video. Maybe it’s a viral gimmick, most probably just a glitch.

The Post

Three and a half years ago I left my day job to start an independent consulting firm. I now have clients spread across all of Europe and make a living out of it. It pays rent in Berlin, travel and I’m able to save something every month. I’m pretty frugal, but I’m not missing any material comfort.

This is what success is to me: being in charge of my own lifestyle. (And this phrase call for a post of itself, but… focus padawan, focus!)

There is one thing that saved me in my dealings as a consultant: having my clients on a retainer agreement. Negotiating the rules, length and rates in the longer term has made my business sustainable.

I learned a ton of other things, but this is by far the most important one. Sitting down with my clients and spending time figuring out how to make a plan together is what keeps me sane and in business today.

I’m not just a consultant. Sometimes I am inspired by people or ideas that lead to a sort of creative collaboration. I don’t see this as consulting, but more of a partnership.

Through my clients I gain access to how traditional, established businesses work. Through the startups I get in on how small, nimble teams think about big problems. One job, the best of both worlds.

There’s even more: I get to teach startups how traditional businesses solve certain problems, and more often I invite traditional companies to adopt the ways of the startups.

Yay. Success all around. Everybody’s happy.

Sorry. This is getting boring. Let’s introduce what any good story needs: some obstacles to overcome. Let’s go back in time to see how I learned what I learned because, as Kierkegaard says, “Life can only be understood backwards: but it must be lived forwards.”

Flashback to previous times, when I thought I knew what I was doing, but I didn’t.

3+ years ago I signed a big client – that, for full disclosure, was also my former employer – and so my consulting company “La Fabbrica della Realtà” was born.
I had one big client. I took care of them, made sure they were always happy. I was often in their offices, always punctual in my deliveries.

I thought that the work of the consultant was just that: to make one client happy. And so I did.

This left me with some free time. In this time – instead on focusing on my consultancy business – I started to develop other projects.

If you’re an entrepreneur you see already where this is headed.

Yes! At some point something changed inside the organization of my client and my services were needed less regularly. I noticed, but did not act on it.

At some point I burned through what savings I had at the time, until I reached the climactic figure of 0 in my bank account. This was right after SXSW 2012, where I spent all my time pitching an idea to save the world, that would ultimately save neither the world nor myself.

Reaching zero didn’t mean that I was going to become homeless. I could have asked my family for help, I have friends around me that could have chipped in financially. I was never going to go hungry.

But I had to start to make some choices: cutting on nights out, avoiding restaurants, using all the groceries I had at home before going to get more, buying new groceries at the discount supermarket and billing them on a 60 day credit card.

There was something really good in all this. I felt a sense of loss: I lost my easygoing lifestyle, my careless let’s eat out and buy top grade groceries attitude. Did I mention I’m Italian? There is no limit to what I can spend on cooking ingredients. Fancy, imported and overpriced mozzarella di bufala? Give me more.

I finally felt hungry again. Hungry for the better mozzarella I couldn’t afford anymore, but also hungry for a rebound.

Hunger is a strong motivator. But you need to give it direction. Fortunately I have great friends, and the best advice came exactly from one of my friends and fellow entrepreneurs, Andrea Volpini.

For those of you who have seen The Wire, Andrea was like Lester Freamon, only way more zen. Lester’s the smart, seasoned detective that changes the scope of a drug investigation when he suggests to stop following the drugs and to start following the money.

It was with total calm that Andrea told me, “Matteo, you’re a consultant. This is where you make money, as a consultant. And right now your consulting business is not growing. Go back to working as a consultant and you will have solved the problem.”
So I did. My mission: win back past clients, find new clients.

I had found a new focus – following the money – and a new modus operandi: I would accept any consulting gig, even the ones I was not necessarily 100% qualified for, and I would also lower my rates to make my services more affordable for more clients.

Things were bad in the bank. But really well-aligned and organized in my brain.

Consultants sometimes need consultants. And fortunately I was able to convince some good friends to help me rebuild La Fabbrica della Realtà.

Daniela Berto is a designer, matchmaker and consultant. She started me off with the basics: she convinced me that I needed to apply to my business the same techniques that I apply to my clients.

I had used the Business Model Canvas for my clients, but had never applied it to my own business. So I drafted my Canvas. That was quite a moment. By answering each and every question that the Canvas required I was able to shed light on my business and start to see things clearly.

The Canvas of my business showed me I had a lot of potential I was not acting upon. How could I start to realize it?

I needed a website. I had borrowed the name La Fabbrica della Realtà – which is Italian for The Factory of Reality, by the way – from my blog.
I’ve been blogging on and off for more than 13 years and it seemed natural to use the name of my blog as a company name. But I hadn’t cared to build a website.

Why not? Well, at the time, I lacked the clarity I’d now gained after two years of consulting.

Building a website is a great way to understand your uncertainties. If you want to create a good website, you need to make hundreds of small decisions. And each of those decisions has ramifications.

I had to think about how to organize my services, what role to give to past projects. I needed to describe both visually and with words my bio, my vision, and what I had to offer. I had to collect case studies of all the work I’d done in the past.

I’m tremendously happy with the result. You can see it here.

Now, if you are following me with some attention you might ask: did the new website bring a lot of new business?
The answer may surprise you. My new website has not brought in a single new client. So, is the website a failure? Not at all. You see, each and every new prospect, referral or person I have pitched to directly has used my site to decide if they should hire me.

The typical call with a new client nowadays runs something like this: “Hey Matteo, my associate John Doe has a very high opinion of you and has suggested that I hire you. Oh, and then I saw your website and I’m very impressed. Would you…”

I feel so good when this happens. I think about how hard it was to understand what I was doing and to create a website as the tool of my relaunch. Now, seeing the fruit of all this work gives me a feeling of satisfaction I’ve never experienced before. It’s simply priceless.

One thing continued to elude me, though. In my website I could define my personal positioning very clearly and describe my offerings with a degree of confidence, but could not come up with a convincing description of the company itself.

How you describe a consultancy of one is… how you describe yourself. And this self branding problem is quite widespread.

More than six months after going online with the new website, and after many many drafts I finally could define what I do, not only in words – but as I love doing – with a little sketch:

La Fabbrica della Realtà is an innovation laboratory centered around people and ideas.

You have no idea how much work there is behind this definition.

Not only had I come up with a definition of my business, I had come up with one that aligns with my personal ethics. I’d come up with a credo that defines my goals in life.

All right. Finally I had solved the problem. I had won back my original clients, encountered some new clients, started making some money and was back on track. Now you may ask: why hadn’t I done all of this at the beginning, three and a half years ago, when I first started my business? Why hadn’t I begun with a stronger strategy, with a business website, etc.?

To respond I need to tell you a short story within my story.
I was walking around the European Maker Faire in Rome and I encountered a poster from Reggio Emilia’s Fab Lab. It read “Se faccio capisco”, translated “If I do, I understand.” It’s Confucius. It struck me like lightning. That’s exactly what had been happening to me. Confucius was speaking directly to me. What a feeling.

I needed to be doing to truly understand what was happening, to learn from what was happening I needed it to happen. It’s the doing that enables the understanding. Bingo!

Welcome to typical me. The title of this post says I’m going to discuss productizing, and 1850 words in… there’s still no mention of products. I’ll get there in just a few more paragraphs, promise!

Now that I know how my consulting business works, how I can expand it and to what degree I want it to grow (hint: not too big), my next big challenge is building a product!

We all know that consulting does not scale. You can increase the amount of hours you work, hire more associates and raise your hourly rates, but you’re always going to reach a limit.

There’s a problem: you see, I was an employee for 10+ years and I was trading my time for money. Then I became a consultant and I was still trading time for money. Products have eluded me for a long time, but now they are the perfect solution to my problem.

While looking for my own product I learned many many things. First of all I studied how others developed products and detailed my findings in “My Path to Product”. But more recently I came across three principles that I call the three keys to product discovery.

The first key is expertise. When you look for products, look deep and close to your areas of maximum expertise. Ideally you should already know every stakeholder in the market of your product, all the influencers and – whenever possible – know the clients by name. Why? Building products is hard, the closer you are to your area of specific expertise the better you will be at gathering feedback, understanding your clientele and being able to market to prospects.

My second key is ease. For anyone coming from a guilt-based value system “ease” is a negative value. I was taught in school that if something is easy, this means that you’re doing the wrong thing. If something is easy then you need to up the anti or change the topic altogether. Products don’t work that way. You need to find something that comes easy to you because you need to do it a lot, rehearse it a lot, re-work it a lot, so it might as well be something that comes easy to you. In particular, look for stuff that comes strangely easy to you and hard to other people.

My third key is passion. You must have fun dealing with your product, you need to love your customer base, you must enjoy spending time with them, you need to be passionate about how they use your product, and admire the final products that they will build through yours.

So these are my three keys. You might ask if they have been effective in unlocking my own product. They have!

It’s Presentation Hero, a presentation training course that promises to save the world from bad presentations!

In the end I decided on the infamous info-product. I looked back at my last 15 years of work and found one common thing in all of my work engagements: presentations. As a “self-taught-everything” I self-taught myself presentations a long time ago, and now I want to tell you what I’ve learned by crafting presentations for the last 10+ years.

I believe I can really change how you think about, structure, design and deliver your next presentation with my course. And I’m so happy to report that not only many individuals already trust Presentation Hero, but quite a few companies and agencies are approaching me to deliver Presentation Hero to their associates and employees.

If you want to learn how to craft better presentations, how to deliver them in the boardroom and in the conference hall, become more skilled and confident and increase your personal brand I invite you to keep in touch by signin up to my free newsletter.

Along the path to developing Presentation Hero I have found a ton of useful resources. I wanted to end by sharing some of them.

Following Patrick McKenzie (Patio11 here and on Hacker News) has provided me with invaluable resources. If you don’t yet, I recommend you subscribe to the Kalzumeus Podcast, a collection of miscellaneous knowledge on the art and science of creating service businesses. He’s also a consultant turned product guy and you can learn a ton by following his journey.

I also suggest watching some of his presentations, in particular this one delivered at MicroConf. Even though I wish he had me as a coach for those slides…

Which leads me to MicroConf. The great thing about this conference is that you don’t need to attend it. The best talks are online. Just set aside the appropriate amount of time and watch those videos. Add them to your queue, save them to pocket. They are worth your time.

Patrick gives you a ton of advice related to software products, but in this case I am developing an info-product, so I also looked for more specific advice and I found it by starting to follow the blog and podcast of Nathan Barry. Nathan has written a nice walk-through of product launches called Authority. The book is an okay resource, it won’t change your life. But do yourself a favor: follow his blog, get on his email list. They are all great free resources worth following.

There’s a bunch of technical knowledge that goes into creating an info-product, especially one that involves videos. I’m not going to talk about that because I think it’s too specific. One thing that every product needs is marketing, and I get my marketing advice these days mostly from Noah Kagan. Again. Get on the blog, subscribe to his email list, and you will not be disappointed.

I think that it’s through Noah that I first encountered Brian Dean. He’s the mind behind the most brilliant SEO blog I’ve ever seen. It’s called Backlinko. Brian provides super actionable, instruct-able articles where you learn how to do only the most effective SEO. But it does not stop at that: he masters a content marketing formula that has changed the way I publish my blog. Also in this case, subscribing to his list is highly suggested.

As I researched the best platform to publish an online course I came across a service called Fedora. Yes, it’s the same name of the Linux distribution, but in this case it’s a SaaS online course system that lets you upload your course materials, manage payments and email your users.

There are many other platforms out there but none will be as focused on acquiring new users. I highly recommend it.

Wrapping up. I don’t know how my product will evolve. I don’t know how successful it will be. I still can’t write a post like “How I fired all my clients and started partying 24/7 while making a passive income from my presentation training.” I really don’t think that the objective here is the passive income or the 24/7 party either…

What I can tell you is that my success or failure is dependent 90% on my strength, abilities and resources, maybe 9% on pure, condensed luck, but 1% of my success or failure depends on you. How do you react to this content? Do you want to follow up, does it inspire you to comment, to forward it to other people? Does it drive you to know more about me, to singup to my presentation email list?

Success has many facets. One part of my success would be represented by you following my advice and discovering a new resource. I don’t get kickbacks, but I establish my usefulness. I know that the path is long and the rewards are waiting for those that diligently do the work.

This is why I get on with mine, so that in the future I can tell you about my “success story”.

Thanks for reading this far. Hope you enjoyed.