A company or a guru?

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Case Studies  |  Personal branding  |  Marketing  |  Best Practices

As organizations need special skills and expertise from time to time, many hire a consultant on a contract basis, realizing it is more cost effective than hiring full-time staff.

Meanwhile, many people with specialized expertise choose to go independent, leaving the corporate world to run their own businesses, contract out their skills, or consult based on their expertise. I've been at it myself for more than a decade.

As I was speaking with my friend Steve Johnson about his recent foray into the world of independence, we discussed the fundamental choice that all independents must make: Are you a company or a guru? Either approach can succeed. However, we both noticed that people who don’t make the choice are positioning themselves somewhere in the middle of company and guru and they generally struggle.

Are you a company or a guru?

If you market as a company, build your business around an idea.

Although they can be a one-person company, those who go the company route typically have plans to grow their business with more and more consultants in the future as demand increases.

The marketing of this approach is to make you the CEO of a company—with the emphasis on "company." A great example is Greg Alexander, CEO of Sales Benchmark Index, who has built a very successful professional services firm focused exclusively on sales force effectiveness. While there is information about Greg on his site, the approach Greg took was to build a company.

When you go this route, write using "we" and "our" and design a site to showcase an organization, not a person. You build around a core offering and use a corporate logo.

If you market as a guru, build your business around your expertise.

Although it can be a large organization, the focus of a guru is on one person and his or her vast knowledge with everything else supporting that person.

Typically, people who write books and speak take this approach. Trevor Young is a great example of someone who has turned himself into a guru over the years he has been independent. He calls himself a “PR Warrior on the frontline of the communications revolution.” Everything on his site is about Trevor, written in his own voice and it is very clear that he is a go-to expert.

The marketing for a guru is typically in first person, with "I" and "my" used a lot. You build around your expertise and use a photo.

You can’t be both a guru and a company

Many people try to be both. They talk about "our company" on one page, and "my work" on another confusing the marketplace.

If you're newly independent, you've got a choice to make: Are you a guru or are you a company? It is a very important decision.

When I first spoke with Steve about this a few months ago, he was signaling the market that he was both a guru and a company and as such he was neither. But it was obvious to me that Steve is a guru, because the market knows him as the tech industry’s authority on product marketing and product management processes.

"I'm sure every marketer goes through this," Steve says. "Are we promoting a company, a portfolio, a product, or a service? Most of us can only afford to do one. Once I really listened to my customers, I heard loud and clear that they wanted my expertise, not my models."

One tip to keep it straight in your head: use a [company] logo on every page to remind yourself to speak in "we" terms; use a [person's] photo to remind you to speak in "I" terms.

"I hadn’t really seen the company / guru dichotomy until David pointed it out," Steve says. "And then it became obvious."

I'm glad to see that Steve has since updated his site. Now he uses the first person and his photo is on every page. He's recently written a free ebook (no registration) called Product Management Expertise: beyond the tactical role. The ebook explores expertise needed in product management including domain, market, product, and business and includes ideas for organizing a product management team.