I had a colleague once who for a time was the leading lights on the investment banking industry. He was in his early 40’s and was smart and full of confidence. Similar to a lot of his caste, his sense of the public good was tied to his power not in giving.
As a banker at the height of his game, he attracted customers like moths to a flame. It helped that he was in the real estate financing business and this was in the lead up to the GFC. As it turned out, he was instrumental in creating some of Australia’s biggest financial disasters that were to come, though he would never be held accountable.
So I remember in this one meeting with a property development company that was eager to float into the all too hungry oceans of investor capital. They had been granted an audience with my colleague who had sat quietly through their presentation whrre their sought to explain what they wanted to do. At the end, he approached the white board, drew three boxes and a couple of arrows and then explained how one plus one could equal three. This was the strategy he would recommend. And with that he finished with the line “You don’t pay for my time. You pay for my expertise.”
Now that is a very simple way of saying I’m bloody expensive. But is it actually accurate. After all, time is ultimately all we have to sell – particularly, when you are an investment banker who doesn’t physically produce anything tangible. It’s bothered me ever since. What was he actually saying?
My take on it was about positioning. His time was so precious that it looked damned silly as an hourly rate. He was creating scarcity around his brand. He had collected expertise and more importantly a network that he could call on to execute the transactions that could deliver them their dream outcome. He only needed 2 or 3 clients cause they were elephants that were totally aligned with him – they made more money, the more money they raised.
It’s a clever approach for a consultant, or anyone in the business of selling their time rather than a product (that could well be an asset created by an investment of their time). Professional sportsmen are faced with the same challenge. Their sunk costs are into themselves, they and their parents have invested years in creating their performance edge. And they are so acutely aware that their time at the top is finite.
One of the benefits of our social media age is that democratization of personal brands. With control of entertainment and information flows having been lost to the masses, the ability of just about anyone to rise up from the cacophony has been made possible. Not that it makes it any easier. The competition for attention has also been amplified by a factor of a large number.
This is the reason people like Seth Godin are so strong on recommending that you focus on your tribe- that group of people outside of your family and friends that will like your story. The more narrowly defined your tribe, the more likely that you can hone your message to resonate with them. It’s the same way that Kevin Kelly arrived at the conclusion that all you need is 1000 true believers to make a living.
So the lesson is if you are in the business of selling your time – which inescapably we all are. Then you better start by focusing on selling your message to a well defined audience. The tighter the framing, the more likely that you can tailor it to their needs. So much the better if that audience has very deep pockets, or in the case of my banker buddy, access to truckloads of other people’s money.