How David C. Baker built a $1.7m firm through insight, not content

I get obsessed.

With authors, musicians, film-makers, artists...

I find one piece of work I love, followed by a second, then I eat up everything they have to offer. I won’t stop until I’ve consumed their entire back catalogue.

Does that happen with you?

I had that with Seth Godin.

I’ve read every book, listened to hundreds of podcasts, and watched him live at a one-day Q&A.

I’m not alone. Having gone through some of his cohort courses, I know he has more than 1,000 true [and raving] fans.

It’s a similar story with David C. Baker, whose work I’m equally obsessed with.
David C. Baker's best selling books
His book, The Business of Expertise, is one of the best you’ll find in the category. As is his podcast with Blair Enns - The 2 Bobs.

During the past four decades, David has become one of the leading authorities in the creative space, driven by a phenomenal body of work. 

He's the antithesis of a marketing bro - patient, insightful and thoughtful - traits social algorithms don’t value.

They're the key factors to David building a $1.7 million one-person consulting firm (which recently became a two-person firm).

And, as with Seth, I’ve always had this question running at the back of my mind around David’s work:

If David were starting today in a crowded marketplace, would his deep and thoughtful content style rise to the top amongst a sea of shallow clickbait?

Before we answer that question, we need to backtrack a little.
These are awful!
David made an early start in agency world straight out of college.

While reading the paper, it occurred to him that most of the ads were just terrible. And people were getting paid to make them! Maybe there was an opportunity here.
And these 90s ads were just terrible, so David took a shot at making something better
He couldn’t do any worse than the existing creatives.

So he set up shop and built his agency over the next five and a half years.

Business was steady, not great.

Work came through his network and some full-page ads in Communication Arts
Which were expensive
Those ads cost $5k per edition, eight editions per year.
But, around that five-and-a-half-year mark into his agency, his business was turned on its head.

He’d been subscribed to Cameron Foote’s Creative Business Newsletter for some time. At the end of each newsletter, Cameron invited feedback. You could call or email and ask any question you wanted.

David did that regularly until one day, Cameron asked if he’d write an article for the publication (on a topic Cameron wasn’t strong on).

That led to a regular contribution, and through his writing, David started teaching an audience of agency owners how to run a firm.
He was borrowing authority
Cameron had it, David didn’t.

In this case, it was guest writing, but later in his career, David deployed the tactic through guest podcasting (dozens or hundreds of occasions).

These articles on running an agency resonated with the audience, which led David to ask Cameron:
“Why don’t you consult with your readers rather than just write this newsletter?”
Cameron had reasons for not wanting a consulting gig and responded:

“Maybe you should do it.”

So he did. 

Cameron put an ad in the publication promoting David C Baker as a consultant to creative firms (Cameron would take 10% on anything David made).

Enquiries started coming in immediately, and within six months, David was no longer running his own agency but was an advisor to agencies.

And the experience informed his own marketing moving forward…
He needed emails
Until this point, he’d paid Communication Arts $30k to get in front of their audience eight times yearly, buying passive attention.

But through his newsletter, Cameron not only had free weekly access to his target market, but also, these people were actively engaged. They weren’t subscribed to a general publication. They wanted to read what Cameron had to say.

David wanted to replicate that.

So, in 1999, he stopped paying for ads and set up his own print newsletter - Persuading.
“I started consulting in 94 and I remember in 99 it just hit me that I was being asked similar questions repeatedly. I didn’t have a clear point of view. I didn’t have a defendable point of view on certain topics, so I just got tired of it because I hate incompetence. It drives me to solve it competently. So I wrote down all the topics that I felt like I needed a point of view on and it came out 55 topics. So the next thought was, how am I ever going to develop a competent point of view on these? So that’s when I decide to do Persuading … it was 6 pages per month, $360 per year.”

- David C Baker

Source: 2Bobs - How much should you write

With the ‘borrowed audience’ he’d picked up, plus the network he’d built in the space, David had a launchpad for his newsletter.

He went deep. Each issue was 3,400 words, published once a month, and more academic than his blog.

Over the next four and a half years, he developed a bank of high-quality content, a unique point of view on key topics, and a growing audience through word of mouth.

Here’s a flavour of how that content was received.
“I can say as someone who was getting to know you then, it was an impressive vehicle. It looked beautiful. Everything about it was beautifully designed. You are a good writer, but the content and the writing style really created a level of professionalism that just wasn’t there in the space at the time, and I think with that you just rose to the top of the heap.”

- Blair Enns

Source: 2Bobs - Where do ideas come from?

David's newsletter, Persuading, almost had a journal feel to it
Those 55 topics were incredibly specific and addressed genuine paint points for his audience.

Things like:
  • Your compensation and ownership agreement
  • Constructing an appropriate retainer relationship
  • Good and bad reasons for having a partner
  • Surfacing warm leads through direct and indirect marketing
  • Creating compelling new business presentations
The approach worked. It was his launchpad to becoming an industry thought leader.

But how did he come up with topics that people care about AND write about them in a way that resonates?
“There isn’t anything to talk about until someone has some significant expertise, and the expertise is never going to be there until they start to notice certain patterns, and then they’re never going to get the opportunity to see those patterns unless they make bold decisions about their positioning.”

- David C. Baker

Source: 2Bobs - The Business of Expertise, Part 1

The foundation of David’s success lies in his positioning.

David had experienced life as an agency owner and understood the pains of growing the business. When he moved into consulting, he focused on creative firms, speaking with agency owners daily.

He noticed the nuanced challenges of agency owners rather than the broad obstacles all small business owners face. It’s the nuance, the specificity, which is critical here.

Because specificity pulls people in. It earns trust.

A person who owns and runs five cafes has similar challenges to someone who runs a 5-person agency.
But beneath the surface, those challenges are nothing alike
Both want to make a profit. Both need to attract more customers to do that. But the obstacles blocking their goals are entirely different.

A cafe is fully booked at lunchtime. They want to figure out how to increase revenue in the period between lunch and dinner.

An agency has no problem converting ideal-fit leads. When the right person makes a phone call, it’s a done deal, but they can’t figure out how to get more of those ‘right people’ to make the call in the first place.

You see? Beneath the surface, nothing alike.
Above the surface, challenges seem similar. but beneath, you can see the iceberg is completely different.
By nailing his positioning, David was exposing himself to the specific challenges encountered by a specific group.

And, with a narrow focus, he’s seeing things you wouldn’t see without a narrow position. Problems and solutions that repeat themselves.

With a position, the question of what to write becomes obvious. Clients are supplying you with overlapping topics, all relevant to the group as a whole.

David became an expert when he started to write about those problems (and solutions), not vice versa.

But I’m still hovering around that initial question I had at the start of this article.
“Maybe today, now that everyone is in the content marketing, it’s not so easy to go to the top of the heap via your content.”

- Blair Enns

Source: 2Bobs - Where do ideas come from?

Contrarian Thinking
Much of what David’s loved for is his No Bullshit philosophy:
“Back when I ran a marketing communications agency, David Baker was one of the few consultants who got my time of day. That's because he pretty much spoke truth — not to power, but to bullshitters.”

- Charlie Quimby

Source: Branding and the Herd Mentality

I love contrarian opinions. I think we all do.

But I always thought contrarian thinking was some magical power you were born with- this ability to spot what hasn't been spotted before- something that was out of my grasp.

I don’t believe that any more.
It's a skill that can be learned
It’s the one thing that every expert today breaking through the noise has in common.
“If you’re just telling everyone something obvious like cult leaders are bad, there’s no story.”

- Jon Ronson

Source: Unquestionable

David attacks obvious thinking by contrasting it with non-obvious observations.

He identifies flaws in preexisting beliefs and best practices that lack substance. In doing so, he creates an interesting perspective. It’s imperfect, and it’s the imperfection that’s interesting.

Things like:
Here’s how David finds and develops his alternative perspectives:

He has around 250 article ideas at any one time and is constantly adding to them.

Those ideas sit in his Evernote workspace, and knowing they’re there, he starts seeing the world differently. 

He becomes a collector.

He's always aware, paying attention, and ready at every point in his day. When an interesting idea, perspective, or metaphor comes up, whether reading an article, watching a video, having a conversation…

He saves it in Evernote. Now, he may not know where or how he’ll use each item, but at some point, when he’s figuring out an article idea, he’ll connect the dots, go back to a previous metaphor that he’d saved, and pull it into the notes for the new article.
And, when the article has three or four interesting notes, when he feels ready to write, he writes.
But here’s what he doesn’t do…
Read business books. Or at least not many of them.

He reads outside the industry. He gets input from places like The Economist, The Wall Street Journal, and Substack newsletters on politics, art, philosophy…
Broad reading outside you're field is fundamental to creating unique and interesting content
It’s relevant to the topic he’s writing on. And it’s taken from outside the agency industry - because interesting insights only come when you have a deep level of knowledge about your industry whilst also distancing yourself sufficiently to see the wood from the trees.

If you only ever read from within your market, you just regurgitate existing ideas.

That's where most people are going wrong with content.

They're repeating existing ideas, using existing vocabulary, and it's completely ignorable.

April Dunford, for example, has created a completely new framing of product positioning. That makes her remarkable. But reading her and paraphrasing her books, as many marketers do (I have), that's the opposite.

We've heard it before, so we keep scrolling.

But with David's approach, he develops what he calls this T-shaped knowledge. Deep expertise with broad context.

I think it's more like a table than a T, because it's not just deep knowledge of your topic (e.g. for David, that'd be positioning) but also deep knowledge of your specific audience (e.g. creative firms).

And in the process, you create unique content.
Table leg expertise
It happens because you're:
  • Often one of the first to apply topic expertise to a particular audience. That's what David did. Most positioning insight is applied to products, not creative firms.
  • Finding metaphors that resonate, making new connections, and unearthing new approaches that haven’t been articulated in your field. That's because the combination of shallower topics are unique to you. Growth Design took a love of comic books and applied that knowledge to their content.
And, I call this content creation, because the market recognises this as content marketing. But what David does isn’t really content marketing…
It's Insight Marketing
“Incisive insight is really the future, and to understand insight, we need to contrast the difference between news, content, and insight.”

- David C. Baker

Source: Punctuation - Why no one wants to read your newsletters

David’s articulating insight that’s valuable to his specific audience and buyers.

That’s inspired by research, but mostly, it’s discovered through conversations:
“I cannot remember the last time I had a good idea by myself without being with a client, on the phone with them, or maybe speaking with a prospect or making a presentation at a conference.”

- David C. Baker

Source: 2Bobs - Where do ideas come from?

And this all loops back to solid positioning.

The best ‘insight’ ideas come from client or prospect conversations.
The best content comes from customer conversations
If I don’t have enough content ideas, either I’m not having enough conversations, or I’m not looking for ideas (and capturing them) in those conversations.

The things keeping your clients up at night are the same things keeping your audience up.

So, you capture them, add them to your idea pile, then ruminate on them.
“Insight has to brew a lot longer in your head. You have to be more certain because you are taking more chances. If you go to publish content, you're never nervous about the reception - you're just hoping people will notice. When you go to publish insight, you're really nervous about getting it wrong.”

- David C. Baker
Engaging insight is the overlap between real reader challenges, real expert experiences, articulated through a distinct point of view that might piss some people off.

But mulling over ideas takes time.

Research in any form is a lot of work.

As is idea-collection, reading around the topic, writing….

How is any of this possible for a small firm, or in David’s case, a 2-person?
You buy time
Experts get paid high fees.

To become a genuine expert, you need time to develop your insight, as David has.

And to find the time, you need to price work high enough so you’re not working 24/7, 5 days a week on client work.

It sounds like a chicken and egg situation, but it’s the reality.

The way you become an expert is to price like an expert, giving you the time to become an expert.

There’s an element of fake it till you make it. Not entirely, but a little.

There are varying degrees of prices. David is pricing much higher now than he was in 1999.

But the key here is that his price in 1999 was sufficient to cover his overheads, pay his wage, and give him breathing space in the week to write.

Because without that time, the writing isn’t going to attract the type of people you want to attract.

Sure, a SaaS can pull in leads by churning out average content. It’s a volume game.

But for experts, we’re not packaging content…

We’re packaging ideas.
Unapplied vs applied expertise
Applied or unapplied expertise.

Very expensive or free. Nothing in-between.

Your free stuff is just as good as your paid, it’s just not applied. That’s the backbone of an expert content strategy.

And, as valuable as this written expertise has been, what happens next takes David to another level.
The Two Bobs
“The world around us has said we don’t trust institutions, that’s just a fact. We do trust to some extent individual people, and so we have to humanise, to some degree, the firms that we’re running.”

- David C. Baker

Source: 2Bobs -Building your Personal Brand

Writing is a fundamental pillar of an expert firm.

Required for developing expertise as much as marketing it.

But even when you inject stories and personality into your writing, it doesn’t quite match the spoken word for human connection.

David launched the 2Bobs podcast with Blair Enns back in 2017.

For 60 minutes each week they create two podcast episodes (and publish bi-weekly). Blair interviews David on a topic of his choice, and David does the same for Blair. 
“I have never in my life done something that has been more influential than that podcast.”

- David C. Baker

Source: Rise25

David and Blair have built one of the most popular business podcasts on the planet.

And what the podcast has delivered is a deeper human connection.

You get a stronger sense of David’s sense of humour. You feel closer to him. For 30 minutes every other week, you’ve cut off all distractions, headphones on, focused on his and Blair’s voices. There’s an intimacy to it.

That’s just another level to a newsletter.

Imagine getting invited to speak at a conference every other week. It’s round the corner, so there’s no travel, and there are hundreds (or, in David’s case, thousands) of people in the audience who perfectly match your ideal prospect, and they’ve specifically come to hear you.

That’s a podcast.
A podcast audience is like having a speaking opportunity, in front of your ideal prospects, every week, a 10 minute drive from your office
It’s arguably the podcast that catapulted David to become one of the biggest authorities in the creative field.

But the platform and audience he built before the podcast enabled that projection. Without it, who’s listening to early episodes and then sharing?

Nobody, it goes nowhere.

David hasn’t used one hack or tactic to get where he is today - a highly respected expert earning $1million+ per year.
So, starting out today, would this approach work?
If you’re looking for fast social growth, this process is ineffective.

Algorithms don’t support it. Casual ‘likers’ don’t like deep content, and the types of folk who enjoy deep content don’t ‘like’ social posts.

But if you’re thinking in months or years rather than weeks, David would rise to the top today, tomorrow, or ten years from now.

Because if you’re interesting and well positioned, you gain organic traction. Sure, it takes time (it took David years), but it works.

As with Growth.Design, when you have something useful to say, articulated in an unusual and interesting way, delivered to a specific group of people [who hang out together], word of mouth spreads.

And, as with Seth Godin, David didn’t need growth hacks in the 90s and he wouldn’t need them today.

Because the noise makes it hard to find quality, interesting perspectives, which means we crave them more than ever before.