The Micro-Consulting Revolution—And Beyond

These days, it seems everyone and their mother is available for some sort of niche consulting. This is both insane—how can so much deep niche expertise exist?—and incredible, because it means that there is an increasingly robust free-market exchange of these varying flavors of expertise that somewhere, somehow, must be creating a tremendous amount of value.

Anyone with a modicum of expertise in a topic others are interested in, and passable self-promotional abilities, can be a consultant. These days, all it takes is competency in a niche and the ability to let people know you exist; credentials are a twentieth-century relic, and a smart guy or gal with a blog following has the potential to earn more than any first year at Bain, McKinsey, or BCG.

I’ll be the first to tell you—I don’t know that much about anything in particular. Hardly anyone my age does. But although I’m not currently working as a consultant, many of my friends (my age—23) are, and I believe it’s a type of work that lends itself well to the chameleonic minds of young people like me who, incubated in the intellectual bathhouse of the modern university, are being birthed into the wider world with an overabundance of ideas.

I’m confident enough to brand my peculiar obsessions and interests as areas of expertise; able to recognize that some of my knowledge, creative- and critical-thinking skills, and problem solving abilities are valuable, and monetizable to varying degrees; and I’m interested in leveraging these abilities and interests to both help others and make money.

Chris Guillebeau has written about the idea of the “instant consultant”: his point is, in essence, that it’s fairly easy to create a strategy for monetizing expertise. In fact, it requires only four main steps:

  1. Create a basic website
  2.  Get a free Paypal account
  3.  Create an offer others will value enough to exchange money for it
  4.  Make sure it’s very easy to hire you

The only trick, it seems, is to identify and cultivate the requisite skill and experience to make that value proposition one that people will actually value enough to exchange money for it, and also to market said offer as one that’s unique, or at least specific enough to make you stand out from the generic crowds.

Of course, it’s easier said than done—while the market may not be saturated, it’s at least reasonably crowded, and the experience needed for most “offers” that are obviously lucrative require a substantial time/effort investment in addition to sales savvy and a creative spin.

I recently turned to Google and Wikipedia to do some very cursory research on consulting—mainly I was curious how the phrase is used, and I tried to find examples that seemed somehow interesting or exciting. I learned about the job of “Magic Consultant”: “someone who serves as “adviser to writers, producers and directors of all elements relating to magic and illusions for television, film, theatre, and other live events.” I was briefly intrigued by the idea of a “Media Consultant” until I realized it’s basically a self-aggrandizing term for a PR agent. And I found plenty of references to the “Creative Consultant,” but this is a term that, while it sounds cool, also seems devalued to me due to its overuse and lack of specific meaning (from what I gather it can refer to anyone from a meta-creative director/designer to a life coach for artists to a script doctor to a more hip and forward thinking version of a management consultant).

So really not a whole lot in terms of consulting ideas I can get excited about.

I did, however, find a couple references to a term with some very interesting implications: “micro-consulting.” A 2009 article by Chris Brogan makes brief reference to a site called Moontoast, which (then at least; they seem to have pivoted since) was “a site that enables one-on-one video learning with flexible rate-setting.” Since Moontoast’s interests have shifted, I looked further, and came across a company called Maven, which bills itself as the Global Knowledge Marketplace with its own global Consultant Network. I hadn’t heard of them before, but the system looks impressive—essentially a platform for people to transact professional knowledge exchange in small quantities. There’s also a great Zendesk blog post that links to further examples of micro-consulting, touching on Maven’s approach, but also pointing out that professional psychics and Yahoo Answers frequenters traffic in a form of micro-consulting as well.

This idea of micro-consulting fascinates me because it points at much greater possibilities for leveraging distributed knowledge than I think either companies or individuals are currently taking advantage of. This framework implies a highly efficient flow of expertise, at market value and at all scales. If the term—or at least the practice—catches on in a big way, friction will only continue to decrease when it comes to information exchange. I see the possibilities opened up by this framework as an extension of, or alternative to, outsourcing; and in some ways closely related to its inversion (insourcing). By seeking to integrate outside expertise not just in extreme situations but whenever needed, those who choose to hire micro-consultants can learn quickly and maintain a greater degree of internal control over their projects or businesses. (We can also contrast with examples of “micro-outsourcing” such as Elance or Taskrabbit, and examine the difference between knowledge-based and action-based tasks—consultant versus virtual assistant—but I don’t want to ride the tangent comet off into an exploding sun.)

The goal here is maximum efficiency: by segmenting work into small, discrete parts, that work can be doled out according to who is best able to manage its component parts at any given time (as opposed to hiring additional employees, whose costs and capabilities largely remain fixed). This process, though, also has downsides: difficulty in quickly establishing authority and expertise; the problem of guaranteeing appropriate matches between consultant and consultee; and of course, the aforementioned transactional friction that must be surmounted to make this process an appealing one at all.

I’d like to begin thinking about ways to go beyond micro-consulting. Here are a few strands of thought to that end—some may be a bit tongue-in-cheek, but some could have potential. If nothing else, they’re fun fodder for a few thought experiments. I’d love to hear additional forecasts and speculations.

  1. Meta-consulting: This would concern helping people understand the best methods for finding help, and determining what exactly it is they need help with. (Guiding people in their meta-consulting needs? Pata-consulting!)
  2. Auto-consulting : How can people help themselves? (We can combine meta-consulting with auto-consulting to arrive at various DIY therapy solutions; the combinatorial possibilities are nigh endless.)
  3. Anti-consulting: The stance that it’s categorically preferable to forge your own path and learn everything via more laborious internal processes, rather than relying on others. While consultants are shunned, teachers and mentors, whose guidance is not bought but acquired organically, are just fine.
  4. Post-consulting: When consulting is no longer necessary because all friction for distributed thought and labor has been abolished and we can upload any need/problem/task to the cloud for instant solution and execution.
  5. Trans-consulting: This refers to relationships which start out within the consultant-consultee paradigm but end up on some different plane (somewhere better—i.e. a teacher/mentor relationship, or long-term creative partnership, marriage, etc.—closer to the noosphere, to the sublime.)
  6. Macro-consulting: The opposite of micro-consulting—meaning extremely large in scale and/or long in duration. If micro-consulting enables individuals, macro-consulting escalates progress on the planetary-infrastructure scale. In the future, this may refer to as-yet unimagined intelligences, from influences extragalactic and beyond.
  7. Omni-consulting: When one is not simply a consultant, but runs the entirety of another’s life affairs by proxy. This scenario describes the most likely post-singularity relationship between humans and machines. But frames it in slightly more positive terms.

Hyper-consulting? Ultra-consulting? Tell me where we go from here.