The Weekend Solopreneur

Issue 22.46

Saturday, November 12, 2022

Photo by Thao LEE on Unsplash

What does it mean to be an expert?

At the bottom of these stories is an invitation to send in a question you would like to see answered. Brooke replied to last week’s story with the following:

What does it mean to be an expert? How does one position themselves as an expert? How niche should expertise be?

I first have to highlight the irony: what qualifies me to answer this question? What makes me expert enough to attempt an answer?

I think there are two things that make me “expert” enough to answer this:

  • First, I talk a lot about niching down as one of the most powerful things you can do as a solopreneur. Niching down is specializing, and because I’ve studied this for a while I believe I have some small level of expertise.
  • Second, I’ve worked with true experts long enough to see what true expertise looks like, and form my own opinions about the subject.

So, assuming just for a bit that my opinion on this is valuable, let’s break this question down into it’s three parts.

What does it mean to be an expert?

This is simple enough. The dictionary definition of an expert is a person who has special skill or knowledge in some particular field.

So far, so good. But in doing research for this article, I came across some unexpected insights. A 2007 article in the Harvard Business Review states:

Research reveals that true expertise is mainly the product of years of intense practice and dedicated coaching. Ordinary practice is not enough: To reach elite levels of performance, you need to constantly push yourself beyond your abilities and comfort level. Such discipline is the key to becoming an expert in all domains, including management and leadership.

Bottom line: experts are made, not born.

How long does it take to become an expert?

That same article (and supporting research) states that it takes at least a decade to become an expert. We all instinctively understand this: if you want to become one of the top experts in the world, you have to study that subject for a long time.

But I think there’s a more valuable way of looking at it:

Expertise is relative. If you can’t swim, even the most novice of swimmers look like experts. But if you swim at competitive level, your perception of “expert” shifts—now you regard people like Michael Phelps as experts.

The point is that you don’t have to wait until you’re an acknowledged world expert before you can help someone with your expertise.

How does one position themselves as an expert?

To build a business as a solopreneur, you would ideally like to position yourself as “the expert” in a particular subject. When someone looks for help with that subject, your “expertise” shows you at the top of the list.

But how do you get there?

How NOT to position yourself as an expert

Experts are like heroes. You don’t wake up one morning, proclaim yourself a hero and everyone follows suit. Heroes do things most of us wouldn’t, and because we admire those actions we regard them as heroes—we don’t just regard them as heroes because they said they are.

Similarly, you don’t need to shout loudly that you’re the expert.

A better way to do it

Here’s how I prefer to do it:

  • Talk about the subject. A lot. Publish articles, go on podcasts, post on LinkedIn or other social media. Get published in specialist magazines. Put links to those appearances on our website (this is called social proof).
  • State your opinion. People won’t regard you as an expert if you say the same thing everyone else does. Deep insights, sometimes even contrarian views, are the hallmark of an expert.
  • Harvest testimonials. The best kind of “proof” that you’re an expert is what other people are saying about you. Get those testimonials and put them on your website (more social proof).

But don’t expect this to work overnight. Becoming an expert (and then a recognized expert) takes time.

How niche should expertise be?

This is an interesting question.

Becoming an expert in one topic or niche is a lot easier than becoming an expert in many topics. Having just one product or service (offered in different sizes and formats) allows you to spend less time building products and more time marketing and delivering.

The fear of niching down “too much” is that you’re going to miss out on opportunities. But we miss out on opportunities every day anyway, so this is somewhat of a fallacy argument.

Most of the time, we fail to get (enough) clients not because we’ve niched down too much, but because we don’t express what we do well enough. (There’s a whole story in that—for another day.)

I would like to answer this question this way:

Your expertise should be as niche as your passion, but err on the side of being too niche rather than too wide.

In other words, let your passion drive you. If you have many passions, pick the one that is most valuable for your clients (in terms of pain—monetary or otherwise).

Hope that helps.