There’s plenty out there about how to become a recognized expert, how to build a business around your expertise, and how to monetize your expertise. In this article, I want to go deeper into the whole concept of the expertise-based business.
A richer understanding of the concept helps make the possibilities for expertise-based businesses clearer and can also surface ways in which you can differentiate your own business – in other words, be more strategic in how you go about building a business around your expertise.
There’s no lack of competition for most expertise-based businesses. Pretty much anyone can read a few books, spin up a website, and call themselves an expert. As a result, getting to the root of what it really means to be an expert and how to position yourself more effectively as a business is not just an academic exercise. It’s critical to success.
So, let’s dive in.
How to define expertise
First things first, what do I mean by “expertise” and “expertise-based business?”
The typical expertise definition is along the lines of “a high degree of knowledge and skill in a particular field or discipline.” Expertise is usually gained through years of experience and/or study and it’s through pointing to these years of experience and study – and the body of work, accolades, credentials, and other accomplishments they have resulted in – that the expert is able to establish her expertise.
That’s all fine and well as far as it goes, but I think there is a fundamental flaw in this definition of expertise, and it’s a flaw that has contributed to a general distrust of experts.
Namely, it is rooted in the past.
The world – driven by what technology makes possible – simply evolves too quickly for most knowledge and skills gained years ago to maintain their validity over time. And, even if the knowledge or skills remain valid, how they get applied in context is almost certain to change.
Real expertise is not static. It flows. It is always evolving. It deserves to be treated as a verb rather than a noun.
Real expertise is more a verb than a noun.Jeff Cobb, Learning Revolution
By extension, to thrive and truly be effective, the guardian of expertise – aka, the expert – must continually evolve and help those with whom she shares her expertise evolve.
Another way to put this is that she must continually learn and help others learn. And learning, as I define it, is not just about skills and knowledge but also – and more importantly, in my opinion – attitudes and behaviors. Real experts, using real expertise, are catalysts for learning that impacts people at this deeper level.
This perspective on experts and expertise leads the way to properly defining an expertise-based business.
What is an expertise-based business?
The usual view is that to build a business around your expertise means that you – “the expert” – will dispense pearls of wisdom or apply your superior skills to help your clients solve problems and capitalize on opportunities.
Again, it’s a flawed view.
First, it implies that the expert must know more than the client, which simply isn’t true and can, in fact, be counterproductive.
Certainly, the expert will know more about some things than the client, but the expert simply can’t know all the nuances of a specific client situation any better than – or even as well, in most cases – the client. Developing understanding is an essential aspect of applying expertise productively, and it can only be achieved through collaboration with the client.
Which leads to the second issue: the traditional view of expert assumes that the expert has answers. Even worse, the right answers.
An expert should, eventually – and, again, in collaboration with the client – arrive at answers (or, more likely, working theories), but first and foremost, an expert must be capable of asking questions, of taking clients through a process of discovering potential answers.
Most fundamentally, an expertise-based business is about process, about the process of bringing expertise to bear in context and with the awareness necessary to know when to draw conclusions and propose solutions.
An expert possesses knowledge, but – more importantly – is able to understand the limits of his own knowledge and to facilitate processes that connect the right content – knowledge, skills – with a specific context.
All of this, of course, is very different from being a pundit or a critic, the type of people you see making pronouncements on TV or in op/ed columns. These people are on the sidelines. People who work in expertise-based businesses are “in the arena,” to borrow the words of Teddy Roosevelt.
So, let’s come back around to the question “What is an expertise-based business” and offer a definition:
An expertise-based business is a business engaged in continually developing expertise in a specific area and applying this expertise in context to create distinctive value for each individual client.Jeff Cobb, Learning Revolution
Expertise-based vs. Expert-based
Now, given that I’ve been focusing on the role of the expert, it’s worth asking whether there is a difference between an “expertise-based” and an “expert-based” business. You will find both terms used to describe the sort of business I have described here. But I think my description suggests that “expertise-based” is the more accurate of the two.
In an expert-based business, the focus is on the expert. There are at least two downsides to this.
First, every expert, no matter how experienced, educated, or famous, is human, biased, and limited.
Second, if the focus is on the expert, what happens when the expert is no longer around? Not a great recipe for business sustainability and continuity.
In an expertise-based business, on the other hand, the focus is on the expertise, which is malleable and evolving and not tied to specific people in the business – or even to the business at all, given that real expertise emerges in context and through collaboration with clients.
What does an expertise-based business do?
Let’s wrap up by taking a quick look at the various ways in which expertise-based businesses can go about doing their work – i.e., delivering “distinctive value for each individual client.”
One of the most interesting and exciting things about this type of business is that there are many ways to deliver value, and you are probably already familiar with most of them. They include:
As someone reading this article, there is a good chance you already offer one of the services listed above. You probably also recognize that all of these can be done in-person, online, or a combination of the two.
The key to using them effectively and building a thriving business around your expertise is engagement. At the deepest level – the level you will typically charge the most for – this means a direct, personal relationship with the people you aim to serve. It means – as already discussed – getting to know their situation intimately and bringing your expertise to bear in context.
At a higher level – one that is typically much more scalable but for which you usually charge less per person served – engagement means guiding the people you serve to create their own meaningful, personalized interactions with the content you provide. Simple examples of this include providing reflection questions or activities in your courses or presentations that compel participants to apply concepts to their own lives.
In the most successful expertise-based businesses, these different levels of engagement play out in a diversified portfolio of offerings that can be plotted out on a Value Ramp.
I cover the Value Ramp concept in more depth in this post, but what I will highlight about it here is that it illustrates how, over time, your expertise can be leveraged into a rich range of offerings that creates multiple revenue streams, diversifies your risk, makes your business more sustainable, empowers you to help the widest range of people, and frankly, keeps life interesting.
And that, in a nutshell, is the great opportunity the expertise-based business has to offer.