Note: This is a post I originally wrote for Fizzle (my day job), where we teach aspiring entrepreneurs how to build small businesses that matter. Although you may not be an entrepreneur, the process of building expertise will still be valuable to you. I hope you enjoy.
Andy Perdue stands over his desk, looking at 29-years’ worth of paraphernalia from his career in journalism. As he looks from item to item, memories flash across his mind. His first article published in print. His first day covering wine as his day job. The internet changing everything for newspapers.
“It’s been a great ride, but it’s time for a new adventure,” Andy thinks to himself as he packs up the last of the boxes and heads to the car.
It was December 2012. After covering wine for the past 15+ years for Wine Press Northwest, the Tri-City Herald, and a number of other outlets, Andy was leaving his comfortable and secure job to start a business covering wine across the northwest region of the US.
By the end of 2013, Andy and his business partner would go on to generate more than $75,000 in revenue, grow an email list of over 2,000 subscribers, and attract 16,000 unique visitors per month to GreatNorthwestWine.com. And they’re just getting started.
But this brings up one very important question. When most businesses Fizzle out (we all know the stats on that), how is it that in their first year as entrepreneurs, Andy and his partner were able to produce such outstanding results?
The Need for Expertise
Some of the best advice I’ve ever heard for would-be bloggers and authors is this: have something to say. I hear that advice over and over when I ask bestselling authors for advice on writing books that resonate with an audience.
Entrepreneurs benefit from the same advice. If you have a perspective on an industry or topic, it means you have something to say. If there’s a problem you want to solve, then your product has a depth of purpose that is so often lacking in new ventures.
Most people wake up one day and realize they want to be entrepreneurs, and then they ask, “Now what?” So you come to a site like Fizzle, expecting us to have all the answers to help you get from entrepreneurial desire to successful business.
We have a ton of great training that helps with many of the elements necessary to build a sustainable, profitable, fulfilling business. But there’s one thing we can’t teach: expertise. We can’t help you become an expert on wine in the Northwest US. We can’t help you become a black belt in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. We can’t take 10,000 photos for you to help you become a pro-level photographer.
The real problem with people who think they want to start a business is that there are really two types of expertise required to make that happen.
The first type is related to business skills. You know, building an email list, starting a blog, building a product, offering a service, or building your network.
But the second type of expertise is up to you. It’s the expertise of topic or industry. It’s the knowledge of an audience with a problem. It’s the understanding of the difference between “aromas of smoked meat, bacon-wrapped dates, gun metal and blackberry,” and “Chukar Cherry, black currant, poached plum, toast, black pepper and cedar.”
The real problem with many business ideas (and perhaps the reason many businesses fail) is a lack of expertise. A lack of something to say. A lack of a real problem to solve. Trying to learn how to build a business and build expertise at the same time is a huge challenge that very few people are able to overcome.
Build Expertise before starting a business
Andy and his business partner were able to build a profitable, sustainable business in less than a year because they have more than 30 years of combined experience in the wine industry and more than 50 years of combined experience in journalism. Before they ever started a business, they put in time to understand the nuances of aromas, the landscape of wineries in the northwest, and the way wine contests are run.
The answer to the, “Now what?” question is two fold. You have to build expertise. And you have to understand the strategies and tactics necessary to build a business around that expertise.
It’s great that you want to start a business. We can teach you how to do that. But first, you need to uphold your half of the bargain. It’s time to build some expertise. Here’s how…
Building Expertise: The Theory
We’re in luck because a bunch of people smarter than me have written books on what it takes to build expertise. I’ll highlight three of the best frameworks and then we’ll jump into how to put it into action to move you closer to applying it in your own business.
Josh Kaufman: The First 20 Hours (Or, Rapid Skill Acquisition)
Josh Kaufman wrote The First 20 Hours: How to Learn Anything Fast as a way to combat the 10,000 hour rule for building expertise. His core point is that 10,000 hours of deliberate practice would take you 10 years to accomplish and in that time you would become one of the best in the world at your thing.
The alternative he proposes is to spend 20 hours of deliberate practice learning the most essential aspects of a topic or industry through rapid skill acquisition. While you might not be the best in the world as a result, you’ll be better than most and you’ll be well on your way to having what you need to build a business.
Here are the steps for rapid skill acquisition as Josh outlines them:
- Deconstructing a skill into the smallest possible subskills;
- Learning enough about each subskill to be able to practice intelligently and self-correct during practice;
- Removing physical, mental, and emotional barriers that get in the way of practice;
- Practicing the most important subskills for at least twenty hours
So Josh gives us four steps to apply towards our learning efforts to rapidly acquire new skills and expertise. This could apply to researching an industry for a new client in your service-based business or conducting the initial research for a new product you’d like to create.
Tim Ferriss: DiSSS
If you’re reading this blog then you almost certainly know who Tim Ferriss is. You might also know of his book, The 4-Hour Chef: The Simple Path to Cooking Like a Pro, Learning Anything, and Living the Good Life.
If you’re like me, then the first time you read the title, you likely thought it was a cookbook. But if you take a walk through the first couple of chapters, then you’ll see that Tim’s intent behind this book was entirely different. Yes, he’ll teach you to cook, but more importantly his goal is to help you learn to learn.
Here is Tim’s framework for learning new skills, which he outlines in the book and calls DiSSS:
- Deconstruction: What are the minimal learnable units, the LEGO blocks, I should be starting with?;
- Selection: Which 20% of the blocks should I focus on for 80% or more of the outcome I want?;
- Sequencing: In what order should I learn the blocks?;
- Stakes: How do I set up stakes to create real consequences and guarantee I follow the program?
Tim and Josh start in the same place: deconstruction. Then they skip around a bit, but share the idea of focusing on the right skills and subskills. Tim’s framework adds on the idea of learning in the correct order that makes logical sense to your brain and then the concept of stakes to hold you accountable to your intentions.
Robert Greene: Methods of Mastery
Robert Greene is the bestselling author of books like The 48 Laws of Power, The 33 Strategies of War, and The Art of Seduction. His books are rooted in deep research in his subject area, and his latest book, Mastery is the most compelling of all when it comes to your work.
In Mastery, Greene outlines a framework for mastering a field of study or skillset across the course of a career. While he doesn’t focus on the rapid skill acquisition model, he does provide a practical path that, when paired with the other models, will help us complete the picture for building expertise to fuel your business.
Here’s the framework from Greene:
- Discover Your Calling: The Life’s Task. The first move toward mastery is always inward – learning who you really are and reconnecting with that innate force.
- Submit to Reality: The Ideal Apprenticeship. After your formal education, you enter the most critical phase in your life — a second, practical education known as the apprenticeship… In the process you will master the necessary skills, discipline your mind, and transform yourself into an independent thinker…
- Absorb the Master’s Power: The Mentor Dynamic. Without any guidance, you can waste valuable years trying to feighn knowledge and practice from various sources… Instead, you must… find the proper mentor… Once you have internalized their knowledge you must move on and never remain in their shadow.
- See People as They Are: Social Intelligence. Often the greatest obstacle to our pursuit of mastery comes from the emotional drain we experience in dealing with the resistance and manipulations of the people around us… Social intelligence is the ability to see people in the most realistic light possible.
- Awaken the Dimensional Mind: The Creative Active. As you accumulate more skills and internalize the rules that govern your field, your mind will want to become more active, seeking to use this knowledge in ways that are more suited to your inclinations.
- Fuse the Intuitive with the Rational: Mastery. All of us have access to a higher form of intelligence, one that can allow us to see more of the world, to anticipate trends, to respond with speed and accuracy to any circumstance.
Greene’s framework is intuitive and emotional as compared to the more scientific frameworks from Ferriss and Kaufman. However, if we combine the three, we can carve a great path to building expertise to fuel your own business.
Building Expertise: In Practice
Alright, we have three frameworks for building expertise from some of the best authors on the planet. Now it’s time to turn those into a practical strategy for getting from your desire to start a business to having enough expertise to launch a sustainable, fulfilling business like Andy from Great Northwest Wine.
Explore: Choosing your business topic
Much like Greene’s first step to discover your life’s calling, before you are able to start a business, you’ll have to pick a topic or core offering for your business. This might grow or expand over time, but you have to pick something to start.
Your initial topic should give you enough energy to fuel your efforts to build expertise. It should also be a skillset that will solve a real problem or provide value for your audience or customers.
For Andy, he needed to build expertise in writing (specifically news writing on deadline) and wine-tasting at a minimum to have the chops to start his site with his partner. You’ll notice that this combines a hard skillset (writing) with an industry (wine).
Choosing a starting point will probably take the most time of anything. It will require you to explore options, read books or blogs on your options, and it might even mean starting in on a couple of topics before you find the one that feels right.
Deconstruct and Select: Understanding subskills in your field
Both Tim Ferriss and Josh Kaufman include this in their frameworks for a reason. After you’ve chosen a topic and before you start flailing around trying to read everything on the internet about that topic, you’ll save a ton of time by understanding the composite parts of your field.
If Andy were starting over, he would break writing down into a list of potential subskills:
- Writing for blogs
- Writing for newspapers
- Publishing schedules
Similarly, he would break wine-tasting down into potential subskills:
- Wine Varietals
- Wine regions
- Old World vs. New World wine styles
- Food & wine pairing
- Northwest wineries
- Blind tasting skills
- Wine competition judge certification
- Scoring criteria
You’ll have to enter into a period of self-study to understand the subskills that make up your topic or field as well. Decide which subskills are essential to learn before launching your business and select the subskills that will have the biggest impact on your success.
This learning process may take time. Don’t use this stage to dive in depth on any one skill. Instead, use it to find a group of trustworthy books, blogs, and teachers that you believe may be able to help you continue to learn over time.
Apprenticeship: Working with a teacher in your field
Now that you understand the subskills that make up your field and you’ve selected which skills to build before launching your business, it’s time to start getting some practical experience. Apprenticeship might sound intimidating, but it doesn’t have to be.
Let’s stick with Andy as our example. If Andy were starting over and looking for apprenticeships to learn from pros in journalism and wine, where might he look?
Andy could find local newspapers, perhaps as simple as a neighborhood newspaper, and approach them with a proposal to cover local events for free. He could propose two articles per month and cover the local events that no one else wants to cover (the county fair, trick or treating at the local park, etc). Remember: the point is not for him to be interested in the events, it’s to gain practical experience working on deadline for an editor at a real publication.
As he gains experience, he can then expand to guest blogging to understand the process for writing online. Then he might parlay his neighborhood newspaper experience into writing for a city newspaper or his guest blogging experience into guest blogging for a wine site to combine his learning.
Similarly, Andy might find a local wine store with a knowledgeable owner. He could volunteer his time to assist during free wine tastings or offer to run the cash register every other Saturday so the owner could focus on customers. He would gain experience by hearing the questions customers ask and how the owner answers them. Helping with wine tastings would allow him to taste wine and see how the owner teaches newcomers to taste.
Alternatively, Andy might make a list of the ten restaurants with the best wine lists in his city. Then he could call each restaurant and ask for the name of the sommelier for the restaurant. After doing some research, he might drop into the restaurant just as they were opening one Saturday before the rush and ask to speak with the sommelier. He could propose that he spend an afternoon with the sommelier the next time he is trying wines to add to the wine list or even offer to pay the sommelier for an hour of his time to teach him about wine twice a month.
Your apprenticeship should be in-person, local, and accommodate your work schedule if at all possible. Your job is not to get paid or to work for a world-renowned professional just yet. At this stage in the process, you simply want to gain practical experience that will allow you to gain knowledge and start to learn the subskills you have selected.
If you cannot find a local, in-person, flexible apprenticeship, then you’ll have to rely on self-study as an alternative. It won’t be as effective, but it can work. In this case, you’ll want to find courses, books, and blogs from the world’s top experts if possible. Be sure to evaluate your learning options before diving in. You want to maximize your return on time invested.
Experiential Learning: Side projects as learning tools
Once you have chosen a topic, deconstructed and selected what subskills you need to learn, and have either completed or are well on your way through an apprenticeship, it will come time to test your skills on your own. The perfect way to test your skills is by starting a side project without any pressure to make money or massive risk of failure.
Instead, look at side projects as mini experiments designed to give you opportunities for experiential learning. There is really no such thing as failure, because you are simply testing your skills and trying to put theory into practice.
If Andy were feeling confident about his learning from writing for his neighborhood paper and working at the local wine store, he might be ready to start up his own side project. He might to decide to do a 5-part written interview series with local sommeliers.
Or perhaps he could do a 10-part review series of local wines. Or, he might try a new Pinot Noir everyday for a month, writing about the experience each day. Perhaps he could create an ebook of his 10 favorite Merlots. Or, he could attend a wine competition every weekend for 6 weeks, writing about the experience along the way.
To give himself accountability, he could start a free blog at wordpress.com and ask his mentor (the sommelier or wine store owner he’s been volunteering with) to give him feedback on each written piece.
The specifics of the side project are not important at this point. You don’t need a large audience to read, buy, or interact with your project. Instead, you’ll want a small group of people you trust to give you more in depth thoughts on your project as a way of learning.
You’ll also want to take a step back and then evaluate your own work as compared to the work of the teachers whose work you’ve been reading. How big is the gap? What are you still missing? What subskills do you need to build up to make up for that gap?
The most important part for your initial side projects is to build your skills. Focus on using these side projects as ways to test your learning and solidify your skills in preparation for launching your business. You might use this work in the future, or you might not, but regardless act as if your project is an important piece of your body of work.
Be sure to set a timeline and specific goals for your project. Try to keep it to 4-6 weeks at most so that you get a quick win and don’t get overwhelmed by the work.
Support: Building a network in your field
Throughout the process of building expertise, you’ll undoubtedly meet professionals and/or customers in your field. In Andy’s example, he would have met wine store owners, sommeliers, local newspaper editors, and a number of people in the community who are interested in wine.
You’ll want to track the people you meet who seem interested in what you’re up to and who are the kind of people you’d like to stay in touch with. One of the most valuable ways to continue learning over time is to get connected to a passionate community of people who share a common interest.
This will be an ongoing effort, but you should use this phase of building expertise to start growing a valuable network that you can stay connected to.
If you’ve been reading resources online or in books, you might consider reaching out to the writers or authors to tell them about your learning goals or side projects. You can use this initial point of contact as a jumping off point for building a relationship over time.
Taking the leap: When to go out on your own
You’ve settled on an initial topic and direction for your learning and business. You understand the field enough to have broken it into subskills and you’ve selected the most important ones to learn before launching your business. You’ve had an apprenticeship(s) that taught you what you couldn’t have learned on your own. You’ve launched side projects to a small group of trusted advisors and gotten valuable feedback for improvement, implementing it along the way. You’ve even started to build a network in your new field.
You’re starting to feel confident. You know you’ve learned so much since starting on this journey to new expertise. You think you might even be ready to start teaching what you know, serving customers with your new expertise, and maybe, just maybe, building a business.
So when is it the right time to start that business you’ve been working so hard to build the expertise to fuel?
Before you quit your job and burn your bridges, it’s probably a good idea to make a plan that will allow you to succeed.
Once you feel confident in your expertise, it’s time to start learning the other half of the equation — the business building part. That’s the perfect time to join a community like Fizzle that gives you a support system of entrepreneurs that won’t let you quit plus the learning to build your business from the ground up. The people who make the most of Fizzle’s resources are those who come to us with expertise built and ready to hit the ground running.
Here’s a quick check list for getting your business off the ground once you have the expertise to provide value:
- Define your audience. Make sure you know who you’re serving with your new expertise. Having clarity on this makes everything else easier. (Free guide.)
- Build a website for that audience. You need a platform to attract your audience to. A well-designed website will do just that.
- Start a blog that matters. Make sure to include a blog on your new site. This is where you’ll teach your audience what you know and attract them to your products or services.
- Grow your audience. You’ll want a way to stay in touch with your audience as you attract more and more people to your blog. Start up an email list so you can build a relationship with them.
- Build and launch a product or service. Once you have a growing audience, it’s time to get to work building a product or service so you can start making money.
- Continue growing your network. As your audience grows and you start to make money, it’ll be important to continue making inroads in your industry. Continue building relationships with other experts, teachers, and well-known people in your industry. They’ll start to look at you as a friend and fellow expert, which will be incredibly valuable in the future.
Moral of the story: it takes time to master a craft.
It’s easier than ever to start a business overnight. Free tools and access to information means everything you need is right at your fingertips.
But nothing can replace building expertise as fuel for building a sustainable, fulfilling business. Josh Kaufman teaches us that you can pick up enough skills to be dangerous in just 20 hours. Tim Ferriss has told us how to build skills rapidly by picking the right ones and adding stakes into the equation. Robert Greene shows us the path to mastery through apprenticeship and applied learning. And this post brings it all together to give you a path to launching your business.
If you follow the outline in this post, then you’ll have a much higher chance of having a first year like Andy from Great Northwest Wine instead of fizzling out. In fact, the one part of the story I didn’t tell you is that Andy is a Fizzler (how our community members refer to themselves).
He came to us with depth of expertise in wine and journalism. Because of that, he was able to jump right into our training with clarity of purpose, having a first year in business many entrepreneurs would kill for.
You have to ask yourself this: do you really want to build a sustainable, profitable, fulfilling business?
If you’re serious about being an entrepreneur, then you’ll start building your expertise now. Building expertise is one of the most powerful ways to build a successful business and get on the path to an independent, entrepreneurial career. It won’t be easy, but it will be fulfilling. Now go, get started.
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