In the cold, hard light of a surprising election outcome that none of the experts predicted, it seems a meaningful time to take a fresh look at expertise itself. In particular, the value expertise has for entrepreneurs and how they can make the most of it – without that expert lens getting in the way of the bigger picture.
Step away from bubble thinking
Bubble thinking happens everywhere. We extrapolate what people in general are thinking from what we hear from those around us. It’s easy to close ourselves off in protective bubbles to nurture our companies, attracting people like us, rather than including intrusive voices from diverse backgrounds, identities, schools and areas of expertise that round out customer-centric companies that can problem-solve nimbly.
Brilliant entrepreneurs are driven to create companies from their deep subject expertise. No one knows the complexities of their work like they do. These experts see how they can solve a specific problem and believe that they can fill a need for the people who could be users or customers. But is the problem identified accurately? Does it matter to people and is the solution relevant? Does it really add value where they believe it does?
The first challenge of expertise is to step outside the bubble that happens when subject experts get together and discuss the problems they’re solving and how their solution fixes it. We see bubble thinking at conferences all the time. In my own bubble, at an innovation in marketing conference I attended earlier this year, a digital marketing expert told the audience of marketers that we’d be better off going to other conferences. Go hang out with neuroscientists, doctors; put yourself in situations with people different than you, he urged us.
The risk of expertise is that we're inclined to sort things into familiar patterns which can lead to self-serving bubble thinking that just verifies the initial assumption. By stepping outside the bubble, it’s easier to include the input of others, to listen without trying to sort feedback into pre-determined slots and pre-set values. That kind of listening is essential to design thinking and the creativity that helps companies position themselves well.
Customers’ choices aren’t rational
Having helped a lot of small companies package themselves, I’ve seen how business practices teach them to be logical and bring their value proposition forward. The fact is though, that value propositions alone are rarely compelling because people are simply irrational. Even when we think they’re making rational decisions, we aren’t. We are all influenced by a complicated chain of behavioural choice economics.
The challenge or opportunity for entrepreneurs is to get creative and embrace the irrationality around their offering to appreciate how they might be able to serve their customers better than competitors do, with a better experience. A great example might be Starbucks, when it was spreading across North America. People said they went to Starbucks because they thought its coffee was better. But they really went because the stores were well-merchandized and offered an appealing customer experience with comfy chairs and nice music. ‘Better coffee’ was how the company let customers rationalize their choice but it wasn’t really what it offered. This isn't so different from what tech and cleantech companies offer their customers.
By acknowledging that customers’ choices aren’t rational, a company can look beyond the features of its product to create their own emotional promise and turn a value proposition into messaging that’s much more inspiring – and more sticky.
Embrace the trends
While every entrepreneur is on the leading or bleeding edge of its expertise, their messaging doesn’t resonate with people until it’s shaped into something recognizable. Aligning the company with the existing trends that a target audience is familiar with creates comfort and invites people into the company’s offering.
Here’s where an entrepreneur’s expertise is really valuable – experts are acutely aware of the macro- and micro-trends of their sector. A narrative that fits the company’s story into emerging cultural and category trends makes the company relevant to customers, media and investors.
Companies that position themselves to existing trends can create desire for unfamiliar and complicated technologies that otherwise might need a lot of explaining. When InterAxon was testing different applications for their brain-sensing headband, Muse, it positioned the product to the growing trend in mindfulness and meditation, and was a hit with investors and consumers.
Package your company to reach people
Entrepreneurs can surround themselves with a diverse team to make sure they’re not simply continually validating their first assumption, bringing in people with different areas of expertise. Being open to other points of view, different methodologies and practices is valuable to uncovering the new insights that can the company's message resonate with people.
Entrepreneurs with small and midsized companies have a big advantage with their expertise. With every opportunity to add talent, whether in advisors, employees or consultants, there’s an opportunity to expand the company’s horizon and position themselves better. And because of their size, these companies have less brand architecture than big brands, making it so much easier to repackage their message to fit their market.
By changing bubble thinking into inclusive listening and respecting that decision-making is influenced by behaviour and emotional needs, entrepreneurs can point their companies towards relevant trends and make them meaningful and compelling to the people they want to reach.
Brenda van Ginkel
Every great brand that's making a difference to people or the planet deserves to stand out and be noticed. I write about creative direction and brand strategy for entrepreneurs and those supporting them, packaging concepts with messaging for growth and audience engagement in a crowded, noisy digital space.