The Value of Domain Expertise

My first startup (and what we got wrong)

I was recruited to my first startup (a small San Francisco-based company) from Berkeley Lab. Happy building some very early web applications without any thought of venture capital, I was a kid having fun trying new things.

But they came knocking and the idea was interesting and so I jumped. We built the first version of the SaaS (for knowledge and task management) in 90 days as we were running up to a big conference where we'd show it off (yes, that's how we did things back then).

In that time, we not only built the software, but we built a tech stack that made it easy for us to create tons of integrations to enterprise software products. In those 90 days, we didn't just have the base application but also integrations to Microsoft Project, Rational Rose, Unisys Repository and more.

And then I got on our mini stage at SD West (pretty sure this conference doesn't exist anymore) and started giving talks every 2 hours. We'd pull 10-40 people to our area, sit in the seats, and I'd pitch our product (even though we couldn't sell anything in our booth).

We closed several deals on a product that hadn't yet really launched (or been tested nearly as much as I would have liked).

But our mistake wasn't rushing. It wasn't selling a partially baked piece of software. It wasn't that we forgot to collect emails from people who were kind of interested.

Our mistake was that all we did was sell features. And when you have 5 integrations you show off, you know what comes next. Yes – requests for 5 more.

“Sell benefits not features”

You've heard tons of people tell you that you need to sell benefits, not just features. And what they're telling you, in their own way, is that if you focus purely on features, you'll start a conversation that never ends.

There's always one more feature that you don't have yet.

I've been one of the folks that tells you, a lot, to make sure you find the pain that the customer is feeling and focus your content on that. Connect with people where they're at, and then show them your product or service resolves those pains.

So pain is important.

But there's something more important than features or benefits.

The Value of Domain Expertise

Remember the other day when we talked about why people were paying you?

Whether you run an agency, are a freelancers, or have built a software product, there's one thing that helps you close more deals than anything else. It's not directly your experience or expertise, but it's close.

The one thing that helps you close more deals than anything else is this: empathy.

Do you know how you develop real (and valuable) empathy?

The answer is domain expertise.

What is domain expertise?

Here's my simple definition:

It's the depth of knowledge that comes from specific situations (context) so that you've become an expert that can speak to anyone who is also in that space, and they can recognize, immediately, that you've been where they're at.

In other words, the reason skinny people can't teach a weight loss class is because us larger people don't believe them.

In other words, the reason young people struggle to sell houses or insurance is because they can't pitch us older people in a way that actually makes sense.

If you've not been where I am, how can I trust you to know what I need?

Why do people share BuzzFeed articles?

A few years ago I read this interview with the founder of BuzzFeed. In it he explained why he didn't care about Google or search traffic numbers.

This was almost a decade ago. But when anyone tells you they don't care about traffic from Google, you should bookmark it. You'll certainly remember it. And here we are, almost ten years later and I still remember it.

And you're wondering about it too, since it doesn't appear to have anything to do with what we've been talking about. But it does. It most certainly does.

Why didn't they care?

Because when you create content for people that connects to the core of who they are, what they care about, and answers the questions they've been asking – they're happy to share it with anyone and everyone. In fact, they come looking for that content.

I'll be honest with you. I've never focused on optimizing my content for Google. My hope has always been to write content that you would find valuable and that you would share it. That belief was heavily inspired by the article I linked to.

Domain Expertise builds Trust

Years after my first startup, in my third, I was building a compiler of sorts. We were building a software product that would generate code. But unlike most code generators, we could generate code in 10 different programming languages and architectures.

I would do these two-day seminars (if it sounds like my jobs have always been a combination of building products and then getting on stage and telling stories, it has). In those seminars I'd mostly walk thru the old way of building software and this new approach (called model-driven architectures at the time).

The stories were so familiar with the technical leaders from companies like Ford Motor Company, Bank of America, and other enterprises, that they knew I knew what I was talking about. They understood my domain expertise.

But most importantly, since they knew I'd been where they were, they trusted me. And that trust is what allowed us to sell the software.

I told you this the other day – lead generation is all about trust.

Here's the challenge for most of us

Once you develop domain expertise, it's pretty hard to become a novice all over again. And as a result, most of us end up talking in terms that could be too technical for our prospects.

Additionally, we end up forgetting what it was like before we became experts, and so we forget to write content that targets those early days.

In the end, we write what we're thinking about, and with assumptions of what we already know.

I know, tons of the folks I've helped over the years have struggled in this same exact way.

Domain expertise helps us close deals. But it can also hurt us from creating the kind of content that functions as early on-ramps for people just getting started.

How do you solve this? I have a way.

You bring someone around who isn't an expert and you explain it to them like they're a normal person. And then you ask them to produce content from those interviews.

It works every time. I won't take more of this article to explain how it works. I just know that when you have to explain it to someone who isn't an expert, they ask all the right questions that helps you get at the content that can help bring non-experts your way.

If this is something you want or need, contact me and let me know and I'd be happy to introduce you to folks that do this service.