How To Choose Your Area of Expertise (90 Day Known Expert Day 5)

Today we explore maybe the hardest and most important principle to understand for a would-be expert: positioning.

David Baker says it’s what you do and who you do it for, which is a fine definition, but awfully services-oriented. That kind of elevator pitch framing is so important. Still, the services you use to monetize your expertise come later. Right now you need to know what problem drives you.

To get there, let’s talk about your business model.

What’s your basis of competition?

A business model is not the same as a revenue model. Your services are part of your revenue, so let’s step back.

In the book Managing the Professional Service Firm, David Maister starts with three bases of competition:

  1. Experience,
  2. Efficiency, and
  3. Expertise.

Experience involves standing out because of high service; efficiency relates to streamlined operations; and expertise has to do with offering insight that no one else can offer because you’ve focused.

Before you define services, realize that your basis of competition is intimately tied to focus. Without that, you’re highly replaceable and not competitive at all. Your offerings are indistinguishable.

To become a known expert, choose focus as a sound business model foundation.

Vertical vs. Horizontal Positioning

To simplify this process a bit, ask yourself whether you want to focus on a kind of problem or a kind of person.

If you want to focus on a kind of person, you’ll deal with a spectrum of problems as wide as you choose to be helpful to that person; if you’re problem-focused, you’ll deal with a spectrum of people and businesses who deal with that problem.

This is the difference between vertical and horizontal positioning.

If you were to put this idea into a graph, you’d see an x-axis with a spectrum of people. On the y-axis you’d see an array of problems. By drawing a straight line up and down, you have one x-value (one kind of person with many problems); a straight line left to right would mean one y-value (a single problem found in many contexts).

To become a known expert, I suggest focusing on a problem.

Why Not Focus on an Audience?

Whether something is “vertical” or “horizontal” has everything to do with what you identify as your x-value and your y-value. So for me to call something horizontal or vertical as if it’s universal is a bit disingenuous.

And my x and y are different than David Baker’s in his book The Business of Expertise. Why?

Well, in my experience, lawyers have more trouble defining what they want to do all day than they do deciding who they want to serve.

If you focus on a kind of person, you have to see the whole person. You don’t have to serve everything they need, but it’d be foolish to think you can solve one problem for one person and remain relevant enough to that person to charge a price premium. It can be done, but that intersection is rare.

Serving a kind of person means being accessible to that person. And accessibility kills the method of expertise.

Instead, to become what we think of as an “expert,” focus on a problem like no one else has. You don’t need to be infinitely accessible because your unique understanding of the problem gives you more leverage in your relationship with those you serve. The rarity is what makes you valuable.

This feels a bit academic and it is, but getting your focus right will drive so many later decisions.

The focus is to create a price premium. If that’s not a thing you care about, you might be able to hide some of the errors.

So how do you want to focus—on a person or a problem?

Working on Your Positioning

Over at I’ve added a worksheet to help you identify your positioning. I’d also suggest reading Baker’s book The Business of Expertise. Although he and I define the choices a little differently, his insights are really useful for making this choice.

And please let us know if we can help in this work. We offer strategy consulting and content services.

In the meantime, I’ll keep explaining how you can do this one your own. See you tomorrow.

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