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How to start a successful business when you’re not an expert at anything

Table of ContentsUpdated Dec 09, 2013

It’s a common voice all entrepreneurs hear inside their heads:

“Will anyone actually pay me real money for this?”

“Why would anyone pay me when there are so many other experts out there?”

“Who am to build a business around what I love to do?”

If you’ve ever given in to these kinds of thoughts, you’re fooling yourself. You’re tricking yourself into believing you can’t do it. You’re lying to yourself when you say you aren’t enough of an expert to build a successful business around something your passionate about.

Today, I want to open your eyes to a new way at looking at “expertise.”

This is the fourth installment in a series that shatters common excuses for not starting the business of your dreams. We’ve compiled them all into a quick ebook which you can download for free here.

How to start a successful business when you’re not an expert at anything

The key to building a successful business around something you love even when you’re not the biggest expert or authority on the topic is to be “expert enough.”

And, since I’m practicing what I’m preaching, I’ll even confess that this concept is not my own.

The idea of being “expert enough” comes from Corbett Barr (cofounder of Fizzle and founder of The Sparkline [formerly Think Traffic]) who I’ve been learning heaps from lately.

The concept becomes extremely clear when you start to think of expertise as a spectrum instead of a destination.

Let’s assume, for a moment, that you’re ready to start a graphic design business but you’re worried you won’t be able to find clients that will pay for your services because you’re pretty new to it all.

So who in the world would pay to work with you?

Clients who get pale at the thought of even typing in a URL into a browser window.

Are Fortune 500 companies who need tons of custom code and functionality going to be beating down your door? Not at first, no. Because they’re at a different point in the spectrum than you are.

Thinking of expertise differently

Let’s imagine for a moment that you’re even at the low end of your chosen field of expertise.

Maybe you’re a “2.”

But think of how many people are a “1” on the same spectrum. Or even a “zero.” Or haven’t even thought about being on the spectrum yet.

To them, you’re an expert.

You know way more than they do and, chances are, they’ll be willing to pay you do handle everything they don’t even remotely understand on the topic.

The key to making this model work

The real secret to making this spectrum model work is to continually keep moving up the spectrum.

You can’t settle for being a “2” for the rest of your career or you’ll always be stuck doing Level 1 work. As a rule of thumb, the lower on the spectrum, the less you can charge and harder it is to find quality clients.

So climb the scale.

Get better.

As you become a “5,” do work for level 3 and 4 clients.

If you’re a “9,” upgrade clients to level 6, 7, or 8.

See how that works?

But don’t sit around and try to become a “9” immediately. Not only will you burnout on learning instead of doing, end up in the poorhouse, and be dissatisfied with your life and career, but you’ll miss out on the quickest way to climb the scale: real work.

It’s in the doing of the work that we improve the quickest.

Education and theory are all fine and dandy… for “ones” and “twos.”

But if you’re ready to really climb–to really build the business you dream of, start as soon as you can and then work your way up.

What’s your expertise and where would you put yourself on the spectrum?

Leave a comment on this post and let’s talk.

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Written by Preston Lee

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Preston Lee is the founder of Millo where he and his team have been helping freelancers thrive for over a decade. His advice has been featured by Entrepreneur, Inc, Forbes, Adobe, and many more.

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  1. Muhammad Luqman says:

    I joined Intentional Blogging last week & am still waffling about which blog to begin…again. I started one last year but have since learned it’s too broad. Since IB I’ve been flirting with a different, much narrower, much more revealing blog idea. I still haven’t committed coz I don’t want to run out of ideas again & leave another abandoned blog in cyberspace. This post has really helped. And made me anxious to go LIVE.

  2. So interesting & very true! If you are ambitious & entrepreneurial in spirit you never stop learning anyway – from each exchange (the ones that work or lead to something as well as the ones that don’t). My trick to keep going is to have the ultimate goals & dare-to-dreams in their biggest form somewhere visible where you have to see & be reminded of them, but in the meantime lap up the opportunities to take small or even tiny steps – every day – knowing you’ll get there!

  3. I worry that I am not a good enough writer or expert, i am a film maker, I have studied film at university. My passion is surrealism, so I was hoping to start a blog writing about surrealist cinema for fans like myself. I was worried I would not be a a good enough writer or that I would be competing against university professors, or successful film critics with years of experience.

    But now I am thinking maybe this is what fans like myself are after a blog on surrealism that isn’t elitist and full of jargon, but a blog more from the fan for the fan – and easy to understand for everyone. I sometimes feel alienated by critics of more specialist cinema who can make the reader feel that they have to be highly educated to understand what’s going on. Often they blogs are word heavy and take the fun out of things.I am starting to feel that this could work.

  4. I’m glad I found this article. This was written for me 100%
    I am a freelance print designer moving in to web. I am very passionate about my job so I was trying to learn the whole internet universe as fast as possible to be up to date with technology… a little overwhelming experience.

    Now, I can breed again!

    Thank you.

    1. LOl… I meant breath.

  5. Michael Zorko says:

    Another outstanding article! Infact this really helped change my way of thinking. I have been sitting at a 5 for a while so I started taking more classes, expanding…learning… but I learned so fast…. overwhelmed. I don’t need to learn everything all at once. In fact if you don’t use it you lose it. I do not even have a client base that I can apply a great deal of my new found knowledge. It all comes down to working within your strengths…and of course broadening your strength as you go.

  6. Julia Starlark says:

    Great post! Extremely motivating! Liked your idea of spectrum model. So simple, but at the same time working this way you can really achieve a lot. Starting any work everyone wants to have everything at once. But it doesn’t work this way. Everything starts with a single point and then goes the development. You can’t just omit some steps of the ladder if you want your work to have a firm basement. You should just remember that you won’t get everything at once, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t dare to try. One thousand steps always start with one.

  7. Hi Preston!

    You made it very clear by using that scale. Sometimes I feel like I’m stuck at a level “2”, but you can only get better from here! And knowing that I’m still an “expert” even though I compare myself to level “9”s, I still have something to offer to clients who are not on the scale at all.

    Great post!

  8. Stephanie McCloskey says:

    This was the best article I have read thus far by gdb. Really good thoughts. Thank you for some perspective.

    1. Preston D Lee says:

      Wow, Stephanie. Thank you!

  9. Paula Spagnuolo says:

    The best post I’ve read in months. As a designer with 20+ years experience in print and finding myself recently laid off from my steady income/day job I’ve found myself overwhelmed by the myriad requirements for most open jobs. I’m interesting, willing and trying to delve into doing web design but like many I wondered how on earth I could possibly do that when it seems there are experts at every turn. The point you’ve made here really gave me a new perspective. Thank you.

    1. Preston D Lee says:

      Wow, Paula, flattered. Thanks for the kind words.

      I’m glad it could offer a new perspective and hope it proves helpful as you move to your next adventure!

  10. OK. First of all, this is such a great post!

    Second of all, this post really hit the home! This is exactly what I’ve been telling myself all this time. This is what discouraged me to start doing something. Because all I got in my head is “I’m not expert enough to offer my service for business. So, I’ll have to wait until the time has come.”

    I’ve been following this series from the beginning. I love all of the posts and feel encouraged by them. But, THIS post is really something! It’s like a slap in the face., waking me up from daydreaming. Now I’m preparing to take all the business drafts that I’ve kept for quite some time to a real action. Yes, I’m doing it. And I’m really excited to make my business-dream come true. For real.

    THANK YOU for this post!

    1. Preston D Lee says:

      Thanks so much for the kind words! I’m glad you enjoyed the post so much.

      I really hope it can help you jumpstart your dream business. Best in all!

  11. This was really helpful to me, especially the part about “levels” of work. I’m very comfortable with design, but not with web development, so I’ve been worried that my clients will find it unprofessional to use Weebly to set up websites rather than WordPress etc. It’s been making me feel anxious about my abilities and I’ve been comparing my skills with higher levels that I just haven’t reached yet. I need to stop worrying about this and concentrate on making my current-level clients happy and learning so I can climb that ladder. BOOM. Thanks.

    1. Preston D Lee says:

      Hannah, glad the post could pump you up!

      I would also add a word of caution: using services like weebly are fine for starting out, but make sure you at least have them buy a real domain instead of “”

      I only say this for one reason: if they see that you’re just designing a site on weebly, what’s to keep them from hiring a really cheap intern and using the same tool?

      It’s somewhat of a strategic game to play: exploring new services, climbing the latter, and not giving away the secret sauce. 🙂

  12. Andrew Ley says:

    That;s an epic post Preston; and a great message to all professional designers out there.

    When you’re constantly listening ot, and reading, the opinions of industry leaders it can very easy to fall into the trap of seeing your levels of skill and knowledge on a relative scale to theirs.

    The fact is, if you’ve spent any time studying a subject, you know a lot more about it than you give yourself credit for.

    1. Preston D Lee says:

      Great additional comments, Andrew. Glad you liked the post.

  13. Pyramid Pixels says:

    Thanks for the post Preston.

    I have years of experience but even today when I say I have 15+ years of experience in web design and graphic design, a small voice in my head says “should I say 12+ as I don’t PHP (or something else)

    Having my own business has taught me that the attitude is more important than the skills. If at some point you are stuck you can always hire someone to do it for you and finish the project 🙂

    1. Preston D Lee says:

      Well said. (PS: what’s your real name, Pyramid Pixels?)

      We’re really in the business of positive attitude and pleasing clients.

      If you can nail that, you’re ahead of lots of designers out there.

      1. Pyramid Pixels says:

        My real name is Radhika 🙂

  14. Thankyou Preston. Very timely for me, a new graduate.

    1. Preston D Lee says:

      Good luck, Jenny!

  15. Aww the first paragraph felt like an encouraging hug – thank you for this article. Lately I’ve recognized what it is that I need to learn to “level up” and this perspective on progress really clarifies the issue more for me.

    Actually, don’t mean to divert from your topic too much but let me ask you or anyone who’d be kind enough to reply: I do WordPress web design, mostly customizing themes within the scope of their options and some very basic CSS. What are the skills that are required to *really* customize a theme, add graphics here and there, and to make the original theme unidentifiable by only using it as a base for much more elaborate design? Is it all CSS, is it PHP too..or.. not sure what the process is. But I know for sure, that is the next step for me, and I want to learn it in 2014. Thanks again for the inspiration!

    1. Just do it. I’ve tested the issue and it realy works. Last month i was designing some interfaces with html and css but now i am adding some to the work and can earn something more for this.
      Wish you all the best.

    2. Preston D Lee says:

      It may not be quite as hard as you think, Bhakti.

      It’s mostly HTML, CSS, and PHP. I’m a self-taught WordPress and Genesis developer. There are so many resources to learn from out there.

      Am I perfect? No.

      But I get the job done and it’s quality work. So just dive in, get learning, and I’m sure you can do it!


  16. Great post Preston, I’ve always found the truth to be so simple, most of the time. If you don’t like where you are in your career you’re going to have to do something different. There is so much quality free or next to free education out there. Thanks for the reminder.

    1. Preston D Lee says:

      Jeff, great thought. Not knowing how to do something is no longer an excuse with the accessibility we have to information on the web, right?

  17. Well, this part of the series of articles has seriously put my head in a place where I thought it wouldn’t be! Having attempted to go-it-alone many, many, ok .. what seems like hundreds of moons ago .. along with a good chunk of serious life changing & threatening circumstances & obstacles … struggling with the how to’s & what’s what plans; faltering; failing; getting clients; losing clients (for numerous different reasons, not necessarily just down to myself); achieving minor successes; getting reasonably good & interesting feedback on stuff I have put together, (graphically/photographically), in designs for print & web … all the No Money; No Time; No Business Plan & now Not an Expert shifts the mindset, hugely. I can see where references in these articles fall into place with regards to the experiences I have had (due to the approach &/or method used &/or the mindset at the time) & more so the knowledge I have actually gained gradually over time (however little or insignificant it may seem to myself sometimes … or others, even!) …

    This particular article provides a better, more appropriate perspective & approach to keeping myself grounded regarding my level of expertise. Perhaps, I could finally get things off-the-ground & further than previously with an interesting way of gauging where I’m at now and onwards on the ladder of experience & expertness. Only the future knows … 😉

    1. Preston D Lee says:

      Thanks for opening up and sharing with us. Sounds like you’ve had quite the journey. It’s never too late to start again with this advice in mind. And with all the experience you bring to the table now, I’m sure it will go smashingly for you. Best of luck!

  18. Thanks Preston, reading your post and all of the comments is really encouraging, I’ve the experience but suffer from the self doubt that I can do it alone….this definitely helps. Thanks

    1. Preston D Lee says:

      Kelly, you can do it! And you’re not alone. We’re all here to support you. Join the Millo Insiders group too if you need even more support. Good luck!

  19. This post struck a real chord with me. Despite being in the web industry for over ten years, I was initially terrified of ‘going it alone’. Part of the problem was that for years I’d been surrounded by web specialists: designers, coders, information architects, technical project managers, usability specialists and so on, all with years of experience in their individual fields. As an all-rounder, how could I possibly compete with them? Of course, as you so clearly explain, that was never my target market.

    I was lucky enough to have a chance conversation which changed my attitude. A friend asked for advice about something that was (to me) incredibly obvious and simple but was completely alien to him. That single conversation made me realise how much expertise I did have and, more importantly, that there was a market for it. Each job I’ve had since then has taught me something – whether it’s new technical skills or about how to run a business (a critical skill in itself). I’m so proud of what I’ve achieved already – I love the feeling that my knowledge is useful and helps people and it’s even better that I can get paid for it too!

    1. Preston D Lee says:

      Alice, amazing insight. Sometimes that’s all it takes: just a moment of realization that we really do know more than we think we do. It’s the curse of knowledge: sometimes we don’t know what we don’t know. I’m glad your friend was able to (unknowingly) help you out!

  20. David McLean says:

    Great post! As always your insight is spot on for me as I work to build my own web design business. I would consider myself a 1or 2 on the spectrum but every day I learn a little more through classes, blogs like yours, being smart enough to asking the right questions and taking care of my clients by simply providing best solutions that I know for the problems that are trying to solve.

    1. Preston D Lee says:

      David, keep it up. You’re doing great. It’s fun to check in every year and re-evaluate what area of the spectrum you’re on.

  21. Christine L says:

    It’s nice to know that everyone has to start somewhere. I have a lot of design experience, but lack in web design. As long as I keep learning then I know I will eventually get there as having that on my list of expertise as well 🙂

    1. Preston D Lee says:

      Just keep up the great work, Christine. You’ll get where you want to go. Thanks for sharing.

  22. Great post Preston. You see this with photographers a lot – amateurs who aren’t that great can still pick up clients who are looking for someone to do cheap portraits, as long as they are decent! There’s a place for those kinds of entry level experts, and it actually helps both parties – the client gets “good enough” work for a cost that makes sense for them, and the free lancer gets valuable experience in addition to their fee.

    1. Preston D Lee says:

      Couldn’t have said it better myself, Ky. Sheesh, you should be blogging here. 🙂

  23. I’ve recently come to this realization myself and I like your explanation of the numeric scale. Getting into this mindset also helps with moving past the doubts and fears when you stop comparing your 3 with a 9. I think it also ties in nicely with determining your ideal client and narrowing your focus for who to target and work with. Thanks for posting Preston! I always find Millo posts to be so timely and am finally transitioning from reader to commenter 🙂

    1. Preston D Lee says:

      Great point, Kim. Comparing yourself to others is an easy way to get discouraged. This is a great way to realize we’re all climbing the same ladder. Some of us are on rung 3 and some are on rung 9, but we’re all leaning against the same wall with people above and below us.

  24. Chandra Tincombe says:

    Great post! This is kind of how I’ve been doing things… got to the point where I was tired of waiting for things to fall into place and decided to just start doing it. The more work I get the better I get at it and the more work comes my way. If you never take that first step (no matter how small), you’ll never get to where you want to be!

    1. Preston D Lee says:

      Thanks for sharing, Chandra. What’s that they say about a journey of a thousand miles? It begins with a single step. Best of luck in all!