Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.
“But I’m not an expert. I have no degree or credentials. How can I start a business? No one will take me seriously, let alone pay me.”
I hear this all the time from my students. I patiently remind them that I’m a high school dropout, and on paper, my only qualification to manage Facebook and Google ads is the fact that I run a seven-figure agency that manages Facebook and Google ads.
It usually doesn’t sink in, so I refer them to a recent Wall Street Journal article that tells the all-too-familiar story about a group of graduates who can’t secure a high-paying job. This particular story, however, shares the struggles of students enrolled in the MFA filmmaking program at Columbia University, the prestigious Ivy League school in New York. These students took on six figures of debt to obtain an MFA degree, only to find out that not all of the students could be Scorsese right out the gate. An Ivy League education couldn’t save them from the same low-paying entry-level film jobs as someone who didn’t take out a condo-sized loan.
We’re facing an epidemic of over-educated and underpaid wage chasers in this country because we have the success equation entirely backward.
What I’m about to share with you not only applies to starting a business but also to people who just want a lucrative and fulfilling job. I will describe how most people approach skills acquisition, and then I will tell you how successful people approach skills acquisition.
If I do my job well, you’ll be convinced that you don’t need to be an expert to start a business. In fact, if you aren’t an expert right now, you’re better off.
Related: 8 Keys to Coming Off as the Expert in Whatever You Sell
How most people acquire skills
“Go to college! Get an advanced degree! That’s how you succeed.”
It’s amazing how people refuse to believe what’s right in front of their eyes. The Columbia filmmakers are not unique. According to a survey by PayScale, 46% of American workers reported being “underemployed.” Meanwhile, 76% of those respondents said it was because they weren’t using their degrees in their careers.
But people still blindly follow the same old routine, which goes something like this:
- Sink time and money into education to acquire skills.
- Go to the marketplace with newly-acquired skills.
Let’s discuss two things about this approach. First of all, it frontloads all the risk. You’re sinking tons of time and money acquiring skills that you hope the market will reward you for. In reality, so many graduates enter the market only to discover that the market doesn’t need their skills. Worse, many find that their advanced education makes them overqualified. They have priced themselves out of the market.
Related: 5 Steps to Establish Yourself as an Industry Expert
How entrepreneurs acquire skills
Entrepreneurs, and otherwise savvy people, take a backward approach to what I outlined above. Here’s what it looks like:
- Go to the marketplace and ask them what problems they have.
- Find out how much they would be willing to pay to solve that problem.
- When you find a problem that the market will pay handsomely to solve, go out and acquire the skills you need to solve that problem.
- Acquire your first clients.
- Refine your offer, using your first clients as hands-on training.
- Present your offer to the market.
An entrepreneur starts with the market — listening to what they want, and only then acquires the necessary skills.
There’s also much less risk upfront. Yes, it may take time and money to acquire the skills you need to solve the market’s problem. Maybe it will require a degree? Perhaps it won’t? But it probably won’t. You can work wonders with books and online courses.
But however much time and money you invest, you’re investing it knowing there is a payday waiting on the other side. Why? Because you are responding to the market.
You are the solution to a problem. And, at the end of the day, that’s what people pay money for. Columbia filmmakers learned the hard way that there was no bigger problem to solve — and that didn’t change just because they had an expensive degree.
Related: 7 Ways to Position Yourself So People See You As An Expert
Here are the reasons why you should start your business before you have the skills to deliver. Once you start doing your market research, you’re in business.
Here’s how to get started:
- Pick a niche, any niche. Don’t be tempted to follow the money — everyone is pitching to consulting services, doctors, lawyers and so on. Often, the more obscure and esoteric the niche, the better.
- Talk to people in the niche. Find out what their biggest day-to-day problems are.
- Ask them how much they would pay to solve the problem. If they say anything less than $2,000, you might not have a viable business. It needs to be worth your time.
- Want extra bonus points? If you’re feeling ambitious, ask them to pull out their credit card and pay you for the solution before you even know how to deliver! It’s a bold move, but that’s how you know that people are willing to pay for the solution. It’s the ultimate validation of product-market fit.
- Now — and only now — go out and acquire the skills you need to solve the problem.
You don’t need to become a 10,000-hours master. You just need to know a) more than the client and b) enough to solve the problem.
Solving the problem is everything. Thread that needle, and you’re as good as paid.