Whether it’s playing guitar or writing short stories or telling jokes or taking photos — whatever — amateurs are far more likely to think they are experts than actual experts are.
That is a summary of the Dunning-Kruger Effect, as explained by David McRaney in his first book, You Are Not So Smart. I’ve mentioned the author previously as I expressed frustration with the idea that entrepreneurship is a panacea for financial problems that are interpreted as a lack of income. The Dunning-Kruger Effect shows that self-evaluation of competence at any particular skill is an inaccurate measurement.
The author used the example of photography, and that’s a field I can relate to. As I gain more experience through my own endeavors to create interesting images from what I see in the world, and as I gain more education by viewing a massive number of professional photographs, the more I realize that I am so far away from being as competently artistic I’d like to be. And that’s a truth, despite the encouragement I receive from family and some friends.
Nevertheless, I enjoy photography, so I will probably continue to work at honing my skills. I just won’t be trying to sell my services as a photographer more than the occasional favor to friends of friends. Mainly, it’s something I can pursue because I enjoy it, and not something I need in order to earn a living.
But I’ve seen the Dunning-Kruger effect in the field that has been, for lack of a better term, my profession for the last decade. In a discussion I presented at the Digital CoLab event in San Diego recently, I brought attention to one of the most popular tidbits of advice tossed to entrepreneurs early in the lives of their businesses: “fake it till you make it.” This is touted as a key to early success. In fact, it’s completely natural. In fact, it’s so natural that this is a defense mechanism that extends far beyond humanity.
- When a cat is frightened, he will puff out his fur to appear bigger to his enemy.
- When a peacock wants to attract a mate, he fans out his tail-feathers to produce a display attractive to the lady-peafowls.
- A wolf showcasing its dominance in a pack parades with its head held up and tail raised — a posture that in humans would be considered “proud.”
Among human entrepreneurs, this attitude has many potential manifestations.
The expert front.
One basic example is the business coach, calling herself an expert in her marketing materials, without the experience that warrants the “expert” status. I’ve been lucky over the years to talk with many true experts in publishing (online and offline), website development, business development, and private investments, and they all have one thing in common: they don’t call themselves experts. They’re not busy trying to market themselves or prove their worth to others. These just do the work, and do it passionately at a high level of excellence.
Prior to the housing crash, mortgage brokers were kings of business. The credit industry was so flush, and you could make big money selling mortgages to people who perhaps should not have been qualifying for mortgages based on their risk, and if you were a sub-prime mortgage broker, chances are good you were living the high life. The market crashed, credit froze, and almost an entire industry was out of work.
I am not trying to imply a causation, but there was certainly a correlation: this was the same time “search engine optimization experts” began flourishing. And given that SEO was a new industry, and that business owners who believed they needed SEO services couldn’t tell the difference between experts and charlatans, the internet created an industry perfect for people who were better at marketing themselves than they were at anything else.
Experts appeared out of nowhere. They might not have been good at actually causing good business results for clients over the long-term, but they were good at self-marketing. Here’s my favorite example of expert fronting: Around the year 2000, I once saw a resume touting “15 years of web development experience.” If you don’t know what’s wrong with that statement, you shouldn’t be in charge of hiring web development employees.
One of the reactions I often hear to the idea that expert fronting is a bad idea is that if you don’t speak up for yourself, no one else will. I understand that feeling. It’s incredibly difficult to get noticed in a crowded industry. The key to resolving that problem is to differentiate yourself or your business, and to differentiate yourself in tangible ways rather than just marketing yourself more aggressively. You stand out when there is a specific identity that separates you from the rest of the pack.
The business “we.”
The temptation to appear to be a larger company is apparent when sole business owners identify their businesses in the plural form. “We are a full-service web development firm” sounds more marketable than “I design websites.” Of course, there is a point where a new business grows to be a team. The “we” can certainly be legitimate, even with early-stage companies. But if you do a little research and discover that there is no we behind the “we,” then it should give any potential consumer pause.
The need to make a business appear to be a bigger company than it is covers up some insecurity, but insecurity itself is not a sign of incompetence. In fact, as the Dunning-Kruger Effect shows, an expert is more likely to feel like she is not an expert.
Customers who get paid instead of customers who pay.
This is a popular marketing technique online, though it has already been around offline. The online version is the “affiliate” relationship. Word of mouth marketing is incredibly important when starting a business, so some companies are willing to pay for those mouths. It is possible to convert a good selection of your potential paying customers into your own salespeople who are motivated to sell your products and services for you. And online, these relationships should be disclosed to potential customers, but often aren’t.
How do you know if a review you read online is legitimate? Could the individual who wrote the review and is providing a way for you to purchase the product be paid by that same company? This is a popular sales technique, and in fact, it’s basically the form of commerce that allowed Consumerism Commentary to thrive as a business (and to eventually provide me with a personal exit from such sales techniques).
Businesses that pay their customers to promote their products aren’t automatically offering bad products, but it should raise some skepticism. Would a customer be just as passionate about the product if he weren’t getting paid?
Is it ever a good strategy?
Inflation of a personal brand and these other techniques do serve a purpose, though, from an entrepreneurial perspective. Primarily, it can give you a confidence boost at the early stage of your business. Before long, you begin believing your own lies. And then you want to live up to them without letting customers and clients down. Maybe it will help you work harder.
However, there is a dangerous side-effect, and this is the point I made during my presentation at the conference. While strong personal branding and inflating your ego helps to acquire customers in the early stage, it makes it incredibly difficult to win support from your more established colleagues. Business ownership — and progress within a career outside of business ownership, as well — isn’t a solo journey. People live and work in communities, not industries. The more you isolate yourself, the less support you’ll receive from a community, and the more difficult your long-term success will be as a result of this isolation.
As a customer, look for unbiased testimonials (if such things exist). Look for external evidence of the claims made by the salesperson. Look for a little humility. Look for the peacock that is working hard at being a better peacock instead of spending that time shaking its tail-feathers.
As an entrepreneur, don’t fake it till you make it. Gain respect in your community through honesty and hard work. Let other people call you an expert when you deserve it.
Published or updated July 1, 2014.