How to become a freelance subject matter expert

Nov 26, 2018

When it comes to being an independent worker, expertise matters. Being considered an expert often translates into being able to charge more and/or having access to a clientele base that wants to work with someone who is considered a SME (subject mater expert).

Years of experience, experiential knowledge, degrees and/or credentials are all pathways to SME status. But, they are not the only variables that matter if you want to stand out as an expert.

Get exposure–and experience

We have a tendency to think of credentials exclusively as obtaining degrees. In some fields and industries this is true. I would not trust someone who professes to be a lawyer if he/she did not have the terminal J.D. degree.

However, not all specializations require terminal degrees or even a degree for that matter. Sometimes, specializing boils down to exposure and experience—and a lot of it.

Some people are self-taught. They may not have credit hours, but they do have practical hours that they have invested in their skillset. Some SMEs have spent a significant amount of time engaging in and mastering their craft. Obtaining a degree or formalized credentials would not necessarily be advantageous for them.

Let’s use a freelance writer as an example. Some freelancers have done extremely well because they write, write, write, and write some more. They take risks in the sense that they have not allowed rejection, naysayers, or missed opportunities to deter them. Instead, they continue to write and their bylines have given them exposure. This exposure and experience, in turn, becomes a type of credential that can open doors, just as a degree might open doors for someone else.

This is not to suggest that one should not aim for both a degree and exposure and experience, but it is to suggest that being a SME does not necessarily require a degree. I know of a few successful freelance writers who did not attend college, or they majored in disciplines that were not writing-centric. Over time, people started recognizing their talent and their level of expertise about the subjects they wrote about, and they were able to leverage their SME status to gain more clients.

Sharpen your iron

Iron sharpens iron. And SMEs sharpen other SMEs. I love sharing ideas with people who are more experienced or more established than I am. At 45 years old with a terminal degree, I am like a sponge; the more they share, the more I absorb the wisdom.

Because entrepreneurship is relatively new to me, I gravitate towards people who have been doing it for years, even decades, because I respect the time and energy that they have put into carving out and maintaining their businesses. More established SMEs, in particular, may be willing to mentor/coach others.

I also seek out people who have been writing professionally longer than I have. Keep in mind that this does not necessarily equate to older mentor/younger mentee. One of my writing mentors is in her mid-30s and one of my mentees is in his 50s. Also, don’t assume that someone is too busy to help. Just ask. The mentors in my entrepreneurial life are not self-described coaches or mentors; I simply asked them if they would help me and they graciously agreed.

Don’t rush

If there is one thing, paradoxically, that is on your side as you aspire for expert status, it is time. While there is a tendency to rush, rush, rush and think of success as being instantaneous, success as an SME is an on-going process. As we know, industries change, disciplines add new rules, standards shift, and trends emerge. Fluidity allows one to ebb and flow while holding onto those core elements that make us experts.

So, it may sound like a cliché, but take your time figuring out what being an expert in your field looks like. One of the biggest mistakes that I made when I first transitioned from academia to entrepreneurship was rushing through the process.

My father kindly reminded me of the saying, attributed to Aesop: “Slow and steady wins the race.” I keep this on a placard in my office as a reminder that every day is an opportunity to get better at what I do.

Keep your portfolio and CV updated

As you get more experience, make sure that you are accurately and consistently updating your portfolio or curriculum vitae. Not everyone will ask to peruse your dossier, but some clients may ask, and you want to be prepared. Unfortunately, there are people who are dishonest about either their work experience, their credentials, and or their skill set, so the more that you can stand out from the crowd, the better.

The key to a good SME portfolio/CV is making sure that it reflects your expert status. Think of these as psuedo-billboards: What do they say about you?

Portfolios and CVs are not just reflections of your amazing life and outstanding work, but they are marketing tools that others may use for consulting or contractual purposes. If you are old enough, you may remember Cuba Gooding, Jr.’s character saying, “Show me the money!” in the movie Jerry Maguire. Well, as an SME, be ready to show (them) your work. As such, make sure that you continue to add new projects to your CV and portfolio as you complete them.

Why SME status?

Whether you are going into year 8 or year 18, we all have areas where our knowledge base is strong. Whether it is from experience, education, or a combination of both, keep in mind that your special skillset and understanding of a topic or subject area makes you highly marketable.

Just as traditional industries and fields call upon SMEs to help with highly specialized projects, there are opportunities in the gig economy to cater to an audience that needs exactly what you have to offer.

And don’t worry if you are just starting out. Continue to grow, continue to learn, and be open to new possibilities.

Tyra Seldon

Tyra Seldon is a former English Professor turned writer, editor and small business owner. Her writing addresses the intersections of race, gender, culture and education.