Finding a Subject Matter Expert for your venture seems pretty straightforward: enlist an expert in an area where you don’t have previous experience. For the most part, you’ll always be ahead when you do this. However, we have learned that finding the right SME and activating them appropriately has a major impact on accelerating progress in the critical first months or years of a venture.
At 19days, we largely follow the same venture creation process for each company, but there is no denying that every venture is different. Utilizing SMEs is one area in particular where we have varied our approaches thus far. Regardless of how we partner with SMEs, however, one constant is that we are always on the lookout for great ones. Which begs the question, “what makes a good SME?”
Throughout the course of our searches, our team has reflected on the qualities that make an SME particularly valuable to a venture during the concept development, prototyping, and build phases. Under the assumption that your venture, too, would benefit from outside expertise, we’re sharing our list of skills and characteristics to look for in an SME, so that you will know your next x-factor when you see them.
First, what’s at stake?
Why even bring on an SME? After talking to dozens of founders of the top B2B product companies (including Gong, Notion, Figma, Amplitude, Retool, Canva, and more), Lenny Rachitsky of Lenny’s Newsletter, found that “The majority of founders had no special skill or background in the problem space they went after.” This means that they had a process for finding problems worth solving and refining solutions until they were compelling. Subject matter experts almost certainly played a part.
Our 19days team is expert at finding real, human pain points matched with market insights. We can take a dispassionate, objective view to analyze a problem and potential solutions and weigh the viability of a solution and the opportunity in front of us. More on that in our article on Venture Viability Criteria.
This objectivity is valuable — so valuable that to-date, we specifically have not brought in founders with industry experience, because it is easy to over index on (and steer the ship toward) solving their own problems. However, our objectivity does make us vulnerable to unknown unknowns — the things that we are not aware that we are not aware of. These are the types of things that we could only know if we had a deeper understanding of all the dirty details of an industry and the problem it poses to our user.
This is why we need an SME. They cover our blind spots and marry our discovery insights with a lived reality that not even the most airtight discovery process could replicate.
What to look for in an SME
It’s important to note that not all SMEs are created equal. Finding the right SME can have a great impact on the future of the product and trajectory of the business. In reflecting on what makes some SMEs particularly valuable (if not indispensable), versus those that have failed to create much impact, we’ve honed in on our best indicators of a high-value SME.
- They’ve not only done it, they’ve figured out a way to do it better. This is important because what we create can replicate and scale what they did. It also means they are not a prisoner to the status quo — they see problems and have a way to test and implement solutions. An SME who knows the space but has not innovated has not experienced the problems and barriers in the way that an innovator has.
- They’ve been on the ground in the problem space. We’re not looking for a founder, nor a target buyer — we’re looking for a front-line value creator. This is someone who has been doing the work that our target user will be doing, or who has worked closely with this person and deeply understands their needs/wants. We would rather our SME have 1 year of intensive experience with the problem we’re solving, than 10 years of experience in the industry.
- They’re a good communicator. This one is easy. You’ll be attracted to this person because of their ability to clearly articulate their own experiences and observations. You need a good communicator, because your SME will need to be able to work between product teams and customers and make people focus on what matters most.
- They can ‘speak the language’ and help you quickly spot what’s working and what’s not. In addition to knowing industry jargon, key roles, and the biggest players, they simply move in the space as a natural. You’ll learn about the industry from working alongside them which will improve your ability to anticipate target users’ reactions to your ideas.
- They can design for a common denominator. While this person is clearly special (see previous point about innovation), they understand the status quo of the industry and their industry peers. Their insights into how the typical user will perceive threats or obstacles to doing something different or new get translated to the product team.
- They display intellectual curiosity and excitement for the work you’re doing. A great SME is a naturally curious person who is motivated by finding a better way to do things and truly cares about the industry that they’ve been working in. They’ll ask you questions and will be eager to follow up and learn about your progress and insights.
How to work with an SME
When searching for an SME for your venture, keep in mind that there are several ways that you might work together. Since every venture is different, there is not a one-size-fits-all or universal ‘best practice.’
We’ve utilized SMEs with success across the spectrum, from ‘advisor’ to ‘embedded.’ How you choose to partner with your SME will depend on:
- Their current work situation / amount of time available to dedicate to the project
- The phase of venture creation that you are in and your current blockers
- The resources available to dedicate to your SMEs
We can plot engagement types along a spectrum from minimally to hyper-involved:
You can choose to work more closely with one or two SMEs or less closely with a larger network of SMEs. The engagement style will depend on your needs/goals, access to SMEs, and, of course, SMEs’ willingness to participate.
When it comes to finding an SME, you can take a more casual approach and ask your network to refer contacts within the target industry. Or, you could actively recruit an SME (using a method similar to our c-suite hiring process.) Many times, we find great SME candidates through our discovery interviews in the early stages of problem identification or initial concept validation — they can’t help but ask almost as many questions as we are.
The takeaways here are tri-fold. (1) Working with an SME can help strike the balance between objectivity and deep understanding of the realities of your target users. (2) Finding and engaging a great SME can be a critical part of the bridge between a real problem worth solving and a product that not only solves the problem, but that real people will want to use. (2) Your next great SME could be anywhere, which is why we find it important to have the qualities of a good SME in mind at all times — that way you know one when you see one.