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The Trouble with Mastering your Niche

It’s the goal that any business would hope to reach. You’ve picked an area of specialization, demonstrated that you’re knowledgeable about your subject, built trust in your market, and you have a loyal following that buys from you, returns to you and recommends you to their friends.

You’ve mastered your niche and moved your business from the start-up phase to a much more stable phase.

And that’s when the trouble begins.

It’s hard enough to identify a niche that looks promising, and it takes time and effort to conquer it so that you become the leading expert in the field. But once that happens, all sort of problems can crop up that can threaten your hard-earned position.

Competition is Flattery

You get competition for one. The main benefit of targeting a niche is that the competition is smaller than you might run across in larger markets. But once other people can see that you’re making money, they’ll want some of the action too.

This is what happened in the online dating market. Once it became clear that the concept worked – that people were willing to pay a monthly fee to send emails to other singles – everyone piled in until there were hundreds of sites offering exactly the same service. Some of them were smart and focused on their own niches, such as JDate, for Jewish singles or MillionaireMatch, for well-to-do couples. But many others such as DatingClub.com, stayed general and failed to survive.

And that’s the good thing about dealing with the competition that follows in your wake – stay alert and you should stay ahead. Match.com wasn’t just one of the first Internet dating sites, it’s also now the market leader. The same is true of Amazon.com, a pioneer in online retailing, and now the first stop for many people looking to shop online despite the huge numbers of alternatives.

While competition will follow a niche master then (removing one of the biggest advantages that a niche offers) the mimicry isn’t just flattery, it’s often also recognition that the company’s the leader – and likely to stay that way.

Expectations rise too when you’ve mastered your niche. People will believe that you understand everything there is to know about your topic, especially when that topic is small and narrow, like Yosemite rock-climbing or the power of communities. This is always going to a problem when the company is a one-man band rather than a group of bright individuals. Professional speakers like Paul Hartunian, a publicity expert, can expect constantly to be asked questions about their subject, and some of those questions are going to be headscratchers.

It’s always going to be impossible for one person to know everything there is to know about a field, especially when that field is constantly changing.

While that can bring a threat of disappointment – and worse, a sense that the expert isn’t such an expert after all – it’s also an opportunity. One approach taken by a number of bloggers is to portray themselves not as people who have more knowledge than their peers but merely as people who share their knowledge with their peers. That can still create a leadership position within a niche but it also makes the expert a kind of über-user. It’s an approach which enhances trust and for businesses, which try to do the same thing through careful branding, keeps a group of customers centered on a single supplier.

What Do I Do Now?

The worst danger that can come from mastering your niche though is not knowing what to do next. That can happen when you feel you’ve reached the goal you’ve set yourself when you started, and find that you’re drifting. It could have happened to Amazon.com when it became the world’s biggest book retailer but it didn’t because the company had different goals at different levels. While it focused on books initially, it also had the aim of selling a variety of other goods. And once it had mastered that position, it began to describe itself not as a retail firm but as a logistics firm, handling storage and delivery for other companies.

And perhaps that’s the most unexpected consequence of mastering your niche: it gives you strength to expand until eventually, you’re no longer a niche player but a general player in a much bigger market. Virgin, for example, might have started as a music retailer but it now has fingers in pies as big as planes and trains.

Clearly, that’s not going to be the result of conquering every niche – and describing that sort of success as trouble could be a bit of a stretch – but all of these big achievements started as attempts to rule one small area. That’s not a bad place for anyone to start.

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