How to Pick a Niche: Start Listening to Other People
Last week, I wrote a post in which I answered a reader question about who writes the code in a world of empowered software developers. In that post, I continued my thematic assault on the concept of generalizing, which prompted a question about another topic I’ve tackled before: niching.
The question was pretty simple (and kind of more of a statement).
I’m having trouble picking a niche.
I Know. It’s Hard to Pick a Niche
The commenter there isn’t alone. People say this to me all the time. I have conversations with folks in the Hit Subscribe author group, field DaedTech reader questions, and generally talk to a lot of people.
They tell me it’s hard to pick a niche. They also ask me how to do so. And so today, I’ll do my best to offer some guidance on how to pick a niche.
It really is a tough subject, both in terms of execution and in terms of advice. And, while a lot of the reason for that is that it’s difficult to talk about a very specific thing in the abstract, some of it comes from nebulousness around terminology.
Let’s Define Some Key Terms
So let’s start by removing the nebulousness. I’m going to establish some definitions for the sake of the rest of this post. I’m doing this both for the sake of a working vernacular here, but also to underscore a fundamental misalignment in thinking that people tend to have.
Here, then, are the terms in question. These are not the dictionary definitions of such terms, should you look them up, but rather a framework for progressing as you pick a niche.
- Generalist. As a generalist, you optimize your career for “employability.” This means that you make yourself as deployable as possible as a human resource, ensuring that an arbitrary employer with arbitrary needs can find a way yo use you.
- Specialist. As a specialist, you optimize your career to do only the thing(s) you most like to do. This means that you fuse your hobby and your job, manufacturing leverage out of high demand for a narrow skill set.
- Niche-filler. As someone with a niche, you optimize your career to deliver value to others. This means that you look for gaps in people’s needs and wants, and fill them.
Now, there’s a fair bit to unpack here. In the first place, it defines a bit of a continuum of agency. The further toward the generalist end, the more you say “I’ll flail around until a boss tells me when I’m doing it right.” And, as you get toward the niche end, you say “I’m going to flail around until money starts rolling in and I am the boss.”
But of more interest in terms of your career, it defines whose value you’re optimizing for. And that is, employer’s, your own, and a customer’s, respectively.
And only one of those makes for good, free agent business.
How You Whiff on Finding a Niche and Instead Stumble into a Specialty
Here’s how the thinking most commonly goes for someone contemplating a transition from employee (or staff aug contractor) to consultant with a niche.
Well, I have a lot of experience tuples, but I want to move away from generalizing. I’ll specialize. But what should I specialize in? I’ve done a lot of TDD, so maybe that. But I’m not really passionate about it, and I actually love showing people how to write simple facades over questionable APIs. So maybe that could be my niche.
Alright. Let’s go back and borrow the terms defined above. When you start this line of thinking — and you will because everyone does, including me, when I started thinking of niching — you’re not contemplating a niche. You’re contemplating a specialty.
Specifically, you’re starting to think, “instead of optimizing for a generic employer, I’ll optimize for the intersection of what interests me and what I know how to do!” And, this is understandable. But it’s also a path not toward a niche, but to a specialized series of wage jobs that you enjoy.
And, while that’s not a bad thing, it’s not a niche. And it’s actually a pretty high risk play, because you have no idea whether anyone needs or cares about what you’re angling to do. This is what makes me call it the fusion of a job and a hobby. You’re just deciding to do what you feel like doing, and you’re hoping that it benefits someone enough to pay you.
Well, as… someone… says, hope is not a strategy.
Stop Navel-Gazing and Start Listening
You need to stop thinking about you. Ever since kindergarten, your work has been all about you.
- What are your grades?
- Do you have a good enough GPA and extra-curricular profile for college?
- Do you have a resume ready for hiring authorities or a GRE score good enough for grad school?
- Have you buffed up on algorithm trivia and earned enough experience tuples for that Enterprise Silicon Valley interview?
It’s no wonder that the next question in this list, when you think of going from wage employee to free agent, is a navel-gazing one. In fact, I’ve written recently about how employment is a crash course in how not to own a business. So you ask this:
What specific skill of mine would make a good business?
Understandable. But completely wrong.
Nobody getting ready to shell out money cares what skills you have (except for recruiters, holding someone else’s money). They don’t care what you know, what you do, what you like, or what you’re passionate about.
They care how you can help them.
A Silly Analogy to Help you Grok The Idea of a Niche
Let me drive this point home with a silly analogy I’ve used in conversation a few times over the last week. I want to demonstrate how completely unimportant your skills, interests, passions, and experiences are in the face of an actual niche.
Let’s say that you were… a weirdo. But not just any weirdo. You were a very specific kind of hoarder. For whatever reason, you just love old, analog phones. You know, the soon-extinct ones that require no power and nothing but a phone jack to work. You collect them because you like the throw-back aesthetics.
Now, let’s assume that something about the laws of physics suddenly changes tomorrow. RF communication just stops being a thing. Cell phones? Dead. Cordless home phones? Dead. The only thing that works is the dinosaur that you’ve been hoarding.
Is having all of these phones a skill? No, of course not. Is it an experience? No, not really. Is it a passion? Sure, maybe, but nobody cares that you’re passionate about them.
They care that you have them. They’ll pay you for them. You have a unique business opportunity and a niche — through sheer, dumb luck.
A niche is about what people need. It’s not about you at all. And you can fill a niche competently. But you can also fill it incompetently (at least initially, until others come along and start competing).
How I Learned to Niche: Hit Subscribe’s Origin Story
I’ve lived this kind of happening upon a niche, myself. I spent a decade writing software or managing people that wrote software. Then, I went off on my own and became a management and strategy consultant that sometimes trained software developers.
Do you know what I did next? Naturally, I started a marketing agency.
I’m kidding of course. Nothing about that was natural. My skills all orbited the world of software development. My specialty was static code analysis (though I did eventually locate a niche there as well). But none of that mattered when I found a niche and went with it.
I was going around, doing the traveling consulting thing and blogging about it here on DaedTech. As I did that, people at dev tools companies started to reach out to me and ask me to write blog posts. It was fun and I made extra money at it, so I did it.
More and more of these requests came in, though, and eventually, I started to scratch my head thoughtfully. Wow. It seems like a lot of people want to pay for this. Maybe, just maybe, there’s a business here.
So my wife and I started a marketing agency. This wasn’t based on me having “X years of blogging” or my career ambitions (in fact, I’d later learn that my previous hobby blogging was poorly suited for content marketing). It was based on hearing people say, over and over again, “I’d sure pay someone money to do ________ if I could only find someone to do it.”
How to Pick a Niche: Places to Go Searching
That is niching — finding those people and their mad libs of “I’d sure pay for ______.” So your task when it comes to finding a niche starts with a simple-but-not-easy mental shift.
Stop thinking of your irrelevant skills, hobbies, passions, interests, and experiences, and start listening to people.
I happened to be listening to a podcast today, where the guest talked about the advantage of taking on a contract that you couldn’t fulfill, yourself. He said it forces you to think like a business owner, and it doesn’t let you fall into the trap of woker-bee-ism. Business books I’ve listened to lately, such as the E-Myth Revisited and Built to Sell reinforce this concept.
You build a business by finding a niche. And you find a niche by listening to needs and not worrying about whether you can execute service delivery. Figure that out later, and partner with or hire people if you can’t do it yourself.
So how do you go about finding a niche? Well, here are some places you can go look.
1. Stack Exchange Questions with Unsatisfying Answers
The first suggestion I’ll offer starts with the Stack Exchange Q&A sites. Go there and look for questions. Specifically, look for questions with the following criteria:
- They get a lot of traffic.
- Nobody really seems to have a consensus-building, definitive answer.
- The answers include a lot of commenting, back-and-forth, disagreement, and work-arounds.
What you’re looking for is basically just something that a lot of people are wondering about and talking about, but that nothing really solves all that well. When you find that, you’re finding an unscratched itch that the community has, and that might be your niche.
You can also mine other Q&A sites like quora, reddit, etc. I’m just mentioning stack exchange because I have experience mining it for blog topics.
2. Unrequited Project Feature Requests
In and around the software world, here’s another interesting concept. Go onto project or company sites, open-source or otherwise, and look for features that a lot of people want, but that have not been implemented (and don’t seem like they will be).
Take this, for instance. Someone is requesting a feature from a Github project that extends Trello — a feature that lets you move cards up or down with the keyboard. I’ve been wanting this feature, personally, for years. And I’ve been wanting Trello to add it, to say nothing of a miscellaneous extension. I’d be willing to bet that others have as well.
Go look for things like that. Mine here is a trivial example, but when you get into things like tool integrations, extensions, and APIs, you might find some interesting opportunities. And the solution might be a product that you build, but it also might be something simple like a process, an info product you make, or an existing tool that you evangelize and promote.
3. Look for Negative Reviews
Another place you might find niches is where people go to
complain review things. This might be anywhere from review sites to forums to blog comments on a company site.
But wherever it is, go find where people leave feedback. And look for negative-but-useful feedback. You want to see what people think that existing solutions lack, or where they fall short.
Do you find that people seem to say that a popular solution is great, but hard to use? Or is every tool in a space too slow? You can find a niche by looking at gaps that everything else seems to miss.
4. Find Debates with Lots of Participants and Lots of Confusion
One of the hands-down weirdest hashtags on Twitter is the NoEstimates one. I’ve been checking in on that one for years to see if the same handful of adversarial stalwarts are eternally flinging crap at one another.
And they are! Seriously!
There are two groups of die-hards that are like Magneto and Professor X they’ve been at it for so long, with one side refusing to estimate things and the other finding nothing more relaxing than a glass of chianti, a bubble bath, and estimating a migration away from Sharepoint. Amateur #NoEstimates commenters dip their toes in there and find themselves non-mutants in the middle of a battle for which they are hopelessly unprepared. Dip your toe in there with anything resembling an opinion at your own peril.
Why do I mention this (besides it being weirdly amusing)? Well, because something like that is actually a less common source of niche ideas.
When something has a lot of confusion, controversy, or misconceptions, you can find a niche providing clarity or somehow advancing the state of the art. Imagine asking “what is this ‘NoEstimates’ thing anyway,” and your first encounter being one of long-standing and unproductive internet flame wars. Wouldn’t someone that could help you with clarification or comparison be helpful?
5. Find Things Lots of People Google, but with Little Consensus
This one is conceptually simple. Go and install this tool, which will show you how many people search for everything you search for in Google.
That done, go start Googling stuff, and looking at the results. You’re looking for terms with high search volumes (say, 1K or more per month), but where the search results aren’t especially satisfying.
Now, you’re not going to base the rest of your career on a single google search. But get used to doing this, and you’ll start to build a mental repository of things that people search for without satisfying answers. Those may start to form patterns in your head.
6. Listen for Pains in Every Day Life
For the last couple, I’m going to leave the digital world and send you to do some human interaction. First up, start passively listening to people.
Now, for those technicians out there, I don’t mean that you should start listening exclusively to your peers about what’s missing in DevOps pipelines or something. I mean, sure, listen to that. But listen to everything and everyone. It’s not like software can only help software developers; you can help anyone.
So listen to people everywhere. Do people consistently say that some aspect of MS Word is too confusing? Does everyone hate their car’s onboard nav system? Keep your ears open and listen for patterns. And, even if you don’t find your niche by doing this, you’re cultivating an invaluable skill.
7. Make Time and Ask People
This last one is probably the most important and most helpful. I now make it a point to do this a lot, even with a well-established business.
Setup times to talk with people, and listen to them. Seriously. Shut up and listen. Don’t talk about your skills or experiences. Don’t direct the conversation beyond open-ended questions. Just ask and listen.
- What from work is keeping you up nights right now?
- Tell me about some of the most painful things that you have to do in your day to day job?
- What’s your least favorite thing about your favorite software tool?
- If you could wave a magic wand and change one thing about your job, what would it be?
Think of questions like this. Build a list of them and keep them on-hand. Sort and cull them as the list grows, and divide it into categories. But get really, really good at talking to people and learning how to turn their needs and wants into opportunities to help them, at least in concept.
Don’t Worry, Yet, About Business Viability
That’s the end of the list of niche-finding activities. And, if you’re a savvy individual, something is probably bothering you as you read this.
Can I really earn a living making a plugin that lets you move Trello cards up and down with they keyboard?
The answer to that is that you almost certainly cannot. You could probably write a plugin to do this and earn nothing more than thanks. And I certainly wouldn’t start a business around this concept.
But don’t worry about that right now. If you’re reading this, you’re saying “how on Earth do I pick a niche?” And the answer to that is, “you pick a lot of them, write them down, and then float the best ones to the top on a continuous basis.”
Finding niches is a skill that you have to cultivate. Go cultivate it. Determining the business validity of a niche is a separate skill, and you can cultivate that one later, when you’re starting a side hustle or hanging out your shingle, and picking from your list.
So don’t worry for now about business viability. Just worry about turning yourself into an idea generation machine.
Your Interests and Experience Do Matter, But Not How You Think
And one last thing here, before I sign off. Just as you shouldn’t cull ideas because you can’t immediately see them paying for your Ferrari, you also shouldn’t cull them because they don’t blow your hair back with excitement at the thought of doing them. As I’ve said earlier in the article, the world doesn’t care what you love to do.
Go find niches. Grow the list.
But understand as you do so that your interests and experience will ultimately matter. They won’t matter a lick for what the world needs or want, and they won’t matter as you’re evaluating whether a business could succeed. But they will matter when you’re weighing which business you decide to start and where you want to take it.
Finding niches is hard, but you can develop that skill, find lots of them, and give yourself various ones to choose from. Evaluating business models is hard, but you can figure that out, too, with practice and advice. You’ll get there, and you’ll be in a position to evaluate how you might deliver value to some market segment out there.
Once you’re in that position, think about your experience, your passion, and your interests. These will tell you which of your ideas you’d be best suited to follow, how, and when to make them jump.
But that’s a long way off. For now, go find some niches. And, please, stop thinking about yourself and what people think of you, and start thinking about others and what they need.