Choosing a Niche, Growing Your Niche

During the last few days of coaching training, my group was told to choose a niche for our coaching practice. My colleagues began by picking up business journals and looking for likely clients.
I thought, “Why start defining and qualifying strangers, when I can look at the people already around me? I’m a writer and artist. At the time, I was working at a Washington D.C.-area company that provided writing and training for the government and the private sector. My specialty was marketing copywriting. On weekends, I would sell my artwork at art festivals. I hadn’t opened my own business yet.

M.C. Escher's "Infinite Circle."

I decided that a likely niche was to work with writers and artists. Helping them market their work as well as help them work regularly and deeply, making meaning from their work in addition to selling it.
I presented my niche idea to the Coaching Class, the senior instructor laughed and told me that artists don’t have money, and I should choose a smarter niche. He suggested I look for a “more reliable client.”

Here’s the tip I learned from that experience:
Half of being smart is knowing what you are dumb at and not doing it.

Shortly after I submitted a query for an article to a magazine, and followed up when I didn’t hear from them. They told me their business writer was leaving and they were busy looking for a replacement, and that was a higher priority at the moment.

I offered to write the column till they found the writer they wanted.
The magazine told me they loved my writing but were afraid I wouldn’t last. They were afraid I wouldn’t have enough ideas.

Both of those incidents happened eight years ago. I’m still writing for the magazine, plus another one by the same publisher. And I’m thriving in my niche.
Here’s what I learned from that experience:
The other half of being smart is doing what you are already smart at.
Almost certainly you do not have to sit down and brainstorm you’re your niche is. You already know. You might be afraid of it, or you might not believe it, or you might not know how to make it work, but your niche is already in front of you. Your niche wants you to recognize it. Give it a break, let it show up.

Stare at the dot in the center of the circles. Move your head back and forth slowly and the circles will seem to turn. Attributed to Robert Pless.

I could have worked them all linearly, developing products or service lines for each. I decided that art doesn’t work in a linear way, so maybe I shouldn’t either.
So I put what I had into a circle.
My writing for the magazines reaches a lot of artists, so I asked that my byline include that I’m a coach.
At art festivals, I talked to a lot of artists, interviewing them for my articles. My articles sounded better for real-life experiences, and that gave me credibility as a writer and a coach.

I approached an art festival promoter to let me teach art marketing classes for half an hour before the show opened.  That was good for the promoter as it helped the artists earn more at the show and gave the promoter the reputation of helping artists.
It allowed me to get to know more people. I handed out lists of marketing tips and ran specialized workshops. The group grew. I added a coaching demo every now and then.
The tip in this part of the story:  Use your niche skills to feed clients into other things you do well.
When I stopped doing art festivals, I had a big hole in my own marketing plan.
So I looked around at what else I could do.  The obvious answer to me was to show people how to do what I knew—writing, marketing, and art.
I developed training programs in writing—and looked for another market I knew well. I’d spent 25 years working in corporations, so business became my next niche.  I developed training programs and went to people I already knew in some corporations—even if it had been years since I’d last seen them. I make those contacts through Social Networking.

Zen circle, made with a single brushstroke.

Because I know how corporations work, it seems like a natural to approach marketing managers, training departments, and human resource areas.
Now I have a training development niche in which I not only develop the programs, but run them, too. I’ve expanded what I offer to include team building, leadership and other topics that demand creativity.
Which brings me to the last tip:
The best way to develop a niche is to develop a circular pattern. Each thing you do well feeds clients into something else you do well.

You can have more than one niche, but they have to connect in some way. Linear development is exhausting and won’t bring in enough income to keep you going.

My latest venture is my book. It combines coaching and is a how-to book for people who want to art journal but don’t know how to draw.  It’s called Raw Art Journaling, Making Meaning Making Art and North Light Books is publishing it in July.
What I learned from that step is: For every major new project you begin, you have to drop something else or hire someone to do it for you.

So let’s review:
1. Half of being smart is knowing what you are dumb at and not doing it.
2. The other half is doing what you are already smart at.
3. Use your niche skills to feed clients into other things you do well.
4. Linear development is exhausting and won’t bring in enough income to keep you going.
5. You can develop all the niches you want, as long at they fit into a circular pattern of skill development.
6. Review your circular pattern at least twice a year to see what needs expansion and what can be eliminated. Don’t do one without the other. If you expand in one area, you can drop or shrink another. Most businesses that try to be everything to everyone die within a year.

Quinn McDonald is a writer, artist and certified creativity coach. She also develops training programs in writing, soft skills and creative projects.