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Choosing a niche can be scary. Narrowing your focus can be overwhelming.

I’ve talked a lot about how people will put you in a box and that you want to define the box they’re going to put you in. A lot of people have been saying they want to curate what they share and niche down, but they are afraid.

It seems like you’re saying no to so much. What if you’re too specific? What if the industry changes or your niche is no longer valuable?

What balance should you strike between entering a validated market and distinguishing yourself by offering something different?

Ultimately, it comes down to people. When you’re focused on understanding and serving peoples’ needs, you’re always going to be tuned in to what’s relevant and valuable.

We talk about all this and a lot more in this episode.

Highlights, Takeaways, & Quick Wins:
  • That exploratory process of discovering your passion has to live under the protection of another source of income that’s meeting your financial needs.
  • We have ideas of things we like, but it’s only when we do something that we find out we actually like the process of it—find something you like the act of doing.
  • It’s a big world; you don’t need a million people to be able to sustain yourself or grow a thriving business, you only need a few.
  • When you curate what you share, you can find the people who are interested in your niche and those people will find you.
  • Finding something you don’t like to do leads you to something you like to do more—you can’t pick the wrong thing.
  • Everything is progress.
  • You can’t steer a parked car—you’ve got to get going and then adjust. Steer as you go, iterate in public, and figure things out.
  • Niching down is the beginning of the relationship you have with your audience.
  • The spirit of curating what you share is allowing people the simplest way to grab a hold of you for the purpose of taking them in deeper.
  • You’re not committing to a niche forever—it’s to get people on board with your WHY and understand who you are and what you’re about, so you can deepen the connection.
  • How often are you going to show up? You can’t put out garbage every day and you can’t only put out gold every two yearsyou have to be consistent.
  • People want quality, curated content delivered consistently.
  • When you’re about understanding peoples’ needs, you’re always going to be tuned in to what’s relevant and valuable.
Show Notes
  • 04:33 Sean: We’ve talked about how people are going to put you in a box and you need to curate what you share, but a lot of people are struggling with that (Related: e162 They’re Going to Put You in a Box). They know why they need to do it and they want to do it but it’s hard. It’s hard to pick something and they’re afraid they might pick the wrong thing. They don’t know how long they should explore different things before picking something. I want to reassure people and give them reasons why they don’t need to be afraid to niche down.
  • 05:13 Ben: I’d like to bring in a step zero here because it might be where some people are. What if you’re afraid because of how high the stakes are? I need to niche down, but what if I pick something and it doesn’t pan out financially? If that thing doesn’t end up being the winner I’m looking for, I’m going to be hard up on cash. That pressure makes that decision even more difficult.

Exploratory Phase

  • 05:56 Sean: We’re talking about niching down within the context of overlapping. First, the day job should be your foundation (Related: e102 Why It May Be the Wrong Time to Pursue Your Passion). The day job is what affords you to pursue a passion, let it grow organically, and not compromise it or go into Scarcity Mindset. Not going into Scarcity Mindset is the biggest thing here because if you’re approaching this as, “Can I niche down and still pay my bills right away?” That’s where it starts to get frustrating and a little scary. You’re worried about niching down and making sure you simultaneously make money.
  • 06:44 Ben: That exploratory process has to live under the protection of another source of income that’s meeting you financial needs.
  • 06:54 Sean: The first phase, even before you pick something to niche down to, is the exploratory phase. This is where you’re discovering your passion—find something you like the act of doing. I always say to show up every day for two years, but I’m talking about that in the context of having already found something you want to apply yourself toward and how long to apply yourself before you can expect to see results. The two year part isn’t applied toward finding what you want to do. The exploratory phase of figuring out what you like to do might take a matter of months, but you do have to go do it and get your hands dirty.

We have ideas of things we like, but it’s only when we do something that we find out we actually like the process of it.

  • 07:52 Ben: If you’re in a place where you’re feeling a lot of pressure to make something work because you need the financial resources, you’re getting ahead of yourself. The first thing you need to focus on is having your bills taken care of so you can take the pressure off that exploratory phase. It feels like a retreat but it’s not. Most likely, in the long-run, it’s going to set you further ahead by finding a foundation in order to protect that process.
  • 08:31 Sean: If you don’t have that, you need to go get a day job for a foundation so you can overlap (Related: e137 The Overlap Technique: A Crash Course). You want the freedom to explore freely and not have the mindset constrained by paying bills. Assuming you have the freedom to explore, you have to go get your hands dirty and do things. Don’t just go off the idea of something, just start doing it. Don’t worry about the time or how many things you’re doing. You can do multiple things and feel free to try things out to see if you like doing something.
  • 09:24 Ben: I like that approach because you get rid of the financial pressure but you also get rid of the pressure from some expectation you feel obliged to meet. It’s a freeing mindset.

1. It’s a Big World

  • 09:48 Sean: The first reason you shouldn’t be afraid is that it’s a big world. There are a lot of people in this world with a lot of niche interests. Weird is the new normal, especially with the internet. You’re able to cater to niche interests and people that are weird are able to meet other weird people online. When I was a kid, I used to draw letters and I thought I was weird, because all of my artistic friends were illustrating or painting. I didn’t know there was such a thing as typography until I had the internet, where I found other people. It seems so obvious now, like, “Of course, typography!” but it wasn’t obvious 10 or 15 years ago. Now, we have the ability to connect with people that have and share our niche interests.
  • 11:31 You don’t need a million or a hundred million people to be able to sustain yourself or grow a thriving business. I saw a case study of someone who had 11,000 subscribers on their email list and a few thousand Facebook likes. I don’t want to discourage people who have that much or less, but speaking selfishly, my email lists are in the 40,000 to 50,000 subscribers range. It blew me away that this person made $700,000 to $900,000 in a year. The bulk of that was comprised of a $2,000 course and they only sold 300 of those packages! 300—that’s like your neighborhood!
  • 14:19 You don’t need a ton of people. You may have 300 people interested in what you do within your own city. Think about it, if you were able to serve their needs and interests so well that you were able to charge a few hundred or a few thousand dollars for a course, you’re in good shape. What I’m getting at is if you’re afraid to niche down because you think, “Who is going to be interested in this niche thing?” there are people interested. You have the internet on your side.

When you curate what you share, you can find the people who are interested in your niche and those people will find you.

  • 16:20 Everyone’s weird, it’s just how well you know someone. If they’re not weird, you don’t know them. Weird is the new normal because people are ok with sharing their niche interests. You’re less of a freak because you can find more people like you on the internet.

2. You Can’t Pick the Wrong Thing

  • 17:37 The second reason you don’t need to be afraid of niching down is you can’t pick the wrong thing. If you pick something and discover you don’t like doing it as much as you thought, and you would rather do this other thing, that’s progress.

Finding something you don’t like to do leads you to something you like to do more.

  • 18:16 Ben: What I might define as picking the wrong thing if you didn’t like it, you say it’s useful information.
  • 18:23 Sean: If it leads you to the right thing, then it was the right thing for you then. Maybe this road isn’t the one you want to be on, but if you can’t get to the road you want to be on without being on the first one, then it’s the right road.
  • 18:45 Ben: That really is valuable. I worry so much about wasting time because my time is valuable and limited in so many ways, even when there aren’t financial constraints. I don’t want to squander the time I have to devote to exploring. You can have this false idea that if you pick something that doesn’t end up being “the thing,” then you’ve wasted your time when you could have been spending time with you kids or earning more money. I like the mentality of nothing being wasted. No experience is wasted as long as you use it as a learning experience and take that information forward with you into the right thing.
  • 19:41 Sean: You’ll end up using it in ways you couldn’t have even predicted. Everyone thinks it’s 360 degrees of options and they don’t want to pick the wrong one, but I say to visualize a starting line with a bunch of arrows pointing forward. Everything is progress. When you find out you don’t want to do something, you go to the next one but you’re moving forward. Everything takes you to the next thing.
  • 20:16 You’re sitting at the starting line, deciding whether or not to start. It’s not sitting in the middle of a circle trying to figure out which way to go, you just need the momentum to start. You can’t steer a parked car. You’ve got to get going and then adjust. Steer as you go, iterate in public, and figure things out. If you’ve got two things and you just don’t know which one to pick, just pick one. Flip a coin or ask a friend to pick something and if you say, “I wish you had picked the other one,” to the one they pick, then go with that one. There are no rules, it’s just to get you going.
  • 20:55 Ben: I could employ this tactic when Rachel and I are trying to figure out where to eat on a date. I would be good with anything she would choose but I know as soon as I pick something, she won’t feel like eating that. That conversation is stalled until I throw something out there.
  • 21:39 Sean: It’s the difference between the idea and the act of doing something—suddenly there’s clarity. It’s no longer a lot of possibilities, it’s driving to the Mexican food restaurant.
  • 22:35 I say you can’t pick the wrong thing, but the only thing that’s wrong is keeping all of this inside your head and playing it through over and over. We’ve all got ideas of things we think will happen a certain way. We play these movies in our mind and imagine things through to the conclusion, but when it doesn’t end up where we want it to, we don’t try it. The problem is it never has the opportunity to play out differently. More than likely, it is going to play out differently! We can’t predict the future. You can’t account for taking a turn, exploring, or learning something you didn’t know. The best thing you can do is pick something and go with it.
  • 24:05 Ben: Your brain will give you the worse-case scenario because your brain wants you to be prepared for that. Rarely, if ever, does reality play out the way it does in your mind.
  • 24:20 Sean: Before going to the conference last week, I kept telling people that it was going to be different than what they had in their mind in the best possible way. This was the first conference Laci had been to and she was expecting a really stuffy and boring seminar or class. I was trying to tell her that the talks are engaging but hanging out with people outside the venue, getting meals together, and having magical conversations was going to be better than what she could expect. You can’t predict the future and how everything will play out, even if you think you can. It’s going to be different and you won’t know until you try something.
  • 25:14 You think about writing but you’re thinking you won’t get much traction or that people won’t think you have anything valuable to say. You think you might try design but you think everyone is a designer. You pick icon design but you wonder what the point is because Kyle adams is an icon designer—“People aren’t going to know who I am. Why should I do this?” You play out these movies and it’s not going to go that way!
  • 25:44 Ben: I like the word “different,” more than I like the word “better,” It’s going to be different. Maybe you think very positively and you have high expectations of how things are going to go, but you can bank on the fact that your real experience is going to be different. That’s a good thing it’s different and you can surrender your expectations in that way. Your brain isn’t a reliable source of information on how the future is going to go and until you start doing something, you’re not going to know. This allows you to set your expectations aside and experience it.

3. It Doesn’t Mean You Can’t Still Do Other Things

  • 26:48 Sean: Niching down doesn’t mean you can’t do other things. People think of it as the end to all of their other passions but really:

Niching down is the beginning of the relationship you have with your audience.

  • 27:03 Even if you’re niching down, focusing, and curating what you share, that’s the outward projection. It doesn’t mean you can’t do other things. I enjoy making music and I can still make music. I don’t have to get likes on my creations to be fulfilled in doing the work. We’re talking about projecting and curating what you share if you want to build an audience because they’re going to put you in a box. If you want to build an audience, you need to niche down, but it doesn’t mean you can’t do things for your own fulfillment. Maybe you’re practicing on the side and it could become something you focus on or pivot to in the future, or maybe it’s just a side passion, but you can still do those things.
  • 27:58 Ben: When your fulfillment in doing something depends on being able to share it and get a response from an audience, do you feel like that’s a, “I like the idea of this more than the act of doing it,” kind of thing? I ask that because I’m not sharing my music publicly—online or performing live. I’m focused on other things as far as my audience is concerned. I love sharing a song and having people respond to it, but in the absence of that, I still haven’t been able to stop writing music. People may feel like if they take their audience away from a specific pursuit in favor of another one that they’re not going to still feel that sense of fulfillment. If it’s something you really love doing, whether you have an audience or not, you’re going to find fulfillment in doing it.
  • 29:31 Sean: For the person that’s worried they might be picking the wrong thing, if you pick the wrong thing and you constantly feel pulled back to something or an earlier passion you weren’t sure about before, maybe that’s what you want to do. Sometimes it takes doing a different thing to realize you had it right all along. Even though we’ve pivoted our audiences, Ben, we’re still able to fulfill our musical side to them at a deeper level. I don’t share it with all my followers but we do jam sessions for the people listening live in the Community. I produce the podcast music and I get to share that as well.
  • 30:36 Ben: Rachel and I are recording our first In the Boat with Ben episode this week and I’d like to play a song we’ve been working on in the after-after show for fun. It’s a way the audience that’s already connected to us gets to see a little more of who we are and I enjoy that.
  • 31:37 Sean: I like incorporating that secondary passion in for the audience that’s consuming the media you’re putting out. It gives them a more well-rounded look at who you are a person. After my speech at the conference, where I was talking about curating what you share, I had people coming up to me saying, “I like to put gross stuff on Twitter and actually be a real human being to people.” They basically should have added, “Instead of being a curating robot.” I agreed that we should be humans to people, but I’m talking about curating as a way of growing an audience and letting them know what to expect. People treat following like a subscription, they want to know what to expect. Curating is trying to deliver on that consistently, but curating doesn’t mean you can’t give people a deeper look at who you are once they’re in.

The spirit of curating what you share is allowing people the simplest way to grab a hold of you for the purpose of taking them in deeper.

4. It’s Not Forever

  • 33:20 Sean: It’s not forever, it’s just for now. You’re not committing to this for the rest of your life. It’s the handle to bring people on board (Related: tv56 What → Why → Whats). The first WHAT is just the beginning. It’s to get people on board with your WHY and understand who you are and what you’re about so you can deepen the connection. We should be real humans to people but if you curate, you can bring more people on because you simplify it for them. After that, you can deepen the connection. Once people understand what you’re about, they follow you to those other things. You build trust and familiarity that way and it’s not forever. What you’re afraid to niche down to because it feels too specific, it’s not. It’s forward progress and you can always pivot.
  • 35:03 Ben: How do you know when is the right time to flip that switch? Or do you always have curation, but in the back ground, you start showing more and more of who you are?
  • 35:33 Sean: Jerry asks, “If you curate what you share but you’re not consistent, do you think you can build an audience?” There’s four keys to growing an audience: curation, consistency, quality, and time (Related: e90 4 Keys to Growing an Audience When You Feel Like You’re Not Getting Recognition). If you want to build an audience, you need all four of these keys. You curate but then you have to be consistent. It’s great that you’re curating, now how often are you going to show up?

You can’t put out garbage every day and you can’t only put out gold every two years—you have to be consistent.

  • 36:09 People crave routine and reliability. They want to know what to expect. The shows that do well are the shows that are consistent and keep going on. Very rarely you have these dud shows with one or two seasons and a cult following. People want quality, curated content delivered consistently. When you put out a promise that you’re going to show up every Tuesday and then deliver on it, that builds trust, which helps to grow your audience. The short answer to Jerry’s question is: not really. If you’re not being consistent, you’re not going to build an audience. People don’t care. There’s tons of people we see every once in a while, but they’re not in the forefront of our minds.
  • 37:11 Ben: That might add to the hesitation a little bit because it’s a commitment. I don’t want it to be a fear for people. I want them to accept the reality that if you want to build an audience around a niche, you’ve got to present that consistently and be committed if you want to be effective.
  • 37:41 Sean: With the exploratory phase, you’re free to try a bunch of things and once you have a couple of things you enjoy the process of doing, pick one. That’s where the consistency and showing up every day for two years comes in. Once you know it’s something you want to pursue for a while, know that it will take some time and you have to be consistent with it. Don’t be afraid in the early stages while you’re trying to figure it out.

Questions

  • 38:28 Aaron Dowd asks, “Any thoughts or advice on making time to keep an eye on industry changes or exploring new things in case your niche becomes irrelevant or no longer valuable?” Listen to the people, they will tell you what they want. Even if your industry is supposedly going away, if you’re tuned in to what the people want, you’ll naturally adapt because you were never about serving an industry, you were about serving people.

When you’re about understanding peoples’ needs, you’re always going to be tuned in to what’s relevant and valuable.

  • 39:08 Ben: You see this in music: if you follow a band or artist who’s career spans decades, and they try to deliver good art to people, the music style is a tool they can use along with their unique spin. Some people think that’s selling out but I respect that. You can tell they’re paying attention, they’re not just writing their own style and hoping it will resonate with people.
  • 40:12 Sean: They’re adapting, not selling out. You don’t want to serve an industry and fear it will go away or the niche will dry up. Find the people. The niche is there because there’s people there who have an interest. If the niche is going away, the people are going somewhere else. Where are they going? figure that out, follow them, get to know them, and talk with them. If an industry is going away, then everyone is migrating. Where are they migrating and what made them leave? What problems do they have? What solution were they not finding here? If you’re about the people and serving their needs, you’re going to adapt naturally without even noticing it. You might suddenly realize you’re in a different industry because you followed the people—that makes you immune to an industry going away or drying up.
  • 41:20 Ben: I’m wondering if I’m seeing that with your shift from hand lettering to sketch notes style. That’s not as much as following a trend as it is just people responding to it. You’re not purposefully curating lettering anymore because of where you’re focusing on now but where you do, I take note to how people have responded to that. You’ve given a little bit more of that.
  • 42:00 Sean: I was doing it for me because I felt like I had more to say. Originally, I would hand letter a phrase or a word, then once I started sharing everything I knew and had learned, people started resonating with that. The podcast grew because people resonated with us iterating in public and sharing everything. Now I want to share everything and I have more to say. I want to give people more and hand lettering in isolation wasn’t a big enough container for that, so it exploded into sketch notes.
  • Creating Interest vs. Following the People
  • 43:22 Destiny Toro says, “How much control or influence does a niche have on itself? Is it purely up to the audience to decide their own interest, therefore growth, in that area, or do the creators have control over creating continued interest? How much control, in either case? This comes out of a situation that she’s observing in her own industry. Awareness and interest is starting to grow around it but some folks are in the mindset of, ‘If it grows, it grows. If people aren’t interested, let’s see how long it lasts,’ whereas I think it’s our job to sustain that interest. I’d love to hear your take on balance between audience and the creators.”
  • 44:09 Often times, you do need to try to create interest. Some people don’t know why they should care about something and you should actively be speaking to that why. Why should people care about hand lettering or your app that solves a problem? Speak to that why in different mediums. There needs to be interest in order for you to be able to sell. In 90% of the cases, an existing market with existing interest is very important, however there are rare exceptions where you can create an entire industry.
  • 44:57 Apple has done this—iPhone, iPad, Apple Watch, etc. It’s not easy but if you’re Apple you can do it. It might be the case in 10% of the instances, but as a general rule of thumb, you want to go to a place where there’s an existing market and interest. I don’t want to absolve you of the responsibility to create interest and explain to people why they should care. Maybe there’s no industry there because people don’t know why they should care. It’s a problem they don’t even know they have and once they know, they want it solved.
  • 45:45 Ben: From the outside, you might see the power of trends and feel like you need to waste your resources on finding something original but those industries, trends, and unique things came from things that were familiar. They came from the hours someone put into exploring something that already existed. In that process, by inserting their own voice and ingenuity, they started to branch off into this trend. You can look at those trends and trace them back to things that were already in existence. I want to encourage you not to try to find the new thing, but recognize that as you explore your passion, the new thing is inside of you. It’s already there, it’s just waiting for you to discover it.
  • 47:14 Sean: Of course, Apple didn’t invent the smart phone, tablet, or smart watches, they just made it awesome and it became the standard. The market before those things pails in comparison to the market Apple created. Apple revolutionized the market. Look at the phones that were out there prior to 2007 and the phones created after 2007—the iPhone changed everything. There will always be people saying, “I don’t need that,” but the watch is changing our relationship with technology. It’s signifying a shift in our culture, but all the reviews on it are aggressively critical.
  • 48:47 Every single sentence of those reviews is, “We think it’s great for X, but we can’t see you doing much with Y,” or, “It’s good for A, but we’re not sure why you would ever want B.” Everyone will be critical because otherwise you look dumb and there will always be the naysayers. It started a long time ago with, “Why do I need a laptop computer?” The watch is not about getting notifications on your wrist, it’s about convenience and a closer connection to technology. Now you’re able to control your TV from your wrist instead of looking for the remote.
  • 49:56 People say, “I wouldn’t want to change the temperature or lock my doors from my watch.” They’ll come up with reasons, just like they have for every single revolutionary device that’s come out. There’s always reasons not to but a shift is happening. Apple is an exception because they’ve created industries and markets. Most people don’t even know what the Pebble watch is, but everyone is going to know about the Apple watch. There are classic time piece watch billboards everywhere right now, they’re stepping up their game, but every time I see those billboards, I think of the Apple Watch. That’s insane! That’s the kind of connection they have—you think watch and you think Apple Watch.