Outside my apartment here in Amsterdam, there’s one of those old-fashioned kiosk-type advertising pillars. On it is the enormous face of none other than Jason Statham for a promotional poster for his latest film. His face is a little scratched, like he’s just escaped a blast of some sort, but as always, he’s looking like he’s about to kick some ass.
If you don’t know who he is, don’t worry. Think of any action film where there’s some badass hero, with a Cockney accent, maybe a bit misunderstood with a troubled past, who likes guns, hot women and blowing things up and it will likely, nine times out of ten, star Jason Statham. The man has carved out a niche that is so hyper-focused, it’s become almost a parody in itself. I have seen only one of his films and it was ridiculous and entertaining. Except, he is not joke. Jason Statham is worth about $500m. I might not be buying what he’s selling, but someone is.
Or perhaps take something like the Fast and the Furious oeuvre, if we can call it that. Somehow, someone has managed to take fast cars, good-looking people, and Vin Diesel and create a film franchise that is now worth $5 billion worldwide that has lasted for almost 20 years. And yet, I have never in my life seen a Fast and the Furious because I am not interested in fast cars racing each other, but millions of people are.
Jason Statham and Fast and the Furious are the definition of what it means to niche.
When you’re running a business, it can feel antithetical to narrow down who you’re trying to sell to, especially when your business is in the creation game. The competition is fierce, and the market is crowded, no doubt. It might feel safer to play the numbers game to win work but spreading your net that wide actually dilutes your offering; you get lost in the sea of your competitors with nothing to differentiate you.
When asking this question to our design clients, we often get the answer of “oh we like residential projects,” or, “we only do hotels”, but the reality is that when a potential client offers them a project, most will simply say yes. Part of this is because they have a bit of the artistic magpie about them, which is completely understandable. They see anything as an opportunity to make and create and so everything is an attractive opportunity. The other part is, let’s face it, they want the money.
But, if you’re everything to everyone, you’re nothing to no one. To make yourself stand out from the crowd, you’ve got to view it a bit differently. Indeed, you need to ask yourself, how am I different? Who is buying my work? Are these buyers the types of clients I want to work for? Analysing these trends will give you your answers.
The purpose of this is to give you the agency to flip from reactivity to proactivity, to the specific from the undefined. If you realise that you’re only working with a certain type of client that sucks the life out of you, you can decide to pivot your niche to a new direction, or if you realise that the niche you love is only part of your current client list, you can start to market yourself in a new direction and start attracting more of what you want to do instead of what you feel like you have to do.
Of course, there’s a fear attached to this. We think that if we put a stake in the ground, it limits our possibilities for creative output. In reality, the opposite is true. Knowing your niche gives your business clarity and direction, but most surprisingly provides greater creative freedom through different metrics. The focus becomes about why and how you do what you, instead of what you do.
How does this all work in practice?
Say you’re a design firm that works in residential and hospitality projects within a major metropolitan area. Residential work is barely profitable, but it widens your net a bit. Hospitality is a bit of fun, the clients are generally pretty cool, and you can make money on these types of projects. You also happen to specialise in sustainable materials. When asked, you’d probably say “we specialise in residential and hospitality in our city”, which is an incredibly broad spectrum of people.
We’d ask you to go one step beyond this and ask yourself, what do your clients in your most successful residential and hospitality projects have in common? For the sake of the exercise, your answer is that they are all based within the city, they appreciate good design, they trust the process and your experience, and they have a love of sustainable materials.
Suddenly your niche moves away from “we specialise in residential and hospitality” and becomes “we design for city-based clients who love good design, respect our process and place high importance on sustainable materials”. This opens you up to doing museums, hospitals, school, libraries, as well as homes and bars and restaurants. See the difference?
Now you know who you’re speaking to in your marketing and business development. You know who you’re trying to attract. And anyone who doesn’t fall within that undoubtedly will be a poor fit for your company; they won’t want what you’re selling and that’s okay. You don’t have to work with everyone.
A niche doesn’t hinder, it releases you to do more. But it requires high-level thinking about your business, an understanding of what it is you want to do and some confidence in where you want yourself to sit within the market. There’s enough out there for everyone, the key is finding those who want what you’re selling. It takes time and focus, but when you work it out, the path opens up before you. It works. Just ask Jason Statham.
Post by Lindsay Faller