Why You Don’t Need a Niche (and 11 Simple Alternatives)

Still searching blindly for your niche? Stop that.

This Tuesday, I launched my new website.

And I’m really proud of it. Not just because it looks good, but because it reflects perfectly who I am and who I work with.

Believe me: it wasn’t always that way.

The Niche Myth

When I got started with my blog and coaching practice, everyone told me I needed to pick a niche.

A niche is basically a specific problem that you help solve for a specific group of people.

The logic is that if you narrow your scope to only a very small demographic (like 40 year old white women from Atlanta with two cats and a boat), you'll be able to make your marketing more targeted.

So for six months, I obsessed over my niche. I tried to figure out who my ideal client was. And it freaked me out, because I didn’t want to choose wrong.

That fear was valid. I was just getting started so I knew absolutely nothing about my ideal client. Choosing a niche at that point would have been like trying to play pin the tail on the donkey.

Ironically, trying to pick the right niche was distracting me from doing the exact things that would have helped me get more clarity: namely, writing and coaching. I didn’t have enough data coming in, so I constantly felt stuck.

Why You Don't Need to Pick A Niche

Here’s the truth: most successful business people and bloggers never picked their niche upfront (even if they say they did). That's because niches are uncovered over time.

Don’t believe me? Read Jeff Goins's and Leo Babauta’s opinions on choosing a niche for your blog. Both of them make a fantastic living from their writing and they never chose a niche.

The same is true of passion and purpose, by the way. Both are cultivated, not found. And you can only connect the dots looking backwards.

What I’m not saying is that you have to be everything for everyone. There are too many other businesses out there for that strategy to work. 

Here are 11 ways to stand out from the crowd without boxing yourself in:

11 Simple Niche Alternatives

  1. Tell your story. This is my favorite tactic. If you can tell your story in a compelling way, you'll never need a niche. You’ll just naturally attract people who relate to your journey. If you’re going to go this route, it’s worth doing some research on how to tell a good story. This was a big focus for me as I made the About page of my new website. If you need help structuring your story, read this.
  2. Only do work that inspires you. This should always be a focus, but it’s especially important at the beginning. When most of us get started in business, we come from a place of scarcity. We’ll write about/speak about/work with anyone who gives us attention. Once you learn to check in with yourself and assess each opportunity for fit, you'll start to develop a body of work that reflects the things you get excited about. There’s nothing worse than becoming an expert at something you hate.
  3. Watch what happens. If you are consistently putting yourself out there in a way that feels exciting, you’re going to quickly start gathering more information on what people like and don’t like. You’ll also start to see what types of people like your stuff. My first job out of college was in market research - such an underestimated skill in business - and here was my key takeaway: You don’t need to have everything figured out in your own head beforehand (in fact, it’s impossible). You just have to show up from a place of open curiosity and continue to tweak as you learn more. For anyone who has ever done improv, it’s the same mindset. This, by the way, is why I ask new subscribers to my newsletter what they are struggling with. It gives me real-time feedback on how I can help my audience.
  4. Know yourself. Another important one for both beginners and business veterans. You can’t develop a strong brand until you know your strengths, passions, and the key problems you’re able to solve for people. When we feel lost and disoriented in our business journey, it’s usually because we’ve lost touch with these things. That’s why I created the True North Toolkit. When we are secure in who we are, everything gets a whole lot easier.
  5. Develop a strong voice. It’s hard to stand out if you sound like everyone else. When I started out blogging, I had a very academic-sounding voice. Most of us do, because we spend a lot of our early lives in school. The problem with academic writing is that it’s often boring, complex, and overly formal. Instead, people want to get a sense of your personality. Penelope Trunk is a good example of someone with a strong voice.
  6. Be vulnerable. This is something I write a lot about, because it’s a muscle I’ve had to train over time. Vulnerability doesn’t come naturally to most of us. But the truth is, people want to see that ugly, embarrassing stuff. It’s the part of you that's most relatable. And we'll respect you for it, too. Also, be transparent. You don’t have to look like an expert when you start out; just go one step back from where you are now and you’ll have plenty to teach.
  7. Ask other people what you do. This one is a bit counterintuitive. I’m definitely not saying that you should let other people define your work. But it can be really helpful to ask people who are familiar with what you’re doing how they would describe it. Usually they'll say something more simply and elegantly than you ever could (because you’re deep in it and have no objectivity). Early on, when I helped people find passionate work, I asked my sister how she describes my business to her friends. She said, “My brother has a coaching business targeting people who want to find more meaningful and more energizing career paths or ways of being." Perfect.
  8. Get testimonials. This is related to the last one, but slightly different. Once you are a bit further along in your journey, you’ll start getting results. You may begin to get emails from people telling you how you helped them. If you have clients or customers, you can ask them directly. Not only are these credibility builders, they also help ground you in the work you're doing - they remind you of who you serve and what you do for them. Keep track of these in an email folder (or better yet, on your website) and revisit them when you're feeling lost.
  9. Stop trying to label yourself. I often struggle with my "elevator pitch" at social events. When you have a conventional job, you can just say “I’m a preschool teacher” or, “I’m an architect.” When you’re doing something unconventional, however, you have to stay away from labels. For example, most people don’t understand coaching, and they may have a stigma around it. So instead of saying “I’m a career/biz/leadership/whatever coach,” I just say: “I help unleash people’s potential.” It’s a ballsy response, but it usually sparks an interesting conversation. My own coach says “I have really deep, powerful conversations with people that change their lives.” After that first sentence, all we have to do is answer the other person's questions. Note: it's all about how you say it, not what you say.
  10. Do better work. There is no substitute for doing great work. One of the reasons that I think we cling to the idea of a niche is that we think it will help us do mediocre work and still avoid failure. But I’d rather be a small fish in a big pond than the other way around. Because one day, I hope to be a big fish in a big pond. To do that, I need to show up consistently, practice deliberately, and master my craft.
  11. Ship consistently. At the end of the day, the only thing that matters is whether or not you “ship” your work. This often requires releasing incomplete or imperfect things. One of the secrets of great business owners is that they have found a way to shorten the cycle of creation and learning. That way they can create better stuff, faster. If you're anything like me, the idea of letting something out into the world before it’s ready scares the crap out of you. You’re going to have to get over that one. The more you creatively avoid, the more afraid you are to fail, the longer it will take for you to be successful (and thus to uncover your niche). This is why I decided at the beginning of 2015 to release a post every Thursday, instead of waiting until the end of the week.

All of the above points are especially true if you have a personal brand. Because then there is nothing else to hide behind: it’s just you.

Don’t make things more complicated than they have to be. Over time, your niche will get clearer. You will start to attract a certain type of person, and you can narrow down then.

For now, embrace the tension of not knowing.

(Photo credit: Jason Hargrove via cc)