It was a $10,000 conversation, but that’s not what I earned from it. That’s what it cost me. And I’m glad of it.
This conversation over coffee took place in 1999, just after I’d jumped from a marketing job with a Big Four accounting firm, to start my own business. The meeting was with a business coach I’ll call “Judy,” as part of an initial consultation.
I’d told Judy that I wanted to build a practice working with professional services firms. But I’d been offered a contract to do PR work for a wood-stove manufacturer, quite outside my area of interest. Just starting out, even with a good cushion of savings, the $10,000 contract looked pretty amazing to me. And I’d grown up in a house that relied on a wood-stove for heat, so I knew the product.
Judy gently probed around that. Did I really want to step so far off my business plan and area of expertise, to focus on a consumer product? Wouldn’t the time I spent pushing wood-stoves be time I wouldn’t be building my profile with professional firms?
I concluded that Judy was right. I turned down the wood-stove contract. And I walked taller as a result. I came to see myself as someone who could afford to turn down business that didn’t meet my plan. This helped cement my way forward, working with professional firms. I’ve stayed with that ever since. And I set up a contract with Judy for ongoing coaching support.
So let me ask you: Are you doing work that’s outside your area of focus? Are you taking clients based on what you’ll earn, rather than what you’ll learn? I’m pretty sure that in any professional practice, there is a need to narrow the focus. Including mine. What kind of focus? Two kinds.
1. Target your sweet spot: the clients you serve
In my own practice, as observed, I don’t do wood-stoves. My area of preference lies in environmental science, engineering, business services and other professions. It’s a sector in which I have some experience and knowledge, and this helps me do better work for my clients. I understand the issues, and the problems these people solve.
For example, I recently met with someone with a breathtakingly narrow professional practice: He’s a forensic meteorologist. Whaaaa’s that, I hear you say? Well, as it happens, I happen to know, because I’ve worked with people in similar practices before. A forensic meteorologist gets called in, for example, when there’s a vehicle collision in which weather is a factor. The question then becomes: what would the weather have been like at the time and place of the collision? Was there fog, freezing rain, ice on the road, or some other factor?
What this meant was that I was able to ask informed questions about this man’s work, and could grasp immediately that the two main markets he wanted to reach were lawyers, and insurance carriers.
That’s part of the power of focusing on a tight market. You get to know it really, really well, and can provide better service than if you just stepped into it briefly. Clients appreciate this, and feel you’re exactly the right person for what they need.
“But that cuts me off from other industrial sectors!” I hear you say, and that’s a valid concern. So, pick a niche that you enjoy, and that has money.
I’m reminded of the waiting room of a travel medicine clinic where I went prior to a consulting gig in the DR Congo a few years ago. The wall was covered with the signed pictures of entertainment stars who’d been there for yellow fever injections and malaria prophylactics. Clearly, the doctors in the clinic had found their niche, and they loved it. And no kidding, I dropped close to $2,000 in inoculations for that trip, and this in a land where most medical expenses are covered by socialized medicine. I trusted their expertise, and followed their painful recommendations.
So, pick a market niche that you find rewarding both in psychology and finances, and get really intentional about building it.
2. Target your sweet spot: the kind of work you do
The other way you can improve your finances and your work satisfaction is to narrow your focus on the kind of work you do.
In my case, I found that while I was focusing my client work on professional firms, the kinds of work I was doing for them involved tasks I didn’t like. Personally, I do not get much joy at all out of classical PR work, which is trying to get reporters and editors interested in developing coverage of whatever my client wants to sell.
I would much rather ghost-write feature articles for business publications. It’s a totally strange focus, but it works for me. I exist, therefore I write.
I know other people who delight in the usual kind of PR work, and I’m glad they do what they do.
So ask yourself – what kinds of work do you really, really want to do? As with the “which clients” aspect to narrowing your focus, be sure that there’s enough demand for this service line. In other words: Are there enough people with money, who have a problem you can solve?
How content creation can get you there
Developing thought leadership content is a big part of getting to “narrow.”
Reaching narrowly-defined markets can be done by creating content with those markets’ issues in mind. Your research on those issues will help you create better content – and it’ll also help you craft more persuasive proposals. You’ll develop case studies that show you can provide results. Then, get that content published in media already relied upon by people in that market.
Creating demand for narrowly-defined work that brings you joy can also be done through content. By understanding the issues faced by your market, you can morph your skill-set so that it aligns with the needs of the market you’ve chosen to serve.