Finding your niche is key to your career success. Don’t be afraid to narrowly define what you do and the results you deliver. You’ll gain stronger traction with recruiters, employers, or clients if you specifically address their most important needs.
I know it sounds counter-intuitive. How can finding your niche, one that targets a very narrow solution or set of solutions, make you the most money and create the biggest career opportunity for you?
The temptation is to go broad, to reach and appeal to as many companies and open positions as possible. This approach is classic: be a generalist. Submit your resume to as many positions as you can find. But just because you can do a job doesn’t mean that you should apply for it.
Don’t be afraid to define your career value more narrowly. Take a more entrepreneurial attitude towards your work, and dare to define yourself and what you do in the most specific way possible.
If Your Market is Everyone, Your Customer is No One
After many years in your field, it is tempting to want to leverage all of the different skills and applications you can offer. To do anything less, to narrow down what you say you do, feels like a disservice to everything you’ve learned. It feels like you’re “leaving money on the table” if you don’t lay out all of the different ways you can provide value.
However, by marketing yourself as a jack of many trades, you create the impression that you don’t have sufficient mastery to help your target employer or client with the most important need they’re trying to address.
Your story and the value you deliver might come across as diluted and diffused.
When you focus on a niche set of skills, solutions, or best practices — you become an expert in that field. You become the answer to a specific challenge or problem that somebody is willing to pay you to address.
Your career focus is not about what you “can” do, it’s about what you do “best”, and if you focus on what you do best and lead with that message, you’re more likely to effectively connect with your target employer or client.
The more specific you can be, the more you’ll stand out. “I’m a financial consultant” is too broad, but “I help professional athletes to invest conservatively to ensure their financial security,” describes a specific niche.
You’re Not Leaving Money on the Table
Just because there’s a lot you can do doesn’t mean that your target recruiter, employer, or client is looking for all of that. They may indeed be impressed by your background. But they want to know that your main focus is on what they need to get done.
As such, targeting a narrow niche makes it easier to identify jobs where you’ll be better able to connect what you do best to what that company or client actually needs. This process also helps you identify and familiarize yourself with the range of targets who could find your background, skills, and talents to be of interest. By restricting your focus, you will fast-track your way to the decision-makers who will hire you.
So rather than missing out on opportunities, finding your niche actually amplifies and energizes the opportunities that are best suited for you.
One Approach to Finding Your Niche
You may be stuck between two or more skill sets or areas of expertise that you do well and enjoy doing. Which one do you focus on? Which one should be your chosen niche?
Set up a reflective, research-driven process to better define these areas/skills, what differentiates them, and the various ways that you relate to them. The more you consider all the factors, the chances are that a winner will emerge from the process.
Start by looking back at past projects and rating which ones were the most enjoyable and successful. Extract the top skills that helped you deliver quality results to those projects or solve a problem that others could not.
Collect all your achievements and success stories on a whiteboard, including all of the solutions and processes that you’ve followed and that worked well. Leave these takeaways up on the board for a few days and keep coming back to it. Over time, you’ll gravitate towards the ones that are most resonant, and the rest will fall by the wayside.
Get Feedback and Act “As-if”
At the same time, invite advice and feedback from trusted colleagues, friends, and advisors, (aka your personal board of directors). They will offer a perspective that you might have missed. Sometimes we can be our worst critics, and don’t realize our real value.
Finally, consider doing some role-playing around the niches that you are gravitating towards. Imagine what your work week would be like if you were spending the majority of your time involved in one of these niche occupations. Use a journal or a tracking sheet to imagine the tasks and routines that you would be involved in over the course of that week. What kinds of meetings would you have? What kinds of project and deliverables would you be engaged in?
Compare the results of these “What if?” exercises to get a better sense of which niche holds the better long-term prospects for your future career.
What’s Better? Generalist or Specialist?
This is a classic and very understandable debate. But is it an “either/or” proposition? Do you actually have to make a choice between niches, or can you still hold onto a more generalized business role?
When I was at DreamWorks Animation, I helped develop and support a network of colleges and universities to recruit talented grads in art, filmmaking, and technology for our production pipeline. Faculty and career development staff at these schools were concerned about how to coach their students who were interested in working for us.
They would often ask me: “Are you looking for specialists or generalists?”
This was not an easy question because the process of making feature-length animated films is really complex. I discussed this with my DreamWorks team and we came up with the following answer:
We decided that we were looking for “specialized generalists,” or “generalized specialists.”
The rationale works today in the broader job market, just as it did for our prospective hires across all of the DreamWorks departments.
Specialization is important, and you have to have a specific focus for what you do. But you also have to understand the context of what you do. You have to be familiar with and able to integrate the contiguous specializations, skills, applications, and other knowledge that will make your contribution function as part of the whole effort.
So make sure to demonstrate how the niche you occupy fits into the larger mission that you are supporting through your work. If you feel comfortable occupying a focused niche, be mindful of and conversant with the skillsets that surround you. Be prepared to fill in or take initiative in these areas when necessary. On the other hand, if you want to leverage a portfolio of skills or solutions that you do well, have one key area where you can also go deep and really roll up your sleeves.
Aim Narrow—But Be Strategic!
If you’ve been successful in finding your niche, your next step is to make sure that those who can utilize it – and you – can connect with your value.
It’s not enough for you to create a profile that describes what you do. You also have to demonstrate that you understand what your prospective employer or client is facing in their business right now. Go further – for example in your LinkedIn “About” section – and share some specifics about what you can do to help them.
Cite examples of what you’ve done before, but also draw inferences to how your niche skills can and will translate into solving current or future challenges.
Finally, what makes you different from others who are in your niche? This is where some of your “generalized specialist” or “specialized generalist” ideas and qualities could come in handy. You may not be able to appeal to every employer or client in your niche, but for those who are drawn to you, the connection will be powerful.
One way that you can differentiate yourself from the competition is to wrap your solution or methodology into a memorable package. You may even be able to give your approach a name – call it a “framework” or a “methodology.”
Detail the steps or stages that you employ to get the results that you deliver, and present it in such a way that your target can clearly see how it could apply to their situation. It’s almost like making a proposal before you even get into a conversation about the position.
Even if what you lay out in your profile (or cover letter) is not totally on target, it shows that you are a systems-oriented professional, and that you are accustomed to hammering out the specifics before engaging with a particular role or project.
Your niche may not lend itself to something as structured as a methodology or a framework. Still, there must be some kind of “secret sauce” that you bring to the table that you can talk about or reference in order to differentiate yourself from others. It’s another way to underscore the idea that you have thought through the way that you can and plan to deliver for your target.
Social Proof is Vital
Social proof is evidence that other clients or employers who have worked with you found value in the service or the unique set of skills that you have to offer. It comes in the form of testimonials, recommendations, and references on social media and on your profile or website.
In aggregate, a compelling collection of testimonials and references could be the final persuasive element that convinces prospects that you are an expert in your field and the person they need to hire.
One caveat with social proof: make sure that it tells the story you want to tell. Be vigilant about people posting opinions that might be praiseworthy but don’t really add value. Part of finding your niche includes editing and culling social proof, testimonials, or references to conform to your value proposition.
Consider removing LinkedIn recommendations that apply to work that you no longer do. If you have a valued former employer or client who has given you a general recommendation, consider asking them to revise their post to highlight your newly-refined niche.
Cite Case Studies
If possible, to further prove your expertise in your chosen niche, back your story with case studies and results from past engagements. Provide concrete examples and statistics if applicable, so that your prospective clients or employers will understand what they will gain by working with you.
Consider creating effective collateral materials to use with those case studies, both digital and traditional. These could include simple pdf reports of text documents or slide presentations. If you’re including documents that you created for a prior employer or client, make sure that you have permission to share the information. If in doubt, remove any proprietary identification information.
Your LinkedIn profile is a great place to include this material. Use the Featured Section to display links to articles, statistics, or other research reports that support your niche.
Your Niche is a Gateway
If your LinkedIn profile, resume, and other reputational touchpoints are all aligned with your niche value proposition, you’re more likely to attract the attention of employers, clients (and recruiters) who will already know that you can indeed help them solve their problem or fill their position. You can now reject the intuitive fear that you’re limiting yourself and your options by finding your niche.
And here’s the kicker: Finding your niche is actually the gateway to expanding your niche.
Once you have delivered successfully and addressed your employer’s or client’s need, they may well ask you: “What else can you do?” Since you performed effectively on your first task, project, or position, you’ve earned their trust. They may now be willing to tap into your broader (“generalized specialist”) capabilities and create even more success.
Are you excited about finding your niche?
Are you persuaded that narrowing down is indeed the best way to go big?