29 April 2021
When I built Graphite Docs, I was serving a very tiny niche—me. It had to meet my demands. That’s it. But when I turned it into a product, the “me” niche didn’t work. So, I knew I needed something that would appeal to a market broader than myself but was still niche enough for me to build.
I chose the privacy space. I thought, hey people like privacy, and if they like privacy, they might be willing to pay for a writing and collaboration app that preserves their privacy. I redesigned my site, added case studies for various verticals that might need a privacy-preserving document platform (journalism, medical, law, etc), and I re-launched. But there was a problem.
Even as I was building this, my good friend Adam told me I needed to pick one vertical and serve them well first. He said I shouldn’t be building for journalists and lawyers and doctors and NGOs and schools. I pushed back and told him I had niched down considerably by choosing the privacy community versus the broader writing community. He relented after a while, but guess what?
He was right.
Graphite ultimately failed. Had I chosen a single vertical within the privacy space, I may have had a better shot at success. I also wouldn’t have suffered from the significant scope creep I saw happening but felt powerless to stop.
My next company was one I co-founded with two others. It was focused on the blockchain space. Niche enough, we thought. Niche enough to get us into a startup accelerator. However, as we began doing customer research, the needs and scope of supporting “blockchain” in general would have been monumental.
While we had thought we found a small niche, we needed to niche down further. We eventually chose to focus on the Ethereum blockchain community. This was a good choice and has helped the company continue (even after I left).
My current project, Perligo, has suffered the niche problem as well. I built it based on my experience as a writer. When I got my MFA, the feedback and critique process was disjointed. So, Perligo set out to solve that for writers.
But wait. What types of writers? You guessed it. I launched trying to support all different kinds of writers—fiction, poetry, non-fiction, comics, etc. Writers as a market is a niche, but not defining the subset of writers to support meant that I would be building features that ranged from critique group support to automated editing support and analytics.
Fortunately, with Perligo, I knew I was breaking the rules I’d learned during the launches and subsequent lifecycles of my other products. I knew that I was taking a shot in the dark with too wide a net. I did this intentionally with the plan that if it didn’t work (and it probably wouldn’t), I would niche down.
I’m in the research process of doing that now, but it’s kind of nice to have yet another example of how niches are often so loosely defined that we don’t recognize when they are not actually niche enough. If you feel like you’ve found your niche, ask yourself if there is a subset of that niche market you could serve even better if you focused in on them. Doing so will help your product be more targeted and, hopefully, easier to adopt.
I’ve gone back and forth on whether my writing should be member-only or freely available or a combination of both. This post is freely available, but most of my writing is (free) membership only. I’d love it if you became a member and subscribed for updates, and I promise there’s something in it for you. You’ll get dedicated content only available to members. Click the button below to subscribe.