Since I read The Positioning Manual I’ve been branstorming and researching various markets/niches.
My aim has been to find a market that’s conducive to both consulting engagements and a product. For example, hair salons wouldn’t fit both because almost no hair salon is going to hire a developer for a one-off consulting engagement. Most of them don’t have that kind of money.
On the other hand, I could imagine, say, manufacturing companies being a better fit. I could very easily imagine a manufacturing company that would see an ROI in hiring a developer for a one-off engagement, and have the money to pay for it.
Unfortunately I’ve found it hard to arbitrarily pick a market. I tried thinking of all the kinds of businesses I’ve already worked for. I got a couple ideas out of that but they were still a little too vague. For example, I worked for a trucking logistics startup. I researched that industry a little bit and couldn’t figure out a way to try to come at it.
I went relatively deep into a couple industries by subscribing to podcasts, trade magazines, email lists, etc. I hoped that by educating myself in these ways I’d be able to figure out a way to try to make some inroads into that industry. I haven’t been able to figure anything out.
Funnily enough, I actually had tried to position my consulting business before, I just don’t know if I called it positioning. At one point I called it my Unique Selling Proposition (USP). My first attempt at positioning was real estate. Just like the markets I’ve researched recently, I researched real estate and even talked to a few people in that industry, but couldn’t figure out how to get in. I went without any positioning for some time after that. Late I came up with a positioning statement that actually seemed to work.
Somehow I came up with the idea of selling my services not as software development but as “business process automation”. I think I got this idea from Dan Kennedy’s advice to put yourself into a “category of one”. Another thing that helped push me in this direction was that I would go to Chamber of Commerce meetings and tell people I was a software engineer, and they would either not understand or not care or both. So I knew I needed to come up with something that non-technical people could understand.
What I used to say at the Chamber meetings was, “I do business process automation. I take things that are tedious, time consuming and expensive and make them cheap, easy and enjoyable. I do this by writing custom software. A good referral for me is a business that uses Microsoft Excel. If you’re using Excel, there’s a good chance that means you’re either wasting a bunch of your own time or using up a bunch of payroll expense.”
I was using this same pitch in a BNI meeting and the guy sitting next to me actually tapped me on the shoulder and basically said, “Hey, that’s me. Maybe we should talk.” He ended up being a client. One of my favorite clients ever, in fact.
I don’t believe I ever got any work out of the Chamber that way. Eventually I got busy with client work and stopped going. But this morning I got an email from someone I had talked to several months ago about a certain Excel project and she was interested in reopening her conversation. The funny thing is that a couple days ago, I was actually wondering, “You know, maybe instead of trying to arbitrarily come up with a vertical niche, I should just keep going with my horizontal niche that has already worked a little bit.” This email from my old Chamber contact has given me a little bit more encouragement in that direction.
I might chance my mind again soon but I think right now I’ll try going a little further down the Excel path. But instead of telling people I do “business process automation”, I think I’ll just come right out and say “I turn Excel into software.” I should probably say something more like, “I save businesses money by turning Excel systems into custom software.” I’ll probably test a number of pitches and see how they’re received. I can definitely thank Philip Morgan for the idea to make my narrow focus (business process automation) even narrower (Excel). I can see people grasping the Excel thing a lot more readily than business process automation.
I’m not sure what exactly I want to prioritize next. I think I want to rewrite my website copy, get new business cards, and start going to business networking groups again. The business networking groups can really put a squeeze on the ol’ schedule.
I’m actually trying to pick up a little side work over the next couple months, so if I’m successful in doing that like I hope I’ll be, I probably won’t actually be doing much to work “on” my business during that time just because I’ll be so busy.
Business process automation is a valuable thing. It helps companies do more with less. If done well enough, they get hooked on what you’re offering and you become an integral part of their business.
The rub is I’m not entirely convinced it’s something potential clients are trained to spot themselves. Two reasons.
1. Clients don’t get the full grasp of what’s entirely possible with software. They may not be fully aware their problem can be solved that way.
2. They’re already tackling the problem some way or the other, or they’ve come to accept it as a limitation.
In the last year I’ve stumbled on potential process automation ideas by listening to a friend complain about something at work and doing something to solve that problem for them.
In http://designbymobi.us/how-i-built-my-first-desktop-app-in-3-days/, I talk about how my friend griped about a problem at work involving serious manual labor. I built software to automate away that step and theme ever so grateful. They’ve even convinced me it’s worth charging them for! Turns out they’re not the only company with this problem, and now I have in my hands a specific business problem and an mvp that solves it.
It’s happened two other times this year. I’m the one who is being terribly slow at capitalizing on these opportunities.
Point is … I listened to their problems and saw how software could automate a painful step in their process. They weren’t looking for a guy who specializes in automating business processes. I don’t know how much success you’ll have waiting for them to come up to you.
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