Start Ups: Mine Your Pigeonhole

Kristi Leach

June 29, 2012 · 4 minutes read

Uncategorized

So, you’ve got a great business idea. Can you tell me who will buy it? Is your answer something like, “It’s for everyone,” or, “Anyone who shops/reads/drinks/has a dog?” If so, you still have work to do. Getting specific about your target market is crucial. Selling to everyone doesn’t work, partly because people are getting weirder.

The Bell Curve Is Changing.

As Seth Godin explains in his book, We Are All Weird, better technology has made choice more affordable, and mass markets are disappearing in favor of weird, niche markets. He uses Wonderbread, as one example. Until industrialization, if you wanted bread, you baked it, and you baked it the way your family had taught you.

When bakeries began to mass-produce bread, Wonderbread was born. “Wonder is an average bread for average people,” writes Godin. “Wonder is the regular kind.”

Now, a bakery can make a respectable profit selling everything but Wonderbread, writes Godin. “Not just to tiny niche markets but to tens of thousands of otherwise normal people who shop at farmers’ markets and are taking advantage of the ability to choose.”

Narrow Things Down.

The research can seem overwhelming, and I’ve written previously about how startups can use a combination of user research and market research to discover potential customers.

It’s not just feeling unsure about the how, though, in my experience. Business owners sometimes worry they’ll exclude or alienate potential customers. If your business is a salon, for example, you may think your potential customer is anyone who gets haircuts. But unless you’re going to be the only salon in driving distance, there are reasons why your customers will choose you. Will you cater to people who want to feel hip, but who feel intimidated by ultra-trendy stylists at other salons? Will you have the best product selection in the neighborhood? These nuances will help you decide how to promote yourself, how to spend your capital, and how to interact with customers.

You can also spend less effort on things that matter less to your niche.

Focus Your Limited Resources.

You can’t afford to be the best at everything. If you focus on a more specific market, you can prioritize developing the features that are most important to that market. You can make rabid fans while staying within your means.

Lean and Agile methods both talk about delivering well on a small set of core features, to start. Limiting your market is part of choosing that focus. And focus will also make marketing more reasonable on a startup budget.

Prioritize marketing channels and better define messaging.

Going back to our salon scenario, let’s assume your clientele has plenty of disposable income, but doesn’t consider themselves to be particularly product-savvy or fashion-forward. When you promote more expensive services, you would want to use accesible terminology and invite questions, rather than using crisp copy that assumes the customer is in the know. To promote a high-end product line, explain the benefits in layman’s terms and link to video demos of regular people styling their hair with the products.

And knowing your market can help you decide where to post those links. If you are trying to reach just anybody, you can’t focus your marketing. Business writer Ramit Sethi illustrates the problem with typical sarcasm in his Mint.com article about defining your market. “Oh, OK, well why don’t we just go finda magazine that reaches out to ‘anybody’ and take out an ad?”

Base your efforts on actual data.

It’s not enough to sit in your home office and decide you’d like to sell your artisanal bread to urban moms who shop at farmers’ markets. You need to validate that. Survey moms who shop at farmers’ markets. Observe them shopping for bread and serving bread at home. Test your assumptions about their preferences. If you are missing key insights, you’re not getting the full benefits of a well-defined target market.

How do you know if you’ve defined too small a market?

Once you define a niche, research how many people fit into that niche, and how many of them you can realistically expect to reach. Will that generate enough profit to carry you through until you are ready to target an additional market? If not, consider expanding your definition or your offering.

But consider that people will pay more for a product tailored to them.

Sethi gives an example: people who like steak. “Where would you rather eat dinner? Acme Restaurant, where they serve Indian food, steak, asparagus, spaghetti, and Thai food? Or Jack’s Steak House, which serves only mouth-watering Angus steak served by former butchers?”

As anyone would answer, he states: “Of course you’d choose the specialized restaurant. And you’d pay more, too.”

Mass appeal is over. Have you found your pigeonhole?

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