One of the best pieces of business/career advice is to “niche down”. Focus on a small and specific part of the marketplace instead of being generic and large. It’s great advice because it works!
Unfortunately, few understand this advice.
Even fewer follow it.
I believe I understand why and have a reasonable solution for some of you if you ever have trouble getting specific with what you do.
To start off, why is finding your niche a good idea in the first place? Let’s take being a programmer as an example.
If you go to school and learn the fundamentals to programming, that will likely give you enough to establish yourself SOMEWHERE in the marketplace. But there are a lot of different types of programming.
Here is a quick list of types of jobs programmers might work in:
Web Developer (building websites)
Full Stack Software Engineer (web apps - front and back end)
Backend Software Engineer (web apps - server side)
Frontend Software Engineer (web apps - client side)
iOS or Android Engineer (mobile apps)
Mac or Windows Engineer (desktop apps)
Game Programmer (video games)
Embedded Systems Engineer (embedded systems, Arduino, etc)
DevOps Engineer (server infrastructure orchestration)
QA/Test Engineer (test automation)
Business Enablement Engineer (excel + reporting automation)
Data Engineer (data workflow automation)
Machine Learning Engineer (machine learning/big data)
AI Engineer (artificial intelligence)
Quant Trading Engineer (finance/stock trading)
That’s not even a complete list!
And then you can explode the possibilities by language. Here are a few popular languages:
Vanilla JS (no framework at all!)
And that’s just a small portion of the nearly infinite front end frameworks in JS land. Every language has its own set of libraries/frameworks/tools that you could specialize in.
With just the examples above there were 15 jobs, 22 languages, and 10 language specific frameworks/tools for just one of those jobs. If you combine that, you’ve got something like 3,300 possibilities!
So if you were to come out of school and say, “I’m a programmer, I know how to code.” A sensible person might ask, “what kind of programmer?” Because there are literally thousands of specializations inside of the world of programming and nobody can cover them all.
And that’s where the first advantage to niching down comes in… there is no way to serve a general marketplace effectively with limited resources.
As a single person your time, energy, and knowledge are finite. Covering everything is impossible. So, no matter how hard you try, you automatically niche down to what limited area you know - even if you don’t want to admit it.
If you started a consulting business and said you did general programming services and someone showed up and asked you to build some A.I. project when you have no experience with that area, it’s not going to work out very well. You either say, “I don’t do A.I.” or you take the gig and learn as you go (but do a worse/more expensive job than if you already knew A.I. stuff). Neither is ideal.
So it’s better to at least niche down to what you know (because this happens anyway).
Which leads to the second advantage of niching down… it’s easier to market yourself as something specific.
People are afraid of niching down in business because of FOMO. People believe that by being a specific type of business or specialization, they miss out on opportunity. The exact opposite is true.
That makes finding a job much easier because there are like 50-100 places to apply to at any given time instead of 500+. AND, you are more likely to land a React job because you are more qualified!
So niching down makes marketing easier.
Which brings us to the third advantage of niching down… there is less competition.
This is related to the previous point. While it’s easier to sell yourself or your product when it’s niched down to something specific, there are also far fewer people or businesses competing with you.
The point is, each time you niche down there are fewer people to compete with. That’s a good thing. And in a few cases, it’s like sitting on a winning lottery ticket. When your specialization is in demand and there isn’t enough supply to meet demand, you win by default.
So, the less competition the better I say.
Which leads to the last advantage of niching down… you get better at your craft.
“I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once, but I fear the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times.” -Bruce Lee
The last advantage of niching down is a force multiplier to the rest. When you focus on one particular specialization or subset of possibilities, you become exceptionally good at that thing.
Repetition brings the level of learning from conscious to unconscious. At some point you don’t think about what you are doing, you simply execute the skills automatically. Our most powerful skills are the ones we practice the most - breathing, talking, walking, eating, sleeping, etc.
You don’t think about those as skills until they are taken away or you have to really thing about them. Then you realize how marvelous they are.
With enough practice your specialization is like breathing. It’s automatic.
When you dig into a tiny little corner of the world, you can ignore the rest. To continue our example, a React developer doesn’t need to know much about operating systems engineering, mobile apps, what’s going on in the world of PHP or Ruby, etc. There is a mountain of information that is 100% irrelevant to a React engineer.
That’s a tremendous advantage because the react developer can spend more time learning and doing things with react. It’s easier to stay up to date on the latest versions of React. It’s easier to try out new libraries in React. It’s possible to dig into the underlying code or maybe even become a core contributor to React.
It’s so much easier to be good at one thing if you are focused on just that one thing. You get better by default.
And then as you improve in your specialization, that feeds back into the other advantages as a force multiplier. The whole thing compounds into greater opportunities within your niche. Eventually you find yourself at or near the top of your field, which is a pretty cool place to be!
So that’s a few advantages of niching down. But how do you get there?
Well, there are a million articles and videos on the internet about how to pick a niche or niche down into something that is valuable or something like that. The world of affiliate marketing, Amazon FBA, and blogging turned finding a niche into a cottage industry on its own.
All that “how to niche down” advice is pretty useless. When I’ve tried it, I end up chasing niches and ideas that sounded good on paper and never quite worked out. Which is a bummer.
I have developed my own way of picking a niche that works for me.
My little trick is…
I niche down to the things I enjoy.
Over time I pay attention to the things I do without prompting. Basically, what is fun or interesting enough that nobody has to tell me to do it?
For the world of programming, it’s Ruby. I enjoy programming with Ruby. Most of my best code is written in Ruby. My favorite projects are in Ruby. There is something about Ruby that I enjoy. I can’t quite put my finger on it, but there is something different about Ruby.
So I do Ruby.
I do my best to ignore other languages and niches I’m not as interested in. For example, a lot of people love Rust. I’ve never been able to get into Rust. I tried a few times and didn’t like it. I’ve attempted to get into React a few times and while it’s okay, I’ve found other JS frameworks I enjoyed more.
I’m not opposed to learning and trying new things. But they often reinforce my existing preferences more than changing them.
The older I get, the more I find this to be a good thing.
I’ve read various books that mention that many people hit their stride in their careers in their late 30’s or early 40’s. Some of that is time and experience, but I am starting to wonder if as we get older and more “set in our ways”, we benefit from niching down by default. I have no proof of that, it’s just a theory of mine.
The point I’m getting at is niching down doesn’t need to be a complex process. I believe it can be a natural one. There are things you are naturally drawn to or are gifted at.
If you pay attention to what you enjoy or are good at, and double down on those things - you can settle into a niche automatically. And this doesn’t just work for starting a business or picking a career path. It can work for your hobbies, food, exercise, or most any area of life.
None of this needs to be difficult, stressful, or complicated. It can all be simple.
Invest yourself in what you enjoy and ignore the rest.
I have already done this. I am a C++ Library designer and understand all the esoteric low-level details needed to write good libraries. I told my last employer that was my primary skill area. It turned out that they had already granted ownership of this space to someone else who viewed me as a career threat. The job did not work and I no longer work there. If they had paid attention to my resume and to my interviews, they would have realized that I was a poor candidate for the job and saved a lot of trouble for us all.