A best-selling author describes his experience with finding his niche
If you’re one of the courageous people who have thrown off the yoke of working for the man and decided to start a business of your own, you’ve undoubtedly wrestled with the question of who your customers are. Just who will buy your services or products? Are they men or women? What age groups do they represent? In short, who are you trying to reach? The answer of course, defines your niche.
According to the U.S. Small Business Administration, there were 28 million small businesses in 2010. More than three-quarters were non-employers, meaning they are owner-worker shops. They’re freelancers of every variety. Baby sitters, dog walkers and marketing specialists. They’re virtual bookkeepers, medical practitioners, massage therapists, career coaches and more. But, the one thing all successful entrepreneurs share is a focused understanding of exactly who their prospects are. But, can you be too niched?
Who Are Your Readers?
When starting out, most people take a broad approach. Instead of limiting their market to certain age groups, genders or interests, they go for the big picture. Instead of marketing their services and products to college-educated women between the ages of 18 and 29, making at least $100,000 a year, who own their own homes, and vacation out of the country at least twice a year, they dilute their approach to attract virtually all men and women of any age and earning capacity. That’s a pretty broad market to reach.
One might think that by throwing your net out wide instead of appealing to specific niches, you’ll capture more of the marketplaces’ dollars. Nothing to could be further from the truth. Instead of spending your marketing dollars wisely, you spread your message over too wide an area. Eventually, you discover that over 75% of the people you’re targeting couldn’t care less about your products. In effect, you’ve just thrown away your golden opportunity to convert new customers.
How can I make these bold statements? Because I did the same thing when I published my first book. Fortunately, I was quick on the uptake and learned quickly from my mistakes. Even though I knew next to nothing about sales and marketing (let alone writing), I was passionate about my product and motivated to share my message with the right people. Here’s how it all began.
How My Idea Was Born
In 2004 I was a full-time professional ski instructor at Vail Mountain in Colorado–one of the world’s premier destination ski resorts nestled in the heart of the Rocky Mountains. One day while waiting for our annual ski school meeting to begin, one of the other instructors told the hilarious story of a seven-foot-five professional basketball star struggling to survive a beginning ski lesson. “Well, that’s a pretty good story,” said another instructor. “But, let me tell you what happened to ME!” Well, one-upmanship ensued. The next thing I knew, I heard dozens of the funniest stories I’d ever heard. I thought to myself, “If I’ve just heard these stories coming from instructors in our ski school, there must be thousands of great tales out there!” I was bitten by the bug. I knew I had to write a book about the mishaps during ski lessons before someone else beat me to it.
I was confident that the idea would sell. Back in 1969, Trudy Baker and Rachel Jones, two stewardesses (what we now call flight attendants) wrote a best-selling book called Coffee, Tea or Me (the uninhibited memoirs of two airline stewardesses, here’s the real low-down on the high-flying stewardess scene…). The book went on to a unprecedented TWENTY printings and is still selling. I knew I could write a best-selling book too. But, with no writing, publishing or marketing experience, how on earth was I going to pull it off?
At best, there are only 12 million people who ski in the United States–either seriously or once a year, let alone how few of them take ski lessons. They were going to be my market. The other limitation I pondered was the relatively short selling season. I guessed that the book would only sell during the winter when people sitting at their desks dreamed of skiing. I was wrong on both counts. I clearly didn’t understand my market. Nevertheless, I was convinced that this book could sell. Everybody loves a funny story, don’t they?
The Vail Ski and Snowboard School was (and still is) one of the largest ski schools in the world. With over 1,200 instructors, I felt sure I’d be able
to gather enough good-quality stories to include in my book. I was wrong. After spending all day on the mountain teaching skiing, I spent evenings interviewing instructors, drawing out their best and funniest stories. But, after two months, I only had 50 stories; some of which weren’t appropriate for print. So, I widened my instructor pool to all the major ski schools in the western United States. Ski schools at resorts where I thought people would frequent. After two more months, I was still falling short. So, I widened my contributor pool again to every ski resort in the United States. From Alaska to Vermont. Large or small. My goal was to collect 300 stories, and pick the best 150 to publish. It took an entire winter.
The stories were phenomenal. Originally, I thought the stories would simply be the funny things that “flatlanders” did when out of their element in ski school classes. True, I had that. But the stories ended up
encompassing much more. Since many of the instructors I interviewed were the post-World War II pioneers of the American ski industry, their tall tales also included escapades that reached back to their European roots and revolved around ski fashion: from tight, gaberdine stretch pants and trendy wool sweaters to today’s floppy, baggy fashions. Anecdotes about hickory skis that towered over your head that evolved into short, shaped fiberglass skis with plastic bases and impregnated steel edges. Memories of how leather double-boots evolved into custom fitted plastic racing shells. Some of their best stories described beginners struggling to learn how to ride rope tows, T-bars and single-seat chairlifts. The adventures of people adjusting to ski industry changes were hilarious in their own right.
A New Book Comes Alive
My book, Ski Instructors Confidential: the Stories Ski Instructors Swap Back at the Lodge was divided into 6 chapters that poked fun at everything from trying to survive the gravitational effects of sliding down a mountain while trying to remain upright, to on-mountain dining, and the antics of kids thrust into children’s ski school by their parents.
Even before I started writing, I mapped out a basic marketing scheme which I ended up publishing in The Writer Magazine. I assumed that my hot markets would be the ski areas where the contributing instructors taught and had families and friends. Surely, they’d sell my books. Then I approached all the small, local newspapers in ski resorts, including our own Vail Daily. Newspapers are always clamoring for short, entertaining pieces to fill in empty spots in their spreads.
I began by approaching The Vail Daily in our own valley: “How would you like to print a few of my stories from local ski instructors in your paper?” I asked. They said, “Sure. We’ll run your stories every day for the entire ski season.” I was floored. But I thought of another hook. While I was hawking my book to publications, I also visited every small gift, curio store and deli that catered to visiting skiers and their families. I told them, “If you buy a case of my books, I’ll put the name of your shop at the bottom of every column the Vail Daily runs. You’ll get free marketing for the entire ski season.” The response was phenomenal. The books sold themselves.
At the peak of the ski season, Ski Instructors Confidential was flying off of the bookstore shelves. Not including all the other bookstores I sold copies to, our two small book stores each reported selling more than 250 copies a month for the entire winter ski season. Not bad for a new book. One week it even beat out John Grisham’s latest title.
People who read my stories (and book) during their ski vacations took them back home to share with their friends. Their friends loved the book and bought copies for themselves from the Amazon, Goodreads and Barnes & Noble websites. The Vail Daily also had a website where they published the stories across the country. The stories WENT VIRAL. People from all over the world bought my book. I appeared on national TV, on radio shows and was covered in dozens of newspapers and magazines. Even non-ski-related web sites from wedding planners to fishing guides “borrowed” my stories from the Daily’s website and published them on theirs.
Learning Tricks to Reach Your Readers
Because it was well before print-on-demand, I had to pay for advance printing of 2,000 copies of the book. In addition to being distributed by
Ingram’s and Baker & Taylor, my publisher hired a fulfillment contractor in the Midwest that handled all of the online book sales and returns. At the end of every month, they sent me a detailed summary of sales. I had definitive information about how many copies people were buying, their contact information and other valuable information. What did I learn? Who was buying my books? Surprise, surprise.
The lion share of my book sales weren’t coming from areas adjacent to ski resorts. Instead of California, Utah, Colorado and Vermont, the books were sold by the hundreds in Minnesota, Iowa, Florida and Arizona. Places that had no ski resorts. How could that be?
What I Learned About Creating My Niche
By the end of the first ski season, I learned that my market truly was everyone who skied from 10 years old to the retired. Men, women, singles and married with families. I learned that Florida has per capita, more skiers than any other state in the union and has hundreds of ski clubs that visit ski resorts all over the world. Surprisingly, many of the buyers didn’t even ski. They just loved the antics of beginning skiers: fish out of water trying to survive their ski vacation. Kids who dropped their new $350 parka down the hole in the outhouse, trying in vain to fish it out before their parents found out. People who learned the hard way that there really is a left and right ski boot.
So, what would I recommend to other small business owners?
Start by making your best effort to understand your market. Try to imagine who’ll be interested in your product and services. Then, widen it by 2000%. Be flexible. Never be afraid of being TOO focused, or too NICHED, and be ready to learn from your mistakes and accept all the outcomes. Consumers will make up their own minds whether or not to purchase your products or services. It’s better to follow your heart and do what you truly love than to dilute your efforts to feel “safe.”