Where can I find “niches” to further my career?

Question: Alan: I recently read one of your blog posts entitled “Avoid the Obsolete Job Trap,” and it got me to thinking. As a veteran solo business lawyer based in Fairfield County, Connecticut, I was wondering if you could please elucidate for me your recommendation on new legal niches . . . and further resources I can seek out on what you mean by “water law” and “selling digital content on the internet.”

Stamford, Connecticut

Answer: Steve: Your question is a great one – in fact one that nearly everyone these days has on their mind, to one degree or another. I am no expert, but I am fascinated with “what is going on” in this respect. Here are my thoughts:

1. For a variety of reasons, on a worldwide basis, it seems to be getting increasingly difficult to make a living. I am not the only person who believes that it seems to be getting harder to locate and maintain a secure livelihood. It’s the same in every business, every profession and every income level. Looking at countries all over the world, it doesn’t seem to be too much better anywhere you look. Perhaps it is the globalization of the world economy, perhaps it is computers and other machines replacing personal service, perhaps it is the effects of the internet, perhaps it is the last gasps of a possibly outdated economic order . . . I am not sure. But it surely does seem to me that people from Cairo to Chicago, and from Greece to Greenwich, and from Pakistan to Peoria are having a harder time locating and maintaining a secure livelihood with which to feed, house and educate their families. Whether this is a temporary or long-term phenomenon, we still all have to deal with it in the present.

2. Notice that large organizations of every kind often miss emerging trends and new opportunities. In every segment of every society, social organizations tend over time to grow and grow, often just for the sake of growth, even when there is no need for that growth. By “social organizations” I mean corporations, universities, charities, media companies, health care organizations, professional firms, and even religious organizations. And when they grow, they have a tendency to become increasingly impersonal, cumbersome and slow to adapt. Their large budgets require they appeal to large audiences, not small constituencies. It is everyone’s experience: it is very rare that you get personalized, specialized, or made-to-order goods or services from most large organizations. Instead, you must choose between “Press Button One for Pharmacy, Press Button Two for Ladies Goods,” or “Item 8 on the Menu.” They must appeal to the thousands of customers, not the few, and therefore must limit themselves to offering only products and services that will sell to millions of people, not the a dozen or two.

3. But the “problems” and “weaknesses” of others can be your “opportunities” and “advantages.” It is simply amazing how one’s perspective can change one’s life. While some people see and bemoan the problems of the world, others see the problems of the world as their own challenges, their own opportunities, and their own potential advantages. Problem: kids are not learning math. Opportunity: if you work in the education field, open up a tutoring service, or suggest your employer do so. Problem: people are increasingly unhappy about the level of chemicals in the public water they drink. Opportunity: consider opening up a water-testing, or filtering, company. Problem: your employer’s sales are going downhill. Opportunity: be the one and only person who takes the time and initiative to contact former customers to ask them why. Seeing the problems of others as your opportunities is a key to success in any field, because one way or the other, we all make a living satisfying the needs, wants and desires of others, and unfulfilled needs are where growth will take place.

4. For individuals and small groups of people, “niches” are an important career, professional and business strategy. Large organizations tend to miss the narrow and newer opportunities all around us, what is commonly referred to as “niche” opportunities. Whether in employment, the professions or small businesses, there is a valuable lesson here: look for human needs and desires that are not being satisfied by large institutions, and become either the person who does so, or the first and only employee in your company who does so.

Problem: Sadly, the incidence of autism is on the rise. Opportunity: If you are the only lawyer in your state who “specializes” in the legal rights of parents of autistic children, you will be busy and secure for a very long time. Likewise, if the neighborhood where your employer’s business is located is seeing the beginning of an influx of immigrants from a certain country, be the first to carry some of the goods and services desired by that new neighborhood demographic. Niche opportunities – for employees and for entrepreneurs – arise every single day, and they are all around us.

5. To locate valuable niche opportunities, start with demographic changes. Let’s say you are a real estate lawyer and because of the housing crisis and poor economy your real estate law practice is in the doldrums. No one is buying houses. No one is leasing new offices or stores. No one is building buildings. But think about it: Isn’t it true that more and more people are unmarried but living together? Isn’t it true that more and more young people who can’t find jobs are moving back in with their parents? Aren’t many seniors moving in with their adult children because they can’t afford nursing homes? Maybe you can develop a niche expertise in “agreements between co-habitators” to address division of responsibilities and liabilities Is it possible that compatible small businesses in hard times can “share” storefronts with each other? If you develop ideas and ways to take advantage of those “problems” of others, individuals, landlords and smaller business tenants may all love your services. If small businesses are having a hard time paying the rent, perhaps you could offer a service that negotiates lower rents from landlords for a percentage of the rent saved.

Once you have located and tested any one of these potential “niches,” it can become the centerpiece of a new, and perhaps revolutionary, “real estate law” practice. Write articles, offer seminars, start a website. You could be the first attorney in this new field of law, even the field’s “pioneer.”

By the way, I often refer to “water law,” as I see the scarcity, quality and availability of water to be growing human concern and a potential looming crisis, in which “experts” in the field – including attorneys – will be in significant and long-term demand. I have also noticed that “content” on websites and blogsites is becoming something of a tradable commodity, capable of being exploited by many different online businesses, but without for the moment any “brokers” who specialize in the field. These two “problems” seems especially ripe “niches” for investigation and possible development.

6. Sorry, I know of no real experts to consult; to locate and exploit “the riches of niches,” the best “guides” are an open mind, an adventurous spirit, and a willingness to take a risk. I have heard that there are centers of entrepreneurship, and even colleges that offer programs in becoming an entrepreneur. I rather doubt that there can be courses or programs to teach people how to locate and evaluate niche areas of employment, professions or businesses. Rather, I would suggest reading several magazines and newspapers each day, and consider what it is people are concerned about, what people are dissatisfied about, and what people want more of that they can’t seem to get. Then it’s just a matter of figuring out what you have within you – intelligence, compassion, creativity and discipline chief among them – that you can use to satisfy that human need or desire.

Finding and filling a niche in your workplace, in your profession or in your business field is a potential key to success in a world increasingly dominated with mega-stores, mega-hospitals, mega-donut shops, and mega-everything else. For employees, professional people, and small businesses, niche focus is a key strategy, and I recommend it without limit.

Thanks, Steve, for writing in. I hope this is of help to you.

Al Sklover

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