⭐️ Don't put yourself into a box (or why you shouldn't niche down prematurely as an online creator)
Here’s one piece of advice everyone seems to agree on: you need to niche down.
Don’t write about dental health. Instead, write about how high school teachers in South Carolina can floss their teeth more effectively.
First you become the king of a tiny category like that. Then you start to expand.
After studying hundreds of people who found success online and two years as a creator myself, I’m pretty confident that this is one of those ideas that sound great until you actually put them to the real-world test.
And like most of these ideas it does indeed contain some element of truth although this is far from obvious.
But first, let’s talk about what’s wrong with it.
As an online creator, your success largely depends on your creativity. It’s your superpower and everything depends on it.
You need to be able to come up with and explore a ton of ideas since most will not work out.
But whenever you niche down, you severely limit your creativity.
Have an amazing idea why entrepreneurs should care more about dental health?
Sorry can’t do that. You gotta stick to the plan and churn out yet another post about flossing tricks for high school teachers.
That’s of course a silly example. A straw man.
But I always find it helpful to explore ideas by looking at the extremes.
And while not as extreme as in this example, I’ve experienced similar situations many times myself.
A good example is my newsletter.
I started writing exclusively about product ideas for indie entrepreneurs. The newsletter’s name was literally just “Product Ideas”.
While readers liked it and it was growing nicely, I noticed after a few months that wouldn’t work for me.
The niche focus started to grind against my identity.
I had so many great ideas that I wanted to write about. But I couldn’t since there was no way to fit them into the theme of my newsletter.
Ever since I’ve been trying to break out from this box I put myself into.
I did this in baby steps.
First I rebranded the newsletter to Opportunities.so. This allowed me to write about opportunities in a broader context.
Then I rebranded the newsletter again by changing the name to Founder Flywheel. My thinking was that this allows me to write about all kinds of content relevant to founders, not just opportunities.
The box got gradually bigger, but it always remained a box.
If I could start all over again, I would definitely use a brandable name instead of a niched-down name.
Or even better, maybe I wouldn’t use a name at all. James Clear, for example, grew his newsletter to 100k+ subscribers without having a name for it.
This is a common pattern if you study online creators.
Almost no one started with a niche focus from the get-go. Instead the niche emerged organically over time.
People like James Clear, Tim Ferriss, James Altucher, Khe Hye, Nat Eliason, Richard Meadows, Taylor Pearson, Sebastian Marshall, Tynan, and Seth Godin all started by writing about whatever they were interested in. One week it was weightlifting, the next investing strategies, then habits, then leadership, and so on.
Eventually each of them doubled down on topics that resonated with their readers and where they felt they had enough interest to keep exploring it in more depth.
This is how they found writer-content-audience fit.
The lesson I took away from studying these people is that the more freely you’re able to follow your own curiosity and leverage your creativity to the fullest, the faster you will find success.
And there’s another reason why this strategy works:
People Warm to People, not Brands
I follow zero brands on Twitter and am subscribed to zero brand newsletters.
Instead, I follow individual creators regardless of what niche they’re focusing on. And I’m definitely not alone with that.
For example, right now, Nick Gray is only writing about how to set up great parties. But if tomorrow he would decide to start writing about, say, personal productivity or fitness, I’d still stay subscribed to his newsletter. I’d love to read how he approaches these topics.
Hence it makes sense to build your personal brand by putting the full spectrum of your creativity on display. This shows you’re a real person and not a machine churning out laser-focused content.
The Tight Positioning Trap
But don’t get fooled by the simplicity of this approach. It’s not easy.
Our egos crave clear labels. It’s much easier for your self-narrative and identity if you’re able to say “I do X for Y”.
You will always be tempted to craft a tight positioning as I did in the beginning (”I write about business ideas for indie entrepreneurs”.)
But always keep in mind that this is just your ego speaking and your audience doesn’t care.
They follow you as a person. Or at least, your readers worth keeping do.
Some people will get angry when you start writing about different topics.
But you can safely ignore them since by doing this they effectively admit that they’re thinking of you as a commodity and don’t care about you as a person anyway.
“The machine that delivered marketing tips to my inbox every Monday stopped working. Now I’m mad.”
Being a commodity is one of the most common failure modes for creators.
You should strive to become “The Only”, not better.
There are hundreds of newsletters that deliver marketing tips straight to your inbox. When one of them disappears, others will quickly take its spot.
But there’s only one Nick Gray, one James Altucher, one You.
Having said all of this, it’s time to talk about in what context niching down does in fact make sense.
When Niching Down Works
There are two scenarios when specificity is important:
- When you’re testing individual ideas and hypotheses.
- When you switch from exploration to exploitation.
The first one here is crucial while you’re still exploring all kinds of different options.
No matter what you do, you will have to iterate. Hardly anyone gets lucky on the first try.
And you can significantly increase your odds of discovering something that works by following a systematic process: formulate plausible hypotheses and then do experiments to test them.
For example, in my case, a specific hypothesis could be: I enjoy writing about business ideas for indie entrepreneurs. Another would be: There is a lot of interest among indie entrepreneurs in content that helps them come up with better business ideas.
Then I can test these hypotheses by writing several articles on the topic and distributing them in places where indie entrepreneurs hang out.
The alternative would be to just blindly follow your gut. Here the risk is high that you’re making the same mistakes over and over again without ever moving closer to your goals.
The approach I just described might seem to be at odds with what I said before about avoiding putting yourself in a box. But it’s not. Here’s why.
Experimentation is inevitable in any creative endeavor. So the only question is how you go about it.
Option 1 is hopping from one box to the next. One day you’re the “business idea guy”, next week the “marketing guy”, then you try being the “newsletter guy”, and so on.
The problem with this approach is that this is perceived as weird by most people including yourself. You will feel attached to any label you put on yourself and hence hesitate to do yet another pivot. That’s simply the part of human nature known as “consistency bias”.
Another problem is that you basically always have to start from scratch whenever you launch a new “brand”. People who follow the “newsletter guy” will not be happy to suddenly read about weightlifting tips.
Option 2 is using a broad label like a generic brand name or just your name and exploring different options under this umbrella.
The advantage is that this kind of setup allows you to experiment a lot more freely. The only constraint is that you stay true to yourself as people decide to follow you as a person.
You can also iterate faster as you don’t have to start from scratch every single time and your progress compounds over time.
But only because you chose Option 2, doesn’t mean you can’t test specific hypotheses within that framework.
Next let’s talk about why specificity (aka niching down) is also important once you switch from exploration to exploitation.
Exploration vs. Exploitation
A tight positioning is like rocket fuel. Once you have a solid fire going on, it’ll help you get to the next level.
But if there’s no real fire in the first place, the rocket fuel won’t do anything. It will probably even put out the tiny flame you worked so hard for.
The reason why people assume they need to figure out a tight positioning is that all highly successful creators seem to have one.
James Clear is the “habits guy”, Khe Hye the “$10k/hour guy”, and Tim Ferriss the “4-hour workweek guy”.
But here’s the thing. None of them started like this.
It’s only after publishing hundreds of pieces of content that they started doubling down on one specific topic.
They all did cast a wide net by building a brand around just their name. They ran dozens of experiments until they found something that they enjoyed writing about and that resonated with enough people. Then they doubled down.
Their tight positioning emerged and wasn’t carefully planned from the start.
Only once you’ve run enough experiments, does it make sense to dig through the data looking for that idea you can turn into your Big Idea. That’s what all the successful creators did.
But you won’t be able to do this if you put yourself into a box prematurely.
While I primarily talked about the dangers of niching down in the context of personal brands, most of the points apply to other business endeavors as well.
For example, instead of launching 10 laser-focused niche projects, try doing 10 experiments under one generic umbrella brand. This will not only allow you to build up a lot more SEO power over time but also to iterate a lot faster. Setting up a new page on an existing site or simply changing the copy on a landing page is 10x easier than starting a new page from scratch.
Another thing worth noting is that I’m of course not the first person who realized that premature specialization is one of the most dangerous traps for online creators.
Here’s my favorite content on the topic:
- Tom Critchlow recently wrote an amazing post on why consultants should be Rejecting Specialization.
- Michael Ashcroft came up with my favorite analogy in this context: to find your niche, you should think like an archeologist, not like an architect.
- Survivor is one of my favorite TV shows. One relevant: lesson they learned is that it’s much better to cast players first and then fit them into the theme, rather than vice versa. This is exactly the difference between thinking like an archeologist vs. thinking like an architect.
- Richard Meadows wrote a great post on why Specialisation is for Insects.
- Paul Millerd: Don’t Find A Niche, Find A Mode.
- Andy Matuschak makes a ton of great related points in this thread.