Startup Strategy Roundtable: Well-Defined Niches Work Best

Today I spoke with a diverse group of new entrepreneurs as part of my ongoing Online Strategy Roundtables. Together, this group illustrates how a business depends on how sharply the target market is defined. One entrepreneur is well on her way and another needs to focus more on his strongest market segment. Like many entrepreneurs, the other two are clearly accomplished people, but don’t come from a business background. For such entrepreneurs it is often worth looking for a cofounder who can fill in with expertise in areas where gaps exist.

Guest author Sramana Mitra is a technology entrepreneur and strategy consultant in Silicon Valley. She has founded three companies and writes a business blog, Sramana Mitra on Strategy. She has a masters degree in electrical engineering and computer science from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Her three books, Entrepreneur Journeys, Bootstrapping, Weapon Of Mass Reconstruction, and Positioning: How To Test, Validate, and Bring Your Idea To Market are all available from Amazon. Her new book Vision India 2020 was recently released. Mitra is also a columnist for Forbes and runs the 1M/1M initiative.

Julie Goldman did a nice presentation of her company The Original Runners. In 2003, she was the first to offer non-slip, high-quality fabric aisle runners for weddings and special events. Through her website she offers gorgeous hand-painted runners wholesale, and business has been growing to a revenue of $700,000 last year. I really like how tightly focused this business is. Niched wholesale businesses are great! Her main concern is that two dozen lower-quality copy-cat competitors have popped up over the years. To stay ahead of her competition, whom she describes as mom & pop at-home operations, I suggested she work with bloggers who are influencers with wedding planners (her main customers) to help specifically articulate why her product is superior.

She has already relocated the business from New York City to New Jersey to reduce costs. To further counter the pricing pressure she is feeling from her competitors I suggested she look at relocating somewhere where it will be even less expensive for her to operate, like Vermont perhaps. She plans to launch a new brand as an accessory line and we discussed how it is only when she markets this new brand to her list of existing runner customers will mentioning “from The Original Runners company” hold any weight. New customers will not recognize the name and its association with quality products.

We also spoke about SEO and search engine marketing, on tightly focusing pay-per-click campaigns on higher-end markets rather than going broad with a worldwide campaign. So far Julie’s is a great case study of a growing niche business.

Next up was Sonali Roychoudhury presenting for Pursue Natural. Sonali is a scientist who is working with a team that is conducting research to find and bring natural medicinal plants to market that are not in the mainstream. Like many entrepreneurs who do not have a business background, Sonali is risk averse, unwilling to make assumptions, and uncertain as to what the next steps should be.

We discussed the natural breath freshener that they have produced. It seems like the cost of entry into this small niche market is too high for this to make sense. She then explained how a small but loyal customer base has grown for this product through their process of testing the marketplace. By just setting up a direct Web sales business targeting their existing fans and the extremely high end natural product boutiques, I believe she could build a very nice small business selling small quantities month-to-month. As long as it is profitable, a small business is more than worth building.

Lorenz Lannens and his company Online Design Bureau started as a consulting business that grew into to a Web solution for small and medium sized companies that helps them to develop their Web marketing strategies. His product and service enables clients to set up their Web marketing system, and he has metrics from early customers showing the system works.

As we discussed his current customers, it became clear that his service is not really for startups, but more for businesses that are not Web savvy. I believe if he goes after companies that are not doing Web marketing as his segment and targets the verticals that his current clients fall in (like architecture firms), his list of customers will grow. I liked this presentation and clearly there is a need for this service. Many entrepreneurs who have pitched at these roundtables could probably use Lorenz’s help. In fact I suggested that both Sonali and Felice tap into his expertise.

Lastly, Felice Gerwitz presented Scholar Square, a beta site targeting the homeschool community. She is an educator and author who specializes in homeschooling and hopes to sell a wide range of presentations and seminar classes through this site. As Felice explained her ideas, it became apparent that she is trying to do too many things for too many people, the classic “spray and pray.”

I may have been a bit hard on Felice when she told me she did not go through the Clarify Your Story questionnaire as she was asked to on the roundtable registration page, but I think it needed to be said. There are no shortcuts when you are an entrepreneur. You need to do your homework. Felice needs to focus on the segment of the home school market that she tackles the best and is passionate about, and let the other ideas go. This should help her site find its center of gravity and its customers.

These roundtables are the cornerstone programming of a global initiative that I have started called One Million by One Million (1M/1M). Its mission is to help a million entrepreneurs globally to reach $1 million in revenue and beyond, build $1 trillion in sustainable global GDP, and create 10 million jobs.

In 1M/1M, I teach the EJ Methodology which is based on my Entrepreneur Journeys research, and emphasize bootstrapping, idea validation, and crisp positioning as some of the core principles of building strong fundamentals in early stage ventures.

If you are an entrepreneur working on an idea or an early stage business, I am also very interested in hearing what you are looking for from 1M/1M. Please weigh in here. We are crowdsourcing the design of 1M/1M, and requests that have come up include Receivables Financing as a way to bridge to a validated business without giving up precious equity, I would love to hear your thoughts.

You can find the recording of this roundtable session here. Recordings of previous roundtables are all available here. You can register for the next roundtable here.

Photo by Nick Cowie.

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