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3 Ways To Find Your Consulting Niche Through Market Research

Updated: Apr 18, 2023

My Learnings In Finding Product-Market Fit For My Consulting Venture

Have you considered offering consulting services as a subject matter expert? What service should you offer? To whom? How should you get in touch with them?

These were some questions I worked through over the last few months. I went through a market research exercise to identify a consulting niche for this business.

I’ll share my understanding of the 3 approaches. I learned the first two from David Fields’ book.

three roads converging illustrating three ways of market research by interviewing to customers, consultant peers, and project requirements. Converge towards your consulting niche.

Illustration credits to Darts icons created by Freepik - Flaticon, Image by creativeart on Freepik, users by Andi wiyanto from Noun Project (CCBY3.0), consultants by BomSymbols from Noun Project (CCBY3.0), and job portal by Wahyono Budiargo from Noun Project (CCBY3.0).

What Is A Consulting Niche?

A consulting niche is a narrowly defined expertise or market segment that a consultant focuses on.

David Fields emphasizes that by focusing on a niche, businesses are more likely to choose a consultant for projects in their niche vs. generalists.

Some more criteria for a niche:

  1. It should be specific: The niche should be defined and narrow.

  2. It should have a large-enough market: The niche should have enough demand to support a profitable consulting practice.

  3. It should be enjoyable: The niche should be something that the consultant is passionate about and enjoys working on.

You might’ve seen a similar Venn diagram for defining your career path. Here is one from CNBC.

intersection of skills, interests, and opportunity is your area of destiny; similar analogy for consulting niche

I will focus on the “Opportunity” bucket in this article.

How to Identify the Opportunity for your Consulting?

I wanted to understand what are the customers’ needs. I’ve written about the three ways to identify customer needs for a product here. Only parts of that product research framework were applicable to find a consulting niche. When applying to consulting, this meant:

  1. Which businesses need to solve some problems?

  2. Which of those problems do they hire consultants for?

  3. What skills did those consultants have?

  4. Why did they hire those consultants?

I asked about past behavior because past behavior is a proven preference. In contrast, you can be misled if you ask for a business for their interest in a future (hypothetical) project.

3 Ways to Identify Needs of Businesses

First, I reached out to a variety of businesses. I asked them about their past hires of consultants.

Second, I talked to consultants. I learnt about their approach to get clients and their past projects.

The third step is to look at consulting platforms. I haven’t done this yet.

three colorful roads converge at a roundabout, each representing businesses (or customers), consultant peer (equivalent to competitors), and consulting project marketplaces.

Approach #1 Research from Businesses

I reached out to a variety of businesses. I asked them about their past hires of consultants.

I ran into 3 challenges

  1. Talking to the right group in the company e.g. Engineering teams may not hire business consultants.

  2. Talking to the right seniority for visibility e.g. An Associate Product Manager may not hire consultants.

  3. Talking to the right segment of companies. E.g. FAANG vs an iPhone app. The former have money but will hire MBBs. The latter will hire a boutique consultant.

Keeping the above challenges in mind, I used these approaches to connect with businesses

  1. A conversation with someone new. This could be at a professional mixer or a social get-together. For example, someone I met at a wedding. Another example - a friend I meet with my family over a weekend.

  2. My acquaintances from my past jobs and alma matter including from Twilio, Cisco, UCLA Anderson, or IIT. I filtered to those who are not in companies I’ve worked in, who are not in FAANG, and who have visibility into consultants their team hired.

  3. Planned serendipity, for example, Lunchclub or 1-1 matching apps in slack communities such as PITA social, Scale Ireland, Lenny’s community, or Rands in Repose.

I wanted to get thoughts from these friends at businesses about their past hiring of consultants. So, I asked them, “What problems have you found urgent and important that you’ve hired consultants to solve over the past few years?”

Approach #2 Informational Chats with Consultants

I wanted to follow in the footsteps of successful consultants. I never considered them competitors because I considered them role models and inspirations. The market is big enough for consultants to learn from each other rather than worry about sharing their learning.

My informational chats with consultants include chats with:

  1. Agency owners e.g. an SEO agency owner.

  2. Solo or boutique consultants, e.g. a solo UX researcher.

  3. Individual contributor Consultants in large consulting firms, e.g. a consultant at MBB.

Apart from being very curious about their career journey, I asked these questions:

  1. How did you decide to start consulting?

  2. How did you get your first client?

  3. How do you get your clients?

  4. What projects do you work on?

  5. Any other advice you have for me?

Approach #3 Selling Through Consulting Platforms

Have you heard of Upwork and Fiverr? I use them extensively, but there are better places to put up my services. There are platforms similar to these, but they specialize in business consulting. I got most of these from one consultant, whereas others had not been on any platform.

List of platforms:

I haven’t yet executed this approach, but here is my plan and reasoning.

My goal is to review projects posted by businesses. Why? Because projects posted are a stronger sign of business needs vs. a chat about a hypothetical project. There, I can review the project requirements, industry segments of the businesses, and pricing.

Here is an attempt to create illustration for this article using Dall-E. It didn’t work too well.

Dall-E output for a prompt to show three converging paths of customer research, consultants, and marketplaces.

Parallels to Building a Product Startup

This is an oversimplification, but it might help see the parallels. You can group the work of creating a product startup into 3 buckets. Then decide the priorities of those buckets.

For a product startup:

  1. Don’t build a product when you don’t know the problem your product is solving for your customers. Do you know your customers? Do you know their problems? Is this one of their top 3 problems? Is it a painkiller or a vitamin? So, the first step is “Understand your customers”.

  2. Before you promote your product, check for organic growth. Before you run discounts or pay for google AdWords, check for product-market fit. Ensure it is functioning and meeting user needs. Ensure user segments meet your expectations in continuing to use your product. So, the step before “Promote Your Product” is “Build Your Product (right)”.

  3. Don’t expect sales to automatically grow once you have your product. A good product doesn’t sell itself. You cannot expect word of mouth to be your primary customer acquisition channel. Identify your content, channel, and community to catch your customers. Prioritize sales and marketing over adding features to your product. So, the third step is “Promote Your Product”.

sequential 3 steps and similarity between a product startup and a consulting venture illustrated with 2 parallel chevrons

In the same way, these steps apply to building a consulting venture. Understand the market, define your niche, and prospect for clients. Don’t expect clients to come to you because of SEO, marketing, or LinkedIn. Don’t expect to sell an undefined business consulting service and make it successful.

What’s the Next Step for a Niche?

In upcoming articles, I’ll share my learnings from the above three approaches.

To find the overlap between the Opportunity and my business skills, I will do two more steps:

  1. What is the overlap between the skills of consultants hired and my skills?

  2. What is the overlap between the reach or visibility of consultants hired and mine?



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