Building expertise is crucial to a successful insight consultancy practice. However, it goes beyond knowledge and experience. Find out how you can build your own effective niche!
In this post, we discuss the most important consideration, the backbone of your journey as an independent insight consultant – expertise.
In a recent poll we conducted on LinkedIn, 41% of independent insight professionals indicated that ‘building their own niche’ was a key motivation for them to go independent. Passion and flexibility are important ingredients of this niche. But it’s a little-known secret that the foundation of creating and sustaining a strong niche as a micro entrepreneur is in-depth, robust expertise that can adapt to many contexts. Every successful consultant we have known, while developing the InsightGig platform, has developed valuable expertise in a particular function or industry. This expertise has created new value for stakeholders, delivered successful outcomes, and yielded consistent incomes.
So, as a micro entrepreneur or an independent insight consultant, you need to choose your niche or area of expertise. At first glance, this sounds simple enough. In your company experience thus far, you would have acquired skills in certain functions, industries, and technologies. It feels reasonable to just extend this expertise into your consulting innings. While this is a good choice, it’s worthwhile to consider some more factors before diving in.
#1: How big is your niche?
Let’s start with an anecdote. Back in the 2000s, one of our co-founders came across a company called Sawtooth Software while executing a project at one of the leading market research firms in India. The market research firm had multiple offerings across industry sectors and varied research techniques. Sawtooth Software, on the other hand, focused narrowly on MaxDiff and conjoint analysis alone! It made our co-founder wonder: Could a business rest on one or two market research techniques? It turned out it is possible. Sawtooth Software has been around since 1983 and going strong!
In classic market segmentation, we’re taught that size is a key criterion for focusing on a segment. Similarly, your chosen niche as an independent insight consultant should be large enough for you to source sufficient projects and run a sustainable consulting business. However, there is a temptation to become an expert on too large a niche, or to position yourself as an expert in multiple, unrelated niches. Independent consultants use this to term themselves as “end-to-end” experts. The phrase is a bit contradictory! By widening your net, you are unlikely to develop cutting-edge expertise. We recommend putting a lot of thought into your niche and choosing one that’s big enough and also focused enough to build valuable, nuanced expertise and attract prospects. It could mean the difference between taking on projects with multiple facets where you are unable to create value beyond the industry norm, versus taking on highly focused projects where you can go deeper and create more lasting value, thus building strong client satisfaction and referrals.
But while you have one eye on focus, it’s important to have another eye on the category size so you know there’s a large enough piece of the pie in return for all your hard work! Micro entrepreneurs can take courage from big examples in this regard. Facebook initially catered only to college students and this worked for a while as it made it exclusive. The problem was that Facebook could only expand so much by catering to college students. So, despite much protest and uproar, Mark Zuckerberg decided to open Facebook to high school students in 2005. By 2006, the service had opened to anyone 13 years or older with a valid e-mail address. The rest, as we know, is history.
At InsightGig, we aim to help independent consultants build their niche that’s not just focused but also large. By dramatically improving discoverability on an easy-to-use online platform, it gets easier for consultants to be known as deep experts in a focused area. Customers would find expertise that is otherwise difficult to discover!
#2: Is your niche growing?
If you were in a niche like Customer Experience in the 2010s, you would know what we mean when we speak of growth! Certain niches grow fast due to industry-wide shifts. It is relatively easier to be an independent insights consultant in categories where tailwinds are supporting you. Apple, for example, struggled to find a consistently profitable revenue stream between 1993 and 1997. They were focusing on marginal products that were not growing, like portable CD players. When Steve Jobs re-joined the company, once again they started to focus on creating beautiful consumer electronics in segments that were growing like computers (iMac), music (iPod), and mobile (iPhone). Similarly, if your career has been built in an area which is small or in decline, then you might need to think of developing expertise in new areas before taking the plunge as an independent consultant or micro entrepreneur.
The InsightGig platform can help micro entrepreneurs discover growing niches! By observing the types of enquiries being floated by companies over a period of time, you can get an understanding of where the demand lies and if you have the right expertise to delight customers who have these requirements. This information can give you the confidence to take the final plunge as an independent insight consultant.
#3: Are you at the cutting-edge of this niche?
Once you find a niche that’s large and growing, it’s time to honestly evaluate your offering. Is it a parity product or service that’s easily replicable by your competitors? Chances are you will be relevant for a while (since the market is big and a rising tide lifts all boats) but over time, you will lack differentiation for loyalty, and another player offering the same product at a lower price can start eating into your piece of the pie.
However, the more advanced, innovative, or pioneering your expertise, the better chance you have to charge a premium for your services and thereby make your practice more sustainable. Given the increasing pace of change in business, staying at the cutting-edge of your chosen niche is a continuous lifelong process. That is often the key to the success of your independent practice.
Another success factor is the ability to create an original framework and point of view in your niche. This positions you as not just a service provider, but also as a thought leader. And it gives you the ability to create a marketable portfolio around your niche. But insight consultants know it can be a challenge to hone cutting-edge capabilities when you’re bogged down by administrative details.
That’s why at InsightGig we free up your bandwidth by assisting you with many time-consuming aspects of your practice, like sourcing leads or project management. This helps independent insights practitioners to deepen skills and offerings.
#4: Can you be a point-of-contact for unanticipated needs?
When we work in companies as insight professionals, we can frequently outsource the “boring” or less glamorous parts of the work to a large roster of service providers. However, as an independent consultant, this can get hard. You may not find a reliable partner. Moreover, your client may not be comfortable working with multiple vendors for different parts of the insight project; they may prefer if you were the single point-of-contact. This means building the ability to quickly backward or forward integrate at times within your niche, without wasting your time on it.
At InsightGig we’re creating an ecosystem of partners who can augment each other’s strengths. For example, let’s say you’re working on a Concept Testing activity for your client. Mid-way, the scope expands and the client needs Competition Mapping too. You’re not keen to do this as it’s not your niche.
When you work on the InsightGig platform, you can augment your team with an expert on competition mapping, round out your niche, and be able to say “yes” to the client!
#5: Can you build adjacencies to your niche?
If you’re like our co-founders, you might get bored easily by doing repetitive work, however deep it may be! To get variety in your practice, look for adjacencies to your niche. It doesn’t hurt to get out of your comfort zone now and then. However, it is not mandatory if you are passionate about your niche and don’t want to spread yourself!
At InsightGig, we enable independent consultants to expand or deepen their offerings by creating access to a ‘task force’. We realize that sometimes a project may require multiple areas of expertise, all of which don’t rest with you. However, you can still work on it by finding and bringing in other freelance consultants. For example, you are tasked with doing an Event Impact study, which includes a Campaign Impact Assessment. You don’t have this capability but you’re interested in learning and quickly see that this capability can strengthen your existing offering.
With the InsightGig platform, you can add a new consultant to your team. You can continue to lead the project but now you have access to additional expertise that you didn’t originally own. So, in essence, you become both a service provider and a client on the platform!
Conclusion: become an expert in your niche!
As we can see, building expertise is crucial to a successful insight consultancy practice. However, it goes beyond knowledge and experience. For micro entrepreneurs to be successful in the long-run in today’s dynamic market, it helps to know the size of your niche, its growth pattern, be at the cutting-edge in terms of skills, meet unanticipated needs, and build adjacencies at times. This makes you an effective expert in your niche!
In our next post, we will discuss the third success factor for your independent insights consulting career, project management.