Philip Morgan Identifies The Niche To Position In
I'm always answering questions about specialization and “niche-ing”” down, so I was very excited to bring in an expert guest on the topic. Philip Morgan helps developers identify the best niche to position in. His specialization is— specialization. With the use of positioning, he helps individuals and businesses get higher rates, better clients, and a better pipeline.
Philip and I talked about how developers can better position themselves in a niche that matches their skills and goals, as well as how to strategically plan the next steps in their careers. He is highly recommended by developers and dev shop owners, and hopefully many will find this interview valuable.
Here's the video interview with Philip Morgan, and below is the Q&A I asked him to put together to share on the site.
Why is positioning important?
Alan Weiss talks about how you need to be able to answer three “why” questions before you’re ready to submit a proposal:
- Why me?
Why in this manner (why do it this way vs. some other way)?
Positioning helps you answer two of those why questions with no muss, no fuss.
Why me? Because I’m the leading expert in $TOPIC. Because we focus 100% on clients like you and problems like this, and we have 10 case studies of success stories in this area. Because we have created outstanding results for n other companies in your market segment, we deeply understand the challenges that companies like yours face, and we have answers that work.
Why in this manner? Because of our focus on companies like yours, we’ve been able to develop solutions that are uniquely suited to your challenges. Because we’ve developed unique expertise in this area based on our narrow focus on companies with problems/challenges like this.
I can tell you from experience, trying to answer these “why” questions in a one-off fashion for each proposal can be agonizing and time-consuming. To have powerfully persuasive answers sitting at the ready is an incredible advantage, both when negotiating a project, and before that when trying to get the attention of desirable clients.
Positioning also makes your marketing and business development efforts dramatically more effective because you know who to go after in any targeted marketing efforts, and your marketing speaks more directly to their needs.
And finally, positioning helps you move out of the commodity power frame that so many generalists are stuck in. You become more able to charge premium rates and be selective about which clients you work with.
What is the easiest way to move from a generalist position to a more effective position?
Choose an audience or market segment to focus on. If you do this, you will start getting word of mouth (primarily referrals) bringing you new business. You will know where your clients hang out, which helps you reach them with your marketing. And you will develop specialized expertise in their business problems more quickly, which allows you to charge more for your work.
If positioning is so great, why haven’t I heard about it before?
Maybe you have, but just not in these terms. The concept of narrowing your focus also relates to branding, and sometimes people think of branding and positioning as the same thing.
Other people believe that narrowing your focus (positioning yourself as a specialist) is a bad idea because it could reduce the number of clients you can work with. However, experienced marketers and sales experts will tell you that nothing reduces their effectiveness more than trying to reach prospects with a broad, poorly defined message. If your business focus is relatively narrow, then your marketing message becomes more narrow and more effective.
Positioning also requires becoming more disciplined about your business, which takes a bit of courage. Anyone can do it, but if you kind of stumbled into self employment (a lot of us did, including myself), then positioning seems rather counter-intuitive and weird.
Finally, positioning is more commonly discussed in the world of products, even though it is equally relevant to the world of professional services.
Is it possible to go too narrow with your focus?
Yes, but almost no one ever does so. The idea of saying no to otherwise desirable work simply because it does not fit your focus seems crazy to a generalist. Once they become willing to give positioning a try, they are unlikely to narrow their focus too much.
If a generalist WordPress developer decides to try narrowing their focus, they are not likely to only work with online info product entrepreneurs making between $500k and $750k in revenue. That would be a meaningless level of specificity, and it’s very unlikely that anyone would try to so narrowly define their client.
If you’re a generalist and you’re thinking in terms of focusing on a certain audience or market segment, you’re headed in the right direction. If you’re already focused on an audience or market segment and things are going well and you’re thinking in terms of narrowing your focus even more, that’s also likely to work out well for you.
If I’m thinking about focusing on a certain audience or market segment, how do I know for sure it will support me?
You don’t know 100% for sure, but you can validate before you make any changes, and that lowers the risk. Also, you can lower the risk of changing your focus by making incremental changes rather than ground-up overhauls.
Talking to potential clients in a way that avoids your own preconceptions and biases is a highly productive way to validate a potential position. The book Lean Customer Development has the easiest to follow method I’ve seen for doing this.
What additional books on positioning are worth reading?
If you search Amazon for books on positioning, you’ll find about a half-dozen books with information on positioning. Most are for product brands and big companies, though one is written specifically for services business. Here is my quick review of each:
Al Ries & Jack Trout's seminal book Positioning is based on industrial era market dynamics, where a winner-takes-all dynamic prevails. The world has changed since then. It's a bottom-up change, and that affects small firms first. Mr. Ries' guidance is solid, but much of it is limited to the big company use case.
Positioning for Professionals is a wonderful overview of how professional service firms can use positioning. This book is the most useful for developers, but it is geared towards midsize and larger firms, not solo or small shops, so you have to wade through some advice that just doesn't apply to you.
A Win Without Pitching Manifesto (which you should absolutely read, even though it's for a different audience) reinforces how critical positioning is, but it doesn't really prepare you for the very difficult cognitive and emotional barriers you'll face as you position your business.
Crossing the Chasm is an absolutely vital resource for anyone who wants to take a product or SaaS mainstream, and it touches on positioning while offering some killer advice on picking a “beachhead” market segment. However, it has little guidance for the firm that doesn't need to cross the chasm to a mainstream market, and even less advice for a services firm.
The Brain Audit does a wonderful job of illuminating how important positioning is in making a sale, though the concept is presented differently. But again, it's taken for granted that you'll be able to move through the barriers to finding and executing your position, and so this treatment of positioning is incomplete.
If you can get past the goofy devices the authors use in parts of Why Johnny Can’t Brand, the message is one of the best organized I've seen. You'll also have to mentally translate from the big brand examples to your world of services. Recommended!
Blue Ocean Strategy does a wonderful job of illuminating the idea of categories and creating meaningful differentiation from your competition. This book is a great complement to the idea of using positioning to differentiate from other developers or development shops.
Philip Morgan helps development shops get more qualified leads without hiring a salesperson. He uses positioning, education-based content marketing, and marketing automation to make that happen. He’s also the author of The Positioning Manual for Technical Firms.