#220: Coaching Series 1/3: How To Start Up With A Great Niche


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The toughest part of coaching isn't necessarily coaching itself. Instead, it's the niche, isn't it?

How do you go looking for the right niche? And how do you know when you've found one that's rewarding as well as profitable? We go back in time with the British Cycling Team and what turned them into champions, and how their coach played a role. We also look at how Pilates went from being everything to everyone to finding a solid niche. Listen and enjoy.

Click here to read online: Coaching Series 1/3: How To Start Up With A Great Niche


Hand washing is not exactly the activity you'd indulge in if you wanted to win the gold medal at the Olympics.

Yet, that's exactly what the British Cycling Team did at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. They hired a surgeon to teach the athletes to properly wash their hands, in order to avoid illnesses during competition.

The team staff were utterly fastidious about food preparation. They even brought their own mattresses and pillows, so that the athletes could sleep in a familiar posture every night.

What does all of this have to do with coaching?

It might seem totally weird, even slightly crazy, but these were just some of the methods Sir Dave Brailsford, head of British Cycling used to turn his scrappy little bunch into world champions.

British Cycling went from a terrible 76 year record of just one gold medal, to 7 out of 10 gold at the Beijing Olympics and then 7 out of 10 at yet again at the London Olympics. They've even won three out of the last Tour de France competitions, with only Italy interrupting their successful run.

Surely Britain didn't sprout champions overnight

Something else was in play, and that something else is simply the teacher, or a coach. And there's a remarkable difference between being just someone who coaches others, and one that coaches to get precise results. The coach who works with a specific goal in mind takes great performers and transforms makes them unbeatable.

If you look at almost any great artist, performer, athlete or professional, it's easy to seduce yourself into believing in inborn talent. In almost every instance, you will find it's the coach and their methods that take the client from a seemingly ordinary level to something quite stupendous.

Without a coach, a person has to go through the gruelling method of having to figure out all the mistakes and fix it themselves. When you look at the 10,000 hour principle, what you're seeing is someone who doesn't have an outstanding coach. A coach can not only reduce the learning curve, but can make learning fun and addictive.

In this series, we'll take apart not just what makes for good coaching, but the elements of coaching. Let's get started.

How do you define your Niche as a Coach?

Around the time of the California Gold Rush, one man, Samuel Brannan was known as the richest man in California.

Contrary to what we might believe, Brannan didn't quite make his money panning for gold. He'd decided early on that he'd never make much money in the gold mines. Instead, he was reputed to have gone down the streets of San Francisco, shouting, “Gold, there's gold down the American river”. So where did Brannan's riches arise?

His fortune arose from a strategic move. He owned the only store between San Francisco and the gold fields. He stocked his store with the picks, shovels and pans he could find paying barely 20 cents for each pan and selling it for $15 each.

In scarcely nine weeks, he had made over $36,000 (in today's terms that would be 1,080,077.47). In short, Brannan put himself in a position where it was hard, even impossible for him to fail with his insight.

When starting up as a coach, it's not easy to have such clear insight.

In many cases, you're in transition yourself. You're often trying to find your own feet, your own space and voice. You do know one thing, though. You know that you can't be like everyone else rushing off with their pans and shovels.

You instinctively know you've almost got to swing the other way and find a niche. But how do you go about creating a niche?

Let's start with luck, shall we?

When I first got to Auckland in 2000, I got thrust into coaching by accident—twice. I wasn't into coaching at all, but instead was drawing cartoons on Photoshop. A client who'd come over watched in awe as I got rid of all the icons on the screen. No tool bar, no colour picker, not even a menu bar.

“Where is everything”? He asked, amazed partially at the speed of my method, but more because I seemed to be working almost magically. I explained I was using shortcuts and he was so impressed that he offered me $1000 to train his daughter.

And I had my first accidental coaching session

“How to use Photoshop faster than graphic designers”—that was my temporary slogan. In a week, his daughter went from never using Photoshop to teaching graphic designers how to use shortcuts as well.

With my new found slogan, I managed to pick one more client—yes, another graphic designer. As a result, I was able to do my cartoons in my Superman time and had this little Clark Kent coaching operation on the side.

But why was this type of coaching earning me a fair bit of money in a brand new country?

I didn't have any testimonials, no referrals, not even a business card and most definitely no website. What I did have was a subset, or what you'd call a niche. Which coincidentally takes us to the second coaching scenario.

Around 2001, I had decided I didn't want to draw cartoons for a living anymore and started up a marketing company, instead. At first, I tried to solve every possible marketing problem and got nowhere in a hurry. Then, one day, by sheer fluke I decided to create a presentation on just seven elements.

This presentation was called The Brain Audit, and once I was done with the presentation, I was pushed into creating a book, which then sold online and guess what buyers wanted next.

They wanted me to coach them on The Brain Audit

I wish I knew what I was doing back then, but the reality is I didn't know much at all. I was desperately reading books, buying courses and finding myself spending anywhere between $1500 to $8000 for seminars and workshops. However, at the very same time, clients were happy to pay me as much as $150 an hour to help them through The Brain Audit.

If you put the Photoshop and The Brain Audit story together, you should easily see what's happening

It's the power of the subset that matters most to clients. Clients don't want to learn how to cook Indian food. They want to learn a subset, like “vegetarian food for special occasions”. They don't want to learn InDesign, but instead “how to create an ebook in under an hour”.

In almost every subset, we also find there are both—a specific problem and a corresponding solution. But the moment you get out of the subset, there's a complete lack of clarity.

Let's go back to Photoshop, shall we?

What problem does it solve? How about marketing? What problem does it solve? And Indian food? See what I mean? The problem with saying “I'm a life coach” or “I'm an NLP coach” or “I'm a boxing coach” is totally pointless.

People can't make head or tail of what you're trying to say. But the moment you pick a subset, you almost automatically get a problem and solution.

And maybe that's where you ought to start

What problems do clients have in Photoshop? Or with guitar playing, watercolours, marketing or NLP? How can you reverse engineer that problem so that you can end up with a solution?

Then, it won't matter if you have a fancy card, website or referrals, what you do have is a solution to their problem. And that's how you get started with a niche.

You start with the problem

It's not going to make you a nine-week millionaire like Samuel Brannan, but it will get you off the ground and started into the world of coaching.

How do you know you've found the right niche?

If you were asked to go to the supermarket and buy a packet of potato chips, would you make the right choice?

There are only two answers here, aren't there?

You could pick the right one, or be wildly off the mark. After all, the supermarket loads at least two dozen different brands and then there are the variations. Low fat, full fat, crinkled, plain salted, vinegar, paprika, whisky—who knows what else! The chances of getting it wrong far, far exceed the probability of getting it right.

And how do we know if we've got it wrong or right?

It depends who you're buying the chips for, doesn't it? If Renuka sends me into the market to get chips, I know I can only get the brand called Proper Crisps, and it won't matter if I get the paprika or the salted versions—because they're both the right choices.

When choosing a niche, it might seem like you're stuck in a “nightmare supermarket aisle”

Wouldn't it be better, if there were a way to make a correct choice from the very start? Let's find out whether such a task is possible, or if we just have to bludgeon our way through choices.

The reality is that the answer lies somewhere in between

No matter what niche you pick, you can almost be certain you're off the mark. The good news is that you're partially, not completely off the mark. Which means that a piano coach, life coach, breathing coach—any kind of coach is more or less going to be in the right box.

They'll still be in the broad spectrum of piano, life coaching and breathing, just like the chips are still in the broad range of chips. What makes a niche right isn't the broad spectrum that you choose, but instead, the narrow niche you choose to occupy.

You might know the story of the coach, Joseph Pilates

Pilates wasn't an exercise coach in his early years. Born in Germany in 1883, he'd already dabbled in gymnastics and bodybuilding in his younger years. In 1912 when he moved to England, he moved to professional boxing, was a circus performer and a self-defence trainer.

Notice how versatile Pilates seems to be? Well, that's the problem with a lot of businesses. They have the capacity or at least believe they can be a one-size-fits-all-type-of-coach. And it's not like Pilates was destitute. Despite this smorgasbord of doing a bit this and a bit of that, he got by.

However, it's only in 1925, that he finds a niche

Over the years, and through World War I, he developed an integrated, comprehensive system of physical exercise, which he called “Contrology”. Instead of trying to appeal to everyone who wanted to improve their well being, Pilates set up shop under a dance studio. The dancers needed to be fit at all times, plus have flexibility, strength and stamina. His focus was on reducing injuries, and to the outside world, it looks like he just got lucky to find this profitable niche.

Luck has its role to play, but when we examine the unlucky coaching businesses, there's a clear pattern

The businesses that struggle are those that stay incredibly generic. You ask the coach what she does, and she says, “I'm a writing coach”. As you can tell, her statement tells you nothing. But if we were to choppitty-chop our way a bit, she might say, “I'm a writing coach that specialises in removing writer's block.”

Notice how that specialisation gets your attention?

She's possibly good at teaching writers how to create structure, drama, flow, style and a whole bunch of other stuff related to writing. But the moment she goes wide, she loses the power of the niche.

We wonder if we've found the right niche, but any niche is the right niche. Pilates could have made a great life for himself as a boxing coach, a self-defence coach, a circus coach. But he instead he chose to focus not just on an audience of dancers, but then to “reduce injuries”.

All niches are already niches

There's no such thing as the right niche. The moment you get yourself into a category of being a writing coach, you've already cancelled out all the other things you can do. But your audience still won't care, because a client doesn't buy into a coach.

Instead, the client buys into a specific problem that needs solving. We waste endless days, weeks and months—even years trying to find the “right niche” when in reality we're already in the right niche, but haven't defined the problem we're solving.

But how do you know if the problem is the right problem?

There's no such thing as the right problem. But there is such a thing as a recurring problem. Do dancers get injuries? Yes, they do. Did they get injuries during the time of Pilates dance studio?

Yes, they did, and they still do today. If you are a fitness coach, all you need to do is specialise in how you can make the dancers get fewer injuries. You don't even have to reinvent the problem. It was done for you back in 1925 by Pilates.

You think Writer's Block is a recent problem? Or was snoring invented yesterday? Not one of these things are new, and all you need to do is look for the recurring problem. People have had these problems for centuries and will continue to have the same problems over and over again.

Where do you go from here?

Your first step is to find yourself a category. e.g. Writing. The second step is to find yourself an audience. e.g. Small business owners who want to write blogs. The third and final step is to find the recurring problem: Writer's block.

And there you have it—your niche—the right niche—is yours for the asking.

Next Step: How To Make The Mental Leap From a Job into Entrepreneurship

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