Episode 9: The Terrifying Path of Narrow Positioning

There is something in the creative heart that resists the idea of limits, or long-term repetition. We want to explore, to experiment, to try new things. Doing one kind of work, for one kind of client, forever—or for the foreseeable future is antithetical to the creative impulse. But if you can put your inner Jack Kerouac in check, and declare a focus—once you know what you do, who you do it for, and how it specifically benefits your prospects, everything gets easier, and more effective.
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Are you ready to take the struggle out of finding new clients?

In our last episode I described all the ways I tried to market my first creative startup. Print ads, online ads, mailers, cold calls, sponsoring public radio, and even a terrible chocolate cake strategy. For all my efforts—and I worked hard at them all—I don’t remember any of them accomplishing much at all.

But then something changed. And credit where credit is due—I hired David C. Baker in 2000, and he was the catalyst. He showed me how controlling your marketing is contingent on finding a niche—carving out a narrow, specialized positioning. Everything flows out from that one terrifying commitment. I couldn’t argue with his logic or his repeated experience helping firms like mine—though I tried. As do most of his clients, at first.

There is something in the creative heart that resists the idea of limits, or long-term repetition. We want to explore, to experiment, to try new things. Doing one kind of work, for one kind of client, forever—or for the foreseeable future is antithetical to the creative impulse.

But if you can accept this wisdom, and put your inner Jack Kerouac in check, and declare a focus—once you know what you do, who you do it for, and how it specifically benefits your prospects, everything gets easier, and more effective. You can easily locate your market. You’ll have something concrete to say about their particular needs having worked with many other clients like them. And the more you do this the better you’ll get, and the more insightful you’ll become. You earn a solid reputation among your prospects before they even come your way.

That’s how I went from scrambling after scraps, to selecting only the choicest projects and clients. And with a narrow focus, the tactical efforts of marketing only got easier, and their impact, steadily increased. By the time I sold the company to one of my key employees, our problem wasn’t finding clients, it was having to decide which clients to accept.

Now keep in mind, as you contemplate this path, that establishing a narrow positioning statement doesn’t keep you from taking on projects or clients that don’t fit that pattern. It only limits your marketing efforts to pursuing clients within your focus. And if most of your work today is coming through word of mouth and referrals anyway, you can always choose to take projects that are unrelated to your positioning.

When I was first confronted with this path, it took me quite a while to accept it, and even longer to think through what my focus should be. Eventually, I took that leap. If only it were just a decision and a leap—that would have been much easier. In reality, once you make a decision to focus you still have to invest significant time rebranding, developing content, and crafting a new marketing strategy—all the while managing your remaining fear of what this decision might mean for you long-term, and second guessing yourself along the way.

In the end, I never regretted making that decision, and it led to a very successful creative practice, which is still doing great work today.

But I remember the fear, and the necessary toil of making that change. I’ve thought a lot about how this struggle is particularly hard for creatives—and of some ways we might be able to think differently about it. And so in our next episode I’ll share some of those ideas, and approaches to this important matter—so that maybe you’ll be able to make this decision more easily than it was for me.

So until next week: don’t let the business of creativity overwhelm your creative business.