Expert Enough? Niche Enough? New Enough? Starting Your Internet Business, Part 1

Expert Enough? Niche Enough? New Enough? Starting Your Internet Business, Part 1

If you caught our webinar, Q&A and AMA on Monday, this is the article James put together for his talk. Check back in the coming weeks for parts 2-5 in this series.

I’m not sure about you, but I’m pretty sure I wanted to have my own company (or, well, spaceship) from about the age of six, and entering the workforce-proper after university did absolutely nothing to change that.

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Starting a startup can give you a real buzz.
Starting a startup can give you a real buzz.

The opportunity to test out your own ideas and to work in a relatively meritocratic and apolitical environment, the freedom to make your own decisions and, fundamentally, the opportunity do cool stuff without getting stamped on… I think for the first year of starting Incsub I was pretty much on a permanent high – I strongly recommend you try it.

[Ed – unless you work for Incsub, when hopefully you get to kinda do the above already, and also, please don’t go :) ]

And yet, I also very much recommend you don’t try it, or at the very least only try it alongside-your-current-job or with a heaps of fallbacks and very little to lose – unless, that is, you are either absolutely exceptional (very, very unlikely) or the right combination of talent, experience, vision and opportunity. Because without the expertise, in the right area and with at least somewhat of a first-mover advantage, you are going to run into a whole heap of trouble.

So, interested to know whether you stack up on the patented “Farmer Scale”™?*

Or looking to start your on online business and want a few tips?

Sweet! Stick around and enjoy the first in a six-part series about getting started online.

*Not really patented, not really a scale.

This is the first post in our five-part series about getting started with an online business.

If You Can’t Get Paid for It Already, You Might Want to Re-Consider Starting a Business Around It

Say there’s this 30 year old chap, let’s call him Jon. A smart guy, works for a bank making six figures but really wants to start out on his own.

He’s sick of the corporate culture, he doesn’t feel his career is really going where he wants it to go and he’s more than attracted to the idea of being your own boss and the kind of work and life-style that having a startup is all about.

And he’s got an idea based around real estate (let’s just call it the “Uber of real estate”).

It’s a pretty good idea! It’s based around an app and there’s nobody else doing it right now. Real estate is a huge market and if you think about it, yeh, why not!

But there are a few really significant issues and I know this might sound overly simplistic, but you really need to consider them and it’s amazing how many people don’t.

Jon is by far and away not a Subject Matter Expert (SME) – he works in a bank and gets good insight into mortgages and loans, but that’s not real estate. Not by a long shot. Jon’s got no idea, beyond the rest of us, about the challenges an estate agent, home buyer, renter or owner might have.

Jon has never developed an app in his life and this is, unfortunately, no small issue. Jon’s idea relies on the kind of elegant, intuitive and simple experience you get while using the Uber app – this is about as easy to do as it is to paint a masterpiece, and would probably take more time.

Now, Jon could get funding – he might already have a bunch of cash – and hire an SME and a great app development agency, but he’s not going to get the funding because he doesn’t have the experience, and he’s just gonna waste his savings because he knows nothing about the business he wants to get into unless he manages to somehow convince some truly exceptional person to work for him who does (which is as unlikely as him being the kind of exceptional person who can nail any business).

Take a look at your own experience and skills and if you’re thinking of doing this with someone else, critically examine their expertise, too. As a rule, if somebody hasn’t already been willing to pay you well for the benefit of the expertise you have in the area you are going into… it’s not going to work.

How Did It Work for Me?

I was a teacher or involved in education for eight years before I started Edublogs, and the last three prior to that were spent working almost solely in online education, learning how to install and manage blogging software.

I was also a pretty established education blogger!

Then, the thing that allowed me to leave my full-time job and start Incsub was getting a gig making an edublogs-esque site for a fairly big company, which involved making a helluva lot of plugins, themes and functionality.

We did that for well over three years for companies around the world until it became absolutely apparent that we were going to do much better by making code and offering support en masse via WPMU DEV.

In short, either myself or myself and my business partner at the time were absolutely expert and passionate in what we were doing; we had a bunch of experience that told us what customers wanted and they were more than happy to pay us for it. It was kinda ideal.

However, when I tried to start a marketplace at WP Plugins, it was only ever a partial success because I had absolutely no experience or expertise in running a marketplace (and little passion for it either), even though we more than familiar with the business context.

The same goes for, trying to provide Multisite third-party hosting… although the idea (the inception of WordPress, surely) wasn’t exactly a help.

And back in the day one of the first businesses I tried to found was “Blogsavvy,” your decidedly unsavvy blog consultant. I had never made a penny off a blog at that point and I was trying to be the Darren Rowse (Problogger) of consulting…. o surprise that was a big fail.

Boil the Ocean? I’d Rather Start with a Fishbowl!

Which brings me to the idea.

So we’ve established (hopefully) whether you have the expertise to get stuck into this business idea of yours. Now, let’s have a think about the business itself.

This is summed up quite nicely by a business I had described to me at some early Melbourne tech meet up, which sounded like the dullest, most boring, online entrepreneurial effort I had ever heard of.

And yet the guy behind it was making more money than everyone there put together.

His brilliant idea? Websites for dentists.

Yep, I kid you not, you see dentists are almost the ideal customer, especially in Australia. They are often sole practitioners (or part of a very small practice), they are inevitably technically illiterate (I certainly hope they spend all their time thinking about teeth), they have very specific needs (appointments, pretty much), they are very busy (they need a full service solution) and they make piles and piles of cash.

So, this chap was a web developer who’d been hired by one dentist, recommended to a friend and figured, hey, if I can set up a system whereby I can create and manage these really easily while giving these people a really solid product, charge significant setup and ongoing maintenance / hosting / modification fees and market solely to this space… that might be a good business there!

Yep, millions, each year, recurring and growing. Not. Bad. Work.

Oh, and feel free to take that idea and go after any other profession (just, please, try to get some work building websites / apps / etc. for them prior to the expertise part :)

But that’s never what people want to do!

The plan is to always be the next Facebook / Twitter / Tumblr / Instagram etc. But that’s a plan that for 99.99999% of us is going to end in failure and disappointment.

So, in perhaps the opposite of a motivational speech…

Don’t aim for the stars! Don’t try to boil the ocean! Don’t dream big, dream reasonable!

Be realistic and work in an area that you can make an impact in. There are still very many of them and you can make an awesome business around them.

For me, well, that’s pretty obvious. Edublogs is right in that area (education + blogs = pretty niche) and WPMU DEV. While we now develop products for standalone WordPress sites, we started as an entirely focused Multisite operation… Nobody else was gonna compete there. We dominated it so much they changed the name from MultiUser to Multisite!

Don’t Try to Play with the Big & Established Boys, It’ll Just End in Tears

And last, but not least, something that might be relatively obvious, but is often very much overlooked. Don’t try to play in a market that is already dominated by anyone else.

Unless you have a, astoundingly good marketing skills and b, huge oodles of cash. Otherwise you won’t stand a chance.

Your idea / tech / execution might be amazingly, shockingly wonderful, but there’s a reason why terrible products and companies dominate business environments in every industry. It may not be pretty, it may not be right, but you are not obliged to try to fix it (or die trying).

Don't compete against established businesses that already have a strong foothold in the niche you're targeting.
Don’t compete against established businesses that already have a strong foothold in the niche you’re targeting.

Let’s take auction sites, or employment sites, for example.

Nobody is going to list on your auction site because you have no customers. Nobody is going to visit because you have no products.

Nobody is going to advertise jobs on your employment site because nobody is looking at it trying to get a job.

You know why website X or service Y is rubbish? Probably because it’s almost impossible to compete against them as they are in a “winner takes all” field.

Here’s what you should look for instead: something that hasn’t really been done much, in the niche you are looking at.

For example, Incsub started when we began creating WordPress MultiUser websites. We weren’t particularly good at it but we were the people behind Edublogs, the only other major WPMU site besides, and we had this site called WPMU DEV, too… We were the experts and that counted for absolutely heaps.

And then throughout the evolution of the WordPress ecosystem there have been so many opportunities for first mover advantage, so many of which I’ve tried to hit and so many I’ve done really awfully at but still had some success, moreorless, just because we were first to the bat.

Whereas now, if you want to come in and start a WordPress business doing any of the things that are already being dominated, it’s gonna be really, really hard… Now is not, for example, a good time to base your new business on a forms, eCommerce or digital downloads plugin :)

Can I tell you where your “new” is? Almost certainly not, but you need to think really hard about what you are trying to play into, really investigate the space. If at any point you find yourself trying to compete with this or that already established, successful service, it’s probably best to look at another entirely different angle instead.

This is the first post in our five-part series about getting started with an online business.

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