Starting a business is no easy feat. In fact, it’s estimated that 80% of all new UK businesses launched between 2007 and 2016 failed within a year of launching. These daunting figures aren’t putting off budding entrepreneurs, though. With more than 610,000 startups opening their doors this year alone, there are clearly many people who believe in their big business idea and are willing to put everything they have into making it a success.
Twelve years ago, I was one of those people. After spending more than a decade as a finance and operations director working with blue-chip companies, my associate Sean Wadsworth and I decided to go it alone. At the time, the IT skills market was diverse with a huge number of specialised areas. But, generalist recruiters were still the norm for businesses looking to hire tech talent. We recognised a gap in the market, and a massive opportunity to create a leading company. We saw that by focusing on IT niches, we could bring truly dedicated and expert knowledge to any company.
Operating in a niche market has lots of benefits, but the main one is that you can develop a specialist understanding and become a genuine authority in your sector. For us, concentrating on a smaller market actually made it easier to invest and grow the business. The clients and customers you need to target exist in a smaller space, so marketing and sales teams become highly focused. Plus, you often find that there’s less competition.
The first step towards taking advantage of a niche market is, unsurprisingly, to find one. When we launched Nigel Frank International in 2006, we always intended it to be a global brand focused on a niche market—it just took three years to find that niche. And once we’d chosen to concentrate on Microsoft Dynamics, the business really took off from there.
But it’s not enough to target a niche market simply because it’s a niche market; there may be a good reason why nobody is operating in it already. When looking for a niche, it can be tough to land on an area that is both relatively untilled and has the potential to be a money-maker. There are no crystal balls in the business world, but keeping an eye on trends and forecasts for your chosen market will help you gauge prospective profitability.
On the other hand, it’s also important to note that taking advantage of a niche market doesn’t always mean choosing an entirely uncultivated one. There could well be other businesses operating in a niche industry, but are they doing enough to be market leaders? If you see an already serviced market, but you believe your business could outshine competitors, then it’s definitely worth looking into. A niche market that isn’t being served as well as it could be is often just as good as a niche market that isn’t being served at all. Occasionally, a business might strike it lucky and come across a need naturally. With Nigel Frank, we noticed that Microsoft Dynamics— a relatively new product at the time— had very few devoted recruiters providing a quality service. We decided to be that recruiter.
What makes Nigel Frank stand out from the crowd is that we don’t just recruit for niche technologies; we do it very well. We’re not the company to fill every vacancy in a client’s office. There are lots of great agencies that can help fill those generalist positions. We have our niche and that’s what we focus on, even if this means leaving money on the table. Your niche could be industry-focused, product-focused, or geographically focused. Whatever it is, make sure you stick to it and shout about it.
Another necessary factor to account for when scoping out a niche market is sustainability. The big risk in committing your business to a niche is that you’re putting all your eggs in one basket. Developing an over-reliance on one area can leave you vulnerable to changes within the market. Your company should maintain highly specific knowledge and expertise to enable you to service your niche market, but this expertise should be built on the groundwork of outstanding—but transferable—skills.
The next step is to discern the needs of that niche market. We began by building our technical and product knowledge, as well as gaining an understanding of the market itself; understanding exactly what employers wanted from their Dynamics professionals, what kind of roles Dynamics professionals were looking for, what skills were most valuable, and what kind of salaries to expect in each market.
With Dynamics, it became a symbiotic relationship. Our business benefitted from leading in a niche market, and we helped that market grow by placing talented people exactly where they were needed. That’s the ideal outcome when you’re serving in a niche market; that’s what you want to aim for.
Finally, and most importantly, you need to deliver. This means providing your core services and adding value to your market and its customers. Many niche markets are often either built on or give rise to, tight-knit communities. Within these, reputation is everything so we take customer feedback very seriously and change processes and behaviour accordingly.
Today, Nigel Frank’s parent company, Frank Recruitment Group, operates nine niche brands and employs 1,682 people in 16 locations across Europe, Asia, North America, and Australia. The company is continuing to grow at a rapid speed, with new locations and markets being targeted all the time.
It has taken an enormous amount of dedication, hard work, and sacrifice to make Nigel Frank International what it is today. But devoting ourselves to a particular niche was what really set the business apart. It was this focus which ultimately allowed us to achieve international success.
Nigel O’Donoghue is the co-founder and Chief Commercial Officer of Nigel Frank International, a niche IT staffing firm. Nigel graduated from the University of Edinburgh with an honours degree in Business and Accounting. He later went on to qualify as a Chartered Accountant with the Bank of Scotland, where he spent 12 years within the Treasury Service division. Nigel co-founded Nigel Frank International in 2006 in a small office in Newcastle-Upon-Tyne with just three members of staff. The company is now a global leader in Microsoft technology recruitment.@NigelFrank