“Everything that can be invented has been invented,” said the Director of the US Patent Office in 1899. It was a breathtakingly naive thing to say even then. But many business owners today still make a similar mistake. They look at the market around them and assume it’s fixed. Having marked out their territory they believe nothing will change.
They couldn’t be more wrong. Black Swans lie in wait. For example, it’s almost impossible to exaggerate the changes wrought by the internet, yet 25 years ago it barely existed. Nobody in 1990 had any idea what was about to hit them. It was a revolution in business and personal connectivity that has reshaped our world.
I once worked in the same office as Heather Killen when she was starting out with Yahoo. She told me what she was doing, but I didn’t understand its relevance. It seemed like such a niche market. Which it was at the time, but not for long. That company and others like it changed the face of business.
What’s next? Nobody knows – that’s the point. But a glance over recent history tells us that the pace of change is accelerating.
Now is the time to be an entrepreneur
What does this mean if you have an idea for a niche business? It means that you have more chance of success now than at any other time in living memory.
I’m not usually given to hyperbole, but this is a fantastic time to be an entrepreneur. There are new and effective ways to get funding. There’s a vast resource of information just a few clicks or taps away. There’s a global market just waiting to be accessed. Science and technology are taking huge leaps forward. And they’re dragging us all along in their wake.
The basic tools you need to start any new business — computer, phone, internet connection — are cheaper than they’ve ever been. Even business software is so cheap it’s almost free, and most of it is cloud-based — so you can use it anywhere.
The ever-widening market is turning a would be niche business into a valuable new sector. Imagine the spokes of a bicycle wheel. Near the hub they are close together, but by the time they get to the rim they are spread far apart. That’s how the new business environment feels. A niche business that would have struggled to survive even five years ago is now slicing out a big chunk of the market for themselves.
A niche business doesn’t have to be small
Think of computer games. Not making them, but playing them. Who would have thought that “Professional computer games player” would not only be a job, but one that could earn a six-figure salary? Then there are YouTube stars, beauty bloggers, teenage entrepreneurs who will be millionaires by the time they’re 20. One of the biggest companies of all, Facebook, started its existence in a US college dorm. It was made to fill a niche, but that niche expanded beyond belief.
I do some business writing for a niche business, an email signature company. That’s all they do – email signatures. It sounds like a tiny market, yet the company has some serious financial backing and is growing fast. They’ve signed up corporate clients with thousands of employees. That company found a niche and successfully exploited and expanded it.
Find your niche and then expand it
Nobody today could say that everything that can be invented has been invented. Not with a straight face, anyway. We can barely comprehend the things that will be invented in the next five years, let alone the next century.
So which business will be on top in a decade’s time? Probably one that’s so small today you can barely see it. As the market grows like ripples spreading out in a pond, so the next big company will expand its influence.
If you have an idea for a new business then go for it, and hire a few of those young geniuses to help get you started. Find your own niche market, encourage it to expand, and let it take you into a much larger world.
Alex Cruickshank has been a business writer since 1994 and a serial entrepreneur since 1996. He owns Ministry of Prose, a writing agency based in New Zealand.