Cultivating a Business Niche That is Unique to You – By Plan or By Chance

Our daughter’s art teacher talked about “happy accidents,” those oopsies when a stray brush stroke alters your original idea – and, ultimately, leads you in a new direction.


My business niche has formed from a series of happy accidents. I did not, as I had planned from the age of 16, end up teaching French in a university. (There’s a love story in there, for another time.) If you, too, have zigged and zagged, you’ll understand. What I gradually realized, though, is that my apparently disparate professional experiences really did add up in a cool way that helped me grow my business.


Armed with BA and MA degrees in French and English, I hit the pavement to find a job the day after we moved to a new town, new state for my husband’s work. And I was fortunate to get an interview quickly.


Since I hadn’t learned my way around yet, I left home earlier than necessary. As I drove down a side street, I saw a cute little stone house, with a sign that said Ad Ventures. Hmm. An ad agency.


Why not? I walked in, since I was already suited up, wearing grown-up shoes (instead of my usual sneakers) and earrings.


Long story short: they hired me on the spot as their Communications Coordinator.


I answered phones. Indexed a book about homeopathic medicine. Wrote ad copy. Drafted radio spots. Planned media campaigns.


My big learning? I love variety. I love challenges. I love learning new things.

Tip #1 – If you see a possibility that intrigues you, and doesn’t deter you from a clearly defined path, explore it.

When our older daughter was born, I decided to stay home for a bit. When she was nine months old, I took a job teaching a few sections of English composition at a community college. Probably would have stayed there for years, but we moved. To a new town, new state.


In this larger city, you needed a PhD to teach – no community colleges there. So I tried a multi-pronged approach to finding work.


First, I sent letters to several in-state publications offering to do editing for them.


Imagine this phone call:

Editor: “Hi, this is Melissa with [name] Magazine. We need an article of 2,500 words about [subject]. We’re interested in a focus on x . . . And we need it by March 15th. Will that work for you?”

Me: “Um, you’re asking me to write the article?”

Editor: [I’m surmising this part, but she probably said to herself, “What, are you an idiot?”] “Ye-e-e-s. Will that date work for you?”

Me (recovering, shakily): “Sure. Yes. Absolutely.”

Tip #2: If you think you can achieve a goal, even if you’ve never done it before, give it a try. I’ve never promised that I had expertise in something that was new to me, so I never misled anyone. And I have learned a ton in the process.

Then, I saw an ad for a one-day Saturday seminar, “Alternative Markets for Freelance Writers.”


Why not?


Long story short: the guy who taught the class, Bob, ended up hiring me. And as he changed jobs (four times in four years), he took me with him. So I learned about public relations, programmed instruction, and producing radio spots. My client base kept growing, from his connections and from word of mouth.

Tip #3 – Taking this one-day class was low-cost, low-risk. And it led to the seedling of a career.

I discovered that I could fit my freelance life in with motherhood, since we had two little girls at this point. I could work while the girls were sleeping, in the evenings, or for 10 hours a week when a loving babysitter-grandma came to our home. Oh – and she chose to iron shirts!! How amazing is that? All was going great.


And then we moved. To a new town, new state.


I interviewed with a PR firm. They asked if I’d ever done work in the pharmaceutical industry. Nope, I said.


Long story short: they hired me to write a press campaign for a pharma client. And, for the next four years, I crafted white papers, releases, and newsletters for them, all about pharma. I got a second account that chose me because of my pharma background. Lucky girl, I thought. I researched linear accelerators, contact lenses, cholesterol, vitamins – it felt like being paid to be a grad student. All was grand.

Tip #4 – As you go through your career, if you see disparate strands that don’t appear to be related, focus on how those pieces actually create a whole that makes you stand out from the crowd. 

And then we moved. To a new town, a new state.


Minutes away from our home, there were two pharmaceutical companies. Big ones. (I’ll spare you the details of how, at first, they wouldn’t hire me because my husband worked for one of them. Or how that made me want to scream. Their concern: confidentiality.)


But then, whew, they both took a chance – and I made sure to keep what I was doing for them 100% under wraps.


Gradually, they gave me more and more assignments. Sales rep training. Newsletters. Patient education. Direct mail. Yay!


I reached out to a medical device company, now armed with a briefcase full of successful campaigns which I shared with JoAnn, the marketing director. “Have you ever written a speech?,” she asked. Nope, I said.


Naturally, that’s what they asked me to do first.

See Tip #2 above.

Soon after, I had a call from a contract research organization, a company that sells its services to pharma companies. They hired me to create all the things we’d already done for others, plus corporate identity and trade show booth development.


In order to help them grow, I had to grow my business. I ended up building a team of 15: account executive, art director, creative director, copywriter, production manager, PR director . . .


Over the next decade, we earned a reputation as one of the first agencies in our area to contact for medical or pharmaceutical work.


Based on word of mouth from a local client, we were even called to pitch for an out-of-state account. I flew out there and got the account that day.


And it all came about through word of mouth in a niche that started (by fluke, remember?) as pharma, then expanded naturally to healthcare (hospitals, physician practices), medical device, contract research, and biotech firms.

Tip #5 – Start thinking about how you can stand out from competitors, based on a specialty, unique expertise, or even the system you use to solve problems.

Over the years, I’ve also done work outside of the healthcare field – in education, manufacturing, and software. And that’s good. Because we moved. To a new town, a new state in an area with very few medical business opportunities.

Tip #6 – Be flexible. Well, I had no choice, because we kept moving!

But, in retrospect, I think that the variety of experiences I gained because of the change-change-change helped me go farther than had we stayed in one place. Keep your eyes and your mind open – you never know what your next opportunity will look like!

How have you experienced “happy accidents” in your work life? Tell us in the comments below!

Note: If you need help finding your own niche, grab our free 5 page ‘Ideal Customer Avatar’ workboo.


Ellen Zimmerman

Founder/President at The Zimmerman Group
Ellen Zimmerman is Founder and President of The Zimmerman Group, a marketing/consulting firm celebrating 25 years, and Jewish Holidays in a Box, a family education business that is still in its infancy. She still finds great joy in new challenges, learning, teaching, and creative outlets. And her favorite happy juice is when a client says, “Ooh, great idea. I love this!”



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