When I first began coaching, I could not get clear on what my niche should be.  I talked to people.  I worried.  I wrote myself long memos.  Was it possible to distill the components of a fun, successful, deeply rewarding coaching niche?  If you find that question to be compelling, take a look at "Seventeen Niche Criteria..." below.

And join us for an amazing interview with Jon Haidt next week, 3/9/12.


1. Jonathan Haidt Interview (3/9/12).  Info here.
2. Coaching Teleworkshop with Ben (3/22/12).  Info here.
3. Seventeen Niche Criteria for a Successful Coaching Practice
4. Upcoming Classes


1. Superstar Interview with John Haidt, Ph.D. (3/9/12).  Info here.

Join Ben for a Q&A Interview with one of the leading figures in positive and moral psychology, Jonathan Haidt, Ph.D. author of the new book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion. Bring all your questions.


Friday, March 9, 2012 1:00-2:20pm Eastern
12:00-1:20 pm Central (Dallas)
11:00-12:20 pm Mountain (Denver)
10:00-11:20 am Pacific (San Francisco)



Jonathan Haidt is a Professor in the Social Psychology area of the Department of Psychology at the University of Virginia (UVA) in Charlottesville. For the 2011-2012 academic year, he is serving as the Henry Kaufman Visiting Professor of Business Ethics at the NYU-Stern School of Business in New York City.  His new book, launching next month is The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion.

In 2001, Jon was already a recognized leader in the emerging field of Positive Psychology, receiving the $100K Grand Templeton Prize in Positive Psychology. In 2002 with Corey Keyes, he co-edited Flourishing: Positive Psychology and the Life Well Lived. Then in 2005, he published the highly-acclaimed book, The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom, which integrates philosophical questions and ideas from world civilizations with current scientific research to extract lessons about meaning and happiness that can be applied to modern life.

For videos, links, and extensive information about Jon, click here.


2. Coaching Teleworkshop with Ben Dean, Ph.D., MCC (3/22/12).  Info here.

A two-hour Intro to Coaching Workshop.  Includes live coaching session and a virtual drawing for a full tuition fellowships to Foundations Training Program.  Bring all questions.

Thursday March 22, 2012 ♦ 7:00-8:59 pm Eastern
All Other Time Zones are here.
TO REGISTER: Click here


3.  Seventeen Niche Criteria for a Successful Coaching Practice 2.02

Ben Dean, Ph.D., MCC, Version 2.02

I don’t know the key to success, but the key to
failure is trying to please everybody.

– Bill Cosby

Success demands singleness of purpose.
– Vince Lombardi

Having a coaching practice focused on a narrow market niche that you love delivers significant advantages. This is true for all local businesses. It's even truer for a small coaching practice focused on a national or international market. It is more effective to market yourself virtually within a tightly defined coaching niche than as a utility infielder who can coach anyone

Here are seventeen criteria you may find useful in evaluating potential coaching niches. While not all criteria are essential for a successful niche, they are all worth considering. (For definitions, see the “Note on Niches and Specialties” below.)

1. Passion.  Could you, the coach, feel passion for the niche? Are these the kinds of clients you would enjoy working with? Do you find the work you would will be doing meaningful and satisfying?

If you're at midlife, this criterion is especially important. At midlife, there is a drive to live the unlived parts of your life. To live authentically. It is not sufficient to be highly compensated. The niche must be satisfying, meaningful and fun.

An important side note: Often you cannot answer this question in the abstract. Sometimes you must first interact with people in the niche-by, (for example, interviewing niche members or attending workshops for niche members) before you begin to feel the passion stirring.

2. A Burning Need.   Is there an intense, perceived need for the niche in the minds of your prospects? Are they truly concerned about the issue which you can help them solve with your coaching?

There must be some set of problems which you help clients in your niche solve. The more intense their pain (or conversely, the more attractive the benefit you help them realize), the more quickly will they respond to your efforts.

3. Money.  Can you help your niche make money or improve their professional performance? This is not an essential criterion. But all other things being equal, it is easier for clients to justify staying with you month after month if you are helping them make money or perform better professionally.

If you want to help them have balance in their lives, you may want to work on that indirectly rather than making it the centerpiece of your marketing. That is, don't focus on helping people live balanced, rewarding lives. Focus instead on helping people, say, achieve the professional success they deserve while enjoying a balanced, rewarding life.

4. Underserved.  Is the niche underserved? You would not offer customer service training or coaching to Nordstrom employees. They are already superbly served in this arena. One of the things to research when considering a new niche is how much training/coaching/consulting is already being offered to the niche.

All things being equal, a coaching practice will grow faster in an underserved industry than in a highly developed one that has many vendors trying to meet the given need.

5. Precedent.  Are there already successful businesses "on the ground" in this niche? When a colleague discusses potential niches with me, I'm often reassured if they can show me already existing local businesses that are serving the niche they're considering. This tells me that most of the criteria on this list may be met, not the least of which is that people are willing to ay pay money to have a specific need addressed.

So if you're exploring niche possibilities, look for truly successful people selling services to that niche. Finding them is good news, not bad.

I'd be more assured that there is a need that will be responsive to your marketing if the niche has already been defined and addressed by others.

Some of the risk is reduced if you know there are others that are successfully targeting the niche on, at least, a local level. That's what I'd want to find. Then in terms of my research, I'd learn as much as I could about how people already in the niche were marketing and delivering their services.

6. Be First.  Paradoxically, can you be "first" in your niche? Ries & Ries argue for the strategy of picking a niche where you are first. One way to do this is to take a successful coaching niche and narrow it further.

If you coach high school students to excel on the SAT, you can be the first to develop a virtual (telephone) SAT coaching practice. Or you can narrow the niche and be the first to coach hearing-impaired high school students to prepare for the SAT.

7. Discretionary Income.  Can your prospective clients pay for your services? Can they, at least, afford $150 per month for membership in your virtual coaching groups? Will they pay?

A niche comprised of graduate students might be flawed in this dimension. By contrast, a professional niche or one comprised of small business owners may more easily be able to pay while taking the coaching as a business expense.

8. Narrow Focus.  Is the niche truly narrow? See Ries for compelling arguments for the counter-intuitive importance of narrowing your niche. Much better to offer business coaching to a narrow professional industry (e.g., corporate housing services or lemon lawyers) than to a broad group (e.g., all attorneys or "boomers" at midlife).

9. Industry Focus.  Similarly, are members of the niche from a single professional group or industry? This is not required, but it's a major plus. The problem with a niche focusing on "Boomers" is that it cuts across every professional group in the world. If you focus on a subset of a specific professional group (e.g., sales reps in the computer industry or police administrators), the niche is easier to penetrate. Your blog or E-mail newsletter can focus specifically on this group's unique needs. You can market through the group's national and 50 state professional organizations. You can forge alliances with suppliers who serve this niche.

10. A Coherent Group.   Do members of your proposed niche feel they belong to a coherent group? It's a major advantage if they do. You're more likely to have niche members forward your promotional material to others if they know who the "others" are. You're more likely to have the benefit of state and national professional organizations. It's advantageous if, as you specialize in the niche, members can say with recognition about you, "She gets it." "He totally understands my issues." A coherent group? Lemon lawyers. A more disparate niche? People needing assertiveness training.

11. Can you find them?  Can you locate members of the niche? Can you find them in order to be able to use the funnel of trust and to begin to develop a relationship with the universe of your prospects over time?

12. Can you reach them?  Social media including email are the most cost-effective way to market to potential prospects over time. Do most members of your niche have access to E-mail? Do they go online? If not, how are you going to communicate with them over time? All-But-Dissertation students as a niche may lack discretionary income, but they universally have web and social media access and thus rate high on this dimension.

13. Temporal Dimensions.  Is the niche's need for your services short-term or enduring? If your niche is general business coaching for a specific professional niche, the window of need of an individual or company can be years or decades. This is good.

Other niches by their nature are time limited, such as postpartum depression, college application support, or preparation for a professional exam. All things being equal, I'd prefer niches with an enduring rather than a time-limited need for my services. It's easier to serve existing clients than to continually have to acquire new ones.

14. Partnership Niche.  If your niche-selection project grinds to a screeching halt, don't give up. Consider developing a new niche with a partner. You can share costs, brainstorm ideas, support each other, even split the investment in a topnotch coach with whom you both could meet in a weekly coaching conference call. You could partner with someone who has deep experience in a niche, who can cover you while you get up to speed. You could partner with an already successful coach, helping them enlarge their reach within their niche and contributing that scarcest of all resources--time.

15. Study Your Ambivalence.  As you talk to friends about possible niches, listen for your ambivalence. Why do you not want to pick a niche? Why do you avoid getting specific about the decision? Why do you avoid taking action?

Write down what you notice. Then get help from others (including experienced coaches) to find ways around the blocks.

Here are some typical problems people run into when seeking a niche:

"A niche will limit me."
What if you are a bright, verbal professional and easily bored? What if your highest signature strengths--like mine--are curiosity and love of learning? You might say: "I don't want to pick a niche. I'd have to give up all the fascinating people outside the niche and that's most of the world."

In fact, you don't. You can have multiple niches. I know one successful coach with six active niches.

Or you can be an Undercover Generalist. You can have a niche you highlight in your marketing, but you can also enjoy working with clients outside of your niche when you have the chance. This is actually quite common.

"I wouldn't like these people."
You might consider a particular niche only to say: "I'd get bored with these people. They're nothing like me."

Are you sure? Take a look at #1 above. Often you cannot know in the abstract whether you'd find a given group to be engaging or not. Sometimes you must interact with people in the niche to find out. If after checking it out, you still feel little passion, then that's the time to walk away.

"I'll fail."
You might say: "It's a plausible niche. But I can't make it work. Others could, but not me."

Really? If others have made it work, hire them or befriend them to get them to show you how.

I've always loved the mantra of a highly successful, now senior coach who, despite her introversion, built a great practice in about a year. She may not have been a glad-hander but she was high in the VIA strength of persistence and she knew the value of the stories we tell ourselves.

Her mantra? "If they can do it, I can do it."

If thousands of people have built successful coaching practices (and they have), then I, myself, can build one.

16. Choose the Wrong Niche.  If you don't have an ideal niche, you can absolutely begin a coaching practice with the wrong one. This is what I did when I began the ABD Survival Guide (ABDSG), focused on graduate students who had completed all but their dissertations.*

I knew it wasn't the right long-term niche for me, but I thought it would get me started. I could practice learning everything about a niche. I could learn how to do an email newsletter and a website. I could practice promoting them. I could learn how to market and lead teleworkshops. Even if the niche were wrong, the skills would transfer when the right niche materialized. I'd be ready to roll. In retrospect, this was a brilliant approach for me. It was far better for me to learn by taking action than to never have begun at all.

And when you pick the wrong niche on purpose, it takes all the pressure off. You can say, "Even if I make some horrible faux pas and humiliate myself, I'll just walk away and start somewhere else. If I make mistakes, so what?" This, of course, frees you to be twice as effective. I’m always better when I’m swinging for the fences.

*Postscript. When the right niche came along, I had the skills to start fast. Strangely though, the ABD Survival Guide is still going strong, years after I began it in 1997. The editor is the brilliant University of Pennsylvania psychologist, Tracy Steen, Ph.D.  And the ABDSG has now provided help, wonderful essays and advice, and pro bono and sliding-scale coaching for several generations of ABDs.

17. Stay a Generalist.  Most new coaches start as generalists. This is fine. I recommend it. But you could decide to spend your entire career as a generalist.

Some coaches do this and are successful. While they may invest a lot of time in marketing, they do not focus on any niche markets. They have all the clients they need, charge good fees, and love their work. Becoming a successful generalist is harder than focusing on a market niche. (Note that there are many *unsuccessful* generalist coaches. This is easy.) But, theoretically, you could be one of the ones who pull it off.

An example? Anne Durand.  She's never marketed to a single professional niche.  While it's true she's known for her executive coaching, she's always worked with fascinating people across many industries. She’s internationally known. She’s very busy. She has a waiting list.

If you can get the clients, you can absolutely do this too. Should this appeal to you, keep an eye out for truly successful generalists.  And be discriminating.  Know that there's a huge difference between actually being profitable and successful and simply claiming you are on your website.

Learn how these successful generalists overcame the marketing challenges of working without a niche. In short, how do they get clients?*

And, yes, I know you’re thinking, “Ben, but what would the specific steps for making it as a generalist be?"  I suppose that's the subject for another essay.


Niches and Specialties.

It’s useful to unpack the word “niche” by separating the two variables often conflated within the term. For our purposes, “a Niche” refers to those to whom you’re delivering your coaching. Your niche is made up of the people who potentially could buy your services. (2) A “Service” refers to what you’re delivering to your niche. If you’re a coach, it’s the type of coaching you do.

An example. Your niche could be licensed mental health professionals. Your specialty could be coaching them on how best to build a coaching business.

Note that the niche and specialty can be changed.

You could have a niche of mental health professionals with which your Specialty is how to work with borderline patients.

Or your Specialty could be helping people build coaching practices. But your Niche could be attorneys (or women attorneys or, say, first through third year associates in major US law firms.)

So here’s one thing to listen for. If someone tells you their niche is assertiveness training. And they work with anybody who’ll have them. By our definition. They don’t have a Niche with all the advantages that accrue. They are generalists with a Specialty.

So usually, it makes sense to have both—a specialty and a niche.

Appropriate Skepticism.  When talking to people about their marketing, I'm skeptical when they tell me that all their clients come to them by word of mouth.  When they say, in effect, that they're so good that they don't need to market.  This usually means they don't want to tell you how they get clients.  Should it actually ever be true, I'd want to know how they found their clients when they were starting out.  How did they get to their current exalted position?


4. Upcoming Foundations and Master Classes

MCP 159 Wednesdays
31 Wednesdays
11-11:59 am Eastern (New York Time)
Starts Wednesday, February 29, 2012
Ann-Marie McKelvey, MCC
For detailed information,
click here.

A Conversation with Ann-Marie McKelvey
Calling from 5-weeks of play and coaching in Maui, Ann-Marie talks about her upcoming class and what students can expect. She talks about her life, coaching from the beach and onsite with international clients from Paris to Abu Dhabi, positive psychology, and her belief about the future of coaching (23 mins.) Just click
here. Or download mp3 here.


MCP 160 Tuesdays
31 Tuesdays
8-8:59 pm Eastern (New York Time)
Starts Tuesday, March 20, 2012
Jan Hill, Ph.D., PCC
For detailed information,
click here.

A Conversation with Jan Hill, Ph.D.

Hear Jan talk about coaching and the Foundations Coach Training Program. (19 mins.) Just
click here.


All Foundations Classes Are Identical.  For More Information, click here.




Coaching MasterClasses Open to All

Executive Coaching

Anne Durand, MCC


Positive Psychology and Advanced ADHD Coaching

Alan Graham, Ph.D.

Monday 11am
Starts 3/6/12

Individual Coaching Supervision

Anne Durand, MCC

2nd & 4th

Blue Sky Visioning

Ben Dean, Ph.D., MCC

Anne Durand, MCC


Ethics & Risk Management

Eric Harris, JD, Ph.D.

Tuesday 6pm
Starts 4/10/12

Appreciative Inquiry Coaching

Bob Siegfried, Ph.D.

Thursday 11am
Starts 4/12/12



About Ben Dean -- Ben, Editor of Coaching Toward Happiness, is a coach, psychologist, founder of MentorCoach, and... MORE.

Copyright 2006-2012. Coaching Toward Happiness. All rights reserved.

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