• Leila Ainge

Nobody puts Baby in a corner

Are you being told you need to niche as a small business service owner?

I tried to find out when the business world started using the term business niche, but it seems we have always enjoyed the economic benefits of market niches for products and services, its a sound concept.

But did you know that one of the synonym’s for niche is corner? and just like Baby in Dirty Dancing this is exactly how I feel about trying to define myself and what I do into a niche, perhaps you feel the same? Very broadly speaking my job title is management consultant, psychologist, and coach. At a push I’d say I’m hugely empathic and very analytical, but I don’t care much for labels so please don’t hold me to those descriptions.

Within the field of social psychology, we talk about the way our identity is derived from the groups we are members of, and there are three ways in which this process of group identity takes hold; Categorisation, Identification and Comparison. We categorise people according to lots of things, from hair colour to the music they like, skin colour and sexuality, we identify with people who are more like us, sometimes it's to fit a social construction we believe in, and we compare ourselves against people unconsciously and consciously. For good or for bad we are always thinking about categories and we are biased to think this way because it helps us to process the 35,000 decisions we make each day.

Perhaps you are reading this thinking, why wouldn’t you want to niche and set yourself apart from the competition? And my take on this is that the concept of a market niche works brilliantly for products, but I am less certain about people. Of course, I think you should explore your values, and by extension develop your personal brand, but a niche person is problematic in several ways, lets think about it in terms of mindset and economics.

Niche markets are vulnerable to change, and people are incredibly resistant to change, the part of your brain responsible for this, your amydala, kicks in with a protective response (fight/flight) against change, so this is a perfect psychological storm. If you suddenly find your niche changing you need to be able to react with curiosity and flexibility, having a very rigid sense of self, or fixed narratives in the form of a niche mindset is going to hold you back in this scenario.

You are not a product with a barcode, even your DNA changes over time, what feels ‘you’ right now, will most likely shift, evolve or change over time. Contrary to popular belief, Maslow never envisaged his hierarchy of needs as a pyramid , his view was that we are always in a state of becoming the next thing, a state of experiencing life, which might well involve two steps back or one step forward.

Niching isn't a super power against the competition, when you focus on a niche, if you are doing things right you stand out, you are making yourself a source of comparison, over time your niche becomes saturated with the competition who are appreciating what you have done. Feeling copied rather than appreciated is a real challenge for our sense of self, and I see many examples across social media where the fear of losing a niche market has really intensified emotions. Copying isn’t cool, but it makes sense that it happens - I’m a realist, if you are successful, you will be copied. (I have been copied too, the most cringe worthy thing about it was that they corrected my spelling mistakes and got more ‘likes’).

Be yourself, and love your weak ties

Thinking in terms of niches, you create a social container that can drive your beliefs, thoughts, and behaviours, great that your communication might be targeted towards your niche, but perhaps you unconsciously spend more time in that place, and this behaviour can prevent you finding new opportunities.

Creating close ties with ‘people like us’ makes psychological sense and it benefits us economically but pay attention to your networks and casual acquaintances because bridging matters too. Socially we rely on outliers to bridge our social circles, and bring us news, ideas, and novel opportunities. Weak ties is a 1970’s theory by a sociologist called Grannovetter, the theory that job referrals would depend on quality and quantity of network, and it’s still holding its own in the age of social media.

Connect with people through values, hopes and dreams

This image is generously shared by Niki Hutchison, it brilliantly summarises why categories can be problematic and why that idea of an ideal customer or client is more about values than labels.

So let me be your metaphorical Patrick Swayze and reassure you that you can put your whole self out there, you don’t have to niche yourself or your mindset.


1. An excellent article on why Dirty Dancing is a feminist masterpiece and study in privilege

2. In case you are wondering, I do dream about being in a Broadway production of Dirty Dancing, and I reserve the right reskill and add that to my job description one day.

3. Weak Ties

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