The promise of “finding a niche” online is one of arrival. You start dabbling on the internet in some mode of digital creation and feel frustrated. You don’t know what you’re doing and no one seems to be paying attention. If you can just figure out a better way to describe yourself, pick better topics, or narrow your focus everything will get better.
I think this fails but not for obvious reasons. The biggest reason “find a niche” fails is that the people are applying it too early in their journeys. On top of that, it ignores the reality that most people who do arrive at a state of niche-ness usually have one thing in common: they didn’t give up.
This is why a better strategy than finding a niche, especially early, is “find a mode.” Find a mode where you can continue to be excited about what you are doing. Find a mode where the friction to getting started declines over time. Find a mode where you are excited to keep going despite being ignored. Find a mode where you want to do something despite not having anything to show for it or in the worst case, despite criticism.
This is really shifting from getting out of your head and into your body and thinking like a psychologist, not an engineer:
“Why am I getting physically upset at the lack of interest from other people?”
“Why do I struggle to get started on something despite claiming to care about it?”
“When do I find myself most filled with energy?”
“Why do I get so excited when I talk about certain topics?”
I think the reason this type of inquiry has become harder is that there are far more examples of people that have reached some easy-to-understand metric like money or fame by creating things online. We see other people achieving outsized success that have some elements of niche-ness and because it’s harder to know what really helped them arrive at that point, it’s easy to convince yourself that only thing holding you back is your own angle, unique set of topics, or brand that might help you distinguish yourself from the pack.
The Best Niche: Population of One
The problem with this I’ve realized is that the most niche-y people often inhabit a territory with a maximum population size of one. In other words, they are just being who they are. They are combining their unique psychology, interests, motivators, and evolving curiosity and know-how to drop into a mode of being that enables them to keep going.
Niches can’t be aimed at. They only reveal themselves over time. This is why the most practical thing you can do is to “find a mode” that enables you to stay in the game.
Ali Abdaal is a creator “superstar” that seems to understand this. If you don’t know, Ali is a now former-doctor and creator with millions of followers on YouTube (and also who dabbles as a part-time marketer of my book) that seems to launch new things once a month. He’s killing it by all traditional metrics.
On the surface it seems that the reason he is successful is that he is unique: he is a former doctor, Pakistani, living in London, and interested in entrepreneurship and technology.
Yet this is the error of niche thinking – the idea that the descriptors and outcomes are what matters most.
I’ve been lucky to get to know Ali a little bit and I don’t think any of those things matter as much as others or even he may think. I think what makes Ali stand out is that he has found a mode of showing up in his life such that he enthusiastically enjoys the things he is doing.
The first time I realized this, I was part of his first cohort of Part-Time YouTuber Academy. As I sat through one of the lectures, I realized that Ali had essentially absorbed, understood, and synthesized a comprehensive business school education, all by himself. As someone that had gone to one of the top business schools in the world, I realized that Ali would have ranked as both one of the best teachers and students at that school.
This made me excited for him. Why? I knew he was on a path that was uniquely his and that his competition was essentially zero. And this is the real magic of aiming at a mode: by aiming at a state where you can keep showing up with your unique strengths, you can stumble into your own personal niche.
Said another way, I think Ali has succeeded because he could find the niche of being Ali Abdaal – someone that literally gets joy out of learning new things, testing and implementing them, and then synthesizing them so he can explain them to others. He did not “find” a niche because the niche of Ali is not a place where you can ever arrive– it is constantly shifting, driven by his evolving interests and curiosities.
This is what might be what makes the idea of finding a niche so seductive – it’s the idea that we don’t have to be anybody. We can just be our weird selves.
Too Many How-To Guide For Future Creators and I am guilty of creating
The challenge of exploring the creator path these days is that there is too much damn information on how to succeed. Don’t get me wrong. I write and share a lot of this too and on net, I think most of this is a net positive. But for most people early in their creation journey, the advice and information are not even wrong. It’s just not relevant yet.
The only thing that matters at the beginning is to stay in the game and find your mode.
This is why I’m sort of grateful that I started doing internet stuff before there was an explosion of success stories and how-to guides. From 2014 to 2018 I was writing online, creating digital products, and experimenting with running cohort-based courses almost entirely because I enjoyed it and I found it interesting. I didn’t have a destination in mind. It was in these years I stumbled into a mode of being where I could keep doing these things indefinitely.
I wonder how my approach would have changed if I had started five years later. The landscape of doing things online and making a living from it has changed dramatically. People once “working online” are now grouped into a cooler-sounding “creator economy” that venture capitalists have somehow turned into a thing.
Would I have felt bad about taking so long to find my thing?
Would I have felt like a failure seeing so many other people succeed?
Would I have double-downed on topics that now seem like passing interests?
I have no idea but I’m glad that I didn’t know what I was doing and that for some reason, I had a deep sense that finding things that I liked doing and wanted to keep doing was something worth pursuing.
The Tale Of Two Niches
I have an interesting perspective on niches because out of those early years of writing and creating regularly, two niches revealed themselves in my work.
One is the writing I’ve done under the banner of “Boundless” – about work, the creator economy, unconventional paths, and whatever I’m curious about. I’ve launched multiple courses, written for thousands of hours, posted tens of thousands of tweets, and even wrote a book. Yet until 2020, I didn’t really have any strong positive signal that my ideas were all that interesting and even now, I’ve probably made less than $25,000 from everything I’ve done over a period of seven years of experimenting in this space.
The second is my “StrategyU” brand where I run a course and write about strategy and consulting skills. This business has made more than 10 times what I’ve made from my Boundless activities but in terms of total amount spent it would be flipped. Despite clear economic incentives and a massive audience (large SEO traffic on the blog, 15k YouTube subscriber), I find myself repeatedly struggling to create stuff for that niche.
Which is all to say that I sort of found two niches and one of them isn’t really something I’ve ever been all-in on. StrategyU is a niche defined by topics and Boundless is a niche defined by “Paul Millerd’s evolving interests.”
This was not always the case. While I’ve lost my connection to the writing about strategy and consulting skills, the early writing I did on those topics was highly enjoyable and exciting. I was able to create a lot of the ideas that are still resonating. Yet I haven’t been able to get into that mode as reliably and I feel stuck whenever I think about needing to create more content. This is the biggest risk of a narrow niche – losing interest in the topics.
The way I’ve been dealing with this is by coming back to the most important thing: finding a mode. For the past few years, I was stuck, likely by some combination of my own lack of imagination and some real limits of my audience’s expectations. But I think I now have a path forward. In doing virtual training workshops with companies, I’ve been able to tap back into a mode that brings me alive helps me be excited about creating again. But leaning in this direction will inevitably mean that some of my income streams that are downstream of content creation may dwindle over time.
Which is fine, because after being in this weird creator world and fully supporting myself doing this kind of work for the last four years, I realize that the only thing that matters is having the energy, excitement, and motivation to keep going.
Finding a niche is great but the game never changes. You need to be able to continue to find a mode where you can keep showing up.
The Promise Of A Niche
The financial incentives of creating and sharing online have become obvious but I think many people that are reading this article probably desire something more. The real promise of creating and sharing things online is that it gives the opportunity to support yourself while doing work you care about. It’s also the chance to experience the magic of the art of creation which provides a portal to connect deeply to yourself, others, and the world around you.
This is what I experienced writing this article. Many of the words flowed out of me in a magical transmission that I don’t really understand but occurs reliably enough that I am sure I want to keep writing indefinitely.
If you take away one thing from what I am trying to convey its that niches are not an end state. They are not something you arrive at. They are simply a byproduct of a state where you continue to create and share things. I think this is also why Visa Veerasamy’s “do 100” prompt is so powerful. It eliminates every single goal except one: just doing stuff.
If you do 100 of something, you will simply have a lot of experiences to reflect on. You will see how your curiosity shifts. You will see how others react. You will see if you give up. If you make it to 100? You get to know the real secret: that there is no arrival.
The whole game is to keep playing the game and the secret to that is probably not finding a niche but finding the mode which enables you to play.
Just published! The Pathless Path is Paul's book about walking away from a "perfect" job with a promising future and starting over again. Through painstaking experiments, living in different countries, and a deep dive into the history of our work beliefs, Paul pieces together a set of ideas and principles that guide him from unfulfilled and burned out to what he calls "the pathless path" - a new story for thinking about work in our lives. Learn More & Buy The Book Here