Find a niche. It's what we're trained to do as entrepreneurs. Zig when others zag. Differentiate and localize your services. Above all, concentrate your resources and play to your strengths.

Though we've all seen the flip side of finding a niche: those moments when we see a need in our home industry that isn't being met, that falls outside the specific services of our own business. These moments are particularly poignant when we know things could be better, and we actually have a real sense of what to do about it.

So, although it isn't our niche, we start an initiative to drive change in an industry we love. It's an uphill battle from the start, but it matters, so we do it.

Right away, you can practically hear the naysayers and their objections. "You're straying from your mission!" "Investors won't be happy!" "Who's going to mind the store when you're gone?" And, "You're taking your eye off the ball!"

All of which may be true. Nevertheless, you persist. Because it matters, this thing in your own industry that you want very much to do drive change around.

I've seen it happen in the wine industry, my home base as an entrepreneur. Every industry has its challenges and wine's challenges hit hard, from alcohol abuse to depression to pay inequality between genders.

For Stevie Stacionis, it's an honor to be able to fill a need as an entrepreneur, both as the owner of Bay Grape wine shop in Oakland, California and as the founder of the the Bâtonnage Forum, which is an annual gloves-off conference that educates the trade and supporters around the challenges and opportunities women face in the wine world. ("Bâtonnage" is a winemaking term that means "stirring the lees" or, more generally speaking, stirring the pot.)

That makes Stacionis a successful entrepreneur twice over. Here's how she used three very challenging questions to accomplish what matters, even though it's outside her niche.

1. Do you really need another thing to do?

Typically the answer to this question is no, we do not need another thing to do, not even a little. As Stacionis puts it, "I had already lamented that I had zero bandwidth, and then I went and got myself sucker-punched with massive event planning."

She persisted, however, because she saw the need for a women-in-wine organization that prioritizes intersectionality rather than exclusivity (as membership-based organizations felt). Rather than overly focus on one portion of the industry, she wanted to bring people with disparate backgrounds together. That's what wine, and the Bâtonnage Forum she created can do.

Still, it's a mountain of work and there's no way around it but through. There's no sense sugar-coating the resolution of this challenge, either. To pull it off, Stacionis slept less, worked more, spent her one day off per week working on the conference, "and generally was a stressed out and short-tempered wife and mother."

2. Are you prepared for how big it can be?

The kind of initiatives we're talking about strike a chord. It's reasonable to anticipate an enthusiastic response, but you'll also want to think through contingency plans if (or when) it exceeds expectations.

"I was shocked at how large the event grew, at how quickly it gained momentum," Stacionis said, who needed to adapt to literally hundreds more people attending the inaugural conference than she expected.

What do you do in that situation?

Use your village. Pull their recommendations and vendor contacts. Ask what else you need to know, to consider, to plan for. Also ask for discounts. Invest.

Pull it off, and then sign up to do it all again next year.

3. Can you line up help who can actually help?

The second result of starting an initiative that strikes a chord is that everyone will offer their help. But that doesn't mean that everyone can actually help.

Follow-through in the help department is often lacking in these situations, not out of ill-will or irresponsibility, but simply because the promise of free help gets pushed to the very back burner in the face of day-to-day realities.

What to do now?

Cut the wheat from the chaff, Stacionis advises. Identify a smaller, fiercely dedicated team that have some skin in the game. Ask for help clearly and in precise ways, and create a compelling reason for them to follow through.

Published on: Dec 27, 2018
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