What are the keys to carving out success in a niche market when launching and operating on a shoestring budget? Here are the 7 key lessons we've learned starting Veilability, a platform to discover and book wedding venues, streamlining the way the world plans weddings.
1. Get out of the building!
This mindset of meeting with, listening and authentically engaging with your customers was repeatedly reinforced to me during my early days creating Veilability, and has set the foundations for almost every strategic decision we have made throughout our rollout. Taking the time to gain a deep understanding of their needs is essential for creating a product which truly resonates with your customers. In our case, as it is for all 2 sided marketplace platform businesses, this involved connecting with users on both sides of our market. If value is not present in the product design for one side of the marketplace, on-boarding will prove difficult and interactions will not occur--creating a negative spiral destined to fail.
2. Clarity on business model from the outset
Unless you are a social enterprise, the goal is usually to make money. Deciding how and when to monetize is one of the biggest challenges facing all startups. There is no one-size-fits-all answer to this question. Here's a few suggestions based on our experience with the revenue model puzzle: Have a clear plan from the outset on exactly who is going to pay you, how much they are likely to pay and when you will monetise. Free trials can be a useful tool for reducing onboarding friction with users and giving you time to prove the value to them first. Choose a business model which aligns with your ambitions and business strategy, and don't settle on bringing in early revenues which might compromise this. As a 2-sided marketplace model, we chose with Veilability to only introduce billing once we had achieved 3 key value points: SEO leadership, high levels of engagement and demonstrated value/ROI to both sides of our market. Revenue is king. If there is opportunity for early revenue which doesn't compromise your bigger picture, grab it!
3. Actively seek advice from targeted advisors and experts
You are never short on advice when it comes for startups, but sometimes it be conflicting and overwhelming. From the outset at Veilability, we have taken a very deliberate approach of determining exactly what advice we were looking for and then actively seeking out experts across the globe who could add the most value to our growing company. Our expertise requirements have changed over time, but it is amazing the calibre of experts willing to help if you just put yourself out there.
4. Make yourself accessible to potential and current customers
Customer service today is very different to days gone by where communication was typically direct via in-person, phone and email. Using online ticketing systems, live chat, social media and mass-personalised email ensure customers always feel connected to you. More important is listening for and responding to feedback, both positive and negative, and which seldom comes through formal channels. We use tools such as Sprout Social for detecting chatter about our brand and as a platform for managing communication around the same.
5. Stay agile to competitors
With Veilability, we knew that with a number of strong incumbents operating in the wedding space generally, that competing directly at a general level as a newcomer would be very expensive and likely ineffective. We further niched our offering to target couples actively looking to discover, compare and book their wedding venue (just 1 of 18 services they need to book for their wedding, but the first thing they book, something they are actively searching and highest ticket item at a wedding). We constantly monitor competitor activity in terms of product and how they are tracking in online and social performance and engagement.
6. Get personal
One of the biggest tech trends predicted for 2016 is personalization, extending across product, marketing and content domains. We are seeing a movement away from mass mega-markets towards products and services, which create an authentic connection with their audience. Being niche is at the core of this shift, with success ultimately measured by how well we satisfy our audience. The more you can tailor your marketing efforts towards the unique needs of every individual user, the better your acquisition and conversion results and the lower the costs.
7. Leveraging no or low cost marketing for awareness and acquisition
One of biggest challenges of any start-up company is educating the market and creating demand. Being niche though, means we can be much more targeted in our marketing channels and messaging and thus generate awareness for much lower cost. Here's some things that have worked for us at Veilability in maximising our marketing on a bootstrapped budget:
- Ads: Think running various ad campaigns on social channels (Instagram, Facebook, Pinterest, Snapchat, Twitter). Also think free tools such as Google AdWords Keyword Planner.
- Informal Influencer Outreach: Who is trending on social channels within your niche? Can you offer them something in return, such as exclusive promotion of a great new tool for their niche (your product!).
- Media: Same as above, but through online and print publications. The critical thing here is sharing your story with a receptive audience where you are positioned as the authority.
- Partnerships: Partners can provide a key element to successful traction, in particular in early days, for niche startups. Look at strategic partnerships with products/capabilities/services complimentary to your offering. Consider the value or currency provided by each party, which can be as simple as exchanging customers for money.
- Create & Share Valuable Content: We found providing contextual content for your audience on a blog and/or social media channels is not only one of the lowest cost strategies but delivers on SEO value, creates trust and engagement and amplifies brand currency.
- Use your customers to help: Help users tweet your praises, giving five star ratings, click the thumbs up, favouriting your site on social media sites and even being inspired to positively blog about your offering.
Going niche is a powerful strategy. Ultimately, the key to success is determining the niche space you have passion for with the profit potential. Being bootstrapped comes with constraints, but it also allows for the opportunity to get creative and only spend money on things that will bring value. Stay true, play hard and success will come.