Niche Wisdom: How narrowing down expands your impact

Chris Clearfield
3 min readDec 10, 2020
Credit: Dockside Cannabis

What’s your niche?

My friend Oscar Velasco-Schmitz owns and runs Dockside Cannabis, a retail cannabis establishment. We had a fascinating conversation on my podcast.

Though Dockside is licensed and legal in Seattle, Oscar and his partners run a business that is, from a federal perspective, engaged in “an industrial act of civil disobedience.”

Despite that, they still have to think about all the things that normal businesses think about: branding, supply chain, health and safety, salaries, store design, and one of the most important considerations for any business: niche.

Dockside’s mission is to provide a delightful cannabis retail experience for the NPR listener.

Understanding that niche helps Dockside make decisions that cascade through their business. Their stores are rustic and airy. Their staff mirror their diverse customer demographic. And, by concentrating on a niche, Dockside continually expands their understanding of what their customers want.

The power of a niche shouldn’t be understated—but many firm owners (myself included!) struggle to embrace one. It feels downright scary to decline work. After all, doesn’t it make sense to keep our options open?

In short: no.

Consider a family law practitioner that I work with. She runs a thriving practice that focuses on collaborative divorce. Focus like that allows her to put all of her energies into understanding and serving her ideal customer. She still receives inquiries from clients who want litigated divorces, but she knows that saying yes to litigated cases drains her energy and moves her away from a process that she embraces and believes in.

For years, I struggled to articulate my niche. “I work with curious people?” “I help leaders build the capacity to manage complexity?”

That still describes what I do, but now I do it in a specific context: I help law firms and legal departments embrace uncertainty to change for the better.

For me, that doesn’t mean that I won’t do other kinds of work. Meltdown resonates with a lot of folks with engineering brains, so I still get really exciting opportunities to work with engineering and technology leaders.

But it does mean that I invest my efforts in understanding and connecting with my ideal customer-from solo law offices to Fortune 100 firms. I generate content specifically for these practitioners (on organizational change and goal setting, for example). And I grow my skills in ways that solve the kinds of problems that attorneys and innovators in this space have.

In many ways, it’s been scary for me to niche down. Curiosity is one of my superpowers—but it also dilutes my focus. I’ve had anxiety around closing doors. Will I, for example, still have “standing” (whatever that means) to write another book that appeals to a larger audience?

But my experience (and those of many professionals that I’ve worked with) is just the opposite. Niching down provides focus and the ability to grow faster because I’m encountering more of clients’ real problems (and getting more concentrated experience solving them).

Finally, I think that finding a niche is something that applies to professionals who work for someone else, too. Committing to sharpening a valuable skill set (whether that’s data science or management) will give you the ability to work on problems of increasing import. And, in many ways, the corporate world offers more flexibility to apply those skills to different kinds of problems. But the deep expertise is portable.

So… what’s your niche?

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Chris Clearfield

Host of The Breakdown™ podcast. Co-author of MELTDOWN, a book on why our systems fail & what we can do about it. A lot, it turns out.