“There are less than ten companies that serve the association market. Everyone knows who they are and they all have fifteen to thirty years of focused experience. We’re relatively new entrants. What would we have to do differently for a customer to choose us over one of the incumbents?”

This was the question I posed to two grizzled technology consultants that work in the market.

“Back in the nineties when we built and sold our software company we had the same problem,” one of them advised me. “I think you’re right. Differentiation is the magic key. For us, we were lucky enough to be building on a technology stack that enabled us to better adapt to the market… But it was a tough problem.” He paused and looked at his partner, “Jim, do you think we could have built that software today?”

The other consultant smiled and said, “Probably not. Too competitive.”

In my time in business, I’ve never seen any digital market that didn’t have stiff competition. If there’s an opportunity worth pursuing, someone started years ahead of you.

However, that doesn’t mean there aren’t opportunities. One of the working theories that I’m playing with is that success pushes businesses towards generalization.

For the top three competitors in the market we’re penetrating, none have a tight position in their communications. They all suggest that they work in the association market and other markets.

My theory is that focus enables a new business to steal market share from larger established businesses. At some point though, that new business hits a ceiling on available opportunities. They own the niche they selected, but they can’t grow beyond it. Additionally, they recognize that focus lowers their resilience to change. So they decide to build on their experience and expand to adjacent niches or the broader market. They rely more on their experience and resources and less on focus. This opens up opportunities, but it also makes them vulnerable to a smaller business coming in and slicing off a piece of their pie by being more focused.

For us, how I’m approaching this is to look for an additional layer to add to our positioning. Right now, we’re positioned on the association market. I’m investigating technology and specializations that further refine that position by focusing on specific software, situations, etc. An approach that would make us look more valuable and less risky, even when compared to a thirty-year veteran.

I’m aiming to create a specific fit for a certain context that will open opportunities that should be closed to us, like a magic key.