John Bracamontes | Crain's

In this ongoing series, we ask executives, entrepreneurs and business leaders about mistakes that have shaped their business philosophy.

John Bracamontes

Background:  

Acumen Studio is a St. Louis-based digital marketing agency. It provides clients with services including digital analytics, content marketing, search engine optimization and social media marketing.

The Mistake:

Choosing a market niche that was too narrow.

We were focused only on large financial institutions like hedge funds and private equity firms. Everything seemed to be going well at first, but it was an extremely narrow niche. We just didn't close those deals and the market wasn't right for it yet. But we were so focused that we weren't getting any other business. And we were so narrowly focused that, even if someone else wanted to work with us, it would have been chaos.

A lot of the advice today is about finding that niche, and I approached it in that way. But it's extraordinarily difficult to push through when you're first starting out. We had to broaden our market because we were floundering with that approach. The bank account was in the red for months and, essentially, I had to close down what we were doing and rebuild from there.

At the time, I had a group of people working with me and a good network of contractors. But it went back down to me and just one contractor. We essential restarted in a new direction. I call it the grind time. It was focusing on the deliverables and taking the measurement on the industry that we knew we wanted to be in and thinking about how we were going to be able to diversify, but still be able to cater to different subsets of clients.

It is smart to look for a niche, but you shouldn't go so narrow that you can’t escape that single route.

The Lesson:

Right now we are talking to commercial printing companies, and we still talk to hedge funds and private equity groups. We go after accounting firms and also industrial clients. Our model can fit any one of these industries. We've created flexibility in our programming and in our own services that make them more universal, but more easily tailored to different industries.

It's unfortunate that some people had to find other jobs, but the thing that was great about going back to a two-person shop was getting the focus and spending the time on building the product better to scale and move forward. I see us in the future being more specialized than we are now, but we had to open that umbrella to do more business with more industries.

It is smart to look for a niche, but you shouldn't go so narrow that you can’t escape that single route. Instead, create a niche that has a wealth of opportunities that still match the passion and direction you want to go in, but will allow you to explore your products and services to make them better. You have to have an opportunity that's large enough to sustain you.

It sounds generic, but it's about finding an industry where there are opportunities. You’ve come up with what you think is a great idea, but you have to go through the old-school process of getting out there and getting feedback from your target audience. Also talk to the people who influence those customers — like middlemen — to find out if there's any additional opportunity in the market.

Sometimes people will go way too large and say, “I'm going to capitalize on this huge industry or that extraordinary broad market.” The other extreme is where you’re basing your research on just a few experiences. But you're going to have to canvass to find out if the problem exists in more than just a handful of instances. That takes work, and it could kill a dream. But being a little more realistic about that market opportunity and researching your target niche before jumping in is massively beneficial.

Acumen Studio is on Twitter at @AcumenStudio and John Bracamontes is at @JohnBracamontes.

Photo courtesy of John Bracamontes, Acumen Studio.

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