“This piece holds 60 cubic inches, so it’s appropriate as a partial urn or an urn for a pet weighing 60 pounds or less at the end of life.”

This is actual copy that accompanies the line of crystalline glazed pet urns that I make and sell through etsy. They’ve quickly become my most popular online product since I debuted them a couple of years ago, something that I never would have anticipated. I didn’t start making them as pet urns- I was making a line of small lidded jars glazed in bright colors and clients kept purchasing them for their recently departed pets. I quickly realized that this was an underserved market and altered my marketing and advertising efforts to reach these people. Soon, the orders started rolling in. If you had asked me five years ago where I thought my business would be in five years I would not have said “creating and marketing a line of high-end pet cremation urns,” but in Asheville, an area where “you can’t throw a stick without hitting a potter,” making a product that sets me apart from the masses has been invaluable for my business.

Pet cremation urns aren’t the only weird niche product out there; many successful small business owners have worked hard to figure out what they can offer that no one else can. A friend of mine is a wedding and portrait photographer, but his current obsession is underwater photography. His niche product? He’s combined his two interests into underwater wedding photography shoots: something that, as far as I know, no one else in the country offers.

The list goes on: another friend has combined his passion for ceramic design with Asheville’s beer obsession; he’s creating a line of handmade ceramic growlers. A local tattoo artist offers nipple tattoos to women who have undergone mastectomies. A pottery enthusiast friend has created a line of lotion specifically for potters because our hands take so much abuse.

This kind of niche product development isn’t necessary if you’re the only potter (or tattoo artist, or wedding photographer, or skincare creator) in town, but for most people in most small businesses, you’re going to face enough competition that doing something to set yourself apart can be the thing that makes or breaks your business. Furthermore, in the era of the internet, where you can market your goods or services to anyone, anywhere in the world, the market that you’re in is almost always going to be a saturated one.

So how do you figure out what your own niche product or service should be? Consider these four factors.

What Do Clients Ask For?

Except for mugs, all of the most popular products in my line started out as client requests. Someone asked me to make them a canister set when I was just starting out as a potter; I filled the order and made an extra one just in case. I ended up selling it quickly on etsy, and soon started receiving requests for them. Recently, someone approached me at a show and asked if I would make them a wine holder; I liked the idea enough that I made several and ended up selling them all at my fall shows.

A custom request means that at least one person is willing to the pay for the requested product or service, and I frequently find that if one person is willing to pay for it, others are as well. Often, members of your target demographic will have a better idea than you will of the products and services that others like them are seeking.

Can They Get It Someplace Else?

Once you’ve identified a niche product or service that you think might work for your business, do a little bit of market research to see if it’s readily available somewhere else. If you’re running a handmade business, spend some time poking around on etsy or on the websites of local craft shows to see if anyone else is selling something similar. Otherwise, plug a variety of search terms that people might use to describe your product or service into google and see what you come up with. (“Underwater photography,” “underwater wedding photography,” “unique wedding photo shoots,” etc.)

If you find that someone’s already capitalizing on your idea, that doesn’t necessarily mean that you need to throw it out the window; instead, assess to the best of your ability how much competition exists and whether it’s worth it to persevere. If you’re providing an in-person niche service in Des Moines, for example, someone providing something similar in upstate New York probably won’t cut into your profit margin.

Throw Lots of Things At The Wall To See What Sticks

I mentioned above that my most popular products started out as client requests or suggestions. However, I’ve also discovered that 90% of those suggestions won’t work for some reason. Sometimes that’s because the idea would be too time consuming to execute, or too costly, or it won’t work with the techniques that I’m using. (For example, I get lots of requests for custom dinnerware, but crystalline glaze doesn’t work well on a food surface.) Often though, it won’t work simply because it’s a bad idea: it’s not marketable or I don’t like it or it doesn’t fit with my aesthetic, like the time someone suggested I make tissue box covers and sell them at Wal-Mart. (I got the sense that he wasn’t too familiar with handmade work. Or Wal-mart.)

The difficult part of this process is listening to clients and taking in all of their suggestions, and then using your intuition to determine which ideas deserve follow up. I like to run small tests of any ideas that seem promising; approximately 80% of those ideas don’t ever make it out of the test phase, but the remaining 20% get incorporated into my line of work.

Innovate/Iterate On Your Stickiest Ideas

Finally, focus on improving the small number of products that survive the test phase. When I started marketing the pet cremation urns, that meant playing around with the design (tall jars, round jars, heart shaped jars) the glazes, and the price point. I quickly discovered that people were willing to pay a premium for these pieces, which enabled me to spend more time on each piece. That’s been the best part; I’ve never been much of a production potter, so being able to slow down and create a really nice final product is my favorite part of making these pieces.

Need a handmade pet urn? Get one here.

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