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The best advice for transitioning to a new niche business

Ashley Gainer's Layout avatar

You’re bored. You’re restless. You’ve grown. You’ve found some greener grass somewhere else.

For whatever reason, you look at your pipeline and you kind of would really just rather…maybe not do those gigs.

What happens when you reach this point in your web design career? When everything is ho-hum and not quite cutting it and just starting to irritate you (or maybe even irritate you a ton)? Maybe it’s the clients. Maybe it’s the color schemes you’re using over and over. Maybe it’s the “problem you solve” that you’d rather not solve anymore.

Whatever the reason, when you get to this point you’re at a crossroads: keep doing what you’re doing, or do something else.

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That whole “doing something else” thing doesn’t necessarily have to be as scary as it sounds, though. I’m not necessarily suggesting you pack up shop and go open a dog-walking business. What I’m suggesting, though, is that you take a look at your niche business and whether or not you want it to be your niche for much longer.

Change isn’t a bad thing

I’ve been freelancing since 2010, so I’m not the oldest of “old timers” but I do have a lot more experience and perspective than the average freelancer in the wild. If there’s one thing I’ve learned in all these years of freelancing, it’s this:

Don’t deliver the final product until you’ve received the final payment.

mobile phone and two dollar bills in hand

But that’s not what we’re talking about today, is it? Nope, we’re talking about pivoting. And here’s what I’ve learned about that:

Pivoting your business isn’t as scary as you might think it is.

I’ve pivoted multiple times. I’ve changed the services I offer. I’ve changed industries. I’ve niched down. I’ve niched up. I’ve rebranded (twice). And through it all, my business has survived.

Talk to anyone who has a long-time web design business, and they’ll most likely tell you that their business has changed over the years. Very few of us have the same business we started with—and your story will likely be the same.

So when you’re feeling that restless-to-the-bone feeling, or when you’ve had a flash of insight into what you really want your ideal client to be, or when you just want to give a new idea the shot it deserves, it’s time to hop to it and pick a new niche business.

Note: change doesn’t have to happen all at once

Some people will want to focus solely on the new niche, dropping everything they already have and going full-force in the new direction.

This isn’t how I personally like to operate, but if you think your business can withstand the gap in clients and you can’t fathom operating any other way, then by all means go for it.

For the more cautious of us, here’s how you switch to a new niche relatively painlessly:

Step 1: Find your niche

man looking at cluttered wall with ideas graphics and strategy

You may know exactly who your new ideal client is. But even if you do, you’ve still got some research to do.

Get clear on what your new niche is. Is it a type of business? An industry? A specific type of website?

Once you’ve identified the person who’s going to hire you, you need to figure out how to reach them. Where do those people hang out and how can you get in front of them? This is the key to all successful marketing.

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One thing you can do is find the online “water coolers” where your ideal clients are hanging out, and listen to the language they use to talk about their problems. This will help you with your positioning when you do get in front of them.

Step 2: Target all your marketing to the new niche

This should make sense for two reasons.

First, if you’re going to move to a new niche, you need to leave the old one behind. No more going for business in the old niche.

Second, once you find your new niche, you obviously need to start getting work in that market. The best way to get work there, of course, is to be marketing in it.

Step 3: Survive the transition

While you wait for your marketing efforts to kick in, you’ll be in the transition period. This is the exciting part, though!

As you wrap up old projects and you get leads for projects in the new niche, let the old projects naturally phase out as you build up your new client base

graphics and design board on desktop machines on wooden desk

Being able to replace old-niche clients with new-niche clients is ideal, but the reality is that sometimes it takes a little while to get established in the new market. This is the transitional part of the process, and it’s where you’ll have to make a few judgment calls. 

While you wait for your new niche to pick up, you’re probably going to get some leads from the niche you’re leaving behind. What do you do with those folks, when you’ve got gaps in your business that you’re hoping will be filled with clients from your new area of expertise?

In short, use your best judgment. Some people will tell you that you need to be fully committed to the new niche and not let “old baggage” get in your way. They might even label it as fear if you keep taking the old clients.

The way I see it, you can take a leap of faith, turn those clients down, and hold out for work with only your ideal clients; or you can choose to take on all the work that comes your way. Either way is a viable option. Choosing to take on work from the old niche might mean you slow your transition, but at the same time that might be what you need to do to keep the lights on.

No one likes a dip in income, but some dips are tolerable. It’s up to you to decide how much a dip you’re willing to take.

Step 4: Start dropping clients in the old niche

Once your docket is full and your pipeline in the new niche is in place, it’s time to move out of transition mode and fully embrace your new identity as a web designer.

man and woman sitting on blue couch with tablet and laptop

This means saying goodbye. 

If you’ve structured your business to be more than just designing websites—for example, offering recurring services for clients (like monthly maintenance plans, etc.)—it’s time to cut ties. When you have an ideal client wanting a monthly package from you and there’s no room left, you’ll need to make space by booting an existing client from the old market.

Firing a client is never fun, especially if it’s a good client. But if you want to be working 100% in your new niche, you’ll need to part ways at some point. You could choose to carry the old clients until you can’t handle your workload anymore, you outsource that work to an assistant, or natural attrition causes you to part ways.

No matter when you decide to cut ties, though, be conscious not to leave your clients high and dry. Wrap up every bit of work you committed to, explain that your services are changing, and offer to refer them to another designer. If possible, this can be much less awkward if there’s a natural break in your services with them.

Have you ever switched niches? Does it seem intimidating or is the idea business-as-usual for you?

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