Find a niche, they say. Narrow down your focus, they say. They say this with the best intentions – they’re giving really good advice to someone with a new business. If you can narrow down your niche – that is, the specific area, skills, services, industry, clients you want to target – you have a better chance of successfully marketing your business. And that definitely works. But what if you’re unable to narrow down your niche? What if you have so many interests and skills and strengths and courses and careers and industries under your belt that the thought of narrowing down your work to just one thing is terrifying? What if it’s near impossible?
That’s the situation I’m in right now. Earlier this year I officially started a business as a virtual assistant. The company name is Practically Virtual Assistance. My tagline is, “Providing practical assistance to take your business to the next level. Virtually!” I specialize in communications and administration, but I’m finding it nearly impossible to further narrow down my niche, to narrow down my service offerings and my ideal client. You see, I’m what’s called a Scanner personality.
I’m a Scanner personality.
Barbara Sher coined the term “Scanner” in her 1994 book, I Could Do Anything If I Only Knew What It Was, defining it as someone who is hard-wired to have many passionate interests rather than just one single driving passion.
A Scanner is a person with an unusually wide range of interests and intense curiosity in unrelated subjects, along with a low tolerance for boredom.
Sher likens Scanners to honeybees, which fly from one flower to another without spending much time at any one place, just long enough to get what they need. In the same way, a Scanner only pursues an interest until she has learned enough to master it, and then moves on. Getting bored with some project is not a failure, merely a signal indicating that you got what you wanted out of it – for a Scanner this means mission accomplished. Scanners have also been called “Polymaths,” “Multi-potentialites” and “Renaissance Souls.” Marie Forleo even coined a similar term for businesspeople, “Multipassionate Entrepreneurs.”
I learned of the term Scanner about 10 years ago, and almost laughed out loud when I read the list of typical indicators. Looking at my work history, which includes six different careers in over a dozen industries in five different countries, it’s clear I love to pursue different subjects. More precisely, I love to learn new things to the point of mastering them, then I move on to a new adventure. And this has included both hobbies and careers. Most people cannot see the connection between most of my past jobs, but I know exactly how each one led to the next. Customer Relations Specialist in Canada to English as a Second Language Instructor in South Korea? That’s easy – I had wanted to live abroad for years, and I just happened upon the language school in Seoul that had the contract with Korean Airlines to teach their pilots English. Prior to Customer Relations, I had been a Flight Service Specialist in two different airports, and was an expert in aviation lingo. Voilà. Add in my bachelor of arts degree, and I’m suddenly teaching pilots English in South Korea. For the next two years, anyways. Honeybee, indeed.
An interest in freelancing was sparked.
Fast forward 15 years and a couple five careers later… Last fall I was looking for another course to take towards a post-grad certificate (taking classes is an underlying theme in most Scanners’ lives), and came across one that taught the business side of freelance editing. This class inspired me even further to get into freelancing (I had gotten a spark from a freelance journalism workshop a couple years before). However, being the Scanner I am, the thought of JUST editing for the rest of my life freaked me out. So I started to make lists of possible services I could provide as a freelancer. I wrote down everything I had high level skills or knowledge in, along with all the industries I had worked in. Here’s one of the simpler pages from that brain dump:
Then I thought about what I love to do. That was easy: Learn things. And solve problems. Oh, and help people. And teach people. And improve things. And edit things. Okay, so maybe it wasn’t so easy to narrow this down. These are all pretty general things. And I’m really good at them all, if I do say so myself.
That was a long week of soul-searching. What I was able to narrow down is a couple of underlying themes: communications and administration. Even before I got into communications as a career (actually a couple different careers), I had always been a decent writer and great proofreader, and I loved to explain things to people. And, in every job I’d ever had I always enjoyed implementing processes, streamlining administration, and mastering technology. But could I make this a viable business? Around that same time, I happened to see a friend of a friend post on social media something about becoming a virtual assistant. Another dozen web browser tabs opened (also typical for Scanners is always having far too many browser tabs and windows open), and I was hooked on the idea of virtual assistance. Surely people needed my skills in their businesses and organizations. And surely people needed them on a contract basis. From that, the plan to become a virtual assistant was hatched.
The plan to become a virtual assistant was hatched.
I joined online virtual assistance communities, absorbing any knowledge I could about how to start a business in this fast-growing industry. I registered my company, got myself a basic online presence, and started to tell people what I did. The good news is that I now have a few good clients. (Whew!) The not so good news is that from all sides I get the message that if I could narrow down my niche I’d be able to improve my marketing and therefore increase my earning potential. Having such a wide offering of services as I do will keep my business from growing.
But as a Scanner, I don’t think I CAN narrow down my niche. Well, technically I COULD narrow down the number of services I offer so I focus on just one or two things that I’m good at, but I wouldn’t be happy. I know that. Doing the exact same thing day after day bores me. Doing JUST Facebook marketing all day every day would exhaust me quicker than you can say cost-per-click. JUST managing Infusionsoft accounts for the rest of my life would make me a fairly cranky Scanner. But doing a bit of both each day along with various other tasks has a nice ring to it. Some communications, some administration. I like short-term projects, but I also like a mix of longer-term projects as well. And having different kinds of clients in different industries is really appealing.
So I’m faced with a dilemma: either narrow down my niche enough so I can effectively target one particular client pool and therefore ramp up my income but inevitably become bored and unfulfilled, or maintain my wider buffet of service offerings – without naming a specific industry – which fulfills my need for varied work tasks but won’t allow me to optimally scale my business growth.
And that’s the goal, isn’t it? Scaling my growth to increase my income potential?
But growth isn’t necessarily about money. Although, let’s be honest – money is important. But more important for me is using my skills to help people. Mastering skills comes easily to me. And growth to me is more about being able to continuously explore and master different skills so I can offer them to people in various industries who need my help. That doesn’t seem to jive with narrowing down a niche.
Not narrowing down my business to a single niche might be the answer for me. It would allow me to use my varied areas of expertise to help people, solve problems and teach people, all while earning a livable income. I’ve already grouped the services into two general areas (communications and administration), and I’ve even thrown in a third, albeit related, specialization which I’m calling online management.
I started writing this to examine whether a Scanner personality like myself could (should?) find a specific niche to focus her new business on. I think I’ve concluded that no, I shouldn’t. At least not until the day comes that I find something that I could imagine myself doing repeatedly every day without getting bored. Or worse, unhappy. I’ll stick with my general areas of communications and administration, and for now I’ll leave my target client industry as ‘undecided.’ Much like my university major in my first two years.
For now I’ll leave my target client industry as ‘undecided.’ Much like my university major in my first two years.
I wonder if you’ve got any advice for a Scanner on how to effectively market a virtual assistance business, without ‘narrowing down your niche.’ Are there other Scanners who’ve successfully dealt with this issue?
PS: If you’re interested in seeing a typical multi-potentialite’s career progression, take a peek at my LinkedIn profile: linkedin.com/in/heather-evens-canada.