Rachel Schofield: How and why I chose my niche
How do you decide on your career coaching niche? Will a niche choose you? Do you even need to niche? Firework Career Coach and facilitator Rachel Schofield shares insights from her journey to discover her coaching specialism.
Whether you pronounce it British style to rhyme with quiche, or US fashion to rhyme with twitch, the idea of finding a satisfying and viable niche was a constant hum in the background of my early coaching journey and remains a rich seam of thought for me to mine the more I coach.
A quick Google search for “coaching niche” throws up over 100,000 results, and the first few might make you feel, like me, a little queasy: “20 Hottest Life Coaching Niches” … “100 High Ticket Life Coaching Niches” … “21 Life Coaching Niches that Can’t Fail in 2021”. Hmmmm.
I’ve been quick to reject that kind of distasteful dash towards some false guarantee of coaching riches and the nonsense idea that there are certain niches that can’t fail.
For me, I knew from the start that my niche needed to feel authentic and meaningful – something I could talk about with genuine passion and enthusiasm.
But I’ve also had no trouble accepting that, as I’m not coaching purely out of some philanthropic imperative, it makes good business sense to be clear who I serve and how I can help them – to stand out to potential clients by spelling out my particular area of expertise, and to have a mission statement of some description.
And there’s a deeper angle. I've realised that deciding who I like to work with, and where I feel I have the most powerful impact, is likely to make a radical difference to building a practice that interests and satisfies me.
Starting My Own Niche Journey
I confess that, so encouraged was I in my initial Coaching Academy and subsequent Firework training to consider a niche, certain websites now trigger a kind of Pavlovian response in my brain.
If I stumble across a coach offering to help the world and his wife “live your best life” or “reach your goals” or “overcome your blockers”, my fingers start itching to send them an email pointing out the terrible and ineffective vagueness of their proposal.
Deeply presumptuous, I realise. For all I know, these coaches could have thriving practices.
So what has my own niche journey looked like? And what honest reflections can I and other coaches I know share?
When I initially trained as a personal development coach in 2019, I toyed with various ideas about where to specialise.
Looking back now at those early days, it strikes me the importance of choosing an initial niche wasn’t really about attracting a particular type of client.
I hadn’t worked with a big enough range of people to know where I did my best work or found the greatest pleasure.
Back then, having a niche was more about providing me with a protective cloak of credibility to clothe my own wobbly new-coach confidence.
Saying I was a “life coach” would have felt like opening myself to a demoralising world of eye-rolls and scepticism. Bolt on a different word – be it Executive, Career, Transition, Health, Confidence, Divorce, Finance – and somehow I'd supercharged my powers and with it my self-belief.
We all know the coaching skills we’re using are fundamentally the same, but it somehow feels safer, more respectable. And we humans love to put people in boxes we understand.
We humans love to put people in boxes we understand.
How Niches Evolve: The Power of Familiar Territory
Linking your coaching to your established industry or sector seems an obvious choice.
When you're still in the learner zone as a coach, sometimes feeling vulnerable and inexperienced, holding fast to long-established credentials from elsewhere can feel deeply empowering.
A coaching friend of mine, Rachel Warren, of Another Perspective Coaching, started her practice among the retailers and marketeers who had been her colleagues for 20 years.
As she puts it:
“I understood their challenges and could talk to them in their language and had been a senior leader in their space for much of that time and I was comfortable with the pace and the, at times, aggressive nature of that world.
"My marketing skills around storytelling were a really valuable pairing to my coaching skillset, meaning I was able to help people translate their strengths and values into powerful narratives to build their confidence and self-belief and support them through redundancy or career change.
"Add to that I have experienced redundancy a number of times and have got myself back out there as well as career changed so have walked the walk.
"But I also worked for free for the first year, to get really clear on what people I was most effective in helping as well as understanding what coaching challenges I loved moving clients through. Luckily it worked out it was pretty much all the same space!”
Rachel’s LinkedIn profile now offers this pithy niche or mission statement: Supporting professionals to get the clarity they need to find and do a career they love.
And of course, by setting up in a world you know and where you are known, you have a ready network in play.
Another coaching colleague, Justyn Waterman, admits he hasn’t yet consciously decided on his exact niche, but one is already busy finding him!
An experienced teacher by profession, he has been approached by education organisations via LinkedIn who join the dots between his past and present life for him, resulting in some interesting collaborations and associate work.
In fact, as his work grows, he has realised his passion may be less about where he coaches but how.
So, whilst he is likely to continue to play to his strong ties within education, he is keen to potentially niche within group coaching, wherever that might take him.
By setting up in a world you know and where you are known, you have a ready network in play.
A Niche can be a Who not a Where
That kind of niche evolution is common.
As coaches we are enthusiastic advocates for learning from doing and many of us will find clarity as we work.
Fellow West London coach, Emily Bal, says she started off with a business card offering coaching to those in the creative industries, mirroring her own rich career hinterland.
But the more she worked, the more it became apparent to her that the “golden thread” that linked her favourite clients was less about their industry and more about where they were on their journey.
“I realised that I love working with mid-life, mid-level professionals who are rising up in their career, on the crest of the wave. What they need is confidence to move them forwards. And that can look like a lot of different things from career to weight loss. I wasn’t sure I wanted to be too niche.”
Emily now successfully positions herself as a Confidence Coach, giving her a certain type of client but with a stimulating variety of challenges.
Her Instagram bio reads Helping midlifers get unstuck and realise how extraordinary they are.
She offers coaching plus CV and interview support and has recently added colour analysis, after qualifying with the London College of Style.
All sit coherently under her Confidence umbrella.
As a BBC journalist with two decades of experience, I certainly considered niching within the media industry.
I often make the link between the deep questioning and listening I used as an interviewer and my new work as a coach, albeit with some significant differences around the desired outcome of any conversation!
It would have been a narrative that made sense to my former newsroom compatriots.
My brain told me it could be commercially viable.
And yet, my gut and my heart were also at play.
I was jaded and ready for a change from the world of journalism.
My brain told me it could be commercially viable. And yet, my gut and my heart were also at play.
A Niche based on Personal Experience
Like Emily, my niche journey has focused on the who, but added in the element of personal experience that also shapes many a coach’s decision about their offer.
So someone who has experienced loss may choose to specialise in coaching people through bereavement.
An experience of a nasty divorce, a challenging health condition, redundancy or founding a start-up can all form the basis of a powerful niche.
In my case, I have chosen to coach women very like me and my brilliant female friends.
Fellow mums just like those I have met at the school gates over the last decade.
Super smart women who have taken time out to raise their family and re-emerged as their children grow, a little less confident and feeling professionally somewhat invisible.
Ready to reinvent their work life and start a new adventure, but unsure what that could look like and how to move forwards.
Seeing how many women get left behind after their parenting journey, it’s a space where I feel passionate and keen to support change.
And yes, I sense-checked the finances of this niche, ensuring I was confident that women returners have the means to afford coaching.
So to go back to that concept of the niche “mission statement”, mine reads: Helping smart women redesign a workable career path after motherhood and regain your identity, confidence and self-fulfilment.
It’s found great resonance and feels valuable and meaningful and my client base is steadily growing.
The addition of my Firework Coaching licence has allowed me to develop my own tailored framework and overcome the particular challenges of coaching people who are keen on career change but are going around in circles!
I’m currently experimenting with some group work and hope to use my wider media and presenting skillset to offer an online course in 2022.
Seeing how many women get left behind after their parenting journey, it’s a space where I feel passionate and keen to support change.
My Niche is a Stepping Stone not a Millstone
Combining my old and new skills is important to me and I believe to many other coaches too, both as a second potential revenue stream but more importantly in my case, because I still hugely enjoy presenting and chairing.
I continue to put time into building the facilitation work I have always undertaken alongside my BBC career – now in part for Firework itself where I am delighted to host Fireside Chats and Masterclasses.
I also coach people on presentation skills and media work on an ad hoc basis but this may yet become a formal string to my bow.
This goes to show that a niche is perhaps only ever a starting point.
As creative thinkers and deep questioners, we coaches are no doubt particularly open to change, growth and evolution.
There's sometimes a fear that choosing a niche can be limiting – but nothing is set in stone.
No label needs to stop us changing, expanding or fine-tuning, both ourselves and our businesses.
I've had emails which begin “I’m not actually x, but I wonder if you might be able to help me with y …?”
I suspect because the potential client simply feels I'm a good fit for them – they might've heard me speak or followed things I've shared on social media. Or, particularly powerfully, because I've come recommended.
So whilst a label can definitely pull clients in, there’s a suggestion it rarely puts them off if the chemistry is right.
Emily Bal, who works predominantly through word of mouth, certainly thinks so. “If you’re a good coach, I’m not sure clients care that much about your niche. The niche helps people understand where you’re coming from, it starts the conversation, but then it moves on and I find it’s rarely referred back to.”
If you think about your own range of clients you may well agree.
Particularly those who have continued to work with you after their initial goals were achieved.
In my case, around 70% of my clients are a perfect match to my niche statement.
They are all women, but they are not, in fact, all mums.
Not all have taken a career break.
They are not all career changers.
Some are growing new businesses or looking for support transitioning into a promotion.
One current client is looking for support as she writes a book, which is proving fascinating!
Increasingly, I find I enjoy the variety and feel able to relax into it.
Whilst my niche gives me a solid foundation and a valuable focus for my marketing and networking, I remain open to opportunities and adventures.
I like to think it’s a sign of my growth as a coach and a greater belief in my skills.
So, although I continue strongly to embrace my niche, I am also learning to trust some of the most fundamental questions in any coaching relationship: Do I believe I can I help this person and they are able to be coached? Am I excited to work with them? Does it feel like the right fit for us both?
It’s been fascinating reflecting on the question of niches and I’m grateful to my coaching colleagues for their honesty, insight and wisdom.
Do you have a niche or have you consciously resisted the pressure to choose?
Are you a believer in the allure of the “specialist” or an advocate for the most simple foundations when deciding who you work with?
Have you found the journey to define your niche exciting or stressful?
Do share your thoughts in the Comments section below.
Rachel Schofield is a Firework-licensed Career Coach, Facilitator, Broadcaster and Speaker. Before making her own career pivot, she reported and presented for the BBC for over twenty years. Describing her career as "squiggly", Rachel now helps smart women design new and fulfilling career paths after motherhood. Find out more at www.rachelschofield.co.uk.