Success is multi-faceted, with so many factors that can make or break your business. But there’s one factor that’s underappreciated…and super important. That’s the ability to FOCUS your product niche.

Pretend, for a moment, you’re at the doctor’s office. You’ve been told you’ll need extensive open-heart surgery. Uh oh.

Would you expect your General Practitioner to perform the surgery? Of course not. That’s what specially trained heart surgeons are for.

Even your surgeon isn’t planning to do every task at your surgery. There will be an administrator at the front desk when you arrive to help you fill out paperwork. There will be one nurse to put in your IV, and another to assist during the procedure. An anesthesiologist will make sure don’t feel a thing and that you wake up afterwards. (Yay!) Everyone has their role to play.

And so do you!

In the business of online courses, your role is to teach about a specific topic that you’re passionate about. It’s your job to be the expert in one area, just like the surgeon’s one job is to fix your heart. And it’s your job to build a community — a tribe — that’s engaged and excited about what you have to offer.

Other reasons you should focus:

Picking one area you care about is vital in maintaining your interest over the long term. If you try to take on too many subject areas at once, you’ll become quickly overwhelmed. If you choose just one topic, but it’s something you’re only marginally interested in, you won’t be able to maintain your enthusiasm for long. If you want to keep your business profitable for the long haul, and generate enthusiasm among your tribe, you need to find something you really care about.

Your niche helps define your brand. Do you want people to refer to you as “Oh yeah…that guy…what does he do, again?” Or would you rather be known as “The email marketing guru for small businesses” or “The go-to guy for helping web designers get better gigs”? The more specific your area of expertise, the easier it is for your students (and the general public) to identify who you are and what you do.

Companies that can’t figure out their core focus often fail. They become disjointed, can’t decide what their priorities are, and pass that confusion on to the customer, who decides to bring their business elsewhere. That’s a risk we don’t recommend you take.

One great example of a business that lost its focus is Radio Shack.

Radio Shack has been in a consistent decline for years now, and there are many reasons why. We think its biggest problem is an identity crisis that stems from its lack of focus.

Radio Shack’s somewhat limited inventory can’t compete with behemoth brick-and-mortar stores like Best Buy and Target, or internet retailers like Amazon. On the other hand, it has too many diverse items in stock to become a niche destination like an Apple store. Radio Shack doesn’t know what it’s good at, so it languishes at the bottom of the pack.

AmEx Open Forum sums up the problem:

“Focusing your product line—and staying committed to that focus—is the key to building a strong brand. The adage ‘jack of all trades, master of none’ certainly can apply [to Radio Shack].”

Let’s make sure your business doesn’t develop unfocused Radio Shack Syndrome. How should you focus your online courses? How exactly do you decide what you’re good at? It’s easier than you think. Start out by making a three column list:

In Column 1, list all of your INTERESTS, no matter what they are. For example: I’m interested in classic cars, Ruby programming, and vegan cooking.

In Column 2, list all of your SKILLS, the things you’re good at doing. For example: I’m good at Ruby programming, writing/reading/speaking, and oil changes.

In Column 3, list all of the INDUSTRIES in which you have experience. For example: I’ve worked in the tech and customer service industries.

Next, see if you can create a niche by combining things from two or three columns.

Using the above examples, this person who is a Ruby programmer with good language skills might decide her niche is teaching English to programmers from non-English speaking countries.

It’s a much narrower focus than “teaching English” or “teaching Ruby,” which may be too broad for your first online course adventure.

Go ahead and create a few different niches, and write them down. Which one are you most excited about? Which one feels like it will be a viable product? Which one will you be able to build a passionate tribe around? That’s the area you should begin to focus on.

Once you have your niche, make sure that’s where you’re spending the majority of your time. What we mean is, don’t waste too much time on the secondary tasks of building your business — always focus your efforts on your core competency.

One way to make sure you stay focused is to enlist Technology Helpers (software, services, and apps) to handle all of the stuff that doesn’t fall into your core competency. This stops you from becoming “insanely proficient at useless tasks,” as Nathan Barry explains in this great podcast about productivity. And after all this talk about focus, you won’t be surprised to hear that the best Technology Helpers are also focused on doing one task really, really well.

For example, Summit Evergreen focuses on being the best at one thing — delivering online courses. We don’t focus on video production, list building or audio transcription — because we integrate with services that do those better than we ever could.

So, instead of spending hours building your “English for Ruby Programmers” course by hand, you can do it in minutes with Summit Evergreen. You don’t have to worry about sending your course-related emails or dripping your content manually, because the platform takes care of it all for you. That’s extra time you can put towards becoming the best English teacher that the Ruby community has ever seen.

Look for other “best of the best” Technology Helpers to save time. We recommend Wistia for all of your video creation needs, and Stripe for your payment processor. Both of these hook directly into Summit Evergreen, so using them is a snap.

In general, the influx of new technologies that allow different platforms to talk to each other — think the Cloud and APIs — is great for you. You’re no longer limited to picking just one overarching platform or software that does a mediocre job at a lot of things (sounds like Radio Shack!). It’s now possible to pick and choose singular platforms that are the best in their category, and connect them to other platforms that are the best in their categories.

Basically, you can build yourself a custom team of Technology Helper awesomeness. You no longer need to be an expert at everything from web development to video creation to email marketing to have a successful online course. You can let your Helpers do it for you, easily.

Now, with all this time and energy you’re saving, we hope you’re spending it mastering your niche. If that’s the case, and you’re doing really well, there may come a time when you want to expand your course offerings. Certainly, gigantic businesses expand all the time, some successfully, some not. As long as you don’t lose your focus, expansion is a great thing.

When you’re ready to grow, do it wisely. Think about keeping your new products and new ideas connected to your niche in some way.

You could expand within your VERTICAL.

If you sold toilet paper to drugstores, and then decided you wanted to manufacture the toilet paper in your own factory, you’d be expanding within your vertical.

Expanding in your vertical makes a lot of sense. You’re still dealing with your main course topic, but you’re delving more deeply into it. For example, your “English for Ruby Programmers” could expand to become a course solely about “Grammar for Ruby Programmers.”

Or, you could expand within your HORIZONTAL.

If you sold toilet paper to drugstores, and then decided you would sell paper towels to drugstores, you’d be expanding within your horizontal.

Entrepreneurs who like to jump from one unrelated project to the next sometimes like to use “horizontal expansion” as their excuse. But your new course still has to have a strong connection to your niche.

For example, your “English for Ruby Programmers” could expand to “Email Marketing for Ruby Programmers.” Or a course teaching “English for Java Programmers.”

Proceed with caution if you take the horizontal approach. Don’t expand too far! Think like Brennan Dunn. When he launches a new product, no matter what the topic, it’s always targeted to the same audience: freelancers. He doesn’t have to rebuild his email list for each product, or scramble to establish himself as an expert in an unrelated field, because he grows with his list of 10,000+ freelancers in mind.

But before YOU start thinking about expanding, it’s time to focus on focusing! We want you to become the go-to expert in the niche that excites you most…with a tribe of committed students who are pumped to learn everything you have to share.

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