A couple years ago, I traveled to Denver for a Craftsy Instructor Summit.
I met AAAAAAAAAAAmazing people, plenty of them.
But one in particular stands out in my mind. . .
Her name is Beverly Johnson. Otherwise known as, “The Fairy Bra Mother.”
Based in Ontario, Canada, Beverly has created a complete resource for the “home sewist and independent custom bra maker” Her online store carries everything from lace to underwires. Her shop hosts live hands on education. Her online Craftsy classes are among their best selling.
She’s created an enthusiastic global community of bra makers.
I was beyond tickled. This charming lady is no timid seamstress: She is a fierce and resourceful entrepreneur. She identified a tiny-but-viable market, and set to work meeting it.
Beverly should be something of a muse to all of us.
Many upholstery shops feel like they’re chasing a small market, and they therefore try to chase all of it.
That’s some old school thinking.
If Beverly can build a business around bra makers, you can certainly get more selective in your services.
Rather than chasing every consumer, consider the real perks to a niche marketing strategy – ESPECIALLY if you’re an overworked army of one.
#1. Be the expert
You probably can’t be the best at everything (sorry!) but maybe you can be the best at SOMETHING.
Specializing allows you to delve deep, and become the knowledgeable, complete resource (some) clients are looking for.
There’s an upholstery shop in Minnesota called Galaxy Custom Booths. All they do is build custom residential booths.
As the owner of a teeny 1950’s kitchen, let me tell you that a built-in-booth is a game changer. No stupid chairs to climb over. Just sliiiiiiiiiiide in with your coffee. NICE.
Often, residential booths are built by a well-intentioned handyman. The upholsterer gets to show up later and figure out how to magic fabric on. Meh.
Paul Klapperich, owner and CEO of Galaxy, has the skills to do the whole job right – and they’ve been doing it since 1974. “I like to think we are the best at what we do”
You bet your butt.
I built the simple booth in our kitchen. It’s alright. Will I be adding booths to our St. Paul list of services anytime soon? hmmmmmmmmmmmmm NO.
Klapperich has created an entire business around doing the job well. He’s solved a million problems the rest of us haven’t even discovered yet. And he didn’t do it by offering a full palette of upholstery services. He did it by honing in hard on one niche he felt uniquely qualified to meet.
Go get ’em Paul. Anyone who asks about a custom residential booth? I’ll happily send them over. Even if they didn’t ask, I’ll put it in my blog and try to send them anyway.
Because EVERYBODY should have a booth in their house, for reals.
#2. Stand out
I follow a shop on instagram called Happy Campers of the South
I ADORE this page.
The creative force behind Happy Campers is Theresa Darby. Her marketing and services focus on custom vintage camper decor.
I think she does some other stuff, but really? It’s this little niche focus that is so appealing, because it’s unique, authentic, genuine. (And all her marketing is very clearly tailored to this specific message – that logo!!!!)
Girl, you make me want to sell the house and bring you a trailer. I’m gonna put in on a vision board.
Your niche doesn’t have to be your whole business – but leaning into something you do well, or something you’re passionate about, offers a way to stand out from the crowd.
Let’s be honest: a lot of upholstery pages look eerily similar.
What can you bring to the table that isn’t already offered in abundance?
Theresa says she kind of “fell” into her niche because she has a vintage camper and loves to sew. I think “fell” is a humble word choice. Theresa had these assets to work with, but she had to bring the vision, the focus, the marketing, the related products and services. She could have taken her sewing skills and set out to do very mainstream work, maybe sneak away to her vintage camper on the weekends. By pulling her passion into the sewing room, Theresa created an itty bitty niche that sets her apart in a great big way.
#3. Word of mouth
I worked for a few years with a super talented woman named Melissa Triviski. I can’t remember when it started, but by some coincidence, a custom go-cart seat landed in her queue.
This project would send a lot of us screaming.
But Melissa is kind of a badass.
Melissa is a sewing whiz, with years of experience in marine upholstery.
She dove in and made the craziest custom go-cart seat you ever saw. The customer was delighted.
And he told all his go-cart friends.
So she did another.
It got to be a small-but-ongoing gig.
I don’t think custom go-cart seats are a giant market. . . but people who are into go-carts talk with other people who are into go-carts.
There are active, social clubs for aficionados of everything from Dr. Who to Delorians.
Niche communities CONNECT.
Melissa managed to tap into the word of mouth pipeline. Make one go-cart customer happy, and other go cart customers will hear. Word of mouth in the digital age is faster and more sophisticated than ever.
A few thoughts for rocking the niche upholstery market . . .
1. Lean into what you know. . .
I think the beautiful part of establishing a niche marketing strategy is that it’s often right in front of us. It’s a natural extension of our personal experience or the unique resources around us.
This post isn’t about thinking “AWESOME! I want to be a fairy bra mother!!! Tell me – what’s a G-hook???”
Think about the clients YOU’RE serving most successfully.
Consider YOUR journey into the market.
Think of things YOU’RE passionate or knowledgable about.
(Your personal social media might provide some insight.)
DO NOT waste your precious and unique energy worrying about what your neighbor is already doing better:
LEAN INTO YOU.
2. Connect the dots . . .
The thing about a niche market is that maybe nobody has tapped it yet.
That is an opportunity, but it also means you won’t find a ready made group of customers.
If you have a niche in mind, how can you indirectly find those people?
If, for example, you’re selling custom booths, perhaps you want to target people with small kitchens? Perhaps small kitchens are common in pre 1960’s homes? (totally spitballing here. I have no idea how Galaxy targets their customers)
If you’re pursuing the vintage camper crowd, perhaps you want to target people with national parks passes. . . or . . . cowboy hats? Or well-worn copies of Lonesome Dove???? I actually have no idea – but I bet Happy Campers does.
Current cringe-worthy events aside, modern digital tools for reaching a very target market are INCREDIBLE.
When my mom started her business in 1980, she was putting out blast print advertising that hit everyone – and it cost her a fortune!!! Now, with a little research and effort, you can pinpoint the exact folks who are likely to be excited about your specific area of expertise. And you don’t even have to drop a load of cash – But you DO have to put on your thinking cap . . .
#3 Cull your workload . . .
Here’s the though part: In order to really develop a niche, you have to let other things go.
I know that’s uncomfortable, the idea of leaving money on the table.
But really what you’re doing (if you’re doing it right) is making more room on the table for the flavor of money you prefer.
You don’t have to do it overnight, but it helps to know where you’re trying to go. Then, when overwhelm sets in, you can feel clear about what to jettison.
Old school thinking says hang onto everything: If you MUST let something go, farm it out, but retain the client. Get an underling, and mark up the work.
I even have clients tell me this, when I refer them out: “I’m comfortable with you, I’d like to give you the work, I understand if you want to subcontract to another shop, but I don’t want you to lose the income.”
But listen: I’M OKAY with losing that income. Because I don’t want to run around delegating a million things. I want to focus hard on the things I care to do well.
Time and energy are very limited commodities – I want to invest mine wisely.
If I can send a client to a more qualified shop for a custom booth or one of a kind go-cart seat? I’ll do it every time.
Hopefully, when other shops hear about someone who wants a class, karma will kick that referral right back to me 🙂
#4. Take advantage of technology
We have so many tools, you guys!! SO MANY TOOLS!!!!
You can communicate your branding super effectively via social media, like Happy Campers of the South.
Your website can reach and serve a global community, like Beverly Johnson.
You can ship everything from a go-cart seat to a custom booth, if you are determined enough to do so.
Technology is often viewed as the enemy of traditional trades and crafts like upholstery, but it doesn’t have to be. OH SO MUCH it does not have to be.
Never before, has our industry had such inexpensive tools for being visible, for streamlining communication, for educating consumers, for establishing a brand, for monetizing a niche.
In some ways, it really is the golden age for small businesses, upholstery shops included.
We have opportunities to focus on exactly what we want to do with a laser precision that our predecessors could only imagine.
What should we do with all these capabilities???? Should we try to conquer the universe, and be everything to everyone???
Go for it if you want, but if you’re asking my opinion? The big box model is overrated: Focus your time and energy on the places you’d really like to be.
It doesn’t hurt to hedge your bets, but if you see a part of the market where you can truly and uniquely thrive?
Rock that universe, baby <3
(There are riches in the niches)
I hope you enjoyed this discussion! There are so many possible niches in upholstery – are you leaning into one? Do you follow one worth sharing? As always, we welcome your comments!
Want to read more? Here a couple articles I enjoyed: