Go Vertical, Young Man

Many moons ago I was a guest on David Lawrence’s excellent radio show, Online Tonight.

We did our chatting and bantering about the state of the web, and then he took a call from one of his listeners.

“Nick,” asked the caller. “I’m thinking of building a site that sells books. What do you think?”

Tough question when you’re on air. I had visions of this man drowning in a very large South American river that used to be quite famous, before its name was hijacked.

Anyway, on the radio you have about half a second in which to reply to a question before you begin to appear stupid. So I fell back on a little trick my therapist used to pull on me.

“Tell me more,” I said. (This is a great way to appear interested, caring and intelligent when you’re completely stumped for an answer.)

“I’m going to sell antique and rare books about structural engineering.”

Brilliant! This fellow had gone vertical.

If he had said that he was going to sell every kind of book to every kind of person, I’d have tried to be polite and prayed for a quick commercial break. In that circumstance he would have been competing head to head with amazon.com and barnesandnoble.com.

Instead, he’d done what smart small businesses often do. He’d gone vertical in a very narrow niche. And in doing so, he was going to leverage one of the key strengths of online marketing — its ability to be ‘local’ to a million different people, wherever they are in the world.

Think of it this way. Even if the guy had opened a bricks-and-mortar store in New York City, he’d have been unlikely to be ‘local’ enough to a sufficient number fans of antique and rare books about structural engineering. He just wouldn’t have had enough business to cover the rent.

But by using the Internet, all of a sudden he could be local to every potential customer, wherever they all were. Very elegant.

He would, of course, have one small challenge remaining. How was he going to reach his potential customers? After all, disparate, scattered groups can be hard to reach.

Well, not necessarily. How about online newsgroups (yes, they still exist). Or classified ads in the appropriate university alumni newsletters. Or maybe he could write a brief column for an industry journal or magazine.

Above all, had the commercial break not cut short our on-air chat, I’d have suggested that he create his own online, ‘narrow community.’

A community of ‘just lots of people’ can be hard to create and sustain. But a very tight-knit group of folks with a common passion can grow very quickly.

By word of mouth.

His site could become the world meeting place for buyers and sellers of antique and rare books about structural engineering. Bulletin boards and chat rooms. Newsletters. Directories of collectors. Individual ‘Member homepages.’ An auction area. All on his site.

By making himself the ‘center of the niche,’ he could have generated a lot of attention and, hopefully, sales. (Not to mention the fact that he could probably run his entire business by placing his books on eBay.)

I have no idea whether this man even pursued his idea.

But I still remember smiling at what he said and figuring that he had a very keen instinct for how a small business can succeed online.

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