Rich Mulholland on Carving Your Own Niche

Rich Mulholland on Carving Your Own Niche


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Richard Mulholland is synonymous in the business world with developing un-boring presentations for large corporates, as well as being a popular speaker that colourfully drops f–bombs. His mantra is differentiate or die. These are his lessons on niche building.

Related: Missing Link: Richard Mulholland

Why do you believe building a niche is so important?

It’s the only sure way for your customers to differentiate you from the competition. I hate commodity. Being the same as everyone else is the worst thing you can do in business. Yes, you might be unique inside. It doesn’t count. You look the same from the outside.

I always use leaves as an example. Each leaf is different, but how can you tell when there are hundreds of leaves on the forest floor? No one cares. Small subtle differences aren’t enough, and if you think they are, I’m sorry to tell you, you’re wrong.

If you really want to differentiate, you need to show that you scratch a different itch – and then communicate this. Don’t assume your clients understand why you’re unique.

So how do you differentiate?

You need to think outside the box. For this to work though, you need lots of boxes. We’re a specialist presentation company. That’s our niche. The problem is that many customers thought of us as the same as their advertising companies.

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They took in the box they understood, and slotted us into it. I thought I was so niche, but my competition wasn’t the other two people who do what we do – it was everyone our client perceived it to be. We had to create new boxes, and then educate our clients on what those boxes were.

That’s when we started really differentiating ourselves. Digital has done this particularly well. Ten years ago there were only advertising agencies. Then digital agencies were birthed, and they didn’t want to be in the same category as other agencies, so they created a new box. It takes time, and you need to be willing to educate the market, but it’s worth it. 

How did you present yourself to the market?

When we founded Missing Link in 1997 PowerPoint was what you used for presentations. You could hire a PA for a basic salary who could put together four or five presentations a month.

Our cheapest presentation was R32 000, so we really needed to convince companies they needed us, and that we didn’t belong in their advertising budget. The reality was that people didn’t need presentations; they needed solutions to boring presentations. This was our niche.

I knew we could be the antithesis of boring, and being 23 and suffering from delusional self-belief, I was able to say to clients, ‘You’re boring and we’re not; we can fix that.’ We were unique. The challenge was convincing everyone else of that.

Related: 21 Tanks: Don Packett and Richard Mulholland

One of your mantras is differentiate or die. Can you elaborate?Rich-Mulholland-Missing-Link

If you’re trying to keep everyone happy, you’re failing. People in the market are spoilt for choice. If you aren’t standing out from the crowd, you’re getting lost in it, it’s that simple.

Any advice on how companies can stand out from the crowd?

  1. Be different. Don’t send a present at Christmas with everyone else; send the January ‘back to school’ gift and be remembered.
  2. Find your compelling story. You need to stand out from the crowd in a crazy way – even if that means alienating some customers.
  3. Don’t try to be the best. This is highly subjective anyway, and the value of ‘best’ keeps changing. Next week there will be a new ‘best’. Instead, focus on being the favourite. Figure out exactly who your customers are, what they value most, and give it to them. Think of a fancy restaurant. You won’t eat there every week, and you’ll switch to the new best for your next big occasion – but you’ve got a favourite little place that you keep going back to. What makes them stand apart for you, and how can you implement that in your business?
  4. Solve problems. Once you’ve solved one, solve the next. Your customers’ needs will change, and there will be other businesses that start imitating you – keep focusing on how to stand out from the crowd.
  5. Finally, remember that there are no boring products or services – only boring people delivering boring experiences. It’s all in how you sell yourself, and your solution.

Missing Link is known for its creative offices, including a tree house and tattoo artist. What’s the value of a space like this?

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Creativity doesn’t happen with noise. It happens in quiet rooms. Our offices are marketing. We look fun and creative, and that’s how we get attention. People think their presentations are boring. That’s their pain.

They have something fundamentally important to say, but lose the audience. You walk in to our offices and see that ‘hey, these guys aren’t boring.’ And that’s our selling point.

Nadine Todd
Nadine Todd is the Managing Editor of Entrepreneur Magazine, the How-To guide for growing businesses. Find her on Google+.

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