The Secrets of Building Successful Niches
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Episode 9 Transcript:
Chris Curran: Growth Igniters Radio Episode 9: The Secrets of Building Successful Niches.
This episode is brought to you by Business Advancement Incorporated, enabling successful leaders and companies to accelerate to their next level of growth. On the web at www.businessadvance.com. Now, here’s Pam and Scott.
Pam Harper: Thanks, Chris. Hi, I’m Pam Harper, founding partner and CEO of Business Advancement Incorporated; and with me is Scott Harper, my business partner and husband. Hi, Scott.
Scott Harper: Hi, Pam. How are you today?
Pam Harper: I am great.
Scott Harper: That’s terrific. It’s great to be here.
In case this is your first time listening, we want to let you know that the purpose of Growth Igniters Radio is to spark new insights, inspiration and immediately useful ideas for leaders to take themselves and their companies to the next level of success. Pam, what’s on deck for today?
Pam Harper: Well, as you know, Scott, one of the big challenges for companies of any size is finding fuel for innovation and growth.
Scott Harper: That’s true.
Pam Harper: It takes a special kind of insight, imagination and drive to identify new niches and overcome the obstacles and make it happen.
Scott Harper: Right.
Pam Harper: That’s why we’re fortunate to be speaking today with Linda Hollander, who is affectionately known as the Wealthy Bag Lady and CEO of Sponsor Concierge. Linda’s talents at recognizing unmet needs and building businesses to fill them has brought her tremendous success.
Her first success was as one of the only women-owned businesses that printed shopping bags for major corporations. She went on to gain additional success as the producer of the Women’s Small Business Expo, and then tapped into the related niche of helping entrepreneurs and non-profit organizations find corporate sponsors. She’s author of the books, Bags to Riches and Corporate Sponsorship in 3 Easy Steps.
She’s been featured by major television networks and media, such as Entrepreneur Magazine and Inc. Magazine who cited her as the industry leader in corporate sponsorship and business success. Wow.
Scott Harper: That’s a lot.
Pam Harper: That is a lot. Linda, welcome to Growth Igniters Radio.
Linda Hollander: Great to be here.
Pam Harper: Wow. I’m still recovering from that intro.
You’ve done a lot, but I have start out with your alias. How did you become the Wealthy Bag Lady?
Linda Hollander: Okay. Well, yeah, we’ve got to know about the Wealthy Bag Lady.
Pam Harper: We do.
Linda Hollander: Well, actually, I started a business with my best friend in the world, and her name is Sheryl Felice. By the way, she and I met when we were in junior high school, and we just formed this incredible bond. We’re closer than sisters, and we always knew that one day if we did something together, it would be absolutely phenomenal. The point came where I was basically an art student, and I had never ever taken a business class in my life because I thought business was boring.
All of my studies in college were art; I graduated with an honor roll, magna cum laude, with a paint and sculpture and graphic arts degree. Then I got into the real world, and I tried to sell paintings and make my living. I realized that I really didn’t want to be a starving artist. I wanted to do things. I wanted to travel. I wanted to buy my own home. I had things that I really wanted to do in my life, and I wanted my life to make a difference.
I basically started with my best friend. We started a business making shopping bags for major businesses. The reason that we started that was because I collected these shopping bags with the beautiful graphics because I was interested in art and design. At that time, I was living in a little rent-controlled apartment. I was working in a dead-end job. I just could not see the light at the end of the tunnel.
In my personal life, I was in an abusive relationship with a man. It was because my self-confidence was so low that I thought that was what I deserved. When I would go to the mailbox every day, it was a constant reminder of my financial failures, because there were bills in that mailbox I could never ever afford to pay because I did not have a show like Growth Igniters Radio at the time to tell me that what I was doing was stupid. Because when I was unemployed, I took advances on my cards and I wasn’t making enough at my job, so I maxed out my credit cards.
Basically, one day, I had an epiphany and I said, “I don’t want to live like a victim anymore.” I fired my boss. I dumped the abusive boyfriend, and we started the business that produced shopping bags.
I got the idea when my mom came over to my apartment, and I hid all the shopping bags in a closet. I was tidying up and literally, it hit me on the head because they just started coming down, and I said, “Wait a minute. Somebody’s got to produce these things.” We researched it for a year, and then we moved into a facility that had printing machinery; we had a showroom and we had office space. We did shopping bags for major companies like Sears, Nissan, Ocean Spray, Mattel and Disney. We grew it into a multi-million dollar business. This was two women who really didn’t know anything about business; I had no formal training and neither did my business partner. We kind of learned it from the street.
Pam Harper: Right. Well, what I was going to say, though, is something that you said earlier about it literally “hit you on the head.” I think that’s pretty important, because a lot of times what happens is that there are things all around us that could literally hit us on the head. You were able to notice it.
Linda Hollander: Absolutely. I was able to notice it, and I just always loved beautiful bags, art design. Then, of course, I learned about the business behind it and found … We researched it and found that it was a viable business. That’s how I got the brand name of “Wealthy Bag Lady,” because we did not make purses, but we made the custom-printed shopping bags that you see in shopping malls and at trade shows.
Scott Harper: One of the things that strikes me about the story is you said that you had bags. Obviously, somebody was making them already. There had been some niche, some need you were meeting that allowed you to move in where other people already were and get all those big clients.
Linda Hollander: Yes, yes. Okay. You know what, how we did our research was surprisingly … I called some bag companies, and they were aurprisingly open about talking to me, even though I was a possible competitor because I figured, well, because there wasn’t that much available as far as research in the packaging industry. I just kind of called some of these bag companies. I said, “Tell me, you know, what is like to run this business? What would you recommend?” They were surprisingly open. Sometimes your competitors could be your allies and could be great sources of information for you.
Pam Harper: That is a great tip.
Scott Harper: As they say in baseball, “you hit them where they ain’t…”
Pam Harper: You went on then. Of course, you became the Wealthy Bag Lady, but you saw yet some other needs. You had a vision, it sounded like.
Linda Hollander: I did have a vision, because … but I didn’t finish my story. I told you that I dumped the abusive boyfriend. Three weeks later, I met my husband, and my husband is one of the kindest, most gentle people in the world. When we met, he had a 20-year-old cat, and I’m one of the original crazy cat ladies. He’s just an amazing person.
So I like to tell that story because my life has also been about women’s empowerment. I want all of the men listening to stay on the line with us, because we’re going to be talking a little bit about women’s empowerment. But what I’m going to tell you is totally universal, that could apply to any business. Women came to our company because we were one of the only female-owned packaging businesses that produce shopping bags. They would say, “Linda, how do I do sales? How do I do marketing?”
They wouldn’t just order bags from us. I knew anniversaries. I knew when the kids were graduating. I really enjoyed doing consulting with women business owners. I decided that I wanted to start an event that would empower women financially to start and succeed in their own business and really change their lives in the way that my life was changed.
Because in starting my business, like I said, when I came back to it, what I really enjoyed was doing consulting with other women business owners. I wanted to start a women’s small business expo, and I actually did it with the help of corporate sponsors. Through the Women’s Small Business Expo, man, oh, man, we did it for 10 years. We had women from Australia come over. We went international.
We had the late great Jim Rohn as one of our speakers. Basically, women came and they met the partner that they needed, the business partners they needed. They got that one piece of information that they needed to propel their business forward, and I’m just very proud of all of the work that we did at Women’s Small Business Expo.
Pam Harper: Amazing story.
Scott Harper: From one niche, you discovered another and then moved and filled that.
Linda Hollander: From one niche to another, absolutely.
Pam Harper: Now that’s a great place for us to take a quick break.
When we come back, we will speak more with Linda Hollander about overcoming some of the challenges that it takes to make that vision come true. Stay with us…
Scott Harper: You are listening to Growth Igniters Radio with Pam Harper and Scott Harper, brought to you by Business Advancement Incorporated − enabling successful companies to accelerate to the next level of innovation and growth. If you like what you’re hearing, spread the good word. Go to www.growthignitersradio.com, select Episode 9, and use the share links for iTunes, Stitcher, LinkedIn and Twitter at the top right of the page.
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Pam Harper: Welcome back to Growth Igniters Radio with Pam Harper and Scott Harper. We’re talking with Linda Hollander, the Wealthy Bag Lady, and CEO of Sponsor Concierge, about how she found success as an entrepreneur, and the lessons she’s learned about how to continue to adapt and grow a successful business. Linda, how can people find you?
Linda Hollander: Oh, okay. Well, I have two websites. One of them is www.wealthybaglady.com and another website of mine is www.sponsorconcierge.com.
Pam Harper: Okay. Of course, your books are out there as well.
Linda Hollander: Absolutely. We didn’t even talk about the books. My first book is called Bags to Riches, and that’s kind of when I got the idea also for the Women’s Small Business Expo because I did a book tour for Bags to Riches. Women kept asking me the same questions, and I saw that there was so much information that women needed as far as entrepreneurship goes. My most recent book is called Corporate Sponsorship in 3 Easy Steps. Both are available on Amazon.
Pam Harper: Okay. Well, so that really leads us to talk a little more about how do you overcome some of these challenges when you’re finding a new niche, and building it. One of the things that you are very open about is that it’s not the easiest thing to go out there and do this. I mean, you’ve been able to do it and do it very well, but especially during the building of the Small Women’s Business Expo, do I have that right? Do I say … Am I saying that right?
Linda Hollander: The Women’s Small Business Expo.
Pam Harper: [Laughing] …Women’s Small Business Expo. Can you tell us a bit about what those challenges were?
Linda Hollander: Oh, yes. I had to learn a whole new business and industry, which is the event-planning industry. The event-planning industry is not for the faint of heart, because it’s cash intensive. That’s why I used corporate sponsors. You just kind of need to … There’s a lot of moving parts to every event. Basically, it always seems like people are not going to sign up, and then they always sign up at the last minute.
You have to reserve rooms ahead of time. You have to reserve space. One of the biggest fears is, “Hey, what if I draw this great party and nobody shows up?” My first event was in April, and on New Year’s Eve. I started getting really panicky because it seemed like it was so close. I learned what a room block is. At one of our first events, I got so ambitious, because we’re all taught to think big and think positive. I thought there’d be so many people there, and I reserved this big block of rooms at a hotel. Of course, the attendance was not what I expected. I had to kind talk the hotel out of suing me because I reserved so many rooms, and they were not filled. We kind of came to an agreement on that. You know what, you’ve really got to know what you’re doing with event planning, and I had to learn just a whole new business model of getting people to events. Boy, oh, boy.
Then of course, here’s what I found in planning events. Whatever the size of your business, events are a great way to do business development and get new clients. Because when doing an event, people … If you are speaking at the event, people kind of get what I called the Baskin Robbins pink taster spoon of you. They could see if they want to work with you in a very unthreatening way. It’s been a great way for me to build clients and develop my business, doing events, and I still do it to this day.
I believe that 70% of the success of your event is in marketing, not really in what happens at the event, not really in what happens on site or who the speakers are or the agenda. Because if you do not get the word out effectively about your event, everything else is for naught if nobody really shows up or nobody really knows about it.
Pam Harper: That’s a point well taken. Now how did you exactly figure out all that you’ve learned about sponsorship? Because that was something that really came as the result of the event, right? That was something that you figured out how to do. How did you figure out how to do it if you’d never done it before?
Linda Hollander: I read voraciously any piece of information that I could find in books, on the Internet about how to get sponsors. I looked at similar events and I saw who their sponsors were, and those were the sponsors that I contacted. I looked at other women’s business conferences and saw the sponsors that were involved with those. I figured, “Well, if they’re sponsoring this, then they could sponsor what I’m doing.”
If you’re looking for sponsors for whatever you do, look at somebody else who’s doing something similar, and those companies may want to sponsor you. People ask me all the time. They say, “Well, Linda, isn’t their budget tapped out?” Absolutely not. You don’t have to really educate them if they’re already sponsoring something similar to what you are doing because they know that they’re in the right place.
Basically, what I did was I sold my first sponsors kind of on the concept. I developed a beautiful website. I paid somebody to do a beautiful proposal for me. The sponsors for my very first Women’s Small Business Expo were Bank of America, Walmart and IBM. Let me tell you, boy, it’s a game-changer.
Because not only do they help you underwrite the cost, but it just up-levels your event and gives it a whole lot more credibility if you have those kinds of top-tier sponsors from leading-edge companies.
Scott Harper: Taking this a little broader − just looking at the principles − it sounds like what you did was you identified the need. You identified what about that need was not being met. You modeled on competitors and complementary businesses, and then you got partners to help you extend that vision and really bring it to life and actual life.
That could be done not just for events and sponsorships and so on, but virtually any business opportunity. You have to find the niche and then find out about it and go after it.
Linda Hollander: Absolutely. And also get partners to help you promote it, because marketing and promotion is just so important, so get partners to help you promote. If you doubt the veracity of that strategy, that’s what Amazon did when they first got started. They got any partners they could get to help them promote Amazon, and now that’s kind of the monster of the Internet. People call it The Everything Store. That was their strategy.
Pam Harper: Yeah, partnering is huge. We definitely believe very strongly in it.
What’s interesting about your story is, of course, it didn’t just end with the event. You went on to form yet another business, Sponsor Concierge.
Linda Hollander: Yes.
Pam Harper: Now how did you do that?
Linda Hollander: I was a crazy serial entrepreneur. Basically, everybody kept asking me, like, “How are you getting these sponsors?” Because I was just working from my kitchen table with the cat. They said, “Well, I thought you had to be a huge business to do this? Now how can I do this? You’ve done this just starting out. You’ve gotten great sponsors. How do I get it if I don’t have experience, if I don’t have an audience yet, if I’m not a huge company?”
That’s when I started really listening to what people were asking me, and I created another company around that, which is Sponsor Concierge, where I’ve been helping people get sponsors for their own businesses, for their events. If they have magazines, because now, we’re not just running businesses anymore. We’re running little media companies, because a lot of people have radio shows, magazines, blogs, podcasting, email marketing. You do all that for your company, so that is sponsor-worthy. I help non-profits also get sponsors, which is extremely rewarding and fulfilling. That’s what I do now.
Scott Harper: Again, the first big thing now to opening that door was, just like with having the bags fall on your head, it was being alert enough to identify, “Hey, wait! There’s an opportunity here that’s not being met.”
Linda Hollander: Yes.
Pam Harper: That, and do the research and look around and see who else is doing things that you can learn from.
Well, we’re going to take another quick break. When we come back, we’ll continue our conversation with Linda Hollander, the Wealthy Bag Lady, about how to identify and build on new opportunities that can take you and your company to even greater heights of success. Stay with us…
Scott Harper: You are listening to Growth Igniters Radio with Pam Harper and Scott Harper, brought to you by Business Advancement Incorporated. On the web at www.businessadvance.com. If you subscribe to the Growth Igniters community by clicking the “Join Our Community” button on www.growthignitersradio.com in the upper right corner, we’ll be able to send you weekly updates so you’ll have easy access to each new episode, show notes, guest bio, links to resources mentioned in the episode,e and even more.
Pam Harper: Welcome back to Growth Igniters Radio with Pam Harper − that’s me − and Scott Harper. Over the last two segments, we’ve been talking with Linda Hollander, CEO of Sponsor Concierge, the Wealthy Bag Lady, about her amazing story and what it takes to find and build successful niches. Now we’re going to talk about how to make it happen for you. Before we do − Linda, can you tell us again how people can find you and your books?
Linda Hollander: Absolutely. The two websites I have are www.wealthybaglady.com and www.sponsorconcierge.com. I also have a toll-free number: 866-966-3624.
Pam Harper: Okay. Well, lots of ways to reach you.
Let’s get down to the nitty-gritty here. It’s one thing to find these new niche opportunities that you’d get hit on the head with, and it’s quite another to create these valuable new business offerings that really can lead you to huge success. Let’s talk about some specific ways that listeners could actually start to identify new niches for themselves.
Linda Hollander: Okay. One thing is just kind of pay attention to what people are asking you, what people need out there in the world. What kind of information, what kind of products, what kind of services that they need. Like on Shark Tank − you see that moms create all these great things for other moms because they found that, “Hey, what I’m using isn’t working, so I’m going to create something else that works.”
I think one of them was something like for the airport, a little play mat that you put down for kids, so they’re not crawling on that dirty carpet in the airport. Things like that can … Just kind of look around for what you can do better. Because you don’t really have to reinvent. That’s maybe a case of something that’s not like a revolutionary invention, a little mat that you put down, but it’s is functional, and it fills a need that people have.
Look for that. I’ve given some examples, because first, I had the love of art and I wanted to figure out how I can use my love of art and design and create a business around it.
Also − pay attention to what you’re passions are. People get a little bit nervous sometimes with the discovery process because they think, “Well, I’m an adult. I should kind of know what I want to do with the rest of my life.” But most people that I’ve met have reinvented themselves quite a few times as I have, and as you have also.
Pam Harper: Yes.
Linda Hollander: Because I know your story. There’s been a lot of reinvention. Life is just too short to just be on a one-business, one-career path, unless that’s what you want and what you truly love. Don’t be afraid to go out and explore new things.
But I also think you need what’s called proof of concept. Just because you love something doesn’t mean the whole world will love it. I don’t believe in “do what you love and the money will follow,” because there has to be a market for what you love. There has to be other people that will pay for what you love to do. You also need proof of concept.
Scott Harper: Absolutely.
Linda Hollander: And also, I want to tell you to hire coaches, hire consultants. What I didn’t reveal yet is that I had two failed businesses before I started the bag business. That’s what being a serial entrepreneur is about. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn’t, and it’s not fun when it doesn’t. It’s not fun when you fail because sometimes you fail publicly, and it’s … There’s ego involved.
Those two failed businesses − luckily, I didn’t invest a whole lot in those businesses − but I didn’t establish proof of concept. One was a greeting card business. I thought I invented the next great Peanuts line of characters, and that I would create these greeting cards. That did not work. Another one was the giftware business. Those, too, did not work.
You just kind have to move on from your failures and go on to what can be successful for you, and learn from those failures. Man, oh, man, everybody says this but it’s so true: you learn more from the failures than you do the successes.
Pam Harper: Absolutely. You know what’s interesting, though, is that you’re talking about this, and I know that we’re coming at it from an entrepreneurial focus in one way. What you’re talking about − for our clients that are frequently in the middle market, a little bit larger-
Scott Harper: Or even bigger.
Pam Harper: Or even bigger, I should say − those same principles apply. Scott, you came out of a huge corporation.
Scott Harper:Yes, I came out of a huge corporation, and we did the same things. We looked for unmet needs − and you can’t ask people what they want because they’ll tell you, “Give me a different flavor, or color, or size, or whatever.” You look for unmet, unsolved problems that people are working around or suffering with. You also look for things that are praising and what can I take from that that I can extend.
And as you say, Linda, you play to your strengths; “what is it about this that I can meet with whatever is the strength of my business, or me personally;” and can’t emphasize that proof of concept enough. If you don’t do it right, you can fool yourself. Look at New Coke.
Pam Harper: Really, regardless of the size of the company, everything you’re saying is so on target, Linda.
Linda Hollander: I want to say one other thing, because everybody asks me like, “What was the difference between the failed businesses and the businesses that succeeded for you?” The difference was mentorship. Man, oh, man, when I first started those businesses, I was young. I was in college. I wanted to do it on my own. I didn’t really ask people for help. After that, I asked anybody for help.
I was humble. I said, “Hey, look, I don’t know it all. I don’t know about this. I need help.” I was willing to hire people that were stronger than me in areas that I was weak. I really want to − really stress − hire coaches, consultants, mentors, and that makes all the difference.
Pam Harper: Okay.
Scott Harper: That makes sense. That also helps you learn how to look at things in new ways, I assume.
Linda Hollander: It really does. It really does. Because you’re in your own little bubble, and [they help you] to get other points of view. Sometimes they say things that you don’t even like, or they make you do things you don’t even like. You end up better for that.
Pam Harper: Okay. What we have is a lot of things that you can immediately do, and I’m sure there’s more. Linda, any last thoughts before we go? Time’s really flying by here.
Linda Hollander: Oh, my God… Well, whatever you’re doing, whether you’re in a company [or whatever], run it with an entrepreneurial mindset. If you’re working at your job, kind of take entrepreneurship of that job, and really do the best you can. If you are running a business, be willing to take risks, be willing to go in different directions because the world is changing so much. I mean, we all know that we cannot operate by the same principles that we operated by five years ago, ten years ago.
Really, be willing to kind of put your finger to the wind and take the pulse of your clients, your future clients − find what they are looking for. Don’t be afraid to really go off in a different direction. If you see that, that is the trajectory of your future, success-wise, and just absolutely live your …
When I was working in that dead-end job, when I was worried about my clunker of a car and if it would make it to the next month, I couldn’t imagine that I would wake up every day excited for what I was going to do, excited for who I was going to talk to, excited for who I was going to help.
We’re all in different businesses but we are all in the life-changing business. Go out and change as many lives as you can through the work that you do.
Pam Harper: Thanks so much, again, Linda, for being with us today. We hope you’ll come back and share some more of your insights, because these are things that apply no matter what size business you’re running and that entrepreneurial mindset is so important.
Scott Harper: … Looking for those new niches.
Pam Harper: If you have questions related to today’s episode, or any episode, go to “Open a Conversation With Us” at the bottom of the episode page. To find out who our guest will be next Wednesday, go to www.growthignitersradio.com and look in the sidebar for a schedule of upcoming episodes over the next few weeks.
Scott Harper: Thanks for listening to Growth Igniters Radio with Pam Harper and Scott Harper. To check out resources related to today’s conversation, share on social media and subscribe to the podcast series on iTunes or Stitcher, go to www.growthignitersradio.com and select Episode 9.
Pam Harper: Until next time, this is Pam Harper…
Scott Harper: And Scott Harper…
Pam Harper: Wishing you continued success, and leaving you with this question to discuss with your network:
Scott Harper: What’s one thing that you can do today to look for an untapped niche for your company?