Q&A: Finding a high-demand specialization

A good question from my post opt-in survey:

how to find a specialization that is in high demand, before I waste a bunch of time and money on marketing myself to a certain niche.
I can specialize in underwater basket weaving but I don’t have any way to know what the market size is.
I’ve found immense satisfaction working with CEOs of startups to design/prototype their ideas, regardless of the industry.

Thank you for the question!
There are a few things to keep in mind here.


Specializing is choosing a beachhead. Beachheads do not need to contain 30 years worth of great opportunity, but they do need to lead to a larger territory that offers that opportunity.
The kind of folks who are willing to consider a courageous, narrow specialization are the kind of people who are always growing, so if you can accept this idea of a tiny specialization beachhead, then you can trust yourself to navigate the growth path that leads away from that beachhead to a larger opportunity. You’ve got what it takes.
Momentum generates information (and more momentum). When it comes to specializing, most of us will learn more from motion-as-research than we will from research-before-taking-action. This is the philosophy behind my Specialization Workshop.
You can specialize and figure out how to generate demand for your new specialization. This is the more entrepreneurial and risky approach. You seem to be looking for “a specialization that is in high demand”, meaning one where you can see evidence of high demand now.
What you need is situational awareness, and here are some ways to gain that awareness:

  • Proxy measurements:
    • To what extent are people searching for information related to your potential specialization? Google Trends, Stack Overflow questions, etc.
    • What volume and flow of relevant job postings, freelance gigs, etc. are out there?
    • What growth byproducts can you observe? “Where there’s smoke there must be fire.” What does the media footprint, acquisitions, and evidence of investment look like?
    • What dedicated infrastructure exists to serve the market in question? Conferences, online gathering spaces, and so on.
  • Direct measurements:
    • How many prospective companies or buyers are out there? LinkedIn and the US federal government numbers are two of the easiest to access sources of information here.
    • If you put together a 2-page-long gift of knowledge or insight specifically meant for buyers in your potential target market, reached out to 30 of them directly, and asked them for their feedback, what is their responsiveness like? This is what we do in the Specialization Workshop.
    • Talk to potential competitors. About 50% of them will agree to speak to you, and they will pretty much all be very helpful blabbermouths who tell you a lot about the market in question. (BTW, if anyone wants to start competing against me, I’m in that 50% and happy to speak to you.)
    • Measurement of precursors. If there’s a “troop buildup” then that might mean there will be action in that area soon. Ex: if you were focused on salary negotiation for software developers and noticed lots of new coding bootcamps springing up, this would be the kind of “troop buildup” I’m talking about.
    • Innovation-style research of the kind that JTBD or Customer Development advocates recommend.

Even with good results from direct measurement, you may still find yourself saying “is this enough demand?”.
There will never be a completely definitive yes/no answer to that question. But you can increase the scope of your situational awareness to become less uncertain. You can look for examples of people who are KILLING IT with a specialized focus of some kind, measure their market, and then compare it to your potential area of focus to get a relative sense of whether your opportunity is small/larger and hotter/cooler than theirs.
Finally, you may have the question: “which market should I start measuring? I can’t measure them all!”. The answer is to start where you have a head start of some kind. You suggest one such head start when you say “I’ve found immense satisfaction working with CEOs of startups to design/prototype their ideas, regardless of the industry.” Start measuring that market to make sure it meets your criteria for high demand.
Thanks again for the question!
Keep building; keep taking risks y’all,