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Scratch your own niche


By moshe weitzman - Posted on 31 March 2011

I'm sometimes asked about how newcomers should integrate themselves into the Drupal ecosystem. Here's my current answer, published for the world.

Unless you have venture capital sized dreams, your best bet is to focus on a Drupal niche. The good news is that plenty of niches are still wide open for the filling. Contact Moshe if you seriously pursue one of these. I'd like to participate.

Wide open niches

  • Drupal load testing. Generic load testing firms have little insight into typical failure modes and weak points for Drupal sites. This domain specific knowledge is huge when developing load test plans. After a while, your reusable test plan library saves a lot of cost. Drupal performance firms like Tag1, 2Bits and Four Kitchens touch on this but I think a focused firm would do well here.
  • Drupal User Experience (UX). Drupal UX experts who understand Drupalisms such as local tasks, page regions, and pathauto rules are far more likely to produce a sustainable, cost effective design. It would be so nice to have a One Page Redesign or 37 Signals Express that's focused on Drupal.
  • Drupal Customer Relationship Management (CRM). Drupal is really well suited to apps like this that need lots of standard and custom fields and relationships between entities. CiviCRM plays here but there is lots of room still.
  • Drupal Quality Assurance (QA). Once you have developed test plans for Drupal Commons, Open Atrium, or Open Publish, you can pretty quickly deliver plans to subsequent clients. Since the plans are the real company treasure, you might consider delegating test running to 3rd parties like Sauce Labs.
  • Drupal Analytics. Again, knowledge about Drupal URLs and form submissions and user Fields is critical to mining user behavior on your site. The same knowledge is key when setting up and evaluating advertising campaigns with Adwords and similar ad networks.
  • Drupal Workflow. Editorial workflows for media companies can be cumbersome to design and implement. Reusable expertise here is a big win. Implementing workflows in Drupal requires knowledge of some special modules (Views Bulk Operations, Rules, Workflow, ...).

Niche providers - great examples

  • Cyrve. Cyrve offers just one service: data migration into Drupal from another system. We don't build web sites, or deliver training. We do perform a dozen large migrations a year which is much more than anyone else in the world. Many Drupal shops partner with Cyrve for the migration part of their engagements.
  • Drupal Scout. Security review for your site or security training for your development team. Greg Knaddison and Ben Jeavons have established expertise here, and are now reaping the rewards.
  • Emma Jane Hogbin. She's a goddess of Drupal training. Emma entertains as she enlightens. Emma is also a master of the Drupal niche. My jaw fell to the floor when she announced her innovative Site Building Extravaganza course. Emma announced that the course will run if 100 people sign up at a cost of $500/person. They signed up, and Emmajane is $50,000 richer. Thats a lot of Tim Hortons.
  • More niche rock stars: Mollom, Top Notch Themes, Commerce Guys, and Volacci (Drupal SEO).

Notice that these are tiny companies (less than 3 employees). You can build a company that size.

From Zero to Niche

Your goal for the first year is to build your contribution to the community while growing and showing your expertise. You need to Establish Expertise.

  • Start posting. Write on your own blog and/or on groups.drupal.org. Just narrate your journey toward expert. Pretty soon, your posts will generate interest among others in the field. Welcome them. Help them, and ask them to refer their friends.
  • Increase readership. Once the blog is humming (5 substantial posts), ask to get your blog added to Drupal Planet. That RSS feed (and Twitter feed) has a large readership.
  • Market yourself. Your writings do most of your marketing. But it does help to reach out to media folks like Lullabot Podcast and Drupal Watchdog. They need material, so don't be shy.
  • Start speaking. Raise your profile by speaking at your local meetup and/or at a DrupalCamp near you. Eventually try to lead a BoF session or a lecture session at Drupalcon.
  • Share code or tools. Share your data migration methodology, or load test plans, or QA plans. Share your templates and style guides. One of the most awesome parts of Drupal is the reputation boost you get by sharing. It can be counter-intuitive to share your treasures. But its been proven to work in this community. We reward people who get it.
  • Be a good partner. Consulting firms like Acquia, Phase2, Lullabot, etc. are constantly negotiating on new engagments. They are also consistently understaffed or lacking expertise in niche areas. Make sure they know about your business. When they ask you to join their deal, provide a quick quote and delight the customer.
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Great blog post, and very motivating too. There are so many opportunities.

It will be interesting to see how the new Marketplace section on Drupal.org will look. Organizations can self-assign terms in the Services and Sectors fields.

Another podcast option is the Acquia Podcast. I'm always looking for people who are doing cool things in the Drupal world.

Moshe, it isn't often that you find a blog post on a topic where the post itself is the perfect example. This is what makes Drupal so strong.

Thanks for writing about this! I hope a lot of people get inspired. I was already, but now I'm even more convinced...

Thanks, I'd love to read more along these lines, this kind of post throws sparks on community kindling...

I really like the analytics niche, I've also done some unique web analytics research for my master thesis with a drupal website. If you have some cool ideas or want to talk feel free to mail me moshe.

There is another niche that is in high demand, and that is ACCESSIBILITY. Increasingly, corporations and governments at all levels are demanding accessible sites. A lot of progress is made in D7. Consultants are needed to assess, evaluate and modify themes, modules and content for accessibility. The niche is wide open.

Thanks for these awesome tips on finding a niche in Drupal! I'm probably still too much of a generalist, but these tips are useful even just for getting community exposure. I should submit my blog to the planet...just need to categorize it properly first.

Anyway, again, really cool examples and great tips.

Great post Moshe. I remember we briefly spoke about it in Paris, how (relatively) small Drupal shops can and should co-operate, around each shop's expertise.

From my point of view - I think the theming niche can still be expanded - there's much room for more theming experts and providers. A niche within that niche is the bi-directional theming for Arab/Hebrew websites - use people who deal with this sh.. every day, and save lots of time and nerves.

Integration with complementary technologies is also an immense field to niche yourself:
- Professional video solutions
- Mapping and Geo-x websites
- Data visualisation (such as with flash)
- Mobile apps that connect with a Drupal back-end
- Facebook apps that connect with a Drupal back-end
- Drupal for big publishers...
(At least for Linnovate, we're aiming at 2-3 of the list above)

The more Drupal becomes popular, the more niches it can support.

One other thing worth mentioning - from our own experience - you don't have to maintain the same niche for life! Be dynamic, do what you feel good with, and be professional at what you do - then you can be the king of server tuning for two years, then become a master of mobile apps for an additional two, then move on if you feel like it. This dynamic is very challenging on the business-marketing side, but is greatly rewarding on the overall experience!

Hey Moshe,

Great post. I also want to mention my Drupal niche product, Droptor:
http://www.droptor.com/

Droptor is a tool to organize, tune, secure, and manage a suite of Drupal sites.

Justin

Great article as Drupal becomes a larger player on the web it provides opportunity for many within the Drupal community.

I'm always looking for other like-minded individuals for collaborations and partnerships.

Well said, Moshe. One of the most common excuses that people make for not picking a niche is that they don't want to lose business. What I've discovered is that if everyone knows your niche then business finds you. Yes, we do a lot of prospecting, partnering, and work to find new customers. But, more than half our business comes from referrals. Following the steps you've outlined above is a great way to establish that niche. Writing a book helps, too. Be willing to give a lot of knowledge away to gain a reputation. Even very skilled people who could easily learn your "thing" would rather have someone else do it because they're busy. People are very busy in the Drupal community.

It also helps to be willing to give business away. Stop being all things to all people and send your customers to other shops for the stuff you're not a specialist in. At Volacci, we stopped building websites at the end of 2007. We now farm that work out to other shops and they send us their SEO work. It's a nice relationship.

One slight correction. Volacci has almost 50 employees (and we're looking for more). So, yes, niches work.