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Should your business grow horizontally or vertically?

When I see a business focused solely on a horizontal or vertical market, it’s hard not to wonder if that focus is what’s really best for them.

What do I mean by “vertical” and “horizontal” markets?

A vertical market serves a certain type of customer, even if the work performed for them is of broad use across many types of customers.

Welding isn’t really a vertical market, but underwater or aluminum welding could be. Narrowing that further might identify a business that specializes in aluminum component welding for recreational boat manufacturers.

A horizontal market is one where “every business” could be your customer. Their needs include technology, accounting, legal, taxes, insurance services and public relations, among others.

A horizontally-focused public relations firm might serve businesses in retail, hospitality, legal, manufacturing and other sectors, while a vertical PR firm might focus on a single type of client, like PR for the outdoor recreation equipment market.

A combination of horizontal and vertical might result in a firm that offers PR services to many types of customers, but only for a certain type of media, such as periodicals (magazines and newspapers).

Whether you’re positioned horizontally or vertically, you’d better be focused on your core customer.

What’s a core customer?

A core customer is one whose needs fit your business’ sweet spot – the customer that’s ideal for what your business does. Revenue from customers like these usually make up the majority of your revenue, perhaps 80% or more.

A law firm who specializes in transactional business might see their core customer as “local business owners with five to 20 employees”. These customers generate transactional legal work related to real estate, employment, business transfer and related activity.

It’s easy to identify them because of the nature of their business structure and activity. They hire and fire, they buy and sell business assets, and they build, buy, sell and update facilities as they grow or change what they do.

How you identify your core customer is critical if you’re going to continue to improve how well you’re serving them, how many you retain over time and how many new ones you acquire.

Expanding your market with a question

Ask yourself this: “Could a little adjustment radically expand what you accomplish – without abandoning your core customer?”

Looking back at the transactional law firm… many of their clients could’ve started out with one person doing everything. If the transactional law firm looking for new customers ignored those solos, they’d miss a fair number of future core customers who matured from a solo into that desirable employer/client of five to 20 staffers.

One of the things business owners tend to avoid is change, unless we can’t avoid it. If your attorney has served you well as you’ve grown, you’re unlikely to switch firms unless they really mess up.  That makes it even tougher to get new clients who are already perfect for you. Without significant differentiation, a special “mojo” or something that screams “You have to use US!”, where are your new “ideal customers” coming from?

Given the tendency to avoid change and the thought process that some solos are future five-to-20 employee businesses, the natural thing to do is get more of those solos and do what it takes to keep them as they grow into the core customers you wanted all along.

Your challenge is to figure out (at least) three things:

  • What the solo needs and wants NOW
  • How you can serve them as they grow
  • How to tell which solos will become an ideal customer.

This isn’t just about law firms – they’re just today’s example. “The question” applies to your business as well…I promise.

Everything or nothing?

Many vendors sell the same products and services in the same packaging (real or virtual) to everyone. Being everything to everyone usually means you’re special to no one.

Horizontal vendors can stand out by customizing what they do for a certain vertical market – rather than selling the same “box of stuff” to everyone.

Vertically focused businesses can seek out customers whose needs are similar to their core customers’. Dentists and energy companies couldn’t be more different, yet they both use scanning technologies to find correctable defects. Is there a sweet spot there?

Whether horizontal or vertical, you can grow without abandoning what you do and how you do it.