Finding your niche in your small business is not easy and it can’t be forced. It takes a combination of passion, hard work, and a little luck (and a paying market!) to find your niche. In the latest PME 360 Powering Business Growth show we were lucky to have Eric Cressey with Cressey Performance. Eric discusses how he fell into his niche training baseball players and became one of the most respected trainers in the baseball industry today.
It takes a lot of hard work and consistent effort in the right places to take an idea and make it a nationally recognized brand in a competitive niche. Listen to our latest podcast “Finding Your Niche Without Forcing It” and hopefully learn a thing or three.
“We accidentially carved out our niche. I talk to a lot of young people that come to me and tell me that they need a niche and they need to find something like I did, and I tell them you just can’t force it. You can’t decide when you are 20 what niche you are going to be in. You have to find something you actually enjoy, that there is an actual market for it and it needs to be financially sustainable.”
Eric Cressey – Founder of Cressey Performance, Author and Speaker
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Finding Your Niche Without Forcing It with Eric Cressey
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Passion, Hard Work, and a Little Luck will Help You Find Your Niche with Eric Cressey
Ron: Good morning!
Welcome to the PME360 Powering Business Growth Show. Each week, we talk about the issues and offer advice on how to power growth for your local business.
I’m your host, Ron Rodi, Jr. With me as always, the man with the plan, the marketing man, our CEO Mr. Ryan Paul Adams.
Ryan, good morning!
Ryan: Good morning Ron! Can’t believe it’s another Friday here. Weeks are flying by.
Ron: They are.
Ryan, I feel like I am introducing a heavyweight boxing champion when I bring you on. I have to start adding to the descriptions.
Ryan: You’re doing well.
Ron: Thank you for coming on.
We have a special guest today. Very excited to have him in the show, Mr. Eric Cressey. He is the President ad co-Founder of Cressey Performance, a facility located just west of Boston, Massachusetts.
Very highly sought after athletic coach for healthy and injured athletes alike. Eric has helped athletes at all levels from youth sports to the professional and Olympic ranks achieve their highest level of performance in a variety of sports.
Behind Eric’s expertise, Cressey Performance has rapidly established itself as a go-to high performance facility among Boston’s athletes and those who have come across the country and around the world experience Cressey Performance’s cutting edge methods.
Eric is perhaps best known for his extensive work with baseball players – with more than 80 professional players travelling to Massachusetts to train with him in the off season.
With Major League Baseball opening day right around the corner, very good timing to have on Mr. Eric Cressey.
Eric, good morning!
Eric: Good morning! Thanks for having me.
Ryan: Thanks for coming on.
Eric: No worries.
Ron: Great to have you Eric.
So why don’t we jump right in? Tell us a little bit about Cressey Performance and how it came to be. And tell our audience exactly some of the stories behind your success.
Cressey Performance, abbreviated as CP. You know, we’re about 40 minutes from Boston. We’re founded in 2007.
I first moved back to Boston in 2006. Kind of hit it cold turkey – really had zero clients when I moved to town.
I’ve done my grad degree at the University of Connecticut from 2003 to 2005 on Kinesiology, which is the study of movement.
While I was there, I was the right hand man to Chris West, who was the Associate Head of Conditioning at UConn. I was pretty wild about that.
At one point, we had 4 teams that was #1 in the country in a single weight room: Men’s and Women’s soccer and Men’s and Women’s basketball all at that time.
I was very fortunate that Chris took me under his wing and had the opportunity to work with some high level athletes especially in basketball and soccer while I was there.
And I always assumed that basketball or soccer would be the route that I’d go with respect to finding a niche. As I finished up my grad degree, I wanted to go to the private sector. I worked in a place in Southern Connecticut for about a year and it wasn’t a great fit.
I knew I wanted to be closer to family and move back to Boston. Then, an opportunity to move back here came about. So I went back.
It just so happened that some of the first athletes I was working with when we got off the ground were baseball players.
It was a good fit. Not because I was starting up and meeting clients because I had a bunch of shoulder problems myself. Growing up from a tennis career. It’s really comparable to what you encounter with baseball players.
So I kind of fell into that specialization. Couple of those guys have pretty good success. One became Player of the Year. All four of them went into Division 1. They won a State Championship. There was an article written in the Boston Globe about their work with me.
I joked about it as my Jerry Maguire moment.
My phone started ringing and it was just absolutely non-stop so that kind of initial response to our training, all that really gave rise to me going out and opening a facility that is going to really cater to the baseball market. We accidentally carved out this niche.
Ron: That certainly happens from time to time. By accident, you realize that certainly at one point that you have an expertise. You kind of one-off your past experience right?
Eric: Absolutely. A lot of times, people I talk to – people in the industry, people in their early 20s say, “Hey I know you do baseball, Mike Roberts does knees and Mike Wilson is the hockey guy. And I need a niche right? I have to find something.”
You can’t just force it. You can’t decide that in your 20s. You have to want to appreciate it, that it’s something you enjoy. And that requires going out and interning it, whatever that maybe.
Two, you need to appreciate that there is an actual market to it. It needs to be financially sustainable. You can’t just train left-handed pitchers in Alaska with last names beginning with a “W”. It’s not something that’s going to work.
Then the big thing too is you also have to figure out that it’s something you like.
Just because you get into a niche doesn’t mean it’s going to be sustainable for your whole career. If it’s not going to be something you’re genuinely going to be excited about going to work or doing all the time.
Ryan: It sounds like Eric that your passion was in the fitness industry and that led you through your hard work.
And I know the kind of time you put into this stuff and it’s crazy. You really go after this. That led you down the road of baseball niche. It’s not like you started in Day 1 like you said that you’re going to specialize in training baseball players. So your passion led you eventually to be able to specialize because you had a good thing going there.
Eric: That was the biggest part of it – that it wasn’t forced.
There’s this quote, “The harder I work, the better my luck seems to get.”
I think the big part of it is working hard to be in the position to find that opportunity to work with those athletes.
But, there’s a little luck that comes about with my business partner just happened to be finishing his MBA right when I was thinking of starting a business. So it was a good fit for him. There were a lot of stars that aligned the way that they needed to.
And you know that we made mistakes along the way. And things that we could have done differently. That’s in every business.
Ryan: Those mistakes are what you learn from. And you get better. And if you haven’t made those mistakes, you wouldn’t be where you are now. I firmly believe that.
Eric: It’s also a function of appreciating, this is also applicable to all business. Strength conditioning for those who have no background on it, is a very dynamic field.
Meaning, up until the 1990’s, all the research we did on exercise had a lot to do with aerobic exercise. The Kenneth Cooper Institute back in the 1970’s. Nobody really looked at what actually happened when people lifted weights. That was something that this heavy growth in research in the 1990s and early 2000. And it still continues to this day when it’s not just about athletic performance. It’s also about improving quality of life, treating chronic disease, etc.
What that leads to is an appreciation of our field, it is incredibly dynamic in nature. There’s new research that comes out absolutely every singe day, new treatment approaches as well.
There are new surgical procedures that are being introduced all the time. We have a new set of diagnostic imaging appreciation that we do with athletes to realize why their hips are bad, why their shoulders are bad.
So for us, it wasn’t just a matter of training baseball players. It was, “Hey we need to stay on top of this. If this is going to be our niche, we have to be the best at it.”
And that requires this continual pursuit. If you are slacking for a month, you can fall behind.
Ron: Let’s talk about that niche. One of the points that you’ve mentioned was that they realize that maybe they need to specialize in a niche but they go after the area that’s just monetary-based.
So now, they’re just working for the dollars.
And maybe they’re working with a set of clients that’s frankly a little bit of a “grinder” or are abusive. But they continue to do it because they know there’s a big payday at the end of the rainbow.
What do you think is the downfall in that? Not only are they going to get burned out. In my opinion, they’re going to have a lot of animosity and really they just don’t want to do their work anymore.
Eric: They are not going to deliver. In our industry, I remember Thomas Palmer, who is a big business consultant with respect to commercial gyms.
He talks about how any good trainer has a good 50 hours on him each week. Meaning, you can take clients and work 60 hours a week, then you’ll be useless in the last 10 hours.
That’s something I’ve definitely seen, having been the guy who has done those hours on the training floor. Honestly, I do about 35 hours of actual coaching per week. There are a lot of trainings on the side.
But the issue is not so much that you’ll get tired of the niche you pick that you’re not going to do it, the problem is going to be you’ll almost resent it and you’re not going to put your best foot forward.
I always talk about this regardless of your business models and all that stuff. I talk about a few things to our folks.
It’s all about cultivating relationships and creating goodwill.
Regardless of business, this all applies. There’s a great book written by a guy, Keith Ferrazzi. It’s called “Never Eat Alone”.
He was a marketing consultant for one of the big 5 accounting firms. He talked about the 2 ways you can win any person in your life. Either, one, you takeover their pain or, two, you help their kids.
I train young athletes in a sport that has astronomically high injury rates. So I take kid’s pain away. I have the absolutely perfect scenario to create goodwill with folks.
If I want to work just thinking about the check I get at the end of the month or where I’m trying to be in 5 years every single day, I’ll overlook those opportunities to create relationships with people, to find ways to deliver goodwill to them and create those long term interactions.
So it’s a slippery slope to try and force something that you don’t really enjoy.
Ron: I completely agree.
Ryan: It sounds like Eric that you have what we call the 50-year plan. Like you’re not looking at doing that for 5 years and maybe you do have an exit strategy all wrapped up. But you’re really looking I the long term, a vision which most small business don’t have.
Eric: I think that’s in part because some people don’t plan for it. I have a mutual friend hopped in on the phone the other day.
He was 28 years old and got an internship at Professional Sports. He threw his eggs in one basket. He said, “I’m positive they’re gong to hire me at the end of this internship.”
So he went ahead and did it. When the end of the internship came, he didn’t het the job.
He went like, “And so I bought a house. I got a mortgage in this area. I’m 28. I can’t go back to school very easily because I’m geographically set. There are only two colleges nearby and I already applied to one of them and they didn’t take me.”
So he has handicapped himself financially, geographically in a lot of avenues. Know what you want to do. We can talk how the assessments you do carryover what program designs you use for your athletes – the whole step.
But if you haven’t tied all the loose ends independent of that, it becomes very difficult to be successful. There are so many other factors. You’ve got to have a supportive spouse – all of that. Little things do add up.
Ron: Sometimes, it might be best to burn the ships and not look back. Right before you fight out the corner, too. Little bit of motivation for individuals.
Eric: Absolutely. Right on.
Ron: I was going to talk about the lessons – some of the lessons learned throughout your failures. I mean, we all fail.
I’m not sure though if you wanted to go this direction.
Eric: It’s okay.
Ron: But maybe we could talk about examples and how you really fought back from those.
Fighting your way out of that corner. As a small business owner, as a local business owner, there’s going to be clients who are lost. There will be mistakes that will be made, whether they are a high level mistakes, critical mistakes or just small mistakes.
Can you give examples for the audience and really, how you fought back from out of that corner?
You know, one of the first things that I did that was really, really stupid – in hindsight, I wouldn’t put my last name on the business.
With Cressey Performance, one of the biggest issues we run into is absolutely everyone that calls to do an evaluation and comes in on the first day expecting to speak to me.
They expect to talk to me directly. It’s you know, you’re asking how to find our facility, you need directions. You don’t need to speak to me. Our office manager, my business partner, one of our interns – anybody can talk you through that.
That can certainly create a lot of issues. Honestly that person who has to deal with that more so than me is my business partner, who is also our business manager.
If you are Curt Schilling and you have the first sub-pectoral bicep tenodesis surgery in Major League history – yeah, you probably need to see Eric.
But if you are a 13-year old kid who’s never trained before in your life and if you need your body weight lunge, we have a staff, that I promise you, who are very qualified of handling that.
So that’s where it can become tricky in the context of funneling clients in different directions based on the level of true expertise that they need and in the level of individuals they should need.
It’s something that we occasionally wrestle with. It’s easier if instead of Cressey Performance, it was Championship Performance or something like that.
We also could have done a better job at our name – at dictating here is the service we offer. If you don’t know the name Cressey, you might just think we’re a dealership that services Toyota’s or something like that. It could really be anything.
So in hindsight, that shouldn’t happen. But it’s gained a lot of brand recognition. It’s gotten a lot of traction. So you kind of roll with it now that we’ve been in business for 6 years.
Ron: Not only that. But I think, it allows you to cultivate those relationships and build trust among your own employees.
You say, “Look, I have people behind me whom I trust to be able to handle not just miniscule tasks of giving directions.”
Another one was…
I know it was a mistake. It was a flawed perception. I always thought that the name of the game was getting the biggest publicity you possibly could.
Meaning, I figured that if we got mentioned in ESPN magazine then that’s what we need. In reality, what we found out is that, the local press is far more profitable than national or international press.
I’ll give you a point of reference, Baseball America, MLB Network, they all filmed us live in our facility. I’ve been mentioned in Men’s Health almost every week and ESPN, you name it. It’s a normal thing. MOB.com as well.
But our biggest growth came after a Boston Globe story, something here. We’ve got mentioned in the Boston Herald, that’s happened.
And I can’t think of ever having a single client come in for something that I’ve done in Men’s Health. And it’s not that it’s not an honor. I mean, it’s big time. But I guess, the influence is just so spread over the entire planet that you’d really rather have stuff that’s local.
To that end, our business has grown heavily by word of mouth and by social networking, which I perceive as a local press of a different sort.
We’ve got mentioned in numerous sports networks. That was pretty big because of traffic in the Boston area.
It’s the perception that, “Hey I just need to get mentioned in Times or Wall Street Journal.” While it is a good thing, if you want a great business, it’s stuff that’s local to you.
Ron: It’s not necessarily about ego either. I think it’s fantastic to get into those big publications but at the end of the day, it’s definitely not about the ego.
Eric: I look at those things and they are means for us to give clients and potential clients a different avenue to perceive expertise.
And I think that everybody perceives expertise differently. There are people who want to show up, ask questions and talk to us. There are some who want to watch us coach, some who want to see us in a seminar, some who want to read blogs. There are some people who don’t care and they just want to say, “Hey, tell me what I have to do as I’m a busy guy. I don’t really care about the why.”
Some people also just want to interact with other clients who’d been with you. So you’d want to make expertise easy to perceive.
For us, that maybe as simple as framing a Men’s Health article and putting it on a wall.
Our business is interesting because we have a 99.9% conversion rate on people who actually walk in the facility. So really our business has always been heavily focused on lead generation and not really on lead conversion.
The conversion happens when you into the office and you see 4 to 5 pro-baseball players just chilling out in the office. And Big Leaguers just walking around.
You walk in the facility, you hear the music, and you get the energy going. You ask questions. We don’t worry about getting people in the facility. We worry about getting them there in the first place – getting an email from a pro-ball player who wants to move into Massachusetts in the off-season. Those are really are our avenues of growth.
Ryan: And I would imagine, Eric, based on the amount of work you do as far as blogging and writing, speaking and all the market leadership stuff that you’re doing that most people by the time they walk in the door already know more about you than you might even have remember to have said.
Eric: They know my dog’s name before he even comes up to them when they walk in the door, it’s pretty awesome. We always talk about the CP family.
We have a hashtag on Twitter. We stencil it on the wall in the facility where there is this big sense of camaraderie, where you feel that you’re part of the family even before you show up.
It’s all about an opportunity to give them a new way to perceive expertise. And if they see you as a family member, then it’s easier for you to break these walls and get through to them.
Ron: I think to Ryan’s point there, the more that you can engage prospect or establish your online presence and offline presence, the more you can establish those rivers of information, the more those people are going to know more about you.
You kind of do a pre-sell, like here’s the experience, here’s the process. This is what we are all about. And by the time they walk through that door, they’re ready to go. I think that’s a good point that Ryan started to bring up there.
Eric: That’s a big one for sure.
I think those are two of the biggest mistakes. I think probably, not expecting this national press to be the big thing. For us, the biggest reminder for us to take away was: go local and don’t go for the big fish right away.
Because a lot of those impressionable young minds that you work with, if you are patient, will become big leaguers. They become opinion leaders who will influence a lot of people.
I hadn’t known when Tim Collins walked in at age 18 and weighed 135 lbs that he will be in the Kansas City Royals’ opening day roster 3 years later.
We didn’t know at that time that Tyler Bedee, a 160 lb-sophomore that he was going to be a first-round draft pick a couple of years later.
You try to treat each one of your clients as if they have a potential of doing special things in this world. But at the end of the day, you really don’t know what’s going to happen.
If you spend your entire life trying to call every agency in the business trying to refer you their sought-after, young, award winners, then things don’t go great.
It’s interesting for us. I’ve dealt with athletes who are high school players, college players and Minor Leaguers before they made it into the Big Leaguers.
We interact with them at a young age where they’re just in the Minor League making $5000 a year. And now, they’re in the Big League making $50000 on their first year.
What I found out heavily is that the guys, who was the easiest to deal with, are the ones with whom we have cultivated relationships at an early age.
We kind of got through to them on that level. And it was easier to train them, to manage, schedule them and all that things. It’s all because we got them before they were really, really successful.
For us, it has been a big thing. We’re not out there recruiting Big Leaguers. We certainly get referrals of them and we’re not turning them away because that’s one of our market segments.
But the last thing I want to do is spend a ton of money just trying to recruit Big League guys because if I get things right, I’m making Big Leaguers.
Ron: From a business development standpoint, that really rings true in terms of the clientele you’re dealing with.
You will never now that client you’re working with that they’ll open up another location or they’re going to bring you the referral.
So the point that you made, treating each client the same way – treating them with compassion and really realizing that, “Hey, I’m able to help you and I’m here to solve your pain. I’m really going to help your problem.”
And not looking at what you are going to get from it. Inevitably, you are going to get some benefit from that. Stay true to your uniqueness if you will.
Ryan: What I’ve learned is never take a client for granted. I don’t care if they’re paying $100 or $10000.
Every client is important – equally important.
And like what you’ve mentioned Eric, you have just 35 hours to train them. You still can’t give your time away because there’s only so much time in a day. But you make sure that there are people in place that can service everyone of your clients equally.
Eric: The other thing is you never want to settle with your business. You never want to say this is good enough.
But it seems when spoken, you want to appreciate that perspective even more in the context of the barriers to entry you perceive.
Here’s an example. If you are a local gym owner, whatever you may be, and you want to go out and try to start your business up. On my end, it’s a whole lot easier for me to go and speak to a group of 14 to 15 year old athletes. I can set that up everyday of the week if I wanted to.
Now, if I wanted to present to Scott Boris or a big time baseball team, that’s something that’s going to require years of leg work as I could spend a fortune trying to get in front of somebody like that. I think that’s the perception that people have is, “Hey, if I want to do this at this level, I need to throw a ton of money at it.”
That’s actually the worst thing you could do as it will quickly deplete your bank account. But if you keep focus and you do things right and you get good results. And you gradually work your way up that ladder.
I mean, I gave a presentation to a bunch of New York Yankees pitching coaches, athletic trainers, strength coaches and some office people while I was down in Spring training a few weeks ago.
I would never have that opportunity back in 2007 with 2 pro-guys. Now that it’s 80 to a 100 and there are 7 or 8 of them coming from the Yankees, all of a sudden, those barriers are broken down.
I’ve got a good relationship with their Minor League Pitching Coordinator. A good friend of mine is one of their strength coaches. Those opportunities come about. And I cannot overstate it enough to people.
It’s important to be patient, be persistent but don’t go for the big fish right away. Sometimes you are better off that way.
Ron: Yeah, cutting your teeth with those guppies.
Eric: Those small fish.
Ryan: You’ve got to celebrate those small victories.
I think small business owners get caught up in the day to day struggles and they landed a nice deal or they just closed a nice account or they got a new account – it’s like, celebrate that!
Take some time and pump your fist in your office. Do a little dance, whatever you want to do. You have to recognize those small victories. It keeps you going.
Eric: Exactly. When I’m talking to my business partners about how we’re going to grow our business, I draw this diagram of new market – same market and new product – same products.
And I basically show them that it’s easier for us to grow with our same products either in our current market or in a new market than it is to introduce stuff that is entirely different.
You guys probably have the numbers on how much easier it is to just improve revenue form existing clients, to offer existing products to them as opposed to going out and trying to get new customers.
A lot of times, the answer is to work within your business. Find ways to provide new services to existing customers.
We start offering boot camps early in the morning, which are totally separate from our baseball niche. And you think a new product like that one would be a lot harder to get off the ground.
But it’s going well simply because we had this so much client pool to draw from such as, parents of our young athletes who were looking to train as well.
So it became a great opportunity. A lot of times, really, the answer is to look inside your business not just look outside of it.
Ryan: It’s a good point.
Ron: It’s a great point. Continually refine your offering. Certainly easier than to go get new ones.
Eric, anything in particular that we haven’t covered for today that you want to get across to our listeners?
Eric: There are 2 notes I made.
The first one, from the business development side of things. You guys can speak about this way better than me because I know you have a bigger team than I do.
When you are adding to your staff, focus on complementing your abilities and not replicating them. So when we founded our business, I was the one-stop shop.
I was doing the training, doing the scheduling, swiping the credit cards – everything! Answering the phone calls, giving the tours. And when we opened up, there was no way I can do all that for good.
So my business partner took a lot of the business stuff. My other business partner comes in and he handles a lot more of training. While I kind of wear a few different hats.
So don’t just hire someone who is like you. You want to make sure that you’re working with someone who complements your abilities. That’s what we’ve done. We hired a guy who is a massage therapist. We’ve hired someone who specializes in nutrition. We’ve hired someone who specializes in boot camps and larger-sized group trainings.
For us, that’s a very important thing to implement.
The other thing that I want to tell you and this is something I guarantee that you’ll see a lot in people you deal with is, I’m a big believer in focusing on what we do right. And not talking about our competitor’s weaknesses or really even perceiving that we have competitors.
It’s like Coca Cola needs to know what Pepsi is doing. And McDonald’s need to know what Burger King and Subway are doing. But, in our industry, it’s different. It’s because we are so heavily niched.
We don’t have local competition. We don’t have people that train baseball players in the level that we do. We’re perceived to be unique that way.
When you are in that niche, you kind of set the rules a little bit. It means you don’t have to worry about what competition is doing.
Because if that niche is sustainable and you’ve done a good job of doing your homework to make sure that it’s something you can carve out, then you don’t really have to worry about people creeping up and stealing your market share because you’ve created the market.
Ryan: What I found, Eric, along those lines, competition a lot of times is perceived. And if you do things the right way, there really isn’t any competition.
But so few businesses do things the right way. Even the local business that we consult with and talk to are like missing so many things that they should do to cultivate relationships among and capitalize on every client that they have.
Your competitors are not eve doing this. They are not going to do this. So if you did this, you’re not going to be worried about losing any client ever again.
So competition to me, a lot of times, is just perceived. You do things the right way and you will be fine.
Eric: Well said.
Ron: Eric, do you have a preferred baseball team?
Eric: It’s interesting. If you asked me that 5 to 6 years ago, I absolutely would have.
But I’m kind of a baseball mutt, I guess you can say. I work with guys in so many organizations so your fanship gets a little bit lewd.
You can see a Royals hat in my car. I work with a few guys from the Royals, too. I don’t know. I don’t have a specific allegiance. I’m just a baseball fan in a general sense.
Ryan: Are they for real this year, you think?
They’re tearing up in the Spring training.
Eric: They got a shot. I don’t know about this year. But certainly, in the next couple of years.
I will say I’m a big Team USA fan. I just went to see some baseball classics and definitely, by far the best baseball experience I’ve had.
Ron: Great answer. Opening day is Monday, I believe.
It’s staring this coming Monday so it’s very exciting.
Very timely. It must be a very exciting time for you as well.
Eric: it’s our low key time of the year because of that. It’s kind of nice to recharge a little bit.
Ron: Kind of like the taxis after the rush, you get to refocus and relax.
Eric, how can people get a hold of you and what’s the easiest way?
Eric: Best bet is just ericcressey.com.
Ron: Very good.
Eric, I really appreciate your time and insight today. It’s a pleasure having you on. Thank you for joining us.
Ryan: Thank you, Eric.
Eric: It was fun guys. Thank you for having me.
Ryan: Appreciate it.