SurpriseNiche_Body.jpgby Erin McDermott.

 

Define “fit.”

 

Consuelo Bova had her “Aha!” moment while shopping for her husband. At five foot one, the seasoned businesswoman in Winter Park, Fla., was already familiar with the struggle to find clothes that didn’t require an additional trip to a tailor. Jeff, at five feet eight, shared in that frustration. (Ever notice stores have no male equivalent to ladies’ petite sizes?)

 

That was the spark behind FORtheFIT.com, the men’s clothing website they launched with an emphasis on goods for shorter, slimmer men. Even as the business took off, Bova says she always would hear from other dissatisfied men: If only they carried goods for short and stout men, or very tall and slim men, etc.

 

“About two to three years in, we started to make the shift to clothes for the short and stout market,” Bova says. “And that evolved into 50 percent of our business.”

 

Many entrepreneurs start with a clear vision of where they believe their clients will come from, only to have new prospects shake up that notion. But can you stay true to your vision? We talk with a few successful entrepreneurs who say they’ve learned that while new avenues may seem to pose an enormous challenge initially, their core abilities and methods often translate remarkably well.

 

Innovaxis

Sean Parnell started out in marketing consulting after stints in document imaging and selling pro audio equipment. Most early clients for his Chicago-based firm were for B-to-B campaigns within those two industries, along with other technical products. But he then started drawing more and more work through his partner’s experience in the medical spa and wellness markets. It seemed a bit out of his comfort zone. “There are certain things where you are proactive, and then some things just come your way,” he says. And they managed to make it work.

 

Now, one of his biggest clients is a neurosurgeon who sells nutritional supplements that can aid in healing and recovery. “Once you start working with a variety of clients, you start learning more about yourself. I’ve discovered things that we were good at, and other things that we’re just OK at and might want to refer to somebody else,” Parnell says. “What I’ve realized is that we’re good at specialty products that require educating the market.”

 

“Marketing can be applied to any market or product,” Parnell says. “We learned that our core set of capabilities can apply to areas that we never thought we’d get into—but sure enough our skills have been applied there very well.”

 

Brafferton Inn

Brian Hodges wasn’t a Civil War buff when he bought the Brafferton Inn with his wife, AmyBeth, and his mom, Joan, in 2005. The trained chef and hospitality veteran from the Southeast was looking for a bed and breakfast opportunity in an area with a long tourist season. So, as the new innkeeper at the oldest house in Gettysburg, Pa., he had to immerse himself in the remarkable story of the building (the original owners hid in the basement during the epic Civil War battle) and the war itself (yes, that is a bullet wedged in the upstairs mantelpiece). 

 

SurpriseNiche_PQ.jpgYet for all the fascinating history that draws visitors from around the world, Hodges says most guests want their modernity: even if the building dates back to 1786, amenities for its 17 guestrooms had to become 21st-century, meaning adding TVs and WiFi access through thick walls, along with spa showers.

 

“Ninety-nine percent of people that come know they’re coming to an old house,” Hodges says. “But it’s us adapting to technology, too, not just the guests. When Gen Xers come, they have their laptops. For our reservations and website, we need the Internet, too. And any update we’re going to do is going to be adding Jacuzzis, a gas fireplace—even though we’ve got this old house, travelers want these amenities.”

 

Beach Betty Creative

Shelly Cone launched her copywriting and marketing strategy firm in 2007, aiming for clients who sought a laid-back, casual style that would let her personality shine through. The Santa Maria, Calif., venture took off from the beginning, but Cone says she just kept getting contacted by technology companies—the opposite of who she’d expected to attract. “It wasn’t until someone mentioned to me, ‘You know, they probably really are your customers: They’re innovative, creative, out-of-the-box thinkers, too. Just creative in a different way.’” (One other possible clue: The back of her business card reads “Jedi Mind Trick: I am the writer you’re looking for.”)

 

Now tech companies make up some 70 percent of her business. “In the beginning, I would just resist. I had to change my approach to this niche,” Cone says. “Most of my clients didn’t want numbers or hard facts; they were about selling a feeling or experience. Tech companies were different. They didn’t want to tell people how their product makes people feel, it was ‘This product makes you 46 percent more efficient.’ Once I got that key, it was like—hey, this can work!”

 

FORtheFIT

Now a few years later, FORtheFIT has expanded to include even more subsets of male shoppers. Listening to her six-foot four-inch tall brother-in-law’s laments, Bova says even tall, slim men don’t have it easy. “That size is hard to come by. You see Big & Tall stores everywhere, but if you need, say, size-medium extra-tall, where do you shop?” she says. “So when we heard the voices and it became possible for us, we added them in.” As the Bovas started doing more of their own manufacturing instead of just buying, it brought some surprising results.

 

“Even today, I’m sometimes surprised when we get orders for, say, an extra-small with a 40-inch inseam,” she says. “They exist. I never thought that size would sell, but not everyone out there is a cookie-cutter shape.” The same can be said for small businesses.