What is a Power Niche?

One of the most important things for any real estate business and, indeed, any business is a successful marketing program.  Of course in our hearts we want to believe that if we just do something great then everyone will figure it out and be impressed.  But alas, that is just not true.  Indeed, Einstein flunked physics and couldn’t land a job.  And everyone has an example of a super-talented person that ends up just toiling in the trenches for someone else.  Like it or not, the world belongs to the marketers.  And I believe that this will increase more and more over time.  Someone – but I cannot find the exact quote – said something like this:

“The world will increasingly belong to those who create the ideas rather than those who execute them.”

In the real estate world it is no different.  If you have a great “brand” (which of course is built by a successful marketing program) you typically succeed — and the converse.  This is the basic reason why Warren Buffet – arguably the world’s most successful investor – focuses on brands; namely, for their long-term premium pricing power.

So how do you create a strong brand in the real estate world?  The simple answer is that you do this by creative and intelligent marketing.

I have become a student of marketing over the past ten years, including both reading everything I can lay my hands on and at the same time analyzing what works and what doesn’t work and delineating the reasons for success and failure.  After thousands of hours of study, I have come to the conclusion that the secret of a successful marketing campaign and, concomitantly, the essence of building a successful brand (almost) always centers around what I call:

  • a “Power Niche”

This is a concept and phrase I have invented and coined; however, for any intellectuals reading my writings, you will quickly realize I am building on the works of Peter Drucker and Michael Porter and other great intellectual giants in the business world.

As an aside, I note that there are certainly other ways to be successful, such a being the low-cost-producer; however, generally the other angles (including being the low cost producer) are typically much more difficult to effectuate and maintain; however, just about anyone can build a Power Niche.

So what do I mean by a Power Niche?  Here is my definition:

In brief, a Power Niche is a small-sized niche within a bigger industry that no one else yet dominates or owns.  The niche isn’t obvious so you have to figure it out and “create” it.  You step in and learn everything about it and everyone in it.  You tell everyone about what you are doing – incessantly — and become the real “owner” of the niche merely by staking out your homestead in virgin territory.  This then becomes a virtuous cycle as the more you know, the more you do, and the more you do, the more you know.  Before long you are the world’s unquestioned expert in this (smaller) niche.  All of this enhances your bargaining power within that niche.  Instead of begging for business in the bigger industry, you now have eager clients paying you top dollar within this smaller Power Niche.  

A Power Niche is often difficult to identify and at the same time counterintuitive, and indeed kind of scary, but once figured out is very easy to accomplish and can be crazy-lucrative.  Indeed, just about anyone can create a Power Niche successfully.

Indeed, for my law firm, I am a lot better off as The Pure Play in Real Estate Law than I am trying to be all things to all people.  It was surely an unsettling decision, to become the Pure Play in Real Estate Law as when we enacted this we were theoretically scaring off the 99% of clients in the world who are not in real estate.

But consider that in the (smaller) real estate world my firm is a major player.  We are able to know everyone and everything.  This makes my partners and me very useful to our clients in ways that are in addition to “just doing great legal work”.  This of course includes effectuating our mission of “helping our clients build their business” due to our connectively, contacts and industry knowledge.  If I tried to make my firm full service, I would be competing with multi-thousand-lawyer global behemoths and I have no idea how I could convince a client we were the optimal, or even a useful, choice.

In the business side of the real estate world, it is the same thing.  Let me give you an easy example, which is deliberately quite simplistic.  Let’s say you are in the multi-family business.  You do what is called “build-to-core.”  This means that you find locations for multifamily buildings, you get a construction loan and you build a high-quality building.  Then you rent it out.  Simple, right?

However, if your building looks like other buildings, how are you going to make a profit that on a long-term basis will be greater than just average?  You could convince yourself that your building is “better”, but what does that really mean?  Does it mean you paid more for a better location?  If so, your costs are higher and hopefully your rent is higher to make up for it.  Or did you do a better job of building it with higher quality contractors?  Same thing – you paid more and hope to get more rent.  I wonder whether that is really much different from making it cheaper and charging less?  It is two sides of the same coin.  In the short term you are making bets that may or may not pay off.  In the long term, what you are doing is making a product better and hoping to charge more for it because of that.  Indeed, Michael Porter says that the biggest mistake people make in the business world is making things “better” when they really should be concentrating on making things “different.”  And of course that is what I mean by the Power Niche.

So instead of the usual plan (outlined above), what if, for example, you modified the marketing and business plan for your residential real estate company to more narrowly concentrate on the LGBTQ community?  I picked this concept at random but please follow my point through.  What would now happen?  A bunch of things:

  • You would learn everything about the LGBTQ community

  • You would learn what they like and dislike

  • You would target your building towards LGBTQ people (and figure out if in fact they wanted to live with other LGBTQ residents)

  • You would develop intellectual capital at your company around this

And you would build your building to make it one where LGBTQ people would want to go.

You would be building a Power Niche.

Your market would be smaller – much smaller – but if you did it right you would do what Dale Carnegie says in his famous book, How to Win Friends and Influence People, namely, to “arouse an eager want” in the customer.

Would LGBTQ people pay more rent to live in a building that was really about the LGBTQ community in New York City?  Honestly, of course I don’t know that and there is always risk in any new idea.

But this is just the beginning of the Power Niche.  Once it became clear to the market that this was your business’s focus, LGBTQ people would want to work for you.  LGBTQ businesses would want to do business with you.  Advertisers would want to advertise with and through you.  You would find all sorts of opportunities you wouldn’t otherwise see because you would be the “only one” focusing on this.  You would learn more and more and become a font of intellectual capital on the LGBTQ community’s interaction with the residential real estate world.  People would want you to speak at conferences.  You would be the expert’s expert in residential real estate for the LGBTQ community.

If the idea worked for a first building, your next building would be a no-brainer to get investors and lenders and other parties.  And after a while, everyone would be chasing you to invest with you and do business with you.

Instead of trying to be “better” and playing the odds on paying more for a better location, you would be a “brand” that had a small but targeted customer base.

You would have established a Power Niche in the real estate world and as Warren Buffet would presumably like, you would be able to sell your product (i.e., brand) at an above market price for a long-term period of time.

Guaranteed success?  Of course not.  Obviously there are social issues at play here as well (for this particular Power Niche), but I still like it a lot better than the other game plan in “build-to-core”, in which you are a lot more at the mercy of the market.  Indeed, when the market falls apart for multifamily, which place do you think will hold its rental value better?  All the buildings that look pretty much like each other, or the “one” building where LGBTQ people really want to be.

Three Words That Might Change How You Look At The Real Estate World

I will get right to it – here are the three words:

“Competition is Evil”

Competition is a truly horrible and terrible thing and should be avoided at all costs! All competition does is destroy your profitability, as we all no doubt remember from our first year economics course in college. Indeed theoretical “perfect competition” reduces everyone’s profits to zero.

The goal in a real estate business – indeed in any business – should not be to “compete” with your “competition” but to do something different.

I didn’t make this up. This comes from just about every deep thinker in the business world:

Peter Thiel, who started PayPal and is now a Stanford professor, gets credit for coining the above phrase – and I heartily recommend his book Zero to One, which delves deeper into his thinking.

The late Peter Drucker, who I mentioned in my first article, and will no doubt quote again as he is one of my personal heroes, says one of the two most critical things for a business to do is to “innovate”, which is the essence of avoiding competition, as the whole concept of innovation is something new and different.

Michael Porter, the Harvard Professor and guru of competitive analysis, says that the biggest mistake businesses make is “trying to be the best” and beating their competition. Instead, he advises, the goal should be to create something new and therefore create value for your business. Indeed, as Porter points out, if you become “better” than your competition, all this (usually) means is that your customers, employees or other parties in the industry benefit, as opposed to your business benefiting. His definition of competitive advantage is instructive:

“Competitive advantage depends on offering a unique value proposition delivered by a tailored value chain, involving trade-offs different from those of rivals, and where there is a fit among numerous activities that become mutually reinforcing.”

Note the key words “unique” and “tailored value chain” and “trade-offs different from those of rivals”.

Seth Godin, who is a more eclectic, but in my view also a brilliant thinker, writes an excellent and easy-to-read book called Purple Cow, which emphasizes a different variant of the same thing; namely, how important it is to STAND OUT, like a purple cow would stand out, as opposed to fitting in and being forgotten.

And there are other books I have read as well by brilliant and creative thinkers. They all say versions of the same thing; namely, that it is more critical to be different than it is to be better.

So I urge you to sit down – with a bottle of single malt scotch (if you have my taste in liquor) – have a couple of snifters – turn off your iPhone or other machinery – and have a good look around at what you are doing in the real estate world. Consider:

  • Are you doing what others are doing?

  • Is your day spent trying to figure out how to be “better” than others?

  • Is what you are doing “different” than others somehow – possibly in the way you do business, the way you treat and incentivize employees, in what you offer to customers, in how you build your product, in how you use technology, in how you lend out money, in how you invest money, or in any other way? Or is your entire business exactly like someone else’s?

  • How much of your time spent on analyzing your business strategy is spent on thinking about macro things that are really in the nature of trying to time the market or the cycle with your crystal ball?

  • How much of your free time is spent thinking about how to be different?

  • Have you read any of the books I have mentioned above?

If the answers to the above questions lead you to the view that you aren’t really trying to be different and instead you are trying to do things better, then my guess is that on a risk-adjusted basis, your returns are more like to be average than to out-perform.

Creating Value in the Real Estate World

In my wanderings and discussions with clients and other friends in the real estate world, I hear many different plans from many different people. Many plans are of course brilliant and well executed; however, I do see a perennial fundamental flaw in many plans that I would like to talk about. Here is my thinking……

I believe that in just about every really promising real estate deal – or real estate platform – there is a party that “creates value.” Obviously this is more pronounced and obvious in a project that is architecturally and aesthetically beautiful and different or in a cutting edge project in a different location, but it is also true in the most mundane of transactions as well. There is someone that has brought some “value” to the deal or to the process. The trick in a good business plan (for a deal or a company) is to be that person on a consistent basis.

I don’t know if others look at things this way; however, I get a sense that typically lenders, fund managers, insurance companies, sovereign wealth funds, family offices and other providers of capital (collectively, “Capital Providers”) give this “value creation” away to developers, owners, sponsors and brokers (collectively, “Sponsor Parties”) without really thinking about this concept. Also, my sense is the Sponsor Parties sometimes go into business without thinking deeply about how they might set themselves up to really create value that they can bring to Capital Providers.

Consider what typically happens vis a vis the Capital Providers. Toby (a metaphor), who works for the Capital Provider sits in his/her office and waits for possible deals to roll in. Toby is a great marketer and knows how to create deal flow. He knows that the key rule is to get out and about with people, build relationships, and try to make deals work and do great and careful underwriting. But there is one thing Toby is not (typically) doing, which is “creating” the “value” in the deal. Instead, he is in the “reactive” seat, and waiting for the “proactive” Sponsor Parties to create the deals to be sent to Toby for evaluation.

Why is he doing that? I don’t think there is a good reason. I think it happens this way largely due to inertia, and the fact that that is just the way everyone typically does business. But, I think that there is really no reason why Toby can’t create deal value himself. Let me give an outline of an idea:

Let’s say you are the CEO of a Capital Provider (say, “Smith Capital”) which is a $1B opportunity private equity fund that invests in deals of all types in the U.S. Sponsor Parties solicit Smith Capital with deals it might invest in and Smith Capital analyzes hundreds of these deals every year, does solid underwriting, and then narrows them down to about twenty deals it tries to do, of which let’s say five actually close.

In all of these deals – alas – Smith Capital has competition from other Capital Providers. Maybe these other Capital Providers are more eager – or dumber – or whatever – so they offer better terms than Smith Capital is willing to offer so Smith Capital doesn’t get the deal or its pricing (and hence its risk/reward) gets worse. Of course this will likely end up being the case since the Sponsor Providers have provided the “value” that Smith Capital and its competition are bidding for.

How about instead you ask your acquisitions guy – Toby – to pick a specialty area to become a major expert in? And I don’t mean a big area that is in the typical real estate food groups (like retail, multifamily, etc.) but a much smaller niche, like, say, garages, golf courses, co-working space, or another much smaller niche — the thinking here being that the niche has to be small enough that Smith Capital can dominate it.

As an aside, the niche should be somewhat creative. For example, a purely geographic niche sounds interesting but doesn’t last very long. As soon as others realize a location is undervalued, the prices get bid up. Of course, the first player can do well, but usually it is very hard to be sure that when you get in on the ground floor in a geographic location whether the overall market will really rise or not; accordingly, the risk/reward is not necessarily easy to evaluate.

As a metaphor for this niche idea for Smith Capital and Toby, let’s pick parking garages as the example.

Now, what Toby does is the following: He reads everything possible about garages. He finds out who are the major players, costs, advantages, disadvantages, and little known facts (like what local fire departments say about different garage types). He has a gaggle of Google alerts from all sorts of angles on garages. He gets the garage trade publications. He tells everyone about it – both internally at Smith Capital – and externally too. He then ramps it up by going to garage conferences. He goes out and meets the owners and developers of garage companies. After just a few months Toby is Toby the Parking Garage Man! He knows everyone and everything. He has relationships. He has strong and coherent ideas about how to invest – including what to avoid — and is now able to apply this knowledge to create “value” in deals. He knows the REIT issues that pertain to garages – he knows the operational issues – he knows (personally) all the good operators – and most importantly he knows the risks.

His presence now is an upgrade to the “value” that Smith Capital can provide because third parties start thinking that if there is a garage as a significant portion of their deal then maybe Smith Capital should be called to be involved, as they could provide some “value’ due to the intellectual capital that Toby has developed pertaining to garages.

Maybe lenders will like Smith Capital in the deal, since lenders are more concerned nowadays than ever about the talent in the equity that they lend to. Indeed, possibly (dare I say), the lender might even recommend to the Sponsor Provider that Smith Capital would be a great co-investor in the deal due to its expertise. Maybe even the Sponsor Party (who usually struts around, since he holds the “value” cards) isn’t quite as cool anymore because Smith Capital can enhance the upside of the deal pertaining to the garage adjunct. Also, maybe Smith Capital has relationships that can be mined to help the garage part of the deal get better.

Eventually Smith Capital starts to be a major player in the garage space. They know everyone and everything. Everyone comes to them for advice and they are the first stop – and the last stop – for proposed deals that have garages in them.

To end the story, instead of Smith Capital giving away the value creation to the Sponsor, it is Smith Capital now creating at least part of the value and upside, which means that Smith Capital can negotiate much better terms with the Sponsor Party.

By the way, I know I directed this article at Capital Providers; however, that is just serendipitous, since my thinking is exactly the same for Sponsor Parties. In order to be able to demand good and strong terms, Sponsor Parties should do the exact same thing; namely, develop niche-type expertise that they can use to create value.

So I hope I have made my point here. To conclude:

If you are a Sponsor Party or a Capital Provider, I propose that the name of the game is figuring out where the value will be created in the real estate deals you are seeking, and then set yourself to really “proactively” create that value, rather than “reactively” wait for someone else to create it and bring it to you. And the way to do that is by using your assets – the brains of your team – to create intellectual capital in small-sized niches that you can own.

Peter Drucker: Creating Customers

Peter Drucker – one of the great intellectual thinkers of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries – asks a question: “What is the purpose of a business?”

Have you ever stopped to ask yourself that question? Or, perhaps more importantly, have you ever asked yourself what is the purpose of “your” business?

As I was reading Drucker, I stopped to think and see if I could answer this question myself for my law firm. The obvious answers seemed to be: to make a profit, to build a brand, to serve society or maybe to do good things for my employees or to make my customers happy or something like that.

Drucker; however, says simply:

“To create a customer (emphasis added)”

Wow – when you hear that, it zings doesn’t it – you aren’t just going out to get customers – you are creating them……and that is your true purpose!!!

Drucker goes on to say that there are only two things that every business MUST do. Everything else is white noise. If you do these two things you have a chance at great success and if you don’t, then most of the time the converse.

Can you think of what they are? I couldn’t till he told me – the two things are very simple:

To innovate
And to market

I remember reading all of this and feeling like I had been struck. Of course!!!!

If you don’t innovate, then you are selling what everyone else is selling and you have no pricing power. By the laws of perfect competition, your pricing power erodes as you are effectively selling a commodity.

And if you don’t market the product, then people not only don’t know about it but they also don’t know why they should want it.

If you really spend a moment and think about all of this it is both exciting and liberating at the same time – it is so simple – to succeed in the business world you just keep in mind that the “purpose” of your business is to “create” customers and the way you do this is by “innovating” and “marketing”.

That’s the whole ballgame.

Heady stuff isn’t it – this Drucker guy?

Consider Apple for a moment. What would Wozniak have done without Jobs? He would have tinkered and tinkered till someone stole or used what he did, or employed him, or until the industry just moved past him.

And what would Jobs have done without Wozniak? What would he have had to sell? Nothing at all.

They were the ultimate people in innovating and marketing.

And talk about creating customers. No one did that better than Jobs. I truly love his incredible statement:

“Don’t give the customers what they want – show the customers what they should want!”

So – as you read this – I ask you – do you have as your purpose “creating” customers – and are you “innovating and marketing” to do it?

Let me take you a little deeper and try to apply this to the real estate world.

I will start with applying this thinking to my (lawyer/law firm) business and then applying it to your (real estate) business.

My law firm is a 70 lawyer law firm in midtown Manhattan, which focuses on real estate.

If I were trying to attract a client to my firm I could say we are really good lawyers – I could even say we were really great lawyers – but would that do much to attract a client to my firm? I sincerely doubt it. People would nod off since they have all have heard that before. Indeed I have met many people before, who say things like “Don’t give me the usual stuff – tell me how you are different”.

So what if I said instead that we are a pure play in real estate law – unlike all other law firms, shunning other lines of business – in order to achieve the top status in our niche? And we have a mission statement to add value to our clients by doing more than just legal work – instead, we also work to build their businesses by making connections and thinking of ideas and structures for them – and that our clients simply love this as it really helps them in ways other law firms cannot and do not.

So am I creating customers here? I think I am. It used to be that clients went to lawyers just for legal advice and assistance in closing deals or handling litigations. Did they think they needed a law firm with a mission to help clients build their businesses? I don’t think they knew that. I think my clients know that now and they really love the special value we create for them because they tell us this flat out all the time. I think we created customers here.

So now let’s apply this thinking to the real estate business.

Imagine a row of buildings with identical products for rent – i.e. a row of gleaming “new” office buildings along the street – all the same – and all beautiful and pristine.

Yuk!!!

It’s all beautiful – and it’s all perfect – and it’s all the “same” as everything else. No customers are “created”. They are everyone’s customers just shopping among identical products. And all an intelligent customer has to do is walk down the street and ask each landlord who will rent them space for the lowest price. And pretty soon someone will put that on the internet and they won’t even have to walk down the street.

So the only thing helping – or hurting – the landlord is the market going up or down. And good luck trying to time the market. Sometimes you nail it and sometimes you don’t. I would hate to be in a business that the only thing separating me from success or failure is my crystal ball that tells me that the future demand for rental space in New York will go up or down.

So now let me give you an innovation I have thought of that I think, if properly marketed, could create some real live customers. I admit that this topic was the subject of one of my speeches a few years ago, and if you heard that, hopefully you won’t mind too much.

I picked office leasing, probably for the reason that it is sometimes maybe thought of as one of the less innovative parts of the real estate world (I don’t agree with that thought by the way). My reason is to make a point that innovations can come up anywhere.

It seems like until about five-ish years ago landlords just leased space to tenants and relied upon tried and true things like:

The location of the property – of course
The niceness of the building

And, then, all of the sudden, all these cool ideas blasted onto the scene. Things like: picking one (cool) tenant like Google to attract other tech companies to be nearby – shared space for multiple parties – exchanges where people of all kinds integrate – incubators – temporary space – co- working facilities — popup stores – and all sorts of “stuff” started to happen. The landlords who were at the head of these trends – i.e. the innovators – took a part of the city that was kind of humdrum (Park Avenue South) and turned it into the hottest part of the city. Rents went up – and the landlords there cleaned up.

And the industry was transformed and continues to transform around us. So here is a thought that might further transform.

It starts out in the mind of the customer – i.e. the tenant – and asks what does a tenant really want? Of course there are a lot of things, but one thing that many tenants want is the ability to cram as many people as possible into a location, but in a manner in which they can work productively, happily and successfully. Indeed, a lot of us law firms think about this a lot. Rent is our second biggest expense – and boy would we like to be able to cram a lot of lawyers into our space without bumming them out.

So how about this – instead of leasing space by rent per square foot – instead start leasing space by Productive Employees Per Square Foot?

Think this through with me for a moment and let’s do some math. If you ask me to take 50,000 square feet of space at $50 per square foot then I am paying $2,500,000 per year. If I can comfortably fit 100 lawyers “productively” into the space then my law firm can achieve a certain level of profitability in that space. As the managing partner of my law firm, that is how I would judge things, i.e. every lawyer I get in the space can bill X hours times Y billing rate, etc.

But if you lease me 40,000 feet at the same rent (i.e. $50 per square foot) and I get the same number of lawyers in the space I achieve the same level of profitability – don’t I? But now I achieve that profitability for $2,000,000 a year, which is $500,000 a year less. Suddenly my business is $500,000 a year more profitable isn’t it? Just because you – the landlord – made it so…..

And you (if you are a landlord) just gave up $500,000 to me – as your tenant – for free!!! You didn’t take anything for it if you just are sticking with the old rules of measurement, i.e. by the square foot.

To achieve this idea all you would have to do is this:

“Innovate” – be creative in how to set up space so that more lawyers can comfortably work in it.

“Market” the idea to law firm tenants like me that I should pay more for this kind of space or, in other words, that I should evaluate the value of the space I am renting by this new metric.

Then you have “created a customer” (i.e. me) who will purchase office space based on Productive Employees Per Square Foot.

This would mean you ignore the “market” and what everyone is doing and what everyone wants. Instead – just like Steve Jobs – you are telling the market, and your customers, what they should want!

And suddenly you have created customers who buy their space based on Productive Employees Per Square Foot.

If this is marketed successfully, then you are possibly making a lot more money from the same office building.