How to look for that sweet spot of opportunity against competition

Invent a product that fits the market’s Goldilocks zone. Not too hot; not too cold; just right.


Once upon a time, I had a publisher interested in a non-fiction book I had written. Fortunately, I didn’t put a down payment on a new car based on my anticipated royalties.

The publisher outlined the conditions I must meet before signing a contract. The most important was that I visit three bookstores, search for similar books, and write a brief synopsis of each.

My heart sank when I discovered a total of 17 such books. I was sure that level of competition was more than enough to kill the book contract. I was right, of course.

Ted Nicholas, the publisher, let me down politely. He said that if there had been about five competitors—not zero competitors—he would have withdrawn the conditional offer to publish.

The five sounded OK. I felt my book was good enough to compete with that many. But zero? I was very surprised.

My first thought was that the absence of competition would be ideal. But Ted explained that the lack of a competitor’s book meant  bookstores had no shelf space dedicated to the category in which my book would be placed. It also would have meant that there was so little demand for the subject of my book that no publisher had yet gambled on publishing such a subject.

4 takeaways

So, there are lessons to be learned from that experience:

1. If no one has yet produced a product that seems to fill the need you have discovered, your venture is high risk. To launch it successfully will require lots of publicity and expensive advertising in order to get the market started. Pioneering a product is not for typical inventors. Leave the introduction of a truly novel product to the well-funded entrepreneur.

2. If many producers are already in the market, you will probably be overwhelmed by the competition. Ready for a shock? Better sit down.

Suppose you invented a squirrel-proof bird feeder. That’s a need that bird lovers haven’t fully solved. And you came up with a great invention that prevents squirrels from poaching the birdfeed you put out every morning. (Don’t count on it; those bushy-tailed rodents are just waiting for a new challenge.)

You’ll sell it on, right? Except that when you search for “squirrel-proof bird feeder” on Amazon, you are shocked to find several pages, each with 48 entries—95 percent of which are claimed to be squirrel proof. I stopped counting at 200.

Your dream of licensing your novel design, or producing it yourself, is shattered. Well, if not shattered, you’re certainly in for a lot of work and expense invested against the odds.

The companies that are already in the business, and perhaps producing several models, can afford to add another if they choose. The more product entries they have on Amazon, the better chance they have of selling. But for you and me, our lone entry is lost in the maze.

3. Invent a product that fits the market’s Goldilocks zone. Not too hot; not too cold; just right—a market that has enough competition that you know buyers are searching it but not so much that you’ll be lost in the crowd.
4. You may be able to find a niche within a highly competitive market, if that’s where your invention insists on going.

My book was on writing a great resume and getting hired. It appealed to a general audience. Everyone who works has a potential need for such book, which is why it had 17 competitors. Therein lies the opportunity.

Suppose I had pitched the book to the blue-collar worker. That would seem to be a good niche, because blue-collar workers were not using resumes years ago when I wrote my book. Mainly, they were searching want ads or using employment agencies.

Thus, the person who mailed his or her resume to a company would have stood out. As a former employer, I know I would have kept an attractive resume on hand even if I didn’t have a job opening at the time. So, I would have had a “unique selling proposition” for my approach to publishers.

One thing I didn’t mention. I met Ted Nicholas at the American Booksellers Association annual convention in Chicago. I was surprised to see him standing alone in his Enterprise Publishing Co. booth.

At that time, he was having great success in publishing his own book, “How to Form Your Own Corporation Without a Lawyer for Under $50.” (The lifetime sales of that book are said to exceed 1 million.) I had modeled my long title after his: “How to Get Hired Faster, For More Money, Whether You Are Presently Working or Not.” He was impressed, and we had a relaxed and friendly conversation.

Two weeks after the convention, he phoned me and proposed that he republish my book. The rest is covered above. However, several weeks after I turned in my synopsis and Nicholas had declined to republish my getting hired book, he extended a contract to write another book. The title is “Make Money by Moonlighting.” It has been republished and is still selling on

So, I can add a fifth point to the four above. Pursuing an idea doesn’t always lead to the intended goal; it may take us off onto another path.

But don’t make my mistake. Do your market research before investing—whether your invention is a squirrel-proof bird feeder, a book, or the great invention you came up with before breakfast this morning.