From Big Picture to Small Scale: How to Be Self-Employed And Master Market Trends

Maggie Karshner
7 min readApr 25, 2024

No one wants to be blindsided by change. But change is constant, and in the words of Octavia E. Butler:

“All that you touch, you change. All that you change, changes you. The only lasting truth is change. God is Change.” — Octavia E. Butler, Parable of the Sower

In business, one way to get ahead of change is to monitor market trends. When your business is your livelihood it might seem vital to anticipate change. …Or is that just the anxiety talking? Let’s unpack this and find out.

What Are the Trends in Your Market?

This is an immense question. Larger companies employ teams of analysts to keep abreast of changing market trends. Saas products that offer similar information cost hundreds of dollars per month. Both these solutions are well outside the range of feasible for self-employed businesses. So what are we little guys supposed to do?

Micro and Macro Market Trends

First, let’s address scope. For large businesses staying in front of trends can make or break their business. Let’s say their dominant market position means one-eighth of Americans buy their product. That means they have over 41 million customers. Let’s say every customer nets the business $1 and trends shift so they lose 1% of those customers. That means the business has taken a $410,000 loss. That’s the cumulative salary of many people! Large businesses must anticipate trends because the ripple effect is large. A slight misjudgment impacts the lives of many people.

But this is not the scope you and I operate at. We’re epically small businesses. Our businesses need less than 100 clients each. Gaining and losing clients is built into our business model and the natural ebb and flow we come to expect. Losing a single client is not evidence of a global trend. The reverse is also true: a global change doesn’t mean clients will leave your business. We are operating on just too small a scale for it to work like that.

As self-employed businesses, we need to think about market analysis on our scale. We’re not the boat on the ocean that needs to know the weather forecast. We’re a wee fish in the water, removed from the weather patterns. Yes, if the storm gets rough enough, it might affect us, but not at all the way the storm affects the boat. We can spend some energy staying aware of large-scale trends. Most of our time should focus on our microcosm — the community surrounding our business. The community made up of clients (past and present) and colleagues.

Step 1: Understand Your Customers

Large companies hold focus groups and conduct research to understand their customers. This is necessary at their scale. You meet with your clients regularly. You hear from the horse’s mouth what’s going on for them. Separate research is unnecessary when you’re the hub of communication with your clients. When it comes to market analysis, you’re seeking to understand what motivated your client. What inspired them to seek out your business? Were there global, regional, or local contexts that influenced their finding your business? Probably. There were also a bunch of deeply personal influences.

Let’s take my business as a case study. Many of my clients have always wanted to start a business. Others see starting a business as the one surefire way to escape toxic work environments. These things are personal to them and not at all influenced by recent trends.

Where larger trends come into play is with the timing of it. If the economy seems unpredictable many find it an inopportune time to take a risk and launch a business. Others see the same trend as a sign their workplace isn’t going to get better. And if it’s only going to get worse, they might as well jump ship now while they can! My clients run the gamut of extremes in these cases. I work with folks laid off from their day job who take it as a sign to break out of the 9 to 5. I also work with folks whose life circumstances have brought them financial stability. These clients now feel safe enough to finally do their own thing. Prosperity or hardship are both predictive of a swell of new clients.

Knowing these things about my clients, I watch national trends with calm aplomb. If the unemployment rate increases, that could be good for my business. If more lucrative jobs move to my area, that could also be good for my business. I hypothesize how those trends might show up in my clients, and then see what clients actually say.

Ask Yourself:

  • What reasons inspire someone to seek out your business? Consider global, regional, or local influences, but also personal influences.
  • What evidence indicates changes in these influences? Is your ideal client motivated by news headlines, economic statistics, or trending topics on social media? Or what about life milestones, holidays, or a change in the weather?
  • Do I need to change my marketing or business strategy, or am I on the right track? Noticing a change doesn’t mean you have to change.

Step 2: Seek Trend Coattails

Being a small-fry business means you don’t need to jump on every market trend and you don’t need to be the first to know. Make your changes slow and deliberate. Notice what larger organizations are doing in your market. You don’t have to try to match them, but it can help sales to be able to explain why you’re better than that new fad. Let the big companies chase the fads and adopt them yourself only if you want to or if you see it being a lasting thing.

Investigate:

  • Who are the largest companies in your market or adjacent markets? Can you sign up for their newsletters or follow their social media channels?
  • Who are the influencers in your market? (On social media or traditional media.)
  • What industry publications or substacks exist? Can they help you stay informed about relevant trends?
  • Would search engine data help? Play around with trends.google.com to find trends in search engine queries over time.

Step 3: Listen To People Not Headlines

The microclimate around your small business is much more important than national trends. Your microclimate includes your past and current clients, colleagues, and referral partners. These are the people you want to be listening to. And to listen, you’ve got to talk with them.

When you talk to your clients notice what’s on their minds. Can you draw connections between their concerns and larger trends you’re aware of? One client’s preoccupation is not statistically significant. But micro businesses don’t operate in the world of statistically significant. It could be significant for your business. Or it could not. Take into account if clients with these concerns are likely to be your ideal clients.

For example, pretend you’re running a local brick-and-mortar business in the early 2010s. You learn of Groupon. You think you need to jump on that bandwagon! But then you check in with your existing clients. They tell you that they value your business. They are planning to keep frequenting your business regardless of a coupon. Groupon caters to bargain hunters. Bargain hunters are not good long-term clients for small businesses. The Groupon trend is one you can let pass you by.

Also, check in with colleagues. What trends are they seeing in their own business and with their own clients? Colleagues can be a far better source of trends than national or even local news headlines. Focus on the colleagues who share your values and a similar market. Remember, it’s all about the community surrounding you. Community is defined not just by geography but also by interests and values!

“Don’t sit this out. It has room for you. Find out, start, or help shape what is happening in your town.” — adrienne maree brown, Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds

A Few Questions to Ask Clients:

  • Why is now the time you chose to reach out to me?
  • What else is going on for you?
  • How is [recent news event] impacting your world?

A Few Questions to Ask Colleagues:

  • What trends are you noticing?
  • How has your flow of clients been recently? What do you attribute that to?
  • I’m seeing [this] trend right now, is that congruent with your experience?

Trend Action Plan

You’ve taken all the previous things into account. But there’s something to this trend. Your competitors are bringing it into what they do. The trend resonates with what you know about your customers. The opportunity outweighs the risks for your business. What does it look like to move forward? Scrap everything and start over from scratch? Woah, no! You’re going to dip your toe in. Start with trying to spin it.

Spin It

In business, the lowest risk change you can make is to shift your messaging. Start with a series of social media posts, a new page on your website, or a short-term ad campaign. Choose a marketing method that’s worked for you in the past. Shift the message to incorporate this new trend. Then see what happens. Avoid big changes to your business offerings or model until you have to.

Try It

Some changes have to be more than a marketing spin. Sometimes you’ve got to test drive a whole new offering. Again, we’re looking for the smallest possible change. Don’t get rid of your current offerings. Craft and market your new offering in addition to current offerings. Let market demand navigate the shift away from an out-of-date offering. Only after a shift in offerings and marketing takes hold, do you make significant changes. The last changes would be to brand identity or business model.

Ready for Change

Navigating the ever-changing landscape of business trends requires a balanced approach. The ideal approach considers both the macro and micro perspectives. Self-employed individuals operate within a more intimate sphere than large businesses. Direct client interactions and community engagement play pivotal roles for self-employed businesses. You can discern relevant trends from your customer base, and industry influencers. This knowledge allows you to make decisions about when and how to adapt your strategies. Rather than hastily chasing every fleeting trend, you can explore opportunities. By testing new approaches, and pivoting gradually, you ensure alignment with your values. This is how you can embrace the inevitability of change and harness its potential. While also shaping the future of your business with confidence and purpose.

Originally published at https://www.maggiekarshner.com on April 25, 2024.

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Maggie Karshner

Maggie is a business coach who helps launch and grow self-employed businesses. Learn how she could help you at https://www.maggiekarshner.com/