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Niche Is the New Black: ASTD Conference Day 2

June 1, 2011
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[caption id="attachment_812" align="alignright" width="259" caption="Attendees head for the entrance as the 2011 ASTD International Conference and Expo kicks off. (Image courtesy of ASTD.)"][/caption]

One of the good things about tradeshow season is the chance to catch up with friends and colleagues in the industry. It’s also a great chance to catch up with friends outside the industry in the conference city.

While I was in Orlando for ASTD’s 2011 International Conference and Expo I had the chance to have dinner with a couple of good friends I haven’t seen in a few years. Since I saw Chris and Moki last, they've dropped out of the 9 to 5 and started up their own business serving a unique niche.

Their business idea? A T-shirt company serving up quirky and offbeat designs for American fans of European soccer. Worldwide, the soccer industry is a booming business and Euro teams like Chelsea, Manchester United and Real Madrid are giants. In 2009-2010, Barcelona FC alone earned $488 million. But here in the States, the world’s most popular sport is an also-ran. That doesn’t mean there aren’t quite a few American followers with some dollars in their pockets.

Over dinner at a great Cuban restaurant outside Orlando, they told me how their little niche business grew almost right from the start. Within a month, Chris was able to quit his job as a freelance designer. A month later, his wife Moki quit the rat race to focus on marketing and developing their burgeoning business. They’re getting ready to expand into other underserved niches real soon.

The heart of their business idea – capturing a lucrative but ignored niche - got me thinking about a few meetings I had at ASTD. Besides attending sessions, the conference is a great opportunity to hear what the vendor community has been working on and a useful pulse check on the industry’s development.

In the LMS market, acquisitions have been coming fast and furious in the last year. SumTotal Systems picked up Geolearning at the beginning of 2011. SuccessFactors added LMS provider Plateau to its growing suite of integrated talent management products. Both companies added strong learning pieces to their talent management suite with the aim of creating an integrated package of HR-related services from recruitment through performance management to succession planning.

As big providers focus on the enterprise-wide integration of learning into talent management systems, opportunities are opening up for others to expand. BlueVolt, an LMS provider that got its start in 2002 by providing learning services primarily to electricians, has expanded its focus to any business with an extended enterprise of distributors, providers and manufacturers. Their aim is to provide a pain-free LMS that is easily customizable to the needs of its users, connecting workers in need of training with the distributors and content providers across the extended enterprise best able to provide that training, BlueVolt CEO Don Spear told me.

John Schroeder and Tom Merritt of Latitude Learning, an LMS provider based in Michigan with clients like Chrysler and General Motors, moved its LMS, which recently won an award from Brandon Hall Group for excellence in technology, to the cloud with the goal of making it more adaptable to customer needs.

As I wrote late last year, the LMS market is becoming more integrated but it's also becoming more fragmented as niche providers bolster their products and stake a claim to lucrative territory that is underserved.

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