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Freelancing: better to be a specialist or a generalist?

Posted by Kieron Johnson on Apr 12th, 2016 | Becoming self-employed

Specialist Painter | Freelancing: better to be a specialist or a generalist? | Crunch

As a freelancer, is it best to gear yourself towards being a generalist, or sell your services as a specialist? It’s an age-old debate, but one that rages on to this day. We put our tuppence in.

In the early days of freelancing, you may feel like you have to be an all-star player. But this means you need to take on everything: all projects, all clients and all challenges. While this approach may supersize your skill set in the short-term, it won’t boost your bottom line long-term.

As your freelance career takes off, so should your plans to find your niche. This will mean turning away projects, clients and challenges that don’t quite fit the mould (yes, you read that right). Rejecting work will become just as important as accepting work.

Why go down the niche road?

Outsourcing is risky business. A new client doesn’t know you from Adam, so when they hire you they’re taking a calculated risk. Going down the niche road signals to a client that you’re a lower risk; you have specialist knowledge and experience of the client and their business. It also means you can potentially become the “go-to” professional in that space, attracting even more clients because they know you’re a trusted expert in their line of work.

As a specialist, you’re not only more likely to be hired, but also charge more for your services. Result!

Imagine for a moment that you run your own law firm and need a new website to help increase your client base.

You shortlist two promising candidates: Geoff the generic web builder/designer and Nina the niche law firm website builder/designer.

Geoff’s website is all about him – brilliant bio, pulsating portfolio, all the bells and whistles. If his self-promotional spiel is to be believed, he’s an accomplished website builder/designer.

Nina’s website is altogether different. The opening sentence on her homepage reads: “Websites for law professionals who want more clients.” You’re familiar with the legal jargon she uses and the case studies she cites. While Nina can probably build and design websites just as well as Geoff, she has the edge over him – she understands the needs of law professionals and, most importantly, how to meet them.

Since you’re going to have to shell out on a brand spanking new website that you’re hoping will help drum up more business for your law practice, who do you think you’re likely to hire – Geoff or Nina? If you’re leaning towards Nina (our money is on her), chances are you’ll probably be willing to pay her more, too.

Why? Because there’s a certain comfort level you have from knowing that Nina has delivered a specific service for specific clients just like you – time and time again. Nina nailed her niche.

How to choose your niche (and nail it like Nina)

It’s decision time.

Your choice of niche is a big decision and one that will affect your freelancing career (for better or worse) for months – if not years – to come. So, how do you decide which niche to make your own?

There’s a laundry list of ways to specialise, but two schools of thought lead the way. One focuses on you (skills-based niche), the other on your clients (audience-based niche).

As its name suggests, the skills-based approach makes use of your existing skill set to find your freelance niche. Let’s say you’re a dab hand at web development. It’s a pretty broad field with lots of different pathways, so you need to drill down on the details. For example, do you want to specialise in WordPress? How about e-commerce? Perhaps you’ll make coding your forté? Pick one and run with it.

By contrast, the audience-based approach looks at the unique needs of your clients. Remember Nina, our niche website builder/designer? She didn’t build and design websites for all and sundry. Nina focused on a narrow audience: law professionals.

Whichever approach you settle on, the most important thing is to stick to your specialism.

Make the most of marketing your niche

So you’ve nailed your niche. Now, it’s time to rev-up your marketing engine to really bring home the bacon.

Here’s a few tried-and-tested marketing methods that you may want to put to work:

  • Become a member of a professional association: Most industries have a professional association on a local or national level. Why not join one for your niche so you can start making some headway networking with target clients?
  • Attend industry conferences and meet-ups: Try to resist seeing this as just another excuse to increase the girth of your little black book of contacts. By attending these events, you can establish your reputation within your niche. It’s also a chance to connect with like-minded professionals. Who knows? This could be where your next referral comes from.
  • Participate in online forums: Taking part in online forums where your clients discuss topics related to your niche is a great way to get a sense of their pain points (and how best to ease them).
  • Join LinkedIn groups: According to an article in Forbes, participating in LinkedIn groups “can fast-track your reputation as an industry expert and put you on the road to becoming an influencer in your field.” We couldn’t have put it better ourselves. You can either join an existing group related to your niche or be a maverick and start your own.

Reap the rewards

If you want to put clear daylight between you and your peers, it pays to be a specialist freelancer. Freelance website Upwork published research suggesting specialist freelancers, such as finance writers, were among the highest paid freelancers in the UK.

So, the verdict is in. If you’re not specialising, you’re generalising, which means you can probably do a good job. But your clients want (and deserve) a great one.

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