Yes. Specialists always do better. There is no debating this.
I can’t think of any freelancer who made it big as a handyman.
The world already has plenty of all-purpose copywriters, versatile translators, general web designers and utility infielders. Don’t jump into that haystack. You will be lost forever.
It sounds paradoxical, but the longer your ‘list of services’, the broader your ‘expertise’ the less skillful and useful you appear. And the lower your fees will go. (“But I really can do all that” you say. Maybe, but clients won’t believe it, and certainly won’t be considering you top tier. It looks like you’re flailing, hoping to hit something.)
If ‘doing everything’ were the key to riches, the superstars would do be doing everything. They most definitely are not.
Write this down:
This freelance thing screams to be practiced narrow and deep
Narrow meaning you stake out your private territory, even if it’s the size of a beach towel, and then own it. You’re not trying to cover all bases, appeal to everyone, do everything. You have your thing.
And deep meaning you dig into your patch of turf until you hit bedrock. Then no generalist can uproot you. You become the best in the hemisphere at what you do. You know more, and do it happier, faster and more elegantly than any freelancer trying to be a twelve-bladed Swiss army knife.
That’s precisely how every high-earning, always-busy freelancer does it. All of them work surprisingly limited territories.
Jonathan Mann just writes clever songs. My designer friend Dave became famous for doing Annual Reports. Writer Hugh MacCleod draws cartoons on the back of business cards. There’s a carpenter in the next town who makes custom, hand-crafted staircases and nothing else. He earns four times the usual carpenter money.
When I was a ‘generic’ copywriter, no one called me back. When I was a writer who could handle gnarly high-tech networking services, they wanted to talk. Well, more often than usual anyway.
The worst path is to be migrant labor, a warm-body freelancer: Sit here, make this. It pays $5.
Better to be the indispensable genius. The only one who can can untangle this knot, or make this particular frog sing.
That way, clients ask you what to do, not tell you what to do.
First thing. Don’t fear ‘limiting yourself’. That’s newbie thinking. It took me years to get over that.
Unless you have 973 clients right now, you are already limiting yourself to a tiny niche. (Once, I specialized in ‘small business owners who didn’t care a lick about marketing, but sort of felt sorry for me.’) The trick is to find a specialty that pays better, has more legs. Adding more stuff never does it.
Besides, all you need are ten true fans. Not the whole world. Find twenty fans, and you can retire early.
Next, you don’t have to pick your personal niche today. Noodle around, try different things. See what gets attention. If an idea doesn’t draw a crowd, fold your tent and move on. You’re freelance. You’re allowed to do that.
Often, a specialty will find you. Don’t be sleeping when it comes looking.
And no rule says you have to work one idea at a time. For years I carried three sets of business cards: ‘Scriptwriter’, ‘Copywriter’, ‘Marketing’. For about $150, you can have three different websites up and running. See which one rings the bell.
The overriding idea: You’re specializing to catapult yourself nine rungs above the competition — or effectively eliminate competition. You do not want to appear interchangeable with 26 other freelancers. That’s what causes low rates and getting fired.
You’re specializing so that it’s far easier to find clients, and for clients to find you. You’re specializing so you can say something more meaningful than “Hello. I design beautiful websites.” You’re specializing so you know exactly who your best clients are and where they hang out.
You’re specializing so you can charge more.
Try any or all of these:
Go with what you like most, what moves you. The advantage is, you’ll care about what you’re doing. You’ll be having fun, feeling good. Is there a business in that? Maybe, maybe not. Try it and see.
Suzanne Shelton was doing marketing communications, just like 17,308 others. Nothing much happened. Then she decided to work only on projects involving sustainability and energy efficiency. She cares deeply about that, knows gigawatts more about the issues. Yes, making the transition was a bitch, it was scary. But now she is the expert in that realm. She gives twenty speeches a year.
Go with what you’re naturally good at. Even if it doesn’t give you goosebumps. You’ll have an unfair advantage by virtue of your DNA and heritage. Milk the hell out of that. Skip what you suck at.
Go with what clients always ask for. Even if makes you yawn at first.
Nancy Duarte and her husband had a nice design business. Like everyone else, they did a little of everything. Then business tanked and they struggled. But a few clients still asked about presentations. In the design world, presentations were tacky stuff, a backwater. But the Duartes said okay. They embraced presentations with both arms. And they raised presentations to high art. Now, that’s all they do. And they’re famous for it. They are quoted, sought out. They need staff to handle all the work.
Go with a subject matter. A field of knowledge. This works best for writers, for translators, maybe for coders and consultants. When you know the intricacies of pharmaceuticals, regulatory affairs, healthcare, secure e-commerce, international finance, food technology, you are miles ahead of the generalist. Plus you know exactly how to Google for clients. And you can talk to them intelligently.
I once worked several projects that forced me to learn about arcane areas of liability insurance. (No, it’s not as glamorous as it sounds.) But one afternoon I sent twenty emails to companies in that business. I received ten responses in a couple of days. Suddenly I wasn’t just some faceless writer. I was some faceless writer who could talk about ‘selling into the soft market in financial D&O.’ I didn’t pursue that niche for long for fear of irreparable brain damage. But the principle is sound.
Go with a type of business. Much like above. Your claim to fame is that you work with telecom firms, or not-for-profits, banks, universities, publishers, franchises, toy designers, management consultants, or whatever. They’re easy to find. You get to know their problems, their quirks, what they like. But almost never is ‘small business’ a profitable speciality.
Go with a style, a voice, a philosophy. This is good for writers, journalists, designers, illustrators. Don’t pretend to be versatile and flexible. Lean hard on your natural style and inclinations. You’re a minimalist, or irreverent, or retro, or ultra-conservative? Be the most distinctive, the most unapologetic of your kind. You are old-school, persnickety, or snarky? Take a stand, espouse a point of view. Evangelize what you believe. The wishy-washy middle gets nowhere, pays nothing.
Go with a technology or a medium. You do only YouTube videos. You translate advertising, marketing, or government publications. You work in WordPress, or Joomla, or Drupal. You write only speeches. You develop GPS-based iPhone apps. You illustrate with black crayon and watercolors. (I’m making this up.) You only do type-based animation. You create multi-layered cello compositions.
The idea is, whatever you pick, you become unbeatable at. Because that is all you do.
Stake out some turf. Own it.