You’re a young freelancer and you’re hungry for success. To really get off of the ground, you need to land some whales (we really like whales at HeyOrca). You have no shortage of skills, so you want to advertise all of your capabilities. Trying to appeal to everybody, you decide that being a generalist is the way to go and emphasize that you are a one-stop shop for customers.
Casting a wide net might seem like a good way to land clients, but it comes with drawbacks. If you take every job that comes your way and don’t focus your craft and portfolio, you risk not standing out with the same quality of work that a specialist has plenty of practice in. This can actually hurt your prospect of making a name for yourself and landing quality clients in the long run.
So let’s step back, take a deep breath, and dive into when to specialize as a freelancer, and why choosing specialties is key to succeeding as a freelancer, and how choosing them can be as simple as leveraging your early successes and listening to your clients’ needs.
The Generalist Conundrum
Working as a generalist seems to make sense when you are trying to get off the ground – after all, if you can do everything your client needs, why wouldn’t they want to use you for everything? Ever heard the expression Jack-of-all-trades, but master of none?
Sorry, but no matter how talented you are, that doesn’t mean you should advertise that you can do it all. The problem with branding as a generalist is that you are also easily replaceable. With limited resources, you also have limited focus in which types of marketing to spend time on.
If you don’t specialize in anything that sets you apart from the other players, what’s stopping high-paying clients from signing on with others whose skill sets are a better fit to their needs? While you will attract clients, it could just be your initially lower prices more than the quality of work keeping them with you, which is not sustainable in the long run. You risk a high client turnover and not gaining the reputation a new freelancer desperately needs.
Instead of attracting whales, you’ll end up with krill.
So before you go all-in and advertise yourself as a one-stop shop, take a step back for a moment and prioritize. Rather than try to do it all, you need to pick a set of complementary specialties to focus on so you can build your portfolio.
Sometimes it can be difficult to determine where your specialty lies. Rather than force yourself to learn or use skills that you don’t enjoy, follow the path of least resistance and use your successful projects and enjoyable clients as a guide.
Be Water, My Friend
When it comes to determining what you want to specialize in as a freelancer, it’s worth taking in this quote from the late martial arts master Bruce Lee:
“You must be shapeless, formless, like water. When you pour water in a cup, it becomes the cup. When you pour water in a bottle, it becomes the bottle. When you pour water in a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Water can drip and it can crash. Be water, my friend.”
Rivers have formed over the millennia by following the path of least resistance. Shifting like water,you can continually reinvent yourself to stay on top of their clients’ needs and the state of the marketing world.
Factors to consider when defining that brand include your skill sets, industries to focus on, and the over 130 different types of marketing. You also need to ask yourself several questions: What is the demand like for your skills? How much competition is there in this freelance area? Do you have complementary skills that will help you stand out for the clients and industries you want to target?
While this seems daunting, sometimes finding your niche is as simple as assessing your skills for what you enjoy doing and do well, and letting clients you enjoy working with help define your direction. For inspiration, check out the story of prolific marketing freelancer Gabriela Cardoza.
Ed Bentall, a top-rated freelancer on Upwork, describes this mindset perfectly:
“I chose my specialty based on my skills; what I knew with certainty I could do. If you choose anything else, then you’re fooling yourself, and your clients, and that will only result in poor feedback! Clients love honesty! The great thing about many clients is that once you’ve completed the task they will often ask you to do something else and if you’ve done well in the first task, they’ll train you to do something new which you can then add to your profile!”
The concept of letting customers’ needs lead your direction for growth is a core tenet of the lean startup philosophy. A lean startup recognizes that there is no perfect business plan, no concrete trajectory to long-term success. Instead, you create and test series of hypotheses to see what works, and use successes and customer feedback to continually refine your plan.
This concept is revolutionizing the startup world; Huge companies like Dropbox adopted the lean startup method to great success. Freelance copywriter Andrea Emerson shares on her blog how a similar thought process helped her identify her own areas of specialty:
“As you experiment with different markets, you might decide to zoom into the kind of work or client that gets your blood pumping and leaves you invigorated, and ditch those that leave you feeling resentful and depleted at the end of the day.
Whatever road you take, your niche may be a specific segment or two (mine are technology and healthcare), or it may be a type of writing (mine is long-form content: white papers, case studies, feature articles, that kind of thing).
I didn’t intentionally pick that focus when I first started. Rather, my early projects fit those criteria, I got good at them, similar clients sought me out and more work followed. Eventually, I refined my marketing and messaging to reflect that focus.”
Finding clients you are excited to work with and listening to their needs, your direction as a freelancer will evolve naturally. That’s not to say you should focus on web design just to please an engaging client – but if web design was on your road map anyway, you can prioritize developing that skill over another.
Both freelancers and brands need to evolve over time to adapt to the industry. Be like water and you will never find yourself becoming irrelevant. Rather than pour a bunch of resources up front into a direction that may not make sense a year or two from now, you can go with the flow and change along with the landscape and industry. You will always be in demand, and your soaring but accepted rates will reflect this.
At the end of the day, a freelancer’s goal is to help their clients increase sales and improve their (and your) reputation. This is the only constant of freelancing. With so much competition out there, it makes sense for you to carve a niche that speaks to what you enjoy but is also high in demand.
Once you’ve focused your niche, developing an intriguing personal brand for yourself is the next important step to getting noticed. It’s not enough to sell your work, you have to sell yourself. After all, it’s hard to get work if potential clients can’t find you!
Finally, have faith in your abilities, particularly when you’re still new at the freelancing game. Find your voice and the skills that set you apart, develop quality work for your clients, and promote your brand online. The rest will fall into place.
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