Breadth or depth? How to know you are ready to specialize

Breadth or depth? How to know you are ready to specialize

How to know if you have specialized too soon, or too much

Among the advice most frequently given to freelancers is the encouragement to find a specialty. In a broad sense this advice is solid, but in specific cases it can go awry. Problems can arise in choosing too soon, with too little experience in your field, or defining it too narrowly for instance. However, the key to reaping the advantages of specializing is not simply in the choice, it is in bringing focus to your sales and marketing efforts.

The pros and cons of specialization

I'm going to take what is a potentially controversial approach and come out strongly against premature specialization.

If you don't have professional experience, you're just starting and looking for your first customers, stay in your field, but other than that try to stay a little broad. After you've worked with a few customers and a variety of projects you'll begin to understand the field better and then its a good time to find your specialty.

Choosing a specialty is a strategic decision with long-term implications. Staying broad allows you to work, make connections, gather referrals and customer testimonials. All good things. Being strategically broad for a short time when you start your business does not mean you go into a sales call pitching wildly all the different services you can perform. Your sales pitch needs to be focused on the problem the customer is trying to solve and you must know what that is before you start pitching your services. Nobody will hire you for anything if you drown them in a torrent of services.

Be specialized in your pitch, even (or especially) if you are currently generalized in your practice.

With that said, let's look at the advantages and disadvantages of specializing.

In favor of specializing

  • Easier sales, prospects respect experts
  • Focus your prospecting/marketing, get more of the right leads
  • Higher rates, customers pay for expertise
  • Lower costs, work more efficiently due to domain knowledge

Against specializing

You lack the expertise to credibly sell yourself as a specialist. Ok, that isn't exactly a disadvantage of specialization but more of a challenge to overcome.

Assuming you have done your homework to pick a reasonably in demand specialty here are some disadvantages to being a specialist:

  • Fewer potential customers
  • Fewer potential projects
  • Customers might not even know they need your specialty
  • Unpredictable dry spells
  • Things change, skills can become obsolete

Selected reading

Here's an article with some good general advice on how to pick your niche.

So many writers, but a few other types of freelancer as well in this list of 16 freelancers sharing how they found their niche.

Understand yourself before you choose your specialty you have to try a few things before you find what excites you. They recommend getting a job first before you start freelancing, not always an option.

Coming out strongly in favor of specializing at the Freelancers Union, and also the counterpoint arguing to diversify your skillset and find balance.

Pros and cons of specialization, a few more cons, and a balanced take.

Taking action, strategies for new freelancers

  • Get a mentor
  • Try a few things
  • Gather data
  • Make an informed decision

There are many good reasons to focus your business on one specialty. There is a catch though, you can't credibly call yourself a specialist in something you've never done before. Such is the difficulty we face in starting a new business.

If you have had the opportunity to work in an area before starting to freelance that's great, problem solved.

Having a traditional job in your field before going out on your own is a huge advantage. You probably had a chance to work in a variety of related specialties and have a good understanding of your strengths and weaknesses and what you like and don't like. In that case you pick an area that you like and are good at to specialize in and go full speed ahead to find customers.

If you haven't had the opportunity to work professionally in your field, if you are freelancing to get experience and build your reputation it might be too soon to specialize. I'm not saying don't ever specialize, just give yourself a chance to explore a little first. Every field has a set of core skills that will improve as you practice, and you don't need to have all of that practice in a specialty to benefit.

It is the more advanced skills and knowledge, the ones that are only really relevant to a specific area that require practice within the specialty to acquire and perfect.

How do you acquire practice in a specialty if nobody is hiring you to work in it? Personal projects, offering discounts, friends and family, and finding entry level projects.

It may be hard to find entry level projects when you first start in a specialty because you aren't an expert yet and do not know what an entry level project even looks like. Find a mentor!

Evaluating a specialty

In every field one could work in there is a hard truth to face. Some areas pay well, some poorly. Some are in demand and some are not. This is basic microeconomics, supply and demand. If the number of people that want to do the work exceeds the amount of work, the price will fall and it doesn't matter how hard the work is or the level of qualifications needed.

So what's an entrepreneur to do? Before choosing a specialty do your homework, take the time to make a list of the potential customers and market rate for the work.

  • Can you make a list of 100 potential customers?
  • How about 1000?
  • Is the rate attractive?

Only you can say if the rate is good enough, but make an informed decision here.

If you can't find at least 100 potential customers you are in great danger of not being able to find enough work, and you may need many more than that to make a living depending on the rate and length of projects. The math is simple, if 1% of the potential market hires you and the average length of a project is (for example) 1 month, a list of 100 potential customers is just not enough to make a living. (If your rate is high enough to make that untrue please tell us what you do!)

If you are really good, you could very well get more than 1% of that prospect list, but as a newcomer to the field it will require some time to build your knowledge, skill, and reputation.

That's all for now, hit us with your questions in the comments!