On Specialising as a Freelancer
The instinctive thing to do when you start looking for work is to go out and try to find as many new clients as you can. This seems like the obvious things to do, because - what else could you do?
Finding clients by word of mouth is largely down to figuring out who you are in the best position to serve. The idea is to figure out who the right kind of clients for you is, and then aim to do as much work as possible with them over time.
Look, finding new clients is a lot of work and can be expensive depending on how you do it. More it takes up a lot of time that you are not being paid for.
Working with new clients also means building a relationship from scratch, establishing expectations, and understanding how you both like to work. You end up spending a lot of time fine-tuning these nuances.
When you work with repeat clients, of clients referred to you by your repeat clients, you don’t have to spend any time looking for new work and a lot of expectations are already established. The relationship starts halfway with a referral and is already fully established with a repeat client.
The important thing here is to stop thinking about working with as many people as possible and start aiming for a small group of people you love working with and then working with them over and over again.
The way you do this is to design your freelancing specifically for the type of people you want to serve.
One of the nice things about working for yourself is that you can position your business any way you want.
The tradeoff is that the way you position your business determines who will come knocking.
Most people fail to position their business at all. They just pick a service to offer, slap a description on it, and wait for people to show up and magically offer them lots of money. The law of averages takes over—and they end up with average clients who pay average prices.
Positioning your business takes a little thought and planning.
First, you want to pick a specific kind of person that you want to serve.
Next, you want to find one expensive problem that these people have and commit to helping these people solve that problem as best you can.
For example, as a web developer, I could focus on clients looking to build online communities for technology companies. If I were a designer, I could decide to be a rebranding specialist for e-commerce stores. Perhaps a ghostwriter of blog posts specifically for CEOs of skincare companies.
All you have to do is specify what you do, the problem you solve and the people you solve it for.
Four things to keep in mind when you’re picking a speciality:
You can widen or narrow your niche any time you want to, or even change it completely. You are not locked into a permanent decision here.
You can still work on jobs that are a bit outside of your main speciality. For instance, it wouldn’t be a big stretch for our tech blog writer to apply take on a job writing tech-related brochures instead. Don’t worry about this too much.
While there are other important factors too—like whether a niche is of interest to you, and how well it pays—demand is key here. If a market for your speciality doesn’t exist then you can’t specialise in it. Fortunately, demand is hardly ever a problem because you only need a handful of clients to run a sustainable business. As of 2019 there are 4.39 billion internet users so the chance of you finding a market for what you want to specialise in is pretty high.
Finally, remember that the cornerstone of this approach is to find a small group of people you love working with and work with them over and over again. So repeat business is key here. Aim to specialise with a group that will need to rehire you in the future. Providing a service or catering to a group that will only ever buy your service once is counterproductive here.
I have put together a few questions that will help you begin thinking about ways you can start specialising. This process if more of an art than a science. While there is no precise formula or method for deciding on a speciality, your answers to the following questions will give you a solid foundation for evaluating which niches may be a good fit for you.
- How many projects have you completed? The higher this number is, the easier it will be to answer the remaining questions. If you’re brand new, it’s best to do some work before you choose a speciality.
- Which projects did you enjoy working on most?
- On which jobs did you receive the best feedback/reviews from clients?
- Did any of your jobs lead to repeat work? If so, which?
- Do any of your projects involve the same types of work or industries? Have any of your clients held similar positions (e.g. startup founders), or have they had common goals (e.g. lead generation)? Having 3 options to choose from will give you a better chance of ending up with a solid niche to specialise in.
- List any special training, experience, or skills you have. (Pro tip: Some of these may not be obvious. Dig deep here. Think about what your friends and family say you’re good at, as well as what issues people come to you for help/advice with. We often take our own strengths for granted and think everyone possesses them when they don’t. List out everything you’re good at. This can be something as simple as “being organized” or speaking multiple languages, go to town.)
- Which of the items you just listed can potentially be used to give you a special advantage in any particular niche? (For example, a strong interest in cooking can give you a leg up writing for the food industry.)
Once you’ve thought through these questions, it’s helpful to a put together a mission statement of sorts. Take your initial answers and then run them through the following questions to get a more condensed answer to help you clarify your thinking:
- What are your unique skills?
- Who are your ideal clients?
- What problems do you solve for these clients?
- By solving these problems what value do you provide? -You are different from other freelancers because?
Then take a stab at putting a mini-mission statement together.
I’m a freelance developer who creates hassle-free MVPs for early-stage founders, this helps them take an idea to market without having to put an entire team together.
Once you have a sense of where you want to head, the last step is to condense it down into a single sentence. A summary of your new specialisation that you could add to the footer of every email you send out. This is a really neat trick I learned from Kai Davis’ course on referral systems. Every time you send out an email people know enough about what you do to refer you if the opportunity arises.
Try and construct something along the lines of:
Do you any (target audience) who have (the problem you solve) ? Please Refer Me (link to your website).
Hopefully, this has helped you start thinking about looking for clients in terms of building long terms relationships with a small group of very specific people you love working with. The key to finding clients by word of mouth is to design your business specifically for these people. That way, whenever anyone who knows what you do finds themselves in a situation or conversation where it makes sense to refer you will be the first person that comes to mind.
If you still have no idea what speciality to in, then you probably aren’t at the point where it makes sense to do so just yet. This is especially true if you’re brand new to freelancing. You may need to give yourself some time to figure out what’s out there. That’s the boat most of us are in when we first started. And if that’s where you’re at, then I’m going to recommend the same path I took, and take whatever work you can get.
BUT, over the course of several months, figure out what you enjoy, what you were good at, what there is plenty of demand for, and what pays well. Then start to specialise. Ultimately, doing so will help you get the attention of the right kind of clients, command above-average prices, and become known for being very good at a specific thing.
If you’d like to follow me as I document my journey as a freelancer you can follow me on twitter @joshpitzalis.