Should Freelancers and Consultants Specialize?

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One of the great debates among freelancers is whether you should specialize or be more of a generalist. My answer? It depends. The strategy that's best for you will ultimately depend on your skill level, your area of expertise, how long you've been doing this, and your professional network.

New Consultant with Minimal Network and Experience?

If your professional career is limited and you haven't done much work in any particular field, I don't recommend immediately specializing and putting artificial limits on your experience. Why?

  • You don't have a strong portfolio in a single area – so you need to use everything you've got.
  • You don't have enough experience to know what kind of clients and engagements are a good fit for you.

Now, I'm not saying you need to hang up a sign and offer every service under the sun. Offer a range of services you're competent at, and be open to things that will stretch your abilities a bit. If a client wants to add on something you don't know how to do, ask yourself if you can figure it out, and if you can, go for it.

This is the time to explore, make mistakes, and occasionally work almost for free because it took you a hugely inefficient amount of time to figure out some new skill. Think of it like a second college education, except this time you're making money instead of taking on huge amounts of debt. This is HOW you discover your specialization – or how you discover you don't want to specialize at all.

New Consultant with Substantial Professional Experience or Network

If you've been working in a particular field, you may already know exactly what kind of services you want to offer. For instance, let's say you were a nursing home administrator for years, and you've decided you'd like to consult a bit in retirement. It would be silly to say you need to offer broad services to get a sense of what you're good at – and it would likely limit your income, too. The key here would be deciding how many clients you want and what, if any, limitations exist based on how narrow you go.

For instance, if you know your services are likely to require on-site visits and you're not open to a lot of long-distance travel, you may decide it's better to target healthcare facilities in general and offer managerial consulting, staff motivation training, etc. That's especially true if you want a steady stream of clients vs. the occasional client to keep things interesting. On the other hand, if you love the thought of hopping on a plane from time to time, you might choose to specialize in something like compliance consulting for skilled care facilities, or employee motivation for facilities with Alzheimer's units.

Similarly, if you've been working at an agency or company that requires you to do a variety of marketing tasks, you may decide you want to specialize in whatever area you like best. In this case, you'll have plenty of past experience to highlight for potential clients, and probably a solid network of people who can offer advice and referrals. By promoting yourself as an experienced specialist, you can command higher rates than the typical beginner.

Experienced Consultant Looking to Make More Money or Spend Less Time Working

You can make a great income without specializing, and it's perfectly valid to work within a fairly broad area of expertise forever. However, that approach does come with some drawbacks.

  • Specialists tend to command higher rates for the same job.
  • Maintaining your skills is much more difficult and time-consuming when you stay broad.
  • Client conversion rate tends to be higher for specialists (meaning you waste less time pitching and creating proposals).
  • Specialists tend to get more referrals because you're “the one who does that very specific thing”.

You certainly don't HAVE to if you enjoy what you're doing, but if you've been doing this for a while, I strongly urge you to start making moves towards specialization. Look at the jobs you enjoyed the most, and look at times you were paid the most. Seek out the points in your business where you find the least friction – where you enjoy the clients, the work, and everything just operates as it should. Think about whether those things would make viable areas of specialization.

Bear in mind that your specialization could be in job function OR industry (or both, in some cases). You could focus strictly on affiliate management but work with any industry, or you could offer all forms of online marketing but only for fashion companies. Or, you could narrow down to doing nothing but corporate culture consulting, and only for clients in the tech industry. You just need to make sure your specialization is big enough that you have an adequate number of potential clients who can pay you what you want to earn. Specializing in PR for accordion repair shops is not advised.

You can specialize gradually, keeping your existing clients and referrals but focusing all outbound efforts on your area. That's how I made the shift. You CAN take a scorched earth approach and hand off all existing clients who don't fit the mold and turn away any new clients who don't fit the vision, but it really depends on the size of your safety net, how fast you want to make the change, and how aggressive you intend to be in your outbound sales and marketing efforts.

The Right Answer is a Little Different for Everyone

Be wary of anyone who tries to make this a black and white issue. It's not. It all depends on where you are in your career and what you want out of your freelance life.

How have you handled the specialist vs. generalist issue in your own career? Share in the comments!

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