Photo by Andreea Tilihoi on Unsplash
My specialisation epiphany was a long time coming. In 2014, I was like a duckling imprinting on the first genre it sees in the copy world before following around several other sectors for a time.
It’s hard to get away from the thrumming mantra to “find your niche” as a freelancer. The obvious paths certainly didn’t light up for me straight away, and I didn’t head into self-employment with a loaded Rolodex of contacts.
So how do you find a profitable, soul-lifting specialism? In this article, I’ve put together some guidance that helped me finally zero in on the best-fit match for my business.
CHOOSE YOUR OWN ADVENTURE: TO NICHE OR SPECIALISE?
My first port of call in the search for specialisation was to follow the conversations about it on freelance blogs and social media. One of the most common threads of discussion was the difference between niching and specialising. To most people, it’s probably just semantics, but the takeaway is that there’s more than one way to pick a lane.
One way to anchor your services is by serving an industry or ideology. This is what I’ve mostly seen referred to as niching. You can be a copywriter for financial services organisations, a corporate photographer, a graphic designer for sustainability-focused companies, etc. Niching by industry focuses your work by who you serve.
Usually, when you provide services to an industry, it means you have a broad set of skills to carry out a variety of tasks in that field. This makes niching by who you serve a great option if you get bored doing the same thing. You’ll also stand out among a sea of generalists by understanding the sector’s nuances, like the industry-specific processes, tools of the trade and the customer’s unique pain points.
Another way to focus your services is to specialise by sharpening a specific technique or skill. You can make yourself known as an SEO copywriter, a studio portrait photographer or a graphic designer for Squarespace websites. Specialising this way anchors your work by what you do.
If you have a Neeson-like “particular set of skills”, the expectation is that you deliver a higher value result than a Jack-of-all-trades. This can also be a lucrative option, meaning you can charge a higher price, especially if the skill requires craftsmanship or delivers tangible, trackable success for your clients.
3 ways to discover your specialism
If you don’t have an apparent marketable skillset or can’t think of an industry that will sustain a career-long interest, there are other ways to find inspiration for your specialism.
LEAN ON YOUR PROFESSIONAL PAST
Consider what you liked best about any former employment. Many freelancers make a start out of a need to escape the confines of employer rule, not because they hate their work. A strategist might love presenting clients with purpose-based goals but loathes the office politics.
You can easily carry over a job title you enjoyed from your past or create a new one based on the specific problems you solve. If optimising landing pages for conversions was the best part of your last job, you could be a Conversion Optimisation Specialist. If you loved working with charitable startups during company initiatives, you could be a Business Consultant for non-profit organisations.
I discovered there was already a niche industry and job title for people in my specialisation. I found it by going down a rabbit hole of reading books and exploring YouTube videos on my topic. Subject matter experts are always looking to increase their authority and awareness. Check out the influencers in your field. They might be putting out content under a title you’d never heard of within the confines of office walls.
Some advantages to using your previous roles to create the freelancing career of your dreams are an entrance into the job market with industry understanding, a portfolio of experience, and potentially, a few contacts.
FOLLOW YOUR PASSIONS
Many freelancers, like me, start by making their hobbies or side projects their new full-time position. Every business has a unique set of challenges, and those built around passions are no exception.
The quote “do what you love and you’ll never have to work a day in your life” is hugely misleading. Doing what you love can increase your motivation to churn out projects, but running the business side of it still takes a good deal of hard graft. After all, travel photographers still have to meet deadlines when they’re tired and do their taxes.
Aliya LeeKong, a chef and author who left the corporate life to pursue business in the culinary arts, sums up passion-as-work perfectly:
“Doing something you love will make you work harder at it, but that alone doesn’t mean you have a good business. Hard work ultimately has to meet with the right opportunities, and that’s where entrepreneurial spirit can come in, allowing passion to meet real business sense.”
You can be a social media videographer if you love making YouTube and TikTok content or specialise in UX for mental health apps if you’re into yoga. So, by all means, lean into your passions to see what overlaps with your skillset. Then, importantly, check there’s a market willing to pay for it.
The Futur’s Chris Do did a presentation based on the Japanese concept of ikigai to help people find their passions. If you’re struggling to identify meaningful interests, it’s worth checking out.
UNCOVER GAPS IN THE COMPETITION
If there’s no obvious path through your former career or hobbies, you can also look closer at what clients want or what they hope to avoid. Doing it this way can create a super-aligned specialism by starting with the clients’ needs.
Often you can find this out by checking for gaps in your competitors’ offerings. You can read their reviews and keep an eye out for what they’re lacking. You can also check congruent fields, see what clients are raving about, and then see how you can apply them to your domain.
I discovered gaps in my competitors’ offerings by comparing what other freelancers in my space do with what the end-to-end agencies do. While I can’t offer everything a full agency provides, I found a part of the process most freelancers weren’t focusing on that sat well within my interests and abilities.
You can also position yourself by checking out what people are searching for using tools like Google Trends and Answer the Public. Before SEO experts existed, website owners thought, “man, I wish someone would help me rank higher on Google”. Clever marketers who were handy with HTML tags answered this need with a job title that didn’t exist 20 years ago.
TWO THINGS TO CONSIDER WHEN NAILING DOWN A JOB TITLE
Look for service features that will make your clients brag to their friends about your business and lead with that in your specialisation focus. A PR freelancer might lead with the promise that they can get companies featured in top editorials and become an Editorial PR freelancer. Clients may then be inclined to make referrals to friends saying they can also get featured in Forbes.
One thing to keep in mind as you create your new role is to think about how “searchable” the job title term is. You might hesitate to call yourself a “Strategy Ninja” if no one types this combination of terms into Google.
Do the due diligence
Before redesigning your logo with your new speciality, you’ll want to run some basic business viability checks.
CONSIDER YOUR CHANCES OF PROFITABILITY
The idea behind specialising is to position yourself as a knowledgeable professional in the field, and that field needs to be large enough to bring in steady work. For this reason, think carefully before you specialise too narrowly with a specific skill within a single industry niche.
One way to know if anyone is willing to pay for what you do is to ask. If you have an email list, you can send a poll asking about your specialisation. If you don’t have a list of followers, head to the communities on social media and ask there, or search related hashtags and check out the conversation. Social media is a trove of opinions, which is annoying most days but particularly helpful for research.
Forums like Quora and Reddit are also great places to ask if there’s a need for your services because people are already there to engage. Just make sure you’re in the right thread and prepare your ego for some brutal honesty.
CONSIDER YOUR CHANCES OF HAPPINESS
While it’s crucial to have a specialisation that people will pay for, your business won’t stand for long on that one leg alone. You’ll want to make sure your specialisation is something you can be happy doing long term.
Sometimes, the only way to know this is to try it. There were many times where I thought I’d found it because I enjoyed a project or two, only to discover this wasn’t the path that would continue to light my fire.
If you’ve been generalising your services until now, try to identify the parts of your work that have motivated you. Look for the patterns and see if there’s an industry or skillset link. Then set yourself SMART goals and create specific parameters to test your business model.
Myth busted: “specialising is too limiting”
Some people worry about cutting off other inroads by choosing a specialism. Luckily, this notion is becoming urban legend. And it’s all thanks to one of our well-established built-in biases called the halo effect.
People tend to extrapolate their impressions of your success in one area to other work you might do. Basically, if you’re seen as being good at one thing, you’re assumed to be successful at other things.
For example, when a lead sees what great results you were able to produce for a company by overhauling their workshop launch campaign, they’re likely to assume you’ll do a great job at writing website copy.
So while you might be tempted to keep an open mind and an open portfolio, showing off your skills in one area won’t hurt your chances in others. Specialising should be more about becoming more appealing to a specific market rather than shutting off opportunities.
After some time wandering through the copywriting sectors, I used the above strategies to nail down my forte. Eventually, I leant on my teaching background. I now help businesses and subject matter experts create instructional content like courses and books.
Becoming a big fish in a smaller pond is a smart move. You’ll know where your community is and the specific messaging that will resonate with them, giving you more opportunity to be seen as a trusted expert. It also means less competition and a greater chance at closing deals.
Finding your path
Knowing where to start