Ask a.k.a: specialization

Question: Once you went freelance, how long was it before you started to specialize? Or, did you start out with a specialty? – Liz

While there has long been a debate on being a generalist vs. specializing, it can be helpful to give yourself room to try new things when you’re first starting out. Sometimes you can begin freelancing knowing exactly what makes you stand out and precisely the slice of business you want. Other times, it can take longer to figure out what works best for you—and what can keep you inspired over the long haul.

I recently finished a re-branding project for a client whose business has grown to the point that she’s moving towards more of an agency model. One of the changes we made was narrowing her focus within her industry, helping her carve out a distinctive niche. In the two years she’s been in business, she’s developed a better understanding of the real value she brings to her clients and her industry. She said she couldn’t have identified such a specific slice of business without feedback from her clients.

When I started freelancing, I was all over the map. With the economy being in such bad shape, I felt a panic to find business, so I tried to land everything from online article writing to resume revamps to corporate communications. There was no specialty and no direction to my madness. 

I was a year in when I gave myself the time to consider the work I wanted to be doing. It also helped that I had freelanced for a few clients who told me they contacted me because they wanted smart, snappy copy. Lucky me, that’s the work I enjoy the most. With that discovery, I focused my bio, portfolio and LinkedIn listing on writing marketing and branding copy. The value I offer clients—in addition to fresh copy—is the ability to see the big picture and write to reach a wide variety of audiences.

In the generalist vs. specialist debate, some may argue that I should have started freelancing with the clarity I have now. Maybe. But I argue that I needed to experiment and try new things to help refuel my creativity and drive after a long stint as a corporate employee. Like my recent client, I gained helpful information from understanding why people wanted me to write for them.

What about you? Did you start your freelance career as a specialist or generalist? How have you evolved your business focus over time? Please share in the comments.

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2 thoughts on “Ask a.k.a: specialization

  1. You make a great point about sticking with things (at least for a while). Sometimes you don’t know if you’ll love something at first. I’ve also struggled with self-doubt the first time I’ve done something (such as paid search ads) only to find I enjoy them once I get past that fear.

    As for resumes, I’m glad to hear someone “loves” them. I started out that way and did so many that I can’t imagine ever wanting to do another one,

  2. For me, it’s been helpful to take on a variety of jobs….and stick with them for awhile. A couple things I didn’t initially enjoy (resumes!), I’ve come to love (too strong a word?:)) as I’ve become better at them.

    I agree that working as a generalist helps you decide what really sparks your interest and allows people you work for to point out your strengths.

    Great question!

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