Textbook business logic dictates you should specialise in the type of businesses you work with, as soon as possible. The theory being that you’ll gain specialist knowledge in that area, become indispensable, then scale up and fill a niche (as well as your pockets).
But there’s a hideous downside to this undoubtedly long, uphill struggle. You’re effectively industrialising (or commoditising) something that should be precious and rare: your talent, while at the same time eliminating what keeps it fresh and sharp: variety.
Here’s how it happens
Many years ago I was a programmer. In a dusty corner of a chattering room, I hacked together ones and zeros into contact management systems for a stuffy little call centre that exploited underpaid students in Leeds (myself included). My corporate paymasters soon realised they could make money for nothing by marking up my skills and knowledge in this exceptionally dull arena, to their clients.
Soon, I found myself churning out slight variations of the same old products. I’d found my niche but it was all oily and grim. Each time I tried to escape it, to do something radically different and stimulating, my feet slid beneath me and I was back on my arse again ready for more force-feeding.
As Human Freelancers will know, the advice you’ll find here is anything but textbook (or logical). So, in true contrary fashion I advise you not to go down this route of specialising in any one particular sector or domain of expertise.
Try this instead
Do specialise, but do it in your art (the how and why), rather than its application. Master a specific style, underpinned by your unique take on things, then put it about everywhere. Don’t limit yourself to one sector because that’s all people will know you for, and soon that’ll be the only kind of work that comes your way.
For me, my art is a fiery obsession with honesty and clarity. I love making complicated things simpler. My style is all about precision, and transforming passive corporate dirge into friendly, smart copywriting that’s persuasive.
Now I take that very specific skill and share it in all sorts of different subjects and sectors. I’ve written about mattresses, scoff, the Asian economy, airports, big data, decision science and well-being.
My options are, and remain, open.
When I don’t enjoy something, I move on to the next new challenge. My clients don’t know me as Chris ’the mattress guy’, instead I’m Chris ’the guy who makes things sound interesting and easier to understand, even the insides of mattresses – which he didn’t know anything about until he did the job’.
I’ve met other copywriters – into the bubbly, twee, great British cupcake vibe that’s very vogue of late. They’d be shit at my job but I’ve no doubt there are tearooms, restaurants, bunting manufacturers and marquee erectors who’d think them the best thing since sliced cake. Again, they’ve specialised in their art and style but kept their options open when it comes to who they work with.
The same goes for graphic design, programming, videography or other creative disciplines. I’m sure anyone reading this, who cares about their art, has the capacity to see how their motives and style might be transferrable between different clients in different industries.
Why do it this way?
Because you’ll be happier and truer to yourself, your talent, and how you use it to set right what’s wrong with the world.
Sure, you could follow the money into a specialism cul-de-sac (like I did once upon a time), but sooner or later you’ll crave a bit of variety and a chance to get creative and learn new things. That’s what life is all about, isn’t it? Especially a freelancing one.
Let’s be honest too. For the first few years of freelancing you won’t be in any position to turn work down anyway. So you may as well say yes and enjoy exploring something you can control – how you refine your art.
Your clients benefit from this too, if you follow my incoherent and unsolicited advice. Because they’ll be hiring someone who brings a fresh approach to their challenge, unsullied by the preconceptions and cliches of one particular sector.
Do all this and you’ll be a joy to collaborate with. Because you’re free to explore the extent of your ability, and how your passion can be brought to each new, radically different project.
So, stay versatile and focus on your art, not its application. That way you’ll stay challenged and escape that oily little niche I once writhed about in.
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