To Specialize or Not to Specialize?

To Specialize or Not to Specialize as a Freelancer? Pros and Cons.

Should you specialize as a freelancer? From a strictly business and marketing perspective, this is a no-brainer. If you’re looking to get ahead of the competition and make more money, your best bet is to specialize in a specific niche.

Why? Freelance creatives that specialize become experts in their area, and clients like experts – especially high-end, high-paying clients.

There are reasons not to specialize, but they are of a more personal, emotional, or maybe motivational nature.

And know this, even If you start out as a generalist sooner or later you will probably specialize anyway – the marketplace will tell you your niche.

“The best way to fast track your career is to specialize in something – become an icon designer, UI/UX expert or typographer – people will quickly recognize that’s what you do and seek you out.”

Meg Robichaud, graphic designer

Pros of a Specialist

  • A specialist faces less competition.
  • A specialist is easier found by clients. His expertise makes him stand out from the industry's jack-of-all-trades.
  • Specialists find ideal clients easier since specialists know exactly what kind of clients they are looking for. As a specialist, you will know what trade associations and other off- and online groups to join, which conferences and MeetUps to attend, how to search Google and LinkedIn for prospects, etc.
  • A specialist builds word-of-mouth quicker. Word-of-mouth works better when you are a specialist. You are someone worth talking about.
  • A specialist inspires more trust by having a proven track record, and by being able to easily demonstrate his or her expertise.
  • A specialist advances his skills faster by focusing on his learning.
  • A specialist can jump in faster. For daily work, a specialist can more or less forget about researching and experimenting.
  • A specialist turns around jobs quicker and easier for the benefit of himself and the client.
  • A specialist’s marketing is more effective. You can distribute and pitch your materials accurately.
  • Lower marketing costs. Since you are targeting a smaller part of the market there will be fewer clients to find, approach, and keep in touch with. You don't need several versions of marketing material each directed towards different target groups.
  • A specialist uses his personal network more effectively. As a specialist, you can ask your networking partners for a very specific type of leads. It makes their job of matching people they know to you much easier.
  • A specialist has a high win ratio, which in turn leads to less need for pitching and prospecting.
  • A higher probability of repeat business.
  • Better pay. When a client trusts your expertise he or she is normally willing to pay more.

Cons of a Specialist

  • The market consists of a few clients, maybe too few.
  • A specialist is sensitive to the ups and downs in the chosen niche. A slump can send you into a dry spell.
  • Known as a specialist, you might find it difficult to break into new areas.
  • Your creativity might suffer. You might get bored since you’re always working with the same.
  • As a specialist, you might not get the big picture. A generalist might be better suited to understand the client’s business as a whole, and thus being able to tweak the delivery better.

Not figured out what to specialize in yet? Read Finding Your Niche: When Graphic Design Really Pays Off or check out these 50+ niches actually picked by established freelance creatives!

Want to dive deeper into viable creative niches? Sign up for my FREE Niche Mini-Course!

That's it, fellow freelancers! Please comment below!

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11 Responses to To Specialize or Not to Specialize?

  1. JoBeeOne June 11, 2013 at 9:55 pm #

    I am a specialist in a few areas and a generalist in a few more. As a freelancer I can say “yes” more often to a client with my wider ranges of ability. The other option I have is being able to bring in specialists I know and admire to work on projects – I know enough to bridge between them and the client – it improves communication and therefore output.
    I think you can always improve your specialist area and having illustration as one means I have an enless path to improvement ahead of me.

    • Tomas Fransson June 12, 2013 at 6:56 am #

      Your point of having enough general knowledge to be able to bring in, guide and collaborate in an effective way with specialists in related fields is very valid. Thanks for commenting, Jo! I appreciate it.

  2. Sheila January 13, 2014 at 12:47 pm #

    Great list, I myself often struggle with this very thing. Slowly migrating to the specialist side of things ;)

    • Tomas Fransson January 14, 2014 at 5:00 am #

      BIG welcome to Flaunt My Design, Sheila! I love your site I was just checking it out (again :)
      Sheila, how has your effort to specialize affected your business? Do you feel you are specialized enough?

  3. ruvimbo January 14, 2015 at 2:18 am #

    I am still struggling to decide what to specialize in and this article has given me ideas thank you

  4. Helene Abrams August 20, 2015 at 10:29 am #

    I fought the idea of becoming a “specialist”, but as it turns out I already was one. I am just began to take the time to make myself my own client. It’s funny (but not really), that I tell my clients all the time, it’s about finding your truth, that insight, that defines what makes you great, and bringing it to life and then putting it into action to so it occupies the most effective brand positioning to ensure you connect with your ideal customer and become a market authority. 

    But like the shoemaker that has not shoes.. we can do it for others but we can’t do it for ourselves and most of us are in a perpetual state of rebranding because we become overwhelmed with the process and we can’t make the hard decisions that positioning requires.

    If you haven’t found a niche yet consider getting an outsiders perspective for some brainstorming, cause most of the time we are just to close to see who we really are, and what we really do for others.

    • Tomas Fransson August 20, 2015 at 11:09 am #

      Thanks for taking the time to comment, Helene! Ha, ha! Yes, I could almost have written your comment myself! Yes, an outsider can often provide the clarity you lack. I’ve tried it myself. However, even when their answer rings true, you still need to overcome an often strong mental resistance against picking a niche. It’s counterintuitive, but (so far) I haven’t met any creative who has regretted their decision to specialize.

  5. Steven Hart January 15, 2016 at 6:52 am #

    Really interesting list, I have just been recommended to start to specialise in an area as it will be easier for the agency to find me work. After discussing with them what areas I would like to work in and their recommendations in what the market is looking for. It really helped giving me a direction to look at.

    • Tomas Fransson January 15, 2016 at 9:23 am #

      Thanks, Steven! I took a quick look at your portfolio – it seems like you have a beginning niche in restaurants and bars… :) For inspiration, here is a huge list of niches actually picked by real-world designers: The Niche Notebook. Consider signing up for my Niche Mini-Course too (you can enroll on the same page). :)

  6. Julian March 21, 2017 at 12:03 am #

    It’s a hard balance. Its good to know more than one thing, But if you specialize and focus on a specialty you become an expert.

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