Updated, July 2020
As I was finishing my contract I felt excited to jump back into freelancing.
In the past, I had dabbled with different freelance ideas in the past. However, this time I wasn’t sure exactly what I wanted to specialize in besides that it should be related to online marketing, so I could leverage my skills from my day job.
I landed on Facebook ads and to my good fortune landed my first client within two weeks.
As I worked through the project, I found so many opportunities to expand the scope of work that I found myself earning about 5x more than the amount we initially agree on.
I like to think that it happened because I could use my experience from other projects to draw parallels from solving similar challenges in previous projects.
After a while, I found myself not only helping them advertise on Facebook but also radio partnerships, email marketing and updating the website.
I didn’t know it at the time but rather than specializing, I got lucky and simply found a great match been the client’s personality and mine.
Do you really need more freelance ideas?
The more deliberate you are about who you’d like to help and with what, the more money you are going to earn with your freelancing business.
Everyone and their mom talks about specializing in something obscure and being one of the few -or perhaps the only one- specializing in that area.
Specializing is powerful but when you are in the trenches doing the work it is not as easy as it looks on paper.
Especially, if you are just starting out, worried if you are picking the right idea and don’t want to close any doors on yourself.
Let’s look at two examples to see what happens when you do it.
Scenario #1: Let’s say you pick an ultra-specific niche and skill: Helping yoga instructors with Facebook ads.
That means if the leads you encounter are not yoga instructors and they do not need help with advertising on Facebook specifically, you can’t help them.
Mixed martial arts gym that needs help with Facebook advertising? Nope…
Yoga instructor that needs help with writing or search advertising? Nope…
Fortunately, when you finally do land clients, you’ll be able to reuse your knowledge and sales tactics, making both the client work and the process of landing the client itself much easier because you keep working with the same industry.
You are likely to land projects easier, you can charge more money, and it will be easier for you to understand exactly what your clients want because they typically want the same things done.
And when you present yourself compared to a generic freelancer it’ll be obvious to the clients that you are the favorable pick.
If you’ve been researching how to find your own profitable freelance idea, I’m sure you’ve stumbled upon a similar example before.
The challenge is what to do when you have a few ideas and get stuck picking the right one. Especially, if you feel like you are not ready to close the door on new projects just yet.. Which brings us to the second example.
Scenario #2: You might pick something broader at first (like in the example above where I worked with Facebook ads generally) and rather than specialize, you focus on the client -the human being behind the project.
As you land clients, you’ll have to learn about their industry and work itself for each new project you land.
Of course, it depends on how much or how little you specialize but, generally, it seems like the first scenario is the obvious winner, right?
Then how come that creeping feeling of paralysis strike you whenever you settle on an idea?
Perhaps you even start looking for the perfect clients only to get stuck when you can’t find any.
If it was simply an idea you needed, you can Google around and get hundreds in a few minutes.
The reality is that many of us are challenged by the feeling that when we specialize too much we close many doors on ourselves – and how can we even do that when we have barely had any projects?
Typically, it happens because we haven’t experienced the power of specialization just yet.
The question is not which one you should pick but rather when you can leverage each of the two strategies to your benefit.
What I notice happen to some freelancers is that they specialize right away and because they keep running into leads that are not the perfect fit, they decline the projects, get discouraged and stop their freelancing business altogether.
That brings us back to scratch which another failed project to feel guilty about.
Fortunately, there is another way.
I’d like to think that the reason I landed that client was that our personalities were a great match.
As David Epstein explains in his book, Range, sampling different ideas to find, what he refers to as ‘match quality’, has led many people to a happy (and successful) life.
We can apply the same principle to our clients in freelancing. Let’s call it ‘client match quality’. Besides needing to be able to help them with their tasks, how good of a fit is the client’s personality with yours?
Speak with them about their project and feel out if your personalities are a good fit. You’ll have to speak with them about the project details anyway.
Besides being skilled at something clients need help with you can use client match quality to close them instead of using the power of specializing.
You’ll likely find it easier to land new projects with those that you have a good personality fit with but you’ll also have an easier time managing the clients throughout the project as you are likely to have similar expectations.
This will be a good fit if you focus on great communication with your clients- something I strongly recommend. There is nothing like bad communication to drive an otherwise fine project in the ground.
Clients typically say that they use logic in their hiring process and select for skill and expertise but who are we kidding? In reality, freelancing is a people business.
And in a people business, the currency is trust. Your clients want (and need!) to be able to rely on you to take care of tasks for them.
So, you are actually in the trust-building business. It is remarkable how much extra work clients will give you if they trust you- even if you don’t have direct experience with the task at hand.
Some will even ask you to help find problems to solve in their business because they like having you around.
Imagine if you could use the old adage “just be yourself” to leverage your personality and earn more money from each project while having dream clients?
That means you have to pitch fewer leads to land new projects (which you are not paid for anyway) and instead more billable hours- typically something that is reserved only for advanced freelancers.
That does not mean you should not specialize eventually – it is your business and you can run it exactly the way you prefer.
Naturally, there are different examples where each situation is better. For example, if you work with computer programming it might work much better to specialize since different programming languages can have different use-cases.
Or if you work with marketing it might make more sense to optimize for match quality as clients who needs help with marketing often times love it if you, not only run their campaigns, but also write content or set up email funnels.
Another element is how much you value communication with your client – which might only be something you know after having had a few good and bad clients.
If you optimize for client match quality, you’ll typically get clients that communicate in the same way you do.
Some of my readers have experienced that specializing felt too transactional whereas they prefer to identify with the client’s values and align their passion with their client’s.
Discover your profitable idea
First a brief note. It will be tempting to pick something related to your day job but it is not always a good idea.
Sometimes you can do it but typically this isn’t a good idea if you value your job- it is easy to get into a situation where the lines between competition are blurred.
You might end up giving away confidential information or hinting at something that causes a conflict of interest even if you don’t intend to.
If your company is ok with it, it might be the easiest place to start if you like the work. Often times they are not (or you might have signed an NDA), in which case you could want to pick one of these instead:
- The same skills in a similar industry (e.g. if you write sales copy for a startup you might help online coaches with the same)
- In the same industry with overlapping projects (e.g. if your day-job is in marketing for a fashion brand you might help fashion ecommerce shops with their online advertising attribution)
- In the same industry with the same skills but targeting a different audience (e.g. if your job is in luxury travel you could help 3-star hotels in your freelance business – those two will never be competing because people choose either one for very different reasons)
If it is ultra-clear that there is no conflict of interest In the same industry with the same skills but targeting a different audience (bullet point no. 3) is sometimes the easiest way to leverage your time and skills.
However, it can be difficult to judge whether there might be a conflict of interest down the road so generally using the same skills in a similar industry is the safest.
How to know if you should stick with your freelance idea
Some will know right away what they would like to do as a freelancer while others might want to experiment following the process above.
I have enjoyed the experimentation because it has allowed me to get a good understanding of the general landscape and how things work differently with different specializations.
For example, as I was pitching Facebook advertising management services via email it didn’t work well for me (though I know it works well for others) whereas when I pitched writing copy via email I landed great projects.
One way to speed up the selection process (if you even want to specialize) is by asking people that might be familiar with an industry or service/skill that you are interested in, out to coffee.
When people understand that you come from a place of learning they are usually happy to answer questions you’ll have.
How do I know if I have found “my thing”?
You’ll typically know if you like the work and clients after a few projects. The easiest way to know is simply doing a few projects, that’ll give you the best sense of which parts you might want to tweak.
Do research on who else is doing it, what they charge and how much they specialize compared to being broad to find the exact sweet spot for yourself.
When should you sample something new?
Well, part of it is your interests. The other part is about finding a match between the specialization and you.
As you are researching your idea, you should be able to see other freelancers doing something similar. Either the exact same or the same skill to a different audience or a different audience that you sell the same skill to.
If not, you’ll want to find some people in that audience you can talk to, to understand if this is actually something they need and are willing to pay for.
If you see other people doing the same and making money, you are probably on to something.
This is one of the most challenging parts for a beginning freelancer because it can be difficult to tell whether we just don’t have much experience in sales or if it is because our idea isn’t interesting for our potential clients.
The best way is to get paid. If you’ve been paid three times, you know there must be something there and it wasn’t a fluke (getting paid once means you might have just gotten lucky).
To get you started, go ask a few of your friends what you are good at. Note it down and compare it to the interests you have. There will typically be a couple of crossover points that you can use to get started.