Do You Need to Specialize to Succeed?

freelance-specialistDo you have a freelancing specialty? Sure, you’re a writer, a graphic designer, a programmer, or you have another type of skill that lends itself to freelancing — but have you chosen a narrower specialty within your field?

Many freelancing gurus recommend that you carve out a specialized niche for yourself within your field. While this can be a valid business strategy, it may not be the right answer for everyone. But, can a freelancer survive without a specialty in today’s competitive market?

In order to answer this question we’ll take a realistic look at what it really means to be a specialist or a generalist. Some of what we uncover may surprise you.

A Mistaken Picture of Generalists and Specialists

Before we can really answer the question of whether you need a freelance specialty to survive, we need to explore what specialization and generalization really are.

When I think of a specialist, I tend to think of someone who is so focused on a particular topic that they nearly have blinders on to everything else that is happening in the freelance world. They may be efficient, but they are missing the big picture.

Likewise, when I think of a generalist I tend think of someone whose efforts are really scattered and possibly unfocused. They know a little bit about everything, but not much about anything.

Guess what, both stereotypes are wrong!

Let’s take a more realistic look at what it really means to be a specialist or a generalist.

The Reality About Specialization and Generalization

If the stereotypes about specialization and generalization are wrong, then they must be missing the mark somehow.

Here are some important points about specialization and generalization that are often overlooked:

  1. Specialization is a matter of degree — While some specializations have certifications and can be quantified, many others do not. Often, specialization becomes a function of experience, training, or both.
  2. It is possible to specialize in more than one thing — Some freelancers hesitate to specialize because they are afraid that they will be locked into working on a single type of project. However, many freelancing specialists have more than one specialty.
  3. There will always be those who know more (or less) than you about any given topic — Even among specialists there are differences. Some specialists will have more expertise in their specialty than others.
  4. Over time, the demand for any given specialty will change — If you do specialize, be prepared to change your specialty when the demand for it drops off. (Or, to ramp up if your area becomes “hot” again.)
  5. The decision to specialize in particular area is not permanent — One of the great benefits about freelancing is that it’s fluid. You can change your mind. This also pertains to whether you choose to specialize, or not.
  6. Regardless of whether you are a specialist or a generalist you still need to stay current — Choosing to be a generalist doesn’t mean that you can opt out of continuing education. Both specialists and generalists need to keep up with changing technology.
  7. The market is big enough to include both specialists and generalists — Some jobs will be perfect for specialists. Others will be a better fit for those with more general knowledge. Both jobs are out there.
  8. There is no “right” answer to the question of whether a freelancer should specialize — The choice to specialize is a highly personal one. Every freelancer will approach it differently and make the decision that is right for them.
  9. Most freelancers will wear both the generalist and specialist hats during their career — Most freelancers move back and forth between specializing and generalizing. A freelancer may start as a generalist, decide to specialize for a while, and then go back to being a generalist if the market demand changes.

Given these points, to some degree, there is less difference between a specialist and generalist than you might initially think.

Can a Freelancing Generalist Survive?

We’ve looked at this debate before, and weighed both sides from a more conventional outlook. While the information we presented earlier is still valid, it looks at being a specialist and generalist as two distinct things.

As we have just shown, for many freelancers, the difference between specialization and generalization is not always clear. Most of us will move between specialization and generalization throughout our freelancing career.

So, the answer to the question is “yes,” a freelancing generalist can survive. Not only that, most freelancing generalists will function as specialists at some point, and vice versa.

What Do You Think?

We’ve examined the question of whether freelancers should specialize to survive. We’ve also discovered that the line between specialization and generalization is more fluid than many suppose.

What about you?

Do you consider yourself to be a specialist or a generalist? How would you answer this question?

Leave your answer in the comments.

Image by Kapungo

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Comments

  1. says

    I’m one of those specialists with several specialties. I have a few niches I write in – food, health, science and social media – and without those niches, freelancing would be a burden. It’s far more manageable to target two or three subject areas than to take on the whole world, and more importantly, it’s easier to establish a name. I’ve also found that some niches are more profitable than others, so even if one of your specialties isn’t really “your dream”, it can help pay the bills while you establish yourself in your target niche (I wish I could write about food all day but, alas, there’s far more gigs and less competition in my other specialties).

  2. says

    I’m currently in school, but am doing small freelance jobs here and there. My biggest thought for the past while was this topic exactly. If I were to begin freelancing, should I focus my efforts or continue to bring the few main skills I have up to par.

    My biggest concern though, was being general came with the problem of keeping up with technology in all aspects. My skills laid within design, coding and photography. Each bringing it’s own good amount of required knowledge.

    Should I become a freelancer, my thoughts lie with focusing on the design aspect (branding, etc.) and keeping the photography skill at a level where I’m comfortable enough offering it as a service combined with the design (product shots, landscapes, etc.) as needed. This also comes in handy when I get requests for the occasional wedding…

    As for coding, it’s a skill I don’t mind doing, but one where I would prefer to out-source to a reliable colleague or someone who specializes in it. To me, that makes sense so that I can focus on becoming better with my designing and photography (with a possible long term goal of starting a business with a couple more people who are specialized… perhaps).

  3. says

    I’m a specialist: I ghostwrite ebooks for self-employed business owners. My specialization goes into writing for business owners (and generally writing them ebooks they will distribute for free) and not writing for Internet marketers, and I am writing authority content.

    I wouldn’t have it any other way. At 19 now, I don’t have the same competitive points that so many other freelancers have. I do have something they don’t: I’ve started seven successful businesses.

    So I’m a specialist: I write a particular type of content (ebooks) and write for a specific target market (self-employed people) although in 2010 I’ll be creating sales pitches geared toward sub markets within the niche, such as accountants, real estate brokers and agents, insurance agents, freelance graphic designers, freelance Web designers, etc.

  4. says

    Thanks for sharing your stories Rik and Jessie!

    Jessie, it sounds like you’ve really got things narrowed down to a specific niche. Good for you!

    Keep the comments coming. We are interested in learning what you have to say on this topic.

  5. says

    From the beginning of my freelancing career, I’ve set out as a specialist. But as you mentioned, this is a very fluid thing. My specializations (yes, plural) have taken shape based on my clients’ wants and my own preferences. I continue to look for ways to specialize, and to communicate my specialization effectively to my target clients.

    We should be generalist enough to adapt to our markets, but specialist enough to stand out and attract our ideal clients.

    Lexi

  6. says

    Thanks for your feedback Lexi!

    It’s interesting that your path parallels my own in this regard.

    I wonder how many freelancers truly have only a single specialty?

    It would be interesting to know…

  7. says

    I wrestle with this. I enjoy helping business maximize their marketing budgets to bring a Return on Investment. So ideally I would just counsel business on what steps they should take to get the most bang for their buck (or how to best invest their time).

    However, the tangible product we deliver is web design and SEO implementation (I say “Tangible” tongue in cheek.)

    If we didn’t have bills to pay (or family to support) I guess we would be fully perusing our passion.

    For now we do a little of A and B.

  8. says

    Ah, this sounds familiar. I do have a tendency toward the generalist, because I find so many things interesting! But I work hard at specializing in WordPress, CSS, teaching Twitter and websites for small businesses and organizations. The variety of websites that I do keeps the generalist in me happy; my specializing keeps my clients happy.

    You have to go with your strengths, whether it’s as a specialist or a generalist.

  9. says

    Thanks for sharing Joshua and Leora!

    I think a lot of us struggle with specialization. For example, what do you do when you are offered a lucrative assignment that you know you can do, but that doesn’t fall in your specialty?

  10. says

    “What do you do when you are offered a lucrative assignment that you know you can do, but that doesn’t fall in your specialty?”
    So far, I’ve had to say no to those assignments. But then I keep in the back of my head: either I need to learn how to do what the client needs, or I need to find someone with whom to outsource. I work on both!

  11. says

    As a freelance book editor and ghostwriter, I have found specializing in several specialities (business/finance/marketing, self-help/motivational, how-to, travel, true crime and book-to-film adaptation) to be more lucrative and enjoyable than being a generalist or only specializing in one topic – though one of my specialities (health/fitness) was not planned. After developing book proposals and sample chapters for three separate health projects in quick succession I soon found myself with several more referrals in that genre and my “specialty” developed from there.

  12. says

    I think I’ve fallen into a “health writer” category. I write about raw foods, superfoods, juices, juice fasting, herbs, alternative medicine, weight loss, folk remedies, exercise, etc. I also write reviews of books, foods, and other products geared toward a healthier lifestyle.

    Some writers prefer to specialize. I didn’t start out with the intentions of becoming known as a health writer. It sort of just happened. I think once I realized where my true passion is, it all kind of fell into place. I’m happy with my (healthy) writing life, though!

  13. says

    I agree with most comments—that specializing in 2 or 3 areas is key, such as web design, graphic design, photography, whatever. Then set aside the other areas and generalize your skils with what you can get by with. You will always come across a client that is asking you to impliment something you don’t know how to do, but will find out how through tutorials and research to fullfill the clients needs. That’s where generalization may come in handy.

    Maybe these new skills will even become something you find really interesting and decide to specialize in, you never know.

  14. says

    I think that specialising definitely offers advantages, when there’s the work available. I think you’re more likely to win clients over if you can show that you’ve done similar and high standard work before.

  15. says

    I would consider myself to be both. I definitely have areas the I specialize in, but I have a good general working knowledge on many other areas as well. I don’t think you have to be one or the other really. In today’s market, being diversified is really key.

  16. says

    I am both generalist and specialize. When a project comes up, I will think, can I finish it ? If I think I could, then I will prepare the document and any other material. Meanwhile, I have explore my speciality (oscommerce) and explore it for any future project.

  17. says

    My top genre is automotive writing, but I specialize in several areas including new car introductions/review, concept vehicles, car parts and accessories, industry news, you name it.

    Still, I haven’t abandoned other interests including career, small business, college, sports, Christian/inspirational, and human interest.

    I find that most of my work comes through automotive articles which has helped to keep my name out there and to pay the bills.

  18. says

    Great post! IMO, it’s getting harder and harder to do very well as a freelancer if you don’t at least differentiate. And increasingly, that differentiation has to do with your specialty or specialties.

    My advice? If you’re just getting started, don’t obsess over this issue — unless there’s an obvious area of specialization for you based on your background, skills, experience, etc.

    But over time, I believe most freelancers should develop and clearly communicate one or more true specialties. I’ve found that there are substantial differences in income between specialists and generalists. And the whole bit about wanting variety…I think that if you do it right, you can still structure your biz so that you have a great deal of variety and freedom.

  19. says

    Great article! My specialty is whatever task may be currently required of me that falls within my core competencies (and Pays the most). Call it Generalization if you will, but I believe that Specialization is as much a state of mind as it is a label.

    In my IT career, I have always preferred working with server and storage groups. My real love is enterprise storage, backup, archive, disaster planning, and contingency. Theres something about enterprise storage and data that I’m absolutely passionate about…I guess that would be my specialization.

  20. says

    Thanks to everyone who has shared their thoughts on this topic!

    I can see that their are several clear schools of thought on this topic, as well as what I would term a “practical approach.”

    Keep sharing your thoughts — I am interested to see what most freelancers think about this.

  21. Julian says

    I’m a generalist at the moment and have been surviving quite fine so far in the writing/researcher field.

    Currently, I’m upgrading my skill set to specialize in Ruby and Rails. Why? Developers with this specialization typically earn more than regular php/WordPress/html/etc web developers and far more than a typical freelance writer.

    Based on my experience generalists can survive, but freelancers with a specialization can earn much more given the area he/she specializes in is out there.

  22. says

    One of my all time favorite blog posts is “The Top 5 Reasons to Be a Jack of All Trades written by Tim Ferriss (of the 4 hour work week). I re-read it quarterly. Ferriss’ point is that at some point the rate of learning a skill drops off rather quickly. The generalist just knows when to bail and move on to the next learning opportunity!

    “It is entirely possible to be a jack of all trades, master of many. How? Specialists overestimate the time needed to “master” a skill and confuse “master” with “perfect”… Generalists recognize that the 80/20 principle applies to skills…”

    I’ve been a generalist most of my life, and only recently fallen into a niche that could be called a specialty. Even now I hesitate to call it that, it feels so… limiting.

  23. says

    Tim Ferriss wrote an article a couple of years ago called “The Top 5 Reasons to be a Jack of All Trades,” and I’ve find that I go back and re-read it every couple of months. There comes a point where the rate of new learning drops off drastically, and generalists are simply masters of knowing when they’ve reached that 80/20 point, and move on to the next opportunity.

  24. says

    I have a question for the specialists: Do you maintain a separate website for each specialty?

    If not, how do you keep your main website from looking silly (or desperate) when you list all your specialties. Unless they’re all tightly related, isn’t that a danger?

  25. Janet says

    Sorry. I’ve said something off topic. Speaking of specialization, You’re right. It’s a matter of experience over a time and accommodate changes means to be flexible. This is part of specialization in my opinion as most specialized people are highly educated. They are prepared for changes and constant development.

    English to polish translation

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