How to Switch Your Freelancing Niche

If you’ve been a freelancer for a while, you’ve probably heard the advice that you need to select a niche. It’s much easier to stand out if you don’t try and be all things to everybody.

Many freelancers start off as generalists, and then narrow their focus down to one or two specialties. For example, if you’re a freelance copywriter, you might specialize in writing case studies for the B2B marketplace. Or a technical writer might specialize in user guides for networking-related products.

When you’re starting out, you often sell the skills you used in Corporate America as a service. Ideally, you find something you are good at that people will also pay you to do.

As you mature as a freelancer, however, you may find that you want to sell a different service. That’s perfectly okay. In this post, I’ll describe how I changed my niche and why. I’ll also list the steps you can take if you’re ready to change yours.


Why I Changed My Niche

When I started my company in 1995 I sold technical writing services. I had been a technical writer in cubicle land. When I started Logical Expressions, I promoted my services to small software companies that didn’t have an in-house technical writer. It worked out extremely well and I had clients almost immediately.

It sounds great and it was for a while.

Here’s something few people ever talk about in the freelance world. What happens when you get sick of your niche or the market completely dries up? Is it possible to completely change what you’re doing without destroying your business and alienating your clients?

I am living proof that you can do it!

As noted, I started out doing technical writing. After a few years, I realized that if I had to write “Choose File|Open” one more time, I’d go insane. At the time, many small businesses needed Web sites. So I designed Web sites for a few years. But over time, the market changed. With off-shoring and inexpensive blogging software, I couldn’t charge a decent rate, unless I became a PHP programmer.

I am many things, but a programmer is not one of them. Plus, I was tired of explaining how Web sites work, what a domain name is, and countless other details related to the online world. In 2006, I went back to skills that I learned in the early 90s and started laying out books and magazines.

Times Change and People Change

You may have started your business to explore your creativity. When your business starts to feel like drudgery, something is wrong. It’s also unreasonable to expect that you will find the same things interesting over time.

Here are a few hints that it might be time to shake things up a bit:

  • You start resenting your clients. (“Ugh, he wants another change!”)
  • You dread turning on your computer in the morning and looking at your To-Do list just makes you depressed. (“I hate what I’m doing.”)
  • You aren’t focusing as well as you used to and you start finding little mistakes. (“Oops, I think I spaced out.”)
  • You’re so bored you can’t believe you EVER found any of stuff you’re doing interesting. (“Just kill me now.”)

Realistically, unlike a J-O-B, you are in complete control of what you do every day. If you hate what’s going on in your business, it’s time to move on to something else.

How to Make the Change

Taking everything you’ve done and throwing it out the window is tough to do and I don’t think anyone goes through it without a lot of angst and trepidation. It may seem extreme, but it’s more or less what I did (twice). After I decided my new niche, I:

  • Gutted our company Web site. For search-engine reasons, I tried to keep as many page names the same as possible, but I revamped the navigation, rewrote most of the pages, and added a bunch of new ones.
  • Deleted irrelevant products out of our shopping cart and added new ones.
  • Started a new newsletter on the new topic (and stopped the old one).
  • Resisted the temptation to take on any new clients in the old field, no matter how much they asked.
  • Fired a few clients who made my life miserable.

Although my complete client list and portfolio shows all of the different types of projects I have worked on since 1995, our company site is now focused completely on book design, publishing consulting, and our books. The only web-related services I now offer are Web site critiques.

Although it sounds like I cut off everything, I really didn’t. Many of my existing clients knew I had a wide range of skills. When I moved from tech writing to Web design, some of them needed help with Web sites. And when I moved from doing Web design work to book layout, again some of my existing clients took advantage of the fact I could help with “print stuff.”

Even though I don’t market Web site services and I won’t take on new site development, I still have a few Web sites that I update for existing clients that I love. And for years after I got out of the technical writing biz, I did a regular “techie” newsletter for another long term client (partly because I didn’t have to write “Choose File|Open” even once).

The transition isn’t as scary as you might think if you continue to work with your favorite existing clients as you add new ones. If you haven’t been feeling the joy in your business for a while, maybe it’s time to shake things up.

Spend some time really thinking about how you want to be spending your days. No one says you have to stay with a particular niche forever. If you’re not happy, maybe you just need to switch your niche!

Your Turn

Have you switched your niche, or are you about to?

Share some of your thoughts and experiences in the comments.

Image by zappowbang

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Comments

  1. Jon Peltier says

    I started freelancing as a developer, building custom addins for Microsoft Excel. For a few years it was good, but it started to get repetitive, and a few clients made me nuts.

    At some point I liked over my portfolio of projects, saw some pieces that I thought would be of general interest. I packaged them into commercial products, addins for general users of Excel. I figured it would supplement the custom development.

    In truth the custom work is supplementing sales of my commercial addins. This has effectively separated my revenue from my hours, allowing me to work on more strategic things, and lay off those stress-inducing clients. I’m doing more training, I’ve started on a book, and I’ve retained the clients I enjoy working with.

    Life is no longer stressful, and I’m having fun again.

  2. says

    Hi Susan … nice article … I think with the needs of businesses constantly changing in this ever evolving high-tech era, freelancers need to constantly evaluate their position and change accordingly to meet the needs of what’s in demand.

  3. says

    Susan,
    Great article! With your help and advice, I switched my virtual assistant business’ target market from real estate agents to self-published authors. I’m earning a lot more money now. Thank you!

    Kathy Goughenour
    VA for Authors

  4. says

    Hi Jon,

    I wrote a reply, which seems to have gone to the Great WordPress Recycle Bin in the sky. Oh well…let’s try this again.

    I didn’t mention it in the article, but on my latest niche switch, creating products definitely helped give me more financial flexibility. In my case, I took all my writing and published 10 books, which created a new income stream. It’s much easier to think strategically and creatively when you have fewer financial pressures ;-)

    Our online conference wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for our books, for example. We simply wouldn’t have had the bandwidth to put on the event.

    Thanks for reading and commenting!

    - Susan

  5. Steve says

    Wow, your list under “Times Change and People Change” describes my life perfectly. I really need to switch :(

  6. says

    @Steve – Yeah that was true for me too, obviously. Once you decide you need to switch, I found that it’s not as bad as you think it will be. Really ;-)
    @web design costs – Thanks for reading!

  7. says

    After a decade as a freelance advertising copywriter, I decided to specialize in writing annual reports. The reason: they paid more than print ads. However, I left my main portfolio site as it was and launched a new site just for annual reports. It gave me strong industry credibility. The book I wrote, “The Writer’s Guide to Annual Reports didn’t hurt, either.

  8. says

    @Robert – Yes, that makes sense! I moved to print design for much the same reason. Once Web design became devalued beyond a certain point, it was no longer lucrative unless I became a programmer. (Ugh.) The book I wrote about book publishing (my 9th book) *Publishize: How to Quickly and Affordably Self-Publish a Book That Promotes Your Expertise* didn’t hurt either ;-)

    I also rebranded my publishing article site as The Book Consultant. The corporate site (Logical Expressions) has everything, but the Book Consultant focuses on just my book publishing stuff.

    Congrats on strategically making the switch!

  9. says

    Why are you in business? You know business is where you make a profit. If the client is unpleasant, should not there be enough money so that you will be happy when you complete the job? After all is said and done most people consider it there patriotic duty to make a profit so they can pay taxes!!!

  10. says

    @ gold – In my experience, some things are more important than money. I prefer to make a profit working on projects I enjoy with clients I like. Your mileage may vary.

  11. says

    @Gold -

    Nobody should have to be in business to deal with the worst clients. Most of us are so busy (well, I am and it sounds like Susan is), that we don’t need to work with poisonous clients at any price.

  12. says

    I started as a content writer and slowly-slowly changing it on development part like building wordpress plugins and themes. It is on your how you change yourself

  13. says

    @Jon – “Poisonous” is a good word to describe it! (And I agree.)
    @Vivek – I think sometimes switching a niche can end up being more of an evolution like what you’re describing.

  14. says

    @Susan- I think you missed the point.

    When your price goes up, you’ll find life is more enjoyable because the people who make you unhappy disappear.

  15. says

    @gold – Actually I think you missed the point. In the article, I pointed out that one of the reasons I got out of Web site work because the market changed. I couldn’t charge enough to lose those toxic clients, unless I started doing programming work, which I didn’t want to do.

  16. says

    I read this article with great interest, as I’m currently taking a new direction with my freelance activity. I started as a “web designer”, very general. Up until now I focused mostly on WordPress sites, and I’m considering giving up the design part and focusing on building WordPress sites for other designers, and adding web analytics and consulting to my services.
    I’m currently redoing my whole website to show this new direction to visitors.

  17. says

    @Paul – Congrats on figuring out a great new direction. It’s difficult to market a general service like “web design.”

    Now you know exactly who to target with your marketing. I know many designers would gladly give up the more “techie” WP setup and analytics stuff, so they can just focus on design. A techie who actually understands design is unusual! I think that’s a great niche to go after.

  18. says

    Great discussion!

    Susan, thanks so much for sharing your perspective. I think that a lot of freelancers were able to relate to this.

    @Gold, Not everything is about money. While it’s important to be paid fairly, there are many other factors that make a project worth accepting (or not accepting).

  19. says

    @Gold -

    Why raise your rates, and risk the toxic client still approves the project? Just say, “I can’t take on this project.” If the previous project is finished and paid for, you owe nothing to that client. It’s hard the first couple of times to cut them loose, but it’s incredibly good for your psyche.

  20. says

    I agree with Jon. The first time you turn away work, it feels really strange. But If the project is over and you’ve done a good job, you don’t have any particular obligation to do work for a client forever.

  21. says

    @Jon– I believe my first comment “How much would you take to make you happy with the . . . few clients who made my (your) life miserable. . . ?” answers that.

    If your usual fee to that client was around $500 and you asked $5500 and the client still wanted you, couldn’t you could not you figure out some way of supplying the client needs where you didn’t have to deal that much with the individual. Remember changes to the contract calls for change orders which can add thousands to the job.

    Wouldn’t that be …incredibly good for your psyche… also?

  22. says

    @Gold -

    Yes, if I’d asked for 10x the usual rate, I’d sure have gotten rid of the client quickly. But if they’d agreed on the exorbitant price, I’d still have been miserable doing the job. I work by myself, so I can’t delegate it away (though I have sometimes given the work away), and I don’t want to replace doing the work with managing the work.

    I think I would rather just explicitly tell them that I can’t do more work for them. Rip the bandage right off.

    One problem with these problem clients is that they tend not to believe in change orders and the like. This is part of what makes them problematic. And I play into it, because I want to do the job right and not leave things hanging. So I do the work even when the change order was not accepted.

  23. says

    @Gold – Hmmm, sounds like I said that, but it’s not what I meant. First, I’d be more likely to decline the job than to quote a huge price. I’d be inclined to turn it down even if I was offered a huge price. The reward is not worth the dread of working with such a client.

    In the past I’ve sometimes done the extra work without an approved change order, because I want it done properly. The few clients I have now are not too structured, and we generally work on an hourly basis, or on a short task basis. Even if a short task takes twice what I expected, since it’s for a client I enjoy working with, it’s not work to put in the extra effort. And they come back for more work, and I might add part of my overage to my estimate for the next task. Openly, saying “that last task took longer than I’d anticipated, so I’ve added a couple hours in case I go over again.”

    I know not everyone works this way, but it suits me, and I’ve gravitated toward clients whom it also suits. It’s taken the better part of a decade to get to this point.

  24. says

    Great post!

    I love what you said here – “Spend some time really thinking about how you want to be spending your days. No one says you have to stay with a particular niche forever. If you’re not happy, maybe you just need to switch your niche!”

    My niche is Internet Marketing, Solopreneurs, etc. and there are so many subniches that I tend to switch my subniches a lot lol.

    Also, I love what you said – “I didn’t mention it in the article, but on my latest niche switch, creating products definitely helped give me more financial flexibility.”

    Now this is KEY for every service provider. I only have so much time to write and get paid for writing. I started up a PLR store which allows me to write article packs and sell them over and over. I love seeing how service providers can create additional revenue streams within their businesses!

    This would be a great topic for Freelance Folder to write on (or if I missed the post let me know)! :)

  25. says

    @Lisa – Exactly! As I mentioned, in my case, some of my clients remained the same. Like you, many of the clients I have worked for over the years are solopreneurs or very small businesses. When clients tell you that they “can’t find anyone who does X” it’s an opportunity.

    These days in addition to services and consulting, we sell books, training, templates, and software. I’d be happy to write an article on how we developed our products and repurposed our content to increase our passive revenue streams. (Laura…just let me know if you want a guest post along those lines.)

    Incorporating more products into our mix was part of a multi-year strategic plan. I decided to learn the book publishing process by publishing my own books first. (Unlike some people I don’t feel comfortable consulting on anything I haven’t done myself.)

    So I figured out best practices and then wrote book number nine, which explained how I published and marketed the first 8 books. Now I consult on the topic, put on a yearly book publishing conference, and run a non-profit association related to publishing.

    I did the same thing with our pet-related books. I took my background volunteering and working for animal shelters, repurposed my pet-related writing into adopted pet care books, started an association to help people working to save homeless animals, and wrote a book on fundraising for humane groups. Another book for that audience will be coming out this summer.

    Becoming an authority in book publishing and pet adoption wasn’t an overnight transition, but it all started with a simple decision to switch my niche.

    In hindsight I realize that throughout my life the two things I have always loved most are books and animals. Switching my niche worked out really well, since every day I get to talk about books and critters. How cool is that?!

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