Take this job and shove it
I ain’t working here no more.
– Johnny Paycheck
It’s never been easier to pack up your desk, tell your boss where to stick their job, and hang up a shingle as a freelancer.
In the past 15 years freelancing platforms have exploded in popularity. They’ve drawn in tens of millions of hard working individuals who have something to trade. And the appeal of freelancing isn’t hard to understand. Now you can earn a living doing what you love, while juggling other life commitments from the comfort of your kitchen table.
But it’s not always easy being a freelancer. While it’s possible to make a very good living, there are some significant obstacles to taking home a big paycheck.
In this article we’ll look at some reasons freelancers can boost their income by specializing in one area. Contrary to what you might think, focusing on a niche skill set doesn’t limit your job opportunities – it enhances your earnings.
The Network Effect Cuts Both Ways
The success of freelancing as a profession is thanks (in part) to the network effect. The more freelancers that sign up on platforms like Upwork, Freelancer and People Per Hour, the more employers that gravitate towards them. Employers are confident that out of the millions of talented individuals on the platform they’ll be able to find someone suitable for the position they have available.
But it cuts both ways. Employers go to platforms that have lots of freelancers. Which means there is a TON of competition for their work.
When a new job comes available it feels like everyone and their mother is trying to get shortlisted. It’s great for employers who have lots of talent to choose from. But for freelancers it’s tough to stand out from the crowd.
And that’s why specialization is so important. More than anything else, being a specialist in one area automatically makes you the best candidate for jobs of that nature. Skill and expertise are prerequisites for client acquisition.
The Horn Effect
You’ve heard of the halo effect, but have you heard of its opposite? The horn effect is where a single negative trait lowers the estimation of other, unrelated traits. For example, an unattractive person might be considered lazy, even though the two traits have nothing to do with one another.
Buyers on freelancing platforms tend to be small business owners themselves. As such, they’ve picked up a bit of skill in a lot of different areas. Some of which may overlap with your own.
How could this possibly matter?
It’s important because buyers will evaluate your skills according to their own areas where they are knowledgeable.
Imagine you declare yourself as being capable in both website design and SEO. Those are very different skill sets and you probably aren’t equally proficient in both. You might be an amazing web designer (10/10), with just mediocre SEO skills (5/10).
If the employer has any background in SEO then they won’t be impressed with your SEO expertise. And they may think less of your abilities as a web designer as a result. So in this instance it’s better to put your best foot forward and only promote your strongest skill. You’ll lose out SEO opportunities, but you’ll get more work overall.
Your Portfolio Story
Employers take the time to check out the person they are hiring. Especially when it’s for a project that’s important to their business. That means they’ll go the extra mile and look at your portfolio of past projects. If they’re impressed, they’ll shortlist you. If not, they’ll move on to the next profile.
Your portfolio tells a story, so plan yours out carefully. After all, your portfolio is the employer’s first point of contact with your brand. All too often employers visit a portfolio and find a mashup of different types of projects, with little thematic consistency. There isn’t time for employers to look at every portfolio item for every candidate. As a shortcut they’ll sample a couple of portfolio items to see if they like what they see.
Don’t leave this part to chance! Design a portfolio that screams “perfection” at one thing. Your portfolio should describe a professional with narrow and deep expertise in a field they are passionate about. Employers will automatically shortlist people that are focused on being the best at what they do.
Upper Level Income
If you’re a freelancer that wants to break into the upper income levels, then two conditions need to be met.
First, your schedule needs to be full. You’ll never have more time, but you can always increase your rates. And it’s a lot easier to raise your rates when you’ve got more opportunities than time. When that happens, it makes sense to raise your rates until you achieve time/rate equilibrium.
Second, you can charge a premium when employers contact you directly. If employers are initiating the conversation then it means they are interested in your work, and are possibly very impressed.
The most qualified buyers are familiar with your work. Or have been referred to you via an existing satisfied client. They’ve already been ‘sold’ on your professionalism and are reaching out to book an appointment.
Word of mouth sales only happens when the referrer is a raving fan of your work. And for that to happen, you’ve got to deliver incredible results. More often than not, being incredible at what you do comes from specialization.
The job of any search engine is to deliver results that are most relevant to the searcher’s query. This is also true for freelance platforms.
Think of it this way. If the employer can’t find top talent, they won’t use the freelance platform. So the freelance platform wants to make life as easy as possible for employers and help them find the best candidates.
Why does that matter to you?
Searchability is about relevance. If your profile is focused on one thing and has consistently high reviews from past projects then YOU become the most relevant search result. That means employers will be seeking out YOUR expertise.
You won’t need to bid on project after project. The work will come to you naturally.
A Jack of One Trade
So it pays to specialize as a freelancer. You’ll automatically stand out from the competition in all the best ways.
Your portfolio will describe a person who is expert in one niche and has positive client outcomes to prove it. This will put you leagues ahead of those competing for the same jobs.
And as a specialist you’ll be easier to find in the freelance search results. It’s not luck when freelance platforms consistently recommend the same people again and again. They get results!
Best of all, as a specialist you’ll grow in your craft and continue to delight clients with the quality of your work. That alone makes specialization a worthwhile road.
Matthew Murray is the Managing Director of Sales Higher, a lead generation company. Over the past decade he’s generated 1000’s of high converting sales leads. And helped businesses all over the world meet their ideal clients. You can find Matthew on LinkedIn.