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. That’s what I did when I started my company in 1995. 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!
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!