This post applies mostly to B2B freelancers (that’s most of us.) B2C freelancers like makeup artists, trainers, and personal chefs can definitely benefit from niching (and reading this post), but the process will look a bit different…it will also help you with Phase 2 in your Freelance Profile Workbook.
Sometimes I think folks around here must get tired of me talking about niches.
I bring them up a lot…that’s in blog posts, on Twitter, in How-To guides in the Academy…and that’s because I believe they’re crucial to building the best freelance career possible. You’ve probably read why I think that, but let’s go over a few of the primary benefits again…
- Easier marketing: Networking and prospect lists can seem daunting if you’re trying to market to everybody on the planet. Focusing saves you time and honestly, headache.
- Better opportunity: This sounds backward, but choosing a niche opens more doors. That’s because you end up spending your time prospecting for clients who have a higher chance of wanting to work with you. (A client is more likely to hire you if they know you’re focused on their specific issues.)
- Higher rates: People pay more for specialists. I hear this over and over across the freelance world. It’s one of those things, though, that’s just generally true in life (you’ll notice you do it as a consumer yourself)…people are willing to pay more for more focused and customized products and services.
There’s another benefit though that I think gets missed, and that’s the fact that choosing a niche can be a huge help in getting past some of the most difficult challenges we run into as freelancers.
A lot of people never get off the ground or never get past low-paying, frustrating work as freelancers, and I think a big part of that is because they lack direction. One of the most important differences between traditional employment and freelancing is that, unlike school and most careers, freelancing doesn’t lay out a set path in front of you.
That’s exciting at one level, but conventional education and employment have probably left your information filtering and decision-making muscles weak, so you can easily end up floundering…indefinitely waiting for a signal that you’ve found “the one”.
Choosing a niche can be a big help with that because, at the very worst, you can start checking off what doesn’t work for you and move on to what might.
A quick note, most people will find it easier to choose a skillset, then a niche, so if you don’t have a skillset yet, check out this post first.
Unless you’ve got freelance friends, you probably don’t really get how they focus their businesses.
You might understand their skillset (what they do), but you probably don’t have a lot of insight into their niche (who they do it for.) That’s totally understandable. Most of us only interact with business as consumers, so we’re really not aware of the huge world of specialization, and sub-specialization that’s possible out there.
That’s why I want to talk about freelance niche dimensions.
Choosing a niche is a lot like putting together an outfit. You can go simple or complex, monochromatic or colorful. You can accessorize or keep things as simple as possible depending on what you want to accomplish.
Keep that in mind reading through these, because you’ll be mixing and matching across your freelance career.
- By Industry: Education, Gaming, Retail, Government, Health, Haircare…there are a TON of these and lists everywhere. This is a great dimension to start focusing with, since most clients identify themselves by an industry if by nothing else. You’ll also have a really easy time finding news and prospect lists (more on that in a bit) and also understanding the kind of money in front of you, because sites like this and lists like this are all over the place and dedicated to tracking how much cash is flowing around an industry at any given time.
- By Business Size/Stage: As far as niches go, when people do niche by this dimension, you’ll see people typically lean toward the “lower” end of things by focusing on small businesses or startups, but a lot of people will go bigger and more mature after they’ve grown some as a freelancer and want to push their earnings by offering more complex work to clients who might have deeper pockets or more settled needs.
- By Business Type: Do you want to serve businesses that work with businesses, or businesses that work with consumers? This is definitely an optional dimension, but it’s an important one to understand if you want to do the best work possible for your clients, but also maximize your income. Read this post to learn more.
- By Location: Some people freelance locally and it works for them. I don’t since I want to remain location-independent and maximize earning from higher paying locations (like parts of Cali and NY.) You might love working with local lawyers or designing for companies from Accra to Detroit. Do what works for you, just know that some skills and personality types are better suited to focusing locally (i.e. extroverts might want to meet in person more, so limiting location might be a good idea.)
- By Community/Demographic: You might choose to focus on something like Black Churches, or LGBTQ+ organizations. This dimension usually benefits from, and even requires personal investment, but can be a strong focus once you build trust and a good reputation. (A quick little note here. Finding higher incomes by narrowing by this dimension is possible, but will probably be challenging.)
- By Field: Some “Industries” aren’t really industries at all and are more pervasive aspects of life that intersect with every other industry out there. Tech is one (and one with good earning potential.) You’ll see tech in education, tech in retail, tech in healthcare. Social media is another (I’m always seeing ads for Facebook marketing work, for example.)
Some people will disagree with categorizing some of these as niches, and yes, some can get much more refined (such as Industry), but that’s mostly an issue of semantics. All you need to understand is that adding a little focus to your freelance business can be a great thing. (If you’re looking for some examples, check out this list.)
The Niche Journey
OK…so if there’s only one thing you take away from this post, I want it to be this…
Finding a niche that works is a process.
If you’re waiting until you feel comfortable to pull the trigger, you’ll probably be waiting forever. As you work through the process, you’re going to be trying things, rejecting others, and adjusting as you go.
There are reasons people say it takes 18 months to feel comfortable freelancing, and this is one of them. That’s why I’m going to take you on a quick tour of what a journey to (and through) the niche decision process might look like. This is pretty involved and might seem overwhelming, but know that I DEFINITELY took my time (I was burnt out from a job and refused to overwork myself again) and let things evolve relatively naturally.
At each point, I’m going to tell you a little bit about how it worked for me across my first six months of freelancing (for some perspective.)
A lot of people get tripped up here, because I think we go into freelancing thinking we have to get it right the first time. You don’t. You won’t. Pretty much no one does. Not even the second time. The point is to choose something and take that first step so you can start refining. Every day you burn trying to figure out the right step is a day that you could be getting closer to your best freelance career.
Starting can be hard though, so if you need some help, try asking yourself these 5 questions.
Here’s where those employer-weakened muscles come in again, because you’re probably not used to doing a lot of information curation. (Employers, and even schools, by design, highly filter what you’re exposed to.)
This step is crucial though, because getting a feel for a niche is partly a process of latent learning. If you’re looking at a dimension you don’t have a lot of exposure to, take some time to connect with big players and organizations on social and even sign up for some newsletters. These tips (some more active than others) will help too.
When I started immersing myself, let’s just say I subscribed to everything. I learned a lot (and still have an overflowing inbox because of it, but it was worth it.)
Set a Baseline
One thing that I stress in the Academy is checking your progress on a regular basis. You can’t do that though, if you don’t know where you started. Members use a full on spreadsheet and evaluate multiple aspects of their freelance business every six months, but you can easily start on your own. Just note things like your income, comfort level, ease of getting new business, and general excitement. Make sure to check back regularly.
Do this even if you’re starting from zero in every area like I was.
Set a Timeframe
OK, so I just mentioned checking back regularly on your progress. In the Academy we dedicate a whole month to progress checking twice every year, but I’d recommend circling around between every 3 to 6 months.
I personally gave myself six months…not just to figure out my niche, but to see if I could survive at all as a freelancer. (I was making $3,000 a month after a few months, so I figured if I could make it that far, some refining and effort to improve my work could earn me even more.)
Pick a Simple Service
One thing that doesn’t get discussed enough in freelancing is the evolution of services. (That’s why stuff like Stephanie’s use of Fiverr to test services is so great.)
That could be game storyline creation, setting up Shopify sites, or writing product descriptions. (If you need some targeted guidance, take a trip through Upwork and Guru, search for your niche, and see what people are looking for. That’ll keep you from taking a complete shot in the dark.)
I started with blogs and eventually grew into content marketing, case studies, social media and thought leadership work. That though, again, was a process of finding out what kind of writing my niche wanted.
Get to Prospecting
While you’re on Upwork and Guru (and Indeed, Craigslist, Freelance Writing Jobs and whatever sites you like), set up a profile, toss something similar on LinkedIn, and start sending out emails…oh, and remember to ask good questions so you can leave your clients as happy as possible.
I found my first couple of clients by applying to a job on ProBlogger and Ebyline. After I got those two under my belt, I started dedicating regular time to my marketing (whether I was busy or not.) Marketing can make or break your business, so make sure you’re putting yourself out there.
Side note, remember that not having a portfolio doesn’t have to kill your dream.
After even just a month, you’ll probably have started getting some feedback from prospects…that’s in the form of them asking you for information, deciding to work with you, saying no, or even being silent.
Make a list of where you’ve gotten responses and positive feedback and where you haven’t. Same with negative feedback and no feedback (which is still feedback.) Make notes and set a brand new baseline. From here, you can start adjusting your niche based on what you’ve learned and start another niche testing cycle.
For me, after six months I realized that startups didn’t have the money I wanted (or at least didn’t want to spend it on the services I was offering), so I moved on to more established companies and ones tied to my employed history (I’d been avoiding it because I was burned out and wanted something new, but I’d started to recover some.)
I can’t stress this enough…give yourself room to work through this as a process. You won’t figure this out overnight. You’ll get frustrated and doubt yourself. That’s part of this life, but it passes. You can build confidence right along with your income. Just trust the process, focus on habits, talk to other freelancers (you can come visit me and other Black freelancers on Twitter) and be patient with yourself.
Also, if you’ve got any questions or want to share your niche insights with other freelancers, drop it in the comments!