Article | 18 Feb 2019

Building a freelance career: to specialise or to generalise?

Posted in Freelancer, Top tips, Tools & Advice, Motivation & inspiration,

What’s the best route for a freelancer to take? Should you stick closely to one field, carving out a specialist niche for yourself and becoming an expert? Or should you keep your options open, taking a more generalised approach to your work?

It’s not an easy question to answer. Many people will tell you that specialising is the only way to build up a solid career and command high fees as a freelancer. But getting to that point without being willing to take on more general work at times is very difficult. Generalisation, on the other hand, means that there are more projects available to you, but you’re less likely to achieve that treasured ‘expert’ status.

Of course, what works best for you depends a lot on your personal proclivities, but if you’re unsure and need a little guidance, here’s an overview of the pros and cons:

Becoming a specialist…

  • Gives you detailed industry knowledge. Working within one specialised area enables you to build up a level of niche expertise, skill and finesse that differentiates you from the competition. Matching this across a general field will prove much more difficult.
  • Helps to build up a network. The longer you work in one specific area, the more you’ll get to know others working in that area, giving you with one of the best things you can have when trying to build up a business – a strong network. Networks breed reputations and recommendations, both of which are massively important for filling your new business pipeline.
  • Increases your perceived integrity. From a client’s perspective, hiring a specialist is less risky than hiring a generalist because it’s assumed that a specialist will already have a degree of insider knowledge and expertise within the industry. So, to potential clients, specialising indicates a promising level of work integrity, which could lead to longer-lasting and higher-paying gigs. However, you do have to find those clients in the first place – which is harder to do the more closely you specialise.
  • Becomes second nature. The more you learn about your specialisation, the easier it becomes to work within that area. As time goes on, you develop a good baseline of research, saving a lot of time and effort that would be spend on research as a generalist. Furthermore, if you’re bright enough to specialise in an area that actually engages your interest, you’ll find it a lot more enjoyable than trudging through general jobs which don’t inspire you as much. Enjoying what you’re doing is motivational, and results in better work (as well as better quality of life!)
  • Offers better long-term prospects. Specialising can be a struggle initially, but its long-term prospects are better than those of generalists. Once you’ve started to build up a name for yourself in your chosen industry, you’re more likely to get serious, well-paying gigs than you would as a generalist. While generalists tend to plateau at a certain level, specialists can continue to build their client bases, skillsets, and businesses for as long as their chosen industry needs them.

Becoming a generalist…

  • Offers more work. If you’re the ‘say yes to everything’ type, it’s likely that you’ll see a lot more opportunities than you would if you’re pickier about the work you take. Generalising means not painting yourself into a corner, and that kind of adaptability can be vital. Freelancing can be a lean life, particularly when you’re first starting out. Having a number of strings to your bow opens up more earning opportunities than you may otherwise experience.
  • Has short term gains. Building your way up from the bottom as a specialist is hard work, no doubt about it. Making a name for yourself and gaining those big-name portfolio clients takes time. If you’re short on capital and don’t have the option of resting on your savings while you work your way up, generalising is a good way to keep cash flowing. As mentioned above, generalising offers a broader scope of work opportunities, which can be a lifeline for a newbie freelancer. However, it’s worth noting that getting a foothold into a specialism is often the best way to build your business beyond its foundations.
  • Sparks spin-off work. If you’re not too precious about sticking to one area, you may find yourself getting spin-off work from your clients. For example, it’s not uncommon for generalist content writers to be asked to help design websites or manage content promotion. If you’re willing to say ‘yes’ to work outside your comfort zone, you’d be surprised at the opportunities which come your way.
  • Helps you widen your skillset. Specialising can make you a real master at one trade, but there’s something to be said for being a jack of all trades. Developing a broad and versatile range of knowledge can come in very useful – and make you indispensable to your clients.
  • Broadens your thinking. One of the potential downsides of specialising is that you can become a bit blinkered and stuck in your ways, only thinking about how things are done in one particular industry. In contrast, as a generalist, you can learn and take inspiration from a whole host of different sectors, giving you new and different ideas to feed into future projects.   

Remember, none of this is hard and fast. A lot depends on your own particular circumstances. For example, if you’re a freelancer based far from any of the major cities, the scarcity of specialised businesses means you’ll probably do better as a generalist. If you’re based in a bigger city, however, the large concentration of potential clients means you can be a bit pickier and settle yourself into a niche area.

In an ideal world, we could all develop expertise in our favourite area while still being flexible enough to take on more generalised work. Or develop a range of specialisms over time, giving you a few options to choose from. Adaptability and versatility are vital in a market as changeable as today’s, but honed skill and detailed knowledge always command respect. Whatever you decide to do, we wish you well.

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