Three years ago yesterday, I walked out of the mental health clinic (where I used to earn a living as a therapist) for the last time. I had enough money in the bank to cover 6 months of expenses while I tried this whole “full time freelance” thing – if nothing else, I figured I’d take a short sabbatical before running out of money and returning to a Real Job™.
Instead, I’m still here in my home office, rocking pajama pants and a WordCamp t-shirt, spending my time doing what I love instead of dragging myself to a job I hate. In three short years, my business and the services I offer have shifted and transformed more times than I can count, but I have yet to run out of money or work. *knocks on wood*
I get a lot of emails from people who are self-employed (or want to be) asking how I’ve held it together this long. Some of them are in the same position I was in when I left my job – miserable, apathetic, and in desperate need of something different. Others have been in business for decades, but they are frustrated with their clients and struggling to pay the bills. Still others want to know if it’s really possible to start a creative business without ending up homeless.
With 8 in 10 small businesses doomed to fail in the first 18 months, is it any wonder we’re all looking for the secret sauce that will ensure our success?
You can’t be everything to everybody
As I mentioned, my business has changed a lot since it became my full time gig. I did web work on the side for many, many years before I quit my job, and my initial service offerings were a hodgepodge of things I’d done for clients in the past – design, development, basic SEO, social media, consulting, copywriting, web hosting, graphic work, site management, and even (briefly) domain flipping.
In my head, by offering ALL THE SERVICES, I was increasing my chances of landing clients. Surely when people see all the things I can do, they’ll hire me for at least a few of them!
The problems here were numerous:
I didn’t enjoy most of the things I was doing. Sure, I enjoyed every penny I earned in the first year, since that meant I didn’t have to go back to a Real Job™. But in my desperation to make enough money, I took on a lot of projects I should have turned down, tolerated clients I should have fired, and put in way too many hours compared to how much I was being paid.
I wasn’t telling the world what I was capable of. If my toilet breaks, I’m not googling “people in western KY who can fix every single thing ever” – I’m looking for a plumber. So why did I think people were going to find me when I wasn’t even sure what kind of business I was running?
I had no idea who my ideal clients were. In the beginning, anyone willing to hand me a deposit was the perfect client. In case you’re wondering, this is a horrible way to work.
I had no focus. Constantly changing roles and tasks is exhausting and confusing. Multitasking is not my friend. I provided horrible value because I was constantly trying to remember what I was supposed to be working on instead of actually working.
The case for specialization
In 2013, I took a few baby steps toward choosing a niche for my services. By the end of the year, I had “narrowed down” my focus to web design and development, WordPress training, migrations, and various other tech support services. While I had cut out some of the bloat in my business, I was still trying to do way too many things. I was still accepting projects because I needed the money and not because I was interested in the work.
Early this year I had the opportunity to do a bit of consulting with Chris Lema, and I’ll be honest – I wasn’t quite ready for his advice at the time he gave it. In the end, though, it totally changed where Nuts and Bolts Media stands at the end of 2014.
Chris told me I was doing too many things. He had me go through every project I did in 2013 and look at what projects I enjoyed vs. what brought in the most money. And you know what I found out? I did a lot of projects in 2013, but I really didn’t enjoy very many of them because the tasks themselves were unpleasant.
I now offer web development services only to web designers looking to outsource. I develop only on the Genesis framework. I also train designers who want to improve their coding skills. That’s basically it. No more struggling with design itself (which I’m not particularly good at), no more time wasted on basic WordPress training when so many other people do that better. I now spend 75% of my business hours in a code editor, where I belong, instead of forcing myself to fit into the box of what might make a little money.
The transition has not been an easy one. Make no mistake – it’s not like I just woke up one morning, changed everything, and lived happily ever after. I hear from a lot of designers who just aren’t ready to let go of development tasks, even though they hate them. Many of them aren’t charging enough to outsource dev work. Some of them are still trying to be a one-stop shop like I was before. And that’s okay – those designers aren’t my ideal “clients” and we can all move on.
All that said, if you want proof that specializing works, here it is: My business made TEN TIMES MORE in 2014 than it did in 2012.
That is not a typo. I am closing out a record year, and it’s because I now do two things and do them very well, instead of doing 30 things halfway. That’s the secret I spent so much time trying to find, and the secret that people now contact me trying to find.
But what if I love doing ALL THE THINGS?
Don’t lie to yourself. You know darn well there are certain things you absolutely dread – those tasks you put off until the last possible minute, the emails you ignore until the very end of the day, or the times you feel literally sick to your stomach knowing you have to [insert task here].
I spent a lot of time in denial, convincing myself that I enjoyed all the services I provided equally. The truth is, what I really enjoyed was remaining self-employed and knowing my bills were paid, and I didn’t want to risk losing either of those things. But that didn’t mean I couldn’t find a different way to get to the same place.
The Bottom Line
Whether you own a business, want to own a business, or are thinking about starting one, do yourself a favor – sit down and figure out how you’ll specialize right now. You can cut out the awkward infancy stage of your business and cut right to the (also awkward) teenage years, plus you’ll do it with more money in your pocket.
This times 1,000!
The hardest part for me is the idea of turning down business. If I have one client in every category, I feel the need to wait until all my clients shift to the one category before I change my services. But that keeps me in the cycle of doing things I don’t like for the paycheck.
Did your personal and business savings impact this decision? It seems like I’d be more inclined to be picky if I had that 6 month buffer. So maybe that’s step one in the grand scheme of things: nose to the ground doing anything to build that buffer, then carefully craft your client buffet.
Thank you for writing this and sharing! Absolutely brilliant business move that I hope to emulate (not WP support, just overall).
Andrea Whitmer says
I actually flew through my savings by the end of the first year, and I’m still in the process of rebuilding my bank balance – most of the decisions I’ve made have happened despite the fact that I was hanging by the seat of my pants. But I definitely wouldn’t recommend throwing away income until you have at least a small buffer to keep your internet on. 🙂
Jason Lampel says
Nice post. I feel like I can identify, although my business is much more in its infancy stage than yours, so I’m not sure about specialization yet. I design and develop my own maps, which requires a challenging variety of skills to begin with (Sass, Leaflet, AngularJS, SQL, etc.) and then try to leave the stuff I dislike (e.g. consolidating data and content) up to the client. Some things I would rather not do may always be inherently unavoidable, like learning how to integrate the map into the client’s existing site (fingers crossed that they’re using WordPress and not Drupal, haha).
So, do you think this is still too broad? I wouldn’t be comfortable outsourcing the design or development for a very specific service like this, so I am leaning towards no. I realize I have a very niche service but I’m not sure if the scope of tasks is still too diverse, so any input would be appreciated.
Andrea Whitmer says
I feel like your business is a totally different animal, and one where niching down further may not be possible at this point. It might make sense to hire a VA at some point to help with data/content, as that would allow you to raise your rates and offer more value without actually doing that part yourself, but obviously I know you have to be able to afford the VA first!
I am still fascinated by what you’re doing and I’m always looking for people I can send your way. If you don’t have one already, I would highly recommend creating some kind of PDF fact sheet people like me could give out if we come across a use case that might require your services.
Jason Lampel says
Thanks for thinking of me! Not sure exactly what you mean by “fact sheet”, but I outlined the benefits of my maps pretty well on my website: http://abettermap.com/interactive-map-services/ . If there’s something additional you are referring to, let me know and I’ll put it together.
BTW FYI FWIW: had to google VA. 🙂 Sounds great but yeah, I’ve definitely got some other $$$ obstacles at this point!
That’s awesome, Andrea, and I’m thrilled that things have come together so well for you! I need to be thinking through some of these same thoughts for myself. And regardless of income, it’s probably never a good idea to spend too much work time on tasks which you think suck your soul away, or at least do not enjoy.
Andrea Whitmer says
Someday I think surely we’ll all figure out what we want to be when we grow up. 🙂
This was really insightful! I’m one of those devs that are working for an agency dreaming of a “freelance” life. And sure, I know each life style has it’s pros and cons, but just having more control is what appeals to me about freelance. Being able to manage my own time versus having a company do it for me.
My biggest problem is not knowing what I should narrow down to as far as specializations. I like building custom themes, but I did it on my own once, and I was underpaid, wasn’t very good with design, and in the end, it wasn’t worth it. Instead, I find myself naturally writing about WordPress, and even looking for problems to solve on the WordPress Stack Exchange. I don’t want to stop coding, but I’m beginning to feel like what I might aim for is not building, but “resolving” and/or writing about it. I can write all day!
It’s also a scary thing to pick a niche – like, what if I pick something that ends up being the wrong route? But I guess I’ll never know unless I try. Sounds like that chat with Chris Lema was enlightening! Kind of wishing I could summon him to reveal some enlightenment for me too haha!
Thanks for the article!
Andrea Whitmer says
It’s definitely hard to niche down, but I’ve noticed that you can always change direction if you need to. Several times, I thought I found what I wanted to do, only to realize later that I only liked that particular thing when I didn’t do it all the time. I could very well change my whole business model again in six months (and wouldn’t be shocked if I did, to be honest). But that’s one of the great things about freelancing – having the freedom to do that if you want. At the same time, it’s hard to leave a steady paycheck. Even though I make more money now than I ever did at a “real” job, the fact that it doesn’t show up twice a month or every two weeks still sucks.
i just had a discussion with a freelancer that isn’t freelancing because their scared about turning away work despite me saying that they should take what they need to to pay the bills.
The more I’ve specialized my services the higher my rates and the less haggling I’ve had from prospects about it because I’m THE person they want and they’ve self-selected based on all my marketing copy.
The big thing people don’t do when specializing is start marketing then keep at it and wait. Saying you’re only doing one thing then expecting clients and the industry to know that the next day is naive at best. I’d say it took 2 years of focus to really get to where I am now being very picky about work.
Awesome post and let’s hope for another 10X next year. Do you have a plan for that?
Andrea Whitmer says
I do have a plan! I don’t know that I’ll be able to do 10x, but I’d like to at least see a healthy increase. Just need a clone so I can get things done faster. 😀
This is an ancient article,
so comments are now closed.