Generalist or Specialist: Which is Better as a New Freelancer?

Creating a new freelancing business is exciting. You build your website, write your marketing content, and then begin to look for work. There are a lot of potential clients out there, especially if you’re based online. But then the realization sets in. Marketing yourself in a sea of potentially thousands of competitors is not exactly easy. It’s then you wonder whether it’s sensible to become a specialist or remain a generalist.

Regardless of the type of freelancing you do, there are opportunities to niche down into a specialism. A freelance web designer may focus their marketing solely on attracting software and technology companies as clients. A freelance fashion stylist might prefer to work with women in certain age groups or focus on just business attire for the professional woman.

Choosing whether to remain a generalist – open to all – or to become a specialist, can be a paralyzing decision for any new freelancer. You might desire a narrower focus that specializing affords but at the same time be worried about alienating people willing to pay you good money.

To be a generalist or to be a specialist – that is the question

Before deciding on your freelancing business direction, it’s important to know the pros and cons of both scenarios.

Generalist

Most freelancers remain generalists. They offer their services to any client who is willing to pay their fees. It’s possible to always remain a generalist freelancer and earn a very good living. Here are some of the pros and cons to throwing your net wide:

Pros

  • Diverse projects mean you’ll never grow bored
  • There will be a larger stream of prospects inquiring about your services
  • Clients don’t expect you to be intimately familiar with their industry
  • You can choose at the point of contact whether to take on a project
  • You will naturally discover a particular industry/market you can then later specialize in (rather than forcing a decision at the beginning of your career)

Cons

  • It’s harder to become known for something specific when you generalize, which can make marketing, selling, and branding more laborious
  • Some prospects will demand industry/market experience or knowledge
  • You’re more likely to attract bad clients (incl. price conscious time wasters)
  • You’ll meet an income ceiling sooner than a specialist does
  • More of your time and energies will be spent researching new industries
  • It’s difficult to beat a specialist doing the same type of project

Specialist

Specialists are widely recognized as experts in their field. Even if the specialist is new to their subject area, they are still perceived as more knowledgeable than a general freelancer tasked with the same project. Some specialists are ultra-specialists. They might only cater to a tiny niche of potential clients (maybe numbering only a couple of hundred).  

Whatever specialism you have in mind, here are the main pros and cons of specializing:

Pros

  • As the old adage goes, specialists make more money. A brain surgeon earns more than a general family doctor, for example
  • You’re able to stand out from a huge crowd of freelancers
  • Specialists are held in higher regard by clients wanting someone experienced in their industry or field (especially with a good portfolio)
  • The inquiries you receive will be from your ideal types of clients and will likely convert well
  • When you’re familiar with an industry/market, you spend less time researching and can therefore work faster (and earn more as a result)
  • If you love a particular industry subject matter or client type, then work ceases to be work and becomes a joy.
  • You might become a true expert and be invited to talks, conferences, and even radio shows

Cons

  • Working on the same type of projects week in and week out can become boring and stale
  • You’re likely to see fewer inquiries, at least in the early stages
  • You’ll begin to find it harder to see things from your client’s customers’ point of view, as you become an insider yourself
  • Some clients might want you to sign a non-compete clause which can potentially reduce your audience size, especially if you work locally
  • There’s always the danger of picking the wrong specialism
  • Specialist sectors and industries are subject to fluctuation depending on the economy and societal trends. What’s popular and in demand today might not be in 12 months

Should I specialize as a freelancer?

There’s no right or wrong answer.

For many freelancers, remaining open to any type of client or project is part of the joy of freelancing. For others, having a narrower focus and specialist knowledge is a lot more comfortable and satisfying – and contributes to a smoother freelance lifestyle.

Whether you specialize or not depends on a few factors which include your personality, previous work experience, education, passions and interests, the target market, as well as how much competition you’re facing.

If you feel paralyzed with indecision regarding a specialism, then that might be a sign you need to remain a generalist for a while longer. In time, if it’s meant to be, then you’re likely to find a specialism chooses you. It might be one you had never before considered.

Choosing your specialism

Being a specialist freelancer is usually very lucrative. However, it’s even more important to do what you truly love to do. Forcing yourself into a specialist area, just because it pays well rather than because you have a passion for it, can potentially be a recipe for disaster. If you don’t enjoy reading about that niche and industry in your spare time, then it becomes a burden. Clients will be able to pick up on whether you are truly engaged in their industry or market. The results will show in your work. It’s hard to fake expertise and dedication.

If you can’t think of a specialism, then remain open to everything. Instead, work on making yourself the differentiator. Find something in your personality, background, or achievements, that makes you distinctive from all the other generalists in your field.

Regardless of which direction you choose, our free invoicing software and project management tools will be available to make your life easier and to impress your clients.