Do you have a niche or specialism as a freelancer?
Choosing a niche can be a powerful way to use your expertise to stand out, attract clients and charge more – but what if you want to change your mind?
People have big opinions on this topic, but the truth is you can run a perfectly successful business whether you decide to niche or not.
And crucially, that decision isn't irreversible.
In this episode, I'm joined by website consultant Tom Garfield to hear about his experience of choosing (and changing) his business niche.
Welcome to 15 Minute Freelancer, your snack size guide to being your own boss and building a business that works for you. I'm your host, Louise Shanahan. I'm a freelance health copywriter and on this podcast I take you behind the scenes, so you can borrow from what's worked and what hasn't as you grow your own freelance business. We'll also have some practical tips and tactics from special guests along the way, so you can skip a few steps on your own freelancing journey. So without further ado, let's get started with today's episode. If you enjoy it, hit follow so you don't miss the next one.
Louise: Hello, and welcome to another episode of 15 Minute Freelancer. Today, I'm excited to be chatting to website consultant Tom Garfield. Our topic for today is one that I love to talk about, and that is niching. Should you narrow your services to a particular client or keep your options open? And what factors play into that decision? These are the things we're going to talk about today. Tom has some experience in this area and I'm sure will have answers to all of your burning questions about niching. Hi Tom, thank you so much for joining me.
Tom: Hi, hello, thank you very much for having me on.
L: I'm really interested to hear about your experience of choosing your first business niche, and what led you to change it?
T: I've been working in digital marketing for about 13 years and I started my career in a very generalist agency. So it wasn't any particular niche, it just worked with a broad range of businesses on websites and SEO and other things like that. That was the first six years and then after agencies I decided to get some in-house experience. And just so happened to see a job for a digital marketing lead for a private hospital. I had a few healthcare clients, but it wasn't a particular niche of mine. I ended up getting a job in the private hospital and then that led me to develop a lot of experience and expertise in that very specific industry. So very much working with consultants and doctors, and you end up learning a whole new language because medical stuff, you know, you have to put content on a website, and you have to understand how these things work. I ended up developing quite a lot of experience in healthcare specifically and as I was beginning to start to think about going self-employed, I was there and there were doctors there that needed websites so I ended up working for them to help them develop their own private practices. When I went self-employed, I was going to do it a little bit before COVID, but then COVID hit and I waited. It was a good time for me because private healthcare was coming back in after a long lockdown and there was a lot of demand for that service. And I decided that, you know, it would help me stand out a bit. But I was doing a lot of different digital marketing stuff for one very specific industry, and I wasn't necessarily the best person to be doing lots of different digital marketing. I'm not really a social media manager, I had experience, I'd sort of managed people that did it in the team and things like that, but my specialism has always been websites and how to generate leads from websites and how to improve websites. So what I really wanted to do was narrow that focus down in the what I did, and also expand out a little bit into who I did it for. I liked healthcare, but I didn't want to do just healthcare.
L: It sounds like that was sort of a combination of accidental serendipity, this was the situation that you found yourself in and you happened to build up expertise in a particular area. But it was also quite intentional when you started freelancing to kind of leverage that experience that you had into a specialist business.
T: So I started sort of by accident, because I happened to find something that I was interested in, but then very quickly became good at it. And there aren't that many people in private healthcare marketing in the same way that I was, so it was quite easy for me to find clients and to establish myself and people to go, oh, this is the guy that does this. There are some agencies and some specialist businesses, but not really freelancers like I was.
L: And lots of people I think, maybe worry about getting pigeonholed, or getting trapped in a particular niche. But it sounds like it wasn't too tricky for you to transition from one to another so you're not stuck are you. How easy was that transition?
T: I am still doing a little bit, I'm not really ever intending to come out of healthcare entirely, I still enjoy working in there and I've still got experience that I like using. I was worried about that when I first decided to change, because all of my website, all of my content messaging, my LinkedIn bio, all of that stuff was all very specifically healthcare. My tagline was, I help you fill your clinics with private patients or something like that. So that was very, super, super specific and for me to turn all of that around, I thought, is this going to affect me? I thought about what it would take for me to change and I thought about what I might be sacrificing for that change as well. I was getting a lot of referrals from other health care businesses and relationships that I developed. I was winning about 90% of the projects I was quoting for as well because almost always I was the only health care specialist being considered and they were kind of considering other more generic web designers. And that gave me a really huge competitive advantage, I could talk that language. So it was quite daunting, however, my experience of doing it was a lot easier than my fear. I mean, really, once you go through changing your website and changing the bits and pieces online, for all intents and purposes, anybody new that comes to you has no idea what the previous stuff was. And also, my fear was around people accepting it, but actually, no one cares, really, you know, people don't care about you as much as you care about yourself, in a good way. I think people are, you know, very accommodating, very accepting. I thought about my network, I thought, will all my healthcare contacts think I’m kind of betraying them or whatever it might be. But no, everybody that I've spoken to about it, whether in healthcare or not in healthcare, has either been completely brilliant and positive about it or been sort of none the wiser really, a lot of people that I've met since changing don't know.
L: Yeah, I think that's a really great point about not overthinking it. Because I think a lot of people probably think, oh, I can see that there might be certain advantages to niching but I don't want to get stuck there, I’m not quite sure exactly what it should be. But I mean, for me personally, I have called myself a health copywriter since I started my freelance business, but actually it has evolved quite a lot, even within that particular industry and what I do now looks quite different to what I was doing a few years ago. So yeah, I would just say to people, don't feel like you're stuck, you can change it at any time. I mean, that's the point, this is your business, you get to decide what kind of clients you're going to work with and what kind of projects you're going to do. I wonder if you can say a little bit more about what the pros and cons are of maybe niching by service versus industry, because you've kind of done both?
T: I think it's about what you do and who you do it for. And if you're thinking about going into a particular industry, I think some of the really, really good advantages of that are you can become a subject matter expert so you can repeat the same knowledge from client to client. So one person comes to you at the start of the year with a project or a challenge that they want you to help solve, and you've already seen it a few times before, you can spot the patterns, you can spot the issues that are going to come up, you've got experience all of that. And you can say to them, I've done this plenty of times before in a very specific way and I think the more you do that, the easier it gets to sort of prescribe the same treatment, if you want a healthcare analogy. And in a similar way, I think the downside of that is that it maybe gets a bit samey for some people who like variety. Or it might be that you don't have outside influences from other industries that can give you new ideas or new things to think of. Sometimes you can get a bit one track minded and think this is the only way these things are done and lose sight of perhaps some of the wider opportunities from other industries. But then with services, I think it's more about becoming a specialist at particular thing that you do. And I think it depends on where, you know, if you have a specific service, or a specific type of work that you love to do loads, and loads and loads, then go all in on that. But if you have a specific industry that you love, or a specific type of customer or client that you really love working with, then it's really up to you and your preference. I don't think there's really a huge strong advantage of service versus industry. I think a mix of the two is quite good as well, but you need to be careful that you're not narrowing your audience down so much that, for example, if you're a copywriter, you only write blog posts for this very, super niche, it needs be broad enough to have enough people in there.
L: And then there are other ways that people can choose to specialise as well, it could be by type of client or size of company that they want to work with. I wonder if you've got any thoughts on other ways that freelancers can think about specialising?
T: One of the things that I've seen is kind of called affinity positioning. A really obvious example is something like sustainability and eco-friendly, where it's not necessarily about an industry or a particular expertise necessarily that you have. But actually, it's more, I believe in this strongly like you do, and therefore I'd be a good person to work with you. So it's almost like value based niching. It's a little bit commercially weaker I think in terms of, you know, you get a business and they say, right, you're an expert at this, you can help us achieve this. But if you are a sustainability enthusiast and you're really eco conscious I think it really helps to work with people who are also like that, because they will choose you I think over someone who isn't that, even if it's not really got anything to do with the service being offered, if you say we share the same values, those value driven people are likely to really like that, I think. And then there's also, your character could be a niche really. I think a really, really good example that a lot of people will be aware of is Dave Harland. As far as I'm aware, he doesn't have a specific niche as such, but because of his content, and because he's known as very witty, very funny, I'm sure he must attract businesses that want that kind of content and that kind of copy. So I think if you've got a certain personality type, or if you have a certain values, that can also be used really effectively. Or even a demographic, so it could be that you work with female led businesses, there's quite a few people that do that. And you understand the specific challenges of a certain demographic that you can say in your content and in your marketing, I get you, I know what it's like to be you. I think you probably have to be involved in that world a little bit, at least, but that's another way.
L: Yeah, it's kind of anything that's going to give you a bit of an edge over other people, isn't it. A way for you to work with clients that you enjoy working with, but also, if you are up against other people with very similar skill sets, what is going to be that little extra icing on the cake that makes the client choose you?
T: Yeah, it's about differentiation and it's about expertise. I think niching is often seen as you kind of have to pick something and get on with it. But I think it needs to be natural, or at least born from something you've done already, or something you've been involved in already. It's not just about picking, oh, I'll go work for manufacturing, or construction or something, if you've never had any involvement in that world before. You know, niching is all about being able to say, I can do this better than other people, or at least better than some other people, and therefore you should pick me because of that. It's about developing expertise, it's about making sure that you're differentiated, it's about basically standing out from a very crowded place. If you're a copywriter that writes anything for anyone, and then you're going to be fighting to stand out or be memorable, you're likely to be pushed down on price, you might win fewer jobs, because there's nothing really to say why should we pick this particular person over this particular person and if you're competing with a specialist, they'll probably win most of the time.
L: I spoke to Heather Pownall recently, and she was talking about not wanting to be too specialist in what she was doing, but she likes to think of herself as an expert generalist, which I thought was a really nice way of looking at it. So thinking about the transferable skills within a particular industry and how do you bring together other specialists, so I guess her sort of specialism is providing that through line for the client. So that's another nice way of thinking about it.
T: Yeah, and that's more of a sort of strategic niche, isn't it, where it's not necessarily about the what you do, or the who you do it for, but it's about the role you play within a business challenge. As more of a strategist than an implementer, then that can be your niche, as a strategy expert for this type of world or something like that.
L: Are there any situations where you think niching might not be the best plan for a freelancer?
T: I don't want this to be a, you have to specialise, or I'm trying to tell people it’s the only way, I don't think that's true at all. I think when you should consider whether you want to or not, is going to be dependent on whether you value sort of variety and an interesting work life versus becoming an expert. Not every freelancer wants to be the foremost expert on one particular thing. Some people just want a nice, steady income with a lovely work life where they can control their day. And that's fine and there's nothing wrong with that at all. You know, I do a lot of general work as well as the website specialisms stuff that I do, and I enjoy that. So I don't think it's necessarily something I would say everybody has to try and do or consider doing, I think it really depends on where you want your business to go. And if you're happy with more of a relaxed approach to your business, almost like more of a lifestyle business, then I think it would work really well for you to just be more generalist.
L: Yeah, and just see what opportunities come along and take your fancy?
T: Yeah, just relax into it a bit, don't be too stressed out about finding something like that. Especially if you're early on in your career as well because you need to find what you like. And if you niche too early then you can end up going down a path that maybe isn't right for you, or there was another path that you could have taken later on that you haven't had the opportunity to go down.
L: Yeah, that's a great point, I do think it's a smart move to keep your options open. Well, thank you so much, Tom, that's been really helpful. Where can people find you if they want to find out more about what you're up to?
T: I guess as a website specialist, I should plug my own website. It's got links to all my social media on there and everything like that, so if anybody wants to find out more about me or visit me on social media, why not go via my website, which is just tomgarfield.co.uk
L: That’s lovely thank you, and thanks everybody for listening, I will be back in your ears next week. Happy freelancing.
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