Finding Your Freelance Niche
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In the How to Freelance mini-series, we’ve covered a number of topics including health insurance, retirement plan, DIY incorporation, etc. and it’s time to talk about what you can and should freelance for.
In this article we’ll discuss:
What you’re good at
What you enjoy
What people are willing to pay for
The cross-section of all three pillars is the jackpot, the bullseye. My friend Stephen Shapiro (author and keynote speaker) shared this structure with me years ago, and I find myself using it to explain and mentor others over the years.
The good news is that you don’t need to hit all three to make money.
Let me help break it down and explain what each of these pillars means, and how you can take actions right away.
What you’re good at
Most people bounce between jobs in similar domains at least every 2-3 years. If you are a few years into your career, chances are that you’ve honed in on certain skills that are marketable. Whether that’s marketing, copywriting, design, development, or working in legal services such as immigration law, IP law, etc., you’re already good at something.
As for me it was Project Management (specifically for internet of things) for over a decade. When I committed to freelancing in early 2016, I was immediately hired as a freelance project manager and was able to demand an hourly rate I was very happy with.
What you are already good at, or have experience in, is likely the easiest way to market yourself as a freelance, at first.
This doesn’t mean you will be stuck doing what you know for a long time, but it’s a great way to start making money and find clients who know you and trust your craft.
If you don’t enjoy what your previous career path, it’s worth giving it a second chance as a freelancer. A lot of what we use to evaluate job satisfaction has a lot to do with the environment (and yes money is a factor too). As a freelancer, your day to day work is a lot different than working full-time. You also don’t need to attend the all-hands meetings or promotion discussion with a supervisor anymore. You just need to do good work. It’s a lot simpler!
While some client companies already have employees who do what you do, they want you because you are good at your craft. Often freelancers will fill positions with skills that full-time employees don’t have. Remember that you are special to the organization and the project you are hired to do.
What you enjoy
Perhaps you are one of the lucky ones who’ve found what you enjoy doing, and can easily transition from full-time to freelance doing similar work.
If not, consider the adjacent possible career paths. This means that a new possible career or position that overlaps with what you are already doing. I’ve seen project managers shift into product management, designers turned user experience experts.
If you can’t pinpoint that an adjacent career might be for you, it’s a good idea to follow others in your network, or influencers you like and respect.
By the way, I’ve always been a career changer since the very beginning. After graduating college with a degree in Computer Science and Math, and roughly 1.5 years of work experience as a developer, I realized that working exclusively with machines wasn’t the right career path for me. I switched into a Business Analyst role before working as an Associate Project Manager, and later as a Project Manager. My science background gave me the unfair advantage of working as a Project Manager who can understand and deliver highly technical projects.
As a freelancer, you can fake it until you make it. It takes some guts and determination, because you have to be more daring and resourceful at first. When you attempt something newish, most people fear failure. You are more likely to fail if you don’t have all the information, working in a new environment, and as a freelancer, right? Also, will the other full-time people like you and willing to help you? You need to trust yourself and your ability to delivery good work. Freelancing isn’t that different from accepting a regular job after all. You can build relationships and establish trust with your clients.
What people are willing to pay for
My partner Adam jokes about his incredible skills of being able to predict what’s going to happen next on TV shows, but unfortunately that skill isn’t quite marketable. :)
You’ll find yourself asking this question when you transition as a freelancer. “I love to be able to do Y, but will people pay for Y”
I went through exactly that in less than two years of freelancing.
Here’s how it happened: I knew I was comfortable working as as Project Manager on various projects. My freelance clients - several agencies and their clients - were fantastic. The projects were interesting, too. However, I knew my knowledge and exercise as a project manager started to plateau. More importantly, I was really hoping to work and live more freely as an independent creator. Because a project manger’s responsibility is to manage herself and everyone else, it became increasingly difficult for me to grow outside of my freelance career.
Here are the steps I took to pivot from freelancing as a project manager to growing my own business in various other domains
Step 1: Make a conscious decision to build freedom into your calendar. Don’t say yes to every project leveraging skill X
Step 2: Continue to experiment new skill Y, update your website, your LInkedIn Profile, make it known. Start integrating skill Y in conversations with others including families and friends.
Step 3: Practice talking about new skill Y with real clients. You won’t get the “yes” right away. But the feedback you gather will help shape your services - the promise you make, the results you deliver, the prices you set, etc.
Step 4: If new skill Y truly is a leap for you (as opposed to an adjacent possible career), then consider offering to a few people for free or at a discounted price first. Set a timeline and realistic milestones, then provide tremendous value to the people you serve.
Step 5: Gather feedback, testimonials that are visible and sharable on your website and LinkedIn.
Another way to test out your new skill Y, especially if it’s a service you can offer remotely, is to consider testing out Freelancer.com and Upwork.com. These marketplaces for freelancers can be a practice for you to check out pricing, how projects are structured, etc. However I encourage you to develop deep client relationships in the long run to avoid competition on pricing alone.
Hey it’s Fei, I’m so glad you found me!
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