How I Found My Niche
On running your own business, an interesting piece of advice that I read was to market to a niche audience. Considering myself a jack of all trades, I decided to ignore that advice.
In the beginning
When I first went freelance, I tried to market myself as a man of many talents. "Everything you need in one package," as the tagline on my site said. I've developed projects in a bunch of server-side languages like ColdFusion, Java, and .NET; and can get around in Photoshop, Illustrator, and Fireworks. Naturally, I'm stronger at some things and weaker at others. My ability to pick things up quickly and research solutions has been quite effective at keeping me in the game.
I always had a tough time settling on one technology. It's the classic "putting your eggs all in one basket" argument. If I invest too heavily in one, ignoring the rest, I could risk obsolescence due to a shifting marketplace.
When it comes to server-side development, each language has a certain style of development. Learning them gives you new perspectives on how to approach existing problems. For example, I never tried OOP in ASP until I learned Java. It's always good to expand your knowledge.
For dealing with clients, however, specializing can be very beneficial. With each project, you develop shortcuts and a greater base of code from which to work from. In design, you've got stock photography, fonts, and unchosen designs that you can re-use. You get faster (and if you do it right) more profitable by specializing.
Imagine a path from your house to the park. The first day you follow the path as you know it'll get you there. After time, though, you begin to cut across the grass in some spots, saving yourself a few moments of time. Every now and then, you discover by cutting through the bushes or jumping a fence, you get to the park even faster. Sure, in the beginning you got to where you needed to go but it wasn't very efficient. Efficiency comes from doing the same thing repeatedly.
Being faster, of course, makes you look good to your clients. I haven't met a client who didn't like it when you met deadlines (or better yet, delivered ahead of schedule). Being faster let's you take on more clients (if you wanted). And if you charge based on value, not time, you have the potential to walk away with higher profitability on each project.
You also get known within the industry for your skills, which also offers you the opportunity to charge more for the work you do.
Bringing on help
The need to specialize in my own freelance career became evident when I needed to bring on help. Finding someone with the same varied skill set who didn't charge as much as I did — since, I still need to make a profit — and who wasn't busy became darn near impossible.
To hire someone to do only a small portion of a project meant that I still had all my other projects to work on plus the time to manage the outsourced work. In the end, I wasn't saving any time.
By focusing on just one or two core competencies, I'll be able to have contractors take on a larger percentage of my workload. This allows me to focus on what I need to do and gives me greater potential for growth.
My site has a small line in the footer that says, "I can do that." Maybe it's time to add to it, "but I won't do that."