The year 2019 was very good, personally and business-wise. But in spite of the success and being very busy, it still left me feeling adrift, happy but not certain where I’m heading as a creative professional. In finding a focus and specializing after 12 years as a solo entrepreneur, I’m hoping to find guidance, less stress and more financial growth.
Although I just started with this process, I wanted to write about it to structure my thoughts and share my insights. Maybe you’re in a similar situation too. This might help you.
I never wanted to choose
It’s okay to try out different stuff when you’re starting your career or are not sure about what you want to do. But in my case, I’ve been working as an independent visual designer since 2007. I have a feeling of what I like and what I don’t, what suits me better and where client demand is.
Nevertheless I was still offering a pretty broad range of services, from branding to web design – as opposed to classical graphic design – for digital, print and everything in between. I always struggled with deciding on a discipline and positioning myself there. (Yes, I’m hopelessly in love with typography and shared a lot about it, but again: that’s a very broad or narrow subject). I thought that specializing wasn’t necessary, I’m busy anyway. And there is the fear of missing out on opportunities. As a creative I treasure variety, I want to do everything for everyone. But of course, if you say that, you could also offer nothing to no one.
I found a lot of excuses like “I specialize in being a generalist,” “I love the variety of different disciplines and clients” or “My strength is combining branding and corporate design with web, digital, and print design.” These things were not false. I delivered decent work and – most importantly – my clients were happy and achieved their goals with it. I took on every job I got that seemed interesting, with the wish to reinvent, redefine and surprise myself every time. But deep within myself I often wasn’t sure: Is this really the best work I can deliver? I want to start taking on work more consciously, work that better fits my wishes. But what am I looking for?
Admitting I can’t be great at everything
I discovered the podcast 2 Bobs – Conversations on the art of creative entrepreneurship and there the topic almost always comes down to positioning and why it’s so hard for us creatives to choose. They address the fear that tightly defined expertise is going to bore me. Listening to that, I felt caught and understood at the same time. But then they turn it around by asking: what if focusing leads me to the most interesting work I can do?
In another episode, one of the hosts, David C. Baker, talks about tasting competence and that really resonated with me:
“[In a creative’s early career] they’re still exploring and the idea of deep competence is not as important as variety and trying lots of things. Then in their mid to late 30s they usually have a change of heart there. […] They taste competence at some point and they’ve also tasted incompetence. […] When I tasted competence the difference was so staggering to me, I just made this pledge to myself. I’m never going to go back there. I’m tired of that.”
My interest was sparked. Maybe specializing is not that bad at all?
What benefits does specializing bring?
Specializing in one subject and positioning yourself in the market as an expert brings benefits for you personally and for your business.
First, on the personal side:
- It opens up the possibility to develop rich expertise in one field, become a true master and unlock your full potential.
- You get a clearer picture of what skills you’re still missing to deepen your expertise, hence
- You don’t have to keep up with everything there is in your industry that’s not your focus.
- You don’t have to reinvent yourself and the process every time from scratch. Consequently, you build upon what you know and want to better serve your clients and your business.
Second, on the business side:
- Your message gets clearer – your clients know what you stand for and what they can get from you.
- You can charge higher prices when positioned as an expert, because it’s harder to find or replace your expertise and clients know that.
- You know what jobs you are looking for, and generate specific leads for that.
- You know what opportunities to say no to, because now you don’t have to cater everything to everyone.
- It gets easier to collaborate with other creatives, who have also focused on their niche since you’re no longer in competition with each other.
Again, most of this list is from the 2 Bobs Podcast, so check it out!
My motivations behind it
Summing up what motivates me to dig deeper into the topic of focusing and specializing, here are three things which catalyze that drive:
- The wish to unlock my true potential within one field.
- My slight discontent with not knowing what jobs I really want to do and being unoriented with my business.
- Making a steadier and higher income from this expertise.
About the financial aspect, earning a decent living is naturally important to me and the last year went very well, but I listed money last because it’s not the primary thing that drives me. The decisions here are more about how I want to shape my life and business. Money is a part of that and I believe it will follow once I’m clear about my vision.
So now that my heart has decided on a change and my mind understands it – how will I actually do it?
How I try to find my focus
What will I stand for, what is my speciality? It brings me back to the hardest question: “What do I actually want from my business?” What jobs, what clients?
I started with clients and found help in another great podcast: Get Your Message Heard by Michael Hudson. In one episode he recommends making a list of your clients and putting a plus sign by the ones you can’t wait to work with and a minus sign on those you dread, who aren’t living up to their end of the partnership. For the others, you put a zero (for more check out the episode Overcoming The Barriers to Purpose). After doing that, I got a clearer picture of what kind of clients I should look out for and who I should let go. I see it as a smooth transition. Every new engagement that fits better will replace an existing one. At the end of the bespoke episode Michael Hudson also talks about how to politely and constructively end a client relationship with no hard feelings.
The next step I’m going to take is finding my WHY, the inner motivation that drives me and all the things I’m doing. Maybe you’re already familiar with the idea and book by Simon Sinek – if not, watch his TED talk Start With Why. To me this was all new. What really fascinates me is that it’s not about what you want to be or become, it’s about finding out what you already are, putting it into words and raising your own awareness about it.
Not redesigning my website – which of course I would love to start with (I really have to force myself not to do that and just leave everything as it is right now; patience is important and it’s incredibly hard). First I’ll have to make up my mind about the basics. After knowing my Why (my inner motivation), How (the specific style I’m doing things) and What (the niche I want to focus on and specialize in) I can build a message around that, communicate it and make my business distinguishable. But before I’ll do that on a new website, I’ll do it in conversations where I can gather some reactions and questions and then optimize my message.
So that’s my rough plan, let’s see how it will adapt and work out. Hopefully this article brought some value to you and helps you decide your next step of personal and professional growth.
So, what about you? Do you also face the decision of specializing and want to share your motivation or doubts behind it? Or have you already done it and want to talk about your outcome? As always I’m happy to read your comments, emails or tweets!