Articles - 5th February 2021

Should you Specialise or Diversify?

Words by Louise Quick
Illustration by Jon McCormack

As if navigating the freelance waters isn’t tough enough, eventually many of us will find ourselves facing a fork in the river and two very different sets of instructions in hand: should I specialise or diversify?

The freelancing community seems to be split into two teams, those who claim that the way to success is to commit to one job title, versus those who swear by nurturing multiple professional titles, (aka a portfolio career).

 

The Argument for Specialising 

Specialising in one job title makes sense in many ways. Not only does a single profession feel more traditional – and fit more easily in a Twitter bio – but it inevitably helps develop a freelancer’s personal brand much faster than those who are busy juggling multiple services.

For example, someone working solely as a carpenter will have an easier time building a clear brand and reputation for themselves than someone who works part-time as a carpenter while also earning money as a musician and teaching English as a second language.

We all know the value of a good reputation. The better the reputation, the more likely clients are to find you, hire you, and recommend you to other potential clients.

As Cariad Rose, Brand and Marketing Coach advises, “Freelancers are often too cautious to commit to a niche, because they want to appeal to everyone which can, of course, lead to appealing to no one.”

What’s more, as your brand and reputation grow so too can your rates – at least, that’s the plan. Simply put, the greater the demand for your service, the more you can charge for the supply. While this should be true for all freelancers, it’s usually achieved much faster by those who dedicate all their professional energy to one specialism, rather than those who manage multiple freelance hats.

Skye Ferguson, a PR Coach who works with female entrepreneurs, explains, “As soon as I got really focused on my offering I found it much easier to grow my audience and attract new clients.”

On a practical note, freelancers who specialise are more likely to quickly build up resources within their chosen field – clients, research, contacts, ideas, the works. In turn, this could save time and energy in the long run because, for every new project, they’ll have a pool of resources to dive into head first in the style of Scrooge McDuck.

“Don’t be afraid to niche down,” advises Skye. “It can feel really counter-intuitive, like you’re cutting off big groups of potential clients and customers, but if you really want to be known as the expert in what you do, it’s the best way.”

 

The Case for Diversifying

Why then do so many freelancers advocate portfolio careers? More than 320,500 self-employed people in Britain were reportedly ‘slashies’ in April 2019. Fortunately the term ‘slashies’ is less murderous than it sounds and simply means people who work two or more jobs so have slashes in their title, (E.g. carpenter/musician/teacher).

Portfolio careers have become an even more popular option over the last 10 months as people have adapted to the professional fall out of Covid-19. This is because portfolio careers have one benefit that’s certainly not to be sniffed at: greater financial seurity.

The more job titles on a freelancer’s belt – butcher, baker, candle-stick maker, whatever they may be – means more income streams. The more income streams someone has, the less impacted they are if one of those streams dries up. The more revenue sources, the easier it is to keep your freelance boat afloat.

That carpenter / musician / teacher from earlier – the one struggling to develop a personal brand – would be in a safer position financially than the specialist carpenter if, for some bizarre reason, all carpentry work suddenly disappeared.

In an unstable economy having your fingers in multiple pies means that when one of those pies is rudely whipped out from under you, you’re not left entirely pieless with only sticky digits to show for it.

Aside from finances, many freelancers choose a portfolio career for one simple reason: they enjoy it. One of the main reasons people go freelance is the freedom and flexibility to do what they want and if what they want is to pursue multiple job roles then why not?

As freelancer Lily Canter says, “I thrive from having fingers in many different pies and enjoy wearing different hats. I get bored quickly focusing on one thing.”

Lily is a fantastic example of a freelancer who’s embraced diversity as her titles include, (but are not limited to): money, health, and lifestyle journalist; lecturer; journalism consultant; researcher; author; running coach; podcaster; copywriter; and mum of two.

“I find I have lots of transferable skills so I can turn myself to different types of work,” adds Lily. Having multiple professional hats allows some freelancers to tap into a range of skills and professions in a way that one job title just can’t.

However, perhaps the battle between specialising and diversifying isn’t all that black and white. Some freelancers seem to have found a middle ground that allows them to have their professional cake and eat it too.

Freelancers who, (like me), treat Twitter as their surrogate office break room will likely have seen #FreelancePies doing the rounds in early December. Freelancers posted pie charts that presented where they had made their money in 2020 – they were essentially lifting the lid on their income streams.

It was fascinating to see that graphs belonging to seemingly specialist freelancers were made up of multiple slices, meaning they were earning income through a range of sources, but all within their specialist field and personal brand. Many writers or journalists, for example, owed large slices of their #FreelancePies to teaching, newsletters, talks, events, and workshops etc.

 

By creating multiple income streams within their specialism these freelancers were increasing their financial security while still cultivating a clear personal brand and reputation for themselves.

Freelancers are fortunate to be part of a mighty community, a community that’s always prepared to give advice. However, you can have too much of a good thing and the advice on whether to specialise or diversify can be overwhelming.

While it feels like there’s greater financial security and creativity in a portfolio career, it potentially comes at the cost of your career developing slower than if you were to focus exclusively on one offering.

So, when we inevitably find ourselves at the fork in the river: look at both options, consider what you want, and go with what works best for you. It’s your career after all.

We champion the freelancers and every entrepreneur who took a leap of faith with their idea.

If this sounds like you, head over to our Virtual Office and send us your best work via an UnderPinned Portfolio. We want to hear from you!

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