Three years ago, I thought becoming a freelancer was the most terrifying and gutsy career choice I’d likely ever make. I’d just been laid off from the marketing department at Powell’s Books, and my severance and unemployment benefits gave me a six-month window to either get a business off the ground or become…I don’t know, homeless? I tried not to get too hung up on the many things that could go wrong.
So, I went for it. I put myself out there as a writer and editor and took any gig that came my way. I was all over the place, writing and editing any type of marketing material or book manuscript for any client in any industry. I was not choosy—I was like a raccoon in a dumpster. If raccoons rootled around in dumpsters full of writing projects…?
Anyway, I was making it! Mostly. I was paying my bills at least, which seemed like a feat.
But There Were Two Problems.
Holy shit, was I spread thin. Because I was taking on “any” writing project for “any” type of client, I felt like I was constantly back at square one—learning new industries, figuring out scope and cost for radically different types of projects; juggling the varying levels of intensity inherent in different projects and clients. My tasks were so different and varied that I could find no way to templatize or replicate any of my business processes or services.
Plus, it was hard to be constantly switching gears—here I’m copyediting a self-help book. Now I’m out schmoozing at a networking event. Next I’m consulting, or writing web content. People wanted me to write their resumes. Or tutor their kids in English. And as a result, my brain was fried, my thinking fragmented. After two years, I felt like I was becoming a “Jill of all trades and a master of none”—which then led to me guiltily asking myself, “Do I have any business putting myself out there as a specialist when really I feel like…a dabbler?”
I was doing too much work I didn’t love. Being a freelancer is challenging on a lot of levels, but one of the big selling points is that you get to choose your gigs. Yay, choice! But by saying yes to everything, I found myself working on projects that I wasn’t passionate about. Why?? If I was just going to take a bunch of marketing projects I didn’t love, then why not just get a full-time job and take home a sweet salary? Yes, I’d made some major lifestyle gains as a freelancer—no alarm clock! No boss! No pants! But those gains paled in comparison to the dread and boredom I felt working on…well, dreadful and boring projects.
ENOUGH. Time to Find a Niche.
So, what is a niche, anyway? I think you can break it out in at least three different ways:
1) a particular industry,
2) a particular type of writing project, or
3) a particular type of client.
For example, “I only work on projects for the sportswear industry,” or “I only write white papers,” or “I only work with creative agencies.” (And if the word “only” sounds limiting, I invite you to shift your perspective; while it does mean that you’ve narrowed the breadth of your work, there’s no limit to the depth you can achieve.)
So, How to Find Your Niche? Read on, yo.
Identify your strengths and passions. If you’ve been freelancing for a while, think back to the standout projects that really felt good. Why did they feel good? Ideally, these are the projects that fulfill an emotional need—whether that’s to be creative or challenged, or to work for a cause that’s close to your heart. But they must also be the projects that fulfill your bank account. If you’re to successfully find your niche, you must walk the fine line between following your heart and accepting the fact that you’re still bitch to the almighty dollar.
For me, my niche is books, specifically personal development and fiction titles. I’ve been a lifelong bookworm, so this is a natural fit for me. When I’m writing or editing a book or coaching an author, I feel like I’m in my power zone: I’m confident that I know what I’m doing, that I’m charging high enough rates to support myself, and that there’s honest-to-God true value for my client. Frequently when I’m working with an author or a manuscript, I have a surreal moment where I think, “Wow, I get paid to do this. This is my job.” Mind blown. If you have moments like that, pay attention to them—they’ll help you hone in on your niche.
Tell people about your new niche. Seriously, tell everyone—friends, family, fellow writers, networking partners. Shout it from the rooftops of Facebook! Rewrite your own marketing content. The more specific you are, and the more widely you spread the news, the more quickly people will think of YOU for that particular type of project.
Identify referral partners to whom you can pass along the non-niche work. When you find your niche, you find yourself saying “no” more frequently. This can be a bummer. But, honestly, this is a great opportunity to be giving. Luckily for me, I have a great community of writers who all have their areas of strength. So when someone approaches me with a project outside of my niche, I have a simple script: “I mainly work on book projects these days, but you should totally talk to so-and-so. They do fantastic work.” This is an all-around win. I don’t have to say “no,” I help my writer buddies find work, and I’ve told the client what types of work I DO want, so hopefully they’ll think of me when it comes up.
Stay strong! Transitions suck. My first year in my niche was…rough. It was both terrifying and exhilarating to refer away potential clients to my writer buddies. And there were definitely times when I felt like I’d exhausted my network and was wracking my brain to figure out where to find my next book client. Sometimes I despaired over my decision and regretted rewriting all my marketing copy. But I had some major wins, too—I contracted with Timber Press to co-write Mosaic Garden Projects, and a local business consultant hired me to co-write her book, Project Sponsorship. It took a little over a year before I felt really solid in my niche, but I’m glad I stayed strong.
Step 5: Rake in the millions. Admittedly, I’m still waiting for this part. I’ll update this post when it happens. Stay tuned. 🙂
Great points, Sheila, and helpful, too. Your strategy works, because I always think of you as “the book expert.” 🙂