For new independent consultants, the first few months – perhaps even years – can be tough. It takes time to earn your running shoes. And in those early days, you’ll ask yourself many questions about how to start a thriving business: How will you find new projects? Who can help you network? What services should you offer?
In fact, how to define yourself is perhaps the most critical of all those embryonic questions. Most of us have bills to pay, so the temptation is to become the jack-of-all-trades. We take every project, and we market ourselves as generalists.
Even later, we may resist specialization because we enjoy the breadth of work and the continuous learning opportunities.
It’s hard to differentiate when everyone is selling the same wide range of services.
But as more people join the independent consulting workforce, generalists will find marketing their services increasingly difficult. It’s hard to differentiate when everyone is selling the same wide range of capabilities.
There’s a strong argument to be made for specialization. When businesses look to hire independent consultants, it’s usually to gain expert help or handle specific projects. So while we may think being a generalist opens us to more work, it may actually do the opposite. Many would-be employers will pass over a generalist in favor of someone who can solve their very specific problem.
Thus, carving out a specialist niche for yourself can create a distinct advantage. An independent consultant who specializes has a better opportunity to build a thriving, profitable business, while also creating a less stressful work environment. Here’s why.
- You’re Marketing Message is More Powerful. Executives look to hire independent consultants when they have a specific problem that can’t be handled by their internal teams. They are looking for experts. For example, if a business wants to expand into a new market, the hiring manager will find an independent consultant who markets his experience as, say, a business intelligence professional for consumer retail more attractive than an interim executive with cross-functional experience in B2C.
- It’s Easier to Close the Sale. If you’ve pitched yourself as the solution to the specific problem because you are an expert, you’ll have an easier time winning the project. Even though your functional skills may be transferable across industries, it’s likely to be a harder sell in an industry that you’ve never worked in.
Specialists can command higher prices.
- You Can Charge More. As an expert, you can command higher prices. Your deep knowledge of a platform, industry or project means you’re a rare find, and businesses will pay more because you’ll do a better job on their project in less time.
- You’ll Get More Relevant Referrals. After a few successful projects, you’ll start to build a reputation as the go-to expert in your area of specialization. Clients will refer you more frequently, and because they know what you can do, the projects you get will be the right fit. This also means you’ll stay busy doing work that pays, and less time marketing yourself.
- Your Workday Is Easier. Although generalists enjoy diverse and varied projects, this work is more stressful. With each new project, they must invest time to learn new skills, industries or markets. It’s one reason that generalist work isn’t as profitable as specialization. As a specialist, you can tap your vast store of knowledge and experience over and over, greatly streamlining your workday.
Businesses will always need a mix of generalists and specialists. But when it comes to hiring independent consultants, expertise is highly valued. As you specialize in a function, vertical market – or both, you’ll have a much easier time pitching your services and landing projects that pay well and improve work-life balance.