Specialization Vs Generalization: “Should I Be Really Good at One Thing or Pretty Good at Many?”

One of the most common questions beginning freelancers ask themselves is, “should I be really good at one thing or pretty good at many things?” The answer is — you guessed it — it depends. There are advantages and disadvantages to both specializing in one area and having more general knowledge in several areas. Here are the main pro/con arguments.

Advantages of Specialization

  1. Better pay — Assuming there is sufficient demand for a specific area of knowledge or skills, companies will gladly pay a premium for expert help. If you’re highly knowledgeable and skillful in a field, you’re an extremely valuable resource to those companies looking for your expertise.
  2. Less competition — Generally, the more focused your knowledge and skills are (i.e. the smaller your niche), the fewer competitors you will have. Because of the sheer number of niches, each one will have fewer freelancers than the more general supergroup containing it.
  3. Better for working with larger businesses — As opposed to small businesses, large companies are more likely to be able to afford many specialists in a variety areas; for example, a corporation may hire all of the following freelancers: a business consultant, accountant, web copywriter, print copywriter, graphic designer, frontend web developer, backend web developer, public relations master, SEO specialist, social media expert, legal advisor, and a marketing guru. If you prefer working with larger corporations, being more specialized will likely increase your value as a freelancer to large companies.

Disadvantages of Specialization

  1. Limited ability to adapt to economic changes — Demand and supply for specialized freelance services change. If demand decreases due to advances in technology or a change in trends, or supply increases due to others entering your field of specialty, you may lose business and revenue. For example, if you are the leading expert in Facebook marketing but people migrate to Google+, you may lose a significant amount of business and need to reinvent yourself as a Google+ marketing guru (you would lose money and time during this learning process).
  2. Smaller target market (fewer potential clients) — The more specialized you are, the smaller the marketplace will be for your particular specialty. For instance, if you specialize in producing short documentary films for non-profits, you will have fewer potential customers than if you’re a more adaptive freelance video producer who can produce a large variety of films.
  3. Boredom — You might get bored of doing the same — or a similar — thing over and over again. Hopefully you love your specialty (that’s why you chose it, right?), but that may not be the case 5 years down the road.

Advantages of Generalization

  1. Superior ability to adapt to economic changes — By not going too far in depth in any particular area, you can quickly adapt to trends in technology, business, and design such that you don’t lose business or revenue due to movements in supply and demand for particular freelance services (at least, not to the same degree as a specialist would). And since you’re not trying to learn everything in a particular field, you save learning time. After all, you probably don’t need to know everything (see #3 below).
  2. Better idea of the “big picture” — By having a diverse knowledge base, you will be able to more easily understand the larger, more abstract goals and concepts of a particular company and therefore be able to better suit that company’s needs. Understanding the context of the work you’re doing is crucial to going above and beyond the expectations of a client.
  3. Help most people most of the time — Most people aren’t looking for something extremely specific. Clients generally have a “fuzzy” idea of what they’re looking for (whether they admit this or not), and they’re probably looking to you for direction. This is usually the case because if a client knows exactly what she wants, she is more likely to do it herself than to pay someone else to do it for her (assuming she has the necessary skills).
  4. Better for working with small businesses — Most small businesses cannot afford to hire numerous specialty freelancers such as all those listed under item #3 under Advantages of Specialization. I’ve worked a lot with small businesses and usually what they’re looking for is someone who isn’t too specialized but rather someone who has a broad knowledge base, is very resourceful (i.e. can find answers/solutions quickly), and is a creative problem solver.

Disadvantages of Generalization

  1. Lack of focus — If you’re not particularly useful in an area, companies may not hire you because your services don’t provide enough value in achieving their objectives. If you only know a little more than your client knows, your client will probably look for someone more specialized or perhaps they will learn how to do the job themselves.
  2. More competition — There is a seemingly infinite number of “generalized” freelance writers, graphic designers, web developers, and so forth. The more “noise” there is in the marketplace, the more difficult it will be for you to stand out as a leader. Most novice and intermediate freelancers will take most any job they can get, so they end up becoming generalized freelancers, thereby adding to your competition.

My Personal Experience Being Generalized

I have personally acquired a more general knowledge base and skill set. This strategy has worked great for me (so far). I enjoy doing a variety of work; I rarely get bored of a particular task, so that is a huge advantage for me. I enjoy working with other small businesses; I am often a very valuable asset to them in terms of developing technological solutions for business operations and in terms of their company’s presence on the web and their internet marketing strategy.

If I find myself in a situation where I don’t know something (i.e. an area where I’m not specialized enough), I do research and find the answer or learn how to do something (simply Googling often does the job). If there’s a lot involved or there’s a big learning curve, I will hire someone else to perform a particular task (i.e. I subcontract / outsource the job) to save myself time and frustration.

Do What Makes Sense to You

Deciding whether to be specialized or generalized is often a personal preference. You should do what makes sense to you based on the pros and cons that most matter to you.

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