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How to find your niche and fill it

So, you've started out as a freelancer and it's slowly dawning on you how much competition you've got. But is that really the case or are there just a handful of people who offer the exact same services as you do? No matter what your industry is, finding your niche will always be a smarter move than spreading yourself too thinly.

Elon Musk is an expert generalist , which means that he didn’t follow the advice of specialising in one area. Instead, he transferred his knowledge from one field to another, which allowed him to gain an insight in areas such as software, energy, transportation and aerospace. Even though this earned him the label of being an "anti expert", we’re still talking about Elon Musk, a man who didn’t care about the rules of the game because he changed it.

But back to finding your niche and why it works for most mortals. As freelancers know, the tide can change quite quickly: One moment you’re swamped with work, the next your phone stops ringing for what seems like an eternity. Having a niche can help with having a more stable stream of work, especially if your profession is very broad, like that of a writer, life coach or a photographer. Answering the questions below can also be beneficial if you've already found your niche and want to plan your next steps. It’s not the right solution for professions that are already highly specific, but if you’d like to stand out more among your competitors then read on.

When you look at businesses, many of them had to focus on a specific field to stay competitive. Some of them now offer digital solutions, others focus on animation, and an ever-increasing number of agencies specialise in just one service, such as influencer marketing. By focusing on fewer things – and perfecting them – businesses are able to react quicker to changes in the industry while also managing to provide a better service than generalists. Applying the same principles to yourself can be a smart long-term strategy for your freelance career.

Ask yourself these 3 questions:

1. What are my skills and passions?

If you haven’t worked towards marrying your skills and passions yet, then seriously consider taking the leap. Equally, if there are things you don’t enjoy doing then now is the time to leave them behind. Finding your niche isn’t only about getting more work in, you should also get the most out of the work you’re doing.

Think of the jobs you got the best feedback for and start a list with all the skills you’re good at. Next, think about your passions and the things you’d still enjoy working on in the evenings or on weekends, if need be. Add hidden talents to the list as they might come in handy when you start to narrow down your services. Now strike through everything that’s energy consuming, not satisfying or not profitable because life’s too short to be unhappy with what you’re doing.

Even if you already love what you’re doing, set new goals by asking yourself: What are the next steps I need to take to become an expert in the field? Hosting events, speaking at conferences or writing a book can all help establish your expert status in the field and thus raise your demand (and your rates).

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2. What do people need?

If you managed to identify an area you’re good at, passionate about, and where demand outweighs supply then congrats: you’ve struck gold. These cases are very rare though. While it’s great if you’re good and something and do it with passion, without a market you haven’t found a niche, you found a hobby.

Now, go back to your list and highlight the things that people need. If there’s a market and some – but not too much – competition, that’s a good sign to go ahead with your research. Look at developments in other markets and see if you can apply them to your profession. Always factor in things like your personal experience in. Some of the best business ideas originated in real life problems that people tried to solve.

Example: Let’s say you’re a copywriter for lifestyle publications. You’re good at what you’re doing but your workload fluctuates due to the competitiveness of your industry. You also happen to practise martial arts and often travel to faraway destinations to improve your skills – but only consider that a hobby. Rather than competing with loads of writers in the general field of lifestyle, you could turn your hobby into your dream job. By finding a niche somewhere between travel, health and wellness journalism you could write about more things you’re passionate about and even subsidise future trips (if you’re lucky). Before venturing out, you’d need to do your research and find out which publications have a demand for these stories, what they should look like, who pays well etc.

Whatever you decide to specialise in, keeping up with trends won’t cut it anymore – you need to be ahead of the curve if you want to be considered an expert. The advantage of working in a niche market is that it’s much easier to follow relevant publications and opinion leaders as there are fewer of them. Networking, attending and hosting events are crucial for staying in the loop. If you enjoy what you’re doing then all these activities are also a great source of inspiration.

3. Who am I competing with?

While there might be hundreds or even thousands of people with the same job title as yours, there won’t be many with the exact same experience, skill set and personality. Besides, healthy competition in your niche is nothing to worry about, it only proves that you made a good choice. You should only be concerned if nobody else successfully offers similar services to yours.

Once you get to know your competitors, figuratively and literally, you might even realise that there isn’t as much competition out there as you first thought. Everyone’s story is unique and yours could even give you a competitive advantage – but that’s something you’ll only find out by networking and connecting with others. Join groups, go to events and exchange with others in your field, it’s the best way to stay informed. Over time, some of your competitors might become your friends and you can pass each other job opportunities when the other person isn't available or not the perfect fit.

It’s no surprise that the term personal branding has seeped into everyone’s vocabulary in the past years. Personality plays a huge role in business and self-promotion has become an invaluable tool for freelancers. It's what makes you stand out from competitors – because nobody will hire someone they don’t like on a personal level. Catering to a niche audience can be part of that branding, as your name will be associated with a certain industry and what it stands for. In an ideal world, your network and clients will recommend you to others within the industry because they like both your work and your personality.

It’s a long-term process, albeit a rewarding one

The transition from being a generalist to a specialist won’t happen overnight but it helps to have a goal in mind. Once you’ve managed to work for your first dream client, it’s likely that similar companies will hire you again. With persistence, patience and some luck you’ll land more jobs, bringing you closer to becoming an expert in your niche.

While a niche is something that’s defined, it doesn’t have to be set in stone. Professions like copywriting, graphic and web design are ever-changing and demand a certain level of flexibility from those who want to stay relevant, which is why it makes sense to focus on a niche: it won’t get boring. By knowing what you want to spend more time on and what you’d rather not do in the future, you’ll find it easier to react to – or even anticipate – changes in your niche market.

There’s no guarantee that you’ll get rich by finding your niche but it can be very rewarding. Working on projects that genuinely excite you, and dealing with clients whose personal interests and beliefs align with yours, is what freelance dreams are made of – no matter if you’re a generalist or a specialist. The chances are high though that if you focus on something you’re passionate about, you’ll also do a better job.