Is specialization always right?

The next cohort of The Expertise Incubator begins Jan 13, 2020. If you’re curious, let me know.


I’ve gotten questions from y’all via my post opt-in survey. I’m answering the most difficult ones for you here.

The question: “I have a lot of experience and am good at several disparate things (design/coding/marketing). Is specialisation always the right choice?”

The recommendation: It is not always the right choice. It is sometimes the wrong choice, and sometimes the only choice.

An important sidebar on decision making: It’s tempting to measure the quality of decisions based on their outcome. That sets up an anxiety/OCD loop. Don’t do it.

Measure the quality of a decision based on:

  • Whether there’s alignment between what your vision for the future and your choice in the decision
  • Whether you’ve done sufficient work to reduce uncertainty in the decision (de-risking)
    • Whether the specific uncertainty reduction work for this decision delivers desirable second-order benefits (useful learning by-products)
  • Whether the chosen action matches your risk profile

If the decision making work above can’t get you to the lowered risk burden you need, then go smaller and more iterative in your approach to the decision using the Lean methodology. Make small sequential bets with good feedforward loops between them, or set up and execute a portfolio of bets.

Back to the recommendation: Specialization is the right choice if you need one of the two things below more than you need the emotional ROI of highly varied client work:

  1. Outbound or inbound marketing that actually works
  2. The ability to cultivate rare, valuable expertise

The default condition of marketing is failure. Failure to earn attention, to be remembered, to be understood, and to be acted upon.

Specialization helps you engage in marketing that fails less often.

The default movement in a skills market is towards commoditization. To be more standardized, interchangeable, and cheap.

Specialization helps you resist the trend towards commoditization.

The caveats: Even as a specialist, your workday will be very varied and rewarding. You are, after all, running a business and very likely wearing lots of hats.

If you stopped offering design and marketing to your clients and just focused on coding, you would have become more specialized, but your day-to-day will still involve significant marketing work. ~50% of your time, if you’re doing it right.

Take action: Try this free experiment in vertical specialization. Assuming you have a LinkedIn profile, sign up for LinkedIn’s Sales Navigator (SN) product. It’s free for the first month.

Use SN to search for every first-degree connection that has a management role within the retail industry. Every one of those qualifiers (connection closeness, job role, industry) matches to a SN search field. You have a list of names now.

Every one of the companies these people work for is thinking about how to deal with Amazon. How could your skills be valuable to them? How could you be of service in a free capacity to them in order to connect and earn their trust and have the opportunity to serve them in a paid capacity?

See how we’re using this simple experiment to reduce your uncertainty in decision making? 🙂

-P