This page contains the TL;DR about specialization for indie consultants. I share the problems that specialization can solve for you, how specialization works, the emotional barriers to specialization, and how to make a good specialization decision.
The first step towards really thriving as an indie consultant is specialization. This page will help you get started.
By Default, Marketing Doesn’t Work
The default response of a human being to seeing your website or other artifacts of your marketing is to misunderstand or ignore it.
The default response of a human being to hearing what you do for a living is to quickly forget it. (How quickly have you forgotten just the name of a person you’ve just met?)
The default response of a prospective client to hearing about what you can do for them is to not trust you.
These are defaults that are wired into human behavior, and it’s these defaults that cause most marketing to fail.
We Need to Earn Visibility And Trust
In marketing, there is a multitude of small ideas that huddle together under the big umbrella of visibility. You’ve probably heard the labels for some of these small ideas: lead generation, reach, audience size, stages of awareness, and so on.
Buyers can’t buy from you if they don’t know you exist. They can’t trust you if they don’t know you exist. They can’t evaluate whether you are trustworthy if they don’t know you exist.
Visibility — being seen by your market — is the precondition to every downstream necessity in marketing.
Most of us are intentional practitioners and accidental business owners. As a result, we are average at earning trust, and this is… fine.
We trundle along doing good work and then one day we decide want to do better work. Work that actually is more impactful and would therefore require more trust from our prospects. Or work that would be genuinely transformative for them, if they could just trust us enough to embark on a journey of transformation together.
When we hit this trust-earning ceiling, we start to get more interested in understanding how trust is built.
The ability that fundamentally transforms the career of an independent consultant is an ability to earn new visibility and trust. If you want to transform your business and career for the better, you need to focus on getting better at earning visibility and trust.
Specialization Makes Marketing Work and Helps Us Earn Visibility and Trust
Those who are successful at earning visibility have invested in learning about who (they are trying to connect with), what (is relevant to them), and why (buyers will care enough to take action). This investment and learning leads them to focus. They cannot answer the foundational questions of visibility (who, what, why) if they do not focus in some way.
If who is everybody, and what is everything, then the answer to “Why would buyers want to know about you?” is: they won’t.
Focus is necessary to create relevance, and relevance is the prerequisite to visibility.
Specialization is simply deciding to focus (and then actually doing it). Specialization makes our marketing actually work by making it easier to earn more visiblity and trust for our businesses.
Specialization is a Beachhead, Not Permanent
Dictionary.com defines a beachhead as “a secure initial position that has been gained and can be used for further advancement; foothold”.
Specialization is simply choosing a beachhead. For most of us, this means choosing a more narrow focus for our business.
Beachheads are temporary. They are not face tattoos. Once they’ve achieved their purpose, you move on from them to pursue your larger goals. The Allied forces that secured a beachhead in Normandy, France during WWII were seeking to defeat the Axis armies throughout Europe, not just the defenses at Normandy.
Specializing (choosing a beachhead) offers many advantages:
Specialization is a force multiplier. The same amount of modest, journeyman-like visibility-and-trust-earning work applied to a smaller area — fewer people in a smaller, specialized market — produces better results.
Beachheads build momentum. When you experience that first win, that first move beyond your previous visibility/trust ceiling, you start to believe in and feel the possibilities that specialization unlocks. These early wins fortify you for the long haul. They help you keep building and investing because you have physical evidence that your investment can pay off. This leads to consistent presence with the market you’re focused on, and this consistency helps you earn visibility and trust more effectively.
Critically, beachheads shorten learning curves. As independent consultants, we tend to start out business with above-average skill or expertise in a discipline or a craft. I don’t know if you’ll believe me when I say that no matter how much of an expert you are now, there is a lot more expertise you can cultivate. So much more.
If you know how, you can know why. If you know what, you can see beyond first-order relationships into second and third-order effects in the context of a system. You can understand the patterns that are common to these systems. You can augment gut feel or experience with data. You can move from competence to expertise to mastery.
And if you master one domain, you can scale that mastery into more profitable intellectual property, or you can move up the value chain within your domain.
There is always more expertise you can cultivate. Beachheads are essential to shortening the learning curve.
- How Permanent is a Specialization Decision?
- How Much Expertise do You Have to Have to Specialize?
- What Creates Credibility for a Specialist?
Specialization And Market Positions
Your market position (aka: positioning) and specialization are related. Specialization (the Allied beachhead at Normandy) is how you start; a market position (the defeat of the Axis armies in Europe) is your larger goal. Specializing is how you start building a market position.
A market position is really your reputation, which is very similar to your brand. There might be some small differences between market position, reputation, and brand, but they are truly minor differences.
There Are 5 Ways to Specialize
You can specialize (focus) in 5 ways, and you can combine some of these 5 ways. You can specialize by:
- Choosing a single market vertical to focus on. Ex: “I help Fintech companies navigate the regulatory landscape.”
- Choosing a single audience to focus on. Ex: “I help Fortune 1000 CEOs become more effective speakers.”
- Choosing a single business problem to focus on. Ex: “I help companies understand and reduce their AWS spend.”
- Choosing a single platform to focus on. Ex: “I help companies customize Salesforce.”
- Choosing a single service to specialize in some way. Ex: “I build lead-generating websites for consultants in a single day.”
Methods 1 and 2 are known as vertical specializations, while 3 and 4 are known as horizontal specializations. You can combine vertical and horizontal specializations to tighten your focus. That very often makes it easier to secure a good beachhead.
Platforms Are Risky
Specializing in a platform can be appealing, but this contains hidden risks.
When platforms are young, they pose a very attractive deal: become an expert in understanding, customizing, implementing, fixing, and/or supporting the platform and the platform owner will help you become niche-famous. This will temporarily solve your visiblity and trust problem.
As the platform matures, the deal changes. More of the unknowns related to the platform get figured out, and so the platform ecosystem needs fewer “brains” and more “hands”. The rising popularity of the platform attracts talent from lower cost of living areas. And finally, the platform vendor often chooses to start competing against you to capture a larger slice of the revenue within the platform ecosystem.
The risk of specializing in a platform is that the platform ecosystem will evolve into a place you don’t want to specialize anymore and then you’ll have to figure out how to pivot.
What Size Beachhead for a Specialization?
David C. Baker has some solid guidance on how big/small a market to focus on: https://www.davidcbaker.com/how-man-competitors-and-prospects-should-you-have. Please read that now.
I am writing this article for indie consultants. Most of you are solopreneurs, and your specialization is a beachhead (Normandy), not the ultimate goal (Europe). For these reasons, you can specialize in a market that is smaller than David Baker’s lower limit of 10 competitors/2,000 prospects if you can see a viable path from that beachhead to a right-sized market.
The Specialization Process
I’ve developed a reliable, repeatable process for deciding how to specialize. In extremely brief form:
- Inventory your areas of relative advantage
- Assess your risk profile
- Use #1 and #2 to develop a shortlist of reasonable specialization options
- Apply guardrails to eliminate long-shot specialization options
- (Optional) Conduct a live market test to get feedback on your specialization decision
In extremely detailed form, I describe that process here: A Complete Guide to Specializing and Positioning an Independent Consulting Business
Beware The Fear
For most solopreneurs, our identity is enmeshed in our business, and as a result changes to our business feel very personal. When we specialize, we are very familiar with what we are giving up (novelty) and much less familiar with what we are gaining (deep expertise), and so the loss attention bias causes us to over-focus on the loss and underappreciate the gain.
Many of us have a low-level imposter syndrome that flares up when we think about claiming that we have real expertise. Additionally, we are generally bad at evaluating the actual risk of decisions like this one.
Finally, the emotion of this bundle of fears (which I simply call The Fear) flares up at the worst possible time. Specialization is 30% decision making and 70% implementation. The Fear flares up after we’ve decided (the relatively less important part) and before we start implementing (the relatively more important part!). It makes us feel the decision was bad (it probably wasn’t) when in reality we’re feeling The Fear right before we start implementing because implementation is what makes the decision real.
Every emotion and bias I’ve described above is 100% normal. The Fear is very rarely a valid signal that you’re making the wrong specialization decision. More than anything, The Fear is a normal response to moving into the unknown.
Implementing Your Specialization Decision
After you decide to specialize, you need to make the decision real by implementing it. Building a marketing platform takes time and experimentation. There’s no single recipe you can follow that will work for every independent consultant. Building it takes real work.
Speed is critical. Direct response marketing tools are the right ones for speed. Eventually, their use will impose a trust ceiling, though, so be ready to drop or reduce your usage of those tools later.
Conversations are critical. Optimize your marketing to generate conversations. Sales will follow, but the market feedback you get from conversations is more important early on.
Favor simple, low-tech tools wherever possible. A lot of SaaS companies make good money by convincing you that the source of the vaguely sad, disappointed feeling you have when thinking about your marketing is inadequate tooling. The real source of that feeling is that you haven’t learned how to use marketing to improve the lives of a small number of people. Better tools won’t help with this learning curve.
After you’ve decided how you will specialize, you’ll find that some of the difficult or confusing parts of building a marketing platform have become easier to figure out. You’ll have more clarity about who you need to reach, and you’ll have better ideas about how to reach them. This new clarity makes beginning the work of building a marketing platform easier.
FAQs About Specialization
Q: How much expertise is required to say you’re an expert?
A: This is a relative measurement. We measure our expertise relative to the most accomplished expert in our domain, which leads to imposter syndrome. Our clients measure our expertise based on how much pain it helps them avoid or how much progress towards some important purpose is helps them make. If you have enough expertise to help the average client within your area of focus avoid some pain or make some progress towards an important purpose, you can say you’re an expert. Read more about expertise and specialization.
Q: Are there any prerequisites to specialization?
A: Not really, but I have found that brand new indie consultants benefit from 2 to 3 years operating as a generalist before they specialize. Theoretically they could benefit from specialization on day one of their work as an indie consultant, but in reality if you don’t have a few years of generalist work under your belt first, you will have real difficulty deciding how to specialize because you don’t have firsthand experience with what you’re saying yes or no to.
Q: How much of a detailed plan do I need to specialize?
A: You need to be clear about the beachhead you are choosing. After that, things can be a bit “fuzzy”. You’re smart, so pick a good beachhead and trust yourself to figure out the rest as you go. I trust you to do this!
Q: How do I know for sure that specialization/my specialization approach will work?
A: You don’t. And you can’t. That’s life, and all of life is the domain of less than (sometimes far less than) 100% certainty about what the future holds. What I can almost guarantee you:
- After you specialize the first time, choosing a new or refined specialization the second, third, etc. time will be much easier.
- The first year or two as a specialist is a time of flexibility and fluidity. You can tweak, refine, or change your specialization decision with ease. It takes years for a specialization decisionto become a market position/reputation/brand, and choosing a different beachhead is much easier than changing a market position/reputation/brand.
Other Articles on Specialization
- How Permanent is a Specialization Decision?
- How Much Expertise do You Have to Have to Specialize?
- How do I Craft a CLEAR Positioning Statement?
- What Does it Actually FEEL Like to be a Specialist?
- What Creates Credibility for a Specialist?
Resources to Help You Specialize
Experiential Learning Workshops
The Indie Experts workshops offer experiential learning based on principles that work broadly and effectively within the context of a differentiated, profitable, expertise-driven services business.
Read My Book
A comprehensive guide to specializing an indie consulting business
This detailed guide — aside from my book — is the most comprehensive description of how specialization works for indie consultants, how to specialize, and what to be prepared for along the way. It’s free (no opt-in required) and useful.