Let’s talk about niche.
In ecology, a niche is the unique place an organism occupies within its community. This includes its habitat, its spot on the food web, and the adaptations it has for surviving in that environment.
In business, a niche is the intersection of the audience you serve, the service you provide, and the unique skills and experience you bring to the table.
Conventional wisdom tells us to find a very specific niche, develop a specialized process for working there, and market exclusively to those clients. Specializing makes you easy to refer and sets you up to command hefty prices and grow big because you’re the only one who does what you do.
In other words: Be like a giant panda, famous and beloved the world over for being cute and eating bamboo.
Which is all fine until the bamboo starts getting cut down.
Specializing is smart and I generally still recommend that freelancers figure out a niche rather than trying to be everything to everyone. (It doesn’t work, trust me.)
But…evolutionary specialists are also often the first to go extinct. (Honestly, pandas are probably only still around because they’re cute and China’s national mascot.)
If you’re only in one industry – say, travel and hospitality, for example – and for some reason – like, I don’t know, a global pandemic – that industry goes into free fall, suddenly you find yourself in a fight for survival.
But if you’re a trash panda (aka raccoon), you have a better chance of making it. Raccoons not only have a much bigger niche, but are also smaller and require less resources to maintain. And conveniently, they’ll eat anything they can catch. Sure, they don’t have the star power of giant pandas, but there are a heckuva lot more happy raccoons than there are pandas. (I’m sure the pandas are perfectly happy, though!)
Okay, the metaphor isn’t perfect. I don’t recommend taking any garbage job that comes your way. I don’t want to discourage you from growing through specialization.
Just be…a flexible panda…? (I’m trying here, possibly too hard. I can only be me.)
Figure out a niche, but think about how your skills could translate to other industries or project types. Stay connected to those peripheral industries. Try out different but related projects every once in a while so you’ll have them in your portfolio and have an idea of the appropriate scope and pricing. Keep your most relevant credentials up to date even if you’re not using them at the moment.
Pivoting is hard, both logistically and psychologically. Give yourself grace and time to adapt. We’re gonna make it.
Think, Feel, Do
- List all the skills and experience you have that could translate to your creative work. Don’t leave anything out, not even the shitty admin job that shows your ability to balance multiple shifting priorities and, er, collaborate well with others? Something like that?
- Go through your past projects and jobs.
- Which ones spark joy? Those might be pointing to your niche.
- Which ones are acceptable? Those might be good backups.
- Which ones did you hate? You don’t have to do more of those if you don’t want to, even if they pay well or lots of people ask for them.
- Look at your portfolio, work samples, and testimonials.
- Prune out the ones you don’t want to get hired for again.
- For the ones you keep, write some short blurbs about how the skills you used could transfer to a different kind of project.
- (Here’s a post I wrote about portfolio-building if you want more info!)
Let me know how it goes!