Specialising is difficult (but you should anyway)
We all know a little about bees. We know that honey bees live in hives where there is one reproductive queen, a veritable army of non-reproductive females called worker bees, and males that protect the hive. What I was not aware of is that the female worker bees are also divided into generalists and specialists - based on plant species. Some worker bees specialise in only certain species of plants. At the UC Berkeley Urban Bee Lab researchers have identified specialist bees that have evolved a specific relationship with as little as one plant species. For example, there are some that specialise in squash, while other specialise in sunflowers. These bees emerge from the hive at around the same time as these plant species begin to flower.
Generalist or specialist?
Just like bees, you can decide whether you want to be a generalist or whether you want to specialise. As a generalist there is - at least in theory - a much bigger marketplace out there. But that market is already crowded with a lot of other players.
As a specialist you will be competing with far fewer people in a much smaller marketplace. There are many advantages to specialising, including:
easier to stand out in a crowded marketplace;
easier for your clients to find you;
easier to build expertise, which is valuable and therefore commands a premium price; and
smaller markets don’t attract the big players.
In fact, I believe that specialisation is a prerequisite for building a successful small business. But even when we realise that specialisation is one of the keys to a successful small business, we still find it very difficult to do so.
Here’s why most of us find it so difficult to specialise - and why you should still do it.
Fear of losing clients or opportunities
The single biggest fear we all face when we look at specialisation is that we’re going to lose clients or opportunities.
There are two sides to this fear:
You are going to “lose” clients When you specialise you are going to “lose” clients. These are the clients or opportunities that you had when you felt that you could do almost anything for anyone. For example, if you’re a web developer you can build websites for anyone, irrespective of which industry they’re in. But you’re competing with every other web developer out there in a market that is already crowded.
But you’re going to gain more of the “right” clients When you specialise in say, web development for microbreweries, it won’t be long before you’re known in the market as the specialist in websites for these kinds of businesses. And because you’re one of very people that do this, you’re going to gain more of these kinds of clients. (And if you’re wondering whether this is a viable specialisation, here’s a quick fact: in the USA, craft breweries made up almost 20% of the beer market in 2015, up from less than 5% in 2008.)
So while you’re going to lose clients outside of your specialisation, it’s going to be easier to stand out in the smaller market for where clients need your specific services.
When I decided to specialise in solopreneurs and small businesses, my fear was that I would be losing clients in medium-sized businesses where I had previously done some good work. And this fear was well-founded; bigger businesses are much more likely to invest 5- or 6-figure sums in consulting.
But as it turns out it is a lot more difficult to land work in larger businesses - and there is a lot of competition for their business. So while I cut out a portion of my potential market by niching down, it became a lot easier to stand out in a smaller marketplace. I also found that I enjoyed working directly with business owners a lot more - and that I could have a bigger impact because of that.
Specialisation is a very personal thing
When you specialise you’re hanging out a shingle that says “I am a coach, or consultant, or specialist in this specific thing.” To some extent, you’re defining who and what you are - and that is not an easy thing to get to grips with. When you first look at specialising that “label” seems foreign, something that other people do but you’ve never done yourself.
By specialising you’re challenging your own sense of identity.
Challenging your own sense of identity is a really tough thing to do. You have to step way out of your current comfort zone - and while you don’t have to adopt a new personality you do have to think of yourself as something different from what you did before.
On the face of it this seems like a really difficult thing to do. But when you think of it as an evolution (rather than a revolution) it doesn’t seem so scary. None of us are what we were 10 years ago or even 5 years ago. We’re all evolving and developing - and specialising your expertise in a specific market segment is really just continuing that evolution.
It’s going to get boring
Every field we look at for the first time looks simple - at first glance. But when we look at it in more detail we realise that there is a lot more to it than meets the eye. And as we dive into more detail we realise that there are whole worlds locked up in what seems to be a simple thing from the outside.
I’ve never found a solopreneur or small business that successfully specialised just to become bored at what they’re doing. In fact, I find the opposite to be true - specialists become more excited and energised about what they do. From what I’ve heard from these specialists, there are at least two reasons for this:
There’s a lot more to it than meets the eye As we learn more about our specialisations we realise that there is a lot more to it than we originally thought. The field is deeper than we could have imagined, and we keep on discovering more things we didn’t know about before. That continuous learning is a continuous positive feedback loop - and one that we can put into practice every day in the work we do.
We get better and better at reducing the boring stuff There are boring bits in every business - whether it be admin work or marketing or sales. As we get to know our specialisations better we also learn to manage these boring bits - reducing the amount of time that we have to spend doing it or even outsourcing it altogether. And that means we get to spend more time on the good stuff!
But I can’t just flip a switch, can I?
No - you can’t become an expert in a specialised market overnight. You have to overcome your own fears, transition from where you are to where you want to be, get known in the market and slowly build up your market presence and expertise.
So specialising is not a switch you can flip. It takes time - experts in specialisation (yes, there are those too!) advise that it can take anywhere from 6 to 9 months before you start seeing real results, and a year or more before you’ve completely transitioned.
So when you do think about specialisation, you have to keep in mind that it’s going to take time. And this is a good thing, because it gives you time to test the market, pivot from where you are to where you want to be, and get the world to know about you.
We’ve looked at three reasons we find it difficult to specialise:
Fear of losing clients: When you specialise you are going to lose clients - but those are the clients you probably don’t want to work with that much anyway. On the flip side, you are going to find more of the clients you really enjoy working with, so in the long run you’re way better off.
Specialisation challenges your identity: When you specialise you’re giving yourself a new label, and that can be scary. But when you find the right specialisation, there’s a inner knowledge - an inner peace if you like - that takes over and confirms that this is who and what I am.
Fear of boredom: Specialising in a small niche always looks boring from the outside, at the beginning. But as we learn more about our niche we realise it is a lot bigger than we thought, and becoming a specialist in that area is actually very rewarding.
Despite the fears, you should still specialise When you specialise, you become an expert. You play in a smaller market; it’s easier to stand out from the competition and the big players won’t be challenging you. Your marketing is way easier and it becomes so much easier for your ideal clients to find you.
Ultimately, specialisation is the vehicle that you need to build a more successful business. As long as you compete with everyone else out there you’re going to find it difficult to stand out in the market, and you’re inevitably going to have to compete on price. So decide whether you want to swim with the sharks, or find your own patch of blue ocean.
Not all bees are specialists
Most bees in a hive are generalist worker bees - and this is the way it needs to be for the hive to survive and thrive. The small portion that are specialists play a very specific role in the hive and the ecosystem that supports them, and the hive needs that to thrive, too.
You don’t need to specialise - but like specialist bees you will find it easier to stand out in a crowded marketplace, develop valuable expertise and enjoy your work - and your life - a lot more.
You can’t just decide on a specialisation and jump into it - you have to do your market research to determine if the market will sustain a viable business. Fortunately, there’s a lot of resources online that can help you:
The North American Industry Classification System (NAICS) is an online resource, primarily for the USA, listing the number of businesses classified by NAICS code. Check out the the 15 million businesses in the USA here. Local equivalents are available in most developed countries.
Government publications (especially statistics) are another great resource. For example, this report from the Government in Canada told me that there are almost 500,000 businesses in Canada with 1-4 employees in service businesses - my ideal clients (these numbers go into the millions in the USA).
Conferences are a great way to determine if there is enough of a market for a specialisation. If you Google “conferences in XYZ” where XYZ is your city you will a host of conference resources. The multi-day ones that attract hundreds or thousands of people are a good place to hang out if you want to validate a market.