Why “pick a niche” is bad advice and what you should do instead

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Everywhere I look for advice about new and innovative ways to run my freelancing business always produces the same generic results:

  • Start small.
  • Don’t quit your day job until you can afford to.
  • Pick a niche and stick with it, because no one wants to work with a generalist.

These ideas are neither new nor innovative.  You’ll find them recycled in business content going back to the beginning of time.

It’s true, they offer sound advice to anyone trying to start and build a successful business, but picking a niche is one of the least productive things any creative person can do.

Here’s why:

Sidenote: Once you finish, read how 4 freelancers built recurring revenue models that changed their business. You'll love it.

1. You stifle your creativity

Research suggests that creative people who seek out new experiences are resilient, observant, and take risks. This unique worldview helps you solve problems for your clients because of your different perspective.

And that’s what they pay you for!

Imagine if all you did was design business cards every day.  Your entire career would be confined to what fits on a small piece of paper.

Or if you only created websites for the makeup industry. You’d probably notice yourself getting bored with very similar designs, fonts, and color schemes that sell to those customers.

If you don’t challenge yourself to do something new on a regular basis, you lose your ability to think outside the box because you’re never stretching yourself as an artist.

You'll also enjoy this episode of our new podcast...

Being a creative entrepreneur allows us to interact with the world in a very different way; use it!

Is your creativity already suffering? Regain it with these posts!

2. You set dangerous limits on your business

You may be passionate about working with a specific type of clients, on specific projects, or in a specific industry, but every once in a while it’s good to work outside your “norm.”

For example, you may work with small business owners, but occasionally you should seek a large company to work with.

Why?

Because you’ll learn and grow as a creative as well as add something to your portfolio should you need to have experience in other areas.

This will help you protect your business against “what ifs” like:

  • What if the economy changes and your industry recesses?
  • What if the tax code/minimum wage/insurance requirements changes and a your preferred clients’ business size becomes less viable?
  • What if technology changes and your project type becomes automated or unnecessary?

3. Switching niches is really difficult

You remember how hard it was landing your first design job ever, right?

How many times did you hear, “You’re just not experienced enough.” or “We went with someone who has more experience with our project type.”

If your entire body of work is confined to one particular industry/business size/project type, you’re setting yourself up for a serious uphill battle should you ever need (or want) to change niches.

What you should do instead

Throw the book away. Seriously.

Every time you read the words “pick a niche,” get rid of whatever it is you’re reading.

It isn’t going to teach you how to stretch your limits and challenge yourself as a creative businessperson.

Instead, read biographies about ultra-successful entrepreneurs and model your business decisions based on theirs. The great thing about learning from successful people is that they share their failures, allowing you to avoid mistakes you may not see coming.

So find your favorite and read everything about them you can get your hands on.

Find your tribe. 

There are lots of people out there who refuse to paint themselves into the pretty little business box we call specialization. (The Millo Mastermind Facebook group is a great place to meet new creatives and talk shop.)

  • Explore forums and groups on social media.
  • Be sure to participate to get a sense of how the group works.
  • Collaborate with industries who work closely with yours to share referrals and work on projects together.

Still struggling? Check out this post on finding the right people to surround yourself with:

Follow sound business practices. 

Refusing to pick a niche does not mean you lack direction.

  • You still identify your target client, build personas, and market to them the same way a specialist does.
  • You have to sell your services like a boss. (If you can’t do that, hire someone who can.)
  • And when you’re busy, you have to keep pitching to clients for new projects.

It just means that you’re not confining yourself to one specific project or client type.

Ignore the naysayers. 

Many smart business coaches and successful folk are going to tell you you must select a niche (or else suffer a slow, doomed business).

You don’t have to listen.

In fact, if you’ve found your favorite successful entrepreneur and read all about them, you’ll probably find that they didn’t listen to the 1000 people who told them they “weren’t doing things correctly.”

But they had a plan, and they knew they could make it work.

And so can you.

Thoughts? Comments?

Are you a specialist or a generalist? Why or why not? Tell us about it in the comments; we’d love to hear from you!

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About Sharon McElwee

Sharon McElwee helps creative businesses with blogging, email, copywriting and social media. She loves to partner with designers on web and print projects. You make beautiful things; don’t let them get ruined by ugly copy. Connect with her on Twitter.

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Comments

  1. DetroitDom says:

    Sharon – this story is very timely. I recently started designing a whole new image for my business (name, logo, etc.) because I want to focus on a “niche” business; technical illustration . . . and here’s why.

    By selecting the T.I. arena, I have eliminated a lot of “fly by night” competition. It seems there are simply too many people in this world who:
    1) think they can do their own design work because they own a computer
    2) will do it at a cost I simply can’t (& won’t) compete against

    With my skills in drafting and graphics, as well as my ability to operate CATIA and Illustrator/ PhotoShop, I believe I have eliminated a lot of competition. Not everyone can look at a blueprint or manufacturing drawing and see the subject matter in 3D, much less create an exploded view or assembly diagram.

    I have done logo design, posters for events, portrait sketches, etc. and will still take on those jobs should I get asked. But focusing on technical illustrations is going to be my way of reducing the competition and getting the work I need to support my family.

    Any advice regarding what I posted is welcome.

    • Sharon Pettis McElwee says:

      There’s nothing wrong with taking advantage of your skills to shine in an underserved market. I feel that it is very true these days that many people who claim to be designers think good design is WordArt! (I really knew someone like this.) I find that my business many times changes focus based on current trends (right now I do a lot of blogging). Thanks and Good Luck DetroitDom, I think you are smart to focus on TI.

  2. Congratulations Sharon, I totally agree!
    A post that says something different eventually! I am sick of reading about that “little niche!”
    I liked the example with the business cards, so boring!

    And you are so right about not “setting dangerous limits”.
    I am an example!
    I managed not only to survive but to build a successful studio, when my country, Greece, faces one of the worst crisis in its history. Just because I didn’t just pick a niche and stick to it.
    I am an architect who, a few years ago, turned to an interior designer and recently to a graphic designer too. I love both and have nice results in both areas.
    (Who would design your business cards and brochures better than the person who designed your store?)

    A few years ago, for a long period, I had been teaching architectural design.
    I became very good and experienced, and then I quit. It had no more fun for me.
    This “expertise” helped me a lot to build a successful blog, a few years later, that “educates” people about the great impact of design in human psychology.
    Nothing gets lost.

    So, according to my experience, most of us can do a few things well and some of them very well. Not just one!
    We only have to love what we are doing, then we will become good at it.

    I think there is one problem when you become an expert only in one field, you become very narrow minded. And get bored easily.
    And if you get bored, then you are less creative and productive.

    My philosophy is to take risks and try new things to see what works or fits you more.
    For instance, I launch 3 new services and see which looks more interesting and appealing to potential clients.
    I don’t invest money, just some of my time.
    My blog, my website and myself do the promotion. And then, I choose the most successful of 3 and work on it on details.

    The only thing I thing one should stick to it, is quality and professionalism.
    If we do something, we have to do it well.
    If not, let somebody else do it or learn to do it very well!

    p.s. My comments become longer and longer everyday, it seems that I have to start a new blog! Or that I say too much!

  3. I’m sorry but I totally disagree. I’ve been running a successful design and web business for about 10 years. Not having a good niche has caused me a ton of stress. There’s a lot of profit loss caused by switching between different kinds of services all the time. I make money from all the different services, but I would give anything to just focus on one and eliminate the stress of juggling. Creativity exists more in focussing on a niche than trying to pretend you can do it all. We can’t do it all as freelancers. If we try to, we suffer, our family and friends suffer and we get burned out. This is spoken with much experience. Be happy with what you are best at and take it as far as you can go.

    • Sharon Pettis McElwee says:

      Thanks, Aaron. I’m glad you’ve found what works best for you. I agree that I can’t do it all, and I have no trouble in saying no to something I don’t feel I can do. I just choose not to limit myself, but some people need to have a more narrow focus. It’s all about what works for you!

  4. Thank you very much for posting this. I’m a graphic designer, illustrator, web designer and wordsmith who has been working both freelance and employer-based jobs for over three decades. I, too, have repeatedly seen the same advice from people who make a living telling freelancers how to get a business started and keep it going: Don’t try to be all things to all clients, but pick a niche and stick with it. The only problem? I can’t pick a niche.

    First off, even though I’ve had experience in at least a few niche areas of design, I couldn’t think of one I’d want to be doing for the rest of my life to the exclusion of all else. One of the reasons I chose this career is the sheer variety of areas and types of work you can do. I’d be bored to bankruptcy in no time if I had to only work in one area.

    Secondly, I am not in any sort of financial position to turn up my nose at any work merely because it lies outside of my hypothetical chosen niche. Specializing in only one type of client or one area of work may cut down on competition, but it also closes off additional sources of income and limits how much your business can grow. I need all the work I can get to ensure my wife and I aren’t on a cat-food diet when she retires from her work (which is not all that far away).

    Thirdly, I feel I have done work very well in a lot of areas, from biotechnology R&D to international developing-country finance to travel & tourism to professional associations and more. I’ve also produced a lot of different kinds of pieces, from plain old brochures and stationery to banners and posters, plus specialty items such as mouse pads, T-shirts, Xerox FunFlip photo cards and packaging, and had excellent feedback on my work from both employers and clients.

    I admit I am somewhat better off than a lot of design professionals in not having children to feed or clothe or put through college, but I am expected to pull my own weight in keeping our household solvent and our lifestyle at least adequate, if not luxurious. I appreciate hearing from someone who’s been successful at this work without having to follow conventional wisdom and silo herself into a single niche of creative work. I’d love to work with you if you are interested, but even if not I wish you nothing but continued success and joy in life.

    • Sally Carpenter says:

      Very well said Matt! I feel the same way! I feel more creative when I can help with different types of design projects and I’m always pushing myself to learn something new everyday!

    • Sharon Pettis McElwee says:

      Thanks, Matt. I’ve been working in marcom my whole life, and I love the freedom to work on projects in many different industries. You can get in touch with me on LinkedIn or via my website if you’d like to talk further.

  5. QhueCreative says:

    Sharon. Thanks for the article and input on this popular topic. As a successful freelancer myself that is now working within a “niche” market, I don’t agree with your perspective. A couple of my reasons…

    1. You assume that being within a niche does not challenge you to do something new and I would actually argue the complete opposite. Being in a niche, constantly requires you to envision new ways to creatively deliver something to the same end user. This requires intense creative thinking. Also, just because I work and focus on a specific market/field does not mean that I am not growing creatively in hobby projects. Once a quarter I do hackathons that force me to do something I’ve never done before and launch it.

    2. I again disagree with “dangerous” limits. This another idea of perspective. Since, I’ve focused on a niche market, my client base and potential has increased rather than decrease. I think this does limit my offering but makes it less dangerous for me. Rather than being a creative handyman that does a bunch of stuff but nothing stellar, I am on the road to becoming remarkable in a field. This is NOT my advice but the business advice from the legend Seth Godin.

    3. I agree that switching niches are hard, but so is going from working full-time to freelancing. The reward has payoff if you do it wisely.

    Overall, I think this article was based simply out your opinion and not weighing in the examples of creative legends that are killing it in their niche field. To tell all creatives to throw out books that refer to “find your niches” is absolute horrible advice! That would be as ludicrous for me to say that every freelance should stay a generalist… And would go against everything I’ve learnt from this freelance course by Seth Godin; https://www.udemy.com/seth-godin-freelancer-course

    I expect better material from the likes of Millo…

    • Sharon Pettis McElwee says:

      Thanks, QhueCreative for your well-researched response. There are actually many “no-niche” business communities that do quite well, including Puttylike and Paid to Exist.

      It’s nice to see that you really took your time to dissect this article and present a counter-point.

      I have nothing against people who choose to work in a narrow niche; when writing this article I immediately thought of a local designer who makes a killing specializing in craft brewery and winery work.

      At the end of the day, it’s all about what works best for you.

      • Hey Sharon,

        While I think QhueCreative got a bit abrasive there towards the end, I agree with his / her points.

        Especially given that niche doesn’t mean “industry”. In fact, within any given industry are a multitude of niches. It’s more a profile of a customer, such as their personality, level of sophistication, value set, goals, problems, income, aesthetic, etc.

        It can include an industry, but is certainly not limited to it.

        Perhaps you meant “pick an industry” instead of “pick a niche”? Or perhaps you could edit the post and define what you mean when you say “niche” more clearly?

        For example, our creative agency’s branding is geared toward businesses of a specific value set that includes passion, a high level of care in their end-product, a desire to do “good” in the world and bring positive change to the world through their service / product, a sophisticated design sense, the ability to trust their creative team and not micro-manage, and more.

        We’ve worked with more industries than I can count, but each person who came to us fell within that niche.

        When I look at Puttylike and Paid to Exist, I see very intentional marketing toward a specific niche of person designed to appeal to that kind of person, and not someone else. Paid to Exist especially, who seems to have put more work into their personality – a move intended to appeal to a specific niche of person who would respond to that personality.

        In fact, everything on their home page is an expression of their values in an attempt to reach others who share those values. You can also see their niche includes people who need / desire more income, idealize an adventurous spirit, are in a job situation or lack thereof that feels oppressive, desire travel, appreciate nature, value down-to-earth-ness over strict professionalism, and so on and so forth.

        That’s their niche, which is highly specific and detailed, that they are pursuing.

        Hope this makes sense. I think if you frame the post according to what you mean by “niche” it could be more successful.

        But I think going after a niche is the most important thing a business can do. If you don’t know your ideal customer, as well as who is not your customer, it’s impossible to target your content to appeal to one and repel the other.

        Best,
        David

        • Sharon Pettis McElwee says:

          Thanks, David. I think that everyone’s comments have given me a lot to think about. I do not define a niche as an industry, though I can see where it may appear that way. I appreciate your suggestions and insight.

    • Sharon Pettis McElwee says:
  6. THANKS SHARON! Right on sister. All the Niche’s are in the trash now. Thanks for the validation and I love the perspective (obviously because it is mine too!).

    • Sharon Pettis McElwee says:

      You’re welcome Kati. There are some niches out there that do really well overall, but for me it is important to stay flexible to accommodate my ever-changing interests.

  7. Sally Carpenter says:

    Thank you for reassuring what I was feeling about my design business Tommermann Design. I want to help clients with anything that will help them get their business up and going and marketing to their audience. Also, to have connections that can do some of the tasks I’m not quite up to par on yet! So it’s refreshing to see others not focusing so much on just one niche like I am. 😃

    • Sharon Pettis McElwee says:

      You’re welcome, Sally. I think that niches work really well for some people, but for me personally I just don’t want to limit myself in that way.

  8. Agree and disagree. I picked a niche years ago and still find a lot of variety in my work. My niche is more about positioning my firm and how my audience perceives my expertise and less about what work I accept. I mainly work for packaged food companies. Often the work starts with brand packaging, then from there, it grows to a variety of projects to support the marketing initiatives that started with a packaging project. As we know, people usually associate a brand, or organization with only one product or function. So if that means your a “generalist”, I’d say promote the heck out of that capability as your niche/expertise. The question is, are you niched vertically, or horizontally?

    • Sharon Pettis McElwee says:

      There are so many different ways to define a niche. Thanks for a look at how you partner with your clients.

  9. desmarsol says:

    In my 25+ years of the creative field I’ve met very successful people in both categories — specialization and generalist. I believe the key is to know yourself and find that space in which you personally will thrive. It should be noted too that ‘success’ can be defined very differently from one person to the next. For one it may be a big, fat bank account and for another having a chance to do numerous things, to learn new things and grow creatively may carry a value beyond mer compensation. I am always leery of anyone who provides ‘absolute’ advice so I too would dismiss any guru who try to tell me I must do ‘XYZ’ to succeed, no exceptions. The world and history is filled with ‘exceptions’.

    • Sharon Pettis McElwee says:

      Thanks, Desmarsol. I think the most important thing is knowing yourself and what works for you. I realize that some may think I am trying to give that “absolute” piece of advice, but I think that its important to never take anything at face value. I enjoyed reading your comment.

  10. I tried to tweet the first tweet box and it said it was unable to complete my request. Just thought I’d let you know. I don’t believe it is on my end.

  11. Jan Jordyn says:

    I guess it comes down to what works for the individual. Personally speaking, my business really took off once I narrowed my focus to concentrate on one single type of service offering: Inbound Content Marketing. I found the clients I attracted after re-positioning my business valued me far more and were less price-conscious than when I presented myself as an ‘all-round’ marketer, so to speak!

    • Sharon Pettis McElwee says:

      It really does, Jan. I think sometimes the only way a business can survive in an extremely broad and competitive field (like marketing) is to specialize. When I began treating my freelance writing business as a career, the niche I chose was so flooded with workers that I made almost no money. I have found my place now as a generalist, which works well for me because I have a variety of interests and get bored easily.

  12. Finally someone who believes that choosing a niche is not the only route to success! I too have read unendingly that specialization is the only way to truly succeed and while it may indeed make sense for some people—and could arguably lead to greater financial success (demand for the very best, most well-known in a specialization perhaps leads to a scenario where one can name any price)—I know that I would find it dreadfully boring in short order. As far as I am concerned it would destroy the reason I chose to work in a creative field in the first place—the chance to do a variety or creative work and to evolve along with the technology that has become so closely intertwined with so much of what we categorize as design these days.

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  1. […] for my business as I fear it may be limiting. Sharon McElwee agrees. In her article for Millo, Why “pick a niche” is bad advice and what you should do instead, she points out the […]