I recently gave a talk about freelancing, and touched on this idea about presenting yourself as a generalist or a specialist. I’m going to try to explore the benefits of having a market position as a specialist in a few areas.
Disclosure here – I’m not even sure where I classify myself on the spectrum between “generalist” and “specialist”. In some cases, I’m a specialist, whether in Grails, or PHP, or web security, or performance tuning, or what have you. But in other cases I’m just “the web guy”. Much of this is likely in the eye of the beholder, and various clients have different levels both of technical savvy and needs for technical savvy.
Specialists can command a higher price, and (in my experience) have an easier time of being found for work (although not necessarily *finding* work on their own – I’ll try to touch on this later). My own experiences are that people find *me* when they’re looking for a ‘senior PHP developer’ or “Grails developer with PHP experience”, or something similar. People never find me when googling for “web developer”, even though that’s how many of my clients have viewed me.
When people identify a specific problem, they’re going to look for specific terms, and that’s when positioning yourself as a specialist can help. If someone determined they needed a full-text search system for their project, they might look for “search developer” or something like that. They won’t find me, but if they’ve done more work and decided they want Solr, in my area, searching for ‘solr developer raleigh’ will usually bring me up on the first page. I’ve had multiple types of project offers find me because of extreme specificity I have in my resume and more importantly on other parts of my website.
Specialization isn’t useful just for helping people find you in search results, although that’s certainly a benefit. Once people find you, they will often associate a higher-level of expertise with your specialization (which, while usually warranted, isn’t always the case). That association in their mind makes landing a project that much easier to do for you, the specialist – you’re the expert! You can solve their problem! And along the way, you can charge more money! Why?
They’ve identified a problem. You need to get them to explain the problem (project) to you. Along the way, you will be let in to more details about the project than you would otherwise get if you were being brought in as a generalist ‘pair of hands’ worker. You will be able to determine the value of the project to them, and price accordingly. While you may not feel comfortable with ‘value based pricing’, or flat-rate or project-based pricing, you will undoubtedly have a stronger idea of the value of the project to them. Even if you fall to standard hourly “time for money” pricing, you should not be afraid to price according to the value you’re going to provide.
Somewhat extreme example – if my “standard” rate was $40/hour, but I knew that a 200 hour project ($8000 by my watch) would be saving the company $90k in labor over the next year (faster turnaround time, fewer returns/mistakes, reduced support labor), would you still only be charging you “standard” rate of $40/hour?
Some of you undoubtedly would, and I would submit to you this is
probably not good business. ’But that’s extortion’ or ‘that’s unethical’ are common reactions I get to this tactic; hint, I don’t think it is. We may have to agree to disagree on this point, but it’s a fairly common tactic. You may think of this another way – just have higher rates all the time, and agree to ‘drop’ them on projects as a favor to people for interesting projects that might help you expand your expertise in other areas. But the net effect is the same – companies that can extract large amounts of value from your work can afford to be paying more to you, and you should price accordingly.
I may be oversimplifying the process here (well, I am, I know), but the principal is pretty basic. Charge for the value that you provide to clients/projects; positioning yourself as a specialist in particular areas will help solidify that position in a client’s mind that you are the primary (only?) solution provider for their problem.