Let me tell you a story. It’s a story about me and my work, but I think you can find something valuable in it if you take a look.
The story begins back when I was first starting out as a freelance writer. To put it mildly, I didn’t know what I was doing. You know how it is, right? You read a couple articles, decide, “Now I know exactly what I’m going to do with my life!” and promptly walk over a cliff.
When you’re starting out as a freelance writer, you’re a lot like a lemming.
You see one person acting on a bad idea and you think, “Oh, that’s nice.”
You see another person acting on a bad idea and you think, “Well, that’s interesting. Maybe they’re onto something.”
But then you see every other freelance writer tripping over the crowd on the way to jump off a cliff and you start thinking, “Oh boy, I’m gonna get me a piece of this action!”
In other words, I was making all the rookie mistakes. Trawling job boards for lousy jobs for lousy clients. Pitching prospects who weren’t interested in hearing what I had to say. Writing lifeless blog posts that had all the right content but none of the personality that got people really interested.
In short, I was going with the flow. I was getting enough work to get by, but it wasn’t anything I could be proud of. I was working with clients who were okay at best.
I wasn’t working on the types of projects that really excited me.
I wasn’t being treated like a business owner offering a valuable service.
I wasn’t being paid the rates I knew I deserved or being taken with the kind of seriousness I expected.
To sum it up: I was following all the bad advice I heard and wondering why I didn’t have control of my sales and marketing process. I was following a reactive strategy where I expected to be given the work and paid well for it simply because I knew I was capable. It didn’t occur to me that the real problem was that my prospects didn’t know I was capable.
(Listen, I know how naïve that sounds, but we’ve all got to start somewhere, don’t we?)
I could beat myself up for barking up the wrong tree, but there’s really no point. Maybe I was acting like an idiot, but at least I didn’t know any better. The point is that I learned my lesson.
I started paying attention.
Specifically, I started paying close attention to what was going on with the feeds on the social media accounts I was using to promote myself. (See? I wasn’t a complete idiot. At least I knew I should be on social media!) The big ones here were LinkedIn and Twitter.
Especially LinkedIn. Especially LinkedIn.
Because as soon as I actually started looking at what I was seeing and thinking about what it meant, the answer became obvious.
I’d been working and working at something I vaguely thought of as “promoting myself” on social media, but I didn’t know what exactly I was promoting, to whom, or to what end I was doing it. The social media was just an on-the-side thing I had that came along with the perpetual hunt for clients on job boards.
I was aimless. I only had the vaguest idea of how I wanted to market my services. I didn’t even have a long-term goal to aim at, let alone some intermediate goals to use for measuring my progress.
Let’s put it bluntly: I didn’t have a niche.
But one day I saw a LinkedIn post that changed all that. I wish I would have saved it, because when I saw it I knew just what I had to do.
And what was this magnificent post? What was this life-changing post that made me realize how I needed to live my life from then on? What was this mind-bogglingly significant post that changed the entire course of my existence from that day forward?
It was just some guy complaining about recruiters on LinkedIn.
He had a story about how a recruiter on LinkedIn approached him about a position he wasn’t even remotely qualified for. Understandably, he was pretty annoyed because he had the feeling that the recruiter didn’t even take a minute to read his LinkedIn profile before tossing a generic pitch at him.
And apparently this was a common complaint. The post I was looking at had nearly 2,000 likes and probably over 100 comments. Apparently it was hitting a major nerve with LinkedIn users!
This was all news to me. I’m a dedicated freelancer, so for me the approach of a recruiter was something very rare indeed—and even when it did happen, 99% of the time the spam filter got rid of it before I even saw it.
So this was the first time I realized just how much recruiters use LinkedIn. (I know, I know, this makes me sound even more like some naïve chump, but I honestly never thought about it.) I’d always known about it in theory, but I’d been using LinkedIn mostly for networking and marketing my freelance services, so I didn’t think about it.
But when I saw this post, it was like the wires crossed in my mind and I realized exactly what I had to do. I realized LinkedIn was crawling with recruiters who were working on practically the same problem I was—and just like me, they were trying to solve it the wrong way.
I realized when I was sending generic pitches to people who weren’t interested in my work, I was doing the same thing these people were doing when they send job descriptions to people who aren’t even qualified. I knew exactly how it felt to be in their shoes.
Because whenever I was slow on freelance work, I knew I’d start getting desperate. I’d start flinging out low-quality pitches at random because I was anxious for something to stick. I’d make lousy pitches because I was so nervous and so anxious to get the whole process over with all at once that I’d end up sabotaging myself.
And that’s exactly what was going on with this post I found on LinkedIn that day. I realized there was some recruiter out there who wouldn’t get paid if she didn’t reel in the hire, and she was getting desperate. The way I imagined it, she was a 28-year-old woman named Veronica. She was a little neurotic, and she had nightmares every night about ending up on the street because she couldn’t cut the mustard as a recruiter. She could see her landlord smiling evilly and thinking about evicting her. Her stomach grumbled every day because she couldn’t afford food.
Worst of all, she had to cancel her Netflix membership.
With all that on her shoulders, it’s no wonder poor Veronica was making mistakes. She was so scared she started flinging out generic inquiries because she was so overwhelmed and so nervous and so panicky.
So when I read that LinkedIn post, I realized I couldn’t blame Veronica for doing something very like what I’ve done when I’ve been desperate. And I realized her story wasn’t unique. Who knows how many recruiters just like Veronica are out there on LinkedIn?
I realized she was facing the same kind of problem I’d been dealing with for my whole time as a freelancer: how do you get people to listen to your message?
I realized that, and that’s when I realized I’d just found my niche. I could put myself to work helping recruiting agencies get their message out.
I knew I could do it because I’d struggled with the same problem for such a long time. And I knew I should do it because I could feel that recruiter’s pain.
And that’s how I found my niche.
I could go on about how valuable it is to have a niche when you’re a freelancer—or any kind of business owner, really—but in all honesty this post is getting to be a little longer than I’d ever intended for it to be, so I’ll start winding down and save all that for next time.
But let me close with just a few words about niches. I know freelancers always hear about finding a niche, but it’s not until you find one that you really realize why that is.
A freelancer needs to start out with one niche for the same reason Amazon had to start out with one niche: selling books. You have to build a system that works for something before you can even think about building a system that works for everything. We underestimate how complicated things are, and we forget that we have to master one thing before we can ever master a whole range of things.
If I leave you with one thing, I hope it’s this: that while finding a niche may feel like you’re limiting yourself, it’s actually the best way to growth, both in business and in life. It may feel like you’re giving up your potential if you limit yourself to one thing, and in a way that’s true. But until you approach one niche with enough seriousness to truly master it, you’ll never master anything.
So: what’s your niche?