There are two types of consultants:
Those who don’t know where their next client is coming from, and those who have clients knocking down their door to work with them.
With a 2-3 month waiting list for most new projects, Val Geisler falls into the latter category.
Val’s an email marketing consultant whose reputation seemingly took off over night. She’s contributed to popular blogs, including Stripe Atlas, ConversionXL, and Convertkit.
She’s been interviewed on popular podcasts including Being Freelance, Inbound Success, and Being Boss. She’s basically everywhere.
Though Val appears to be an overnight success, she’s quick to shoot that idea down. Her reputation has actually been built with years of hard work.
But, when I asked her about it, I realized there’s something that has changed in the last few years. Something she says made “a huge change for me and my business and my overall satisfaction with what I do.”
That thing? Specializing.
I know, I know. You’ve been told to ‘niche down’ a million times. It’s in tough competition with ‘build an email list’ to be the most recommended marketing advice on the internet.
So why another article about it? According to Val, this is one of the most important decisions she’s ever made in her work, and it’s caused business to boom. As proof to that point, she’s started an online course to help people master email marketing so that she can refer them work. She has too many opportunities to reasonably service herself.
To specialize, she narrowed her focus from ‘marketing’, to ‘email marketing’, to ‘email onboarding’. As we’ll learn, she’s become a six-figure freelance consultant, broadened her list of opportunities by starting very narrow and expanding, and does work she loves doing every day.
I talked to Val to get at the heart of the specialist vs generalist argument. We cover:
- Why your biggest fear of specializing is unfounded
- The Trojan Horse Strategy specialists use to sell outside their ‘specialty'
- How to Choose Your Specialization
“Doesn't being a specialist mean I’m limiting my opportunities?"
You just met someone at an event. While making small talk they ask, ‘What do you do?’ Whether you’re an agency owner or a freelance consultant, chances are your answer will be fairly vague. You say ‘I’m a marketing consultant.’
If, by chance, they ask ‘What services do you offer,’ you’ll probably go down the laundry list of web design, SEO, social media, Facebook ads...
I get it, I fall into this trap too. Most of the time, it’s because of fear. I’m afraid of cutting myself off from a potential client (big or small) by not mentioning the specific service they need.
According to Val, I'm actually hurting myself here. As she told me, “One of the things people say to me all the time about specialization is, ‘Am I cutting myself short on potential clients?’ And my answer is no. I’ve had more leads since specialization than when I didn’t."
Why is this the case?
1) People want to hire an expert
“Right before this, I had a call with a potential client and she said she has a general knowledge that is needed to run the company.” Val said, "She knows how to do email marketing and social media marketing and she knows generally how to build a website and how to write blog posts and she has a baseline knowledge of all those things. She hires specialists to fill in the gaps.”
This is the case at all companies﹘large and small. Think about it, a small company is typically run by people trying to wear many different hats. The head of marketing, whether the founder or an employee, probably has a baseline knowledge of marketing across all of their channels. They don’t need a consultant who’s pretty good at a lot of things.
At a large company, they probably have a full-time employee dedicated to your area of expertise. The only reason they would hire you as a consultant is to help that employee improve. which means that you’d have to be better than that person at their full-time job.
Sure, this is possible as a generalist. But as Val told me, “as a specialist, you are focused on one particular thing. And you can educate yourself in that area. You can stay on top of the trends more than if you are a generalist trying to keep up with everything.”
Sure, there are other reasons why businesses choose to hire a consultant. But your ideal clients? The one’s with a budget that won’t leave them negotiating your pricing at every turn? Not so much.
2) Marketing becomes a lot easier
Put simply, B2B marketing is sharing your solution to the problem your customer is facing in a way that resonates with them. Key things here are ‘solution to the problem’ and ‘that resonates’.
Consider what this looks like for a generalist, someone who’s a “marketing consultant.” The problems are many. Customers want their marketing automation setup, they want to rank higher in Google, they want more effective website copy. With this limited example, there are three completely different problems you could address.
Then, there are the different types of companies. Is the company an agency, SaaS, Ecommerce store, or other?
Now you have 3 different problems (which people have written entire books about), for three different company types with very different business models.
How could you possibly cater to all of these different problems and business models?
Now, let’s flip the script.
Consider what this looks like for an extremely specialized consultant. Someone who “uses cold email to generate leads for iOS app development companies.” The problem is simple – app development companies want more customers, and getting new customers for projects with a minimum price of $400,000 is really, really hard.
For the specialist to market to these agencies they need to share their solution to that very specific problem in places where app development companies can find them.
They can write blog posts, make videos, record podcasts, write their website copy, and more, all around this very specific problem of getting more customers for app development agencies.
There is one problem (getting more customers), one business model (agency services), and one specific service (app development).
Val is the perfect example of this idea in practice. As she told me, “I don’t have to market myself everywhere and to everyone for everything.”
On her website, she states the problem the types of companies she specializes in face, and exactly how she solves it.
What is the real problem? Making more money. But Val makes it specific. You want to make more money but really you need to be ‘increasing conversions and reducing churn.'
“I know who my target market is, what my message is to everyone.” Val tells me, “And other than conversations like this one about running a business… my big focus is on email marketing”
The Trojan Horse Strategy specialists use to sell outside their specialty
Keep this between you and me, but Val’s not only doing email onboarding.
This is the not-so-secret secret of specialists. It’s the often-overlooked part two of the advice to ‘niche down’. That is, once you’re established as a specialist, you can start to take on projects in other areas.
Val gives a great example:
“[Imagine if] you were a sales page copywriter. Well, your sales pages are impacted by the emails that come before them. And then even the experience that follows. You know, the thank you pages and all those things. Like all those things will be impacted if they aren't done in a way that is seamless with your sales page. So, if you only stick to writing sales pages, then you could be missing a piece of the puzzle both for yourself, for your own project satisfaction, and then also for the client."
"You can be a sales page copywriter on the surface, what you actually sell is a full experience for the entire funnel. So I always say that email, especially onboarding, where I've been focused all of last year is, I call it my Trojan Horse because it's really just a place to start to get into the conversation I want to be in which is about customer retention and messaging."
Let’s make sure you didn’t miss this point.
“I always say that email, especially onboarding, where I’ve been focused all of last year is, I call it my Trojan Horse because it’s really just a place to start to get into the conversation I want to be in which is about customer retention and messaging."
What Val is saying is that by positioning herself as an expert she gets her foot in the door. She signs the client and gets them to pay her, and then delivers results they’re happy with. She’s already done the hard part of convincing them she can help them and then actually delivering on it.
With the trust she’s gained, she can start to mention other areas of their business she can improve.
“It’s not about, oh I say I do email onboarding, that’s all I can ever do for the rest of my life. It’s about building on that and I mean that’s what being a specialist is—seeing the gaps in your particular area of expertise. So I’ve built up the expertise in this one area and now I’ve identified here are the other gaps in it and I want to solve for those problems…”
How to pick your specialization
Specialization sounds great, right? But, the question remains, how do you choose your specialization?
According to Val, you can get the answer by asking yourself a few questions.
The first question you need to ask is: “What projects have you worked on that you’ve loved the most?” Then, “Where have you been the most successful?” And lastly, “What industry will actually pay you?”
Val says, "It’s like a Venn diagram of: what have you loved doing, what has had the most success, and then what industry will actually pay you?"
"So if what you love doing and had the most success with is a campaign for a nonprofit organization that maybe you were volunteering for because they had no money but you love the work and it was really impactful. It had a major impact on their donations for example, but it doesn’t pay [so] it doesn’t meet that Venn diagram. You need to look in [and say], 'okay, well how can I take that passion and what I did as a volunteer and find an industry that meets the requirements of and can pay.'"
“It’s a lot of ideating, but mostly looking at what do I love to do, what projects am I drawn toward more than anything else? And where am I getting results for my clients or, you know, even if I’ve done it for free or on my own.”
An important note here is that ‘projects you worked on that you’ve loved the most’ is very different from your passion. As Val says, “I don’t love to tell people to follow your passion. I think that’s just kind of blah. But I really do think that you have to care about the thing that you’re doing…. I would do the work that I do at a smaller scale for free. So why not build that into a business?”
Let’s reiterate our first point. There are consultants who don’t know where their next client is coming from, and those who have clients waiting months to work them.
From Val’s experience, the best way to move into the latter category is to position yourself as a specialist.
We’ve dispelled myths about being a specialist, gave you a framework for deciding on your specialization, and explained how you can grow your business once you get your foot in the door.
Are you going to become a specialist? Do you think this is silly and want to tell me just how wrong I am?
Let me know what you think in the comments.