If you’re struggling with the idea of being a specialist vs generalist, especially if you are just starting a business, you are not alone!
One of the toughest questions I’ve wrestled with during my time as an entrepreneur is: should I be a specialist and focus on ONE thing, or be a generalist and explore multiple interests?
You may be struggling with the same question. Trying to figure out what your “niche” is, or whether you’re better suited to working on lots of different things.
I believe I’ve found the answer to this question, and it has to do with money. That precious thing that gives our businesses oxygen. That commodity required to feel a sense of freedom in our lives. Good or bad, money makes the world go round, and it’s the simplest answer to the specialist vs generalist question I’ve discovered.
Specialist vs Generalist? Here’s how to decide…
Do you need money in the next 90 days? You should be a specialist and focus on one thing.
If your goal is to make money and be profitable as quickly as possible, specializing is the absolute best option. Pick one thing to focus on. Solve a very specific problem for someone (or yourself). This will help you build a business quickly and efficiently.
Remember one important thing about building and running a business: A business is the exchange of goods or services for money.
There must be something you are giving someone in exchange for money to qualify as a business and to have any chance of sustainability.
What are some types of specialist businesses that you can focus on and generate money quickly?
Within the next few days/weeks, you can make money…
1. Selling your time (aka freelance design, development, photography, videography, etc)
2. As a 1-on-1 consultant or coach
Within the next 90 days, you can make money…
3. Building a software application (also known as SaaS)
4. Creating a mobile app
5. Offering in-depth educational content (online courses, workshops, etc)
Those lists could go on and on, but the key here is to keep things simple and focused. The simpler you keep things, especially in the early stages of business, the easier your life will be and the quicker you’ll make money.
Specializing gives you a clear path to hone a specific skill. Some folks call this your “zone of genius.” Be bullish on mastering that zone. Don’t let anything distract you.
Specialist Example: Let’s say you want to be a freelance photographer.
Step 1 (First Day) – Buy the best camera and lens(es) you can afford. If you have no budget for new gear, use what you have (an old camera gathering dust in the drawer, your dad’s camera, or even your phone camera), and move to Step 2.
Step 2 (First Week) – Give yourself one week to consume as much knowledge about your camera and the craft of photography as you can. Watch YouTube videos. Read in-depth articles about composition. Take an online course about running a freelance photography business. Be a sponge. But finish being a sponge after the first week.
Step 3 (First Month) – Use the hell out of your camera for one month. Shoot every event and situation you can. Take 500-1,000 photos per day. Delete them all. Shoot. Delete. Shoot. Delete. Build up your resistance to taking the perfect photo, and just learn your gear and hone your photography skills.
Step 4 (Second Month) – Spend one month doing unpaid photography work for friends. Headshots. Weddings (even if they have a “professional” photographer, ask to tag along). Corporate shoots. This could be done in conjunction with Step 3.
Step 5 (Second Month) – Build a super simple website. I’d recommend using a template from Squarespace. Give yourself one weekend to put your site together. On the homepage of the website highlight the type of photography you want to focus on (weddings, corporate, etc). Showcase your work based on that focus*. Give someone a way to pay you for an hour of photography (or at least contact you for bookings. Gumroad.com is a great option). Make a list of 25-50 friends, and email them your photography website. Ask them to share it with anyone they know who might need your services.
*Remember: We’re specializing here so we can get to money-making as quickly as possible.
Step 6 (Third Month+) – Search local event guides, reach out to small businesses, or scour craigslist for happenings in your city that might require an official photographer. Call the decision makers and pitch yourself and your services. Keep shooting. Keep getting better. Keep trying to find your unique photography style. Kick serious ass and over deliver so that these local event folks want to share you with their friends.
I guarantee if you followed those six steps you would build a profitable photography business in just three months. Sure, you may only be making $500-$1000 in your first month, but that’s more than $0. And once you start making money and landing clients, more opportunities will come your way.
If making money immediately isn’t an immediate priority, become a generalist without a niche.
In 2013 I set out to reinvent myself and my business. I gave myself a two-year window to be a generalist and consistently experiment. In those two years, I had a very broad focus (and still do!). By being willing to create all kinds of things, and in my own way, doors opened.
Sometimes the door of your business is barely cracked. Sometimes the door of your business is wide open. But either way, the door isn’t shut!
Being a generalist and not having a singular focus will lead you down many paths. 90% of those paths help you learn what you don’t want to do.
It’s often more important, in the long run of running and owning a business, to figure out all the things you don’t want to do be doing.
You don’t learn and grow from success. Where the learning and true growth happens is when you screw up and when things go bad.
What are some pursuits that are more generalist?
- Start a blog, podcast, YouTube channel, or newsletter to explore and share your interests publicly. Invite all your family and friends personally to subscribe, share, and follow along. Commit to these for at least six months to give them a chance to succeed.
- Conduct a 30-day experiment and record your experiences in real time on your site, Medium, etc. Do multiple experiments and continue to share them.
- Write up a bucket list for the next year, and commit to doing one or two things on that list every week. (Obviously, this list will have to be more practical than outlandish, but you know what I mean.)
- Learn six new skills in the next year. Use a service like Treehouse to learn something in a month, then apply that learning by using that skill for a month. Rinse and repeat five times. Do any of your new skills stand out as something you should continue doing?
- Become an apprentice to people/companies you admire. Pick 3-4 companies and offer your effort to them for free for 30-60 day periods of time. Soak up all the experience you can, especially if you can work in-person. (Tip: The quickest way to get these folks to say “yes” to you is to give them a plan of exactly what you can/could do to help them and how you’ll provide value.)
Just like the specialist lists above, this one could go on, but the secret to success here is to avoid becoming too narrowly focused. Don’t get too specific about what you’re doing or where you’re going. Stay open to possibilities, take care to notice the doors that open as you do so, and decide on the fly whether to walk through them.
Being a generalist keeps your options open and lets you develop some competency in a variety of skills. You’ll harness distractions as opportunities to discover and pursue something cool.
In summary when it comes to the idea of Specialist vs Generalist…
I’m not advocating that you become either a generalist or a specialist. That choice is up to you, but I think the question of when you need money helps to make the decision simpler.
Need money now? Specialize. Pick one skill and GO.
Have time? Generalize. Enjoy the ride and soak up all the experiences.