Why Freelancers Need Multiple Skills: Handling the Feast or Famine Phenomenon
Photo by NEOPIXX.
We all know the old saying, “Jack of all trades, master of none.” But is there anything wrong with being very good at one thing and not too bad at a few other things? As a freelancer, are you a specialist or a generalist?
In some countries, being a specialist is more honored, but I’m a generalist. As a freelancer, I think it’s a necessity to be a generalist. In fact, if you’re a web-working freelancer, it’s a key to freelance career success in a global market. It’s what will keep you out of the feast or famine phenomenon.
I’m talking about having one or two core skills that you are (or will) become very good at, and a few sub-skills that you pay less attention to for now. For example, if you write, it’s worthwhile to have another skill — maybe podcasting. If you’re a designer, learn to code blog platforms too. If you’re a coder, learn to be a technical writer or maybe create screencasts to teach the use of your code. If you’re a consultant, learn how to be a trainer, as well. Always prioritize your specialty skill first, but make sure you have other skills to fall back on.
The Positives of Being a Generalist
There are multiple benefits to being a generalist. Here are a couple:
- You’re usually more marketable than a specialist. You can always expand your skills in a certain area, if and when necessary. You might not get the really exclusive projects that “require” a specialist, but you are likely to have access to a wider array of projects. Sometimes the work volume matters more than the pay.
- It’s easier to weather market changes. Of course, if the entire economy tanks, it’s tough, but that’s why you learned to save, right?
- It’s easier to be more productive in a given week. If you’re stuck on one type of work, do something in another area of work — especially if it involves different media. That change of viewpoint can spark creativity.
The Negatives of Being a Generalist
On the flipside, there is such a thing as trying to be good at too many things at once — the danger my father was actually trying to warn me of whenever he told me I was incapable of focusing:
- You have a lot of knowledge/skills upkeep. This requires extra time and possibly extra expenses for professional fees, subscriptions, software, training, workshops. You could potentially get caught up in research and skill building rather than doing or seeking paid work.
- It could take greater promotional effort. If you use a blog to demonstrate and promote your knowledge in a particular area, it might take greater effort to promote multiple skills.
- It could reduce access to exclusive projects. Some clients don’t subscribe to the generalist concept; they want someone that they perceive is a specialist. (Unfortunately, some such clients will often pay $400/hour to a consulting firm that then assigns their junior staff to the project at $19-30/hour. You might be more qualified and only have charged, say, $60/hour. If this happens, it might be time to consider taking on a partner or three and leaning towards entrepreneurship. You can still be perceived as an expert.)
So Which Is Better?
In spite of the downsides, I’m convinced — due to some tough experiences — that being a generalist is a much safer route to freelance success. Sure, becoming an expert at something is much easier if you’re only working on one skillset, but what good is that if you suddenly can’t find work? Having savings are great, but using them means negative cash flow. Having a “fallback” skill and gaining paid work in that area means maintaining a positive cash flow.
Now, two areas of expertise are probably manageable, especially if they represent supplementary skills. Three simultaneous areas of expertise is probably pushing the boundaries for most people. It’s better to build expertise in two areas — say skills A and B — and become mildly knowledgeable in two more areas — say skills C and D. You’ve increased your market value, and you can become “serially” expert in two areas at a time.
So if there’s suddenly less demand for skill A, you have skill B as a fallback. Now pick skill C or D as a new area to build expertise in and either keep up skill A or scout-out a new secondary skill, E.
That’s not to say that career transition is easy, but it’s manageable. Plan ahead and have a knowledge base for building a skill. I’ve always found it easier to use and build primary skills during weekdays and secondary skills during weekends. There’s a mental separation that’s easier to manage, and partially explains why my writing tends to be more creative on weekends, while my non-writing productivity is better during the week.
Here are just a few thoughts to consider before you see the example below.
- Manage multiple skills by applying the Pareto Principle (aka the 70/30 Rule or the 80/20 Rule).This “rule” can be interpreted many ways, including that 70% of your income comes from the use of one or two primary skills, and 30% from the use of non-primary skills. So limiting yourself to just one skill is equivalent to the old saying, “don’t put all your eggs in one basket.”
- There are many reasons why one of your primary skills could fall dormant:
- You get bored with it, or more specifically, realize what you really want to be doing.
- You’re purely mercenary and work in the most lucrative area (even if you don’t enjoy it).
- It’s outdated, possibly replaced with new technology.
- You can’t maintain it, possibly due to illness or for family reasons, or non-career related reasons.
- It’s getting outsourced at lower rates that you just can’t afford to match.
- There’s a recession and the work simply isn’t there.
- In my experience, offline consulting firms were often created when a few freelance consultants got tired of the feast or famine phenomenon and banded together. Maybe this sort of thing has already happened online, though I’m not aware of it. Still, the time is ripe, and you might start seeing geographically-spread freelance designers, say, partner up with freelance coders, copywriters, podcasters, etc. The Internet makes this possible, and it reduces the need for you to have to maintain many skills.
In the diagram below, Skills Stages are marked along an increasing timeline. Color-coded bubbles show the priority of given skills. (Green/Primary is highest, dropping to Red/Dormant as lowest.) Skills here are represented by a letter from A-G. It’s possible that any two skills are somehow related, or that one skill progresses from another.
The diagram suggests that you’re starting with one Primary Skill, A, and one Secondary Skill, B, then transitioning from there. Skills A and B go dormant at different stages, then get reused again later.
- Apply the 70/30 Rule to skills use and development.
- 70% of your time should go to Primary skills, collectively. This includes time for research, skills building, workshops, conferences and actual paid work. How you split up the time between multiple skills depends on the work you currently have scheduled.
- 30% of your time should go to non-Primary skills. For example, 20% on Secondary skills and 10% on Tertiary skills. If you want to casually maintain Dormant skills, decide on a good mix of time allotment, but stay under 30% in total.
- Try not to maintain more than two skills in any given status level.
- Lower-status skills increase in status through various stages.
- Some top skills might drop off and become permanently dormant, or they might come back into use later. If the latter, these skills might need upgrading.
- When selecting new skills to start building, try to have some of the Tertiary skills be related to what you’re already doing. It makes the transition easier.
Now, while I’m not suggesting that you have to juggle over a half-dozen completely unrelated skills in your freelance career, it might become necessary to juggle a few that are decidedly different and some that are mildly related. I’ve already gone through about ten skills in my life (both salaried and freelance), which include:
- Teaching and training.
- Technical writing.
- Webmastering and admin.
- General computer-related consulting.
- Project management.
- Digital mapping.
Note that many of these skills are related to each-other, and the progression was very natural. Work in one area led to another. I was rarely forced to learn something new — except during a serious career dry-spell from 2002-2005, when I went to cooking school and worked in restaurants. (But even then, I’d been hosting dinner parties for years, so it wasn’t much of a skills transition. The financial transition, on the other hand, was another story.)
Building new skills does not necessarily mean having to start from scratch. My personal interests often led to a few years of contract work. Look to your spare-time interests, or skills tangentially or peripherally related to your current skills. Is there a market for some of them? Can you do a “slow build” of such skills?
Life isn’t like in the past, where you would be expected to stay at one job for your entire career. Even if you’re not a “wanderer”, you are likely to go through a few career changes in your life time, especially as a freelancer. Sometimes the changes take you somewhere you want to be, sometimes they don’t. However, successful freelancers are like chameleons. They learn to adapt to their environment and they do it quickly. They have to.
This might sound pessimistic, but I view it as pragmatic: there’s no such thing as job stability when it comes to freelancing, especially on the Internet, where it’s a global market. Being a generalist is a necessity. If I haven’t convinced you after all this, then you are either very fortunate with your singular skill or you’ll have to learn the hard way.
You might find, however, that you already naturally maintain a number of skills, but not consciously and not actively. Embrace the process, be in control of it.
What about you? Are you a specialist or a generalist, and why?