spent all their time doing things for clients they were pretty okay at.
If job funerals were a thing, at this moment that would be on my headstone. “Guy” because I couldn’t decide if “freelancer” or “agency co-founder” was more accurate. And I wouldn’t be able to choose between marketer, designer, or developer. Of course, it’d be too work-self-absorbed to try to explain all of that on my job headstone, which of course I am, but would never want to have etched in stone.
If none of that made sense, I’m just saying that Inbound Found (IF), the tiny digital marketing slash design slash development agency I run with my wife, has always been pretty generalized.
We’ve been “doing it all,” for whoever wanted to work with us since 2015. An array of things, that to do well, should be done by 10+ different people.
This was fine for a while because I love learning and shiny things, and Ann, having switched careers to start IF with me, was figuring out where she wanted to land in terms of type of work.
But there were a few problems with the approach.
Being reactive instead of deliberate
For one, instead of trying things out being a deliberate, self-directed effort to see what fit, it became reactionary: we’d just do whatever whoever asked of us.
You want a podcast? Great idea. Let me do the interviews for you.
Can’t figure out why your business is in the red for the first time in 30 years? I’ll need to write some SQL queries on Quicken data to figure that out. Coming right up, I’ll just spend this week learning how to write JOINs.
You’d like all your data from site and social channels in one place? Let me build you a Google Data Studio report series.
Oh, your adult site had a botched site migration? Let me pour over tens of thousands of porn pages to fix that for you.
All clients in different industries. Each an example of work that took a long time to figure out that I never did again.
That kind of approach put us on a hamster wheel of teaching ourselves things from scratch over and over, not being willing to charge clients for that learning time, and ending up with very little feedback or benchmarking as to how good of a job we were doing (relative to alternatives).
No systems, no skills, no leverage
We were unable to create leverage with reusable systems or build on skills quickly. All we could count on was that the next client would be in a completely different industry likely needing something else.
Staying generalized long enough makes you lose touch with reality
Working hard all the time and always learning how to do new things and then only doing them once in a while, then stacking more and more things on that feels productive, but it’s not.
It’s stressful …and dangerous.
Wrong signals lead the wrong way
If you do enough things for clients, you will accumulate wins and case studies, even if just at random. And when those things work out, it’s hard not to say, “look what we did, we worked so hard, see? It paid off,” and when they don’t work out, it’s not easy to take a hard look at the approach you’ve sunk lots of time and energy into. Superiority illusion (like how 95% of teachers think they’re better than average), confirmation bias (seeing what we want to see), sunk cost fallacy (being unwilling to cut losses) all contribute.
The power dynamic is crap for everyone
Assuming clients are hiring you to tell them what to do, reacting to clients’ wants and whims doesn’t help anyone. You need to know what to do AND be in a secure enough position financially to be able to say “no” to bad ideas or projects.
You have to think you’re better at things than you are
You can’t sell work without some confidence. There are two ways to get to confidence when you’re riddled with imposter syndrome type thoughts all the time: experience (to a point of being better than alternatives) and convincing yourself that you are better than alternatives.
Not being able to let go of the identity of being a good full stack everything was a function of ego, pride, and the delusion that I could do a couple logos a year and hang with proper logo designers, or write clean, portable, maintainable code as well as a purely WordPress dev, or run link reclamation campaigns as well as someone who just does SEO outreach for a certain type of website.
Thinking these things are necessary to propel the myth that being a generalist is an ethical approach to work.
There will probably never be a good time to specialize
For our first two years we had to take whatever work came along because it was pretty touch and go. Even though we haven’t been month to month for a few years, that residual fear of going hungry still makes it hard to not take on work when we’re too busy or it’s not a good fit. The fear slips away and then as soon as there’s a new opportunity, it crops up.
I’ve had a mockup of the new Inbound Found homepage for almost a year. Every time I was ready to update the site, some “opportunity” would come along and I’d think, “not yet, this will complicate the current sales process I’m in with this prospect that has nothing to do with the type of work I want to do.”
As if they’re looking at that site anyway.
Not all bad though?
You can also get good at generalism. But that’s not a good thing.
You can do enough things that some of it will be good enough to get referrals, simply because you’re the person people know that do that thing. This has kept us just comfortable enough to not change.
I do think that I can pick up new disparate skills much more quickly than when I was in my twenties. I’m not afraid of big problems I don’t know how to solve, and I’ve genuinely enjoyed getting to learn lots of new things and work with organizations in different industries.
Being able to do that with the flexibility of working for yourself has been more important to me than scaling or raking in gobs of money or choosing a niche that makes sense on paper for us that we just wouldn’t want to do.
But those are all things you can still have and specialize. I can specialize and improve at learning, probably have even more flexibility, and further enjoy working with clients by serving them better.
That’s what makes generalism so dangerous. The really nice things about it aren’t really about it, they’re just about doing the work.
Deciding to specialize
Three frogs sit on a log. One decides to jump off. How many frogs are still on the log?
Three. Because making a decision isn’t action. For the past two or so years, it became clear that we “needed to specialize,” have a “division of labor,” and start contracting out the time-suck type things that we didn’t want to keep doing.
Ann and I would have a meeting about it and resolve to do it. Then we wouldn’t. But now we are.
Ann is still going to run Inbound Found but I’m going to be phased out over the next six months with the exception of some advisory stuff.
She’s also specializing in websites. The services Inbound Found and it’s contractors will continue to provide are going to be limited to designing and building clean search engine friendly websites for new client work.
Content Audience is my new focus. It’s a clear decision about the type of work I’m going to do (content strategy) for who (audience-first businesses with content).
I hope you’ll stick around.
Re the process to get here for deciding how to specialize, I wrote more about that. I’ll include a link in a future email.
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