I don’t have much experience freelancing and I’m confused how to sell my services – what makes me unique?

I’m an illustrator, I started freelancing straight out of university, and I’ve only had a handful of jobs in roughly two years – I think this is because I spent a lot of time not knowing what I wanted to do or even how to do it but I’m starting to find a bit more focus now. I’ve started pushing myself towards children’s illustration with the hopes of getting work in publishing, greetings cards, stationary – maybe even the games industry.

My issue is this – I have no idea what my niche is. I used to think narrowing my field was good enough, but I was just listening to your “how to find work as a freelancer” podcast, and you mentioned the need to tell a client why they need you, and why you can do the work in a unique way.

The thing is, I don’t know how I can complete the work in a way that another illustrator couldn’t also do. I don’t have an impressive client list under my belt, and I don’t have a particularly unique workflow or style. I simply don’t know what I could say to a client that would make me stand out.

Signed,
A no-niche freelancer

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Everyone feels this way at a certain point – in life and in freelancing. Do not stress about being unsure about your uniqueness quite yet. You may not even have the practical experience necessary to really know yourself and what you’re about.

I think it would be worthwhile for you to try and get some practical experience at an agency. It offers on-the-job experience; it can refine your skills, and it can teach you a lot about dealing with clients. It can also tell you a lot about yourself, what you value, and what separates you from the pack.

But, if you already have a day job, or if freelancing as an illustrator is your exclusive interest, that’s fine too.

The first thing you should focus on is what Neil Gaiman identified as the three reasons someone will work with a freelancer. The best part is, you only need to deliver on two of them:

  • Quality work
  • Delivered promptly
  • Pleasant to work with

After you manage two out of three on that, then you can start to hone in on that niche.

The more work you do, the more you’ll appreciate what kind of work you enjoy – and what kind you despise. The more work you do, the more you’ll come to appreciate what makes you, as a professional, unique and compelling. It doesn’t just happen. It’s a long, slow, and heavily involved process that can sneak up on you if you’re not paying attention.

I’m almost certain that the handful of clients you’ve had has resulted in an informative experience, if not a niche-defining one.

There are a few suggestions for finding that specific niche:

  • Reach out to potential clients and ask them questions (e.g. why did you hire that freelancer, how did you find them, what problems were you having, what results did
    you expect, etc.)
  • Do not try to pitch these clients while you’re researching
  • Time, effort, work, and a whole lot of reflection on your experiences
  • Go to a job board or freelancer site (e.g. upwork, fiverr) and look at what the highest paid freelancers claim as their unique selling proposition (USP)
  • Reach out to successful illustrators and ask them about their journey to where they are now. (e.g. what kind of clients did you end up focusing on? What made your offering compelling? What was the most common client pain point? Etc.)
  • Figure out what you’re good at. Ask your friends; give them an anonymous google doc to fill out if you want a lot of honest answers.

I’ll be honest: my niche has changed multiple time over the course of my career. It will almost certainly change again. I learned that I’m a flexible resource that completes work quickly, and I’m excellent at providing creative content. However, I’m not a huge fan of actually “selling” my work, nor did I always feel I had the chops to provide strategic consulting.

Having worked with clients of a few shapes, sizes, and industries, I figured I’d aim at smaller agencies that had issues with their copy (I looked at their website, job postings, etc.). A client taught me that most agencies of a certain size don’t have a staff writer (this is a pain point); they make due with somewhat-unreliable freelancers (another pain point) for this work.

I reached out directly to the CEO or head of hiring, showcased I did my research, and (POLITELY) brought these issues to their attention. I closed the letter by asking if I could chat with them for five minutes to get some advice regarding their industry. Almost every one said yes. People like being approached as experts, especially if you start by offering a little value first.

After taking these meetings, I ask my questions (see that point about researching your clients?). I close the meeting by thanking them for their time, and I state that, if they ever need help creating content, I was hungry for practical experience in the industry, and I’d even charge less than my usual rate. I also addressed those aforementioned pain points (e.g. I can come in a couple of times a week for in-person briefings and on-the-fly edits; I can commit x hours a week, so you’re always guaranteed a reliable resource, etc.)

Full disclosure: I don’t actually have a usual rate. I figured out what I wanted to make an hour and said it was half my usual rate.

TL;DR:

  • Get experience with as many clients as you can.
  • Reach out to clients and ask after their industry and why they hire freelancers
  • Research successful freelancers in your field
    The end goal: Figure out the client’s challenges, the solutions others offer, and what defines you as an individual.
  • You don’t need to re-invent the wheel with your offering; you just need to give it your own compelling spin.

Bryce Bladon runs Clients From Hell, hosts a popular podcast of the same name, and runs a monthly webinar specifically for freelancer FAQs.

Follow him on Twitter.
Or don’t. You do you.