There are two powerful reasons why most creatives follow the path of the generalist. First, we have an innate appetite for exploration, experimentation, and discovery. The creative process consists largely of these pursuits. Secondly, we think that if we don’t offer a little bit of everything, to as broad a range of prospective clients as possible, we won’t have enough opportunities to pay the bills. But creatives of all people can’t afford to be generalists.
The High Cost of Being a Generalist
When you offer a wide range of services you must be a Jack-of-all-trades, and master of none. And while that might be an attractive position, when it comes to feeding your creative appetites, it comes at the high cost of inefficiency and continuously steep learning curves.
Consider the hours you have to spend on every new project, from the very first new business conversation, to exploring each new problem, to estimating, to devising solutions, to managing unique project requirements, all the while escalating communication time. Taking on unique projects carries a high cost.
Not only are the overhead costs high, but when you offer a broad range of services to a broad market, you compound your overhead with having to educate yourself about each new client’s business model, market, and unique challenges.
All of these overhead requirements put extreme pressure on the profitability of each project. But that’s not the only cost of being a generalist.
Being a Generalist Cripples Your Marketing Efforts
The project overhead of being a generalist only hurts when you get a project. But generalists also suffer from inefficiency and ineffectiveness in their marketing efforts. Marketing is only as effective as it is targeted. You have to identify your audience, tailor your message to their specific needs, and demonstrate your ability to solve their unique problems. Every time you expand your audience you, by necessity, must diffuse your message. And when you expand your services in addition to an expansive market you must further dilute your message.
So even if you do manage to find some time to engage in marketing, your generalized message to a broad audience is going to have very little impact. And so most creatives, if they spend any time at all marketing as generalists, eventually give up when they don’t see results. Instead you just keep hustling for new opportunities, from anyone, for whatever they might need. The downward cycle repeats.
The Many Advantages of Specialization
Now consider the specialist’s experience. A specialist, having repeated projects of the same kind, for similar clients, with similar needs, can quickly diagnose problems and ask pertinent questions from the very first new business conversation onward. They can follow up with very specific proposals, confident in their estimates, because they’ve done the same kind of work many times before. They have project templates that reflect similar requirements, and they can minimize communications because they’ve encountered many of the questions before, and have proven solutions. Where the generalize experiences bloat from overhead, the specialist saves time from repeat experiences.
And not only does this enable a specialist to be more productive, efficient, and profitable, but the clients benefit from the specialist’s insights and guidance. And so clients are willing to pay even more for the same outcome, from a specialist, than they would to a generalist. Where the generalist gets paid less, to work harder, and with time left over—the specialist gets paid more, works less, and has plenty of margin on their time and profit.
And when it comes to marketing, what’s time consuming and ineffective for the generalist, is efficient, targeted and very effective for the specialist. And since the specialist has extra time available they can afford to devote a bit more to marketing—further anchoring their position in the marketplace. While generalist’s just keep sinking further underwater.
Remaining a Generalist for the Sake of Creative Opportunity is a Costly Choice
Clearly the economic comparison is won by the specialist. But it does come at the cost of reigning in some of your creative ambition. So there is a trade off. And some creatives, perhaps most, just aren’t willing to make that trade. A blank canvas of creative opportunities is too alluring. But maybe after you calculate all the costs of that commitment, or when you’ve endured one season of famine too many, you’ll be ready to make that trade.
But if you’re on the fence, do yourself a favor and listen to episodes 9 and 10 of my podcast 5 Minutes on Creative Entrepreneurship. While there are trade offs to be counted, you might find that the cost to creativity isn’t as high as you might expect. And considering the extremely high cost of the alternative, you might want to commit to the path of the specialist which will lead to a more enjoyable, profitable, and sustainable creative practice.