Table for One - Thoughts on Positioning for Freelancers and Consultants

17 min. read
May 17, 2024

Now that more people than ever are freelancing and consulting, it’s more important than ever to stand out and make yourself the easy, obvious choice.

One would think that necessity of standing out in a sea of sameness would be… obvious.

It’s not, and that’s why I took the time to write this essay on why clear positioning is an advantage for freelancers, consultants, and agencies—shoot, for all solopreneurs.

Related: The Good Kind of Cheating - How a Positioning Statement Makes the Freelance Game Easier to Win

If your dream clients have no trouble at all understanding what problems you can solve for them, how you do it, and why you’re the preferable choice, then you’ll work with more dream clients. Water follows the path of least resistance. People usually do, too.

So is picking you currently the equivalent of a downhill stroll or an uphill slog? Keep reading to find out, and to fix your positioning.

For starters, what is positioning?

Your positioning is the spot you occupy in your market.

Starbucks sells convenience and consistency, not great coffee. No matter where you are, you can order the same drink that tastes the same way.

Ritz-Carlton sells luxurious rooms and impeccable service. If you’re looking for inexpensive, no-frills lodging, you’re in the wrong place.

Positioning may consist of benefits (in the case of Starbucks) or quality (in the case of Ritz-Carlton).

Positioning is a front room in the brand house, that is, part of the bigger brand strategy for being recognizable and for owning a specific idea or feeling and specific feelings in customers’ minds or even the general public.

Consumers usually have more than one choice, which means that brands are positioned against other brands.

Your would-be clients have choices, too. The question is, why should they choose you?

A Hotel Lobby Filled with 50 Competitors (and Signs)

Imagine that you’re standing in a hotel lobby along with fifty of your closest competitors.

These people have a similar skill set. Some you’d consider hacks. They’re definitely not doing work you’d want to put your name on, and they probably aren’t doing right by clients either.

Others you admire. Their work matches or even exceeds your own capabilities. Perhaps you’d consider some of them friends.

The scene changes when a dream client comes through the revolving door with a rush of air. She pauses and scans the room.

Suddenly alert, you and all forty-nine of your competitors thrust your signs into the air. Some of them start shouting to draw attention to themselves. One guy pushes his way to the front and holds out a pink envelope. A gal at the back throws a paper airplane above everyone’s head. What is it, a resume? A coupon?

The client ignores the gimmicks and scans signs instead.

You realize with a jolt in your gut that you could have been much more strategic with your choices: the color of your sign, its material, the height, and most importantly, the message you put on it.

The woman isn’t reading every word on every sign. Rather, it’s like she’ll know what she’s looking for when she sees it.

The Problem with Being a Generalist

Several people chose to fill their piece of visual real estate with everything they can do.

I’ve seen many LinkedIn headlines that look like this:

Copywriter | Blogger | LinkedIn Ghostwriter | Case Studies | Content Strategy | Email Sequences

Now, the freelance writer claiming to do all these things is almost certainly telling the truth. A good writer can quickly learn the conventions of a new type of writing. When I was focused exclusively on writing, I wrote web content, headlines for billboards, press releases, social posts, radio spots, tv commercials, you name it.

Despite my (and your) versatility and wide-ranging capabilities, crowding our metaphorical signs with a list of services makes us difficult to remember.

How do I know? I’m a fractional CMO now, and I forget generalists. When it comes time to connect one of my CEOs or founders with the right talent, the folks who are top of mind for me are always the specialists:

  • “Who do I know who writes for membership associations?”
  • “Which identity designer works with outdoor brands?”
  • “Which web designer knows Webflow?”

Marketing and creative problems and needs tend to be acute, not generalized, so as I help my clients solve problems, specialists represent the more expedient and less risky option.

For example, one of the marketing managers won’t ask, “Do you know a versatile graphic designer?” She’ll ask, “Can you recommend someone who can take our existing brand identity and turn it into some social media design templates that we can use on repeat? Ideally, they would put them in Canva because we’re already familiar with Canva… .”

Like I said, acute, not generalized, problems.

Pick your spot in the bento box.

Marty Neumeier compared the structure of the human mind to a bento box.

For every category, be it DTC cosmetic brands, motorcycles, or identity designers, each of us has a little mental nook where several names live.

Unless you’re really into that category—like, you’re obsessed with vintage motorcycles—than you’re only going to remember the top three.

If you insist on being a generalist and claiming every skill and competency you have and you won’t put yourself in a box, then you don’t have an easy, obvious spot in the bento box. Fewer people will remember you.

If you want to make yourself easier to refer, then pick your spot in the bento box.

We’re both generalists and specialists.

Most freelancers and consultants are generalists. We learn how to do more than one thing because that’s just what happens along the way.

Over the last fifteen years, I’ve hacked together my fair share of WordPress websites. I’ve edited audio and video. I’ve designed presentations in Keynote.

I am both a generalist and a specialist. We can be both. We should be both.

Months and years pass as we sample a variety of types of work and types of projects, and zero in on, through process of elimination, the projects or pieces of projects we find most lucrative and fulfilling. Of late I’ve gravitated toward advisory and strategy work, not copywriting. It pays better, and it works better in my season of life, with three young children.

David C. Baker describes the generalist-specialist relationship this way in Tradecraft Secrets of Elite Advisors:

“It’s a destructive false choice to assume that you have to be a deep expert or a broad generalist. You need to be both—and you’ll pull that off by diving really deep in your work life, but then backing far away and developing a crazy pursuit of all kinds of unrelated, interesting things in your personal life. If you don’t have that business depth, no one is going to pay you a lot of money to solve their challenges. If you don’t have that broad personal life, your expertise will drift in a sea of irrelevance where you’ll be the most interesting person alive… without a place in a world that values narrow expertise.”

So why do some creatives and consultants insist on being generalists?

As best I can tell, two factors come into play:

  • Fear of missing out: “If I position myself as an identity and packaging designer for CPG brands, then I’ll miss out on interesting UI/UX projects.”
  • Insistence on being accurate: “I have these multifaceted capabilities, and people should know about them.”
  • They like having a variety of creative and intellectual problems to solve.

The other day, a potential client sent me a follow-up request: “The board wants to know what other healthcare companies (and types) you have worked with.” In my reply I rattled off a list of eleven companies and brands in the health and wellness space, and the list surprised me. I hadn’t ever listed out all my past clients in that particular industry.

I’ve been at this long enough that I’ve worked across many industries and have been involved with projects that span the spectrum of advertising, branding, marketing, creative, and tech.

However, most new clients won’t find that versatility compelling. No, they’ll ask about my depth in their industry.

Thus, if I want to have strong positioning in any industry, I must prune my versatility to emphasize the skills, competencies, experiences, processes, and parts of my person that are most relevant to that industry or market. This process feels artificial because aren’t I contorting myself to fit into the box of someone else’s need? It feels like I’m doing myself a disservice. Shouldn’t I talk about all my capabilities? It feels limiting. What if I miss out on an interesting project because the client doesn’t see a capability I’ve effectively hidden?

Like I said, the fear of missing out drives many generalists to not stake a claim in a certain area of specialization.

Worth noting is that I’ve never spoken with a freelancer or consultant who did niche down and later regret it. Ultimately, we must decide if we prefer the variety and the unacknowledged stresses it brings or the narrower focus and the presumed boredom it brings.

Whether we like it or not, specialists, on the whole, outearn generalists. It’s worth requoting Baker here: “If you don’t have that business depth, no one is going to pay you a lot of money to solve their challenges.”

When you need a heart bypass, would you prefer a general or cardiac surgeon? When your Porsche needs a repair, would you prefer any old auto shop or one that services only German auto manufacturers? When you want French food, do you go to The Cheesecake Factory? That fact is, people prefer to hire specialists.

Eventually, strategic creative entrepreneurs see more benefit in productizing their services, streamlining processes, and raising their prices for a specific audience with a specific set of problems.

Being a specialist makes marketing easier.

Based on my experience, being a specialist is easier.

Take marketing, for example. When just about any small business can be a client, how do you decide which small businesses to connect with? Will you target salons, recruiting firms, or architects? The best strategies and tactics vary from one industry to the next, as do the popular watering holes. SaaS founders listen to podcasts. Doctors belong to associations. So what’s it going to be, a podcast tour or a training that associations will let you promote? No wonder so many of us struggle to stay consistent with any one approach long enough for it to pay off! A diffuse target causes diffuse marketing.

Contrast that dilemma with the much narrower field of marketing possibilities you have as a specialist. Ask yourself, where do salon owners hang out online? Spend an hour on online research. Voila! You’ve got the beginnings of a plan for getting in front of these folks en masse.

Meanwhile, when one of them starts hunting for someone like you, when they walk into that crowded hotel lobby like I mentioned, you’ll be much easier to pick out.

My friend Benjamin Watkins can surely do all the writerly things, yet he chose these two sentences for his sign (that is, the non-hidden part of his LinkedIn About section):

“Hi! 👋 I'm Ben—a dad of five adventurous kids and a husband to an amazing wife. I also write a newsletter with banger copywriting examples and work with health tech brands on landing pages and lifecycle emails, specifically focusing on improving conversions.”

Ben who deftly touches on the who, what, and why, and throws in a personal touch (”adventurous kids,” “amazing wife”), too? If the fractional CMO of a health tech startup scans the signs in the lobby and sees Ben’s, she’ll make a beeline toward him.

You can build a six-figure creative business as a generalist.

You can get away with being a generalist for a long time. In fact, I was the one-stop-shop creative handyman opearing as a micro agency for the better part of seven years: “And if I can’t do it, I’ll find someone who can!”

Generalism (is that a word?) works if you get enough referrals. It works if you’re likable, dependable, and competent. Do a satisfactory job with the web writing, and a client will let you handle the new website. Then, the rebrand. Then, the marketing plan.

Most of my clients stayed with me for years because I took good care of them and kept selling them whatever else they needed.

This “go-to gal” model works right up until it doesn’t. Maybe you get frazzled trying to develop minimum viable expertise in many different areas. Maybe you tire of the grind of project management. Maybe you tire of being so responsive.

That’s the main benefit to clients, right? Responsiveness. It’s convenient for them to have you at their beck and call, and you’re the fixer who makes their problems go away.

But what happens when you want and need a true vacation? You realize you have a job, not a business. I once had to spend an exorbitant amount for 30 minutes of Wifi on a cruise so I could talk a client down who was having a freakout. Once I opened my inbox on my phone and saw his email—opening my inbox was my first mistake—I couldn’t unsee it. Ugh. I needed a vacation to detox from those situations, and suddenly, I was right back in the middle of one.

Yes, it’s quite possible to build a six-figure creative business as a generalist, but in my experience, that one-stop-shop positioning (or rather, non-position) requires longer hours, brings more stress, and makes selling premium services hard. (Even mature, reasonable, value-focused clients have a harder time accepting your premium price if another generalist who also has a decent portfolio charges half as much.)

What happens when your outgrow your network, local market, or referral base?

Because I’m outgoing and personable, I was able to be a generalist and make six figures without doing much marketing other than going to local business events, doing get-to-know you calls with agency owners and freelancers, and getting referrals.

However, as I became more senior and developed a spiky point of view on my work and the creative industry in general, I wasn’t interesting in fooling with certain pieces of certain projects. I also wasn’t going to accept projects below a certain value. (Putting a “minimum engagement” in place will change your life!) And I was slowly but surely pricing myself out of reach of loyal clients.

Eventually, I realized that my existing network and the local market weren’t going to supply enough of the types of projects I wanted to meet my income target.

This is a natural progression for freelancers, consultants, and agencies. You realize that your dream clients won’t come knocking on your metaphorical door. You’ve got to go out and find them.

Selling to referrals is easy because you’re borrowing trust the client has in the opinion of the person who recommended you. Building trust with strangers is more difficult. What will the majority want? They’ll want to hire a specialist, not a generalist.

Clear, strong positioning makes it easier to get the first conversation.

What’s the opposing viewpoint on this?

Here’s what a “Creator, Strategist, and Freelancer Advocate” named Nick said in response to a post where I made the argument that specialists are easier to remember:

”While I agree that it’s easier for someone to remember others if they reduce them to a singular facet, I still staunchly remain in the camp of refusing to reduce anyone to a singular facet. Harder for me, but better for others.”

Specializing isn’t the same as saying you can only do one thing. Certainly, specializing isn’t reducing yourself to a single facet. As I already stated, every freelancer and consultant I know is a generalist. We all have multiple skills and core competencies. So, for me, specializing isn't flattening a multi-faceted person into a one-dimensional caricature but better positioning strategy.

When we take the time and intention to figure out whom we prefer to serve, what we prefer to do for them, and how we prefer to do it, we make ourselves easier for those folks to remember. (We also simplify our own marketing and outreach.)

We also position ourselves to charge a premium because specialists who promise positive outcomes to a specific audience always can. Think pediatric neurosurgeons versus pediatricians. Think car repair shops focused exclusively on Porsches not marketing widely to all makes and models.

To whom do we prefer to go when we have a painful, expensive, or even embarrassing problem that must be solved—generalists or specialists?

After trying both the generalist and specialist routes, I found the latter to be the more effective strategy for meeting my income and lifestyle goals.

Pick the most effective strategy.

Freelancers, consultants, fractionals, and agency founders are after something like this: “I want to do work that I find satisfying, that I'm proud of, that pays me really well, with people I like. And I wouldn’t mind having more control over my calendar and being able to work from anywhere.”

That's the goal for most of us at least, and then, if we’re smart, we ask, “What’s the most effective strategy for achieving that goal?”

Getting clients on Upwork won’t be the most effective strategy long term for finding high-paying clients who see you as an authority because Upwork attracts a lot of price-conscious folks. It’s a good place for new freelancers to start their journeys, but eventually, you’ll want to own a direct relationship with your clients.

The same is true of positioning and specialization. Being a generalist and sampling a variety of projects works okay in the early days while you’re getting mostly referrals and still figuring out what type of work you like. However, referrals from existing network won’t support you forever. Soon enough, you’ll find yourself needing to develop a Morning Marketing Habit to connect with your dream clients.

Strong positioning, including specialization, makes it easier to get that first conversation, and guess what? Once you’ve got your foot in the door and build trust, you can also persuade the client to give you other projects in your wheelhouse (but outside your initial positioning).

In other words, your positioning doesn’t pigeonhole you. Keep your word, do good work, and build trust. Then, that trust gives you flexibility.

Closing Thoughts

You may feel like you’re being more authentic by calling yourself a generalist and having no positioning to speak of. Perhaps that’s working for you, and if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

The creative entrepreneurs who can consistently make life-changing income doing work they love without a well-defined position that includes specialization are few and far between. Eventually, the vast majority of strategic and growth-minded folks realize they can’t rely on their current client base or local market because neither has enough dream clients to sustain them. Or the right type of business is represented, but not the right type of value-conscious decision-maker.

You find yourself needed to market yourself in earnest for perhaps the first time, and you see that potential clients have a staggering number of options. How can you stand out in the sea of sameness? How can you make yourself the easy, obvious choice? How can you reward your skill, expertise, and efficiency by charging premium prices for a narrowly defined set of outcomes that your dream clients value highly? After all, narrowly defined outcomes are easier to productize, and productization is the main ingredient in scaling.

So you specialize. You develop killer positioning. You become a recognized authority. You realize it’s okay if some people don’t see you as a multifaceted special snowflake. You don’t mind occupying that spot in the bento box because the right people pay you great money to do satisfying work.

Funny enough, the sooner you do specialize, the sooner more possibilities open up. Ironically, on the other side of specialization, once you’ve become a recognized authority, plenty of people will trust you enough to let you do almost anything you want. They want you for you, not you for your positioning. Now, you’ve got a Table for One, a position that only you can occupy because it requires your background, story, mind, heart, skills, competences, and character and personality traits.

But you can’t get there if you’re too similar to all the other one-stop-shop generalists, if your positioning is confusing, or if you’re invisible.

Specialize now. Do whatever you want later. Table for one.

If you don’t have a step-by-step process to follow, head over to the Freelance Cake Shop, and buy my positioning playbook.

When you’re ready, here are ways I can help you:

  1. Free Money. A pricing and money mindset guide for freelance creatives. If you’re unsure about your freelance pricing, this is the book for you.
  2. Morning Marketing Habit. This course will help you build an “always be marketing” practice, become less dependent on referrals, and proactively build the business you want with the clients you want. My own morning marketing habit has enabled me to consistently make  6 figures as a freelancer.
  3. Custom Business Roadmap. Gain clarity, confidence, and momentum in your freelance or consulting business.
  4. Business Redesign. Raise your effective hourly rate, delegate with confidence, and free up 40 hours a month.
  5. Clarity Session. It’s hard to read the label when you’re inside the bottle. I've done well over 100 of these 1:1 sessions with founders, solopreneurs, and freelancers who wanted guidance, a second opinion, or help creating a plan.

This post may contain affiliate links. Please read my disclosure for more info

Austin L Church portrait photo.

About the Author,
Austin L. Church

Austin L. Church is a writer, brand consultant, and freelance coach. He started freelancing in 2009 after finishing his M.A. in Literature and getting laid off from a marketing agency. Freelancing led to mobile apps (Bright Newt), a tech startup (, a children's book (Grabbling), and a branding studio (Balernum). Austin loves teaching freelancers and consultants how to stack up specific advantages for more income, free time, and fun. He and his wife live with their three children in Knoxville, Tennessee.


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