September 16, 2017

“Can I position myself by target skill instead of target market?”

Reader Kristoph Matthews wrote in with the following question (shared with permission, lightly edited for clarity):

Hi Jonathan,

I’ve really been enjoying your emails. I have a question about positioning. I noticed in your examples that you tend to have a positioning that is geared to a certain audience/target market. I’ve been a generalist engineer in the sense that I’ve programmed things from fashion to data science and my audiences have been all across the board. However, I tend to gravitate toward certain technologies/types of products (e.g. real time apps, complex APIs).

So my question is: Can I position myself by “target skill” rather than “target market”, and if so, how does this affect my outreach strategy?

Thanks in advance!


Great question! Thanks K :-)

If you’re like most generalist software developers (and designers, and photographers, and illustrators, and copywriters, etc), you have spent your career honing your skills and mastering your craft, but precious little time understanding the value that your work creates for your clients.

i.e., You’re more self-absorbed than empathetic.

So, when you decide to make the switch from generalist to specialist, it’s much easier to envision niching down on your favorite skill than to niche down on your most valuable outcome.

In other words.... You know what your favorite skill is, and you have no idea what outcomes your clients value (never mind which is the most valuable), so specializing on a skill is the only clear path.

You can certainly specialize in a skill (e.g., MySQL performance optimization), and position yourself as the go-to guy or gal for MySQL performance problems. I call this a “horizontal specialization”.

A horizontal specialization will allow you to command higher rates once clients reach out to you, but it does very little to attract clients.

It forces your potential buyers to magically recognize that your specialized skill is the solution to their expensive problems. Unless your buyers are your peers, it is highly unlikely that they will connect the dots.

Whatever your marketing tactics are (e.g., outreach, writing, speaking, PPC, etc), a horizontal specialization isn’t going the help much.

Takeaway: A horizontal specialization will probably increase your profits, but probably won’t help you get more clients.