As I wrote in my last blog post, I’m in the process of scaling-up my business. This involves outsourcing some tasks to others who are better at it than I am, or who can perform them at a lower rate. As it turns out, some tasks are pretty easy to outsource. There are thousands of people on the internet who can do at least a mediocre job at things like webdesign, content writing, SEO, translation between major languages, etc. They work for rates as low as three dollars per hour, as many of them live in low-wage countries like India and the Philippines. You do not want to be one of those guys!
On the other hand, for some tasks it has proven to be a real challenge to find qualified people. The number of freelancers who can write quality content in Swedish on the financial markets is surprisingly small. And they charge a lot for their services. The same goes for people who can make a really killer web design, that will give your site a unique feel that fits your brand. Or clever programmers who can create functionality for your website that no one else can. Rates can go up to $100 an hour. If you are providing some professional service over the internet, this is where you want to be*.
The difference between these two groups is that people in the first are generic, whereas those in the second are unique (or for those who take things literally, they are rare). The unique jobbers are hard to find, charge high rates for their services, can be picky in the jobs they accept, and are tough or impossible to replace. Being unique contributes greatly to your success as a freelancer (or any kind of career you choose).
How to be unique
If you want to be a freelancer or offer your services in some other way to the market, you want to be unique. This should strongly affect the decisions you make about your education, the services you offer, and the field in which you build up experience. So before you start, it is good to know what makes someone unique. The following factors all contribute to the uniqueness of a professional or freelancer.
You are really, really good at something. If you can deliver higher quality that anyone else in the same field, you’re pretty much guaranteed to make money. No matter what your field is. Are you the best yoyo player in the world? People are willing to pay money to see you perform. Generally, people will pay a premium for getting the best. So if there’s something you’re extremely good at, you should consider making it your career.
You speak rare languages. There are a ton of people who can write stuff in English, Spanish, Portugese, etc. Many of them live in low-wage-countries, and you don’t want to be competing with them. Because to do so is to put pressure on the price you can ask for your work. But how many people can make Italian-Norwegian translations? How many people can blog about the stock market in Dutch? If you can do something useful and you can do it in a language not many others speak (especially if that language belongs to a rich country), you’ve immediately made yourself highly sought-after.
You have information or knowledge that few others do. Many services revolve around some kind of information. Whether you’re in the business of dispensing legal advice, stock picking, or providing market intelligence, the key to your success is that you possess information that your clients don’t. Getting an academic or professional education is the most common way of obtaining valuable, marketable knowledge. But if you happen to have access to some large data set, or are in the know about some market developments, consider how they may give you an advantage over your competitors.
You are very creative or have a unique style. Quality and usefulness is one thing, but people also look for style. They want something unique, something authentic, something cool. Consumers don’t just buy an iPhone because it’s functional. They buy one because it looks and feels awesome. If you have the talent to create something that looks and feels awesome, you can market that at a premium. No matter if you’re a writer, a web designer, or a musician. If people think what you create is cool, they will pay for it. This topic always makes me think about Hugh MacLeod, who built his success on his doodling on business cards. Also look at some of the most successful Kickstarter campaigns: they’re usually by authentic people, who present the feeling of their product rather than just its functionality.
You have a special skill. Similar to having special knowledge, having a special skill makes you unique and valuable. Are you able to write in a difficult programming language, make kick-ass videos, or impersonate Vladimir Putin? Then you can do something few others can, and it can make you a lot of money. Think about what skills you have when you’re deciding how to make a living on the global online marketplace.
You have a large group of followers. Most people have a small sphere of influence. They can reach maybe 100-200 people who are willing to listen to them. Are you different? Are you a leader in your academic community, do you have thousands of followers on Twitter, or do many people read your e-books? Then you can monetize your following. Companies and other organizations are willing to pay a lot to reach their target audience, and if you have direct access to that audience, you can reap the rewards. It’s not just size that matters. If you know all the yacht owners in the local marina, there’s probably a lot of value to that.
What are your unique qualities?
The lines between these various points are not always clear. Most successful freelancers, professionals, and businesspeople have more than one of the above attributes. For example, someone can be a skilled and knowledgeable writer about the real estate market in Denmark. Those are some pretty good ingredients for success. The key point is that you should make an effort to identify what makes you unique, and how you can put that to work for you.
If you’re not satisfied and think your profile is still generic, then you should actively work on developing a more unique offering. You can practice your skills, learn a new language, acquire specific knowledge, experiment with your creativity, learn a new skill, or work on increasing your follower base. If you work hard at it, you too can be a unique and successful freelancer.
* Of course, you can make even more if you’re on the business end of the equation, rather than working as an (online) professional or freelancer. If you can bring together the right resources to fulfil a need in the market, you can make millions (due to the web’s near infinite scalability). Still, even there it helps to have some unique qualities that your competitors can’t copy.