A common refrain I hear from indie hackers is that "you should position yourself.” There’s riches in niches! There are whole books on the subject, like The Positioning Manual. Positioning is a powerful marketing tactic, but if misapplied it can be dangerous.
Positioning vs. specialization
First, I'd like to flesh out the difference between positioning and specialization.
Positioning is an act of communication, it’s how you tell people about what you can do for them.
Specialization is about your internal practice. Specialization is how you allocate your skill points as you level up.
Positioning is how you frame your resume, specialization is choosing what types of work you want to focus your energy on.
Positioning is changing the headline on your website from “freelance web development” to “web design for doctors.” Specialization is learning about the business of doctors, and how you can apply your skills to their specific problems.
Choosing one does not always mean choosing the other. You could position an offering today without changing your skills.
Positioning is a practice. You don’t just say you serve one kind of person and then go out and do it forever. You find niches within the niche; you refine your market; you become pickier as you grow. And you serve them in different ways, changing your offerings to adapt to shifts in technology, the world, and your customers & clients. Positioning is the act of bringing intentionality, focus, and clarity to the way you serve others.
– Nick Disabato
A positioning vs. specialization example
I’ve always been a full-stack developer. A couple of years ago, I decided I wanted to transition to exclusively front-end work. Why? I wanted to move to a larger company (I’ve started to suspect that working for smaller companies is largely a bad move, but that’s a whole other post). At larger companies, developers tend to have more specialized roles. My previous job was 70/30 frontend/backend, so I could smoothly make the transition.
I positioned myself by updating my LinkedIn and resume. I branded the previous role “front-end developer”, focused on front-end keywords. I applied for frontend roles.
Once I was there, I could start to specialize.
One fear of specialization is that it will get boring, and you won’t get to learn new things, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. When you specialize you learn new things by going deep not wide. I get to spend more time focusing on topics like accessibility, and the dark arts of the most arcane CSS.
But before that, when I was freelancing, trying to position cost me. Here's what they don't tell you about positioning
Every company has secret income streams
A company's website and it's balance sheet tell two different stories. Most businesses make money in ways they don’t talk about. Some examples:
- They serve off-brand clientele. There is a background check company that sells its services to companies looking to screen candidates. Their most profitable clientele is actually churches; Their website doesn't mention this offering.
- Large tech companies like Microsoft and Google fulfill government contracts.
- Indie hackers usually have multiple income streams, some combination of product, freelance, and affiliate marketing.
- Any agency that has lasted tends to have one legacy client, usually a government institution, that pays at least 50% of their bills.
One day, I’d love to talk to business owners and collect more examples like this. But for now, I want to warn people:
If you overspecialize, you miss out on these opportunities
The agency mentioned above has a pretty sweet setup: If 50% of your income is stable and you can survive on that, it gives you freedom in the rest of your business to pursue the kind of work you want to do.
However, some people will cut clients loose like this because they don’t fit into their desired “positioning” when what they really did is cut off their ability to explore!
Try this instead
Positioning needs to be kept solely as marketing, not practice. Until you have literally more work than you know what to do with, don’t turn down opportunities because they don’t fit your positioning.
Don’t let positioning stop you from exploring, experimenting, and iterating
Don’t let positioning keep you from learning skills that are outside of your lane.
Use positioning to hone your product and service offerings. It can help you clearly communicate the value you provide and find the people you want to serve.
Do what needs to be done, and remember you're not required to talk about it. 🤐