It’s Not You, It’s Me (How to Break Up with Your Competitive Spirit)
Creative freelancers confide in me on a daily basis and there’s a common theme among those who are struggling: they spend valuable time, energy, and resources concerning themselves with what their competition is doing. On the flip side, those who are thriving don’t even have competitors on their radar; in fact, their real competition is most likely their peers, if not their closest friends. Successful creative freelancers focus on what they do best— period.
David duChemin on Real Photographers:
“Digital did not kill our business. Our failure to respond to shifting market conditions did. Stock did not kill our business. Our failure to adapt did. Free did not put us out of work. Our failure to provide value did.”
I understand what you’re up against—my clients are exposed to the same external “forces” as you are—but success in an art-based service doesn’t come from combative behaviour, or whining about the actions of others. Creative freelancers who thrive do so because, among many things, they strive for creative excellence; they are problem solvers; and they ignore external factors and forces which they can’t control. If you find yourself feeling under attack from those that share your passion, then…
Your competition is not the problem. You are.
The best way to ignore your competition is to focus on yourself, your creative vision, your marketable talent, and ultimately the needs of those within your sphere of influence. Besides:
This is your idea.
This is your art.
This is your creative legacy.
Get to work.
Your objective should be to re-focus yourself on what your business is to be known for and how you’re unique in the marketplace.
I strongly encourage you to ignore everyone and everything until you have navel gazed, schemed and planned in relative isolation (the odd *conjugal visit with your target audience is permitted to ensure that the plumbing works). To build a more marketable freelance business you need know what makes you unique to your ideal buyer (and yes, by virtue, what separates you from your competitors). It’s a fact that other people do what you do. Other businesses offer similar, if not the exact same, skills or deliverables—so you have to have something that’s special to you. Your creative concepts, business attributes, quality level, special abilities, and contextual experience are what make your art-based service economically viable. Without these things defined, you’re just an artist with a chip on their shoulder.
Crafting and acting on a Unique Selling Proposition (USP) will, over time, create a legacy of trust. You do what you do because you’re passionate and talented, but a potential buyer needs to know more: they need a reason to believe you’re the answer to their problems. Think of a USP as a tagline, but don’t fall into the clever or cute trap. It should be a clear and compelling statement that has meaning. If it never sees the light of day so be it; it’s more about self awareness than it is about marketing wizardry at this stage of the game.
Note: If the ‘selling’ part in all of this doesn’t appeal to your artistic sensibilities then please replace that word with ‘value’. It’s more or less a semantic but do whatever you’ve gotta do to connect to the spirit this statement.
Here are six (6) kickstart questions that we use in the Business Action Planner Toolkit to help photographers and designers hammer out their USP in practical and meaningful ways:
1. How many ways can you describe your work and your creative process?
I know this might sound like an exercise in futility, but trust me, it’s not. Knowing what words best illustrate your creative offering and knowing how to build cohesive, descriptive sentences that convey the guts of your business is the hard work of building your narrative. Your legacy is built on repeated actions; your business model is built on the premise that you actually know what the heck you’re doing.
2. What specific areas, niches, or specialties are you most effective at serving?
Though it’s a bit unpopular to say so, I think a freelancer needs to shelve their passion once in a while and honestly evaluate how they can, or could, benefit people or companies through their work. Your effectiveness in an area might not be sexy but it could be something you can leverage to grow your business.
3. What expertise do you have that separates you from your peers?
It’s very common for buyers to compare service providers based on the facts, such as the cost estimate at the end of a proposal or the quality and fit of the portfolios. However, buyers also make decisions based on subjective information and your expertise is at the top of that pile. All things being equal, a buyer is more likely to hire the service provider who has done something more, or more expertly, than the other. If you’re feeling like you’re a little light on expertise then consider making skill development a goal of yours.
4. How do your peers talk about their businesses? How do you differ?
It’s pretty common for artists to struggle with describing their work, so take a page from those who have already stuck their neck out. Since copying is stealing, don’t just grab someone’s bio. Instead, when you’re creeping on your peers (or competitors) make notes regarding the why and the how of their businesses and then create a comparison for yourself. Which elements resonate with you? Which do you feel differently about? Again, focus on words, not visual work here.
5. What kinds of activities are you accustomed to performing that have created exceptional value and seemed to be deeply appreciated?
Freelancers tend to develop their businesses with the wrong person in mind: themselves. They have fun with their craft, produce work they are proud of, tell some people about it, and then hope to be paid to do more of it. From a business development standpoint, that self-centred approach will only get you into trouble. Pushing your creativity is not the same as selling; the goal of a successful business is to make the most meaningful contribution you can, and that happens only when you offer solutions.
6. How can you create memorable experiences for your customers or clients?
In order to thrive, you’re going to have to go beyond being a great artist, and you’ll definitely have to go beyond delivering great value: you’ll need to ensure you’ve got a plan in place for creating a great memory. The experience of the buyer can be elevated by even the simplest thing, and when you string together a bunch of small gestures and unexpected benefits you will leave a solid lasting impression. If your USP can allude to this then that’s great, but this is really about your integrity and character as a service provider, so put your thinking cap on.
With homework like this in your back pocket I hope you can feel confident preparing a position statement that brings clarity and focus to your creative career. Your next steps entail confidently talking and/or writing about this differentiating factor at a high level (non-promotional)—this is how you develop your voice within your industry.
*I’m sorry for the mental picture. Sorta.
Rock on! – Corwin
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This article was originally published in Issue 5 of Corwin’s free PDF mini-magazine MEMO 2 FREELANCERS. Get exclusive business and marketing insights, Q&As with creative freelancers and a shot of inspiration by subscribing to this awesome publication (also available at www.BusinessActionPlanner.com).