Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Is Your Niche Hurting Your Business?

Lori Widmer had a fascinating post the other day about discrimination--more specifically, discrimination against a certain kind of niche market: working moms. There's a big Work-At-Home-Mom (WAHM) niche out there, and some freelancers market themselves largely or exclusively under this title. Lori's position is that doing this can invite discrimination against a). those who work from home and b). parents, particularly moms (there doesn't seem to be a correspondingly big niche group of WAHD freelancers out there).

I have nothing but respect for working moms. Being a parent is a full-time job in itself, and I can only imagine that trying to be a full-time freelancer and a full-time parent at the same time is brutal. I could imagine that if I managed to be reasonably successful at doing both, I'd want to broadcast it to everyone. Hell, I'd want to put it on my business cards. But I can also see Lori's point--that presenting yourself as a work-at-home-mom invites employers to see you as something other than a businessperson, and that's not a good thing. If I were a client, I could understand hesitation about hiring a freelancer who seems to be so wrapped up in her off-work life that she identifies herself with it in business.

So this got me thinking about other ways we try to niche-market ourselves that may invite discrimination. Here's what I've come up with:

The Gen-Y expert. I write occasionally for Brazen Careerist, a website that caters to what's sometimes called "Gen-Y Thought Leaders." I've had people categorize me under this label several times. It's true, I am a young business owner in my 20's (for a couple more years, at any rate) and it's flattering to be called a "thought leader" of any kind. I have a great deal of respect for my peers in this age range and all they've accomplished. BUT, I'm not always comfortable being labeled a "Gen-Y" businessowner. The phrase "Gen-Y" comes with its own baggage, probably the most prominent of which is "young"--and by association, "inexperienced." You've also got other doozies like "entitled" and "demanding"--none of which are things I want clients thinking about when they think of me.

The Creative. I'm a creative person. I write poetry, short fiction, and novels. I love slam poetry and have a serious crush on Taylor Mali. I also act and sing and do all kinds of artsy things. Do I bring it up to clients? No, unless it's relevant to the job. Creativity often doesn't go hand-in-hand with business savvy in popular conception, although in real life this is definitely not always the case. As a freelance writer, I feel it's crucial to present myself first as a businessperson, second as a writer--because "writer" falls under "creative," and it feels to me like my work could be valued less if my creativity were promoted over my business sense.

The Work-at-Homer. There's an automatic association out there that if you work from home, you don't have a real job. If you're a freelancer, I'm sure you've experienced this. Everyone out there who's had a friend, family member or spouse ask you to watch the kids, pick up so-and-so from the airport, or do a little more housework because "you know, you're home anyway" raise your hand. See? I rest my case. Anyway, I don't make a big deal of my work-from-home status either because I'm aware that it seems more professional to work from a big spiffy office that's, you know, in a place other than your house.

I don't like to promote these sides of myself to clients, and i'm not sure it's smart to. But I have great respect for all of these types of people--they're all me. What do you avoid putting on your marketing materials?


Jun Loayza said...

I've found that people don't like to know that I'm 23 and charging $1000/month + for social media consulting. As long as I don't tell them my age, it's fine though.

Even when I explain that being younger in social media means you know it better, they still don't like to pay me the money I deserve because I think in a way, Gen X feels jealous that we can potentially make more money than they do. As if, we have to pay our dues before we're worth getting paid what we deserve.

I don't mention my age anymore unless the person asks directly.

- Jun Loayza

Jennifer Williamson said...

Jun, i think it's smart not to make an issue of your age. It's true that "young" can carry the connotation of "good at cutting-edge technology," (which is not necessarily always the case in reality), but also negative connotations that get in the way of your paycheck. You get all kinds of reactions when you're young and achieving a lot--and sometimes people respond to it the wrong way, I think.

Unknown said...

Thanks for the cyber love, doll. :)

I had one woman disagree with my WAHM post, and while she has a point on how WAHM shows her ability to multitask, she's missing the larger picture. The very label itself points to the primary subject - Mom. It's not Parent Writer - it's work-at-home MOM. Like you said, whether we like it or not, there are stereotypes associated with working from home and with parenting while you're doing so. We don't make those up, we don't promote them, but there they are. And we're hard-pressed to alter the views of corporations who see the word "Mom" in the title and automatically assume the writer isn't really a match. It sucks. But it's happening.

Same with age. I remember another 20-something having big difficulties with clients who brought up her age. Mind you, she wrote circles around most 40 year olds I know and she's an incredible editor. But they don't see that. They see age and think "Too young to know." Wrong! But it's the reality of the market we face.

Great post, Jen.

Jennifer Williamson said...

I'm not sure multitasking is such a great selling point. Does the client really want to know you're working on (and thinking about) six other things in addition to your project? I think laser focus on THEM would be a better selling point.

Anonymous said...

I have a master CV, and, although I've revamped my resume for overall freelancing, I tend to pull out material from the Master slanted to different areas.

I've managed to parlay my fiction experience into a strength for corporate writing. It took awhile to figure out how to do that, so, early on, there were times when I didn't mention the fiction or the playwrighting. Now, it's all in there, because i know how to point out its strengths in the overall package.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for posting that link--interesting read. It all comes back to the idea of "message." If "mom" is part of your message, you can't control what associations other people bring to that. Same thing with age, whether you're young or old. (As Jun proves--after all, we GenXers are all jealous and clueless about social media. Alas. I'm just on the GenX/Y border, so maybe there's hope for me yet.)

However, if you're focused on the value your business adds to your clients, that's a message you can control. That said, I think it's good to strike a balance--you need to show clients some identity and some personality, but it needn't include an explicit label like "mom" or "GenY" no matter how benign.