Pillar #7: Optimize Your Product Mix

Beer sales in the United States have been declining steadily over the last decade.
Yet small-production craft beers continue to enjoy healthy growth. In 2009 alone, craft beer sales increased by 7% in volume and 10.3% in dollars while the Big Three (Anheuser-Busch, Coors and Miller) suffered sluggish sales and declining market share.

Quite simply, consumers are opting for more interesting microbrews. Sure, these craft beers may cost more, but they’re also more interesting, more complex and more memorable than, say, Bud Light.

The Big Three are taking notice. In fact they’re buying up every mom-and-pop craft brewer in sight in order to capitalize on the trend.

Coca-Cola has been facing the same challenges as consumers move away from sodas and into healthier beverages. So have McDonald’s, Nabisco, Nestlé and pretty much every food company out there. They’ve had to change their product mix to reflect changes in customer demand and preferences.

Freelancers Are Not Immune to This

This may sound like a big-business problem. But it’s actually a challenge facing all business — including solo businesses.

As a self-employed service professional, you must continually look at what you’re offering, decide if that is where client budgets are shifting to and make adjustments to your services in order to reflect that changing demand.

Otherwise, you may suddenly find yourself struggling — all because you continued to promote a set of service offerings that have been completely commoditized (and outsourced to freelancers who can do the work for $7 an hour) or are simply no longer needed.

Where Market Demand and Your Core Skills Intersect

Barbara Coates faced this same dilemma just a few years ago. After a 25-year career as an editor and camera operator in the film and TV industries, it became increasingly difficult to land documentary work (her bread and butter). Demand had shifted to video games and commercial production. And opportunities in broadcast TV started disappearing about the same time that the Internet really took off.

With her business on the decline, she took a hard look at her skills and aptitudes and found that her core skill was storytelling. This was encouraging for Barbara because she also understood that storytelling is at the heart of all communications.

She decided to go back to college and get a certificate in marketing and communications. Then she realized how many other writers were severely lacking in both solid writing skills and storytelling ability. So when she relaunched her business, she made a point of putting her storytelling skills forward and then supporting them with the added bonus of being able to tell stories with pictures as well as words (because of her TV production background).

Today, Barbara provides clients a whole host of communication services — everything from website content, media relations and public relations to marketing communications plans, media training and social media consulting.

Her clients really appreciate the fact that she knows what makes a great story and she understands what stories the media are currently interested in. By knowing both, she can pitch something that is virtually guaranteed to get noticed.

From Organizer to Financial Manager

Another great example of this is Sharon Hess, a freelance office financial manager and professional organizer. Sharon originally launched her solo business in 2001 with the intention of helping busy moms organize their homes.

She wanted to grow her business through referrals, so she created a formal referral system. “For every referral and/or referral letter I received, I gave the client one free hour of organizing on their next project,” Sharon explains. “I found that clients were happy to refer me. Also, the potential clients they referred me to were usually very receptive to my services. And of course once they hired me, I would also ask them for referrals.”

Within a few months of launching her business, Sharon was booked solid, and her referrals eventually led her to bookkeeping and bill-paying projects with a few small businesses and nonprofits. Although these offerings were not among Sharon's initial list of services, she had previous experience in this area and was happy to take on the assignments.

It wasn’t long before she realized how much she enjoyed doing this type of work. And because of her referral-based approach, she soon started landing other financial management opportunities.

For Sharon, one of the biggest benefits of doing more of this work is that these opportunities are recurring in nature and therefore add stability to her income. Plus, as the personal organization business has become more competitive, focusing more of her time and energy on this service set has allowed her to stay booked with more profitable work.

Where Do You Start?

Here’s the interesting thing about market trends: They’re often not easy to detect early on. And by the time you notice them, making the necessary changes in your business can be difficult.

So here’s what I’d recommend you do. Twice a year (say, June and December) take a half-day off to examine the clients and projects you’ve brought in the door over the last six months. As you look at your business over this six-month period, ask yourself the following:

  • Where is most of this work coming from? Which clients? What marketing methods are bringing in most of my clients?
  • What type of work am I getting the most of?
  • Over the last two years, what has been the trend for this type of work (fee levels, difficulty landing clients, competition, client demand, etc.)?
  • Which project/service types have been the most profitable over this period?
  • Which specific clients (and what types of clients) have been the most profitable for me?
  • What are my peers offering? What’s most profitable for them? Why?
  • What is my target market doing? How are their businesses changing? How is the economy impacting them? How can I help them adapt to new market dynamics?

Based on your answers to the above, ask yourself: Are there any opportunities to start providing services that are experiencing growing demand and/or are increasingly profitable?

Don’t just focus on profitability, though. Are there opportunities to add one or two service offerings that are fun and fulfilling and are enjoying relatively healthy demand?

(By the way, even if you find that no changes or adjustments are required, the answers to these questions may very well reveal opportunities and trends you may not have otherwise noticed. So make sure to take the time to go through this exercise.)

Embrace the Change

I often get asked what we can do about websites such as Elance, Guru and oDesk that bring buyers and sellers together more efficiently — and at the same time, create more competition for freelancers everywhere.

I don’t buy into that kind of thinking. These developments are a regular part of business. They’re inevitable, and they certainly have a place in the market. Fighting the trend is a waste of time.

Jim Rohn, the late author and speaker, said it best, “There are two ways to have the tallest building in town. One is to tear down all the other buildings. The other is to simply work on your building.”

As self-employed service pros, I think our time and energy are best spent working on our own “buildings,” if you will. When we work on ourselves, we can deliver greater value to our clients.

And when we communicate that value properly and to the right audience, we will always have more work than we can handle.

So make time to take a hard look at your business every six months. Do the analysis. Think about where you’re heading, how the market is trending and where you’d like to go. And make adjustments as needed.

Making the big decisions — just one of the many benefits of being the CEO of your own company! 😉

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OK, folks — we’ve come to the end of this minicourse. But the free training is not over!

We’ll continue to send you occasional lessons over the next few months. So be on the lookout for those emails.

Also, would you do me a big favor? If you found this minicourse helpful, would you mind letting your friends and colleagues know about it? It’s certainly challenging out there. And I know thousands of freelancers could benefit from these ideas and strategies.

Simply point your colleagues to the minicourse info page. They can read more about it there and sign up if they’re interested.

Wishing you great success,

Ed Gandia
Co-founder, International Freelancers Academy


Did you get here via a link from a friend or through Twitter? This lesson is part Seven of a seven-part free mini-course on building a rock-solid freelance business. You can learn more about it and sign up here.