Home / Marketing and Branding / Are You a Specialist or a Generalist?

Are You a Specialist or a Generalist?

Are you a Specialist or Generalist? Today we’ll talk about what this means, why it matters & how to figure out which category you belong in. Specialization and generalization are two totally different approaches to doing business. Business owners tend to adopt a bit of both practices, but doing so actually ends up hurting their business.  I’ll admit that over the years I’ve done my share of this as well. That’s why I want to start this dialogue and share some of what I’ve learned about making intentional choices and clearly developing a purpose for a photography business.

Photo by Wedding Photographer Mike Larson

Are you a Generalist?
A generalist is a person (or business) whose skills, interests, and/or habits are evenly distributed and unspecialized.

A generalist has NOT chosen a single category or niche to operate their business within, but instead does a bit of everything. There are a lot of these businesses in the photography industry.

Wedding Photography is No Longer a Specialty
Years ago a wedding photography business was automatically operating within a niche market by focusing on wedding photography. This was because most photographer’s business cards said something like, “Specializing in weddings, portraits, landscapes, babies and maternity.” (That was exactly what my 1st business card said.)  Since then, the quantity of “wedding specialists” has grown to a number in the tens of thousands. Now, a wedding photography business does not naturally belong to a specialty or niche; it is just as general as my first business card.

A lot of photographers starts out without a specialty because they need the work and experience, because they don’t quite know what they want to specialize in, and maybe even because they love the variety! As Jeff Jochum always says, “The Customer will always try to homogenize you.” He’s right. If you do everything the consumer asks you to do, you will end up doing everything. Doing everything in a photography business means offering multiple product or service lines and multiple styles of work represented on a website. A photography business using a generalized model typically has a primary product or service that generates 60-80% of their business, as well as multiple other product & service options.

Some generalists get lucky and will succeed for a period of time. But I believe that these photography success stories are the exception rather than the rule. I considered myself to be one of these accidentally successful generalist early on. Those like me who succeeded by luck, got in with a few brides who happened to have 20 friends who were about to get married, we were in a market that was not yet saturated. Others that have found success in this way may have known the right person or may have just been in the right place at the right time. This success is not bad, but luck is temporary and easily replaced. As the group of brides you photographed passes their mid 30’s and no longer has a basket of referrals, your “shoe in” client base shrinks.

The Pros
Businesses that are less specialized have a larger market pool, which potentially means more client volume. Photographing more people can help you gain experience. However, if you’re building a referral based business you want your current clients to be your ideal client. If you have a large volume of clients that aren’t ideal, you can get stuck in that market and have trouble working up to a higher clientele or a specialized position.

The Cons
When you are one photographer in a large market, it’s easy for potential clients to compare you to others. Clients that want a general service usually want cheap & convenient. You have a lot more competitors. You have to be all things to all people so that you can get every bit of business you can. There are always updates and new product lines to add to your offering in order to keep up with the competition.

Are you a Specialist?
A specialist a person (or business) who devotes their career to the pursuit of a single specific area. They are a connoisseur, an expert and a master at their craft. There are fewer of these people.

Pick a Hill of Specificity
My friend Kevin Swan always encourages photographers to pick a hill, a hill thats easier to defend, a hill of specificity. The more narrow the ground, the less competition will want to join you. Most entrepreneurs are fearful of committing to a specific market and position. A company that has made the commitment to a unique position in our industry is Kiss Wedding Books. They are committed to making simple wedding books, and because of that they are the only simple wedding book company. (It takes about 90 seconds to order a book.) They founded their business on simple: no frills, no metal covers, no embossing, very few options.

Wedding Photography by Mike Larson

Most businesses fear saying no to work. A specialist turns down work that is not consistent with their unique position, with their brand, and that broadcasts anything that is inconsistent with their messaging. Jose Villa is a great example of a photographer who is excellent at consistently broadcasting images that reflect a unique position.

The first step to specializing your business is finding a niche or specific category of the photography market and defining a unique position. For example, within the resort wedding photography market there are unique specialties such as focusing on weddings that take place at 5 Star resorts. The category that I have chosen to pursue is geographical and venue specific. Other specialties include: type of clientele, type of bride, location, region, etc.

I challenge you to Google the term you want to specialize in. Destination wedding photography is no longer a specialty, but instead is a market that has the opportunity multiple different specialties. The same goes for international wedding & portrait photography.

The Pros
You get the opportunity to own your unique category. A refined vision helps guide your day to day activities; whatever you do every day must get you closer to success within this category and your goal, otherwise you don’t do it. Your business can be simple. I love simplicity. You get to charge a premium for what you specialize in because people will pay a premium for specialists.  You will have fewer workflows, and have a narrow scope of tasks – you don’t have to be all things to all people.  You get to focus your business time on just those who support your business. And personally, you can spend more time on life and with the people you choose.

The Cons
You have to say no to everything else. While I love the beach and surfing, there is a very low potential for business in my area for beach weddings. I have had to choose to keep some of my personal passions for my personal life and highlight the passions that work professionally.  Estate & Vineyard weddings are a different passion of mine that happen to make sense for my business.

Its important to know whether you are a generalist or a specialist. Currently in our market, I believe specialists have a bull run and generalists are in a bear market. But what do you believe? Where does your business fit? Where does it have the best opportunities to succeed?

Join me in the next few weeks as we continue this conversation about strategies for being a specialist or generalist, unique positioning, and more.

Let me know what you think by commenting on this blog post!

I also suggest that you check out the book, “The 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing” by Jack Trout & Al Ries.

Written by Mike Larson

Photographer Mike Larson

Mike is hosting a Wedding Photography Inspiration {StyleShop} in NYC on June 9-10th.  A special guest from a top NYC wedding blog will be sharing insight on getting published.  Stop guessing at how to get your business growing.  Mike will be speaking at the New York PUG on Wednesday June 8th. There you can test drive a fraction of what Mike will sharing over the following 2 days at the StyleShop!

Mike Larson is an international photographer who began his career traveling the globe in search of photographing exotic locations, amazing surf, and beautiful cultures. Since then, he discovered his passion for photographing people who are in love and enjoying life. Residing in Southern California when not traveling, Mike is honored to be sought after to photograph spectacular weddings around the world.

The NEW ShootQ is Complimentary while in Beta mode for the next few months.  Enjoy!
The NEW ShootQ is Complimentary while in Beta mode for the next few months.  Enjoy!