How I stopped being afraid of my competition
Most freelancers avoid looking at their competition in the market, even when they know it's important. For years after creating my profiles, I never took ten minutes to search up people like me and see how they offered their services. Why? Well... doing competitive research feels a bit yucky, doesn't it?
I think there's a few uncomfortable parts when you're a freelancer, because it's not a product you're researching: it's you. You have to whittle yourself into a particular box: front-end, Node.js, Rails, whatever it is you do. It's easy to feel small and insignificant amongst a massive sea of other developers, many of whom are better than you (and maybe even better than you could hope to be). It forces you to change, and maybe makes you feel a little insecure...
The discomfort means we tend to avoid researching other freelancers similar to us. And to be honest, I think it's not always good to have a realistic view of one's skills anyways. Feeling like a front-end wizard could mean that I have some confidence, I apply for a higher job at a higher rate, and I move up in my career. If I'm always comparing myself, I'll always be "less than" someone.
Yet, competition research is useful, truly. (In small doses, administered once every few months or so.) Let's go over some of the basics of looking at your competition on the rare occasion that you feel up to it.
What are you?
If you're going to search for people like yourself, you have to classify. What kind of jobs are your main source of business, and which part are you best at? I get five stars for front-end, mapping, teaching, and making sure a project gets delivered complete and on time. I do a lot of other stuff too, but those are pretty much why I actually get hired.
But maybe you're good at client management, or absurdly tiny details of design, or writing. Whatever it is, find few words to describe your biggest strengths. Don't choose what you wish you were good at -- choose what makes you money now.
Remember that every strength is also a weakness, and vice versa. Consider how your weaknesses might be strengths. For instance, if you're a bit unreliable and flaky, that might mean that you're ideal for taking care of urgent fixes on the spot -- as long as, when you're actually working, you do a good job. A more reliable person might be great for doing long-term work, but might also need a more static schedule.
So consider what you get paid for, your strengths, your weaknesses. This is not just a list of technologies or skills -- it's a list defining what four or five things make you the unique freelancer that you are.
Now, when you find profiles or people, don't read them. Not yet. Just open 'em all up in new tabs and keep searching for more. We're going to read over and analyze them all at once -- otherwise you'll get distracted and you'll give too much importance to the first few you see. We need to get a good sample size!
Once you have ten or fifteen open, you can start to slow down. You'll probably already have begun to notice patterns, even in the way that people classify themselves and give their titles. Maybe you're already sweating a bit, feeling like you've done everything wrong. I promise, nothing has changed! You're OK!
Remember that while you're doing research, you're also learning about your customer's experience. Your customer searches for people like you, just like you're doing now -- so what makes it easy to find a person like you? What makes it hard? What catches the eye, and what's just unnecessary? These are the kinds of questions we'll tackle next, in analysis.
Have you noticed some patterns? For me, I realized that an absolute ton of mapping people used the term "GIS" in their titles and descriptions, where I really don't. Maybe this means I should use that term -- or maybe it means that it's oversaturated, and I should avoid using it. How can we analyze anything?
Well, the most important rule is to keep it simple and stupid. Don't try to overthink -- your clients won't. For me, I think there's too many "GIS" guys out there already, and I'm really not a technician like they are: I'm a mapper. So I won't write "GIS". But that's just me, for now!
Your clients will often be overwhelmed by choices and will go with a freelancer that feels good to them, more than one that ticks all the supposed boxes. So in your analysis, don't copy others too much -- instead, look for ways to accentuate your existing strengths.
When you read a profile, consider if that person is your competition. If they offer similar services in similar places and have a similar price range -- that's direct competition. Look for weaknesses -- missing portfolio information, bad writing, and so on. Perhaps they are not marketing on all platforms. Can you be strong in the areas where they are weak?
There are also others that you will find who are doing business similar to yours, but they are different enough to not be a direct threat. Perhaps they are significantly cheaper or more expensive. You might want to consider reaching out to or working with these people (especially the less expensive ones) -- you may have clients that you can share with each other on specific tasks. Or maybe you can build a team one day...
Overall, again, don't overdo it. Get a sense of your industry, your general competitors and what you can offer that they might be lacking. Try to understand your strengths and don't be afraid of your weaknesses; they are strengths in their own right. Use that special something you have that no one else does.
In the long term, having a consistent sense of the makeup of your industry's freelancers will have a few positive effects. One, you'll keep your profile and information up-to-date and well-written, and honed for your ideal clients. Two, you'll be able to quickly adapt when technologies change, because you'll see competition starting to offer new things and you'll want to catch up. Third, it creates a sense that you are not totally alone, and it might kick up a competitive spirit.
I know it's all a little overwhelming. It is to me too. That's why I don't do this often (and why I'm usually terrified that I'll find someone so great I'll feel like garbage). But do come around and do the Googling once in a while. Take some notes. You know it's the smart thing to do. So do it.
In the end, there's enough work for all of us online. So let's carve out and define the individual niches that are embedded in our personalities and our passions, and get paid for it at the same time! Once you are sure of your specialties and promote them properly, they will open more doors than you could have imagined. I promise.