The Business of Authority is a treasure trove of information for independent consultants. This morning, I listened to a 2019 episode titled Five Ways To Specialize, where hosts Jonathan Stark and Rochelle Moulton went deep into these approaches:1
- Horizontal Specialization: Niching Down on a skill that can be applied to a very broad range of client types. e.g., responsive web design, iOS development, MySQL administration.
- Vertical Specialization: Niching Down on a market segment in which vendors offer goods and services specific to an industry, trade, profession, or other group of customers with specialized needs. Typical examples of buyers in a vertical market would be quick service restaurants, ski resorts, pet shelters, auto repair shops, and so on.
- Demographic Specialization: Niching Down on a market segment defined by personal attributes of an individual (e.g., Baby Boomers, New York residents, millionaires, Asian Americans, migraine sufferers).
- Psychographic Specialization: Niching Down on a market segment defined by personal beliefs, attitudes, or behaviors of an individual (e.g., environmentalists, skeptics, flat-earthers, dreamers).
I discovered the episode because I wanted to understand psychographic specialisations better, as part of figuring out my current positioning. In my first round as an independent consultant (back in 2014-2015), I specialised horizontally as a data scientist. These days, data scientists aren’t that special, and I’m not that interested in further horizontal specialisation (e.g., as a machine learning engineer focused on edge applications). While horizontal specialisations are interesting from a technical perspective, my true interest is in nature-positive outcomes, i.e., cater for the psychographic market segment of “environmentalists”.2 This is consistent with career actions I’ve taken over the past decade, e.g., stopping my independent consulting / product building to join Car Next Door (now Uber Carshare) in 2016, founding a sustainability resource group as an Automattic employee in 2020, and leaving Automattic to focus more of my time on climate tech in 2021.
Right now, my homepage says that “I provide independent consulting services around Data & AI, focusing on small-to-medium organisations in the climate tech and nature-positive sector”. However, my website tagline still says “Yanir Seroussi | Engineering Data Science & More” – changed last year from the long-standing “Data Science and Beyond”, but it’s still focused on my discipline rather than on the clients I aim to serve.3 Like many other independent consultants, I find it hard to commit to a niche that feels too narrow!
Back to the podcast episode: To my relief, Stark noted that for those who choose psychographic specialisations, also specialising horizontally is less important. So going broad with Data & AI is both consistent with my experience (I’ve done work all over the stack), and makes sense when it comes to what I care about. For example, I don’t mind doing any web & data work for Reef Life Survey or engaging in full-stack data engineering for Work on Climate, as it delivers nature-positive outcomes in both cases. What I’m missing is higher profitability and a consistent client pipeline, but it seems like fully committing to the psychographic path is the right way to go.
In my mind, the word “environmentalist” carries some negative connotations of aggressive and unrealistic activists, which is why I prefer the term “nature-positive” – focusing on the key outcome people in my niche want. ↩︎