Once any HR professional decides to take the plunge and go it alone as a freelancer, interim, contractor or setting up their own business, the next step is to decide in exactly what field to specialise. Specialising is key – it makes marketing much easier for a start, as you can more easily define your target market, but it also makes defining your services easier. Clearly defined services make you more attractive to buyers, making their decision to work with you easier.
So what area should you specialise in? You could specialise in a particular area of HR, in a particular sector, a particular type of client or more than one of those. A lot of it will depend on your career thus far. If you’ve spent most of your working life in a particular sector, you will have accumulated bags of experience, knowledge and expertise in that sector which could be enormously valuable to businesses like the ones you’ve been working in. You may also have built up useful contacts to get you those first bits of work, or may be able to get some work from your existing or previous employers.
If you’ve found yourself specialising in, say, reward, recruitment or another specific area of HR, sticking with that might be your best bet (assuming you enjoy it!). Working in a dedicated specialism also usually goes hand-in-hand with working in bigger businesses with corresponding large HR departments. You could stick with that, or alternatively could offer your specialism to slightly smaller businesses who do need an expert in what you do, but only for a time, or for a specific project, for occasional support or only a few hours a month.
If you’re a generalist, you may struggle to market yourself as an expert in a narrowly defined area of HR, so you’ll need to find another ‘hook’ – who is it that needs generalist services and why would they want to work with you?
I’m a generalist by trade, and enjoy that. I like having a wide spread of experience, and enjoy employee relations stuff especially, managing relationships between people to the benefit of the business, planning strategies to avoid problems and helping managers deal with problems effectively and quickly when they do arise.
For me therefore, the choice was always going to be between interim work for businesses who need a generalist for a short time – for maternity or illness cover, for example – or thinking about clients who need generalist expertise and support regularly but don’t need or can’t afford to employ people of my experience and calibre. Small businesses were the answer to that. It always used to be that small businesses were exempt from many employment law requirements, and the market for small business HR advice was accordingly not strong. Thankfully for small business HR consultants and for employees, that’s not the case now. There are only one or two exceptions and variances to employer obligations, and even those mostly only apply to tiny businesses.
So I chose small businesses as my target market and my specialism. It is also possible obviously to specialise even further within that target market, and focus on one particular sector. I’ve chosen not to do that as one of the things I enjoy most about my job is the wide variety of businesses I work with, but that could certainly be an option, particularly if there is a sector you have a lot of experience in already, or a sector which has a high concentrated presence in the area you live or work in.
So before you take the leap into self-employment or freelancing, think carefully about why people would want to work with you, and make sure you define yourself, your services and your target market clearly in order to maximise your chances of a successful career outside traditional employment.