Who are You: Freelancer or Business Owner?

John Tabita

As a business entity, there’s really no difference, legally-speaking, whether you consider yourself a freelancer or business owner. Yet, the distinction is an important one to make, not only to determine who your target client will be, but also to establish your future goals, write a business plan, and so forth.

The term freelance comes from medieval mercenary warriors, called “free-lance” because their lance was not sworn to any lord’s services, but was available for hire. The freelancing lifestyle offers more freedom than “being in business”—especially for a single person. I know someone who pulled up stakes and traveled throughout Europe while still maintaining his freelance clients. On a recent discussion on LinkedIn, someone made this poetic observation:

We’re freelancers. Each contract is a mission; each mission is an adventure (a bit heroic, isn’t it?).

As a freelancer, you’ll be contracting yourself out to perform a certain task. You might work for a company as an independent contractor to build a website, do some programming or SEO. You might also work with other design firms or for a company with an in-house web team that you’d interface with. You probably don’t have plans beyond being a one-man or one-woman show and supporting yourself by trading your time for dollars.

I look at the business model as being a consultant paid to produce a certain result. It involves being able to understand and solve a client’s bottom line business issues, using your expertise in web technology and Internet marketing. The typical client would be businesses, corporations, and non-profits who have no in-house web resources available to them. The ultimate goal would be to eventually hire freelancers or employees to replace yourself, so you can work on your business rather than in it.

Having a portfolio is always a concern when first stating out. It’s a Catch-22: you can’t get clients without a portfolio, and you can’t build a portfolio if you don’t have any clients. Pursuing the business model, I found that none of my early clients even asked to see mine. If you are freelancing, then a portfolio may be more essential, especially if you are looking to sub-contract to other agencies. No matter which path you take, you’ll have to figure out how to find and be found by your clients (marketing) and how to reach an agreement to do business with those clients (selling). Learning how to market and sell your services is crucial, regardless of if you are pursing the “business” concept or that of a freelancer.

For me, freelancing felt too much like working for someone else—like a subordinate paid to push the right buttons on the keyboard, instead of someone providing a business solution. That’s why I never bothered with freelance marketplaces where you’re one of a hundred other low-ball bidders. I preferred to be paid for my knowledge and expertise, and be viewed as a peer. But that’s me. There isn’t a right or wrong choice. You ought to pursue whichever fits you best.

Which do you prefer? Do you market yourself as a freelancer or a business, and was that a deliberate choice? Post your comments.

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  • http://www.bydj.ca DJ. Perez

    I am with you. When I got started full time on this business back in 2009 I was a Freelancer and everyone was asking to see my portfolio. It was hard to show them things as I didn’t have much to show. Getting a client was harder as I was also bidding for their projects on multiple sites such as elance.com. The problem for me is that I live in Canada and the cost of living is way higher that in India. So I couldn’t compete with a $5us bid for a logo. Or $45.99 for a website. Are you kidding me?!

    So I decided to move on and forget about sites like that. I got busy and develop a better SEO for my own site, a Social Media presence, and lots of networking!!!

    Almost 3 years later, I now own a boutique style studio that specializes on Social Media Networking, Web Design and Graphic Design and I ended up calling it after my freelancer title “Designs By DJ. Perez”

    So after all of that, I believe that if you have the support and dedication you can really make it happen.

    Cheers,

    DJ. Perez

    • http://smallbusinessmarketingsucks.com/ John Tabita

      One of my first clients was a photographer whose took some amazing photos of my neighbor’s family. So I called her up and left a voice mail telling her how impressed I was with her work and to call me if she was interested in a website. To my surprise, she called back.

      You’d think a photographer would be the first person to want to see your portfolio, but she never once asked to see it. Perhaps because it was a cold-call and she wasn’t looking at multiple bids.

  • http://www.simplyfabulous.be Lance

    Very nice article. If you work as a freelancer, you don’t have your own clients. I’ve never worked as a freelancer. In the beginning its hard to find work for your one person business, but after all this will be the best solution on the long tail I think. Cheers!

  • http://www.thenerdblurb.com Jeremiah Reagan

    Very nice post John! I have to agree that making the distinction between “Freelancer and Business Owner” really gives the client an entire different “perspective” of who you are and what you can offer. It’s all summed up nicely in your quote “freelancing felt too much like working for someone else—like a subordinate paid to push the right buttons on the keyboard, instead of someone providing a business solution” – Couldn’t agree with you more John.

    Cheers!
    Jere R.

    • http://smallbusinessmarketingsucks.com/ John Tabita

      “freelancing felt too much like working for someone else—like a subordinate paid to push the right buttons on the keyboard, instead of someone providing a business solution”

      I hope no one misunderstands that my statement wasn’t mean to denigrate freelancing, just that this is how it felt to me.

      • http://www.twitter.com/chgraphics Dorothy

        No misunderstandings here John; (because I’m on both sides of the fence) I understood what you meant perfectly!

        BTW, great article :)

  • http://www.tyssendesign.com.au John Faulds

    I’ve been freelancing for about seven years and in that time have actively promoted myself as a freelancer. In SEO terms, I rank well for searches for freelancers in my geographical area and know that I get quite a lot of visits from people searching for freelancers and some clients specifically mention they wanted to work with a sole operator rather than an agency.

    Although I’ve promoted myself as a freelancer, I haven’t had much to do with freelance sites. All the promotion has been through the SEO work on my own site.

    Billing myself as a freelancer has also led to opportunities working with other agencies and most of my work has come that way, although I am trying to alter the balance between subcontracting and direct client work, not because I don’t like the subcontracting or there isn’t enough work, but because it’s not as profitable as direct client work.

    @ Lance: “If you work as a freelancer, you don’t have your own clients.”

    Not true. I’m a freelancer and have heaps of my own clients.

    • http://smallbusinessmarketingsucks.com/ John Tabita

      Thanks for another perspective, John. It’s clear that we each have valid reasons for the route we choose, and yours seems to have worked out well. Although I went a different direction, I do understand the appeal of the freelance lifestyle.