Poll: Should You Retire the Word “Freelancer?”

By Josh Catone

Freelancers are amateurs. They’re not as talented as the designers, writers, and programmers who work for major development shops. They’re not as professional, use lower quality tools, and don’t produce the same quality of work. As such, they deserve less pay. Want to save a buck? Hire a freelancer. The work won’t be quite as good, but the cost savings will be immense.

Or at least, that’s how the professional world views freelancers according to designer Arron Lock. “It is unfortunate but as long as there are wannabe designers calling themselves freelancers there will be people that simply won’t take us seriously,” he writes on his blog.

According to Lock, there exists a negative stigma around the word “freelancer.” “In most people’s opinion freelancers are not professional designers,” Lock writes. That’s why when you pitch a client a $X,XXX price tag for their project, they might reply, “Yeah, but my nephew can do it for fifty bucks.” The problem is that freelancers have a reputation of being amateurs and should be paid peanuts as a result.

There are two ways to avoid that negative connotation, though, says Lock. First, stop calling yourself a freelancer. Lock suggests something like “Independent Designer” instead. That might not fool anyone, though — they’ll still know they’re hiring a contractor, so the stigma might continue to apply. Lock’s second piece of advice is to file the necessary paperwork to form an actual business, even if you’re the sole proprietor.

“Trust me, people take you far more seriously when they hear you are a business owner,” he says. That’s a sentiment echoed by my friend and freelance designer Kelli Shaver (who made the freelancer graphic above). She told me that people are generally much more inclined to hire her once they find out that she owns a local computer repair shop.

So our question to you: Should the term “freelancer” be retired?

Vote in our poll and leave a comment below.

[poll id=9]

  • I think this is so true. I get many people interested in me but never bite. But my day job employer started doing a thing with me, where I can give them the client, I do the work on the clock, then then we split the extra income. Whenever I go through the trusted company than myself they always seem more willing to go with me.

  • Jake

    Hmm… I prefer the Merriam Webster version:

    1b: A person who acts independently without being affiliated with or authorized by an organization

    2: a person who pursues a profession without a long-term commitment to any one employer

    Freelancers are amateurs. They’re not as talented as the designers, writers, and programmers who work for major development shops. They’re not as professional, use lower quality tools, and don’t produce the same quality of work. As such, they deserve less pay.

    This is ABSOLUTE nonsense. This is NOT true and there is no widespread negative connotation over the word “freelancer” that I’ve EVER come up against.

    I work in a professional brand consulting agency and I work as a freelancer at home. I have the same exact tools and my knowledge about web development doesn’t diminish when I walk out the doors of the firm’s building. It’s complete nonsense. I call myself a freelancer and get paid a lot of money for my activities. Please stop spreading around these kind of lies.

  • Joseph

    I think this is more of an issue for WEB designers.

  • Adam

    Most of the Freelancers I know do work “on the side” so they have the weight of their full-time position to add credence to their skill-set.

    Anyone else I know who works only independently, project-per-project, represents them selves as a company even if it’s myname designs or initials development. Some have set themselves up as a company, some haven’t, but do declare their earnings to keep it legal.

  • Travis

    Sure, initially there may be a negative impression when the client finds out you’re a “freelancer.” However, if your communications, demeanor and portfolio shout quality there shouldn’t be a problem over-coming that initial reaction.

  • I call myself a freelancer and get paid a lot of money for my activities. Please stop spreading around these kind of lies.

    I dunno if I’d go so far as to say its a lie. I think you’re mixing things up– Josh is speaking to an idea in business that freelancers are sub-professional but not neccessarily advocating that view.

    I appreciate the blog post– I usually bill myself as a freelancer but might consider dropping that for something a little more “professional”

  • @Jake: I think you may have misread the post. The first paragraph was not my (nor SitePoint’s) definition of the word freelancer. It was an intentional exaggeration of the type of negative image that freelancers have with many employers. Certainly not all, but many people hire freelancers expecting lower quality work on the cheap — rather than treating them the same as big name design studios or development shops.

    A dictionary definition, like the one you printed, doesn’t touch on connotation. It’s awesome that you haven’t run up against this — I hope you don’t! But many of the people I have talked to who work as freelancers have expressed that they have an easier time being hired if they don’t use the term or if they associate themselves with a registered business entity (i.e., XYZ Design, Inc.).

  • That’s bogus.. Freelancers are just as god, if not better than designers.. Its just a name. I see it as a freelancer being someone who does it on his own time, has no boss and other things. I have every tool a business can have.. not hard to get them.

    Therefore this is bogus.

  • randywehrs

    In the business community, many underestimate freelancers and what it means to practice business as one. Unfortunately though, in a business sense, the negative connotation of the word is justified because these people are putting their businesses reputation in the hands of an individual rather than a company, and from my experience, freelancers typically don’t have the stability nor the customer base that larger companies have – and therefore, unless you’re an extremely well-practiced and well-known freelancer, you will be judged by the title “Freelancer” until you prove yourself worthy to each client individually. Sad but true.

  • I am a full-time front-end web developer who also freelances on the side.

    I’ve come across a few small businesses that have the whole “but my nephew can do it for fifty bucks” attitude. I tell them, fine let your nephew do it, but you won’t get the benefit of having a seasoned professional with years of experience in the industry to work on your project.

    Most people get the point – they aren’t hiring “some guy” to take on their project – they are hiring a professional who knows what they are doing. Still, I have heard some people say: “No sorry, we’ll get someone that can give us a better price”, in other words, they want quality, but are not willing to pay for it, which is fine by me, people who don’t want to pay me what I’m worth don’t deserve my workmanship.

    I believe it is solely the attitude of some business owners that even called for the necessity of this post – I don’t particularly believe there is a bad stigma attached to the word ‘freelancer’.

  • In my case I believe the term ‘freelancer’ is more help than hindrance. I get far more visits to my site for people searching on ‘freelance web design/er’ than I do for ‘web design/er’ because as a freelancer I’m in more of a niche market and ‘web design’ is a far more competitive search term.

  • jeffgtr

    I freelance but that word only goes on my income taxes. Like most people I have a full time gig and do projects on the side. All of my outside projects come from word of mouth. I don’t advertise and don’t even have a website advertising that I’m available, if I did I wouldn’t use the word freelancer. When you have the word “free” in your title I think it diminishes your value. To me it says “I’ll work cheap”.

  • I haven’t personally run up against this but yes people do expect lower fees just because you are a freelancer. As long as there are newbies who who claim to be professional designers and sell themselves around, you just have to grin and bear it. Let go of the clients that don’t value your expertise.

  • LOL, what will Miles Burke do with his New upcoming SitePoint book if you retire the word!..

    It’s all about context. The term Freelancer used to target other web shops is fine, but for the general public I agree, I have found it should be a standard business front etc.

  • I agree about it being an issue of context.

    There is a difference between saying:

    “I am a freelance this” or “I am a freelancer” versus say “I am a professional this, but I am open to freelance projects”.

  • biba

    Freelance work can be equivalent to work of Professionals, there is no need to bury the name freelancer. The writer of the above article is probably hitting on public relation.

  • The premise of the article seems ridiculous to me. If there is any stigma attached to the term ‘freelancer’ in the web industry, it’s probably a function of the stigma that’s attached to the web industry in general. The web industry is not yet mature and although it’s developing nicely, it’s still seen as lacking in standards, consistency, and a general professionalism. Being a ‘freelancer’ isn’t negative, but being in the web industry still is so being a freelancer in the web industry doesn’t sound that all that great.

    Ironically, the concept of eliminating the term freelancer and using the term ‘independent designer’ is the kind of mentality that makes the web industry seem immature. It’s not the nomenclature – it’s the lack of traditional business sense.

  • Really… This is the subject of the article?
    Talk about your slow news day

    A couple of things… If you are pitching the client you are not a freelancer, you are a business so call yourself that. The design business world has a vocabulary that means next to nothing to the rest of the world. Subcontractors, freelancers, Mac-operators, coders, art directors and production artists are terms that have specific meaning to the industry but they don’t mean anything to my dad the lawyer or my buddy who owns a coffee shop. Freelancers aren’t amateurs. They are contractors that businesses hire on a per project basis. They usually charge around $55/hr or more (in our market) and don’t deal with the client. They work with an art director or lead designer and often with other freelancers. They get a workstation, a docket number and files to work on. Furthermore, they charge a healthy dose of overtime if the job is a rush job that requires they stay late. All the freelancers I know are doing quite well.

    Maybe this is different for other parts of the world but this sounds like someone’s looking to create a topic to discuss rather than an actual problem seeking a solution.

  • I think you need to reconsider what it really means to own/run/have a business. Just because someone is pitching a client doesn’t mean that they ‘are a business’. They can just be a person who is trying to get some work. A business generally refers to a entity created for the purpose of doing business (i.e. not a natural/individual person) or some kind of enterprise that goes beyond simply doing work for someone else as an independent.

    There are plenty of freelancers who don’t want to operate a business (or perhaps for tax purposes only) and do just fine as true freelancers.

    You implied that the design business world has a vocabulary that is a black box to the world . But, are any of the terms that you mentioned really so unique? The print world has been operating similarly for a long time. Design isn’t all that different from other industries – it’s another services industry.

    You said “freelancers aren’t amateurs” but in fact there are plenty of freelance amateurs mixed in with the professionals. Lot’s of freelancers DO work with clients exclusively and don’t charge overtime because they set their own hours and bill at a set rate.

    Your generalization of the freelance designer world doesn’t seem very accurate to me.

  • I view myself as a freelancer but the term freelancer doesn’t sound too good to me.

    Freelancer to me means basically a loose cannon or someone who cannot get to do what they want when in full time employment so they go at it alone.

    “Freelancers are amateurs. They’re not as talented as the designers, writers, and programmers who work for major development shops. They’re not as professional, use lower quality tools, and don’t produce the same quality of work. As such, they deserve less pay. Want to save a buck? Hire a freelancer. The work won’t be quite as good, but the cost savings will be immense.”
    Personally I find that downright rude. Why aren’t freelancers as good as professionals.
    I’ve met many ‘professional’ web designers and to be frank, they may have the qualifications, etc but the work is downright pathetic. I’ve only been a webdesigner for 2 years but I have taught people with 10 years plus commercial experience a thing or too and many of them don’t even know what OOP is.

    Freelancers are often used by professional companies when they can’t get the work done. I have been contacted numerous times about doing work for ‘professional’ companies. So if there is a bad media for freelancers then why do companies use them. I wonder how many large, popular websites have had a freelancer involved somewhere in the development or maintenance.
    However, yes “Freelancer” should be retired. Its a too generic term and frowned upon far too much for my liking.

  • Compumaniac12

    unfortunately, there will always be someone on the bottom who pulls away from your good work. So yes there is a time if your going to go “professional” that you shouldn’t refer to yourself as a freelancer. But the term will always have that baggage for good or bad. Less reliable, but less expensive, thats just how it works…

  • Again to me this perception of freelancers being something less than a “professional” is just downright weird and not reflected at all in the industry up here.

    Freelancers up here are well paid professionals who work for various agencies on a per job basis. The ones I know are often offered full-time opportunities along with the extended health, RRSP savings benefits, etc… but they choose freelance because it pays better and provides more flexibility.

    It must be different elsewhere because I know quite a few freelancers, we hire some as needed and as far as I know they are well regarded and compensated for their expertise.

  • Angie

    I intend to do freelance work once I start a family though I will probably trade using a business name as it sounds more professional. I dont know anyone (in a personal or business environment) who frowns upon the name freelancer. Personally though I think using a business name sounds more successful, professional and trustworthy so, that’s what I’ll do.

  • cfaj

    Given that the vast majority of so-called “professional” web design companies produce such awful results, I think it’s a case of the pot calling the kettle black.

  • “Given that the vast majority of so-called “professional” web design companies produce such awful results, I think it’s a case of the pot calling the kettle black.”

    I think I know what you mean but it might be hard to back up as a fact being so-called professional… I’ve got a feeling there is so much garbage on the web because so many entrepreneurial individuals saw the opening and opened up shop whether they had talent or not. Don’t forget anyone who takes money in trade for a service is by definition a professional regardless of whether they call themselves a business or a freelancer.

  • Arron Lock

    I wrote the article that this is based upon at arronlock.com. I think it is interesting to read the comments here. It is blatantly obvious that the majority calling this topic a “lie” or “bogus” either didn’t bother reading the entire article or are too blinded by their own self righteousness to actually consider the topic.

    Many of my colleagues have dealt with this issue at some point or another. I have dealt with it as well. The article was written for my target market, designers that are just breaking into the freelance world. If you haven’t dealt with this kind of prejudice then I am extremely happy for you. Many of us have. It can be based on geographic location and the type of business people in that area. Not all areas, especially ones with high population of creative professionals, are going to have this problem. I wrote this article based on my personal experienced of being a FREELANCER for nearly six years in a smaller town that seriously lack creative services.

    Obviously everyone is entitled to their opinion but be fair. Just because you haven’t personally dealt with the issue does not make it a lie. If you have not had cancer, is it a lie? Thank you to all of you who actually read the article and comprehended it.

  • Swaraj

    Really this statement is baseless. Because any professional who is delivering things at his own responsibility that is absolute freelance.

    And a freelancer can make his own company, because he can experience the real phase of professionalism.

    If this is not sufficient to accept my vote, then please visit any popular freelance job portal, there you can see feedback of clients for individual freelancers.

  • Arron, when you mention that your article was “written for my target market, designers that are just breaking into the freelance world” then things make a bit more sense. Then again, is it surprising that freelancers who are just starting off are finding it hard to build their reputations?

    I wonder if an article that was targeted towards established, successful freelancers could have been quite the opposite. Those freelancers might say that despite the fact that freelancers have a tough time building credibility, it can be done and there is nothing stopping an individual from becoming a respected and in demand freelancer.

  • TKD

    I didn’t have time to read all the comments but I’ll write my view of ‘freelancing’: I’m currently a student in my first year in web design & development. Altough I have experience in PHP, MySQL, XHTML, CSS and some others … it is hard to get a big project because usually I’m working on my own. In contrast, when somebody get’s a company to do a project, of course it will get done better and probably faster (as there is a team of people working there, each specialized in one area: design, development, marketing, etc).

    I believe the advantage of hiring a freelancer is when somebody wants a smaller project. However, I don’t think freelancers should get payed less. (That’s directly related to the work, of course).

    There are also really talented people out there who manage to work on large scale projects on their own and still call themselves freelancers because they haven’t started their own business or didn’t get a job in the industry because they did not wanted to.

    Still … I’m a student, I definitely need the money I get out of freelance projects. But what I’m aiming for is to become a professional and get a proper job in the industry after I graduate.

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