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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