My friend Ryan Waggoner and I were catching up last Thursday, and he told me about a recent conversation he’d had with one of his email subscribers.
“I like your stuff, but your 250k course isn’t for me,” the woman explained in an email. “I’m not a freelancer.”
“What do you do?” Ryan asked.
“I’m a marketing consultant.”
“Cool. So you work for an agency?”
“Oh, I don’t work at an agency. I’ve got my own clients.”
Ryan and I puzzled over that situation. We both identify as freelancers. We’re also consultants. And independent contractors. And small business owners.
And if I’m feeling really frisky on a Friday afternoon, I might even call myself … gasp … an entrepreneur.
I find some people’s reluctance to own the title “freelance” puzzling but not surprising. In the words of the Captain from Cool Hand Luke, “What we have here is a failure to communicate.”
Let’s clear up the confusion in terms before we attempt to understand why some creative professionals distance themselves from the word “freelancer.”
What is a freelancer anyway?
In his novel Ivanhoe (1820) Sir Walter Scott describes a “medieval mercenary warrior” as a “free-lance.” These independent warriors of the 1700s had the freedom to pursue causes and compensation that fit their preferences. (Hat tip to Navaneeth for the etymology I found in his “So Called Freelancing” story)
Though freelancing is hard, I doubt Ms. Marketing Consultant would embrace the idea of being a mercenary. Wikipedia’s definition of freelancer would be more apropos: “a person who is self-employed and is not necessarily committed to a particular employer long-term.“
I think Wikipedia’s definition is too narrow because I know plenty of self-proclaimed freelancers who like their 9-to-5 jobs. They have no plans to turn their side hustles into full-time gigs.
Thus, the broader definition in the “Freelancing in America: 2016” published by the Freelancers Union and Upwork strikes me as the more accurate one: freelancers are “individuals who have engaged in supplemental, temporary, or project- or contract-based work in the past 12 months.”
Some part-time freelancers have 9-to-5 jobs. Other freelancers run their own businesses full-time and depend on those businesses for all of their income. What percentage of your income you make from contract work or what you choose to call yourself is beside the point.
We can resolve the confusion in terms like this: “Freelancer” describes one type of relationship between a creative and his or her client. “Employee” describes another type of relationship.
If you have at least one client to whom you send a W-9 and from whom, come tax season, you receive a 1099, then you are a freelancer. That is a statement of fact, not a judgment about your capabilities or degree of professionalism.
Why do some people not like being called “freelancers”?
Without doing a deep dive into semantics, I think we can safely assume that some people resist the title of “freelancer” because it somehow minimizes their accomplishments or expertise.
I’ve brushed up against these negative connotations myself. When I describe myself as a freelance writer, do I run the risk of being pigeon-holed? After all, I do other things for clients, and I prefer roles, such as a content consultant or marketing automation specialist, because I can charge more for them and generate higher ROI.
In summary, I empathize with Ms. Marketing Consultant, and if I don’t catch myself, I may have a chip on my shoulder: “Hey, just because I’m a freelancer doesn’t mean I couldn’t hack it at an agency! I don’t wear sweatpants all day.”
(Then again, why should it matter what I or we wear? In a recent Sunday Dispatch, Paul Jarvis said he swears by the ones that he buys at Costco.)
Freelancers are professionals, not fly-by-night practitioners of the dark arts with a helping of graphic design on the side.
We have the experience, expertise, and moxie to do the project better and faster than many agencies because we are more agile. We are less encumbered by high overhead, payroll, and concerns about dysfunctional culture or keeping bad-fit clients so that the ship doesn’t sink.
Many freelancers are smart, creative, talented, ambitious, and caring—exactly the kind of people companies want to hire.
Success in Freelancing
Be that as it may, freelancers must walk a fine line. I can’t help but think of this line from Hamlet: “The lady doth protest too much, methinks.” The more we strive to legitimize our way of doing business, the more we stigmatize it. The more we defend ourselves, the more suspicious we become.
So let’s speak softly and carry big sticks. The key is to not fixate on titles and labels like “freelancer” but to instead focus on being fair, reliable, and reasonable (that is, easy to work with) and on doing excellent work.
In his Keynote Address to the University of the Arts Class of 2012, author Neil Gaiman summed up success in freelancing quite nicely:
“People keep working, in a freelance world, and more and more of today’s world is freelance, because their work is good, and because they are easy to get along with, and because they deliver the work on time. And you don’t even need all three. Two out of three is fine. People will tolerate how unpleasant you are if your work is good and you deliver it on time. They’ll forgive the lateness of the work if it’s good, and if they like you. And you don’t have to be as good as the others if you’re on time and it’s always a pleasure to hear from you.”
Why should more people become freelancers?
The Great Recession will continue to affect economies around the world, and globalization, technology, and the ever-growing convenience of communication and money transfer will continue to shape how we work.
These “environmental” factors will make freelancing more than a realistic possibility. Rather, freelancing is inevitable for millions of people around the world. People who freelance in some capacity already make up 35% of the U.S. workforce, and that number will likely grow to 50% by 2020.
Work will look very different for 75 million Americans in the future than it has in the past.
Believe it or not, this is good news! 79% of the respondents to the “Freelancing in America: 2016” survey believe that freelancing is better than a traditional job, and 63% work as freelancers voluntarily.
For people who have never considered freelancing, those statistics might come as a shock. Yet, many smart professionals become and stay freelancers because they want a different lifestyle.
You might say they want a better benefits package:
- Unlimited vacation time
It’s a fine thing to be a freelancer.
So let’s make our peace with the title. Let’s make “freelancer” part of our barbaric yawp, a positive statement about what one values:
“I am an individual who values my freedom, and I value that freedom more than the supposed stability of a salaried position.”
“Freelancer” certainly doesn’t mean that the person in question got an “F” in business. Maybe the “F” stands for “fun” and “freedom,” not “failure.”
Of course, there will always be people who try to minimize the title. When they say “So you’re a freelancer?” They mean “So you’re just a freelancer?”
Fine. Whatever. Starting a business (and staying in business) is one of the more difficult things anyone can do and an accomplishment to be proud of. Leave your gainfully employed naysayers to their smugness while you go use your funemployment to triple your income.
“Freelancer” need not be a pejorative.
The new economy and a world that technology is shrinking will give rise to a new class of professionals who can have their cake and eat it too. Maybe freelancers are mercenaries after all. We enlist for the right causes and compensation.
Why not embrace the title and embrace the freedom? Why not start mastering the Unagency model now? You’ll have a leg up on more reluctant freelancers who worry too much about labels.
Addendum: Some of my favorite people own agencies and dev shops, or work at them, or both. The creatives do brilliant work for cool clients. For certain projects, I recommend them to my clients, not freelancers. Were you to get a job at one of their agencies, you would be keeping good company. I envision an exciting both/and future, not a false either/or dichotomy.