I hear it all the time. It comes from creatives of all sorts: designers, illustrators, writers, developers, illustrators, photographers: “I’m a freelancer.”
But are you really? Let’s take a look at the term and maybe consider removing the F-word from your vocabulary.
The fact that you work for yourself, full-time, as an independent creative professional does not necessarily make you a freelancer. Chances are, you are set up as an LLC, S-Corp or are somehow incorporated as a small business. This means you are paying taxes and your company is paying your salary or monthly paycheck. Note: If you are not incorporated and you’re claiming your full-time earnings as personal income, registering as a legal entity will save you a ton of money at tax time. It also gives you the ability to itemize deductions and get perks like tax credits that only come with being a small business.
Where does the word “freelance” come from?
The term “freelance” originated in medieval times as a term used to describe a mercenary warrior who had no allegiance to any higher authority. They were “free to lance” for anyone who paid their asking price on a contract basis. They were hired talent who worked temporary gigs with no ties to an actual business or authority. (https://www.merriam-webster.com/words-at-play/freelance-origin-meaning)
Dictionary.com defines freelancer as: a person who works as a writer, designer, performer, or the like, selling work or services by the hour, day, job, etc., rather than working on a regular salary basis for one employer.
I like this definition. But, keep in mind that if you are incorporated as a small business and you’re doing things legitimately, your business IS your “one employer” who is paying you your regular salary. Even if you work for yourself, your business is not you—it’s actually your employer, your higher authority.
Freelancers typically fit into one or both of these categories:
Moonlighters have a full-time job but are open to taking side projects in their spare time.
Nomads travel from agency to agency (or in-house gig, to in-house gig) working on short-term contract projects, often for their client’s clients.
Why does it matter?
Like it or not, the term “freelance” is often tied to terms like “temporary,” “inexpensive” and “side-hustle.” It’s commonly understood as “money you make that goes over-and-above what you make at your day job.” It’s a project here and there to pay for the vacation you wanted to take or buy the equipment to fund your hobby.
But if your salary is based on being full-time, self-employed, working with your own clients, and you call yourself a freelancer, you are giving clients the wrong impression. In a sense, you’re telling them that your situation is temporary or that you are working a side-hustle. Either way, it doesn’t communicate the idea that you’re going to be a creative partner who will be around for them long-term.
Why do you care what I call my business?
Because I care about small creative businesses and I believe one acts based on who one believes themselves to be. It’s about your mindset. You can call yourself whatever you want. But if you compete against other small businesses, you can (and should) charge competitive rates as other small businesses. Charging what you’re worth lifts all ships and helps the creative community at large. If you want to be taken seriously as a long-term creative partner, stop using the F-word and start charging what you’re worth. Your full-time job is not a side project, it’s your bread and butter and you should be making enough to make a living, and then some.
If you’re working a side-hustle, then charge “freelance” rates. Many people are willing to pay discounted fees for a short-term engagement or understanding that their work will be done “on the side” and that their creative partner will not be available to meet or discuss their project during work hours. If that’s your situation, by all means, keep doing what you’re doing.
Okay, you’ve convinced me that I’m not a freelancer, what do I call myself when someone asks?
When I tell people I work for myself, I’m commonly asked “oh, so you’re a freelancer?” This is a great opportunity for me to kindly educate them, and, at the same time, explain the value of what I do. My response goes something like this: “I’m structured more like a small design firm. I work directly with my own clients. I rarely work alone as I have a network of amazing senior-level creatives that I assemble for any project, large or small. We take an agency approach to our creative work and have ongoing, long-term relationships with our clients.”
My best advice: just drop the F-word. When asked, don’t say “I’m a freelance photographer,” say “I’m a photographer.” It’s that simple. If they press you further and ask who you work for, tell them you are an independent creative who works directly with your own clients. It’s not that complicated.
Bottom line: if you’re self-employed and work directly with your own clients on long-term projects, stop acting like it’s a side-hustle and start running your business like a business. Charge what you’re worth. Let them know you’ll be available when they need you and that you plan on being there in the future. It’s important to use the right words to describe your practice, especially when helping potential clients understand how you work so you can manage expectations and outcomes.
Disclaimer: Don’t get me wrong. There’s nothing wrong with being a Freelancer. I’ve spent a few years in both categories, working in-house as a temp for various businesses and burning the midnight oil on side projects while holding down a 9 to 5 job. Most creatives do it and it’s a great source of income and opportunity to do creative projects that are outside of the typical day-to-day work.