When I first started working for myself, I didn’t know how to explain what I did to the people in my life. I certainly didn’t call myself a small-business owner.
I usually just stumbled through an explanation. It didn’t matter if you were a high-school friend I ran into at the grocery store, someone who attended my wedding, or a family member. If you asked me what I was planning to do once I quit working in a traditional environment, my answer would be along the lines of, “Oh, you know. I’m, um . . . working from home. Doing some writing. That kind of thing.”
This isn’t what I’d recommend you do, by the way.
At the time, I didn’t even recognize myself when I said these words. I’m normally confident and clear on my abilities. I knew that I was prepared to take on clients as a self-employed professional, but I didn’t quite understand how to present myself. I never identified with the term freelancer, but was I ready to take on creative entrepreneurship?
Let’s take a moment to see how Merriam-Webster defines freelance and self-employed to gain some insight on how each role operates.
Freelance: “a person who pursues a profession without a long-term commitment to any one employer.”
Self-employed: “earning income directly from one’s own business, trade, or profession rather than as a specified salary or wages from an employer.”
What do you envision when you hear the term freelancer? Most likely you’ll picture someone who works on temporary projects until moving onto the next. When I got started working independently, I adopted the word freelancer because that’s what everyone else seemed to be using. But something just didn’t feel right. Maybe it’s because I spent my career in human resources and I know job titles are important, or because I’m strategy-obsessed and I attempt to plan out my life for years to come.
How could I possibly jump from client to client and always need to keep my eye out for new work? Even thinking about it now gives me anxiety. I wanted to have retainer clients I could count on to work with long-term. The uncertainty left me uncomfortable, and I longed for a different way to describe my work-from-home profession in a way that people would understand.
Plus, and possibly most importantly, I didn’t want to just write. I wanted to lead writing workshops or coach new writers in their career. I wanted to create passive products and self-guided courses. I wanted to take on strategy clients and make them feel confident in putting our plan into action by writing it themselves. I wanted a diversified career to satisfy my many interests and support my family financially. I didn’t think I could accomplish that as a freelancer.
A freelancer is often not in control of a project. Instead, they complete assignments given to them and move on to the next.
Early in my career as a full-time independent worker, I took a discovery call with a man who was looking for someone to rewrite the website copy for one of his clients. It was potentially lucrative as there were many pages to the site, and I was very interested. I was impressed when he started the call by asking me how I worked with my clients and what type of guidance I’d need as I worked on the project. Letting me lead the discussion made me feel as if he’d be easy to work with.
Then the entire call went downhill.
Image attribution: Ehimetalor Unuabona
When it was his turn to describe how he envisioned our working relationship, his expectations were drastically different than mine. Imagine: weekly conference calls with him, biweekly conference calls with the client. One round of copy edits by him for each page before progressing to the next, and worse, get this: daily check-ins on my progress.
I stopped to ask him if he was interviewing for an employee or if he needed a contractor. His response, “No, I’m not looking for a contractor. I just want to work with a freelancer.” He went on to say that he wanted us to use a messaging app so that we could be in contact throughout the day in case he had any questions and that he’d rather work with a freelancer because they are used to working with new people all the time and then not sticking around. You may not see anything wrong with this conversation. Many freelancers take on projects where they act like an employee. Their client is the boss, and they follow instructions.
But that didn’t sit well with me.
This call was one of the biggest turning points in my decision to change how I reference my services to other people. I didn’t want someone else to guide how I worked, especially on an hour-to-hour basis. If I wanted that, I could go back to traditional employment.
Here’s how I look at it: You can go to work or you can be the boss. I choose to be the boss.
Image attribution: Brooke Lark
When I started calling myself a small-business owner, I began to notice how many people in my life treated my profession as a hobby or something small I was doing to earn a little extra income. It wasn’t anything I paid attention to earlier, but I suddenly picked up on moments that showed me people either had no clue what I did or they didn’t value it.
It started with a family member who asked me, “How’s that book coming?” Well, I wasn’t writing one, and I’m not sure what gave them the impression I was. Then another person close to me made air quotes when talking about me working from home. She is a kind, loving person, and I doubt she meant to do it, but it was clear that she didn’t think I was doing much work. Everywhere I turned, people seemed to have no idea what I did and how hard I was hustling to grow my career as an independent worker.
And while I wish these people asked more questions or checked in better to see how my work was shaping up, I can’t fault them. I didn’t do a good enough job describing what I did for work originally. There was no easy-to-understand job title that would click in their mind. As my career progressed, I did nothing to update them or boast about my accomplishments. I needed to learn to present myself how I wanted other people to view me.
Enter: the elevator pitch.
Image attribution: Edward Cisneros
I knew I needed to develop a short script I could memorize and spit out when asked to elaborate about my writing career. Here’s what I came up with:
Hi! I’m Erin Ollila, writer and content strategist. I help small businesses and big brands by utilizing the power of storytelling to turn their audience into their biggest customers.
Then, I’d follow that statement with a brief example of how I’d helped a recent client grow their business or reach new audiences. This technique helped me own my role as a small-business owner and embrace creative entrepreneurship. I struck “freelancer” from my vocabulary, and my mindset began to shift, influencing my day-to-day work in many ways. Now that I’m well practiced in sharing my elevator pitch, I can go off script. I often start off by telling people I own a business, then follow up with details about how I write and strategize for my clients. I can personalize my description depending on the crowd, and my confidence has grown so that I don’t worry about it any longer.
So what are you—a freelancer or a business owner?
That isn’t a trick question, and there’s no right or wrong answer. Just because I don’t identify with the term freelancer doesn’t mean that it’s not the right fit for you. If it is, own it. If it isn’t, plan how you’ll put this mindset shift into action. First, start by committing to calling yourself a small-business owner to anyone who will listen. Call your best friend and say, “I just wanted to commit to always calling my work a business from now on. Can you hold me to that?” Write a social media post announcing your business to your digital community. Remove the word “freelancer” from your resume, website, and LinkedIn page.
But what if someone else calls you a freelancer? Should you correct them? Do you need to ignore all advice targeted to freelancers?
I write about freelancing all the time because it’s a term that so many people identify with. Many leads come into my business because they are “looking for a freelancer.” I enjoy those articles, and new clients are always welcome. If the word is important to them, I can live with it. It’s a label, and I can always refresh and realign the conversation if necessary.
Let me know in the comments if you prefer to be called a freelancer of if you also think of yourself as a business owner.
For more stories like this, subscribe to the Content Standard newsletter.
Featured image attribution: Corinne Kutz