Is the Title “Freelancer” a Turn-Off?

I have read a number of articles, blog posts and even comments here at Freelance Folder that suggest anyone who works under the title “freelancer” may be short-changing themselves. The idea is that the title has negative or substandard connotations that go along with it, and opponents recommend using some other type of terminology to define oneself in an effort to avoid any negative stereotypes that might be associated with the moniker. In this post I will offer an alternative point of view that may encourage you to not only claim the title of freelancer, but to wear it with pride.

What IS a Freelancer?

Let’s start off with the definitions.  Merriam Webster defines a freelancer as “a person who acts independently without being affiliated with or authorized by an organization” and “a person who pursues a profession without a long-term commitment to any one employer.” Wikipedia‘s definition reads, “A freelancer, freelance worker, or freelance is somebody who is self-employed and is not committed to a particular employer long term.”

In my opinion, none of these explanations of the term denote anything negative or subpar. In fact, they point out the reasons many professionals choose to go the way of starting a freelance business. Working for yourself is the ultimate dream for many, and the freedom that can come with it is incomparable. Still, many fail to make the leap from being employed to self-employment due to the countless risks and uncertainty involved. For others, the thrill of this adventure is enough to push us over the edge into taking the chance and metaphorically draping a sign around our necks that reads “Freelance or Bust!”

What’s in a Name?

The argument against defining oneself as a “freelancer” usually includes recounting the experience that many, including myself, have had in which a potential client assumes a self-employed person has less overhead than his corporate competitors and therefore must charge significantly less for the same quality service. While there is a grain of truth to this reasoning, it usually gets distorted in the client’s mind and they will try to lowball the freelancer, expecting ridiculous rates that no self-respecting worker would charge or be able to survive on. Is this enough reason to avoid the term and form a LLC or something of that nature instead?

In my experience, I have come to learn some basic truths. One of these is that a title is really only defined by the actions and beliefs of the one who wears it. In other words, if you define your freelancing business as ridiculously cheap rates for high quality work that is produced at all hours of the day, without boundaries, contracts or any of the other necessities of a successful business, your clients will define it the same way and bring those expectations into every project. Very few freelancing businesses, if any, will survive this way.

On the other hand, if you define your freelancing business as a fairly priced, highly skilled and experienced alternative to the competition, with all the benefits that an individual can give and a corporation cannot, your clients will come to you with the confidence and trust that you deserve.

Don’t get me wrong. You will still run into those who will claim their own definition and try to force you and your business to fit into their mold. I believe that if you hold firm to your understanding of your own definition then you will know how to identify these abusers of the title and brush them aside to make room for those who see you as you really are.

A title is quite simply just a word. Words have power, but they are powerless without our uttering them and defining their usage with our understanding, actions and beliefs. If you think your freelance business will earn more respect if it is called by another name, then it most likely will. By the same token, if you believe the title has little effect on the quality of work you do or the rates you will get paid, then it most likely will.

I am not trying to convince you of the power of positive thinking or anything like that. I am simply saying your business will be as successful as you make it, regardless of what you decide to call it.

In the past, I have toyed with the idea of beginning to present my business as a “one-man web and graphic design studio” instead of calling myself a “freelance designer.” In the end, I decided it really didn’t matter what I called myself. If a potential client is shallow enough to overlook my business due to its title, I most likely am better off not dealing with them in the end anyway. I can’t definitively tell you that my approach has helped or hindered my freelance business, but I am working enough to support my family, which is what I define as success.

A Final Thought

For me personally, there is something liberating about the term “freelancer.” The word includes one of the most important nouns I know: “free.” I am free to decide when I work, where I work, who I work for and how I do business. I celebrate this freedom every time I call myself a freelancer. Freedom is a beautiful and priceless thing that I have learned to not take lightly. Why not enjoy it with a constant reminder in the title that I choose to assume for my business? More than anything, the title is for me, and what others choose to believe about it is their choice, which I cannot be responsible for.

Share Your Thoughts

What do you think? What are your experiences in this area? Please share your thoughts and input in the comments below.

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Comments

  1. says

    Thanks for the comment Bruce. Actually, either word works, but ‘penultimate’ was used as intended to denote that it may not be the ultimate, or top, dream for everyone, but it is at least usually next to the top.

  2. Mauro A. Litsure says

    Where I’m from, the word “freelancer” simply means you’re not serious, haven’t got skills to be employed and unworthy of the big client knocking on your door.
    I aim to be recognized as a freelancer in my field and am aware of the monumental task ahead. Specifically for web design it is difficult to get clients who are willing to pay $700 for a project knowing you’re a freelancer. With all respect, we are the same people that work full time jobs designing websites for clients who will even pay $4000 just because they’re paying a registered agency. Give us the respect and recognition we deserve, as long as our work is of the required quality.

  3. says

    I like this post Brian. Completely agree. I’ve heard the argument about the term freelance. I think it could not be more of a true title for what it is. Freedom and work all in one little package.

  4. says

    I think since so many people decided to freelance full-time after/during the recession, it’s a term that is so much more common now that any negative connotations have faded a fair bit.

    Aside from saving money by not using an agency, a lot of the clients I talk to like the idea of dealing with one person as their contact rather than an agency where misunderstandings often happen, slowing down the process.

  5. Sam says

    I disagree. From a psychological point of view, certain words have certain connotations in the general mindset. “Freelancer,” for many people, brings to mind someone who is “between jobs” and just trying to make ends meet with some work on the side. The only way to get around that general mindset is to, individually, prove that’s not true to each and every client. Of course, the client has to agree to even consider you first, and then you’re still facing an uphill battle to prove your worth. Personally, I’m just leaving college with a Master’s degree, and there are very specific reactions to telling people I’m going to be a freelance web developer. Mainly, “Oh, but when that doesn’t work out, you better get a real job.” But when I started telling people I was starting my own web development business, suddenly I was a brave explorer forging my own path. So, the question is: Do you want to be perceived as on the verge of giving in and finding a real job? Or do you want to be perceived as the brave explorer forging your own path?

  6. says

    It is a tough one – I am a freelancer, but I go by many names depending on my client. Consultant, contractor, independent designer etc…

    Freelancers can be seen as ‘bedroom photoshoppers’ – I tend to tell people that I ‘run my own web design business’, which is true… but it just isn’t an agency. If people think I run an agency, then so be it…

  7. says

    @Sam: or, you can rebuke the path of allowing other people’s perceptions dictate how you operate and instead be the brave explorer that helps to forge your own path and simultaneously creates a new perception of the term ‘freelancer’ (or whatever other term you decide to use.) Personally, I have found success with the latter. Good luck in your endeavors, however you proceed!

  8. says

    I have to agree with Sam here, typically when I think of freelancing in the traditional sense I think of hired guns, like the mercenaries of the Old West. Those people may have been independent with no affiliations or obligations to larger organizations, but typically they also had no loyalty to any one thing either. You may think a title is only defined by the person using it, but if it turns off a prospective customer because their initial thoughts are shaky regarding your commitment to them, then you are doing yourself a disservice for the sake of defending a word.

    To me, “Freelancer” is even more suspect than “Self-Employed”, which is what most of the people who are actually unemployed that I know say about themselves, especially online these days. I would just say what I do or that I own a business rather than give myself a potentially damaging title.

  9. says

    @Rob: Your point is exactly what I was writing about. How clients perceive us is only as much of our own responsibility as we choose to make it. If you feel you need to call yourself by different titles depending on who your client is, then I say “Go for it!” My personal experience has been that the more I let the quality of my work speak louder than my title of choice, the more my clients could care less what I call myself. I choose freelancer as my title for the reasons I listed above, but that doesn’t mean it’s the right title for everyone.

  10. says

    Thanks to everyone for your comments.

    I hope I have made it clear that I am speaking strictly from my own experience (it’s all I know) and in that experience, the use of the title freelancer has never been an issue. I am a full-time freelancer who is the sole provider for a family of five. That in itself tells me that my work is obviously speaking louder than any possible negative thoughts about my title. Maybe I’m the exception, I don’t know. But I do know that my approach has been successful so far. I hope that is helpful for others.

  11. says

    I have been giving thought to my writing title too. I always wonder whether to put “writer” or “freelance writer” on my business cards, etc.

    I recently did a blog post (great minds think alike, right?) on the topic.
    http://tinyurl.com/2enqe2r
    In it my friend and fellow freelancer Jim Willard relates the history of the term freelance.
    Thanks

  12. Stephanie says

    “Penultimate” means “next to last,” not “next to the top.” I’m with Bruce; I don’t think “penultimate” works the way you used it here.

  13. says

    Having worked independently as a designer for most of the past 30 years, I’ve refused to use the word “freelancer” to describe myself for nearly half of my career now. Telling potential clients that “I own my own design firm” (or the like) has resulted in many potential clients, especially larger corporations and government agencies, taking me much more seriously as a provider of design services. The only down-side has been the large number of resumes I get each year from recent design school graduates wanting to come to work for my “firm.”

    As I wrote in my first book, “The Savvy Designer’s Guide to Success” (HOW Books, 2004): “I hate the word ‘freelance.’ To many it implies that 1.) a designer does something for free; 2.) a designer doesn’t have a job, can’t get a job, or is between ‘real’ jobs; 3.) a designer is not serious about the business of graphic design.”

    I enjoyed your post, Brian.

  14. says

    @Stephanie & Bruce: I gracefully bow out of the discussion and submit to your knowledge. Perhaps I have heard or read the word used in the manner I chose, but I am not an English major so I cannot argue something I have little expertise in. I have changed the word in the post. Thanks for your suggestion/input.

  15. says

    @Jeff: Thanks for your insight, Jeff. I’m so glad my clients don’t have any of the implications you listed, or I would have had to give up freelancing years ago! What I find interesting, too, is how many people and potential clients ask me about my “agency” or my “firm” when I never even use those terms. I’m so grateful I don’t have to live my life ruled by others’ perceptions or the implications of words and titles.

    Glad you enjoyed the post, Jeff.

  16. says

    I think it really depends on who is reading the term “freelancer.” I know one person who told me he prefers to hire “consultants” over “freelancers” as he feels they’re more professional. When pressed to define the difference between the two, he wasn’t sure.

    I also think that freelancing had a different meaning ten or twenty years ago than it does now. When I worked for a company that hired freelancers in the 80′s and 90′s it really did mean someone who wasn’t tied down to a particular employer. Now many times it’s equated with ‘WORK FROM HOME!!!!!” type.

  17. says

    I’ve read my fair share of blog posts and articles written from the other side of the fence, and I’ve come to notice that, indeed, a lot of people seem to think ‘freelancer’ is synonymous with ‘could not cut it in corporate world, so went freelance and isn’t worth a dime, but still charges too much.’ And let’s not forget how a lot of people take these misconceptions to the point of using them to believe freelancers should be really cheap alternatives to ‘the real thing.’ And then there are the people who actually think that freelances are free…

  18. says

    Interesting article and discussion, Brian.

    I am a writer and journalist, and for branding I much prefer the label independent journalist. I think it speaks to the spirit of my career decision and my approach to my work. In my experience, most people respond positively to the label. Who doesn’t value independence, after all?

    That said, I am reluctant to ditch the freelance label entirely. I think people looking to hire in my field use the term when searching, and therefore it is important for SEO purposes.

    If I was looking to hire a journalist or writer in my town, I use the search terms “freelance journalist Miami” or “freelance writer Miami.” There are a lot of journalists in Miami, some affiliated, some not. But I would only want the ones for hire…freelancers.

    Mileage may vary for other industries, of course. But in mine, I think it would be a mistake not to target client “freelance” searches by using it on my web site just as I did in the name field of this post.

    Rob

  19. says

    Freelance to me means…

    I’m available for hire.
    I have to work hard or I earn £0.
    I’m not tied to a desk or a 9 to 5.

    I’ve come to learn from reading these Blogs etc that a lot of people see Freelancers as…

    Cheap.
    Unemployed a lot of the time.
    Couldn’t make it/ was cut from the Corporate World.

    I’m sure there are lots of people that come into that category. Although I don’t think we should stop using a term just because a few people give it a bad name.

    This point summed it up nicely for me “a title is really only defined by the actions and beliefs of the one who wears it.”

  20. says

    Usual question: “What do you do?”

    Me: “I’m a web programmer”

    Usual response: “Oh yeah, where do you work?”

    Me: “Why, I don’t have a boss”

    Regardless of any title freelancing holds, I do what I do just for the privilege of giving that response.

  21. says

    good article Brian….for me being a freelancer n to b called freelancer is the best thing ever happened….it gives confidence of top notch level…

  22. says

    I usually tell people that I own my own business, then explain what I do. My business cards say “President and Owner.” Every once in a while someone will look down their nose at me and say, “Oh, you’re a FREELANCER.” Very few people have used the term positively. I also try to avoid mentioning that I work out of my home for the same reason.

    I think, though, that part of the negative reaction is people being jealous of the fact that I had the guts to start my own business in this rotten economy and making a success of it; that I get to set my own schedule and work pace, spend a lot of time with my son, and really enjoy my newly remodeled home office.

    I think forming an LLC is a good idea for anyone because it’s much better and easier for tax purposes. It helps distinguish business and personal expenses. And having a company name and image leaves a much better and lasting impression.

  23. says

    This is an interesting post Brian. Where I come from, the idea of being a freelancer is still new and a lot of people still stray from the idea of working without having the company ID and the benefits. As with companies, they tend to treat freelancers they hire as employees, not as professional businessmen and women that they turn to for their services. The latter is based on personal experience and it’s very sad.

    Personally, I wear my freelancer title with pride. I’ve established that among my circle of friends. In fact, several who are interested in becoming one would turn to me for advice. All in all, I agree that the term can only be defined by your actions, achievements, and beliefs as a freelancer.

  24. says

    To us, we will always be “freelancers” as long as we are working for ourselves. To the general public, it seems they feel more comfortable interacting with a ‘business’ because they know how to behave and what to expect. I strongly recommend individuals form an LLC regardless, for your own protection. It is significantly harder to deal with legal issues as an individual providing a service without a registered business or licenses than it is with an LLC, and you will encounter them eventually (copyright infringement, nonpayment, etc)

  25. says

    I think for a long time the term “freelancer” had a negative connotation. In fact I’ve had people ask me what’s it like to be chronically unemployed. It’s as if the term had taken on the image of the individual who has no particular skills and will pretty much work at anything that comes along. I’ve always enjoyed educating these folks as to what I do. I especially like to remind them that the core root word is “free.” As in no cubicle, no time clock, the ability to pick and choose who I work for etc…

    An then there are the hard facts and numbers that show that the ranks of freelancers are growing everyday as employers outsource everything.

    So it’s a title I wear proudly. I even have a tee shirt that say’s, What’s the one thing you won’t find in your office cubicle – A Freelancer!

  26. says

    The title of “Consultant” sounds much more official then Freelancer. At least here in the US, the word “consultant” is used a lot in the Legal field of work, which us “freelancers” can ride the coat tails of.. it really does seem to give more value to your title.

  27. Joan says

    I’ve noticed that some people will take any chance to misunderstand and condescend; the kind term for them is insecure, and it is definitely their problem. That lasts as long as they remain employed in some capacity. When they’re suddenly out of a staff job, their perspective can change remarkably. Suddenly they want to know how you’re making a go of it as a freelancer and what can I learn from you, and BTW, do you have any clients you don’t want?

    I think the term is not so important. I’ve been most decidedly and happily freelance for most of the past 25 years or so. I cherish my freedom, though I’m not as free as people might assume.

    I must point out that “free” is an adjective, not a noun. Good post.

  28. says

    Well i think , Freelancers are self employed.
    It is not easy to become a freelancer , only skilled person’s are able to do that.
    A freelancer is a person who works on his own terms.
    In future freelancers are going to dominate the era of companies.

  29. says

    If you’re doing much freelance work for design / digital agencies you’ll hear that their perceptions of freelancers are mainly very positive. They know that we need to work hard to build up a good reputation and in order to make ends meet. And for that reason we’re trustworthy and dependable.
    If there are any bad connotations associated with freelancers, in my opinion it comes from those that offer to do websites for people taking some money upfront and then doing a half-hearted job (or no job at all) and disappearing with the money. These people make it hard for us legitimate freelancers. I have come across apprehension when asking for a deposit up front even though I’ve explained that it’s there to cover both our backs and they’re entitled to have it all back if I pull out for whatever reason. But I that’s entirely understandable if they’ve been burned before. As long as we ourselves maintain good business practices we should prosper as a result.

  30. says

    I don’t mind the term freelancing because you are essentially free to do business the way you want professionally with your own morals, expertise, contracts, etc.

    Even though I have named my freelancing business Mad Talent Designs I do get some hesitation from potential clients when they ask to meet them somewhere. I have to tell them that I work out of my home but I can meet with you anywhere or we can chat by phone or even email…then I never hear from them.

    So what do you do in those cases? Or just face that some folks have their preferences on what they think is a real designer?

  31. says

    The subsequent time I learn a weblog, I hope that it doesnt disappoint me as a lot as this one. I mean, I know it was my option to learn, however I truly thought youd have one thing fascinating to say. All I hear is a bunch of whining about one thing that you would fix if you werent too busy searching for attention.

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