"Freelance" has been my go-to term in describing my recent career path, but I have always felt a little confused by it. When I hear about freelancers in my creative field (motion design/animation), most of the time they talk about day rates or hourly rates and working on site at various studios and agencies. In a sense, they are always looking for jobs, not clients. I've been calling myself a freelancer, but this is not what I'm doing. So what is it that I do? How do I define it? Is it even freelance?
I recently watched this video on Chris Do's channel, The Futur, and it has provided me some clarity. I recommend it to anyone who works with freelancers or who considers themselves a freelancer. It's a long conversation and it covers quite a lot of ground, so I want to try and focus on what stuck out to me.
The argument Chris Do makes is that many people call themselves freelancers when in fact they are business owners. It's a big mind shift, and it's very important, in his opinion, to look at it the correct way. He starts out, as any good debater or philosopher would, by defining terms. He cites Merriam-Webster's definition of 'freelancer' as "a person who pursues a profession without a long-term commitment to any one employer." He goes on to unpack that a bit, starting with the term "employer". This means it's an employer/employee relationship. So freelancers are always looking to get booked. They are paid hourly/daily. They report to a manager or supervisor of some kind and are generally working on site. This can be great, but it's not what a lot of people are actually doing. It's not what I'm doing. So what am I doing?
Apparently I'm doing business. I'm a business owner. So how do we define a business? What does a business do? A business does marketing and sales. A business negotiates, signs and writes contracts. Bid's proposals, SOW's. A business would work offsite (on their own site, or in my case my home studio). Work is project based. A business can be one or many employees. The business is self-directed and has autonomy. So in short, a business is looking for clients. This sounds much more familiar to me. This sounds like what I do.
When I first watched this conversation it helped me tremendously to further focus and clarify the way I define and operate my business. One of the main points he stresses is that we can't have an "employee" mentality as freelancers (unless, of course, we are doing freelance work in the way it's defined by Webster). Because we are not employees, we are businesses. We are business owners. Or to borrow from the lyrics of Jay Z. "I'm not a businessman I'm a business, man." So there you go, I'm a business. This is extremely liberating and very important if you want to be successful as a sole proprietor/lone ranger/mercenary or whatever you want to call it. I am a business, so I need to act like one.
This has real implications. Businesses have expenses, like overhead, taxes, hardware and software. We have operating expenses and we have costs that go into the goods and services we sell. We have all of this stuff that we didn't have as employees. It can be scary, but I think it's exciting. So why do so many of us undersell ourselves? Why are we not advancing and expanding ourselves professionally and financially? I think one big problem is this employee mentality. If we made $30/hr as an employee then we need to charge way more than that when we have more expenses.
This is great. I'm a business owner. I'm a fan of that. But I've decided, for myself, to take it one tiny step further. I think it helps to refer to myself as self-employed. When I hear "freelancer" I might picture a guy coming in and working on site at a studio. We've already covered this, but that's what I'm doing. When I hear "business owner" I picture a guy in an apron crossing his arms and smiling at the entrance to his French bistro. That's not me either. So, for now, I'm going to use self-employed. I'm open to better suggestions, but right now I'm self-employed.