For being a fairly straightforward term, few words are capable of invoking such dramatically different responses as telling someone you are “freelance.” On one end of the spectrum are those for whom the term conjures an image of a half-employed, unserious slacker who can’t secure the “real” version of the job they’re doing “freelance.” On the other end are those who see freelance employment as the ultimate in liberated employment, 100 percent in control of their clients, their income, and their destiny.
As self-employed hustlers, we like to think we fall into the second bucket. That said, there are plenty of reasons to avoiding the term “freelance” in certain work situations.
Think about it: If you asked someone at a party, “What do you do?” and they replied, “I preemptively send 35 percent of my salary toward taxes through my employer at a startup, where I’m an engineer,” you would probably look at them funny. But this is what is communicated when you answer that you’re a “freelance [insert your profession here].”
There are plenty of blogs admonishing the independent workforce against using the word “freelance” to describe your work: one warns people will assume your work isn’t “real,” another claims the term signals to clients “low-cost line items rather than strategic partnerships”, and one that insists “business owner” is a superior descriptor.
All of these articles make valid points, but the most critical one is missing: “freelance” doesn’t actually explain what it is that you do.
“Freelance” is shorthand for telling them your non-employment tax status—which is not a bad status to have—but even accountants know that someone’s taxes are one of the least compelling things about them.
You’re a freelance graphic designer, eh? Of what? Websites? Logos? Infographics? For private clients? The government? Any big corporate accounts? If you’re a freelance photographer, you could be shooting anything from weddings to warzones—and it’s certainly worth declaring which one it is!
Independent workers are a growing part of the labor force and identifying that way can be an inroad to opportunities and the most appropriate way of describing yourself in certain contexts. Below is a brief overview of when and how to use it.
When NOT to use “freelance”
Pitching new business: If you are approaching a business or individual with a pitch to perform work for them, it is already implied that you are a freelancer. The focus when pitching new work is what precise expertise services you offer. There is little to no risk they’re going to overlook your pitch because they’re unclear about whether or not you want a full-time job with them. Pitch the skills, not the status.
On social media profiles:The bio section of your social profiles is precious real estate and the first thing people who look you up will likely find. To make clear that you’re accepting new freelance opportunities, you can add a line after your professional description that says, “always on the lookout for my next great client collaboration” or “open to taking on new, exciting clients. Contact me!’ You get it.
When meeting new people: People hear “freelance” and too often assume under-employed, directionless, and unprofessional. It’s not fair, but hey, we’re just the messengers. Describe what you do and throw in a fancy shmancy client or two for good measure to show that you’re legit.
When to use “freelance”
Networking with peers: Finding yourself among fellow independent workers is often a great opportunity to share news about the industry climate and even connect to possible clients. Your freelance peers know the deal about your work status and you’ll want them to know that you’re one of them in order to make the connection stick.
Talking accounts, payments & taxes: If you’re looking for an overdue check or introducing yourself to a new accountant, it makes sense to lead with this information.
For specific opportunities geared toward independent workers: If a conference or panel is seeking independent experts in your field, letting them know that you’re successfully navigating freelance life is key to demonstrating your qualifications. If there is a discount for ongoing education or even coffee for freelancers? Go right ahead! Identifying yourself this way in spaces that are directed to the freelance workforce just makes good sense.
Considering how much of the independent workforce is made up of creative professionals, it is high time that members of it came up with more compelling ways to classify their work. Your job description should be every bit as robust as the full-time employee. But unlike them, you get to write your own. Choose (and lose) your words wisely.