Freelance Designer or Design Business?

Are you a freelancer or an entrepreneur?

freelancer

This question occurred to me while talking to Alex Mathers from the RedLemonClub a site that offers advice for the freelance creative.

There was a time when I called myself a “freelance graphic designer” and had that as the title of this site. I wrote plenty of articles about how to get freelance design work, etc. While this certainly provided me with lots of business from Google (some good; some bad), I changed so that this site could be an authority on design and marketing and I began thinking of myself as a business owner, first and foremost.

What’s the difference?

For me, these are the fundamental differences between a freelancer and a business owner:

  • Freelancers hire themselves out to perform certain tasks; business owners are building something bigger than that – bigger than themselves.
  • Freelancers say “I do this” and “I do that”; business owners say “we do this” and “we do that”.
  • Freelancers get paid per hour for the work that they do; business owners can get paid in their sleep.

What I think

I didn’t want people arriving on this site thinking, “this guy’s just a freelance graphic designer, that’s what he wants to be, I’ll only learn about what he does and nothing else”. I didn’t want to be limited in this way.

To me, the “freelancer” is still a sort of employee – still marching to the rhythm of the client’s beat!

Does it matter?

At the time, when I changed the title of this website from “Freelance Graphic Designer London” to “Rob Cubbon | Design and Marketing”, of course nothing changed. It made no difference.

I was still creating websites for clients, doing ad hoc design work for clients and advising clients on how they should market and promote their products and services. I was also still creating and selling my own products passively, outsourcing and building something that will be, I hope, bigger than me.

So, initially, there’s nothing in a name change. It’s just a label.

However, over time, I hope it will make a big difference to my brand. And I think it has already made a difference to the type of client that contacts me.

What do you think?

Do you label yourself? :) Do you think of yourself as a business, an entrepreneur, a freelancer, a designer? If you had to put a label on yourself, what would it be?

Now I’ve got that Jay-Z line in my head:

I’m not a businessman, I’m a business, man!

Comments

  1. says

    Wow…this gives me a different perspective about the difference of Freelancers vs. Business Owners. My label is important to me, of course! My product is Angela McCall. My service is graphic design & social media marketing. Anyway, I label myself four of them: business owner, entrepreneur, freelancer, designer.

    I’m a business partner with some of my affiliate taking the “chance” which makes me an entrepreneur. I freelance for someone and I execute design for clients. So, it’s really hard just to stay on just ONE label. Designers of today “wears a lot of hats.”

    • says

      You’re making a good point, Angela. None of us, probably, are either one thing or the other. I still get paid by the hour to do work for clients and I expect to keep doing that for the time being even as other parts of my business (hopefully) grow. Thanks for your input.

  2. Claudia says

    I found your article very interesting since I am only beginning my journey through graphic design. I’m very new to the field and already I am confused as to what to label myself. Entrepreneur and graphics designer fit I suppose, even freelance fits since I am my only employee! I never gave this question much thought before but now I see where it might benefit me to do so. Thanks!

  3. says

    Your differentiation between business owner and freelancer makes a lot of sense to me! For the longest time, I was thrilled to do freelance. I still do freelance, but the idea of doing work as a business owner churns around in the head. I like, as you say, the idea of earning money while you sleep. Good luck with your own journey – you must have followed me on Twitter, and today I decided to read a few of your posts. Well done!

    • says

      Hello Leora. Yes, I was delighted to be freelance at first and I think it gives you a good preparation for running a business. But being a business owner is a step further in the journey. Best of luck to you to and thank you for your comment.

  4. says

    I am definitely a business owner/entrepreneur. I work in my sleep and I get paid in my sleep, lol. I am working on building a larger and better company than the next.

  5. Hilmi says

    I am a graphic designer now, but when i have my own web site and sale my own graphic design products, with outsponder, at that time I well become business owner or entrepreneur. it it up to any one.
    Your article is very interesting, because this reason I stay on your good blog Thank you very match.

  6. says

    I think of myself as a freelance designer and also as a business owner, not least because I’m planning to widen my activities e.g. by selling original artwork. But I’m turned off by the “entrepeneur” label. For anyone coming from the culture that produces “The Apprentice”, it comes with an image of the pseudo-heroic ruthless capitalist that I can’t identify with at all! Just a perception issue, I guess.

    • says

      Jeff, I was exactly the same with having a problem with the businessman/entrepreneur tag and having associations will the loud-mouthed, hard-hearted type. However, I have since met entrepreneurs that are some of the most caring people who really think about other people more than themselves so I really agree that this is just a perception issue. And a good point as well.

  7. says

    One of the things I stress with students in design schools is that you need to think of your self as a professional who runs a practice. I think that mind-set is critical. I primarily work with small businesses. In client meetings, especially in the first meeting when explaining the range of services I offer, I never fail to stress that I as the owner of a small business I understand their needs and will approach their work as more than a set of objectives that need to be met.

  8. says

    Hi Rob. Your email was incredibly timely this afternoon. Thank you for relinking it to me. How do I see myself is in the process of changing. I’ve been a graphic artist, senior designer, creative director, subcontractor to the military and now… new business consulting with brand identity, presentation design, website and social media.

    This is the crazy part… it occurred to me during a meeting this past week with a client—I should take my own advice and apply it. To me. I’ve been blessed actually to have changed careers from retail buying, merchandising and store management to graphic arts and was hired before I graduated with a publishing company. I was usually pretty happy letting others take the lead with my prompts but that’s changed now. So, it’s changing.

    Maybe we can talk next week. Thank you for your email.

    • says

      Me too, Lori. I was really happy for others to take the lead when I worked in other organisations. But now I work in my own company it’s a completely different story.

      Glad the email was timely. It was for a number of people! Feel free to get in touch anytime.

  9. says

    Hi Rob well I’m not a freelancer per se, so this article doesn’t apply to me, but I love the points you made, and how you approached this situation, and a great way to educate others…
    :) Kate

  10. says

    Thanks Rob, I have been enjoying your emails and articles. I’m with Michael King on this one, if you think you are, you act accordingly. I would also say it’s possible to be both at the same time, making sure that as a Business Owner you would always employ yourself as a Designer and visa versa ;-) I’m interested more about how to make money while I sleep!?! Are you talking about selling eBooks on a blog and original commercial art, vectors online etc? Still always learning…

    • says

      There are a million and one ways to make money while you sleep, Tarnae. Yes, selling e-books on your blog and selling vectors, images, themes, etc., are just two ways you can do that.

      So glad you’ve been enjoying the emails and articles. :)

  11. says

    Thought provoking topic I believe for many of us. And I too aspire to creating more of a passive income. That is something I have truly been pondering as of late.

    I really like Michael Kings comment: “think of your self as a professional who runs a practice”. That resonates well with me. And when I meet with clients, I too pint out that I am a small business owner much like the clients I work with. I believe this helps to lay a healthy foundation of mutual respect.

    Besides my biz license stares right at me and I pay city taxes as a small business owner…

  12. Valerie says

    Rob,

    I really enjoy the definition in this article. At one point I was the freelancer, now gratefully the business owner.

    Personally, I found that being a freelancer was not financially rewarding, nor as enjoyable as you are always limited in capacity of time – there are so many hours that you can work during the day, which severely limits your productive output and income.

    Having said, each has it’s own set of unique challenges and each role requires a different set of skills & temperament. The choice ultimately depends on your overall objective.

    • says

      Indeed, Valerie, there is no right or wrong path, just your objective. I personally found freelance neither financially nor professionally rewarding. But it’s different for others.

  13. says

    Rob, I have to disagree with the premise that being a freelancer is somehow different from being a business, even in the early stages. Having been a freelancer, and sometimes still being one, I learned that every job I do is my company name, and my “brand” (although I have come to detest the term since so many idiot “gurus” have latched onto beating the term like a dead horse, which is not even salable as taco meat).
    Short and sweet: If you freelance, you are a company. Yes, this surprised me but it’s true. Why? People remember and people talk. I remember coming in on a freelance job and an editor asked me about a writer. I knew that writer, knew he was good, and said as much. But, being honest, had a client asked me about a low-quality writer (aka brand X), I would have said, “Being perfectly frank, I don’t particularly care for the work of Brand (writer) X, and think you can do better.” People learn of your abilities from how your perform as a freelancer — and they do talk. That makes you a company, even though you may think it’s “just a temporary assignment.” You gain a reputation, bad or good. Running a business is using the same good taste and judgement, but hiring others to join you, which demands a different, and even keener judgement! Your personal brand is on the line.

    • says

      Well, you’re not allowed to disagree with me, Astro Gremlin!!! ;)

      Yes, in a certain way we are all brands with reputations, whether we’re freelance or business owners. That’s true. And also, sometimes I still operate as a freelancer from time to time these days. However, I found that the business owner label caused me to think differently about what I was doing.

  14. says

    I guess I made a similar switch in my “business” about a year and a half ago but sorta in a different way (well I guess I never thought of it in the same way you put it until today). I was working on a lot of websites but they weren’t the kind of websites I wanted so I focused more on building passive income. It was fun for a while but didn’t really fulfill my needs as writing articles wasn’t what excited me, helping people build great websites is what I love.

    As time went on over last year I found the referrals from my website have given me the fulfillment I needed and more than enough work to do “on the side”. My business has grown but not in the way I expected. I’m still not making much “passive” income but I’m enjoying the “active” income process much more. Outsourcing has helped tremendously as it has completely changed my mindset about my “business” as now it really isn’t just “I have to do everything” and I don’t get as overwhelmed (although sometimes the fear and stress just shifts to other things. :)

    Thanks for the article!

    • says

      Thanks for the comment, Chris. Yes, this is exactly what I’m talking about. You have a business and as a business you are free to try out different things to see if they are more or less rewarding. Outsourcing is also something that happens more when you see yourself as a business.

  15. says

    Hi Rob, I agree with this article totally. I run a small / micro creative agency. We have no full time staff, but I do utilize freelancers and specialists toi help me when i need them.
    I thought about being freelance when I started the business 5 years ago, but I wanted to work with big companies as well as small ones. I think speaking in terms of “the royal we” as us Brits put it gives a perception of size and ability whereas talking in terms of I makes you appear weaker and only capable of a small amount of workload at any one time.

    Love these posts, great site too. Keep up the great work!

    • says

      Thank you, Phil. Yes, I love working with big clients and the “we” (regal or not!) may help with this. More good points here. Thanks for your input.

  16. says

    Legally I’m a business owner, specifically a contractor within a niche market. A specialist graphic designer. An ‘I’ not ‘we’ although very occasionally, I will subcontract associates!

  17. says

    Howdy Rob,

    For me, I solve other peoples challenges with eCommerce.

    What I do can be labelled as numerous things such as consultant, contractor, mentor, freelancer, developer, expert, guru and so on… personally I just prefer “Matt”.

    Matt

    PS. I’m writing this on the weekend while working and I’ll work with no sleep if I need to :)

  18. Sam says

    I noticed that before,and I stopped using “freelancer” from a long time and use business owner , I think if you are able to get customers by your self then you have the right to call your self business owner , but if some one get customer and hire you to do this and that then you are freelancer .

  19. says

    I’ve been a business from the start (5 years). Once you start working for yourself it becomes very clear that you are going to be doing so much more than graphic design. So, I found it very helpful to learn more about running a business—bookkeeping, time management, sales, social media strategy, taxes, QuickBooks, etc. I think you have to be very open to learning all the angles of business. But it is a challenge when all you’d really like to do is design all day! Once you get big enough, then it’s time to help others to do those things you’d rather not do.

    • says

      That’s a good point, Anne. When you start your design business you do find that less than 50% of the day will be spent actually designing. Yes, you have to learn all those things and learn how to do them successfully. And great that you’ll outsource the things that you don’t like doing. That’s a good way to go! :)

  20. says

    I’m exactly there! It feels good to know some of our peers are experiencing the same.

    There’s nothing wrong about being – and doing business as – a freelancer, of course. Yet, building and nurturing a business is really something else. It seems to be the natural next step for the architects at heart.

  21. says

    My professor in design school used to tell us to never call ourselves freelancers, but instead say we are “independent designers”. Somehow it sounds more professional, I guess, as though a “freelancer” is just pretending to be a designer.

    • says

      I think it definitely sounds more professional to be a business owner rather than a freelancer, Jennifer. But it’s also a good idea to think about the point you want to make the change – not too early and, for sure, not too late!

  22. says

    I really loved this point.

    Freelancers get paid per hour for the work that they do; business owners can get paid in their sleep.

    I’m gonna call myself a business owner from now and NOT a freelancer :)

  23. says

    Great article and an approach that I have used ever since I started out on my own in February 2008. If you talk about ‘WE’ you convey a company organisation that can handle larger contracts and more prestigious projects. You are taken more seriously by company decision makers as a fellow business leader rather than an “odd job man”. The ‘WE’ approach has opened a lot of doors for me and is one that I will continue to utilise for further growth.
    You can become the hub / go to man by being the person who issues all the post to the website and therefore boost both the business profile and your own at the same time.

    • says

      I think so, Phil. On one hand you are the hub / go to man, the authority, the personal brand, on the other hand when you talk about how you can help clients it’s “we”, the company machine!

      Thank you for your comment, Phil.

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