Stock images of freelancers and entrepreneurs are essentially identical.
They feature a wide range of people in neat home offices and coffee shops bent over laptops in deep focus. And that reflects how most of us think about them; freelancer and entrepreneur are two different words for people who work outside the traditional employee/employer world.
But there’s more to the picture than stock photos let on. Here’s a look at the difference between freelancers and entrepreneurs.
Freelancers trade time and skill for money
The word freelance comes from the early 19th-century when English authors attempted to describe medieval mercenaries. Most knights in the middle ages pledged their loyalty to a lord. They swore that they would use their skills and resources to support their sovereign in times of war. But there were many knights who worked as mercenaries. They would fight for whoever had the most coin. Sir Walter Scott referred to these soldiers for hire as “free lances” in his novel Ivanhoe, and the name stuck.¹ Soon it was used to describe working without long-term commitments to a single employer.
Freelancers are essentially modern day mercenaries. They have a skillset that’s in demand and they sell it off to the highest bidder, typically for a short period of time or a specific project. They trade their skills and time for money, and then move on. A freelance graphic designer, for instance, might get hired by a small business in need of a new logo. They pay the designer a set fee, the designer delivers the logo, and the two parties part ways. The freelancer doesn’t have any more responsibilities towards the small business beyond completing a specific task, and the small business pays the freelancer a fee.
The main appeal of freelancing is flexibility. You get to decide for whom you work, the hours you work, and from where you work. Yes, you’ll have deadlines, but you get to decide how you’ll get everything done. Freelancing is also a great choice if you’re currently an employee and want to start exploring your options. Striking a balance with your side-gig and your main income stream can help bring in extra money to cover debt, save for retirement, or just have nicer vacations.
But freelancing has drawbacks. You’re still completing tasks for other people, you have to manage projects by yourself, and work can sometimes dry up. If you can’t maintain a healthy time balance with your main job, that work could suffer.
Entrepreneurs trade their team for money
Defining entrepreneurship is tricky. Freelancers and entrepreneurs have many things in common. But they end up working on different levels of risk and solving problems in very different ways. Remember how we said freelancers were like mercenaries, fighting wars for other people in exchange for money? Entrepreneurs are like the lords mercenaries fight for. They make decisions, assume responsibility for outcomes, and build things that last even when they are long gone. A more modern example would be your favorite local restaurant. The owner of the business doesn’t take your order, pour your drinks, and prepare your food. They have a team that does all of that for them. But they had the vision of owning a restaurant, may have reached out to investors, and then took on the financial uncertainty of starting the restaurant. They make the top-level decisions but rely on a team to ensure that the day-to-day operations work smoothly.
Starting a business is risky. Only 25% make it past their 15th birthday.² But the advantage of successfully starting a business is that it will eventually reach a point where it runs on its own. Apple didn’t need Steve Jobs to operate. Amazon doesn’t need Jeff Bezos. Neither does your favorite local restaurant. They’re all built on a system and have teams that empower them to grow and accomplish more than they could independently. A freelancer’s income, however, is tied directly to the time they invest. If they get sick, they can’t earn. Losing just a single client could be a significant loss of business.
Interested in freelancing or starting up your own venture? Let’s talk! There are perfect opportunities out there for you to start exploring your potential.
¹ “The Surprising History of ‘Freelance’,” Merriam-Webster, https://www.merriam-webster.com/words-at-play/freelance-origin-meaning
² Michael T. Deane, “Top 6 Reasons New Businesses Fail,” Investopedia, Feb 28, 2020, https://www.investopedia.com/financial-edge/1010/top-6-reasons-new-businesses-fail.aspx#:~:text=Data%20from%20the%20BLS%20shows,to%2015%20years%20or%20more.