The what-do-I-call-myself identity crisis of the self-employed

The tagline for my business is “Take control of your life and start earning money now as a corporate freelancer or consultant.”

This raises some obvious questions: What is a freelancer? What is a consultant?

Glad you asked.

I’ve been calling myself a freelancer and a consultant off and on, but mostly on, since 1992. I’ve never been absolutely certain what to call myself and have been in a mild identity crisis all along.

So today I formally looked up the terms, along with a few others, on the internet, the source of all knowledge.

I found out that:

A freelancer is generally defined as someone who sells services to employers without long-term commitments.

A consultant is an experienced individual trained to analyze and advise clients.

Then there is the independent contractor, who follows an independent trade, business or profession and provides goods or services.

The entrepreneur is someone who has possession of a new enterprise, venture or idea or alternatively, a person who organizes, operates and assumes risk for a business venture.

And then the solopreneur, short for solo entrepreneur.

Over the years I’ve grappled with which title I should use for my own services. I started with freelancer, a term that is often associated with writers and one that I’ve envied since childhood. (It never occurred to me when I was young that adults sometimes associate the concept with unsteady income since to me it signified adventure and creativity. Like  a magazine flying me to London to interview the Beetles.)

Then I gradually shifted to editorial consultant, which seemed more prestigious than freelancer and suggested problem solving, whether oriented towards the writing or the marketing aspects of assignments. I like how consultant suggests expertise, in contrast to freelancer, which connotes impermanence.

Now as I develop information resources for “all of the above,” I am somewhat migrating to the label solopro. I mean it as a combination of solo and professional. I like it because as a new, untested word, it comes with less baggage.

On the flip side, no one is using the term. I continue to supplement solopro with the terms freelancer and consultant because very, very few people search for solopro on Google.

This doesn’t even begin to address the problem I face when pressed to label my position within my “organization,” such as when I add myself to mailing lists for trade journals and office-supply catalogs.

As a one-person business working from a home office, I am commanded to click on a title from among those listed. President and CEO seem a bit pretentious. Owner isn’t quite right since I don’t “own” much of anything except a PC, a large mug holding pens and some intellectual property of indeterminate monetary value. Other functional titles, such as marketer or writer, somewhat describe what I do all day but do not indicate my role in the organization.

There’s sole proprietor, but that’s more of a tax-return title than a working title.

Or principal. It means chief or head. Kind of bland but not bad. Except that it revives my fear of the legendary spanking machine in the school office.

When we are self-employed, even the little decisions turn out to be more complex than we had expected. So I ask, What do you call yourself?


7 responses to “The what-do-I-call-myself identity crisis of the self-employed

  1. I really appreciate and relate to this article. Years ago my first husband and I had a small construction business, usually only 2-3 employees. Back then we were called self-employed, which to bankers, businesses, etc meant “bad risk”.

    By the way, I don’t even like putting “retired” down on forms, although I am not working or in business. I still think of myself as a business woman.

  2. Very interesting question, Diana.

    Maybe it’s wrong of me to say this, but I don’t really think I have a “business.” It feels more accurate to say I am “self-employed,” because most of the time the work I do reflects having made a job for myself rather than really running a company.

    In other words, like you I don’t feel like I “own” this thing.

    That is changing, albeit very slowly. Part of that was taking (along with you!) Mark Silver’s Opening the Moneyflow class in 2008, in which we talked a bit about the difference between you supporting the business and the business supporting you.

    Another part is my very recent creation of a new infoproduct, yay. The preview release of the first installment of my Startup Booster for non-software startups was promoted to my eZine list yesterday. I actually sold one this morning!

    It definitely feels more like having a business when you can sell a somewhat tangible product rather than simply doing work for companies and getting paid for it.

    So, what do I call myself? If I have to pick a noun, it’s “consultant,” but more often I’m prompted by someone asking, “So, what do you do?” The answer is that “I help people who have Software Projects That Suck.[tm]” In noun form I suppose that makes me a “desuckifier.” 🙂

  3. Excellent article, as that is something I have been struggling with in my job search. I call myself different things and have more than 1 resume. I am a business analyst, project manager, business analyst/project manager, and a consultant.

    The problem is that too many employers want to pin you down with a title. I really did have jobs where I performed many diffenent functions at once. No one wants to see that during an interview, and many don’t understand it as their companies segment responsibilities. Those may be precisely the type of companies not to work for.

  4. Henry, yes, that’s the problem with a job search. I agree that you have to customize your resume for each job you apply for. One solution is to label yourself with the job title you are applying for. Center this label in a large font directly under your contact info and before any introductory profile paragraph, objective, etc.

    This solves the problem in two ways: it defines you by the job title of that specific job. And it reminds you to stay on track by relating everything in your resume to that specific job title and job description.

  5. I like your answer to the question but at times you need a noun that describes you. Like when you’re filling out the income tax form. (Not that any reviewer at the IRS is likely to hire you.) I dare you to write in “desuckifier.” (Just joking. You’re the kind of person who would actually do that.)

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