Editor’s Note: This article is one of the top 10 business lessons of 2015. See the full list here.
The night it happened, I was at a party filled with potential clients. I saw opportunity everywhere I looked. Then I saw a friend. As we caught up on business and life, others joined us. My friend introduced me as a "marketing freelancer" to the CEO of a company. She smiled politely, cocked her head, and asked if I was an expert at "that Twitter thing."
I explained that I was actually a CMO-for-hire focused on marketing and branding strategy. But after my friend's introduction, it was clear that prospects now saw me as a low-level social media worker who'd just pile tweets and status updates into their channels. I left feeling undervalued and angry. I vowed never to let anyone introduce me that way again.
Looking back years later, I see my friend hadn't meant me any harm. If anything, it was his own earlier, failed attempt at self-employment that made him label me the way he did. He was once a "freelancer"—glad not to be one any longer.
The words you use influence others’ perception of you. What’s your first thought when you hear the word "freelancer"? Do you picture a college kid working out of her parent’s basement? Many people who call themselves freelancers don’t exactly think of what they do as a business. But they should.
Saying you’re a freelancer doesn’t signal to others that you're a know-what-you’re-doing, take-no-crap professional. That bias may be unfair, but it's a reality. Clients too often see freelance arrangements as low-cost line items rather than strategic partnerships.
And that creates a power imbalance, with the client in charge—hardly an ideal situation for independent workers, especially those trying to start a business with the express purpose of gaining more freedom over their work. Others start working on their own after they quit a job or get laid off. Maybe freelancing was just the path of least resistance, possibly begun by picking up work from a former employer.
As clients understand them, "freelancers" often have a series of small gigs, short pipelines, and limited ability to choose which work they do. The term also implies a temporary state, suggesting that you're in transition and may find a new job soon, leaving your client in the lurch. Clients don't pay you for your freedom. They pay you to do a job for them—and expect you to finish it.
Of course, any freelancer with integrity will do that, but many find themselves up against less magnanimous expectations. You don't have to pretend you have a corporate business or huge staff, but you do want prospects and clients to know that you're serious about your work and that they can count on you.
Everyone who works for themselves has wrestled some point over what title to use. Many start by using the title "freelance _______"—designer, writer, software developer, or whatever the case may be. And since many do start off seeing themselves freelancing as a short-term gig, they use the label strategically, signaling that they’re available for hire and would consider a full-time offer.
But it's easy to fall victim that way to feeling like an impostor—someone who's just pretending to be a business owner. So while "freelancer" may be more akin to how you see what you do, it might be selling you short. After all, your livelihood doesn't depend on your own self-perception, but on how potential clients see you and your work.
If this feels like just semantics, it isn't. Words affect not just your personal brand but also your mood and behavior. Feeling like an imposter attracts an inner trash talker. Having repetitive negative thoughts can activate the amygdala, the brain’s fear center. Our own ideas about ourselves mingle with the ways we believe others see us. So if you think of yourself as someone who's desperate for work, lost control of their career, or lacks expertise, you’ll telegraph that message to prospects and clients.
The popular belief that communication is 93% body language and only 7% words has been found not to be quite true. Yet we’re often sloppy when it comes to our word choice when it really matters. In fact, the words we ourselves speak send messages to our brains, which adds a new dimension to the fact that the ways others see us starts the second we introduce ourselves.
When he first started out, Tim Dietrich described himself as a "freelance database consultant." But he soon realized that the "freelance" tag said more to clients about the structure of his business (process) than what he could actually do for them (results). Tim now introduces himself with this simple line, "I develop custom apps for businesses." Who would you want to work with more: Someone who tells you how they file their taxes or explains what they can do for your balance sheet?
Telling someone you own a business gives you instant credibility. It signals that you’re serious about your work. Business owners are professional. Business owner are savvy. Businesses solve problems for other businesses. Having a business is a commitment, signaling that the client’s project is likely to get your focused effort. Telling prospects that you have a business can also influence whether you land a project in the first place.
Freelancers don't always see themselves as business owners because businesses have quarterly targets, revenue streams, and brand images to preserve. And clients expect that other businesses have systems and processes leading to consistent results. Don’t worry if you’re still working on systems and processes. It’s still okay to call yourself a business—which can in turn push you to build a workflow for yourself, set firmer goals, and increase your margins—just like an actual business.
After all, if you're in business for yourself, that's exactly what you already are.
Suzan Bond is an executive coach and marketing strategist who teaches professionals how to gain independence by working for themselves. She is currently writing a book, Bet On Yourself: A Practical Guide to Professional Freedom. Follow her on Twitter at @suzanbond.