We sat at my kitchen counter, talking about how we loved working for ourselves. My friend and I didn’t miss the corporate world; we loved creating something from nothing. We enjoyed being responsible for our careers. He was a couple of years into his self-employment, and it had been a decade since I’d gone out on my own. I told him I’d never go back to working for someone else—I loved being an entrepreneur.
That's where the conversation hit a bump. He countered that he didn’t consider me—or himself for that matter—an "entrepreneur." For my friend, an entrepreneur was somebody who had a consulting firm with a team of employees or even a venture-backed startup. I considered this for a while, wondering whether the identity I'd assumed as an entrepreneur was overblown or unwarranted.
I now know that it isn't, and here's why.
The Internet has helped self-employment soar in recent years, allowing anyone to put up a website or promote their work and services on social media. As a result, it may seem as though there are more self-declared "entrepreneurs" out there than ever.
And for good reason—there's a certain level of prestige that comes along with the term, leading many independent workers to want to use it. The best-known and most successful entrepreneurs, of course, boast multimillion-dollar exit deals and land on magazine covers, making them something like the cool kids in high school. Everyone wants to be one.
For those who go it alone, calling ourselves "entrepreneurs" can feel disingenuous. That sense of being an imposter is actually one reason why we reach for the "freelancer" label instead. After that chat at the kitchen counter, confused by my friend's definition, I Googled the word "entrepreneur." Here's how the Cambridge English Dictionary defines it:
A person who attempts to make a profit by starting a company or by operating alone in the business world, especially when it involves taking risks.
To me, the real key is the middle part: "operating alone in the business world." This describes me perfectly. There’s no one else to blame if you fail or make a mistake. You're in charge of all the business decisions. No one pays you to sit at a desk when the work has run dry. Operating a business alone is a huge risk, a bet we independents place squarely on ourselves.
When you "freelance," you're always "freelancing" for someone else. It's your client's business decisions that dictate your own scope of action. Entrepreneurs offer services for others, too, but they don't do it on such a directly contingent basis. And they don't do it just temporarily. Of the 16.9 million self-employed workers MBO Partners recently identified as actively working full time in the U.S., 63% want to stay independent, compared with the 22% who want to build a bigger business from their solo efforts. At the same time, only 3% call ourselves entrepreneurs.
It seems we love being on our own—and "operating alone in the business world"—but we're still too ashamed to name ourselves accordingly.
It shows up in other ways, too. We sprinkle our website with words like "we," even when we don't have any associates. To create the illusion that our businesses are bigger than they are, we attach "& Company" to our names. We’re perfectly comfortable depending on ourselves to get the job done well. But we fear others won't see us as capable—and that worry isn't just in our own heads.
Since we're often competing with agencies or larger consultancies for business, we think the size of our competitors' firms matters. Sometimes prospects even voice this concern directly, leading us to discount our status by comparison. But running a business feeling shameful about the quality of your work or the conditions under which you agree to do it isn’t just unfulfilling—it's also bad business. And that's something no decent entrepreneur tolerates.
Being big doesn’t always lead to better results. Rather than shy away from your small—or even solo—status, embrace it.
Being an independent entrepreneur can make you more efficient than even the boutique firm with eight employees. The belief that adding more people to a project will make it go faster can make a prospect lean toward hiring a larger contractor. But this is a fallacy. Adding more people can increase the potential for communication breakdowns and errors—something that’s virtually never a concern with independents. In fact, we’ve honed our efficiency out of necessity. Our success depends on moving much faster.
Being lean often pays off in terms of productivity as well. Getting an entire team—even a relatively small one—to agree on the nature of the problem and its solution can take a lot of effort up front. Communication is key but can fast become a resource drain. Big teams make meetings a necessity, even with asynchronous communication methods like Slack, Basecamp, and Trello.
While a bigger company needs to work out which team members will work on which parts of a given project, an independent just zips right along, producing solid output and armed with firsthand knowledge of each component that came before. Rather than pretending we’re bigger, independents should tout our speed.
When you work for yourself, a lack of plentiful resources trains you to develop creative, focused solutions. That can help you keep down your client's bill. There’s usually also a difference in the way independents understand the problem, the processes we use to articulate it, and the solutions we can subsequently come up with.
Given our tight resources, we're forced to zero in on what matters most from the very get-go. We naturally prioritize, focusing on the most value rather than on large-scale solutions that may prove to be overkill. In other words, our small size also allows us to scale our process to fit, rather than fitting the client into a pre-existing approach.
So the next time you’re tempted to appear bigger in order to compete for work, remember that you're already an entrepreneur. You already run a business—your business—so you don't need to act like you head up one that you don't. And the next time you're negotiating with a prospect who hints they're considering hiring a bigger firm, remind them of the speed and efficiency only you can offer. If you can articulate the real value you offer, no one will question whether you can keep up.