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Sometimes, when people ask what I do for a living, I struggle to really describe it.
“Well, I’m a freelance writer,” I sometimes say. But believe it or not, not everyone really knows what freelancing is. Also, that isn’t the only thing I do. It’s more of an easy, catch-all term. And—this is nit-picky, but I have been in business for myself for a long time and been very successful at it. Somehow, “freelance writer” doesn’t really capture all of that.
“I’m a writer and PR consultant,” is another version I use. I always get a lot of followup questions as to what “consulting” is and the details of my daily work. I feel that when I say the word consultant, I have to somehow prove that what I do is a real job. It carries a few more expectations.
The freelancing vs. consulting debate is long-running and complex. And there is really no single right answer. But we all have to figure out what language to use, and to do that, it can help to have a better understanding about the history and context of both words.
In this article, we will try to untangle the differences, define what you’re really saying when you say freelancing vs. consulting, and help you decide what terms best suit your role and help you avoid that awkward pause at the next networking event when someone asks, “So, what do you do?”
Freelancing vs consulting: what’s the difference?
If you are trying to understand freelancing vs. consulting, it’s important to really dig into what each word means.
The word freelance comes from the book Ivanhoe by Sir Walter Scott. What? You might be saying––what does a book written in the 1800s have to do with my freelance job?
In its first use, “freelance” meant literally a free lance––a warrior (presumably with a lance) who was not loyal to any territory or cause, and fought whoever paid them the most.
It has since come to mean a professional who is not locked into a single company, but sells their skills to various clients and can come and go as they please––within the terms of their current contract. Freelancers do whatever is needed, from coding computer software to designing brochures, and everything in between.
Consult is an even older word, compiled from French and Latin, which means to call together or take advice. The word “consultant” as a job actually also comes from a book––in this case, Sherlock Holmes, although it may have been in use before then.
In the corporate world, consulting just means to give advice professionally. You can be a consultant in almost any industry, and what consultants do varies wildly. They are often brought in to help a company solve a specific problem. Consultants might offer legal help, reputation management, HR concerns, or almost anything else.
While freelancing and consulting are similar, they aren’t exactly the same. Some of the differences between freelancing vs. consulting are:
- Freelancers are never full-time employees for one company. A consultant, on the other hand, may work for a consulting firm, a large corporation or the government as a W2 employee.
- Consultants generally sign on for a long period of time, such as the duration of a strategic shift, or are even kept on retainer. While this is true for some freelancers, more often, a freelancer is brought on for a specific task or series of tasks. When the work is done, the contract is over.
- Freelancers usually have multiple clients at once. A consultant most often stays with a single client until the problem is solved, and then moves on to something else.
- Consultants tend to work more on the big picture. They offer plans driven by strategy, and often the business does the implementation themselves. Or a full team of consultants works on those details. Freelancers are more likely to be hired to do that implementation work after the overarching direction has been determined. This isn’t a set difference. Some freelancers offer strategy planning as a service, and some consultants take care of the tactics, but in general, consultants are more focused on the master plan.
- In a way, all freelancers are consultants, because they are offering outside expertise. But not all consultants are also freelancers, because many of them are full-time employees working for a single business.
Lots of people use the terms freelancer and consultant interchangeably, but as you can see, the two roles are somewhat different. That doesn’t mean you might not be both things, but it’s a good idea to know the nuances and ensure you are using the correct title in the correct situation.
Comparing freelancing vs consulting
Whether you are trying to decide what to call yourself, or thinking about a future career and what types of skills you need, here’s a breakdown of freelancing vs. consulting.
Neither freelancing or consulting has an official degree or training that is required. However, consultants are considered “experts,” and need to really know their stuff.
Often a consultant has an advanced degree, extensive experience, or both. Freelancers simply must show that they possess the skills for which they are being hired. Education can certainly help with this, but it isn’t likely that a client will request to see a diploma or transcript.
No one wants to get in legal trouble, so it’s important to know the ropes when you are thinking about freelancing vs. consulting.
Technically, neither term is legally defined, so you won’t face a penalty for calling yourself either a freelancer or a consultant. In either business, depending on your ultimate goals, you may want to consider hiring an attorney to help you set up an LLC and protect yourself.
When you are in business for yourself, money is pretty central to everything you do. How are you going to make a living? It turns out that freelancing vs. consulting is structured pretty differently when it comes to billing.
Freelancers can bill their clients any way they choose: hourly, per project, or through a retainer. They send their own invoices and get paid intermittently, depending on how they have set things up and how often they invoice for projects. Often, payment doesn’t happen until a project is done.
Consultants are more likely to be on a cyclical pay structure, usually through a monthly or bi-monthly check or money transfer. Also important to know––typically consultants charge a higher rate than freelancers, due to their unique expertise within their field.
Another facet of freelancing vs. consulting is how to begin.
Starting a freelance business is pretty simple. Figure out what marketable skills you have, build a portfolio, and start looking for clients.
Consulting is a bit more involved. Businesses looking for a consultant want someone who knows a lot about whatever part of their business they need help with.
To land quality contracts, you need a degree, proven experience and a long list of references. If you opt to work for a consulting firm, a college degree or some kind of certificate might be enough to get you in the door. Working for yourself, you will likely need a little more meat on your resume.
Where do freelancers and consultants find their clients?
Many freelancers rely on convenient freelance websites to find and apply for niche gigs. Of course, it also helps to build a website, ask for referrals, offer lead magnets, and do a lot of networking.
Consulting is a little different. Often, consultants first need to convince a business that they need consulting services, and talk themselves into the job. Consultants need word of mouth in a big way, and are more likely to do content marketing and paid advertising to find their ideal clients. The larger your client base, as long as you consistently provide quality service, the easier it is to find new consulting jobs.
Freelancing vs consulting: what’s the right word for you?
So, now you’re an expert in what freelancing vs. consulting means. But does that answer our original question?
What do you call yourself?
As you may have guessed, the answer is not necessarily a straightforward one.
The short version is, you can call yourself whatever you’d like. There’s no “freelancing vs. consulting” committee that gives you permission to be either a freelancer or a consultant. Legally, neither title is tied to a certificate or license.
The longer version is that it probably comes down to your experience level.
A contractor just starting out, or shifting industries is probably more of a freelancer than anything else. As you work through various projects, gain more knowledge, add to your portfolio or take new courses, you will start to feel more confident in your work. When your clients completely trust you to advise them on major decisions, you might consider restyling yourself a consultant.
If, on the other hand, you are branching out to work on your own after years of experience, being a sought-after expert among colleagues or clients, calling yourself a freelancer might be underselling your skills. You can choose to use the term consultant instead, and likely charge a higher going rate right off the bat.
Just remember, if you sell yourself as a consultant, and then can’t deliver a high level of expertise, problem-solving and strategic thinking, you are likely to end up with frustrated clients who won’t be recommending you to their network.
Consider this example. A designer, fresh out of college, decides to take on contract work in order to travel for a few years before settling down in one place. He decides on a list of services he can easily provide, and starts applying for jobs on sites like Freelancer.com and signs up for a service like SolidGigs to seek out more work. This designer is probably calling himself a freelancer, because he’s looking for a lot of flexibility and freedom, is relatively new to the industry and does specific tasks.
Another example might be a mom who decides to take a break from the corporate rat race in order to spend more time with her kids. She has been working in marketing at various companies for over a decade and has some impressive results to show for it.
There is no reason this woman shouldn’t ask for referrals from her past clients, put together a killer website, and set up shop as a consultant at a higher rate than she was working for at her previous position.
Freelancing vs. consulting comes down to what seems to fit best. There is no set threshold when you are “officially” a consultant. Just consider your strengths, weaknesses, and the level you are at currently.
Make the decision for yourself
Freelancing vs. consulting; LLC vs. sole proprietorship; work from home vs. renting office space. There are so many questions to ask yourself when starting a business. Whether to call yourself a freelancer or consultant might be something you are struggling with. You want to get it right, so you are learning all you can and trying different titles as you go.
Freelancing vs consulting—freelancing is about the freedom to work for yourself and pursue your passion. Consulting is about providing detailed, proven, actionable advice that solves strategic problems.
Let me offer some advice. The more important question is why?
Why do you want to go into business for yourself? Why are your skills unique or valuable? Why are you a good fit for your target clients?
All of the whys will help you keep going when things get hard. They will help you justify both your title and your rates as you sell your services. They will guide your goals and help you make smart decisions.
Sure, it matters what you call yourself, since it sends a clear message to clients about who you are and what you can offer. But whichever you choose, having sound, well-thought-out whys for everything you do will go much further in impressing the next person to ask you, “So, what kind of work do you do?”
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