What is a Freelancer? Here’s What it Takes to Be One

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Unless you have been living under a rock, you have more than likely heard about the rise of independent workers, contractors, and new ways of doing business. But can you answer the question, “what is a freelancer?”

More and more workers are opting to freelance than ever before–according to Upwork, two million people joined the freelance movement in 2021 alone. The COVID-19 pandemic only accelerated a trend that had been rising since the beginnings of home internet access.

Some people have worked this way for decades, but others are left scratching their heads. What is a freelancer, and why have they become so important to the economy?

Perhaps you are looking at options for hiring freelancers, or perhaps you are interested in becoming one yourself. Either way, let’s start by putting a solid definition behind the question that so many are beginning to ask: What is a freelancer?

What is a freelancer?

Freelancing means different things to different people. Corporations may see freelancers as a way to save money or get temporary help. Traditional workers may see them as a threat to their job stability. Freelancers themselves sometimes define their roles differently. Is it any wonder some are left wondering, if everyone sees their jobs differently, just what is a freelancer?

Webster’s dictionary defines freelancer in two ways. First, as a worker who is not committed to a single employer. Secondly, someone who is not officially affiliated with an organization.

The gist of it is this: a freelancer is a non-traditional worker who chooses their own projects, negotiates their own rates, and has the flexibility to both take on work or sever ties with clients, as long as they aren’t violating a contract.

When most people picture a freelancer, they see someone with a laptop working from home, or maybe by the pool as they travel, doing odd jobs here and there.

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The truth is, just as what traditional employees do differs, freelancers differ in their job descriptions. Where and when they work depends on a variety of factors.

Not all freelancers work remotely, and not all freelancers have multiple clients. What makes a freelancer is not WHERE they work, but HOW they work. Rather than a supervisor or an organization, freelancers work for themselves.

The term freelancer dates back to the middle ages, when mercenaries would fight for the highest bidder, instead of being loyal to a single region or tribe. They had a “free lance,” so to speak.

Freelancers may also be called independent contractors, 1099 workers, gig workers, or sometimes solopreneurs. All freelancers are self-employed, but not all self-employed individuals are freelancers. For example, a small business owner who sells goods or services directly to consumers is definitely self-employed, but would not be considered a freelancer.

So what is a freelancer? It’s just someone who sells their individual services to whatever clients they choose.

What does it take to be a freelancer?

Despite the shifting economy, not everyone is cut out for the freelancing life. Remember, what is a freelancer? It’s someone who works for themselves, often without any kind of support.

Freelancers need to be self-starters, with the right kind of motivation in order to be successful. Deciding whether freelancing is right for you comes down to both your personality and your experience. Let’s talk about some of the traits that are helpful for freelancers:

Independence

While you will get direction from clients and there are a lot of great mentors out there, when it comes down to it, freelancing is a pretty lonely gig. You need to be able to work separately from anyone else, set your own deadlines, and keep a constantly high standard of work without reminders or someone looking over your shoulder.

Flexibility

You will remember from the “What is a freelancer?” section that freelancers are self-employed, so they don’t have the same expectations as a full-time employee. Clients may ask for tight deadlines, reach out on weekends, or change their minds in the middle of a project. Freelancers need to be able to roll with change and pivot quickly.

Professionalism

While there are freelancers who never leave the couch, if you want to be successful in the freelancing world, you need to be professional. This means answering the phone, texts and emails quickly, not complaining to your clients, being on time for meetings, and proofreading communications, just to name a few. You also need to be able to present yourself well in the business world, whether at face-to-face meetings or networking events.

Patience

You could almost answer the question “What is a freelancer?” with another job title: customer service manager. Since freelancers work for themselves, they are managing all aspects of their business, from sales and marketing to collecting payment at the end of the project.

As a result, you are the one who deals directly with clients. Ask yourself if you can handle endless questions, negotiation, complaints and conversations about money, often with difficult people. If the answer is no, you are probably not ready for freelancing.

Persistence

Freelancing is both rewarding and difficult at times, but one thing you will need to achieve your goals is a stubborn personality. You will hear the word “no” often. You will likely send out dozens of cold pitches for every job you land. You will have to revise your work to fit someone else’s ideal. You’ll have to keep working, keep grinding, and keep trying new things constantly in order to build your business.

These traits help answer the question on what a freelancer is: an independent, flexible, professional, patient, persistent individual selling services to other individuals and organizations.

If this sounds like you, your next question might be––how do I start?

Good question!

First you have to choose a skill you’d like to sell.

Next, build up a portfolio of your work. You can do this through classes, doing work for friends and family, or on your own. Make sure to only include your best examples when presenting work to prospective clients.

Finally, find clients willing to pay for your services. Start with your own network. Let your contacts, both personal and business, know what you are offering. You can also talk to local business owners, comb freelance job sites, or pitch companies that you think could benefit from your work.

Most common types of freelance jobs

what is a freelancer

Many different jobs can be done by freelance contractors, but when you think about freelancing, there’s a reason that certain industries come to mind. If you Google the question, “What is a freelancer?” you will likely come up with images of people working on laptops.

Since freelancers provide all of their own tools and equipment, often freelance jobs are the kinds of tasks that can be done with just a computer and an internet connection.

If you are stuck for ideas, here are 6 of the most common freelance jobs:

Writer. Freelance writers create content for all sorts of different industries and purposes. They may write blog posts, ghost write a memoir, pen the copy for an ad campaign, write technical manuals and more. Good writers are hard to find, so a talented freelance writer always has plenty of work.

Designer. Designers make visual content for websites, brochures, business cards, packaging, branding, advertising, and more.

Developer. Currently, there is a massive shortage of software developers, so companies are looking to fill the vacancies any way they can. Enter freelancers. If you can code, you can find freelance jobs.

Finance. It is becoming increasingly common for organizations to outsource their bookkeeping and accounting to freelancers. Finance professionals can take on several small business clients at once, so those companies are essentially splitting the cost of a full-time accountant or bookkeeper.

Assistant. The virtual assistant industry began in the 1990s, and has grown exponentially since then. Virtual assistants are hired to do everything from scheduling appointments to research. Hiring an assistant can actually save companies money by getting them more organized, so it’s a popular freelance gig.

Social Media. If you have ever written social media content or responded to comments online, you know that it can be a full-time job. A freelance social media pro might schedule posts, take photos, design graphics, and interact with other users to build a community.

Pros & cons of freelancing

Now that we’ve answered the question, “What is a freelancer?” it is time to decide — is freelancing worth it?

The answer? It depends.

Like with any job, freelancing has its pros and cons. Let’s talk about a few of them, and you can make the decision.

Pros:

  • Freedom.  If your freelance career only requires a computer and the internet, you can work from anywhere. And many freelance gigs also have flexible hours––meaning parents can work around their kids’ schedules, people in different countries can work together, and someone who already has a full time job can squeeze freelance work in on the side.
  • Remote. Before the pandemic, if you wanted a job that allowed you to work from home, freelancing was your gig. While there are now more opportunities to work remotely, freelancing is great because you have total control over your own situation, whether that is working from home or not.
  • Passion. Freelancers get to pick and choose what they work on, so instead of being assigned mundane tasks, you only take on the projects that matter to you.

Cons:

  • Money Management. At a traditional job, you work a set number of hours and receive a paycheck on set days, almost like magic. As a freelancer, you are responsible for the business. You have to decide how much money to pay yourself and what to invest back in the business. You have to manage invoices and collect payment. All of this can be stressful if you aren’t used to it.
  • Cash Flow. Freelancers sometimes get stuck in what is known as the “feast or famine cycle,” meaning you either have too much work, or not enough. It is difficult to plan your life, expenses, and business hours when work is inconsistent.
  • Loneliness. For some people, working independently is great. Others miss the social atmosphere and collaboration of an office. It’s important to evaluate if working solo is right for you and your mental health.

Where to find freelance jobs

So we’ve answered what a freelancer is, discussed how to start, and even thought through some of the most common jobs available.

The only question left to address is…where exactly do you find freelance jobs?

My advice is always to start with your personal network. Word of mouth is the best tool you have. However, another great source of leads come from the dozens of freelance job sites available. Some of the top ones include: SolidGigsFlexJobsVollnaFiverrFreelancer, and Upwork. Each of these have their strengths and weaknesses — SolidGigs finds the jobs for you, whereas the other 4 you hunt yourself.

Every freelance marketplace is pretty saturated and competitive, so you have to find ways to make your profile stand out!

For more freelance job site options, check out more sites like Upwork.

Are you going freelance?

So, what is a freelancer?

If you are looking for a job where you are your own boss, you have a great deal of flexibility, you choose what you work on, and you work with different people all the time, the the answer to that question is––you!

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Millo Articles by Kylie Burgener

Kylie Jackson Burgener is a mother of three and a freelance consultant, specializing in public relations, writing and content marketing. She is a cofounder of Measured Melodies, a leveled piano sheet music system for piano teachers and students. She lives in Raleigh, North Carolina with her family.
Read more from Kylie.