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Freelancing or Consulting: What's the Right Label for You?

Freelancing or Consulting: What's the Right Label for You?

When people inquire about my profession, I often find it challenging to provide a concise description. I sometimes say, "I'm a freelance writer," but not everyone fully understands what freelancing entails.

Moreover, my work encompasses more than just writing, making "freelance writer" an oversimplified label. Despite my lengthy and successful tenure as an independent professional, this phrase doesn't quite capture the breadth of my work.

Another label I use is "writer and networking consultant," which typically leads to follow-up questions about the specifics of consulting and my daily tasks.

Using the term "consultant" seems to come with added expectations and requires me to demonstrate the legitimacy of my profession.

The ongoing debate between freelancing and consulting is intricate and lacks a definitive answer. Nevertheless, we must select the appropriate terminology to articulate our roles effectively and avoid those awkward pauses at networking events when people ask, "So, what do you do?"

Freelancing vs. Consulting: Unpacking the Distinctions

To comprehend the disparities between freelancing and consulting, it's crucial to delve into the essence of each term.

The term "freelance" originated from Sir Walter Scott's book, "Ivanhoe." Surprisingly, this 19th-century literary reference holds relevance to contemporary freelancing.

Originally, "freelance" described a free lance—a warrior unaffiliated with any specific cause or territory, fighting for the highest bidder.

Over time, it evolved to represent professionals who work independently, serving various clients and maintaining flexibility within the bounds of their contracts.

Freelancers undertake diverse tasks, ranging from coding software to designing brochures.

On the other hand, "consultant" has an even older etymological origin, derived from French and Latin roots, signifying "to call together" or "take advice."

The term "consultant" as a job title is often attributed to Sherlock Holmes, although it may have been in use before that. In the corporate realm, consulting refers to providing professional advice.

Consultants operate across diverse industries and offer a wide spectrum of services, from legal counsel to reputation management and beyond.

While freelancing and consulting share similarities, they are not synonymous. Some key distinctions between the two include:

Employment Structure

Freelancers are never full-time employees of a single company, whereas consultants may work as W2 employees for consulting firms, large corporations, or government entities.

Contract Duration

Consultants typically commit to long-term engagements, sometimes for the duration of a strategic initiative or on a retainer basis. Freelancers, in contrast, often tackle specific tasks or projects and conclude their contracts upon completion.

Client Load

Freelancers often juggle multiple clients simultaneously, whereas consultants frequently work with a single client until a specific problem is resolved before moving on to the next.

Scope of Work

Consultants generally focus on the big picture, offering strategic plans. Freelancers often handle the implementation phase after the overarching direction is established.

scope of work template

In essence, while all freelancers offer external expertise, not all consultants are freelancers. Many consultants are full-time employees dedicated to a single organization.

While some people use the terms interchangeably, understanding these nuances is vital for accurately conveying your role.

Comparing Freelancing and Consulting

When considering freelancing vs. consulting, several aspects come into play:

1. Education: Neither freelancing nor consulting mandates an official degree or training. However, consultants are typically perceived as experts and often possess advanced degrees or extensive experience.

2. Legal Considerations: Neither title has a specific legal definition, so you won't face legal repercussions for choosing one over the other. However, you may want to consult with an attorney to establish legal protections, especially if you form an LLC.

3. Compensation: Freelancers can bill clients in various ways, such as hourly, per project, or on a retainer basis. Consultants typically command higher rates due to their specialized expertise.

4. Getting Started: Freelancers can enter the field with marketable skills and a portfolio. Consultants often require advanced degrees, substantial experience, and a strong reference network.

5. Finding Clients: Freelancers often utilize freelance websites and networking, while consultants rely on word of mouth and content marketing to attract clients.

Choosing the Right Term for You

In the freelancing vs. consulting debate, the choice of label often depends on your experience level.

Those starting out or transitioning between industries may lean toward freelancing.

As you accumulate experience, enhance your portfolio, and gain trust from clients to provide advisory services, you may transition into a consulting role.

Conversely, experienced professionals who branch out independently immediately may opt to use the consultant label and command higher rates from the start.

Ultimately, the choice of label is a personal decision.

There's no governing body dictating whether you're a freelancer or consultant.

Instead, consider your expertise, client expectations, and the value you bring to the table.

Articulating the "why" behind your choice—why you've chosen this path, why your skills are unique, and why you're an ideal fit for your target clients—will resonate more with prospective clients than the label you choose.

Whether you embrace freelancing or consulting, aligning your choice with your goals and conveying your value effectively is what truly matters. 

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