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Who Do You Want to Be: Freelancer or Small Business Owner?

When I first started out freelancing full time, I didn’t have enough clients to keep me busy 40 hours a week. I was scared to death, wondering if I was going to get enough clients and be able to sustain my household. I spent part of my day working on client projects and the rest marketing my services.

If you are freelancing or have your own small business, I’m sure you know the feeling. Even if you were booked solid right from the start, I would bet in the back of your mind you were wondering what would happen if you lost this client or that one and what if you couldn’t replace them quickly enough to keep up.

I didn’t struggle for long because my marketing efforts really paid off and I started working consistently, putting in way more than the traditional 40 hours. One thing I never stopped doing was the marketing. Even when I was slammed, I would put out a bid or two a day without fail and the jobs were pouring in. I noticed, however, because I was taking on a lot of one-time jobs, that I was spending too much of my time on research and preparation for each client because each was in a different industry. It was like having to learn ten new jobs at once. It was tough trying to keep up.

Tough Situation Gives Birth to a Bright Idea
Then, my biggest client fell victim to the economy and I lost the majority of my income. I was hurting because the other clients just hired me for one article or they were inconsistent with the work they sent me, especially because they knew that I previously was simply not able to provide more consistent work based on my schedule. Adding many one-time clients to replace this big client was simply not plausible or efficient. So to get back in the game, I got the bright idea to “niche.”

I decided to utilize my pre-freelancing work experience and education in a field I had spent 15 years in, and started selling my writing, media, and marketing services to only businesses in this industry.

The results were amazing; I was getting 2-3 new clients every week and these weren’t just one-hitters. They hired me for consistent long-term projects and I upsold all of my services, so they were getting the full effect of my knowledge of the industry plus my writing and marketing experience. Even better, because all of these clients were in the same industry, I didn’t have to spend hours upon hours learning each new client’s industry.

Growing Too Fast
Bidding on jobs and getting new clients became addictive; I was up to 80 hours a week, staying up all night and exhausted. That’s when I got another bright idea—I would outsource some of the work, but always have my hands in every project. So I brought on 3 talented people to help me. But it turned out that even though I was outsourcing some of the work, I had more to do than ever with keeping them supplied with projects, editing everything that went out, answering questions, giving directions, and keeping up with their pay.

And even then I was still marketing and getting new business. As a result, I needed more help and recruited other independent workers to come on board. Then I realized, even though I was passionate about my work and found so much satisfaction in producing excellent results and helping my clients grow their businesses, I had no life. My personal life was suffering from the long hours and stress of all the new responsibility. I realized I went from a freelancer to a business owner without even realizing it or considering what it truly meant. I never wanted to be a business owner.

Freelance vs. Small Business
No matter what you hear, there is truly a big difference between being a freelancer and a small business owner. Freelancers work solo and have only themselves and their clients to think of. Small business owners have both of these concerns as well, but then they have the added stress and responsibility of employees, whether they be independent contractors or full-time company workers. Then you have to think of taxes and W2s, keeping the work flow running smoothly, making sure their deadlines are met as well as yours, paying them, and what seems like a million other additional details distracting your attention. And if you have a particularly controlling nature, you tend to have a hard time delegating tasks and end up doing them yourself or completely reworking the job you did delegate.

If you’ve always dreamt of being a small business owner and have researched what it entails and love the thought of managing a business and watching it grow, then you would be absolutely thrilled to have “arrived” at your dream and reached the level of growth I had in my own business.

On the other hand, if you’re like me and are passionate about being hands on, actually doing the work yourself, still maintaining a quality lifestyle, and not managing others or running a business, then you would be in turmoil. All I wanted to do was go back to the simplicity of freelancing and doing the work I love. So I was at a crossroads, trying to figure out how to “ungrow” the small business operation I never wanted but found stuck in. I know this may sound crazy to those of you out there hungry for work and not finding it. I struggle with feeling ungrateful for all the terrific clients I have the opportunity to work with.

However, I made the best decision of my life and implemented a plan to take me from business owner back to freelancer. I am getting back to the hands-on work I love so much and am spending a lot less hours on responsibilities I find unappealing and, quite frankly, stressful.

Decide Who You Want to Be Now
Have you determined who you want to be? Have you given great thought to where you are headed each time you take on more work or another client? It is important to really explore these questions even if you are just starting out. Being a “free” lancer and doing the work you love versus being a business owner running a business you love are two entirely different things.

If you want to remain freelancing and keep things simple in your life, then really give pause when you come across a job you just feel like you would be perfect at and can’t refuse. Think about it each and every time. The reality is if you are great at what you do and you give your clients just what they want, they tend to stick around. So if you are adding client job after client job thinking, “Oh, I will do just this one project for them,” most of the time it doesn’t work out that way. Freelance businesses have a way of growing if you find the perfect niche, are great at marketing yourself, and most importantly, please your clients.

Ask yourself what you really want out of life and work. Freelancer or small business owner—both choices are great—depending on who you want to be. I don’t recommend free falling into business ownership. Making a decision upfront and sticking to a plan will save you a ton of turmoil and headaches, both of which will ultimately create difficulties for your clients. I found for me, personally, my love is helping my client’s grow their businesses, not growing one of my own.


Evan September 3, 2010 at 2:22 pm

Where did you bid on projects? I’d love to get more info on the freelancing aspect.

Tracy September 7, 2010 at 6:43 am

Freelancing has it perks and so does owning a small business. Both present challenges and both present risks. It just depends who, what, why we should take risks. Great post.

Briana @ GBR September 13, 2010 at 4:57 pm

I’ve noticed that a lot of freelancers start off the same way you did: slow at first then extremely rapid and overworked. I think society does tend to blend the line. Freelancing you’re pretty much a loner and a small business could be you and a few other people. I’m glad you caught the reigns and slowed down.

Dan Neamtu February 9, 2016 at 9:55 pm

Nice that you have the bouth freelancer and small business owner experience. And you did what you love the most. Inspiring.

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