Is a freelancer an entrepreneur? Part I

Part I: as a freelancer I am entrepreneurial, not an entrepreneur

Every time I have to file taxes, the tax authority website asks the following question: do you want to enter the portal for citizens or entrepreneurs?

In order to pay my VAT taxes I have to enter the latter. As a freelancer, for the Dutch tax admin, I’m an entrepreneur. This always got me thinking…

For me personally, I think that freelancers are NOT entrepreneurs. 2,5 years ago I switched from having a job to basically doing the same work but then as a freelancer. I have been doing this ever since.

You could argue that it takes an entrepreneurial spirit to trade the safety of a job to the adventure of freelance work. That is true. But as a freelancer your focus is on improving yourself and your service. In entrepreneurship, you focus on setting up systems that improve your service. I meet a lot of people that are freelancers but do not focus on setting up these systems. They love the freedom of being self-employed. They are forced to be more entrepreneurial and creative than their peers in job contracts, but that doesn’t make them entrepreneurs.

Learning = essential

So how’s a freelancer entrepreneurial? What I find most attractive about freelance work agreements is that you shift your focus on results instead of just ‘being present’ in the office. Plus: as a freelancer you’ll learn two things (that are I never learned in uni) that are essential in building entrepreneurial skills:

  1. Running a business
  2. Selling

In the first months of being a freelancer I learned how to construct quotations, write invoices, set up a business bank account, how to do bookkeeping and how to market my consultancy.

One of the most valuable learning experiences for me was to sub-contract. I hired an interface designer and a graphic designer to help me with a big project. I remember that my friend did not understand why I’d ‘give work away’ — which had some truth in it, because in this project I did the graphic and interface design. And could have continued to do so. But I felt I needed some extra minds and hands. It was really valuable to instruct other professionals, to hold them accountable to deadlines and quality and to realize that spending money on freelancers is like giving your own work a power boost.

Selling and scalability

We all have our strengths, but you cannot get around one specific skill that is essential in creating a successful business and that is: selling. And that skill is broader than cold calling customers to get them to order a product. It means being able to present yourself and what you do, it means going to network meetings and figuring out how to create a match between demand and supply. Being a freelancer enabled me to develop these skills. And I notice that these skills help me tremendously now — when developing my own company. I recently started a new brand (besides my own freelancing business) together with a friend.

Being a freelancer made me feel way more entrepreneurial than when I had a 9 to 5 job contract. But I never referred to myself as an entrepreneur. I sincerely recommend to all aspiring entrepreneurs to start freelancing first. Or even better: work as an employee first, so you get to now a specific niche market and suck up knowledge from your colleagues. Then, develop a specific skill (coding, translating, copywriting, infographic making, video-editing, drone-piloting, giving training, etc.) and sell this skill as a freelancer. This will allow you to develop entrepreneurial skills and build a network. Then, start a business. And there’s no hurt in starting small.

To me, entrepreneurship is creating a business that exists ‘outside of you’. A real business vs a freelancing business is built on a scalable proposition vs time for money. The title isn’t the best, I think, but there are some good points explained here by Dale Partridge:

So what do you think?

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