What is a Freelancer?
I will not bore you with all the usual blah blah about why you may want to become a freelancer, or why you may want to hire one. If you are here now, I assume that you already know the answers to those questions.
So lets instead ask the more intriguing question: What is a freelancer?
That's actually a quite interesting question you have there. Because, I have not found a clear answer. A freelancer is commonly referred to as person who is self-employed and is not necessarily committed to a particular employer long-term. As a freelance developer, that means someone who produce code that someone else pay for (and probably also gets ownership to). But isn't that also the very definition of an "Independent Contractor"? Well, yes, it basically is. Still, when I read about contracting and freelancing, there is a clear distinction between the two.
Freelancing is generally described as something positive, something for creative, engaged, freedom-loving people who don't want to work as somebody else's employee. Freelancers are people who wants to be their own bosses. Typically people like me, who really love my profession, and want to spend quality time with my own code in Open Source projects as well as coding for food. Because of that, I don't want intrusive employment contracts that give my employer any general rights over my intellectual property. And it gives me the opportunity to work on Open Source projects for some time between the periods when I work for clients. It even gives me the opportunity to work for several awesome clients at the same time, provided that I can deliver on time. Freelancers, according to the blogs and books I have read, typically work in our home offices, shared co-locations or coffee shops. Freelancers gets to cherry-pick the projects we want to work on, the clients we want to work for, our work is decently compensated, and as such, we are a showcase of Capitalism Done Right(TM).
Independent Contractors on the other hand often don't have a choice. They may have problems getting a regular job, and working as an "Independent Contractor" may be their only option if they want to put food on the table. More often than not they have to work at the clients office, like ordinary employees, answering to the managers that happens to work there, and they have no real freedom once they sign the contract. For all practical purposes they are treated like employees, except that they are often payed less, they have no benefits, and no job-security. An Independent Contractor is a one man (or woman) company, and as such, they carry all the risks, they need to pay taxes and file business papers and reports on time, and they need to handle accounting and finances themselves. I associate "Independent Contractors" with unresourceful people being exploited by Big Companies like Amazon, where the arrangement is just about the Big Company cutting costs by ditching labor laws, risks and avoiding paying even the minimum wage. It's Capitalist Exploitation at its worst.
Of course, we freelancers also run our own companies and we have to pay taxes and file papers - but we put that into account when we calculate the price for a project. A good thumb-rule for a freelance developer is to charge the double of whatever you made before you became a freelancer. At that rate, you will earn approximately the same as before when all the bills are payed. Remember, as a freelancer you will pay for your own insurances, laptop, MSDN subscription, Mac Developer Program, accounting, Safari Books subscription and all the other subscriptions and services you need. Even coffee!
So, there I think we have a good definition of the two terms:
Freelancer: A resourceful, happy person doing what he/she loves for nice clients who pay a reasonable compensation.
Independent Contractor: A modern slave with the rights and joys traditionally associated with slavery: - exactly zero.
Hint to recruiters on Linkedin: If you look for someone to relocate for some temporary assignment somewhere; you are not looking for a freelancer! You are looking for that other thing.
Of course, it's not all black and white like this. I have worked as a contractor, on-site, and it was OK. The big company was not at all exploiting its contractors. We were well payed. We were treated like their regular employees and had the same access to free books (Safari) training courses and most other benefits. The difference there was that they needed some extra hands, some really good senior developers, working on several mission-critical projects over time (years), not just some rock star developer saving the day by doing a single project in a few weeks or months.
Some other interesting descriptions
When it comes to more descriptive definitions of freelancing, I like The European Forum of Independent Professionals definition:
"a highly-skilled subset of self-employed workers, without employers nor employees, offering specialised services of an intellectual and knowledge-based nature”. Independent professionals work on a flexible basis in a range of creative, managerial, scientific and technical occupations; they are not a homogeneous group and as such, they cannot be considered or investigated as a whole. They are generally characterised by a large portion of autonomy, a high labour productivity, knowledge intensive performance, social commitment and a large dose of entrepreneurship and specialisation. Source: Wikipedia
Another, related quote that I like is this one:
"Traditional hierarchical organisations are struggling. People increasingly rejecting traditional employment with its lack of personal control and repression of creativity. New ways of working are emerging, new forms of collaboration, new structures, new alliances and new opportunities. iPros are at the heart of this." Source: The Rise of Europe’s independenT professionals (iPros)
I started this post by not discussing why you would want to become a freelancer, assuming that this is already obvious.
Then I raised the question what is a freelancer - as if this may be less obvious.
And then I suggested a definition that all freelancers would love - at least if that definition was absolutely true.
The thing is, a "freelancer" is very much what you want it to be. Like money. Everybody think they know money, but I have never met a person that can explain to me exactly what it is. Most intelligent people agree that money is an illusion, a fantasy, and that it will only be as valuable as people believe it is. That's also the thing with freelancing, I believe. The free, happy life with nice clients and exiting projects is just an illusion, a dream. Most big companies are capitalist predators, like Amazon, caring only about how much money they can feed the beasts at the top of the food-chain, and how fast. But there are exceptions. There are companies with owners and leaders who share that dream about happiness and kindness. It's up to us to live that dream, to search out those clients and to give them the quality and service-level they expect in return. The truth is, reality is relative. You can shape it. If you are very good at your profession, your believes will decide if you end up as the freelancer or the independent contractor from this article. High value freelancing is all about living that dream 100%, to be brilliant, and to give the client 100% value for their investment in our time.
Now my friend, go and be a high value freelancer. Live your dream!