Are you a freelancer at heart? Or an entrepreneur?

In one important way, freelancers and entrepreneurs are carved from the same timber.

They are both fiercely and genetically independent. They recoil at the thought of being someone’s employee.

Richard Branson would no sooner take a ‘job’ than Pablo Picasso would. John Grisham ain’t signing on with no law firm, any more than Jeff Bezos is taking a job at Barnes and Noble.

But otherwise, they are entirely separate species with different internal wiring. One would be hopelessly bored or irritated trying to be the other. And mostly, they don’t want to be the other.

I have entrepreneur friends who I like just fine. But I couldn’t spend my days doing what they do. (The money would be nice, to a point. But the daily tasks? Unspeakable torture.) Likewise, they say “How the hell do you pace around an office all day trying to think up shit? I’d rather bang out my teeth with a hammer.”

The essential differences, as I see them:

Entrepreneurs identify themselves by line of business. “I’m in oil. I’m in retail. I’m in enterprise software. I’m in mall development.”

Freelancers identify with trades, crafts, and professions. “I’m a photographer. I write code. I sculpt. I troubleshoot accounts receivable. I’m an illustrator. I’m a writer.”

Entrepreneurs think big. They conceive in scale and scope. They dream of turning one discount carpet store into 237 discount carpet stores, nationwide. And when they have 237 discount carpet stores, they dream about adding discount tile and window treatments, too. Getting bigger is a jazz.

Freelancers think about getting better. (And making more money.) But mostly about being really freakin’ good.

When freelancers think ‘scale’ they think of writing, coding, drawing something that 8 million people like. And buy.

Most entrepreneurs I know are fidgety and restless. They rarely have a problem with procrastination.They love arguing and fighting and negotiating. They are perfectly happy to spend their days bouncing from phone calls to meetings, to walking around a warehouse, to schmoozing a customer, to beating up a supplier. They thrive on interruptions and fragmentation. They even interrupt themselves. Crises energize them. They will do 168 different things in a day. But none for longer than nine minutes. They’re uneasy when alone.

Freelancers, more often, are concentrators. They like to work on what they’re working on, and hate being interrupted. They tend to procrastinate, and think about things more. (Sometimes too much.) They fight with their own heads more. They would rather be good than the biggest. Talking money makes them uneasy.

In their off hours, freelancers like to make things. Their hobbies and avocations are about craft, skill, practice. They’re comfortable with tools. Or they’re at least not afraid of them.

In their time off, if any, entrepreneurs prefer ‘talking’ pursuits. They serve on committees and boards. They chair things. They run for office. They organize events. They go on TV and opine.

When a freelancer says “I built this,” he means he actually wrote it, designed it, shot it, painted it.

When an entrepreneur says “I built this,” what he actually did was pay people to build it while he told them what to do. (Which to him, is the same as building it.)

That’s because entrepreneurs only think of creating things that are huge, that take 673 people many months to make. Like an airline or hosting platform or online shoe outlet.

Freelancers gravitate toward building things you can make with a Bic pen, a ball of clay, an SDK, an iPhone camera, or fat pieces of chalk.

As kids, entrepreneurs were selling stuff out of their bedrooms, trading, doing deals at age nine. They had money. They had a knack for getting other kids to do things for them.

Freelancers were drawing comics at three in the morning. Mostly, they bummed money from friends.

On the movie set, the entrepreneur identifies with the producer, the one walking around being nervous and talking on the cell phone.

The freelancer identifies with the cinematographer, the set decorator, the screenwriter, the actor. The special effects guy trying to get blue flame to shoot out the back of the motorcycle.

Entrepreneurs keep score by counting — dollars, numbers of stores, sales.

Freelancers keep score by monitoring the reviews. Am I getting better? Am I getting more assignments, engagements, bookings? Do people really like my stuff? They fret more.

The entrepreneur wonders how Steve Jobs did it. The freelancer wonders how Jonny Ives does it.

Mark Twain lost his shirt trying to get rich investing in a new-fangled typesetting machine — trying to play entrepreneur. Ironically, he had to freelance his way out of debt. He took on hundreds of speaking and storytelling gigs worldwide to pay off his creditors.

Similarly, entrepreneurs can screw things up royally when they start fiddling with the knobs and tools or the script. I have a neighbor (yes, richer than me) who is a masterful negotiator, brilliant at real estate transactions, and loves to fuss with money things. But when a picture falls off the wall in his den, he has to call one of the nine handymen on his list.

The conductor can wave a baton, but he can’t pick up a bassoon and play it. He can’t write the score. The only way he can make music is to assemble 86 people with instruments in a room, and get them to play music that someone else wrote. I realize that is devilishly hard to do and the world needs conductors. But I’d rather be able to write a score. Or play the bassoon. (And for a million dollars.)


This post sparked by an email exchange with Liz Lockard