You and me, as freelancers. Are we entrepreneurs?
I say no. We’re different.
In one important way, freelancers and entrepreneurs are carved from the same timber.
We are both fiercely and genetically independent. We 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, entrepreneurs and freelancers are separate species. We have different genes, different wiring. One would be hopelessly bored or irritated trying to be the other. And mostly, we don’t want to be the other.
I have entrepreneur friends. I respect them. But I could never spend my days doing what they do. (The money would be nice, to a point. But the daily tasks, the 936 phone calls and meetings would be torture for me.)
Likewise, my entrepreneur friends ask me “How the hell can you sit at a desk all day trying to think stuff up? I would end up screaming at the wall.” (And I say, “Me too. But I’m used to that.”)
Here are the essential differences between these mindsets, as I see them:
Entrepreneurs identify by line of business. “I’m in energy. I’m in hospitality. I’m in enterprise software. I’m in AI.”
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 love building companies.
Freelancers like making books, drawings, websites, apps, logos, songs.
Entrepreneurs think size. They conceive in scale and scope. They dream of turning one discount carpet store into 237 discount carpet stores. And when they have 237 discount carpet stores, they dream about adding discount tile and window treatments, too. The dopamine comes from getting bigger.
Freelancers think about getting better. (And making more money, sure.) But mostly we fantasize about being really freakin’ good.
When freelancers think ‘scale’ they think of writing, coding, drawing something that 8 million people like. Or admire.
The entrepreneurs I know are fidgety and unsatisfied. 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 in- terruptions and fragmentation. They even interrupt themselves. They will do 168 different things in a day. But none for longer than nine minutes. They feel alive and energized in a crisis. They feel 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 be the biggest. They feel awkward talking about money.
In their off hours, freelancers like to make things. Their hobbies and avocations call for craft, for skill, for practice. They’re comfortable with tools. Or they’re at least not afraid of them.
But entrepreneurs, in their off hours, if they actually have them, 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 means is he paid people to build it, while he walked around and pointed and yelled and wrote checks. (Which to him, is the same as building it.)
Entrepreneurs think of creating things that are huge. Things that require 673 people and 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 iPhone camera, or fat pieces of chalk. Something you can do in a free afternoon.
As kids, entrepreneurs were the hustlers who were selling stuff out of their bedrooms at age nine. They were trading, doing deals, buying stuff on speculation. They had money. They had a knack for making other kids do things for them. They inherently understood markups and profit margins and could talk price without flinching. They were also a little irritating. They fantasized about people lining up to buy their stuff.
Freelancers were the ones staying up til three in the morning drawing comics or reading books. 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 pleading or yelling.
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, users, ticket 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? Freelancers fret more.
The entrepreneur looks up to Steve Jobs. The freelancer admires his chief designer Jonny Ive.
Mark Twain made a ton of money writing books. But he went brok when he tried to play entrepreneur, and invested in a new-fangled typesetting machine. 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, or picking up the tools or trying to edit 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 he can’t hang a picture in his den. Couldn’t lay a brick or paint a bedroom.
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 acknowledge that conducting is devilishly hard to do and the world needs conductors.
But me, I’d rather be able to write a score. Or play the bassoon. (And for a million dollars.)
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August 10, 2020 @ 6:28 am
if you want to become an entrepreneur, it might be a good idea to work as a freelancer for a while as it will help you understand sales and marketing as well as helping you polish your own skills.
September 17, 2020 @ 12:46 pm
When I started reading this, I was all ready to disagree and say that freelancers had to be entrepreneurs. I love your distinction and agree with you. Thank you, Walt, for reminding me which I truly am.
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September 21, 2020 @ 10:16 am
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March 9, 2021 @ 1:49 am
Very well portrayed.
The classification of freelancers and entrepreneurs is impressive.
Especially where you mentioned the 3 am wake story.
I relate to it.