Freelancers, Where Does the Brand Stop and You Start?

By   |  Stashed in Freelancing

You hear all the time if you are a freelancer, that you are essentially the business. Not only are you all aspects of it, but you are also the face behind it. But how much of that face is actually yours, and how much of it is a sort of compromised professional persona that may not be a fully representative of you? And if you are in fact, partaking in this sort of professional facade, just what are the implications of this behavior? Does it speak more about you and your professionalism, or does it speak to the market that you are operating in?

In the interest of full disclosure I am going to out myself and announce for the first time, that I am one of these freelancers who dons this public persona that is a watered down version of myself, and I do it, because of the possible client blowback. This often doesn’t amount to much more than biting my proverbial tongue when it comes to social media environs, but it is a compromise that I recognized being made, and one that got me thinking. Are we all, to a degree, playing a role in the interest of appearance for potential clients? And how much of ourselves are people actually wanting or expecting us to reveal about who we are through our business?

The blogosphere is loaded with posts warning about business faux-pas that occur via the various social media outlets, which prove that some people give no consideration to the effects of their online interactions. But as a freelancer, these interactions can be crucial for the ability of your business to thrive, so paying special attention to them comes highly recommended with this territory. Hence the facade of professionalism to help act as a sort of safeguard. For me, I established a personal blog years ago, complete with a podcast and a twitter account that I pretty much keep separate from my freelance business life. This affords me an outlet free from possible clients that may be turned off by my personal views and politics shared through these outlets.

But what does it all mean?

For those of us who work with a professional alter ego, we have to learn where to draw the lines, and when we take on branding our business, those lines can become blurred. Again, for effectively building a personal brand, it has to be just that, personal. But how much of you should be included in the mix? Because just like the blogosphere being loaded with posts telling you to be aware of the weight your online conversations, there are a number of posts highlighting the importance of freelancers building themselves into the brand.

However, just like a talkative stranger we meet who will unload a decades worth of baggage and poignantly personal experiences on us in the span of ten minutes in response to the kindest and most rhetorical of acknowledgments or greetings, we do not want to put too much out there. Let us be honest for a moment, though most who populate the web may agree with the notion that we want to know who is behind the scenes of our favorite brands, we only want to know so much. Not that we are shallow, but I think that most of us want to know them to a degree, but we want also want to some aspects of them to remain a bit of a mystery.

Now I cannot speak for everyone in this case, but from others I have spoken with in the community, we do like some of our favorite branded freelancers to leave a bit of who they are to the imagination, so that we may fill in the gaps ourselves or leave them blank if we so choose. But why is this? Is it so that we may continue to paint them in a certain light, that we may find a bit more favorable? For whatever reason, because we want them to remain somewhat more approachable or higher on the pedastal we have them placed, we want some of who they are but not all of it. Perhaps it is simply a T.M.I. situation and we would rather remain somewhat in the dark.

Any way you slice it, the pie comes up portioned to serve in doses not as a whole in order to be more palatable to some (in my case, potential clients who do not care to, nor need to hear my political opinions and stances because they are not relevant to the task at hand.). Now this is not to say that our personal politics and morals, even if they are kept to ourselves, cannot guide or steer us in our choices as to which clients to take on and which to pass by. That is one of the great things about being a freelancer, you have the right to refuse your services to anyone for any reason without compromising your stances or your professionalism.

As a vegan I would never do design work for any company that uses animals or animal products as part of their business model, but that does not mean that I would openly be disrespectful when declining the work and risk damaging the reputation of my business. I would kindly thank them for their consideration but tell them that I cannot work with them at this time, perhaps even recommending other freelancers that I know who may not have these same hangups as I do. So even if we keep part of ourself buried behind a mask of professionalism, it does not mean that this part of us becomes compromised. It is still there. It still guides us.

So as you set out to brand your freelance business, it is relevant to keep these kinds of considerations in mind. It may be necessary for you to draw these kinds of lines so that you know just where your brand stops and you start. In the interest of business preservation you might not want to take full advantage of the ‘be yourself’ freedom that so many turn to freelancing thinking it offers. You have to remember that there are still expectations that others will have that could potentially impact your brand construction, so even in this case, it is not all about you.

So what are the expectations?

There is no way to overstate the importance of your brand, so making sure that you give it every thoughtful consideration is vital, and part of that is taking on other perspectives for a sort of informal Q&A. So it becomes necessary that you explore the expectations that will be placed on your brand to help you effectively decide how much of who you truly are should play just how much of a role in your brand. Essentially helping you to gauge how much of a personal injection to put in your brand and how much of a professional face to paint over the issue.

Now expectations will naturally vary with the freelance arena in which you hang your hat, and the individual experiencing your brand, but there are a few that are universally applied.

Originality

One major expectation that people will put upon your brand, is one of originality. They expect you to craft an individual and unique brand, and this idea would certainly lend itself to and lead towards putting some of yourself in the mix. But there are other ways of garnering an original label for your brand, beyond making it all about you, so there is still a line here to consider.

Some Level of Professionalism

This is another major expectation that is often placed upon your brand from various directions, so maintaining some level of professionalism is usually a good idea. This can definitely help your business be taken seriously, and may also impart to some a sense of reliability. This is a consideration that tends to point towards scaling back a bit on the personal, even if it is just a little bit.

Clear Communication

Given that you can build your brand in whatever direction you wish, one expectation to keep in mind is certainly its ability to clearly communicate everything your business represents. So however much of yourself you incorporate into the brand, make sure that it does not muddle up the message that is communicated to your audience and potential clients. The more professional you make your brand the clearer the messages taken away from interactions with it may be.

Consistency

Whichever mix you end up with in your brand, know that another common expectation that most of the populous it’s positioned to impact will place on it is consistency. So no matter how much you and how much professionalism is added in to fill out your brand, make sure that you continue to keep up that mix and not veer too far from its established path once you have gotten going. This shift can really mix up the reception you get from the following and the reputation you have built for your business.

In Conclusion

Perhaps it is the hippie in me that always tends to push for balance, but I honestly believe that in this instance striking for that balance of personal and professional backing for your freelance brand is the best area to aim. But I am sure that others will draw different conclusions and wherever you land in this discussion, I would love to hear your thoughts below in the comment section.

About the Author

Rob is an emerging author, celebrated podcaster and poet, and is an author and freelancer for Arbenting Freebies and Dead Wings Designs.

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  • http://bkmacdaddy.com/blog Brian McDaniel

    Excellent post and topic for discussion, Rob. This is something I have wrestled with, made some mistakes and made some decisions for my own personal/professional approach. I’m not one to dive bomb a comment section with links to my own writings, but I explained my thoughts on this exact subject in a post I wrote awhile back on my own blog called “Challenging Integrity: Personal and Professional Branding” (http://www.bkmacdaddy.com/blog/personal-vs-professional-branding-challenging-integrity). Not to argue with your post, because I truly believe we all have to decide what’s best for us and our business, but I have some distinctly different views that I won’t rehash here. However, if you have a chance to check out my post, I would love to discuss it more. In short, my primary question is: What kind of life am I living that I need to keep parts of it hidden? Thanks for getting my wheels turning on this some more.

    • http://www.keysthatclick.com Carlos

      In response to Brian’s question “What kind of life am I living that I need to keep parts of it hidden?” ….

      I really don’t think that it’s a matter of having to keep things hidden, but some things can be irrelevant in a business environment and make one seem unprofessional, potentially harming your business. Would you lay out your whole life story to a potential client? It might be very interesting, but the client probably just wants to get down to business.

    • http://bkmacdaddy.com/blog Brian McDaniel

      Hey Carlos,

      Thanks for replying to my comment. I think if you read the article I referenced you would see where I’m coming from. (I promise, I’m not trying to drive traffic to my blog, but this post ties in perfectly and my position is far too elaborate to post in a comment.) I’m not trying to say I’m right. Just sharing how I go about it.

      Cheers! :)

    • http://deadwingsdesigns.com Rob Bowen

      Thanks for the comment and the link, I really like your post, even though I think that we are coming from two different directions. You see, I know there is nothing wrong with the way I live my life. My outspoken political and social activism are not something that I would ever consider giving up on, but as Carlos said, it is simply not relevant in a business environment. And as someone who’s outspokenness & political views have had costs outside of their relevant contexts on my personal life (with large regards to my family) I know how sensitive the topics I discuss and challenge folks on are and how much prejudice many people have today when it comes to unpopular perspectives that do not align with their own.

      And for that part, I could care less how many members of the design community knew about my podcast and the like, but the potential clients that could be completely turned off to the idea of hiring an angry hippie for their work I am concerned with. I know how judgmental and prejudicial people can be, and I wanted to give Arbenting every opportunity to succeed when it started (in the Bush era where people who were outspoken and challenged the norm were often ostracized for doing little more than expressing their opinions.). So I kept that side of me scaled back to make sure that no unwarranted prejudice was placed on the business which affected more than just myself.

      So I wouldn’t agree that it is a matter of integrity. Mainly because not only am I this person when I am alone, but more importantly overall, I know firmly who I am. And that passionate, activist minded fella is virtuous and full of integrity(…even if he likes to talk about himself in the third person. ;p lol). So I think we not only have different approaches to this, but also different thoughts on the implications of it. Again, as you said, everyone will do this differently, so I cannot disagree with your approach, just the reasoning behind our approaches varies which I think makes them almost two different discussions.

      Very interesting, indeed. I had considered the implications, but naturally I only thought about them from my perspective, so I really do thank you for offering another. Whereas you think it speaks more about the person, I think it speaks more about the market or clients in said market.

      Carlos, I think encapsulated much of my perspective when he mentioned the relevance to the business environment. I think that is more what steered me to my decision.

      Thank you both for kicking off the discussion, and for doing it so awesomely. It is not always easy to offer another perspective on such personal issues, so Brian, big ups for bringing in another take on it for sure!

    • http://bkmacdaddy.com/blog Brian McDaniel

      Thanks for taking the time to read my post, Rob. I think we actually are very much alike in our thinking, while still having distinctly different ideas about this topic. Relevance of being completely transparent is most definitely NOT what I was talking about, and I totally understand what you and Carlos are saying there. Obviously I am not saying that I am going to spew a bunch of status updates about my sex life or my children or anything else that really is no one’s business, much less my clients. But I am saying that my approach requires that I am both personable AND personal in relation to them. My brand is me. So rather than censor or edit ME I choose to say, “Here I am, take me or leave me!” I say this to my friends and my clients, because I guess I think that if they don’t like (or at least respect) me or who I am on AND off the job, then we probably aren’t going to work that well together anyway. Because of this approach I currently have clients that I have directly opposing views on things we are very passionate about (politics, religion, etc.) but yet we still have mutual respect.

      Again, this is not to prove my point or say I “have more integrity” than anyone else. This is just a clarification – not a comparison. I am enthralled with this discussion and am grateful for your providing the forum for it.

    • http://deadwingsdesigns.com Rob Bowen

      Hey Brian, appreciate the follow-up as well. I didn’t take away from your post that you were trying to say you had more integrity than someone else, and I would hope that no one else would read that into what you say in your post or comments. I wanted to highlight it b/c I think it demonstrates the difference in our approaches to this idea. Just wanted to clarify, because I think you make some truly valid points.

      I think my division of Rob kind of stems from way back, as well, having those two sides that I would put forth, one for family and one for friends. In high school when I struggled to find my voice and my self apart from the kid I was growing up, I found that the kid I was (who was an imprint of my parents and their ideas and stances on things) was very different from the guy I was turning out to be (who did not jive so well with my family as much as the kid they grew up with). So it was then that I began to pullback on some areas around my family so as to not cause any unnecessary friction, and it seems I have been doing the same thing here.

      Perhaps this is more a comment on me and the way I perceive these relationships as being this fragile, but after one particularly fiery interaction between my dad and me one night in high school where he let me know that everything I had done and all of who I was could be judged and written off by one act that he didn’t agree with. Suddenly, in his eyes, that one incident re-wrote my entire history and the story of who I was. (I will level with you all and tell you that it was b/c I smoked pot once in high school! GASP! A teenager experimented with marijuana, I know, it is nearly unheard of, but still. I did. And unlike Bill Clinton, I inhaled. I didn’t want anyone thinking I assaulted someone or killed a person, then I would have understood such a reaction from my old man.) Perhaps it was my father’s disappointment on display that night, but what I took away is that the one person can take one act and totally define everything you are based on that one thing.

      Is it fair that I now judge all potential clients as being as close minded as my dad turned out to be in that instance? Probably not. But it feels safer for me to just remove those controversial elements out of the business equation altogether, just in case.

      Glad the dialog is going well, I thank you for helping to make it happen. I think it is important to discuss this idea and what it means for each of us individually and as a whole community. :D

  • http://www.keysthatclick.com Carlos

    I also found it tricky to find a proper branding strategy, and most of my hesitations really came about branding myself over social media, as I wanted to be sure to remain professional and relevant to my existing and potential clients. As a result I created a separate brand that became my social media brand or persona, that is different from the design firm I run full-time. They’re both still me… but each might have a slightly different angle based on the audience. I had originally setup a blog and Twitter account for my design business, but quickly realized I had to ‘bite my tongue’ several times so as to not offend potential or existing clients. Heck – I was even nervous to tweet “Having a great lunch with other designers” in case a client would find it odd that I decided to leave my house and have lunch! As a result, I created a new ‘brand’ called Keys That Click, that became my social media outlet. I openly make connections between that and my business, so I’m always still aware of what it is I’m posting online, but the little bit of separation helps. I had posted an article a few months ago about the importance of branding yourself in case you are interested in checking it out: http://www.keysthatclick.com/business/brand-yourself/

    • http://deadwingsdesigns.com Rob Bowen

      Hey Carlos, I really appreciate the awesome follow-up and the link to your post about branding. Good read, indeed. And I think a lot of us struggle to find the best way to brand ourselves, and given the personal weight of it all, it is no wonder so many of us have to find a unique and compatible strategy to do so that may not be exactly how others have approached it. I think social media has caused a lot of refocusing and reapproaching of this issue and I think others will land on the ‘divided’ participation place that we have where they maintain two separate accounts for interacting.

      Really value both you and Brian’s contributions to this dialog. Thanks a lot for taking the time to respond.

  • http://www.ann-sense.com Ann Marie van den Hurk, APR

    It doesn’t stop. As a businessperson and a professional, we are always on the clock and need to present ourselves well. I am my brand and I’m OK with that.

    • http://deadwingsdesigns.com Rob Bowen

      Thanks Ann Marie, I appreciate the response. I would ask you if you ever feel confined or constrained by this always professional/always on business persona? Do you feel like you are times when you have to hold back or bite your tongue? Just wondering…

  • http://twitter.com/ajevacom Issa

    Hi Rob,

    Great points you’ve got. I think as a freelancer, we need to learn how to separate ourselves from our business. Personal branding is something of an art form only the most experienced amongst us can master. Thanks for the sharing!

  • http://www.baywebdesigns.co.uk/ Sharon

    My professional persona is definitely a politer and milder version of my real personality. More because it is a professional attitude rather than trying to hide my real self. Do my clients really want to know I am silly passionate about Douglas Adam’s writings or what my thoughts are on religion?

    I recently had a client who had very religious views and I had to bite my lip when he was condemning homosexuals and women priests. Smiling politely and making a non-committal remark before changing the subject was far better than starting a possibly heated discussion. This wasn’t because I was afraid to lose the client but more of a respect for other people’s beliefs.

    Anyone – clients, family or friends – can see most of my online life to get a feel for the kind of person I am; except for Facebook. FB is friends only and the one place I let myself go a bit. That is my solution to a separation of business and personal.

  • http://www.twitter.com/snarphblat Hillary

    This is such a good article. Thank you so much. I usually don’t read the longer ones because I have so much work to do, but this one was well worth the read. Thank you!

  • Eric

    Very well written, concise, clear and clever. A great article that I’m sure many of us can relate to… I know I did! Thanks for getting me thinking!

  • http://www.kchains.com Sherry

    Thanks , Rob and Brain

    The best brand is person , yourself.

  • http://www.drkdesign.com Debbie

    This is an absolutely awesome blog! Definitely helpful with my budding freelance business. Loved your CSS Tips…some I use already but some were new to me (never thought of alphabetizing my code). This article was especially helpful too. Have posted your site on my own blog :)

  • http://www.drkdesign.com Debbie

    By the way, I had bookmarked your blog originally for your Designing with Flourishes tutorial, but that entry is no longer showing up now. Is there any chance you could re-add it?

  • http://aggregatestudios.com Jeremy Bayone

    Well said, while I may agree more with Brian on some points, it’s true that you always carry your brand with you going anywhere publicly; like a celebrity, even out at a bar, there’s aways the ‘watered down’ version of your real self.