I'd rather not be branded
June 22, 2014 10:43 PM   Subscribe

Can I be a freelancer without having a "personal brand"?

I want to pick up part-time freelancing work but don't want it to be associated (google-able) with my day-job persona/profile. But these days it's all about building your personal brand and showing off your projects (especially in my profession, IT). I'm quite private in my offline life and dislike being in the spotlight. Consequently I am paranoid about the whole world googling me online. I start hyperventilating when I imagine having a GitHub account in the form of [firstinitial][lastname]. Can I build up personal cred and establish skills and expertise with a separate, mostly anonymous (pseudonymous) identity? If yes, how to pull this off?
posted by gakiko to Work & Money (10 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
Isn't that one reason for a fictitious business name/DBA/trade name? You go into business as Green Bananas Consulting or whatever, and you build the brand around the business name, and your personal identity remains relatively separate? You still have to publish the connection between the DBA and your actual self for a fixed period, most places, like in the classified section or on a state website, but when you put your energy into building the brand and trying to earn a reputation and credibility, your personal identity as Gakiko Gakiko isn't what people are relating to whatever you're freelancing in.

I don't think you can exploit your current personal cred doing it that way, but moving forward, sure. I suspect you'll be associated with your company - when you're a one-man show, it's going to work that way - but it won't put you in the spotlight, necessarily. I've known a couple people in IT and a whole lot of people in the building trades who work that way - Reliable Plumbing is just Fred Jones, and eventually we all know we're calling Fred to come fix the pipes, and if we get really gung ho and look up his licensure we'll see his last name is Jones, but his business identity is Reliable Plumbing, and that's what he's googleable as, and the Yelp or BBB reviews are of RP, not of Fred Jones.
posted by gingerest at 11:19 PM on June 22, 2014

Speaking from my own experience, I freelanced in IT for seven years (until January this year - as a user experience architect in London), and I've never had an online portfolio, personal website, personal "brand" etc, as I never needed one. Basically personal recommendations and word of mouth networking (in combination with a very basic Linkedin profile) worked well enough to provide me with a stream of high quality work, and the strength of previous work was always enough to see me through to the next contract. If anything, I always had too many offers, and adding more self-promotion would have been a complete pain.

So maintaining a low profile freelance persona can be one aspect of managing separate work and other public identities. Can you do it pseudonymously? Well, I used my real name as an IT freelancer and a pseudonym as a club promoter at the same time, but I'm not sure it would have worked the other way around, because I think you do need to build up professional credibility attached to what is perceived to be a "real" identity.
posted by iivix at 2:17 AM on June 23, 2014 [2 favorites]

Even working on word of mouth requires you to be "out there," not so much online but among your peers, at local events where potential clients will be, etc. If you can't do that you are going to have a hard time making any connections for business. The anonymous hacker that people hire to do jobs is a cool movie trope, and I'm sure a few such folks probably do exist, but it's not a business model I'd try to emulate.
posted by COD at 4:54 AM on June 23, 2014

Unless you have connections where you can already pick up work offline and start the word of mouth chain, you'll need some presence online. And this isn't too hard or unusual: just come up with a business moniker, make a website, and deemphasize the staff pages. I've seen many people do this, and it can come off a little silly (using the royal 'we' for single-person shops), but it always feels less forced or mysterious than a full-fledged pseudonym for your person. Just don't claim an Inc or LLC if you don't have one.
posted by tmcw at 6:15 AM on June 23, 2014

It really depends on the kind of writing. If you want to freelance doing technical writing or something else of that kind, then you may be able to do it with a low-ish profile, although you'll have to have a professional identity that you're comfortable using with editors. But I'm not going to lie: I think the course you're setting is very difficult. Credibility based on expertise really requires accountability, and it's hard for people to believe they can hold you accountable if you're wrong if they don't know who you are.
posted by Linda_Holmes at 6:23 AM on June 23, 2014

My partner makes a living doing freelance web work and gets clients entirely by word-of-mouth. Rarely is it in the sense of networking at local events, even; almost all his clients come via recommendation from former clients. He has no website, no public portfolio, though does have a LinkedIn, and I think it's helped him get clients a couple of times--i.e. it's been useful but not vital. I'm pretty sure his GitHub ain't firstlast, or anything else. It may've taken him longer to start feeling financially stable working this way, but I suspect that also had a lot to do with the fact that he was learning an entirely new skillset and so charged a lower hourly rate at first, and was more willing to take not-ideal jobs or work with difficult clients than he is now. I know he likes working with word-of-mouth clients because they often come mutually vouched for, so everyone's on more stable footing with one another right off the bat. Anyway, this to say it can absolutely be done.
posted by tapir-whorf at 6:28 AM on June 23, 2014

I've freelanced for nearly 8 years now. I have a pile of business cards I've almost never never given out and a tiny 3 page website (and LinkedIn page) almost no one ever looks at.

I say almost because now and then they have been helpful when making a completely new contact, but it's almost all word of mouth, which started with me calling people and asking to meet to explain what I could do for them, face to face.

So a good 95% of my 'personal brand' is how people find me to work with, how I generally deliver what people are expecting, when I promised, or am happy to then put things right if I don't sufficiently nail it first time, and how I then get described to others in my field. Brands are about experience and your personal branding should be mainly about the experience you give your clients.

I'd say set up the bare minimum online and find ways to start talking directly to potential clients that you can fit around your day job's schedule. I don't think you can get away with anonymity or a pseudonym though as it's all about building trust and people want a real name and face.

Good luck, BTW, freelancing is great.
posted by dowcrag at 6:37 AM on June 23, 2014 [1 favorite]

How do you define freelance?

If you define is as contracting through an agency, then you don't need to do any of the usual self promotion. Cases in point: 1) My translator friend picks up work independently and through agencies -- the agency will call him to see if he's available to do XYZ by a particular date, and if he's available, he takes the job and gets X per word. 2) I work in a consulting group that does writing and development work for a highly niche field and pays consultants by the hour. Several of our consultants have no associated online presence by choice.
posted by mochapickle at 7:02 AM on June 23, 2014 [1 favorite]

> I start hyperventilating when I imagine having a GitHub account

You might be able to get by and even do well given these constraints. But business would be a whole lot easier for you if you are able to learn to get over these fears.
posted by jjmoney at 8:47 AM on June 23, 2014

The answer is yes, you can. You should really read the free content on Ramit Sethi's web site. He's probably the smartest person I've read on freelancing.

Main point is: get clients first, worry about building a brand later.

I have applied his advice by emailing prospects directly and getting work multiple times. Once in awhile they do ask for a web site or portfolio and I simply explain to them it's not possible for me to promote myself publicly with my day job. I then will email them samples of previous work along with my LinkedIn profile. Most clients will understand and seem to even respect the fact that you have a day job and freelance.

I also completely agree with everything dowcrag said.
posted by the foreground at 6:20 AM on June 26, 2014

« Older Where can go to I touch something that's been to...   |   how to upload and transfer 1 gig of files to my SO... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.