Wednesday, January 15, 2014

A Tale of Two Independents – What’s in a Name?

Jerry and Steve each operate their own web services company. Strictly speaking they are each a company of just one and the bulk of their work involves coding, formatting, updating and maintaining the functionality of various websites. They are about the same age, have a similar education and work experience, and provide essentially the same services regarding each of their clients as completely separate contracts. The only real difference is that Jerry calls himself a freelance web developer whereas Steve has given himself the title of “Consultant” for his firm Omni-Global Web.

Candice, Rachel, and Tamara are the support staff for a new surgical clinic operating in a ritzy part of town and, with a particular budget, they’ve been asked to set up the website that will represent the clinic on the web. Since none of them have the requisite skillset to do the job themselves, they sit down and hash out what they are looking for and promptly place an ad seeking a Webmaster which outlines what the job entails and what demonstrable skills the applicants should have. Both Jerry and Steve apply with a concise and well thought out email along with links to various samples of their work. Jerry applies as himself, but Steve applies as Omni-Global Web and offers his own personal information merely as a point of contact. Both quote the same price.

When reviewing the various applicants, Candice, Rachel and Tamara describe their feelings about Jerry and Steve:

Candice (about Jerry): “I like his work, I’m just concerned that as a freelancer he may not be able to give our project the time and care that it requires. These Guys that work as agents for hire, I just find they’re grabbing at every job out there and don’t put their full effort into their contracts the way real professionals do.”

Rachel and Tamara feel that Candice makes a very compelling argument.

Tamara (about Steve and Omni-Global Web): “I’m really impressed. There’s something neat and tidy about this company’s work. I think they should be our first call and hopefully they’ll be willing to take us on.”

Rachel nods her head in agreement, and Candice assumes control grabbing the phone.

“Omni-Global Web! Steve speaking.”

“Hello Steve, my name is Candice and your company got in touch with us recently about providing us with services for our website and we were wondering if Omni-Global Web might still be able to help us out?”

“I imagine that will be possible, how about we set up a time to talk about what you need?”

Steve eventually got the job without any referral or previous business with anyone involved with the clinic, and Jerry never received so much as a phone call back. Even Steve will tell you that it wasn’t his finest work, but the clients were happy and they paid well and on time.

The Moral of the Story

The reason why Steve got the job (and subsequently paid) and Jerry didn’t is pretty simple, but says a lot about the people that hire contract workers and how they think.

First, Candice had a negative impression about what it means to be a freelancer, and her bias, no matter how unfounded, still earned merit with her peers as being valid. Second, the fact that it was a company, and not just an individual, planted the expectation in Tamara’s mind that there was a larger degree of legitimacy to the work coming from Steve. It didn’t matter who’s work was actually better, as both were capable of doing the job that was asked, but Steve and his title of consultant created a more acceptable framework in the minds of Candice, Rachel and Tamara. Lastly, the way Candice, Rachel and Tamara viewed how both Jerry and Steve might accept being offered the work was completely different. Candice had an image of Jerry attempting to gather up any work he could get as though, working for himself, he was just happy to have something to work on to pay the next few bills. When she finally called and spoke to Steve it was almost as though she hoped Steve would accept them as clients. To Candice, Rachel, and Tamara it would have been a privilege for Jerry to work for them, but with the way they viewed Steve it was a privilege for them to have him work on their website.

If you are a small business owner and you work for yourself it’s important to make these nuanced considerations to have any chance of competing in a market place where contractors are consistently bringing more and more diversified skills to the table. Never forget that how to market and promote one’s self is itself a skill, and the difference between freelancer and consultant, however slight in practice, can be profound in light of the expectation it creates in the minds of potential clients.