Self-Employed Job Titles and Personal Branding

When you work at your job, your title is assigned to you. When you work for yourself, you can have many names. How you are perceived depends on how you present and brand yourself to answer the question: “What do you do?”
Written by
Kim Le
Published on
April 1, 2024

Being your own boss can be exhilarating. Once you’ve made the plunged though, you realize that being in charge comes with its own set of responsibilities and restrictions. How are you going to find customers? Where does the next client come from? Building a pipeline of potential customer interest is what keeps self-employed individuals in business. This is where personal branding comes into play. When you start a business, until the business takes on an identity of its own, you are the business, regardless of what you do.

"Working For Yourself", aka...

When you work at your job, your title is assigned to you. When you work for yourself, you can have many names. How you are perceived differs depending on how you present and brand yourself with that unnecessary title for the question: “What do you do?”

Gig Worker

Gig Worker is a popular term that refers to an individual who performs short-term or temporary work typically of a wide variety in nature. The work, ie "gigs" are often found on digital platforms such as TaskRabbit, DoorDash, Upwork, Fiverr, etc. For tax purposes, gig workers are classified as independent contractors.

Freelancer

Freelancer refers to a self-employed individual typically an independent contractor who provides services to clients on a project or contract basis, rather than being an employee of a company. Freelancers are typically providing services in one area of subject matter expertise as opposed to gig workers. Note that freelancing has a connotation of being temporary and jumping from job to job. However, freelancing can be a career, and those who choose make more from their freelancing may choose the title of Independent Consultant.

Independent Consultant

Independent Consultant refers to a professional who provides advice and services in a specific domain of expertise to clients on a project or contractual basis. They are not employees; and independent consultants are typically self-employed individuals (for tax purposes).

Some who have a more sophisticated practice may be structured as a separate legal entity (like an LLC or Partnership) and taxed as an S-Corp or C-Corp. If the freelancer is an individual starting out, then the independent consultant has made a professional career out of their freelancing.

Fractional CMO/CFO/COO/C[something]

Fractional C-suite roles are more prevalent and less stigmatized than they used to be. Prior to the pandemic, this type of branding isn’t well respected. Changes in the global work environment has made this role set-up better for businesses:

  • The ease of remote, part-time work
  • The high cost of a full-time hire
  • The slower growth, higher cost business environment

On the employee side, there is also more incentive to pursue a fractional role:

  • Slower hiring market
  • Burnout post-pandemic
  • Access to more opportunities

All of these factors has both made having Fractional C-suite roles more cost-efficient for small to medium sized businesses and being a Fractional C-suite a sometimes involuntary option.

Board Advisor | ex-[Insert Fancy Company Name] | Former C[something]

This is our personal favorite. There is no set title for these individuals. They’re optimizing their title for the executive recruiter’s search engine. When recruiters source candidates for roles, they can and often do include the following criteria:

  • List of target companies to hire from, like Google, McKinsey, Goldman Sachs etc.
  • Looking for previous board member or executive level experience

In a tough hiring environment, recruiters are the first to be let go, but executive recruiters are a niche market. Good executives are even more necessary to help a business navigate tough market conditions. Optimizing your title and profile for an executive recruiter’s search is an effective way of getting inbound traffic.

This type of titling will also help with getting organic, inbound traffic for new client opportunities.

Note that we specifically call out “Board Advisor” and not “Board Member”. Board members are usually tied closely to the success of the company and tend to stay engaged with the company over the long-term. They are sometimes, though not always, investors in the company and provide a significant amount of their time, resources, and personal professional network to ensure the company does well.

A “Board Advisor” is a fancier title for a consultant or advisor to the leadership of the company in specific domains where the advisor is well-versed. The title has to be agreed upon with the company, but the role and involvement can be similar to a coach or consultant.

We’re All Self-Employed, Independent Contractors

In all of these names, by default you are still an “individual/sole proprietor” for the sake of taxes. Generally, you are considered a self-employed independent contractor from a legal and tax set-up perspective. What matters is how you elect your federal tax classification.

Your income is taxable in the same way whether you're a gig worker, a freelancer, a contractor, an independent consultant, or even a board member.

Self-Employed

A self-Employed individual is someone who operates their own business or profession as a sole proprietor or independent contractor. This individual is not considered an employee but rather their own boss, offering goods or services to other businesses and organizations. The self-employed must take on the responsibility of generating their income, maintaining their business operations, and are solely liable for the payment of their taxes, which includes income tax and self-employment taxes to cover social security and Medicare contributions. They often must also adhere to specific regulations and licensing requirements pertinent to their field of work.

Independent Contractor

Independent Contractor is a widely used term but has a specific definition with regards to taxes. An independent contractor for tax purposes refers to an individual or legal entity that offers services to another entity in exchange for compensation. The relationship ideally should be outlined in a legal contract stating that there is no employer and employee relationship. In practice, some engagements are rather informal. From a tax perspective, the key difference is that independent contractors are responsible for all taxes including tax withholding and all social security and medicare taxes, typically referred to as self-employment taxes.

Business Owner Titles to Use Cautiously: Founder, CEO

We do not include the title “Founder” or “CEO” here, but some do use those titles. Those titles more aptly apply to individuals who are founding or leading a corporation that employs people, usually many people. A single person entity is neither a founder nor a CEO.

More importantly, the title of Founder and CEO isn’t going to be help you turn up in search results for new client opportunities. In choosing a title, the most important aspects to optimize for are:

  1. An accurate reflection of what you do and the value you offer;
  2. Help you turn up in search results for prospects

Choosing the appropriate title is important so likeminded people and your potential clients can find you. Don’t choose a title for what it does for your ego. Choose the right title to help the right people find you (through a search engine).

Making Yourself More Legitimate

A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.  Whatever titling you choose to go with, the value you bring with your services does not change. The title is just one aspect of the personal brand you’re building to build your business; and it’s important to just start. Experiment, iterate, and evolve how you present yourself. Title aside, build a reputation for yourself as being the expert in your field who has integrity, intelligence, and impact.

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