Freelancing: what’s it all about

Freelancers can be found in many occupations from writers, photographers, journalists, computer programmers, language translators, website designers and graphic designers some are even virtual assistants. This post delves into the history of freelancing, discusses the advantages of hiring a freelancer and what things you need to be aware of when hiring a freelancer.

Freelancing versus outsourcing

The term freelance is defined by The Merriam Webster dictionary as ‘pursuing a career without making a long-term commitment to one employer’ and by Investopedia, as an independent profession wherein an enterprising individual earns money on a per project basis and usually for a short term contract.’

Freelancers are paid based on the time and effort needed to complete a task. For some, freelancing may be their sole source of income, for others, it may be something they do alongside paid employment. Freelancers can be found through word of mouth or via LinkedIn where you will be able to view their skills, work experience and read recommendations. Increasingly freelancers can be found through online talent marketplaces such as Hoxby, Fivver, People Per Hour and Upwork. While Evenbreak and Podium aim to match people with disabilities with inclusive companies who evaluate them on nothing other than their ability to do work.

Photo by Volodymyr Hryshchenko.

Freelancing differs from outsourcing in that freelancers are sole traders, free to complete different jobs at the same time for a diverse clientele. Outsourcing is defined by The Grammarist website as the means to obtain goods or services from an outside source, with the most commonly used meaning of the word being to contract jobs or tasks that were previously provided within a company. Outsource is a portmanteau word, that is a word composed by blending the sounds and the meanings of two different words, in this case, ‘outside’ and ‘resource’. 

As such freelance or freelancing can be seen to be something that someone is or does, whereas outsourced is something that happens to a person or a task, with outsourcing being the means by which tasks are given to freelancers, contractors or external organisations. Outsourcing seeks a service, while freelancing provides a service.

Photo by Joanna Kosinska.


The word freelance first came into use in the early 1800s and referred to a medieval mercenary who would fight for whichever nation or person paid them the most. The earliest written evidence for this use is in Sir Walter Scott’s novel, Ivanhoe, where a feudal lord refers to his paid army of ‘free lances’ saying ‘I offered Richard the service of my Free Lances, and he refused them—I will lead them to Hull, seize on shipping, and embark for Flanders; thanks to the bustling times, a man of action will always find employment.’ Later the word came to mean a politician without political affiliation. Prior to the word freelance becoming part of the English language, Latin records from the Middle Ages show that most often, hired soldiers were called ‘stipendiarii’ (or stipendiaries, meaning they were given a stipend for fighting), ‘soliderii’ or simply ‘mercennarius.’

The origins of outsourcing can be found in The Industrial Revolution. Company owners started to outsource some services, rather than keeping them in house and architecture, engineering and insurance companies began opening their doors to serve multiple clients. Manufacturing companies also discovered they could outsource production, for example clothing items, shoes, and toys. By the 1970s, many electronics products were manufactured overseas and companies sought workers in foreign countries due to lower labour costs. Later computer companies learned they could outsource their payroll services and in the 1980s, other services, including billing, accounting, and word processing started to be outsourced by businesses also.

Today billions of pounds worth of public services have been outsourced. The private sector runs prisons, while local authorities outsource housing benefits and revenue services, street cleaning and schools. Large IT contracts across government are undertaken by the private sector too. Charities run large portions of social services and call centre companies operate on behalf of clients looking to outsource these duties, meaning that when you speak with an insurance company, you will quite likely be speaking with someone who is working for a separate company, even though that person has been trained to handle customer service duties. It is not unusual for private management firms to be brought into run a failing social services department, or a hospital that is performing poorly, while NHS purchasers look to buy the spare capacity of private hospital providers, so outsourcing their NHS waiting lists.

Photo by Joanna Kosinska.

Why hire a freelancer

Hiring a freelancer can be a great alternative to taking on permanent employees. Reasons why you may want to hire a freelancer include:

  • buying back your own time, freeing this for other purposes and enabling you to get on with your core business
  • freelancers can be hired for a short term project, for a set amount of time, or to help with long term projects
  • if your business requires specific skills for a project, you can hire a freelancer to undertake this work for you
  • you only pay a freelancer for the time they work, so no need to pay a salary, training costs, sickness pay or to make pension contributions
  • if a function is time consuming or if a task has got out of control, these tasks can be passed to a freelancer to sort
  • freelancers can step in say if you need additional support on a project, or to cover staff absence
  • by considering freelancers, companies access a global talent pool, allowing them to find the specific talent, qualifications, and skills they require, without settling for the best available person in their immediate area.

Thing to consider when hiring a freelancer

  • Freelancers will only do the job they are hired to do, whereas, an employee may be able to help and work on various other tasks.
  • Experienced freelancers will ask for more money than a regular employee. Remember they have costs and responsibilities normally paid and undertaken by an employer, such as the cost of electricity and whatever equipment they use to undertake their work. They still have to pay tax, national insurance and pension contributions and have additional costs and tasks such as completing a self assessment tax return each year, registering with the Information Commissioner’s Office and the cost of obtaining contracts and other legal documents that protect freelancers.
  • A freelancer will likely work on a remote basis, meaning that you have to trust them to do the work, if they are charging you per hour or per day.
  • If a freelancer works on your premises you are responsible for their health and safety.
  • A freelancer may not always be available in the same way as a regular employee due to working on multiple jobs for multiple clients.
  • It should also be noted that freelancers are business owners too, so will be busy looking after their own business, as well as having family commitments and lives outside of work – remember your freelancer is a human being.
  • Freelancers create an opportunity to expand the diversity of your company. Teams made up of individuals from different geographic areas, educational backgrounds, cultures and work disciplines will bring fresh perspective to a project, say a solution to a problem or a different way of understanding your customer’s needs.
Photo by Kindel Media.

Briefing your freelancer and making the most of them

Once you have decided that you want to hire a freelancer to do a job for you, you will need to brief them so they understand your requirements and expectations, for example the time frame that you expect everything to be completed by, the budget you have set for the project and any other details the freelancer might need to know to get the job done.

To make the most of your freelancer:

  • Communicate: ensure you communicate all issues and requirements
  • Stick to the brief: don’t expect what you have not asked for, demand extra work from freelancers that is not listed in the brief or that you are not paying them for
  • Payments: make sure you make the payments on the agreed dates or within the agree timeframe – freelancers are no different to any other workers and still have bills to pay

Remember, a freelancer will want to work hard for you to both retain custom and boost their reputation, so if you are happy with the work you have received from a freelancer, don’t forget to tell them, taking the time to post a recommendation on their LinkedIn page and their Google My Business page to encourage others to hire them too.

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Photo by Kindel Media.


As with hiring an employee, there are legalities that you need to be aware of when hiring a freelancer.

  • Contract: a contract protects both you and your freelancer and should include all the details of your working relationship before work begins – verbal contracts can be used for ad hoc work but remember it’s harder to use as evidence if there is an issue or dispute
  • Confidential information: if the freelancer is required to work with confidential information about your business, then you need to make sure that somewhere in the contract it is made clear this information is confidential and that if they reveal this, they can be held accountable for it
  • Intellectual property: when an employee works for you, their work and creation will belong to the business, however, this is different for freelancers – if you want the right of ownership of the intellectual property then this needs to be in the contract also
  • Health and safety: most freelancers work on a remote basis which means you will not be responsible for their health and safety, however, if they are working on your premises, you will be responsible if they are harmed due to failure to have a safe working environment


Further information

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