Freelancer vs. Consultant: What's the Difference?
Updated June 24, 2022
Freelancing and consulting can seem like similar careers, however, these two professions have several key differences. Besides the difference in employment status, freelancers and consultants often have differences in other areas of their roles. If you're interested in both career paths, it's important to consider the contrast between freelancing and employment as a consultant. In this article, we'll explore what freelancers and consultants are, the differences between a freelancer versus consultant and some tips to help you determine which career path is best for you.
What is a freelancer?
A freelancer is an independent contractor who provides services on a short-term or contract basis, including services by the hour or per project they complete. Freelancers often have multiple clients they provide their services to, including individual clients and businesses and organizations. Freelancers may often pursue work in fields like writing and communications, technology, the arts and graphic design. Since freelancers work for themselves, they often perform a broad range of tasks to find clients and work, including:
Networking with industry professionals and building a reputation in a specific niche
Creating and distributing marketing materials to promote freelance services
Implementing print and digital marketing strategies to attract ideal clients
Building an online presence to expand market reach
Developing and maintaining a business budget to track expenses, business assets and financial activities
Documenting business and finance activities for tax purposes
What is a consultant?
A consultant is a professional who provides expert advice, guidance or counseling services to businesses and individuals and are typically experts in a specific field. For instance, a financial consultant is a professional who has an in-depth knowledge of accounting and financial topics and provides financial guidance and advice. Consultants can even work as freelancers, providing short-term consultation services for multiple clients. In general, consultants may often take on the following responsibilities:
Helping business clients improve various aspects of their processes, such as sales, marketing or financial activities
Advising businesses on methods for improving operations, generating more revenue and increasing productivity
Making recommendations for specific processes like resource allocation, cost reduction and production operations
Developing strategic plans with upper-level management and business executives that support positive outcomes
Related: What Is a Consultant?
Differences between a freelancer versus consultant
Freelancers and consultants have several key differences between them, including:
Education and training
Depending on the field of work, freelancers and consultants may have differences in educational backgrounds. For example, a sales consultant may have extensive industry knowledge regarding the sale of a specific type of product or service, which can require a college degree. However, some freelancers (like writers, graphic artists and web designers) are self-taught or enter their careers with only technical training rather than college degrees. The education and training you need can vary, though, depending on the type of work you want to do, so it's important to understand what you need to be successful in your profession.
Even though freelancers and consultants can pursue professional certifications or licenses to demonstrate their qualifications, the credentials these professionals can earn frequently vary between roles. For instance, a freelance software developer may earn a certification to showcase their expertise with a specific framework, while a software consultant may earn a certification in management consulting to signify their expertise in consultation for choosing business software. It's also important to note that freelancers rarely need certifications, whereas many consulting firms and businesses may require consultants to hold specific credentials for the job.
Job prospects for freelancers can vary substantially from the opportunities for consultation professionals. Because freelancers find work by networking and connecting with prospective clients themselves, job opportunities for these professionals may sometimes be inconsistent. Consultants, though, can work for private companies or large consulting firms, where they have a consistent workflow they can rely on.
The employment status for freelancers can differ completely from consultants. Freelancers often work as independent contractors or are self-employed professionals, whereas consultants can work as employees for private companies and even in the government and nonprofit sectors. Because of this distinction, you may have different employment requirements between the two career fields.
Freelancers' and consultants' income structures can vary, too. As self-employed individuals, freelancers may set their own pay schedules and service prices according to contracts they agree on with their clients. This can mean longer periods between receiving payments for their services and differences in the amount of take-home pay for each job they complete. However, consultants who work for private businesses typically have a set pay structure and income schedule that provides them with a specific amount on a consistent basis.
Freelancers frequently take on many roles in their career, no matter the service they provide. Many freelancers perform marketing and promotional tasks to network with clients and find new projects. They must also manage the financial aspects of providing freelance services, like managing a business budget, recording financial activities and preparing and filing taxes. Consultants typically don't have to perform many of the business functions that freelancers do, especially as employees of private businesses. For employed consultants, networking, budgeting and reporting self-employment are unnecessary.
Freelancers can work in diverse environments, including from their home offices or other remote locations. Some freelancers travel to meet new clients and complete short-term or one-time projects. Similarly, freelancers may also have work schedules that differ from traditional business hours. Consultants, though, often work in offices or business settings and usually have traditional work schedules during business hours.
Tips for choosing your career
Consider the following tips for additional insight into choosing a career as a freelancer versus a consultant:
Consider the benefits and drawbacks of self employment. Freelancing is, by nature, a self-employed career where you essentially network your services and build your own business.
Assess your current skills and how they fit with your potential career path. Develop and improve your skills in areas that are necessary to succeed in the job you want.
Consider combining freelancing and consulting into a single career. Many consultants choose to work as independent contractors to provide freelance consultation services across a variety of industries.
Find out what training or education you need for your ideal job. Some clients and employers may prefer you to have a specific degree or credential that demonstrates your expertise in your role.
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