In a recent post, I talked about the importance of properly setting up your small business as a freelancer. What I didn’t talk about then is how to establish a strong brand for your business. Your business’ brand is everything that represents you, from the name, to the look and feel of all your promotional assets (your logo, website, business cards, etc.). In addition, part of your brand is what you want to be known for—the products or services that represent the bulk of what you do. So naturally, the first thing to decide when creating your brand is the name of your business.
What’s in a Name?
While it may seem like a simple decision, selecting your business’ name is likely one of the most important choices you’ll make in your freelance career. It’s also a decision that should be permanent—you can change the name later, but that’s typically a bad idea because it creates legal paperwork and requires you to update everything from your domain name to your business cards—not to mention the chore of introducing the new name to your customers.
When I discuss this topic with other e-Learning freelancers, we often debate an age-old question: Should I use my personal name as my business’ name, or come up with a separate company name? (Marketing professionals often refer to these options as personal branding versus business branding.)
The Case for Personal Branding
To get a sense of what personal branding can mean, here’s a quick list of pros and cons:
- Pro: More flexibility; you can change direction in regards to products/services without having to change your business’ name.
- Pro: If you are a single entity, and you don’t expect to subcontract out work, (e.g., author, professional speaker, etc.), using your personal name might be a good choice.
- Con: Most likely, people won’t be able to tell what you do by just seeing your name.
- Con: If you decide to sell your business one day, having it connected to your personal name will make that much harder to do.
The Case for Business Branding
Now let’s take a look at the good and the bad about business branding:
- Pro: Coming up with a business name will require you to think more about your target clients, and your vision. (This is typically a good thing.)
- Pro: A good name will communicate immediately what you do.
- Pro: Your business will be easier to sell in the future if you decide to change directions, or even retire.
- Con: It’s always harder to come up with a good business name when you’re just starting out as an e-Learning freelancer. You may still be trying to figure out what part of the market you want to focus on. or what unique skills you want to present.
- Con: If you change direction entirely (e.g., sell different products/offer different services) you will most likely need to create another business name.
Ask the Experts, or the Community—but Expect a Variety of Opinions
The debate over personal branding versus business branding has inspired several experts to weigh in, including James Butterly in his article “Branding a Business Name vs. Personal Name.” One quote from his post stuck with me, because it encapsulates the value of Personal Branding:
“Do you plan to remain a solo entrepreneur? Someone who is going to be part of the brand on a personal level? Naming your brand by a personal name carries with it the implication of a personal touch, and the customer will get the impression that one person is invested in the brand, both with their time and financial involvement. The output of work is that of a solo effort. There is a face to the brand, and that’s where it ends, there is no one else behind it. What you see is what you get.”
In his article “Freelancing: Using your own name vs. Creating a business name,” Preston D. Lee explores a few unique pros and cons. He argues that while using your own name allows you to appear more affordable, transparent, and personal, it can make you seem inexperienced and limit your company’s growth potential. (Remember, if you grow to the point of subcontracting work, you might be faced with the challenge of explaining to customers why someone else is working in your name.)
If you review Articulate Community Forum threads on this topic, you’ll see a similar range of opinions. I found this thread in particular illuminating because of how divided it was. Some members were passionate about the personalized value of using their names, while others felt strongly about setting up a business to grow as easily as possible.
The Choice I Made
When it came time to make the decision for myself, I decided on a hybrid approach. I chose a separate business name, BridgeHill Learning Solutions, LLC, for the majority of my official business. This gives me the ability to enjoy the benefits of business branding, and when I hired my first subcontractor, I was able to seamlessly integrate her into client-facing situations. I’ve also benefited from the term “learning solutions,” because it communicates that I offer a variety of services. However, in specific instances, I use my own name when it provides value. For example, as I write this blog series, it’s important to me to communicate that I’m a real person, and that I’m conveying my own personal thoughts and experiences. While it may not seem like a big deal, if I wrote the entire Succeeding as an e-Learning Freelancer series as “BridgeHill Learning Solutions, LLC,” it would likely feel less authentic to my audience.
As you’re making your own decisions, remember: Just because most people see it as an either/or situation, there are ways that you can choose both, and reap the benefits of each approach.
One More Thing to Consider
One last thing to think about before you brand your freelance business: If you do choose to go with your own name for your business, you’ll need to be very careful about any contracts you sign. If the business name is not somewhere in the contract, and there’s a problem after you sign, you could become personally liable for damages or debts that occur. Always sign contracts in your capacity as an owner of your company, with your company name clearly stated next to your name on the contract. So for example, if you’ve personally branded, and your name is Amelia Oswald, make sure that your signature on contracts is clearly labeled “Amelia Oswald, Owner, Amelia Oswald, LLC.”
(If you haven’t established a business entity at all, any contracts you sign make you personally responsible for any liability. Don’t skip setting up your business legally! It’s easy to say, “Oh, I’ll establish an official business once it all starts to take off,” but postponing doing so guarantees that you personally bear the risk of responsibility for any problems that occur. If you’re not sure about how to go about legally establishing your business, this post from earlier in this series can help get you started.)
As you’ve probably figured out by now, there isn’t really a right or wrong decision about any of this; the best choice for you is going to depend on the kind of business you want to run. The most important part of this exercise is that you think about these issues critically, and make conscious decisions that reflect your priorities.
If you’re not sure how to proceed, I invite you to join my private Facebook group, where you can get feedback from your peers. We’d also love to hear from you if you have additional ideas or insights about the decisions you made! Everyone solves these conundrums a little differently, and I would love to hear about your own journey. You can also join the conversation on Twitter using the hashtag #eLearningBiz!
Editor’s note: This post is part of my ongoing 2017 series, “Succeeding as an e-Learning Freelancer,” a comprehensive look at the ins-and-outs of working independently in the Learning and Development industry. All of the previous posts in the series can be found here.