According to businessdictionary.com, one definition for experience is:
Familiarity with a skill or field of knowledge acquired over months or years of actual practice and which, presumably, has resulted in superior understanding or mastery.
I am a relatively new freelancer, having “hung my shingle” just over a year ago. My LLC is technically still an infant, as I officially filed with the state 11 months ago. I had (and sometimes still have) this feeling that I still have to say I’m new, because I’ve been in “this position” less than a year. This is not new for me. In my former J-O-B, I kept saying I was new for 5 years until my mentor/leader told me – very supportively – to knock that off. Sure, I’d held different roles in the company and the specific position was less than a year old, but I wasn’t new to the work I was doing.
In conversations with others, I have heard people express similar doubts about their abilities. “Sure, I’ve been doing graphic design for 8 years, but this freelance thing is completely new.”
Yes, being a freelancer is completely different from being an employee, regardless of company size. There are unique perks and frustrations when working for oneself. That’s the business side of freelancing, and it takes work and practice and mistakes and support, from wherever you can find it.
The “do the work” side of it is related, but separate. Clients and potential clients generally don’t care – or need to know – how long you’ve been in business for yourself. They care whether you can do the job they’re [thinking about] hiring you for. You can absolutely, without reservation, say you have 8 years of experience. You can show previous work from your employers (unless it’s proprietary – don’t get in trouble with the former J-O-B) while you’re building your freelance portfolio.
This brings me to my next point on experience. Can you count something as part of your portfolio, part of your experience, if you didn’t get paid to do the work? Here are some examples of this logic that I’ve heard recently:
I can’t use my volunteer experience on my resume, can I?
Well, yes, I did set up a brand new website with eCommerce to handle donations, but I didn’t get paid for that.
I do know how to use XYZ program, but I just learned it on my own – no one has paid me for a project with that program yet.
I led a team of 45 people through a home building project in Central America, but that was for my church group.
I was a tutor for bilingual students in math and reading for two summers, but it was all volunteer work.
Sure, I have created and managed events that included moving parts such as performers, logistics, managers, and catering, but that was for on-campus events when I was in college.
Experience is experience, regardless of how you got there. Your portfolio is a collection of examples of your work, regardless of whether that work was paid. Is it more impressive to say you designed the website for XYZ huge company that everyone recognizes? Maybe, but that doesn’t mean that your website that you designed for your friend’s business, or your own business for that matter, doesn’t also showcase your abilities.
So stand tall, own your experience, and show ‘em what you can do!