“I” vs. “we” for the small business owner

In the past year or two I’ve read a few books and articles that encourage freelance designers and small business owners to avoid referring to themselves in the plural as a way of making their operation look bigger than it really is.

For example, if you’re a sole proprietor, the argument is that there’s nothing wrong with saying “I provide website and graphic design services” instead of “We provide website and graphic design services.”  The primary reason is that you could be doing yourself a disservice by trying to make yourself appear to be something that you’re not.  Furthermore, as freelancing has become more popular, it’s also become more common to hear “I” instead of “we” when designers talk about themselves.  If there was ever a stigma about being a sole proprietor, it would seem to be fading away rapidly.

Nevertheless, there are plenty of successful design business owners who say “we” in their written communications, and many might argue that it’s important to separate yourself from your business in the eyes of clients.

If you own a small design business and aren’t sure how to refer to yourself (whether it’s in writing, verbally, or both), you may want to consider the following questions:

  • Is there anyone else other than you involved in the business? First and foremost, it’s important to be authentic.  If you have a part-time employee or if you subcontract specific tasks to someone else, using “we” is certainly an understandable choice.  If it’s just you, and it will always be just you, then using “I” is probably more appropriate.
  • Do you want to project personal expertise? Even if you employ others, you might want to use “I” if your work requires a significant amount of training, experience, or education, and it’s obvious that you would be doing the work yourself. Some obvious examples in other fields would be attorneys and accountants. Likewise, if you’re the foremost expert on a particular aspect of design, or if you’re trying to build your personal brand, it makes sense to communicate with that in mind.
  • Are you the only person named on your website? If you go to the trouble of having a personal biography, but don’t include the names of any staff or contractors, there’s probably a reason, so this would likely be another mark in the “I” column.
  • Is the business incorporated with a name other than your own? If your company is “Joe Smith Design” it doesn’t necessarily make a whole lot of sense to use “we” all over your website or in your emails. On the other hand, if you have an entirely different name, especially if you’ve incorporated, then it’s more likely that you’ll want to convey that you’re more than a one-person shop.
  • Do you plan to hire people and expand? Some people go into business because they want the lifestyle associated with being an entrepreneur, and they take only the work they can handle at any given time. Others are in it to build something bigger, and eventually either sell it or live off the passive income it generates. If you envision your business existing without you someday, then you might be using “we” sooner than you think.

Keep in mind that you don’t necessarily need to make a universal and permanent choice between “I” and “we”—sometimes both can be appropriate, especially if you’re writing about yourself and your business together, and you need to make that distinction clear.

And remember, you can always change “I” to “we” as your business grows!