Me vs We

There’s something that’s been niggling at me for ages. The way people act as if they’re a multi-person company when they’re really just one individual. This whole ‘we’ syndrome.

We have a great new client now working with us at Just Little Old Me Ltd.

Sometimes it makes me giggle when I know somebody is an individual ‘me’ and they’re saying ‘we’ as if they’re some kind of medieval queen. I just can’t help feeling it’s a little bit deceptive to act in this way.

Why bother?

I can see there’s a couple of reasons why people feel the need to pretend to be bigger than they really are:

  1. It makes them look big and official to others, making them look more trustworthy. That company won’t run away with my money, but that single cowboy there might do.
  2. It seems to give them some kind of prestige over that teenage kid working in his bedroom. Oh, it’s not just a student, they’re a proper company.

But really, why do we do this?

The web is still young, and it’s incredibly difficult to tell the hardworking souls from the shady characters. If most of your communication is web-based, without meeting face-to-face or even speaking on the phone, it’s hard for a client to pick up on those gut instincts and little signs that tells you somebody can’t be trusted.

We’ve come to inherently trust bigger companies. People will eat in a chain restaurant because they know what to expect. Companies made up of multiple people appear to be more stable because there’s more people to get the work done.

I can understand why it looks good to be big company.

It’s just being deceptive

What I really don’t understand about people who create this façade of a multiple person company is that they’re losing all the benefits of appearing to be trustworthy and stable. If you’re lying (however well-intended that lie is,) you’re no-longer credible. I have an immediate distrust of anybody who claims who says ‘we’ when they’re really just a ‘me’ as I wonder what other truths they’re bending.

Saying ‘we’ and talking as a company and not an individual also makes you seem detached. Is your company persona all that different from your individual persona? If it is, then why? Why do you have to pretend to be a different person to do business?

It’s really not all that bad being a ‘me’

I’m Laura Kalbag, I’m a sole trader and my company is called ‘Laura Kalbag’. What you see really is what you get. Sometimes I sense a lack of trust in me because I’m not an agency or a big company. You know what, I don’t care. I’d rather not work with somebody who suspects I might not be reliable. If we’re starting out with some big fat negative preconceptions, it’s going to be harder to get positive feelings from that person.

As an individual, people can be assured that:

  • I’m the one doing all the work. They will talk to me and I will execute the designs, development etc all based on our direct conversation. There’s less room for misinterpretation if there’s only one link in the chain.
  • I’m as vulnerable as them. Weakness isn’t always negative. I’ve got to directly make money to have food and shelter, so have my clients. It’s much more personal when you’re not throwing somebody else’s money around.
  • I don’t have to check that what I’m saying is the right thing on behalf of my company and/or employer. Ditch all the legalese, I’m talking to you man-to-man (or girl-to-man or girl-to-girl, you see what I mean!)

I feel like I’m good enough

There’s upsides and downsides to hiring a freelancer or an agency but the important thing is that I’m happy with what I am. If you’ve got no confidence in yourself as an individual freelancer, then go find yourself some like-minds and form an agency!

It’s not arrogance to say I feel like I’m good enough to speak as myself. I’ve got as many insecurities as the next person but I enjoy being a human, friendly face in a sea of (often) faceless companies.

So next time you’re thinking of saying ‘we’ when you just mean ‘me’, think about how much that little word means. I think it’d be better if everybody was a little bit more honest.

36 comments

  1. ibernat

    @laurakalbag This is funny when people write “Our work” on personal pages

    Reply

  2. Jem

    Well said. It’s almost like some sole traders are ashamed to work by themselves, for themselves & I don’t understand why.

    Reply

  3. Craig Hawker

    One reason small companies do this is when they are – sometimes – a ‘we’. As an example, I know a small company that is legally a ‘me’, but they subcontract where needed to become a ‘we’.

    Therefore, going to a company and stating that ‘we’ can accomplish something, even though that company only has one employee, is accurate; they become a ‘we’ as and when needed.

    I know you’re not necessarily pointing the finger at these type of companies, but they are often the ones who you’ll find out later are a ‘me’ but call themselves a ‘we’. From an investigatory perspective they’re a ‘me’, but work with them and you’ll find they become a ‘we’ as needed.

    Reply

    • Laura

      I was really talking about individuals who are genuinely individuals but I get your point.

      Seems like a fairly confusing situation becoming a 'we' as and when. I frequently work with other people but don't hire them myself or speak for them, so that's why I'm always a 'me'.

      Reply

      • christopher

        Good point – i’m a designer, but i get customers wanting dev work.

        I have 3 or 4 other freelancers i use for code, i have a couple of printing companies i use who are almost part of my team.

        The student argument is also valid in this case. I AM a student, and i am running a business, but i’ve been doing both for the past 5 years, all my customers are aware of that and none of them have a problem with it…

        So yes, maybe I should put ‘I’, but a lot of the things I offer, i personally do not do..

        A toughie.

        Reply

      • Craig Hawker

        I guess and you're right – from your statement, you're a 'me'.

        I'm talking more about single-owner companies with no full-time employees, but they have other companies or self-employed people that they consistently subcontract work to.

        As an example, a web designer may be asked to implement a website that requires some technical skill, some development/integration work, some copywriting, etc. Under these circumstances, provided there's money for it, that designer may decide to subcontract elements out (get an engineer in for a couple of hours for the technical work, subcontract development and copyrighting work to third parties…). Would it be wrong to refer to the web designer's company as a 'me' in a tender? It certainly would not be a 'me' who completed the work. However, if all the work is whitelabelled (done under the web designer's brand, all paid to the web designer then paid on as appropriate), why shouldn't they call themselves 'we'?

        I'm playing devil's advocate to a degree. It doesn't affect where I work (we're definitely a 'we') but we provide technical resources to companies who are 'me's, but promote themselves as 'we's. Do I think it ever really makes a difference when we go up against them? Not really. And, from the customer's perspective, as long as they're getting what they asked for and are happy with the service, why should they mind?

        Reply

        • Laura

          If it's 'we' doing the work then 'we' should get the credit, it would be wrong to claim that 'me' is doing the work when it's really more than one person. I'd be pretty annoyed if I hired someone to do work for me and found out that they'd outsourced it.

          I just think that everybody should make it perfectly clear who is doing what in those cases. You don't have to confuse a client with the technicalities, but there's no harm in saying 'I don't do this, but so-and-so does so I pay them to do it for me. Is that cool with you?'

          Reply

          • Craig Hawker

            Well, yes and no.

            Yes, I believe that honesty is the best policy in most things (work matters in particular), but I understand why people aren't up-front about it. As I said, if the customer is getting what they want, for the price they want, and they're happy with the service, why does it matter? All you're doing is actively highlighting that you're a one-man-band to the customer and that can be a negative.

            That's before you get into larger organisations with approved supplier lists etc. For those, actively pushing the fact that you don't do the work yourself can cause problems.

            That said, would this be an issue with web design? I have had issues where major additional design work/modification was needed quickly (I worked with an organisation deeply affected by foot and mouth a few years ago). If the design agency was unavailable, or not able to react because of resource issues, that would have been a problem. So much that it's now part of risk assessments for suppliers.

            Coming across as a 'we', even though that 'we' may be a collective of 'me's, would put a tick in a box.

            Now, I feel like I'm arguing myself into a corner and – as I said – I'm playing devil's advocate to a degree. I do believe that you're better off being honest. We have won a large number of tenders, I believe, because we have had the confidence to stand up in front of people and say "look, that's not exactly possible, how about this alternative…". People accept that honesty over a quick-fire sales-response of "yes, sure, no problem".

            That said, I just don't have a problem with 'me's masquerading as 'we's. And, from the customer's perspective, I'm not sure they do either.

          • Why would you be annoyed if you find out it has been outsourced ?

            This is kind of silly, if I may !

            Why silly ?

            – You can outsource some part of a job in order to get higher quality. (for same money)
            – You can outsource to have lower cost. (with same quality)
            – You can outsource to speed up production in order to meet deadline. (bcs you are late since you are dead busy but don't want to pay penalties)

            So? What'd be your call ?

            I don't get the idea of been against outsourcing because.. .well… "because I am against !!"

            You can build up a team of expert and manage that team, produce high quality work. Who's going to suffer ?
            Now indeed, you hit another field of job, more project management than "design" or however you want to call it; but when you got your own business, and hopefully got to get a few clients at the same time, search for the future at the same time etc… well, doesn't it comes to a few hours of PM a day ?

            And when you business is so packed with orders for 1 month or so… what are you going to do ? Turn down clients ? sleep 2 hours a night ? hire someone for 1 month ? Or outsource a couple of tasks ?

            Many companies do, I agree, outsource with only in mind the idea of profit, pay less charge more, but that's not everything behind outsourcing and this eventually fails as quality is missing.

            You can outsource as well, with great outcome, for 1 million good reasons !

            Note : I am an outsourcer. The money is ok in the country I live in, would not allow to survive in yours, for sure.
            The only pride I have & take is in the quality of the apps I deliver to my clients. I have no credits, not recognition or all that, only the satisfaction of quality work.

  4. Hi Laura

    while I agree with the sentiments, I can also see why some people may choose to use “we” instead of “I”. For example, I’m sure many of us often rely on the services of others, whether that be outsourcing, or employing someone to do our books once a month. It’s not a team of staff as such, but should the worst happen to the sole trader, there is a confidence instilled that they are not totally locked down to that person.

    There is perhaps a small sense of arrogance as well as to saying “I can do this, this, this, that, and this too”. I think by using “we” you can kind of overcome this.

    I don’t think it would be particularly difficult to use “we” and not portray yourself as a big company. It should be quite possible through the rest of your copy not to give this impression while still using “we”.

    Reply

    • Laura

      Couldn't all this be said on a site? I'm not sure that employing somebody to do your books (which aren't necessarily relevant to the services that you're providing) would make you a 'we'.

      As I said to Craig, I'm not so much getting about who you work with or who employs who, it's about being honest about who you are and what you do.

      There's nothing arrogant about saying you do it all when you really do do it all! That's just honesty!

      Reply

  5. *Applause*

    I've held the same view for years; thank you for expressing it so clearly.

    Reply

  6. mealybar

    @laurakalbag great post, we/me been on my mind a lot lately. It’s deceitful perhaps without meaning to be.

    Reply

  7. Great post, Laura..

    I've always found this a little annoying too.. Like there's some shame in being small and adaptable..

    Anyway, is this the blog you said you might not set up because no one would read it? Looks like you were wrong there!

    Reply

  8. An honest and encouraging article. Thanks for the read.

    Reply

  9. Dan Palmer

    I know someone who runs a business out of his study in his house. It used to be run out of the spare bedroom. However, if the large banks, government departments, or other large businesses he does consulting work for found out this, I doubt they would use him.

    If you are asked by your boss to spend money and hire a consultant, do you go for a consulting company or the guy in his bedroom. It is a fairly obvious choice, if only to appear better to your boss.

    The person I know uses rented office rooms when needed, he has a phone answering service who will answer the phone at a call centre, record the caller and email him so he can call them back. All of this creates an illusion, but one that is certainly necessary.

    Reply

    • Laura

      It's a shame that it's seen as necessary. I know I'm in a very different position, in that I haven't done work for huge corporations, but I'd like to think that the fact I work from home doesn't make any difference to the quality of the work I do and so shouldn't affect somebody's judgment of me.

      But I'm an incredibly wishful thinker.

      Reply

    • Dan,

      I can't speak for your friend's clients – but all my clients know the truth about our operation.

      You'd be surprised.

      We (and it is a we in my case) do work for clients like Waitrose, John Lewis and WWE.

      All of them know:

      a) We don't have office
      b) I work from a room in my house
      c) So do all my staff

      There are advantages to this:

      1) Lower overheads, which we pass on to them
      2) We work late when needed .. and it makes that easier
      3) They know where I live
      4) If they call me at 5.35 I haven't left the office

      Also, people that work for large companies are people – first and foremost.

      They get why you'd want to work from home. Some of them are even jealous!

      "God, I'd love not to have to commute for an hour each morning. How wonderful. Lucky you!"

      I had one client who used to work in the City and gave that up once she saw I was doing fine working from (what was then) a house with a sea view in Cornwall.

      She took a job working for a chain of hotels as marketing manager, which had head offices closer to her home.

      Reply

  10. I really liked reading this article, points you raise match my experiences and opinions. As a teenager I did this to make myself appear difference from other web kids and it certainly worked.

    Reply

  11. Hmm… this post has made me re-evaluate my own copy.

    I use "Simian Studios" as my business name, so it seems natural for a company named in such a way to be a "we", saying "me" or "I" doesn't feel right to me somehow. Maybe that's just me though.

    Like Ewan and Craig, I chose my current stance based on the intention to grow as needed – perhaps temporarily in the form of hiring in others, or perhaps permanently in the form of becoming a fully-fledged agency further down the line.

    Perhaps I should go back and change that though – I can do everything I advertise, but I guess in the case that I get too busy it won't hurt me either way to just own up to that fact. If/when Simian Studios does become an agency, then the collective terminology can come out to play again :)

    Reply

  12. Totally agree with you on that. It's also counter productive. Your biggest advantage is that you're an individual. I hired Laura Kalbag .. not Laura Kalbag Inc.

    If I wanted a company with large overheads and lots of staff then I wouldn't go to you anyway!!!

    A lot of small businesses like dealing with a single person, because they feel they'll get better service and not just be just another customer in a queue.

    Or because they really like something that individual has to offer – be it their talent, their understanding of business, or their winning personality.

    The only exception, I'd say, is if you don't consider yourself a freelancer and are aiming to build up a company with lots of staff. In that case I'd say it's forgivable .. just about.

    But to be honest, what's the difference between you pretending you have staff and you pretending you're an 33 year old bloke with stubble and a bit of a spare tyre?

    They're both dishonest, essentially. And stupid!

    Also, it might surprise a lot of freelancers to know that the biggest problem I have as a company owner is that people buy into me .. and then they are actually concerned that it's not me doing the work on their site.

    I imagine Headscape or Clear Left might have the same issue. You choose them because of Jeremy Keith or Paul Boag .. but that's not actually who you get.

    Reply

    • Craig Hawker

      But to be honest, what’s the difference between you pretending you have staff and you pretending you’re an 33 year old bloke with stubble and a bit of a spare tyre?

      Hey, I resemble that remark!

      Not quite the age, but it’s close enough to hit hard… ;-)

      Reply

  13. I'm struggling with this very issue right now. I'm a self-employed web designer and currently market myself as "I". However, I'm rebranding and considering going down the "we" route, for several reasons:

    1) I want to get bigger clients, and like it or not, they won't use individuals for big complex projects
    2) I intend to outsource the development side going forward as it's the part I'm less good at and don't enjoy
    3) I'm considering offering hosting to future clients (I currently don't) — and the hosting company offer free white label support to my clients, so they would appear to be my employees
    4) "We" gives you the scope to expand in the future. "I" doesn't. I don't want to be seen as some cheap freelancer when I'm 50 (assuming I'm still doing this!) — I want to be seen as a respectable provider and however you cut it, "I" just doesn't have the same weight in that regard.

    So I'm erring towards "we", but I do have some reservations over it. Mainly because I agree with your points that being honest and upfront with people about being "I" is admirable, professional and well, just plain good old fashioned personal service.

    I'm torn!

    Reply

    • 1) I want to get bigger clients, and like it or not, they won’t use individuals for big complex projects

      Nonsense.

      They'll use an individual. It's all in your head.

      You don't believe they'd want you .. and so you probably never asked.

      It's like saying "that stunning girl would never go our with an bloke like me."

      Actually, she probably would. I've seen stunning girls with ugly blokes (that aren't rich) .. it's probably at least partly down to the fact the ugly bloke she's with actually asked her out .. and partly down to the confidence he had.

      It's the same with a big company. If you don't ask them .. or you don't put across the plus points of being an individual, sure they won't hire you. But that's your fault for not selling yourself well enough.

      Plus points of being an individual:

      – you're a big client to me. Not like some big ad agency where you're just another number to invoice. I'll pull out all the stops for you.

      – I'm cheaper, because I have lower overheads

      – You spend less money and get a better developer to boot! An ad agency charges you £100/hr and in return you get a £10/hr developer. The rest goes on overheads and profit. I charge you £35/hr and you get a £35/hr developer. My overheads are lower, and I'm not passing the work on to some junior who's not that good.

      – I don't mean to be rude, but I'm better than the agency. They can't afford me – that's why I'm freelance. They have to hire somebody cheaper.

      Etc etc etc

      As for the "for complex projects" bit. You shouldn't take on projects that are too complex for you anyway, so if that's an issue you're pitching for the wrong work.

      Reply

      • Hi Rich, wise words. You’re right, I need to be more confident. Regarding my point #1, you’ve definitely convinced me to go with “I” :-)

        I’d be interested to hear your opinion on using “We” vs. “I” for the other three points I listed.

        Reply

        • 2) I intend to outsource the development side going forward as it’s the part I’m less good at and don’t enjoy.

          I do the design. And when I feel like it, I do the coding too. But sometimes, I get someone else to do that stuff. It means I can concentrate on the bits I’m good and it means I can make sure I don’t miss the deadlines I’ve agree with you.

          That means you’re happy and I am happy.

          3) I’m considering offering hosting to future clients (I currently don’t) — and the hosting company offer free white label support to my clients, so they would appear to be my employees.

          I offer hosting to you.

          I use a company which can offer you extra support on your hosting, so if you ever have a problem they can help you fix it.

          That’s better for you, because it means you can phone them out of hours and – to be honest – they deal with hosting all day long so know much more about it than me.

          4) “We” gives you the scope to expand in the future. “I” doesn’t. I don’t want to be seen as some cheap freelancer when I’m 50 (assuming I’m still doing this!) — I want to be seen as a respectable provider and however you cut it, “I” just doesn’t have the same weight in that regard.

          OK, I think I’ve already said where I stand on “I” vs “we” in terms of credibility.

          When you decide to expand, start off by saying “I’ve just take on a guy called Paul (it should always be a Paul BTW!) to help me out with some of the coding work.”

          Then, at some stage, once that’s been going on for a while and you decide to take on another person then you can move to being “we”. Then it’ll be genuine, and will make you and your clients much happier.

          1 point – make sure once you start trading as “we” that you don’t use your own name. Don’t be Matt Hill Design. Be Hillybilly Design, or something. It’ll make it clear to your clients that it’s now a company, not just one person.

          Reply

  14. Great post. I actually had a similar revelation a while back related to my work running a conference in Boston (RIA Unleashed). For the longest time I always said "we" until one day I decided it was just silly since it was only me. Since then, I often have to catch myself reverting to "we" but always go back and correct it. For me, a large part of it is is selfish in that I deserve credit for the work if I do it. We seems to disperse credit to unnamed persons.

    Reply

  15. http://elliotjaystocks.com/

    Microsoft, Virgin

    http://hicksdesign.co.uk/

    Opera, Linotype, Firefox

    Honestly, it's a myth and an excuse that big companies won't work with individuals.

    And before you say "but I'm not Elliot Jay Stocks" then that doesn't change anything!

    Who's fault is that? If the reason you're not getting work is because you're not as good as someone who is then deal with it. Either get better or accept you're gonna deal with smaller clients.

    But don't think for a second that not being able to say "we" is the issue.

    Big companies don't want 2 sh*t people over 1 talented one!

    Just another point .. do you honestly think big companies don't check up on you first?

    Reply

  16. Seems like you’ve caused a bit of controversy! I totally agree with you though, “me”s who outright just pretend they’re “we”s are twisting at least one fact, so how do you know they’re not twisting others?

    It makes me feel really really uncomfortable.

    Reply

  17. Laura

    @roni I'm not at all against outsourcing as a rule, I just think that freelancers should be honest and make their clients aware of the fact they outsource their work.

    Reply

    • Let's take as a parallel construction: You call an architect then building company.
      What guarantee do you have that this building company does all the work in-house ? Any ?
      They will sub-contract some parts (99% of time): roofing, electricity, water, whatever…, to some specialist in that field… It's not "pure outsourcing" since it local real life… but same process.

      Let's take another example : GM, the car maker… Do you think they build in house all the parts of your car ? Do you even think what's sub-contracted is 100% produced in the US ?
      Are you aware of where your car's brakes are made? lights? seats?gear-box ? and by whom ?
      No, because you buy a GM made car. And anyway, you don't care, bcs you buy a GM car. And GM is responsible for the quality !

      I don't think freelancers should say "btw, I outsource this part" when this does not apply for any other company !
      If a client has done basic research he should have a ruff idea of what he is buying and how much it costs. Then to him to ask "Why so cheaper ?" or "How come you are expert everywhere?"

      Reply

  18. pronebird

    I think when individuals are saying 'we' it means the one thing only — they want to seem more than they are.

    Reply

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