By Steph Auteri
One of the big challenges of launching your career as a freelancer is figuring out how much to charge – and convincing potential clients you're worth that amount.
Do you start at $15/hour? $25/hour? $50/hour? What if you overprice your services and the client balks?
About five years ago - maybe one year before the recession hit - I quit my full-time job in book publishing to go full-time freelance. I wanted the flexibility to focus on my writing and work on breaking into my favorite publications.
That, and I hated wearing pantyhose.
But as thrilling as the switch from nylons to bunny slippers was, building up a strong client base was tough, and I struggled for years to figure out how much I was worth - and how to find editors willing to pay it.
When the recession happened, I realized I had to diversify, so I got my career coaching certification. But in launching that business, I had to figure out the whole rates thing all over again. How much was I worth as a coach, and how was I going to find clients willing to pay professional coaching rates?
In both cases, I was afraid. Would my target clients/publications have the money to hire me? And if they did have the money, would they want to pay professional rates for someone who was such a n00b? Would I pay that much for me?
I suppose that last question was at the crux of it all, especially in the case of my coaching practice. As a DIY-er who was into self-education and puzzling things out on my own - and as someone who regularly told people that the best way to learn was to dive right in - of course I wouldn't pay that much for me! Creating glimmering rainbows of word magic and planning out the next epic steps in my career came naturally to me. They seemed so easy. Why would I pay someone to tell me what I already knew?
It took me awhile to realize that if someone was looking to hire me, word magic and career planning didn't come easy to them. They needed me to do that work for them.
And assuming their need was great, they would willingly shell out the money for it, right?
Over time I learned my lesson: people will always spend money on the things that are important to them. I mean, that's why I spend so much money on sparkly things and yoga paraphernalia. Those things are important to me.
And if someone is unwilling to pay your writing rates or your coaching rates or the rates for whatever it is you're trying to sell, perhaps they're not a client you actually want to have. Perhaps they don't value career fulfillment or quality writing as much as they say they do.
If you're so quick to lower your rates to bag those reluctant clients, perhaps you don't value these things either - or yourself, for that matter.
So how should you set your rates and stick to them?
1. First ask yourself: What do I want to be making on an hourly basis, and what can the market bear?
The details of how to do this are beyond the scope of this post, but I highly recommend resources like the Freelance Switch Hourly Rate Calculator, and Laurie Lewis's What to Charge. You can also do research on market norms by simply surfing the Internet and scoping out your competition. And industry-specific professional organizations also tend to offer resources that help out with this. The Editorial Freelancers Association, for example, has a resource page with average editorial rates.
2. Don't be afraid to aim high. And be strong.
If someone asks you for your rates, don't let all your self-doubts about possibly losing business cloud your better judgment. Also, don't say something like, "I charge $100 an hour, BUT that is negotiable / I'm having a World Nutella Day Sale / I think you're so pretty I'll only charge you $15 an hour." (Of course, there can be exceptions, but they're rare. Consult this handy-dandy flowchart if you're considering such craziness.)
3. Consider negotiating.
If you're at the whim of another publication's rates, or wacky contract terms, or an oh-so-arbitrary "budget," and you still really want to work with them, that's when you can try negotiating.
But don't go below what you truly know, deep down, you're worth. If you do, you're probably not helping yourself in the long run.
If someone is not willing to pay what I refer to as my "deal breaker rate," I tell them politely and respectfully that "I'd love to work with you but, unfortunately, I cannot work for less than $BLAH. When your budget has expanded to the extent that you're able to pay standard professional rates, please keep me in mind!" It sounds ballsy, but the ones who see the value in what I do are always willing to play ball.
And no matter what the outcome, a prospective client will respect you more for holding fast to what you're worth. (In fact, if you're charging less than standard rates, they may wonder why.)
So don't worry too much about being seen as a tough negotiator. It'll garner you respect from the clients who matter – and scare away the clients who will only waste your time.
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