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How to Become a Freelance Hard-Ass and Get Paid What You’re Worth

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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 hard-ass. It’ll garner you respect from the clients who matter – and scare away the clients who will only waste your time.

If you need someone to whip you into hard-ass shape, consider hiring Steph Auteri, a freelance writer, editor, and career coach. And if you’d like to receive Freelance Awesome: A Starter Kit, a free packet containing the five worksheets necessary to jumpstart your freelance writing career, sign on the dotted line right here!

Brazen powers real-time, online events for leading organizations around the world. Our lifestyle and career blog, Brazen Life, offers fun and edgy ideas for ambitious professionals navigating the changing world of work.

  • Joyce Akiko Hayden

    I am a big fan of Alan Weiss and I highly recommend all new consultants pick up some of his books. Here’s something I learned from him:

    Get the client in person or on the phone and reach a conceptual agreement. Do this by probing the client to discover pain points. Discuss options. Never mention pricing. Just get to know the client and his or her needs. Let the client know you have thought of some solutions and will deliver a proposal within 24 hours. If you mention pricing, you open the table up for negotiation. You also leave the client thinking more about the cost than the discussion of pain points.

    Go home and write the proposal. In it, offer 3-4 options for the client. Give each a different price option, escalating value per option in conjunction with price.

    If the client wants to negotiate prices, only agree to do so by also negotiating value. If, for example, the client likes the third option’s values but the first option’s price, mention that you can remove value from option 3 to bring it down to option 1′s price. A good client will recognize that price cannot be negotiated if real, professional, and exceptional value is to be obtained. A bad client isn’t worth your time.

    Check out either Million Dollar Consulting or The Consulting Bible, both from Weiss. I read both and they have differences, but same basic concepts. Super, super helpful stuff.

    Good luck in your endeavors,
    Joyce Akiko
    Independent HR Consultant
    http://www.gohrforstartups.com

    • Khill

      Amen, Joyce! I used to prepare all my proposals with a price. If the client wanted to negotiate, that left me with two options: politely decline, or lower my price for the same amount of work. Probably the best thing I’ve done in my proposal writing is to lay out the pricing like menu. Now I can tell clients that I can work for them within their budget, however, they also realize that they may not get all they want. I’ve noticed two things as a result: often the client will select services that total more than their original stated budget, and since I also include items that they may not have included in their initial request, I am setting the stage for an on-going relationship and further work.

      There’s nothing wrong with negotiating a lower rate if a client wants to sign on for enough work that it’s worth it (cheaper to do more work for the same client than to go out and find a new client), but you should never go below a certain level. You lose credibility and value to your client.

      My experience has taught me that the clients that get the lowest pricing are often the clients who are the hardest to please, expect everything on a last-minute basis, always somehow convey that they think I’m (still) overcharging), and will take the longest to pay. I am happy to let someone else have them!

  • Avamorrai

    OMG! This is to timely. Arrgh! I’ve been struggling with this all year. All anyone was ever able to tell me is “you’re worth it”. It sounded more like a L’oreal commercial than a good answer.

    This:
    ‘people will always spend money on the things that are important to them.’

    & This:
    ‘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.’

    are the most important things I’ve learned in like a year. Seriously. Thank you so much for clarity.

  • http://www.StartMyConsultingBusiness.com Greg Miliates

    Forget about what you want to make, and pay more attention to the market. Stay on the high end of what the market will bear, since you’ll be perceived as an expert instead of a newbie. Here’s a good resource which shows how to determine your rate:
    http://startmyconsultingbusiness.com/how-to-set-your-rate/

    Make sure you’re in a solid niche. I know plenty of freelancers/consultants who have a very general niche, and as a result, struggle to find work and are paid a much lower rate.

    If you’re in a small, focused niche, you’ll be able to:
    –>charge a higher rate (and therefore work less),
    –>have less competition, and
    –>be easier to find by potential clients.

    In my niche, there are probably less than 3,000 potential customers, and literally a handful of competitors. Given that the clients are extremely profitable (law firms), that–in addition to my specialized knowledge & experience–means that I’m able to charge a high bill rate, which, in turn, means that I can work less to make the same amount as someone with a lower bill rate.

    If you’re not in a niche, you’re losing money, and can only charge a fraction of what you could be earning. What’s more, if you’re not in a niche, you’ll have trouble finding enough work, and will have heavy competition–which also lowers your rate.

    I agree with Joyce: offer 2-3 options to the client, with different services/features and price points. BUT, stick to your standard rate–whatever it is. Clients who want to haggle on price will want to haggle on other things–like actually paying–so it’s best to dodge that bullet before you’ve started any work with a difficult client.

    Greg Miliates
    http://www.StartMyConsultingBusiness.com

  • http://www.plumeriawebdesign.com/ Elke Hinze

    This has also been a struggle for me. I have been independent now for 15 months and while it has gone better than I thought, I’m still working out kinks.

    I just recently raised my rates after hearing all too often “wow that’s really cheap” and haven’t had much push-back with regards to my new rates.

    I completely agree that people will pay something that is valuable to them. Pricing appropriately means that the client feels they are getting high quality work. Don’t just give the work away.

    In the past I have dealt with clients who were notoriously cheap and finally cut ties with one of them last year. She was nickle and diming me to death; when it came down to it none of the time spent was worth the little bit of money that I did make from her.

  • http://buyonlineviagrapills.com/ Thesteadymover

    This is not as easy as you put it out be everytime. The online freelancing websites like elance and guru do provide good platforms for people but they also have their cons.
    People often complain that they get the work done and done get their pay.

  • Anonymous

    Any idea how much a great writer can earn on freelance??

    efficient markets

  • Anonymous

    You’re worth it. You deserve it. And let people know it. Just do not become a hard ass! You’ll wake up one day and wonder what happened to you. Instead, go with Spiritual Social Entrepreneurship.

    http://murfdipity.com/the-spiritual-social-entrepreneur/

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  • http://www.grovecitydental.com/ Scott Schumann DDS

    I like the content of this article. I’m not in the free lance world (I am a dentist in Grove City, Ohio), but I understand and value the entrepreneurial spirit. The point I would like to interject is that this is very possible for people, but you must be prepared to give the value that you are charging. I have a friend that shared this analogy that I think will help emphasize the point I want the potential free lancers to get: You can’t stand in front of the fire place and say ‘give me heat’ unless you’ve put the right kind of wood into the fire place and you get the fire started with some type of kindling wood. Because if you think that there will be a fire with no wood you’ll be left out in the cold. The same can be said for attempting to pursue a great opportunity and not bringing real value to the opportunity.

  • Aubrey

    Great tips there :) Nice post

  • Earl

    Great post. I found this post and your blog while linking from a tweet. I’m now a member because of the cool stuff you put together.

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  • deadhedge

    Why a Freelance hard ass? Why not a bad ass? Or a wise ass?

  • freelancer

    A lot of good points raised. But, from my experience, it’s mostly theoretical and ideal rather than what happens in the practical world — the one that presses you to pay bills, to put food on the table, to send kids to school.

  • http://carefulcents.com/ Carrie Smith

    This is excellent advice! I’ve struggled myself with determining what my time is worth, and too often I end up just doing for free, or as a favor. I’ve been working to stand my ground, more lately though. This is a great resource, and I’m definitely bookmarking it for future reference.

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