It’s the question everyone asks, but no one really knows the answer to. Evaluating and then asking for your worth can be really tricky, and can vary from situation to situation. Experienced freelance writer and founder of Intern Alec Dudson weighs in on this vital problem that both new and experienced freelancers face.
I grew up in the 90s and 00s and used to regularly tune in to Channel 4 for Friends on a Friday night. It’s unimaginable now, as like everyone else, I stream pretty much everything I watch on demand — Friends included — but back then, I thought nothing of it. I also wasn’t remotely affronted by the prospect of the thirty-minute programme being spilt in half by some adverts. Now, when I do find myself watching regular tv, the ad breaks wind me up to no end.
But I digress. One of the ad concepts that ran the longest was the sign-off for L’Oréal “Because I’m worth it”. Over the years, celebrity after celebrity, including ‘hair icon’ and Friends superstar Jennifer Anniston, would showcase the latest shampoo or conditioner before confidently delivering the empowering statement. Written by 23-year-old McCann Erickson copywriter Ilon Specht in 1973, the four-word phrase became something of a timeless asset to L’Oréal, who proudly use it in their brand messaging to this day.
In L’Oréal’s case, the message is one of female independence, self-worth and celebration. For me, it’s an idea that I’d love to see similarly shared with creative freelancers, because from my experience, it seems like an attitude that pretty much everyone struggles to get comfortable with when they’re starting out.
Let me just start by reassuring you now, that your work has value. One hundred percent. It doesn’t matter how ‘experienced’ you are, how well honed your skills are, how many clients you’ve worked for or who they were. If you create, you’re generating value that someone, somewhere would be willing to pay for.
By going it alone, you’re further underlining that value, it’s now something that you’re essentially branding, packaging up and selling. So, even if this is an awkward subject for you, by turning freelance, you’ve already made the biggest and most important step. To be freelance is to have a defined set of services, aimed at a defined range of clients and to be in total control of who you work with and when you work with them. Once you’re up and running, it’s a professional lifestyle that offers incredible benefits, but also — like with any other career path — presents a number of challenges. Few of those challenges will fundamentally alter the course of your career so immediately and so positively than learning how to properly value yourself.
In a recent workshop with my final year graphic design class at Leeds Arts University, I conducted an experiment. I asked the students to organise themselves into three groups. The first group comprised of people who had an established freelance practice, the second of people who’d done the odd bit of freelance work and the third of people who’d never charged anyone for their work. I then gave them three (quite broad) briefs and asked them to write me a quick quote for that job then hold it up high so that everyone in the room could see it. My hunch was that in each case, those who had done more work would charge more than those who hadn’t. Simple enough right? Sure enough, almost without exception, those in the first group charged most, the second group followed behind and those that hadn’t worked before quoted the least.
Now, it’s not a perfect assessment by any means, but I feel that in terms of technical proficiency, they’re at a similar level for the most part. Why then were some people in the room quoting me £500 for a logo whereas others pitched £25? Confidence. As a freelancer, sometimes you have to project that confidence before you truly believe it yourself, but if you’re not showing a potential client that you believe in your work, how are they going to believe in it? It is completely normal for it to feel a bit weird charging for your work at all and each time that you step things up a level and charge more, it will likely feel weird again. You’re not alone in that. Aside from the sociopaths, this is a natural reaction, and it’s nothing to worry about.
Perhaps this is a new thing for you, or maybe your work isn’t easily benchmarked against that of other practitioners. Fear not, there’s plenty of ways of working out what that rate might be and often, just seeing a number that you’re initially — and inevitably — uncomfortable with is the first, necessary step in the journey towards a proper valuation of your time. One tool that I regularly turn people towards is yourrate.co. In my opinion, it shouldn’t be your only reference point, but is a great initial guide to finding that first ballpark figure which could well be a goal that you look to work towards.
Ask around. If you know people who operate in your space, you can do worse than ask them for some pointers, it’s always good to assemble a “personal rate card” according to Malin Persson, who works in community engagement and network building. If it’s hard to find people who do exactly what you do, it’s still helpful to get a feel for what they charge, even if it’s that they’re only working for similar clients. Most importantly though — and I admit, this blew my tiny mind when my mentor Abraham Asefaw broke this to me — was that you are the only person who sets your rate, so the most important factor must be your lifestyle choice. What income allows you to live a life of comfort and happiness? Let’s not go crazy here, there’s a need for a reality check, but if your current financial situation is comfortable, then why not initially ensure that’s covered and then aspire to increase your rates year on year at a pace that will make a real difference to your financial health?
It can make for an uncomfortable read, but if you add up all of your outgoings on a personal and business level (allowing for tax and savings too), that will give you a pretty clear picture of what it costs to be you. As a freelancer, you’re likely not always going to be working a 40 hour week, so your rate has to account for that. Some people like to take their rate and triple it, with each third going towards wage, business expenses and savings. Often, that calculation will lead you to set a rate far higher than your self-confidence would have conjured, but don’t sweat it, that’s fine. You should probably raise it even higher for good luck.
Let’s take a quick trip back to the classroom and the students who were quoting £25 for a logo. As a client, how would a rate that low make you feel about the quality of the work you were getting? Chances are, you wouldn’t be expecting a lot. Now, if the same person was to quote you £2500, two things would probably happen. Firstly, your perception of that person’s proficiency would shoot up and secondly, you’d be keen to find out what exactly you’d be getting for the £2500. This is how successful freelancers operate, they articulate that value with confidence and clarity. They present strategy, discuss usage and licensing and show the client that they see the bigger picture. If this all sounds beyond you, persevere and you’ll get there. Although it’s situated in the world of design, the YouTube channel The Futur is an excellent resource for discussions on ‘the business of design’, covering sales strategy, value-based pricing and much more. For illustrators, the AOI is an excellent resource for example freelance contracts and agreements. If you’re neither a designer or illustrator, I’d still recommend having a poke around as a lot of the approaches they discuss are applicable to all kinds of freelance pursuits.
The more you research, the more you’ll discover that the factors that go to deciding the value of your work are far more clinical and straight forward than you might assume. The first time somebody asks “how much?” you respond emotionally. What seems fair? What would they be willing to pay? That’s the wrong approach. The value of your work has to be defined by you and your needs, not a perception of what a client ‘might’ pay. Establishing a work-life balance can be hard as a freelancer and the one thing that will make that equation easier to manage, is charging enough for your work that you then are able to turn down the jobs that aren’t right, will cause stress or drain all of your time. It’s one of the hardest things to do in this game but please, please take the time to work out a sustainable rate and stick with it.
Because you’re worth it.
Check out our day rate guide, written by marketing wiz Lea Bernetic.