The Human Freelancer

Happy and honest self-employment for conscientious newcomers

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I’m reluctant to write a post that dwells too much on the subject of money. Because that isn’t really the human freelancer way, is it?

To a human freelancer, money’s a valueless facilitator for the necessities of life, plus a few indulgences in the finer things civilisation has to offer. It isn’t about flogging yourself to buy shiny crap you lust after (rather than need) well into your sixties, only to discover a lump because you’ve worked yourself to death.

The web is already polluted with too many vampiric how-tos about pricing yourself as a freelancer. This should tell you all you need to know about how short-sighted some so-called freelance gurus (and their followers) are. It’s also why you won’t find much about it here. This blog (and The Human Freelancer Book) instead focuses on your learning, growth and fulfilment as a freelancer, because these are subjects sadly neglected in the cold, emotionally-barren landscape of business self-help books.

To complicate matters; working out how much to charge clients is probably the most frequent question at my recent public speaking events with students. Something really worries newcomers to freelancing about calculating their rates and demanding them from clients (we’ll cover all this later on).

So, probably in response to that base concern, Leeds Beckett University have invited me to contribute to a session called ‘The price is right – tips for setting the price’ at their event next week which explores freelancing as a career (I’ve also done a separate post about communication and responding with a considerate estimate for the same session).

This post is my preparation for that talk, and hopefully a useful contribution if you’ve stumbled across this from a web search. Welcome to the Human Freelancer – you’re in for a fucking treat.

It’s also an extension of the wonderfully blunt ‘What are you worth’ chapter of The Human Freelancer book.

The simple answer you want to hear

Let’s begin with some simple answers every newcomer to freelancing wants to hear about pricing themselves.

In my experience, typical freelance rates, at least in the UK tend to range between about £30 and £45 per hour for junior up to mid-weight freelancers. Some commodity freelancing, like SEO copywriting (the dark arts) or the kind of crap you’ll find on peopleperhour, is a race to the bottom, with units of work charged in mere pennies. Eurgh.

Your hourly rate is normally based on a six or seven hour day, and some agencies expect you to have a day rate which is a bit less than the product of your hourly rate multiplied by those six or seven hours. When you estimate a project, you’re essentially guessing how many hours it will take you to finish the job, allowing for all sorts of unpredictable things that might change in the meantime. Plus VAT, materials etc.

Generally speaking (again), freelancers incrementally climb up the rate scale as you gain more experience and confidence, using a combination of trial and error (and some, cheek) every time you quote.

When you share your estimated price with a client, give them a total for everything. They don’t really care about the underlying hourly or daily rate (unless it’s an agency), they just want to know the price for getting their problem solved – so you needn’t worry about itemising all your costs. Quoting for projects like this with a fixed price tends to make people feel more comfortable too, because hourly rates imply a ticking clock and runaway costs.

Where to begin

Everyone begins by under-charging, then gradually, as they get more experience, they ask for more (and get it) because they gain the conviction to support their demand. So rather than trying to avoid that long process of trial and error, you should just go through it, because it’s what everyone does. It’s part of the journey. Sure, some arseholes are cheeky and demand the top-rate right from the start, and some even get away with it. But they’re arseholes, and wouldn’t you rather learn and earn remuneration in a way that reflects your growth?

The simplest advice I can give you for pricing yourself is to join a coworking space and meet other freelancers. Talk to them, ask them honest questions (and explain why you’re asking them) to find out what they charge. You’ll soon broker a fair price for yourself and adjust it as time moves on.

The complicated truth everyone would prefer to ignore

You know it, I know it: pricing your services is way more complicated than all the above. It’s a sliding scale that depends on nebulous factors like:

  • how much you want the job
  • how complicated it is
  • how long it will take
  • the experience you bring to it
  • how much you need to earn to live sustainably
  • how much of your work time isn’t billable
  • other materials, overheads etc.

Now I’m not advocating you should do this, but a freelancing friend also has a special ‘arsehole tax’ he applies to bills if a client turns out to be troublesome.

As you can see there are way too many variables to nail this universal predicament in a simple calculation. So let’s look at this from a more human angle – in a way deliberately avoided by most business advice books.

What are you really worried about?

Is it someone telling you you’re too expensive or beating you down on price and devaluing your skills? Or do you worry you’ll miss out on work and fulfil that morbid fantasy we all have of being evicted, falling into casual prostitution then being dredged out the canal with a hand-blender jammed between your panniers?

The latter is extremely unlikely, of course, but that doesn’t prevent most people indulging catastrophic mental short-circuits when things don’t turn out as they’d like. To resolve this worry you need to be aware of the thought processes that occur when misfortune triggers them. Rationalise those processes and ask yourself if this one, single occasion really means you’ll be out on your arse? Probably not. So let’s not dwell on our unhelpful imaginings.

What about the former? Good clients, who want to work with you and see your value, don’t outright exclaim you’re too expensive and shut the door in your face. They deal with it constructively and ask if there’s some way of altering the scope of the project to get it within their budget.

If you were really honest, you could even ask a client what their budget is before you give them a quote. Good ones (the kind you want to work with) happily give you a flexible guideline to work with. If they lie or otherwise take the piss, and it hardly makes the job worth your while, consider if you really want to work with such scoundrels anyway? Also, it might sound brutal, but sometimes you have to be immune to the “oh we don’t have much money for this project”, and only heed a plea if it’s a legitimate cause or charity you really want to support.

The same goes for people who haggle. If a client starts beating you down on price, right at the outset of a project, generally, it doesn’t bode well for the rest of the project. This type of person just wants to win a cheap deal and probably isn’t the kind of client who values creativity, as well as all those other factors which are so difficult to put a price on.

Finally, if you’re nervous about selling yourself short and devaluing your skills, well, that’s a confidence problem and it certainly isn’t something you can look to clients for help with.

Yet you can look to yourself. It comes down to you nurturing your own well-being, and realising that your efforts deserve the same respect as every other freelancer. The premise of my argument is that if you believe you’re worth something (whatever amount that is) then it’s easier to ask for that, because you feel comfortable requesting it.

That applies to both estimates and actually invoicing for money you’re owed.

Fact: there isn’t a one-size-fits-all that works for all clients

It just doesn’t work that way. I personally guarantee that no client will ever come to you and say:

“I want a standard, off-the-shelf job please. There’s nothing unique, exciting or unusual about it, and I expect you’ve done the same thing time and time again so you know exactly how much it’s going to cost from start to finish.”

Every client believes that their project is unique and it’s often last-minute, so they’ll make allowances for someone who’s able to accommodate that. It’s just the nature of the industry: you’re hired to plug the gaps clients can’t fill with something quickly bought off the peg.

That’s why prices can oscillate wildly between different freelancers. It’s also why you should relax: price comes down to an individual job and an individual client and it’s impossible to get it right, first time.

Just begin with your rough, average market freelance rate (the one you decided when you began to hang around with other freelancers), then estimate the shit out of it, follow your instincts then add on a bit of contingency.

When you send your quote, make it completely clear that it’s an estimate. So it will definitely change because you, like every other human, can’t predict the future and things always change in price and complexity (they go down as well as up, remember).

As decent, human freelancers, we need to get past this short-sighted worry about rates and money. Instead, you should concentrate on what issues really feed your fear and hesitance. I bet it’s just a simple lack of confidence and definition of value – your well-being, passion and skills and the difference they make to a client’s business.

So don’t give yourself agonise over setting your price, after all it’s a just a guessing game with a bit of gambling thrown in. It’s a process I’m still figuring out, and one every other freelancer I know seems to struggle with too.

You’re not alone.

The Human Freelancer book

LOOK! There's a book full of this shit and more!

Self-help business books perpetuate the myth that success is relentless growth and more of everything means progress. They preach about bookkeeping and market research: things you might need to do of course. But let’s face it they’re fucking boring.

The Human Freelancer book is your antidote: stuffed full of emotional support and insightful advice for vulnerable newbies to self-employment like you.

Buy it now