The Human Freelancer

Happy and honest self-employment for conscientious newcomers

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You know it, I know it: pricing your services is way more complicated than simply multiplying your hourly rate. It’s a sliding scale on eclectic axes, dependent on nebulous factors like how much you want the job, the experience you bring to it and how much you need to earn to avoid prostitution.

A long-time freelancing friend of mine even has a special tax he applies to an estimate if clients turn out to be arseholes.

As you can see there are way too many variables to nail this universal predicament in one simple calculation. Plus, pricing yourself as a freelancer actually has more do with whether or not you believe that you’re really worth what you demand, your confidence in asking for that and how honest a relationship you share with a decent client.

That’s what I’ll be saying to a room full of baffled students at Leeds Beckett University, anyway. Innocent folk who’ll be expecting a neat, step-by-step guide to pricing themselves this Thursday – when in fact what they’ll get is a wondrously touchy-feely sermon on the realities of freelancing and an empirical study of self-worth.

Well, it seemed to go down well last time.

So, to satiate their appetite for some sort of guidance on how to carve out a freelance livelihood, here are some factors you need to consider, plus a very rough explanation of what goes on in my head when I’m not thinking about tits and coming up with an estimate for a new freelance project.

Shit to chew over

  • How long it’ll take: based on past projects and your gut feeling.
  • How complicated it is: some tasks are more mentally demanding than others, and remember, complexity reduces as you repeat something enough times.
  • New skills you have to learn: this could be a programming language, technology, a new brush technique for illustration or swotting up on some antiquated tone of voice for copywriting.
  • Standard project overheads: research, planning, travel, meetings, phone calls and emails. Boring.
  • Your client’s budget: ask them for an honest figure, but take that with a pinch of salt, there has to be compromise on both sides for it to be mutually profitable.
  • Value of the project to your client: if your work’s going to net them millions then they’re unlikely to baulk over a few hundred quid. Base this ratio on how large your client is (a local charity versus an MNC).
  • Arsehole tax: see intro above.
  • How much you need to earn to live sustainably: a rough minimum of how much you need, personally, to cover your outgoings every month. Probably has vastly different effects depending on how far into the month you are (and how hungry your kids are).
  • How much other work you’ve got on: are you doing someone a favour, squeezing this in or doing it at your leisure with no fixed deadline?
  • Equipment and gear: stuff you need to buy or hire, or general wear and tear on your existing kit.
  • Unsociable hours: will you be working later nights than usual, weekends or missing out on more important things in your life?
  • Feedback, edits and revisions: it’s hard to judge how much input you’ll get back of a client, so just say how many rounds you’ll include before things get silly.
  • Support: are you on demand 24/7 or on call?
  • The magic +20% contingency: I learned somewhere in my distant past that most projects (especially in IT/digital) always overrun by 20% on average, so this also covers inevitable, unexpected costs.
  • How much you need/want the work: if you want to pip other freelancers at the post or really want to see this job in your portfolio, offering a discount might swing things in your favour.

How I suck my thumb

Generally speaking, when an enquiry comes in for a quote, the first thing I do is look at my past projects to see if I’ve done anything similar. This determines how cautious my quote is. If there are a lot of unknowns, you’ve got to allow for them. So be generous with your time – the devil’s in the detail, remember.

Next I’ll work out a minimum figure (what it costs, based on most of the list above) and see how that sits with what I need to earn to live comfortably, and what I think is a fair price for this amount of work.

After that, I’ll work out a more expensive/upper cost that makes me feel really really safe, and see how that compares with my first figure above.

Then, I’ll consider how much I actually want to do the project (if at all), based on what it presents creatively and how desperately I want the client to award me the job. These are always overruled if I’ve earned bugger all that month.

Finally, I’ll come up with a figure somewhere closer to the first figure plus a little extra to allow for the uppermost (worst case) scenario.

Remember, an estimate is just that

You can’t predict the future, and any client who expects you to be able to isn’t being fair. So frame your quote as a best guess, and make it clear that your costs can and will go up or down once you get stuck into the detail of the project.

If this pricing and estimating malarky still keeps you awake at night, take comfort in good old Parkinson’s Law.

Try not to let this whole idea of a ‘right price’ scare you too much. After a couple of years’ freelancing, pricing (and how to find work) really won’t matter as much as it does now.

Trust me.

Success comes down to confidence in doing what you enjoy, which you can develop; and belief that you’re worth something, which again you can work on.

Also, with experience comes less of giving a fuck.


You might want to check out my post on how to respond to an enquiry with a considerate quote, because how you frame your price is as important as how you calculate it (if not more so).

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