Among freelancers, our most cherished business objective as expressed on the internet is to “get paid what I am worth.” (Note that more than a third of the U.S. labor force is freelancering per Freelancers Union and Upwork, 2015, and freelancers will be in the majority in a few decades.)
So let’s ask the question: What are we worth?
Obviously, quantifying human value is touchy. Even God settled for an inspired generalization: Man is but “a little lower than the angels” and crowned “with glory and honour.”
It is far more reasonable to attach a dollar figure to what our work is worth.
OK, what is our work worth?
Professional associations take stabs at determining the worth of work. As an example, check out the rates listed by the Editorial Freelancers Association, which (in my opinion) are surprisingly low, considering that its goal is to “raise the professional status of its members and to make freelancing more dynamic and rewarding.”
Through years of freelancing—and of slacking off by scanning websites, marketing emails, and social media discussions—I see a consensus among freelancers: Yes, we do want to get paid what we are worth. Market value is darned near off the radar of most freelancers.
Our worth is determined by our self-esteem, objective qualifications be damned. In marketing lingo, these are derisively called “features,” as opposed to mouth watering “benefits,” which are results that may objectively or subjectively benefit the client.
Today’s freelancers never determine that our rates are too high. Getting “what you are worth” always, always, always means getting paid more.
Experts and fellow freelancers recommend that we hire the very cheapest labor from online job boards for the tasks we need done but that we also demand top rates for our own services. Apparently they see no inconsistency there.
I confess: My own issues around pricing
I have dealt with pricing fears and foibles for over 20 years as a freelance writer. I have underpriced and overpriced.
I am also a client for diverse tech, design and administrative freelance services. I have paid from $40 to over $100 per hour (and much more for specialized coaching).
In other words, I don’t pay pathetically low. At the high end, I am constrained by the limitations of a one-person business that cannot earn back a huge “investment” in a reasonable timeframe. (Sometimes I pay some way other than by the hour, such as by the project.)
I am proud to pay invoices from freelance service providers within 24 hours. None of this sit-on-the-money-for-30-days crap for me.
For those of us with self-esteem issues (count me in and many other somewhat well-balanced people as well), this get-paid-what-you-are-worth talk feeds our insecurities and causes us to second guess our rates, no matter how high we raise them. By golly, I’m as valuable as anyone else, I assure myself with rates I pull out of my derriere.
The “experts” say . . .
You aren’t getting enough assignments? It couldn’t possibly mean that you are overcharging, advise experts and peers. In fact, quite possibly you are undercharging. If your rate isn’t high enough, prospects suspect there is something wrong with you and opt for someone who charges more, we are told. That the price can be too high and above the market is totally off radar.
If a prospective client does not immediately submit to our number and dares to attempt negotiations, we should be deeply offended. “Stick to your guns,” urge our fellow practitioners in online forums.
It’s an “investment,” not “expenditure,” we are told. That claim may appear to justify the cost from the provider’s side, but what about the prospect? The local no-kill cat shelter can’t afford a hefty bill regardless of the work’s quality, while the same fee for a Fortune 50 company may be a pittance. (And let’s not forget that the F50 assignment may be much more sophisticated in scope, tech requirements, etc.)
If we want to earn more, we could determine the most lucrative niches and go after them. Good idea, but seldom recommended. Instead, we should do what we love so much that work is like getting paid to eat ice cream. We should calculate our pay rate based on cost of living and then push it up plenty to fund the lifestyle of our dreams that we’ve illustrated on our cut-and-paste vision boards.
Then there is imposter syndrome, which according to freelancing experts is commonplace. That’s when we freelancers fear that the world will catch on that we are frauds, not as talented as we pretend to be.
Could it be that the real problem is freelancers who are shamed into asking for rates their guts say are too high? They repeat to themselves what the experts preach, that their discomfort is merely unfounded insecurity.
You get what you pay for, right?
At this point you may be saying to yourself that it’s all OK. Everything is just as it should be in this best of all possible worlds because as a client, you get what you pay for.
Alas, I have learned through years of experience as the client that it’s more likely for the opposite to be true: the more I pay, the worse the service.
I have found—with a few pleasant exceptions—that the freelancers with the highest rates have the biggest chips on their shoulders and are the biggest pains in the derriere.
Some of the most expensive freelancers are the most egotistical and condescending. They are the stingiest with their time and the most rigid about not giving away any work for free. Requests for reasonable turnaround offend them. They may even resent client work openly because it interferes with their true creative calling.
Most important, the highest-priced people often produce work that is no better than the work of lower-priced people.
I don’t begrudge freelancers their top fees. I’ve landed high-paying work myself. However, freelancing rates should have some relationship to the demands of the assignment and the level of performance, not merely ego.
As freelancers, let’s reconsider rate setting. There’s more to “getting paid what we are worth” than claiming our self-esteem.