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Freelance and consulting: what exactly does “negotiable” mean?

When you look at freelance / consulting job boards such as Elance, Guru and many, many others, how do you react when you see the payment listed as “negotiable”?

Which would you rather pursue, an assignment with a set offering price, even if it is a bit low, or one that is negotiable?

Note that when I say “low,” I don’t mean ridiculously, insultingly low. I simply mean a number lower than what pops up on your calculator.

I strongly prefer the former; the latter often proves a waste of time.

Opinion varies. This article will explain why I am more likely to consider a firm figure, even if somewhat low, over no figure at all.

Your opinion may vary. I’m open to having my mind changed based on your experiences. (My experiences with these boards are limited.)

In favor of offering stated payment in the ad

I used to be disturbed when scrolling through ads offering very, very, very low payment. I would be incensed. No longer.

Today I am happy to see people who know what they want to pay. I don’t apply for these but if others wish to, it’s fine with me.

I suppose these freelancers have their reasons—they are trying to build a portfolio, they have never been paid for writing before, they are looking for something to do today, and additional reasons that have not yet occurred to me.

Anyway, there is a meeting of the minds. Not my mind but other people’s minds.

Sometimes no one responds to a very low offer. That’s OK. It provides information about the marketplace, and the person listing the assignment may well decide to increase his next offer.

What does “negotiable” mean?

When I think of negotiations, I think of nuclear weapons pacts and three-year union contracts. Sure, I’ll negotiate. I’ll get the taxi to O’Hare and meet you in Geneva tomorrow to hammer out a deal.

Or not.

In these job-board circumstances, I suspect “negotiate” is a euphemism for a fishing expedition. They throw out the bait and see if anything bites. Since no one knows who they are, they can’t follow up or otherwise bug you.

A friend prefers “negotiable” because the firm posting the assignment may be open to his desired price. You’ll never know if you don’t ask, goes the logic.

If you are already in proposal-submission mode, that might be OK. Dash something off and send it in.

I tend to look at the glass as half empty. I reason that those hiring freelancers use these big job boards looking for the lowest-cost “talent” they can find. Some are happy to do their own extensive reworking of the product as long as the work is cheap.

“Negotiable” is far too vague for my tastes. We may be hundreds or even thousands of dollars apart depending on the scope of the project.

In addition, without conversation or detailed email exchanges, I may not really understand the amount of work required. This means I should pad the price I propose, not minimize it to “win.”

How to write a proposal

I used to work at asset management / mutual fund companies that often wrote proposals to manage large sums. These proposals could run many pages.

It all sounded like a lot of work. The proposal writer ran around at the last minute to meet a the deadline. Why didn’t she plan ahead? an observer may have asked.

In practice, most proposals from a single company are almost identical. They may include a history of the firm, biographies of all executives, an explanation of their investment model complete with flow charts, and loads of legal disclaimers. These reside in saved files, ready to be copied in and saved.

Only a few factors require customization for each prospect, most notably price but some other variables as well. These are the elements that take time and cause the project manager to risk missing the deadline.

In other words, it’s often as easy to prepare a 100-page proposal as a two-page proposal if the organization prepares proposals regularly. Individualization takes time; compilation can be completed quickly.

Why I don’t respond to large-job-board listings

If you are going to go to these job boards and apply, you may as well do it constantly, I figure. It’s work to prepare the first few proposals, but as you do more, the already-written copy on file will grow in length and improve in detail.

I haven’t taken the first step of preparing a proposal designed to respond to these job boards. I have scrolled through some listings late at night, but I did not apply because I was not available right at that moment to write a polished submission.

The only way I would follow through on one posting would be to resolve to check back weekly or even daily for opportunities and keep at it until my typical proposal was top notch. Some of the posting notices have such short time frames for responding that I’d really need to submit the proposal within hours or let it scroll by.

Originally posted 3-23-15

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