Wearing Freelance Pants #2, By Eric Kiker
“What’s your hourly rate?”
It’s a question that, for me, has always caused curiously nauseous feelings. In the beginning, back in Boulder, where I rented a closet-sized office at the incredibly vibrant corner of Pearl and Broadway, I worried $30 an hour would seem like an awful lot for someone with little experience and a workspace just slightly larger than a twin bed.
These days, the queasy rumblings continue, not because my hourly rate is high, but because I’ve gotten rid of it pretty much all together. And I think; if you’re a freelancer – and maybe even if you run an agency – you should too.
Hourly rates cheapen what we really sell, which of course aren’t brochures and radio spots and illustration and photography and snowboard designs – we sell thinking. “Intellectual property” someone decided to start calling it, possibly a copywriter trying to convince a client that the tag line job should be based on a flat fee versus some plumber-oriented hourly rate. And oh, by the way, it seems even the building trades are getting away from hourly rates. A builder friend of mine now uses software to spit out the flat fees of various portions of a project.
Yes, flush your hourly I say. Do you ask the gallery owner how many hours the painter spent on that still life? Speaking of which, have you heard the one (urban legend or truth? anyone know?) about Picasso sketching a bull on a partygoer’s cocktail napkin, only to ask for $10,000. “But you did it so quickly,” the woman exclaimed. “That’s why it’s worth $10,000,” replied Picasso.
Now that argument may not work as you present the bill for your logo-design services, but there’s a germ of truth in the story. You have talent, which is why you’re able to make a living in this business (if you don’t have talent, may I suggest plumbing). Your talent alone means you have the innate ability to “come up with” things quickly or even instantly. How do you apply an hourly rate to that? What’s more, as your experience grows, so can your ability to think fast and even at times, on your feet, sitting right there in the meeting. Sure, you could keep raising your hourly rate in an attempt to keep pace with your ever-increasing mental acuity. But at some point, the number is going to sound more outlandish than a simple flat fee. You also need to consider the usage of what you create. Your list of headlines or web copy could be repurposed for as long as it’s relevant. Isn’t that worth a fair premium?
And then again, there’s the original argument – an hourly rate cheapens what we do.
So I’d suggest you think about the value of your work overall instead of how much it’s worth on an hourly basis. For designers, start by getting your hands on a copy of The Graphic Artist’s Guild Handbook: Pricing and Ethical Guidelines. For writers, it’s a bit more of a challenge – try Googling “copywriter rates.” You’ll turn up hits from a number of quality writers as well as a variety of dreadful hacks, but put their rates into context with your talent and you’ll have a good idea of what you should be charging.
This diatribe aside, there are a few times during which an hourly is perfectly acceptable – if you’re consulting, for instance. Or are asked to spend all day in a branding session or a client download. Some people even charge hourly for travel. Do whatever you and your client feel comfortable with.
In the end, you just need to do some soul searching in regard to what your work is really worth, take your Prilosec, and steam ahead.