Wearing Freelance Pants #2, By Eric Kiker

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“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.


I agree completely. Why should a writer who understands the problem and solves it perfectly in a timely manner be punished, while the hack who takes rounds and rounds of rewrites be rewarded?

Find a fair price. Settle on it. Then work until you clients are happy.

Of course strategies change and your price can reflect those changes.

But the eaisest way I found was to deflect the hourly cost question until you understand the whole scope of the job, then return with an estimate for the whole thing.

Then stick to your price. You’ll work more and make more money.

Your article provides a great segue to a situation that I’ve found myself in. Allow me to break it down:
1. A friend at a real estate company asks if I’d be interested in freelancing for a naming project.
2. I agree to it, and send along an estimate for the project.
3. She approves the estimate, sends me the brief, and work begins.
4. We meet, review, and I get feedback.
5. I complete round 2 and send it along.
6. I’m told by my friend to send an invoice for the work I’ve done, which I do.
7. My friend leaves the company, yet says she’s working on getting me paid.
8. 8 months later, and I have not been paid.
9. A month ago, I sent a letter to the CEO with a duplicate invoice and printouts of my correspondence. I still have not received payment.

Does anyone have any suggestions? Small claims court? Judge Judy? Hired goons?

On the estimate you have the client sign include this paragraph>

Binding Arbitration

Any controversy or claim arising out of or relating to this contract, or the breach thereof, shall be settled by binding arbitration, in Denver, Colorado, in accordance with the Commercial Arbitration Rules of the American Arbitration Association, and judgment upon the award rendered by the arbitrators may be entered in any court having jurisdiction hereof. It is agreed that, in the event of arbitration, the parties will keep the proceedings and results confidential except as required by law or reasonable business necessity.

This arbitration clause makes sure you can ask for your money without getting tied up in court or without having to pay lawyers to collect. It makes it pretty even if you need to collect from a big company.

It doesn’t help you now. But I wish someone would have given me this info when I was starting out.

Arbitration rules—especially for the freelancer.

Great advice on the arbitration clause, I didn’t know about that one.

And CP, that’s very unfortunate. A couple suggestions for next time: don’t have a single client contact if at all possible. One person knows about the job, one person leaves the company, one person gets screwed – you. Unless you know your client well, you should be getting half up front – and if they trust you enough to give you the gig, they should have no problem with that. You’re not a plumber who can place a lien on the customer’s house if he or she doesn’t pay. You aren’t a company with in-house counsel. The only two times I’ve ever been stiffed were the result of working with one-man-band amateurs I didn’t know.

Don’t forget your signed estimate (make sure it’s signed by a decision maker in the company, not your pal). Be sure to put AppleZ arbitration clause in there.

Then work hard and be sure you give your client what they’re paying for – and more.

Also, it never hurts to make friends with the Accounts Payable person – get in touch early via email and introduce yourself, offer to provide a W2, even if you’re incorporated, make this crucial person aware of the job you’ve been assigned.

Okay? Thanks for writing in and good luck. By the way, if they don’t pay, your buddy needs to make it up to you.

Great advice! I learned the hard way about arbitration clauses, and ALWAYS ask for HALF up front. I find that clients will take the work more seriously and not waste your time.

It’s so awful when clients don’t pay…

Mr. Kiker,

Thank you for your ad gems. I recently discovered them and will surely place them carefully in my advertising treasure chest.

Your work transcends many boundaries, but especially your ability to translate Mandarin Chinese into English. Therefore, my questions are entrusted to your unique insights.

Given the rapid and astounding rise of the Chinese economic power, and the abundant opportunities that have arisen as a result, if SweetMart becomes a major force in the global financial and investment markets, how will you use your client branding and business plans to enhance Sweetmart’s aggressive expansion and strategic partnering goals? What assurances can you provide that your plans will even work? Can I rest assured that my investments in the SweetMart Empire are secure?

Do you plan on a new campaign soon, or at least a new jingle?

Sincerely awaiting

It’s encouraging you’re able to recall the SweetMart incident after all these years Mr. A…Anonymuzz. I’ve been trying to remember the tune of that jingle for the last week. Just got it. Now, for the lyrics.

In the future, please confine your comments to the subject in question – we’re all trying to not work here.

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