Freelancing is the perfect con.
This post is part of Free Money, the book about pricing and money mindset I’m writing in public. The first installments are here, here, here, here, here, and here.
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Talk about higher freelance prices is exciting, isn’t it? Raise your rates. Bankroll your dream lifestyle. Reach for the stars. It starts to feel like a Dr. Seuss book. Just imagine all the places you’ll go!
Before we go any further, I want to draw your attention to the elephant in the room (not Seuss’s Horton).
A higher price tag is a Pyrrhic victory unless you deliver higher value.
Freelancers remarkably talented at sales can, through charisma, force of personality, and razzle dazzle, convince a few clients with deeper pockets to hand over more money.
You might have heard the old saw, “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.”
You can only charge higher prices consistently if your clients are pleased at the end. “Gouging” is overcharging just because you can — that is, creating an unfair exchange of value. You may win at first, but if the client loses, you lose too, eventually.
Make freelancing the perfect con.
In The Brothers Bloom, Stephen, played by Mark Ruffalo, describes what freelancers are after: “The perfect con is one where everyone involved gets just what they wanted.”
You charge a price you’re excited about, one that feels like the perfect con, and then you ensure that your client gets just what they wanted, a fair exchange of value.
A fair exchange of value helps you sleep well at night, pays your bills, and makes you proud of your work. It helps you build a solid reputation and makes your life easier:
- You don’t need to posture or pretend.
- You go into sales calls with a quiet confidence.
- Your case studies, testimonials, and thoughtful questions sell for you.
Simplifying is serving.
Always deliver commensurate value, but don’t confuse investing more time or piling on deliverables with more bang for the buck. One specific project taught me the benefits of withholding options.
Back in 2016, I was introduced to Jimmy, a smart, ambitious, and level-headed Registered Investor Advisor (RIA). Jimmy had achieved his industry’s most coveted milestone—over $100 million in assets under management.
Jimmy’s job was giving advice and making decisions, all day, every day. As a classic entrepreneur, his plate was overloaded with responsibilities, from managing his many clients, two companies, and several angel funds to shepherding a dozen employees and a new website.
Several agencies had already given the firm quotes for the website, ranging from $1,500 and $40,000. This huge gap left Jimmy and the “website committee” unsure how to proceed. So they hadn’t.
When a friend made the introduction to Jimmy, I had a choice to make.
- Was the best way to serve him really to create more decisions for him?
- Should I add to his workload by asking him to decide between nearly identical options?
No, I decided. The best way for me to solve Jimmy’s problem and win the project was to make his life less complicated.
“Don’t make a hundred decisions when one will do.”
So when Jimmy and I spoke, I recommended a much more straightforward approach: light customization of a premium theme and help with copywriting would move the firm to a much faster launch.
Jimmy asked if we should explore several WordPress themes or design directions. I advised against it. The new website could only “work” for the firm once it went live.
The longer they waited, the further they got into diminishing returns.
Jimmy agreed with my reasoning. I won the project. And just as the project was picking up momentum, life intervened.
- Jimmy’s mother passed away.
- He went dark for a month.
- The original launch date flew by.
Not to sound insensitive, but imagine how long the project would have dragged on if I’d taken Jimmy and the firm’s “website committee” on a WordPress theme safari!
After navigating the initial delays, we still launched the site quickly.
My decision to lead through simplicity had eliminated other decisions and potential delays.
Management consultant Peter Drucker once taught Jim Collins this principle: “Don’t make a hundred decisions when one will do.”¹
One way we create value for freelance clients is by eliminating decisions for them and simplifying their lives.
What do our clients really need from us?
If you had sat down for coffee with me, circa 2010, I would have explained that providing more options and drawing out a client’s preferences proves your commitment to the project’s success.
“Look how much effort I’m putting in!”
The longer I’m in the freelance game, the more my thinking has evolved. Like my clients, I’m an entrepreneur and small business owner. The problems never stop. The decisions never stop.
These days, I am the client as often as I’m the freelancer.
The freelancers I happily pay a premium are the ones who look beyond their skillset and think holistically about how they make their clients’ lives better.
Freelance clients need more than your time and work product:
- They need you to be more disciplined, not more accommodating.
- They need fewer decisions and options, not more.
- They need juicy offers, not generic services.
- They need leadership, not compliance.
- They need solutions, not products.
- They need advisors, not vendors.
- They need outcomes, not stuff.
Value means more than “more.”
When we want to charge more, our knee-jerk reflex is to pile on more options, decisions, and deliverables.
Value means more than “more.”
More options cause decision fatigue. More decisions slow workflow to a drip-drip-drip. More deliverables bring delays. They push ROI further into the future.
Value often means less, especially with client experience. As I learned with Jimmy, less friction means more traction.
With strategic pruning you can create delicious momentum everyone can feel like a breeze:
- Less room for second-guessing
- Fewer opportunity costs
- Lower mental load
- Less time wasted
- Less complexity
- Fewer decisions
- Fewer delays
- Less risk
Our freelance clients crave simplicity. Don’t you?
If you expertly remove options, the right clients will chalk it up to leadership. They’ll peg your value accordingly.
17 Ways Freelancers Create Value for Clients
As freelancers, we must always deliver on the project scope, down to the letter. Create the identity system for the web3 startup. Write the book for the non-profit executive. Build the no-code solution for the insurance company.
Hopefully, I’ve convinced you that piling on more stuff isn’t creating more value. You have many other ways to do that:
- Clear, Copious, Consistent Communication
- Client Education / Training / Resources
- Personal Responsibility for Mistakes
- Specialization / Domain Expertise
- Promises Kept & Deadlines Met
- Creating Clarity & Confidence
- Effective Project Management
- Memorable Client Experience
- Your Network / Relationships
- Easier or Better Packaging
- Personality & Humor
- Better Strategy
- Proven Process
- High Quality
We focus on creating opportunities, not options. There’s a difference.
Don’t forget the bigger question.
Our goal as freelancers, consultants, and creatives is to make our clients’ lives better. Full stop.
The “how” varies from one project to the next. That’s why I like to pause and consider: What are specific ways I can use my expertise to make this client’s life better?
It’s easy for us to get caught up in abstractions of Client and Client Experience and overlook this real person, Jimmy or Ahmed or Nina, we already have a relationship with.
Some clients want to be really involved in the process. They don’t mind moving a little slower. Others want you to make strong recommendations and move, move, move.
You’re a chauffeur, and when you drive a high roller who gets carsick easily, you create a different experience. You brake gradually. You take turns slowly.
Our job as freelancers isn’t to exchange stuff for money. Our job is to make our clients’ lives easier.
That’s the secret to building a profitable business that you love.
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About the Author,
Austin L. Church
Austin L. Church is a writer, brand consultant, and freelance coach. He started freelancing in 2009 after finishing his M.A. in Literature and getting laid off from a marketing agency. Freelancing led to mobile apps (Bright Newt), a tech startup (Closeup.fm), a children's book (Grabbling), and a branding studio (Balernum). Austin loves teaching freelancers and consultants how to stack up specific advantages for more income, free time, and fun. He and his wife live with their three children in Knoxville, Tennessee.