Why you’re not a freelance fraud

Fingers crossedMany freelancers, and even some small agency owners, struggle with the fear they’re pulling a fast one. They worry they’re not as good as they claim to be. That they’re just puffing themselves up. And that one dark day, all of their clients will discover they’re just a freelance fraud overcharging clients. In fact, they’ll all figure it out on the same day, bringing their solo creative career to an ignominious end. Followed, without fail, by poverty.

Relax. For most of you, these fears have no basis in reality. Here’s why:

Most of the time, the “freelance fraud” fear is triggered by money. We find it hard to believe anyone in their right mind would pay a living wage for what we do. And it doesn’t help that most creative types are their own harshest critics. We have encyclopedic knowledge of every “flaw” in our work. Who cares if anyone else will ever notice? We know.

Here are five of the most common misconceptions that get this lizard brain fight-or-flight response working overtime in our heads, and some down-to earth reasons why you can let it go.

“They shouldn’t be paying me this much.”

Yes they should. You have a valuable skill that requires training and talent. Clients hire you because they need the service you provide and think you’re the most efficient way to get the job done. They’ll push back if you ask more than the market will bear, but don’t be afraid to stretch the envelope. The price they consider reasonable might be higher than you think. In fact, great clients may actually turn you down if you don’t charge enough, because they’ll assume you aren’t ready to work at their level.

What’s more, if you’re undercutting the market with lowball prices, you’re not just doing a disservice to yourself. You’re harming the industry as a whole by giving clients unrealistic expectations about what creative work should cost.

“It’s so easy for me to do this. How can it be worth what I’m charging?”

Strange as this may seem, what’s easy for you — whether it’s design, photography, writing, or any other creative skill — isn’t easy for a lot of other people. That’s why it has value.

If your creative projects don’t feel like work but your results look professional, congratulations! Doing what comes naturally to you is an ideal way to make a living. Recognize all the work you’ve done to develop your talent into a marketable skill.

“Creative work is subjective. Do I have a right to claim it’s worth this much?”

All value is subjective. For example, many people think diamonds are valuable even though they’re one of the most common gemstones on the planet. Their value has its roots in a de facto monopoly established by the De Beers Group of Companies, which created artificial scarcity by limiting production in the 20th century.

These efforts were enhanced in 1947 when a young copywriter named Frances Gerety coined the classic slogan “A Diamond is Forever.” Those four words were so valuable that Advertising Age magazine named them the best advertising slogan of the 20th century in 2000 — definitively proving that it pays to work with a good writer.

In any case, the subjectivity that matters here is in your buyer’s head, not yours. If clients think your work is worth the rates you charge, they’ll pay it. Otherwise they won’t. And since you can’t work for everyone, you have a seat at the table when the haggling over that value is taking place.

So if the occasional client isn’t willing to pay what you believe is a fair price, it doesn’t make you a freelance fraud. More likely, they’re probably not a client you want because they’re not willing to invest in professional creative work.

“I don’t have that much experience.”

Maybe not, but you’re committing to earning your living as a creative professional. That requires investments of time and money. You may not be able to charge top dollar out of the gate, but you still have the right to earn a living wage.

Even if you’re fairly new to your creative skill, that’s all relative to someone who doesn’t have the same training. For example, I’m not an engineer, but I do a lot of work for engineering companies because I can translate technical concepts into plain language.

“They could pay an in-house person a lot less to do this.”

You can still be a valuable resource — and someone your client will come back to — even if they have some internal resources.

For one thing, they could also pay a big agency a whole lot more than they’re paying you. Compared to that, your top rate probably looks cheap.

There’s also a good chance they’re calling you because all their in-house people have their hands full. Many of the corporate managers I’ve met at the HOW Design Live conference the last few years have said their biggest challenge is finding enough freelance talent to back up their in-house team. I also see the same trend closer to home. One of my best clients has multiple full-time writers on staff. They recently hired another one, and they’re still keeping me busy.

Here’s something else to keep in mind: even if you’re doing identical work to an in-house person, you’re also paying for your own equipment, insurance, and taxes. Even though these expenses don’t show up in the paychecks your in-house peers receive, their employers are still paying them. So if you’re not charging more than a comparable in-house salary, there’s a good chance you’re actually charging less than they’d pay one of their own people.

And don’t forget many companies use freelancers specifically because they want or need something they can’t get in-house. You may have a specialized expertise they don’t have on their staff. One of my design partners, Doug Klocke, has a client with a few in-house people who can do production work, but they rely on him to create templates and do other work requiring more design skill. “I get to do the fun, high-level stuff, and they run with the rest of it,” he says.

Finally, even if you don’t have a skill they lack, you still have an outsider’s perspective to offer. No in-house person can give them that.

Give yourself a break

Just because you’re making good money for creative work doesn’t mean you’re a freelance fraud. In fact, several mentors have told me if a freelancer doesn’t get turned down for being too expensive at least once a year, it’s a sign you’re not charging enough. The most important thing is to be sincere, and to do the best work you’re capable of for every client (yes, even the annoying ones).

Remember too that your rate is an agreement between you and the client. If they’re letting you get away with it, they probably think you’re worth it.

Who are you to stand in the way of their happiness?

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