Charge What You’re Worth, And Don’t Apologize

by Whitney on November 9, 2012

Here’s the biggest mistake I’ve made in business so far: not charging for my time. Please note that I didn’t say, “Not charging ENOUGH for my time,” I said, “not charging for my TIME.” Any of it.

Yes, I have worked for free.

Let me tell you why it is a bad idea to work for free:

  1. The concept of Perceived Value: when people pay for something, they value it more. Giving it away for free doesn’t make them feel like they’ve received a product or service of worth; it makes them think it wasn’t worth enough to pay for. When you give your time away for free, you’re reinforcing the concept that your time is worthless.
  2. The fact that the favor is rarely returned. Because they got it for free, they might just assume that that’s the way you work.
  3. It’ll eventually bite you. Actually, it will bite your bank account. You’ll become a non-profit.
  4. The concept of the Vicious Cycle. If you do it once, people will expect you to do it again. It’s easier to say no (politely) and establish the boundary the first time.
  5. It’s not fair to the people who are willing to pay for your time and services.
  6. It dilutes the effectiveness of your work. It waters you down, spreading you thin, and then no one gets enough.

Caveat: working for free is different than bartering. I have several close friends whom I am happy to barter with. We exchange services in-kind. We value each others’ time, and we don’t abuse the offer. I’m always happy to barter, if a trusted friend asks, and if they have something I need. That’s a friendship economy, and one I like very much.

When I’m talking with a fellow creative who tells me they’re working for free, I normally encourage them to charge what they’re worth, and not to apologize. It’s a little bit more of a pep talk than that, but that’s the short version.

The hard thing (for me) about charging? I really love helping people. I love it when I hear the light bulb come on in their voice. It is so hard to figure business out as a creative. And I can help with that! Here’s what I’m learning (the hard way, apparently): I can’t do it for free. As my husband says, “This place doesn’t run on fresh air and sunshine, honey.”

Oh, only if it did. What a wonderful, Louis-Armstrong world this would be.

As I was writing this post yesterday, an email came in, asking for some advice. And then later, another one asking for some design work. And then another one, design-work (and actually barter) related. By noon, I had called my husband in tears. The conversation went something like this: “These people need my help. They WANT my help. I WANT to help them, but I don’t know how to explain that I can’t help them. Not for free. Because if I help them for free, it’s pulling me away from more important things and putting us into deeper debt.”

(Fact little-known to the blog world: I am on one serious personal crusade to get us out of debt and pay off some outstanding liabilities. It’s a tough road to hoe, some days.)

This is where a purpose statement comes in handy. My #2 statement: exemplify the power of choices and change. I realized, as I sat there looking at my inbox, that I was in an unsustainable, pull-me-deeper-into-the-muck rut, and that if I didn’t develop a strategy for getting out of it, no good would happen. Unfortunately, I knew it was going to involve some boundary-setting, which is never fun. Here is my solution to the awkwardness of boundary-definition, courtesy of Mother Teresa: doing it with love.

So, I’m making two changes (with great love).

  1. Solution #1: We’re going to call it “Ask Whitney“. I thought about calling it, “What Would Whitney Work on?”, but that was far too many w’s. The concept is simple: if you have a question, and you don’t mind the question and the answer being broadcasted in a public forum (on this blog), then fill out the Ask Whitney form and shoot me your question(s)! I’ll read through the questions when I have time, and I’ll be happy to answer them here, as best I can. Not every question will get answered, but I’ll help everyone as much as possible. If you don’t want the questions answered in a public forum, I offer consulting services.
  2. Solution #2: I’m going to test out setting up a permanent email autoresponder. I’m spending far too much time checking email. The more I’m blogging, the more email I’m getting. At first it was fun, but now I’m seeing that it can interrupt and distract me from more important things (like my kids, or paying clients, or sleep). I always find myself annoyed with autoresponders, both other people’s and my own. I feel like all an autoresponder says is, “I’d like to remind you that I’m important, and you’re not, so I’ll contact you when my schedule allows.” Thank-you-exclamation-point-happy-face-and-have-a-great-day. How rude. I’m going to do my best to make sure that my autoresponder doesn’t do that. People matter. I want them to know that they matter to me.

On that note, dear friends, I’m signing off the interwebs for the next couple of hours. It’s 4:58 a.m. and there is a teensy bit more sleep I want to squeeze in before the day begins.

Do small things with great love,

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