Years ago there was a cranky old freelancer I looked up to. He was an artist and illustrator who had made his own way since the days of Mad Men.
He did brilliant work. Made piles of money. He was in demand. He answered to no one, drank too much and smoked like a diesel. He was one of my idols. I often pestered him for advice.
One evening over beers, I was griping to him about how my income had stubbornly plateaued. I despaired of ever getting ahead, fearing that there was no way to make decent money at this freelance thing.
He listened to me bitch for a while. Then he said, “So charge twice as much.”
I laughed him off. I recited eleven reasons why that was utterly unrealistic and stupid. Clients would never stand for it. You had to remain competitive and reasonable. There are 6790 copywriters per square mile out here. There are norms. Budgets are tight. I’d never land any more work. Clients would think I was deluded.
Then he shrugged. “I never thought of it that way. I guess you are stuck, then.”
(He was playing that Socrates-guru-zen-grasshopper game. Which I hated. It always took me too long to understand what he was getting at.)
But weeks later, it hit me. The exercise he wanted me to go through was a bit painful. A little discouraging and humbling. But it clarified everything. The sun came out. It also revealed what was holding me back, what I needed to work on.
Now I’m inflicting it on you.
You need to think about this.
Then, at least once every full moon, or each time your car payment is due, you must actually try this. For real.
As a freelancer, the difference between 90K a year and 180K is not about working twice as many hours.
It’s not a matter of pushing twice as many jobs out the door, cranking out twice as many pages, fooling twice as many clients.
The difference is, simply, generating more income from what you do all day. That’s it.
For independent practitioners like you and me, there is no other way to scale.
So let’s start there.
What if, as of 9 am tomorrow morning, you decreed that all fees were now 2X?
If it cost $925 yesterday, it would cost $1850 tomorrow. Instead of the ‘customary’ $75 per hour, your rate would be $150. That $4800 branding project would now be $9600.
What would happen?
(Just for the record, note how your brain first reacts to this idea. Does it scare the hell out of you? Or does it excite you? Or do you dismiss this as foolhardy, clueless, and impractical in today’s world, like I did? Your instinctive reaction will reveal much about where your head is at.)
Back to what would happen if you doubled your fees.
Would your current clients flee? Or would they agree?
Maybe they would pay, especially if you have been really really ultra-cheap up to now. Or if your projects were so variable that your clients could never tell your fees had gone up.
Or, maybe they’d go along if your talents are indispensable and irreplaceable and pivotal to life as they know it. That is a good place to be.
But most likely they wouldn’t pay double. Which is understandable.
It just means that where you’re going, those clients can’t follow. No hard feelings. You need to move on. But they need to stay where they are. That’s all fine.
No, I’m not suggesting that you push your good customers out of the boat just yet. But understand that to move up, you always need different clients. Not more clients, but better clients.That’s what you must be thinking about when you get up in the morning.
You must work with people who live and breathe and die on what you do — and also have money. For whom is this oxygen? Who cares about this? Otherwise, don’t waste your efforts.
Does that sound harsh? Michelangelo only got famous — and did his best work — when he had the Pope for a client.
What about new clients?
Try this: The very next prospect or inquiry or referral that comes through the door, you quote 2X what you normally would. Don’t argue, just do it. At least once a month or so.
What would happen?
I know, you are reluctant to do this. Me too. I have been freelancing since the previous century. I’m much bolder when I have just deposited a huge check, and the bank account is full, and there is a stack of paying work on my desk. Then I grow all sorts of balls.
“Thanks for asking. That would involve about $4750 or so.”
But you can do better. The only way to know where the ceiling is, is to bump against it.
So now and then, quote double. Not nine percent more or forty-two dollars more. But double. That’s the only way to find where the fences are. See what happens. Figure out who the client must be, and what you must say for the job to happen.
If you wish, wait until it’s a job you don’t want. Or when you’re leaving on vacation. Or your calendar is way too full. Or you feel extra ornery. When you have no fear. (Those are the best days.)
A recurring story from Freelancery readers: “I didn’t want this migraine of a job, so I quoted an outlandish fee to make them go away. But they bought it.”
If you quote double and the client accepts, you’ve learned something. Plus you get to do the job (even if it sucks) for twice the fee. Keep charging that. From now on. You have learned something.
If the client says no, you’ve learned something, too. And you avoid doing a nosebleed job for nothing.
But the bigger lesson is this:
What would it take to land assignments at double your current fees? You need to fall asleep at night thinking about this.
How good would you have to be? What would you have to change? What could you do better? How could you run rings around the other ‘experts’ in your field? What would it be like to work with you?
Fantasize if you have to . . . “A year ago, she was cobbling together web sites for $100 apiece. Today, she’s working for . . .”
Fill in your own blanks. Write your own story. This is hard. Most freelancers can’t do it. They will continue doing what they did last month, over and over again. (There is your opportunity.)
Picture if you charged double. What would work?
What if you were among the highest-paid translators/copyeditors/programmers/writers/designers on the planet?
What would you be doing different right now? How would you attack your work tomorrow morning?