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5 signs you are underselling yourself.

::This post originally ran on my old Medium blog on August 22, 2013. It has been edited and updated.::

We talked about the dangers of underselling your writing services. Let’s talk about how you undersell yourself. This is in relation to clients, not outright sales of work (generally).

Everything I’m writing to you I’m actually hollering at myself because, after all these years, I don’t always remember. Sure, I can see the underlying problems and can tell you what they are, but there’s a disconnect when it comes to putting things into action.

One caveat before we get started: if you’re not providing an excellent service or skill set, your financial situation will reflect it. When I say “underselling” I’m talking about high-quality work without equally high and valued pay, not low-quality work for high-quality pay.

I'm telling you that you're underselling yourself when you think your work and experience has no value. Here's how you know if you're doing that.

1. You're underselling yourself if you’ve tied your price to self-worth.

You became a freelancer for a reason, so don't turn yourself into your own underling. That's what you left behind.

Your feelings towards your client should not affect your pricing structure.

What people pay you for is an exchange for goods and services, not a reflection of your worth or value as a human.

It also shouldn’t be a reflection of your confidence level at the given moment.

Women are particularly notorious for basing pricing structures on factors that are outside of the goods/service realm. A 2006 study (A Behavioral Study of Pricing Decisions: A Focus on Gender) found that women tended to tie pricing to feelings about clients and themselves.

Determine the rate you’re willing to exchange goods and services for and stick with it.

Straddling the fence between building loyal relationships and undercharging is a very difficult place to make a comfortable living. You’ll grow to resent customers (even ones you like) because they’ll become used to getting something cheap.

Train them right from the start what you charge, and they won’t expect any difference. If you start low, you’ll have to fight to go higher and you’ll make people angry. If you start high, you can always lower it later, no problem.

Remember, what you offer is not who you are. The value of each is separate.

2. You’re ignoring what the market is doing.

The customer who doesn't want to pay you enough is definitely wrong. If your pricing is fair for a quality product, those people are not customers, they're users.

Customers and users are not the same thing. One pays, and one makes you pay in the long run.

Prices that are too low only attract customers that want great things for nothing. That doesn’t mean they are bad people, but it does mean they come with a different attitude than a client who says “You’re the expert. I’m happy to pay you what you ask.”

We all love a good deal at the store, but what works in the retail world is not necessarily great for a freelancer.

Oddly, customers who pay the least often demand the most in return. You want to attract serious paying customers, and not freeloading users who end up being pixel-pushers. In my decades of freelance work, I’ve noticed a strange correlation between the penny-pinching client and the clients who make life difficult with constant changes and requests.

Trying to be the cheapest person for hire doesn’t do you any favors. You have to be able to make a living without working 24/7. Underselling the market attracts those who aren’t actually in your market. Stay competitive in your market, and don’t seek a lower bracket.

3. You're undervaluing your experience.

Your experience has value, including monetary value. Don't let someone tell you otherwise.

Your experience has value. Charge customers if they want to make use of it.

Perhaps you’ve heard the story of the farmer who hired an artist to draw a portrait of his most beloved chicken. He paid, and then patiently waited months. Finally, after feeling exasperated that he had not received his painting, he marched over to the artist’s house, demanding to have the drawing right then.

The artist, sitting at his desk and surrounded by what looked like piles of paper, reached for a clean sheet of paper and then, using charcoal, drew the portrait. It took him just a few moments.

The farmer, though admittedly thrilled with how good of a likeness it was, was also angry.

“I paid you that much money and waited all this time and you could’ve just drawn it in a few minutes?”

The artist pointed to the paper all around the room, the farmer finally seeing all the chicken sketches on it.

I think you know where the story is going; it’s a well-known tale. The point was simple: all along, the artist was using his skill and time to perfect the output. What seemed to only take a few moments and a little effort was the product of a lot of practice and work leading up to it.

People want to pay for the moment’s output. They need to pay for some of the experience that got them there. If you’ve been doing something for decades, you’d better not be charging the same rate you started at. Sure, you can do better work now, faster, but that doesn’t mean you lower your fee. It means you increase it.

It’s strange, but true: I had to work harder for less early on, but as you get better, there’s a shift. And that’s how it should be.

That decade or two of experience?

It has its own value. It is made of time, mistakes, hardship, self-taught skills – and it’s worth something. Expect future customers who benefit from your experience to pay for it, even if it means you can actually work faster than you did early on. The better you get, and the less time it takes you, the more you charge. Your rate increases as time decreases.

4. You hand out too many free lunches.

Do you find yourself practically giving things away?

It’s fine to give back to your community. Donate to worthy causes, teach others how to do something, and write useful tips on your blog. But if you find most of your time dedicated to working you aren’t seeing any financial return for that only generates more requests for something for free, the balance is way off.

One of the reasons I use Substack and a website paywall was because of the paid content model. No, I’m not one of the serious mainstream journalists who had to find a new home and who charge for their breaking news content. But I’ve been giving away thousands of blog posts, tips, how-to information, stories, illustrations, art, and direct interaction for free for 25 years. It took a lot of time, and while doing that gave me useful experience, I don’t think it’s out of line to try to make an income off of it now.

Is what you're doing for free going to build your business later? Will it build loyalty?

You’ll know you’ve been giving away too much of value for free when your clients start demanding the premium service or product but always for next to nothing. That’s no surprise; you’ve trained them to expect things for free instead of teaching them that they need you and will pay for it.

Give enough away to keep them hungry. But it’s OK to have some good stuff behind a paywall.

5. You have overwhelming feelings of frustration.

You're freelancing because you love it, right? Or have you priced yourself into frustration with too much work and too little income?

Asking too little creates frustration in your life that manifests itself in strange ways.

Being tired, irritable, or unmotivated is common. You’ve hit your tipping point for work and you can’t even find a clear focus anymore. Feeling anger about your situation, towards your clients, and towards your work can often be traced back to the fact that you aren’t charging enough to live on and it is having a destructive effect on your life. You have to take on more work than you have capacity for and you’re still not making ends meet.

You might feel frustrated about your own time (and the lack thereof), or with clients.

You have some control over both, but not in the way you imagine it in your wildest dreams. Let’s take a look.

Feeling frustrated with how your time is used.

When you undersell yourself, you willingly give up more time.

Because your cost of living is at level X, you must work and earn enough to meet it. Underselling means you must work more, and work harder. Do you have to work a 55-hour work week just to make ends meet? Or could you work 35 hours and charge more?

If you’re a creative person (which I’m guessing you are), then you’re feeling doubly frustrated because you have your own ideas and projects you want to work on, but you’re giving your best time and energy to clients and nothing to your own work.

Few things are as frustrating as giving life to everyone else’s ideas and never your own.

Feeling frustrated with a client.

While it’s not unusual to be frustrated with clients once in a while, there are few things more angering than a needy client you know you didn’t charge enough. They still have the same demands as any client, but you’re getting paid much less for your time.

What you charge has to include what I call the “headache” fee. It’s not on your invoice, it’s built into your pricing structure.

Not all clients create headaches, but the fee is there to account for those who do. Like the client who is always dropping things on you last minute, everything is a rush, they contact you when you’re on vacation, or they ask you to change everything after days of work and you realize you charged a project fee instead of a time-based fee.

Do you find that even in the most frustrating of client situations, you feel a sense of relief at the amount of money they are paying you? Or do you instead feel cheated and have anger towards them for “trapping” you?

Charge higher. Don’t fret the clients that don’t bite. There are others.

The best time to make changes is now.

Are you underselling yourself? This is the perfect time to stop.

1. Research. Find out what market rates are. Find out what other freelancers are doing. Contact organizations related to your line of work, if necessary. Look online. Increase your prices and alert your clients. You’ll know which ones were with you because they love your work (they’ll stay) or because you were cheap (they’ll put up a fuss and go).

Even more important that market rate is your living rate. Remember, you need to calculate what your time is worth. How much do you need to make an hour, based on how many hours you’re willing to devote to client work? How many hours have you scheduled for your own projects and downtime to recharge the creative batteries? It’s a mix of market rate and what you need.

2. Look Inward. Take stock of yourself. Look at your skills, knowledge, and experience honestly. If you can’t do that honestly, find a trusted colleague who can do the evaluation from an outside perspective. Write it all down. See your value and worth in professional terms, and you’ll quickly see you have a legitimate right to charge more than you are.

3. Separate. Force yourself to separate your worth and identity from your work. Otherwise, every rejection of your work becomes personal, and makes it too easy to drop your price in order to get the client and regain your “self-worth.”

4. Practice Saying No (Or Renegotiating). Practice both saying no to jobs that don’t fit this new plan, and practice living with yourself after you’ve said no to a few projects. The first couple of times you’ll struggle, always calculating the money you turned down. Find a way to turn that extra time and focus towards something more productive.

Or, practicing renegotiating your arrangement with a client, making sure to do the math so that you either come out ahead in pay or in time. Time is as good as money if you need it for your own work.

When you set yourself up to work more with less income, you’re asking for exhaustion, disillusionment, and unhappiness. You’ll eventually give up on freelance work, or quit and find a “regular” job with a “livable” wage. Be sure that the dream you gave up was because you wanted to, and not because you didn’t charge enough.

Most people become freelancers because they want more control of their time. Some want to jumpstart their own creative empire of sorts, making a living off of their own work instead of doing other people’s work.

But underselling yourself poisons dreams and makes them monsters.


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