What should you get paid on your first freelance project?

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So you’re ready to freelance huh?

You’ve got your web site up. You’ve got some school projects in your portfolio. You’re ready to start calling clients and pitching your services.

So what’s stopping you?

If you’re like a lot of designers I talk to regularly, you don’t know how much to charge for your first freelance project.

The most common deterrant

Believe it or not, I think this is one of the most common reasons freelance designers don’t take the leap into freelancing.

After all, none of us want to get to the point in the pitch with our potential clients when the inevitable question arises:

“How much do you charge for that?”

If you can’t answer it, you’re in a tough spot. So, today I’ll try to answer the question as well as I can.

The big problem

Here’s the really big problem with this topic:

See, I’ve wanted to write this post for a long time, but I never knew how to approach it because pay rates fluctuate immensely depending on where you live. So it would be hard for me to recommend to someone on the other side of the world to charge as much (or as little) as I do because the price will dramatically affect your business due to where you live.

So here’s how I’d like to solve that problem:

How much to charge for your first freelance project

Here are a few steps you can take to make sure you’re getting the most out of your first freelance design project.

  1. Take every opportunity to get real experience that you can.
    First, you want to make sure you bring something of value to the table when you approach a potential client (see step 3).

    In order to do that, make it a priority to get as much real experience as you can.

    If you have to do some write-off-able pro-bono work before you quit your day job just to get some solid portfolio pieces, do it! I highly recommend working for 6 months- 1 year as a full-time (if possible) designer at an agency.

    I know… you don’t want to work for someone else. That’s why you’re hoping to freelance. But consider the 6-12 months an investment in your future business. Treat it like an internship where you can take full advantage of the skills you need to run a successful design business later.

  2. Learn 2 things: what an entry-level designer makes in your community and how much money you need to survive.
    Next, you’ll need to find out what a beginning professional designer makes in your community. While considering that number, evaluate how much money you need to survive. You can get rich later. For now, decide how much you need to live comfortably now.

    Why consider these two metrics? If you can find out how much an entry-level designer makes, you know that the agencies they work for are charging significantly more to their clients.

    Therefore, charging that amount (or near to it) will guarantee a positive rate for your potential clients. Keep in mind, most clients will have a hard time paying one freelancer the same rate they pay an entire agency. Therefore, we focus on the going rate of an entry-level designer.

  3. Find ways to add value to your services.
    After exploring the facts in step 2, it’s time to figure out why anyone would hire you instead of an agency. What value can you add to the relationship or the project that an agency just can’t do?

    Maybe you promise to be available nights and weekends for emergencies. Maybe your price is incredibly low. Maybe you offer a skill or service in addition to design that your competitors don’t offer.

    Whatever your unique selling proposition is, make it obvious and well known. This one very important step will set you apart from all the other designers out there. (PS. It’s not unique enough any more to “do logos, AND web sites, AND business cards.”)

  4. Start small and grow quickly.
    Lastly, don’t be greedy too early on. Having a passion for success is good.

    But don’t let your passion for success be confused with your greed for wealth.

    Start charging a low enough fee that clients will hire you despite your newness to the design field. Don’t cheat yourself and don’t starve yourself. But don’t be greedy.

But what about you?

I’d love to hear your story…leave a comment on this post. If you’re already way past the “getting started” phase, how did you decide how much to charge when you were just starting out? If you’re just getting started, what do you think of the above steps? Will they help you? If you think other designers can benefit from this post, please do me a favor and retweet or share on facebook.

About Preston D Lee

Preston is a web designer, entrepreneur, and the founder of this blog. @prestondlee

Comments

  1. Jason Cerezo says:

    Good post – and an even better question!

    In two weeks my freelance design firm will be celebrating its one-year anniversary. Prior to opening, I visited informally with a couple of other local designers and just asked them what their base hourly rate was. At first, I thought they would balk at the concept of sharing that information with me but they were more than happy to oblige.

    After setting my original base rate (which was below market by about 15%) I started doing some pro bono work for non-profits in exchange for thank you letters so I could deduct the donation from my taxes. Not only did I gain valuable experience, but it also helped me prove to the world (and myself) that I was charging a fair price for my services.

    Since then, I’ve adjusted my pricing on a case-by-case basis, mostly based on supply and demand. The busier I am, the higher my rate. If a client is willing to delay a project by a few weeks, the rate goes down. This allows me to keep busy and not worry about what I’ll be doing to earn a paycheck in a month or two. In the rare instances where I was overpriced and lost a job because of it, I was actually thankful because I was too busy to take on the extra work anyway! I have also discovered that talking about recent projects with clients can help add value and allow me to quote a slightly higher rate. They realize I’m busy and they respect my time. Plus they’re more willing to pay a little more for the more “experienced” designer.

    The one thing I’ve learned about pricing is that experience matters – A LOT. But after only a short time it’s easy to gain the experience to justify your price.

  2. I’m an 18 year old high school student Freelancer. I started charging at about 20% of the industry standard because I don’t have a college degree. But boy did I get work. When people referred me to others, not only did I get great experience, those small paychecks started to add up. Advice: Start with low rates, build a client base, raise rates.

  3. Don’t forget when you’re self-employed you pay not only the taxes, etc. that you normally pay, but also what your employer would be paying on your behalf. Remember to take that into account when you decide your rate, or you’ll be in for a terrible shock at tax time. I know I was. Remember too that you will be spending time on marketing and professional development, not just on project stuff. If you start your rates at about twice what an entry level designer in an agency makes, you should be just about right.

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