About a week ago I tuned in for a Crowdcast Q&A with Rowan Made. Near the end, Bre, the founder, was asked how many clients she ever had at a time.
The short answer was that these days, she tries to not exceed 3 or 4. The longer answer was that a few years ago, she was out walking with her husband when he asked how many clients she had… and she didn’t know. She counted 12 off the top of her head; and when they got home again, she looked at all her open projects and found that the real total was closer to 14 or 15.
“Just thinking about that number now makes me exhausted,” she said. She also added that at that time, it was just her—no other people on her team, and no designers she outsourced to when she was overloaded.
I’ll be honest—that sounded all too familiar. At any given time, I’ve tended to assume my total project count is somewhere around 6. I may have even thought that when I tuned in for the Q&A.
But on a rainy day recently, I was needing to organize my notes for my biggest design project, and I decided to count my own open accounts. The end total? 12. Double what I thought it was.
To somebody who doesn’t own a design business, this probably sounds like great news—more clients! More than you know what to do with! You must be killing it!
It bothered to me to know that I needed to have 12 accounts open at one time just to pay rent; that if any one of those clients dropped off, or pushed out a deadline, I might have to pay my bills late. (It’s happened already more times than I care to remember.)
That number also explained why I could so easily lose control of my day if I got an “urgent” email from any of my clients, or previous clients who wanted a “tweak.” I may be a wizard at the keyboard, but even a wizard with Dumbledore’s skills would tell you that all those little interruptions add up.
And when you’re getting them from twice as many people as you’re counting? Yikes.
The Pricing Question
I’d long felt like I couldn’t raise my prices. This was for a number of reasons. For one thing, my client base is largely startups and solopreneurs—folks who tend not to have a lot of cash on hand. For another, it’s getting easier and easier for businesses to build their own websites. Even though I know a lot about what to put on a site and where in order for it to generate money, many new business owners don’t realize how vital this is. Why should they pay me when they can do it for a fraction of the cost?
But the main reason was a little more complex. My USP is that I can do All the Things for a flat price—I can write a smart map for your site, I can construct it, I can help you figure out what images you need to tell a compelling brand story, I can shoot them for you, and I can write your copy. That’s been the pitch from the beginning.
But in the beginning, the only thing I rocked at was the copy. The other broader two parts (design and photography) I was C-plus, B-minus. Believing I was too “average” in these areas to charge more for them, I kept my prices low for years—not thinking that over time, perhaps I was getting steadily better.
Then an interesting series of events happened for me. First, I noticed that the number of photos I was editing each week had vastly increased. At first I wondered why it suddenly felt like I was overwhelmed with work when I had no more clients than usual.
Then it dawned on me that it was because over time, my photography was improving. Since I make sure my clients get all the good stuff—I don’t limit the number of images they get—I consequently had more to edit from every shoot (and my clients were getting a lot more for the same price).
Second, I had a wakeup call about the actual quality of my design work. This was just about a month ago. I had been hired to do a design for a designer (not uncommon), and as the site was in its final stages and the client was looking at everything on the backend, she was confounded by some of the techniques I had used. This is someone with at least twice as much portfolio work as I have, and she was seeing the way I leveraged different designer tools and basically told me she’d never seen anyone use them that way before.
It became apparent as she asked me how different elements worked that some of these things, which I had assumed were fairly basic, were actually intermediate or advanced-level practices. And while everyone else in town has been charging a premium for the kind of work I could offer, I was charging barely enough to feed myself.
Nail in the Coffin
I’m not always great at reading the signs, though. So just in case I wasn’t going to follow through, God rained down just enough testing to make it impossible for me to ignore that the time had come to raise my prices:
My car broke down.
Within five days.
Oh, and my power went out for one whole day in there, which meant I was behind on client emails. Like, really behind, if you count all the time I spent stranded with my car.
Eight hundred dollars in repairs later, I had no margin for the month. None. I wanted to cry out in frustration about once an hour, every hour, for forty-eight straight hours. I had been counting on some of that money to help me get ahead in other areas of my business—buy some time to finish up passive revenue streams, obtain a couple very small tools for around the office that I’d been needing in order to stay organized, and get a haircut so I could look more presentable on my live streams. All those small, simple dreams went out the window.
So I sat down with my man friend, with whom I split household expenses, and I told him I was going to raise my prices.
“Hallelujah” and “It’s about time” could not summarize how excited he was about this. For months he had been saying I was due for a price increase, but I had pushed back:
“I know what I’m worth,” I’d said.
“I can’t charge more until I [insert excuses here],” I’d said.
“I make good money,” I’d said.
But the more I sat with the decision, the more it felt right. I had generated some lower-barrier offerings over time, which would still be accessible to anyone who couldn’t afford my higher rates. With higher rates, I could afford to take on fewer projects and spend more time on the ones I did take, putting out higher-quality results that I could be proud of. Plus I would probably weed out the barter-and-trade, will-you-work-for-the-experience type inquiries that still cropped up from time to time. There really were no downsides.
For good measure, though, I ran my new prices by my dad, who has been a small business owner as long as I’ve been alive.
He didn’t even blink. Some of my offerings were going to more than double in cost, and he just shrugged. “That’s competitive pricing,” he said. “It’s scarier for you than it will be for everyone else.” It was the same speech I’d given him two years ago. I’d been right then, and he was right now.
Moral of the Story?
After visiting my dad, I went home, put a cover page on my site that read, “Under Construction. Still taking clients: Contact me here,” and began the process of up-leveling my visual brand to match the new prices I’d be putting on my business materials.
If I could tell the me of one year earlier the prices I’d be listing that day, I think her knees would buckle.
Not one week later, though, I got a single inquiry for two websites. I sent the inquirer my new brochure, with higher prices. It took less than an hour for us to come to an agreement, and I didn’t have to negotiate at all. Two websites in one email, and I’d be able to keep the lights on for the next month and a half.
Was it smart to start my prices low? Yes. It got clients in the door so I could build my portfolio, learn design techniques without a ton of pressure on my back, and figure out my business model organically without hosing anyone.
Could I have raised my prices sooner? Absolutely yes. And I believe there are many others out there who, like me, will come to the conclusion that it’s time to raise their prices only when everything is laid on the line and there really is no alternative.
Which is why I shared my story today instead of offering “5 Tips for Increasing Prices” or “8 Signs It’s Time to Increase Your Prices.” For me, it took hearing someone else (Bre at Rowan Made) share part of her story to recognize that the time perhaps had come for me to make a shift. Has that time come for you?
Do you see yourself in my story? Is it time to raise your prices? Tell me in a comment below, and then come join the full conversation over on Instagram, @alexisthegreek.