Don’t worry, this isn’t going to the sort of ‘positive thinking’ articles that make you want to drown yourself in a tub of avocado smoothies. If you’re a first-time freelancer, you’re going to need some practical tips, and not cliche statements about ‘following your heart’.

Most freelancers I know tend to complain about clients, as evidenced by the age old adage: “Clients – can’t live with ’em, can’t shoot ’em either’. The most common complaints include low pay, lack of pay, late pay…

You get the drift.

The first thing you’re going to want to do is to disabuse yourself of the stereotype of the client from hell. Not every client out there thinks that the word ‘free’ in ‘freelance’ has to do with how much they’ll need to pay you.

Like freelancers, clients come in all shapes and forms. I’ve had the pleasure of working with some amazing clients, and even the painful relationships were often the result of bad communication on my part.

Half the time, most ‘bad’ clients are just new to engaging freelancers and working with creatives.

As a service provider, it’s your job – not theirs – to ensure that payments, job details and account servicing are all executed smoothly. Here’s how:

1.Establish Your Base

The most common question I get asked by new freelancers is: “How much should I charge?”

I’m rarely able to give a specific answer, because the question I’ll ask them is: “How much time are you spending on this project?”

Keep in mind that you’ll not just be doing the work in itself: You’ll have to research, service the account, plan the logistics, chase email trails and unresponsive contact points ad nauseum. Make sure you factor in those tedious bits as well.

The best thing you can do is to ask around, and then adapt your rates based on your experience, so that you don’t undercut the market.

Make sure that you’re clear on how you’d like to be paid. There are generally 3 approaches, and pros and cons to each:

  • Per hour rate: Greater flexibility, particularly if the client is the sort to ask for multiple revisions.
  • Flat rate (per project): Clearer and more simple, but some clients would prefer a breakdown.
  • Per deliverable: This means pages written, or number of photos provided.  How useful this is highly subjective, depending on the type of work you’re doing. For example, a killer tagline for a new start-up may only have 3 words, but that doesn’t mean you should only be paid $10 per word.

The most important thing you have to do is set a price floor – the bare minimum that you’ll work for. Don’t go any lower, unless it’s for a friend or you’re starting to look like a character out of a Charles Dickens novel.

Here’s a concrete example: I charge around $75 per manpower hour for every piece of writing I do including research, interviewing time and any transport costs that don’t require me to fly overseas. My price floor is $450, and I charge a premium for work that needs to be delivered in under 5 working days.

2.Research Before Quoting

Quoting a new client can be a tricky business when you’re a first time freelancer. The most important thing to keep in mind is to do some research into the client you’re working for, and to remember that it’s generally more difficult to raise your rates after you’ve established a long term relationship with your client.

Most of the time, Googling a company or doing a quick search on their company website is all you’ll need to get some of the following facts established:

  • Are your clients an established firm, or a bootstrap startup? Factor their potential budget into account.
  • Do you feel passionate about the job? This isn’t about being airy-fairy, but you may want to lower your rates if you know you’ll derive enjoyment from a project.
  • How does their website and collateral look? Are there ways for you to help them with your skill set?

If you really want the job, the best thing you can do is quote higher than your normal rates, but remind the client that you’re open to negotiation; if they’re really keen on working with you, they’ll be happy to tell you if you’ve exceeded their budget.

3.Implement Kill Fees

A term that’s often used by magazines, a kill fee is basically a way to make sure that a freelancer’s efforts don’t go to waste in the event that the client has commissioned an article is unable to run it.

Your kill fee is usually a percentage of the total payment that you would have gotten upon completion of the project. Try to peg it at around 25% of your normal rate.

The amount you’ll hypothetically get isn’t all that important; I personally haven’t had to invoke a kill fee with any of my clients.What a kill fee is really meant to do is to deter clients from terminating a project for trivial reasons.

Try to make sure not to do any work until your kill fee is agreed upon. It sucks if you’re a freelance photographer who’s been engaged in a shoot, rented additional lenses, and  then have the client bail because they decided photography wasn’t needed.

Also, in the rare event that the client ‘steals’ your idea and brings it to another creative (god forbid), you’ll be glad that you at least got paid for the work that you did put in.

An alternative to a kill fee is a staggered payment schedule: make sure that 25% of the payment is delivered up front, with the rest being paid when you’ve wrapped up and delivered the work.

4.Create Your Own Brief

A good creative brief is basically a document that tells you all you need to know about a project. Occasionally, an experienced client will send you one, but it’s best to have one drafted up for yourself.

While it may not be directly related to you being paid, having a creative brief will help you to manage both your production cost and your time allocated to a given project. More importantly, it’ll give you a better idea of the scope of the project. As a freelancer, time quite literally means money.

If necessary, sit the client down for a coffee and pick his or her brain. You’ll both be happier in the long run if you can establish what they need before you commence work.

It doesn’t have to be pretty, since the brief is generally for your own use. Generally, however, you’ll want to include the following elements:

  •  The maximum number of major changes allowed: Try to keep it to no more than 3, so that the client make changes in bulk, rather than having changes trickling in as you’re working.
  •  Quantity of Deliverables: Self-explanatory. X photos, x words per advertorial. Feel free to over-deliver and provide more than the stipulated amount if you’ve established a good working relationship with your client.
  • Costs: Take into account elements like transport, research and production costs.
  •  The unique selling proposition/angle: What makes the project special.
  •  The tone of voice: For visual creatives, an equivalent would be tear sheets/visual samples.
  • The client’s target audience: So you can tailor something suitable to their needs
  • What the project is trying to achieve.
  • Mandatory elements: If the client wants their logo a certain size (ie. bigger), make sure they tell you before you start working.

    And there you have it: The bare basics of how to price yourself as a freelancer. Go forth and prosper. And remember, it’s really not as scary as it seems.

Raphael Lim

about Raphael

Raphael has interviewed Superman, gotten choked out by mixed martial artists, and sworn off food for a week without ending up looking like Gandhi. Yes, truth can be stranger than fiction. You can read his scribblings primarily in the Disrupter and Storyteller sections. He can be reached at

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