How to negotiate freelance rates like a pro

Charting your own career path can create feelings of uncertainty and empowerment. With a more flexible work-life balance also comes more pressure for freelancers to advocate for themselves when it comes to pay. Especially when, according to a Statistics Canada report, 45 percent of Canada’s workforce will be freelancing by 2020.

In the past few years, many companies have eliminated full-time positions in favour of a permalance workforce that engages employees to work as full-time contractors — often without benefits. As a result, there has never been a more critical time for freelancers to know their rights, rates, and to take steps to prepare for these types of negotiations.

Know your worth

Too many freelancers freeze up when it comes to talking about money. Ask too much, and you could shut yourself out of a great gig. Ask too little, and you could wind up doing a ton of work and not being able to pay the bills at the end of the month. And in these situations, women in particular are at more of a handicap, with research showing that they tend to negotiate lower rates than their male counterparts. Therefore, to get paid what you should, you need to know what you’re worth. And that’s why it’s so important to do your homework.

Googling “what should I charge” will get you an overwhelming amount of information — a lot of it useless. However, tapping trade-specific platforms can help. Using a tool like Comparably, which crowdsources salary data, can determine the full-time equivalent salary of the work you’re pricing. Freelancer groups on LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter, also provide support. Once you’ve identified the average salary based on title, industry and market, multiply that number by at least 1.3 (or more) to get your freelance equivalent salary. This bump takes into account added expenses that come with working for yourself. If you’re going to negotiate an hourly rate, however, divide by 2,000 (the approximate number of hours you’ll work in a year with time off for vacation and illness).

Negotiate like a pro, but don’t be in a hurry to give your rates

When negotiating, freelancers should try avoid sharing their salary expectation without first hearing what the client is willing to offer. Let them explain what amount they have in mind and why; if it’s unsatisfactory, you can always try to bargain up. Also by waiting, you’ll diminish the chances of underselling yourself, especially if the rate the client offer is above what you were expecting.

However, upon meeting a client and having a positive conversation, you’ll almost certainly be expected to provide an estimate and proposal. In this case, a solid tip is to present a rate that’s slightly higher than the one you ultimately want. That way, when a client presents a lower figure, you’ll be closer to the figure you wanted in the first place.

If the client is savvy, they’ll try to negotiate to a lower rate. But what if their number is much lower than your freelance rate? You might be extremely passionate about the project and/or client, but if the financial side of the partnership isn’t a fit, you shouldn’t feel bad about walking away. That being said, there are times when it might make sense to agree to a lower freelance rate. For example, the client can throw in a perk or added incentive that is enticing enough to justify the difference.

Remember that this is a business agreement

No matter how good your conversations with a potential employer are, you have to recognize that you’re striving to negotiate a business deal. You may like the client, but they are not your friend. They’re interested in your services at the best price. You may later become friends, but never forget that this is purely business.

Another common mistake among freelancers is beginning work without a signed contract. This usually happens when you know your client, either directly or through your network, or when the work has an immediate start date. Never begin a freelance project or kick off a retainer without a signed contract in hand. Why? According to the Freelancer’s Union, 70% of independent workers say they’ve been stiffed by a client in the past. Contracts don’t need to be complicated. In fact, a simple statement of work might be all you need. Regardless of which type of contract you choose, it’s worth it to have one; if only to make sure that you’ll be able to get paid in a timely fashion.